32 I.O. (years in orbit)
The history lesson I taught last Tuesday was meant to be the highlight of the semester. Not just for me, but for the middle school kids I teach. I’m not sure what history classes were like on Earth, but on the E.S.S. Riemann, they can be stranger than fantasy. I’ve been teaching for three years, and every year, the story of the voyage – where history meets the present – makes the slouched-over students in the back of the classroom prick their ears.
Of course, most of them aren’t hearing about the Riemann’s journey for the first time. Their parents would have already told them that we’re on a megacity starship, orbiting a new world. That ten generations ago, humanity had launched from a pale blue dot hundreds of thousands of light-years away. The kids probably have countless theories of their own, about how fast we had travelled through the stars and what this new planet we’re orbiting is like. In class I clarified the facts, telling them the grand tale of our species’ voyage from beginning to end. Or rather, from beginning to new beginning.
I understand the kids’ excitement completely. Though it’s been a while since I was their age, I’m only in my late twenties. Struggling to make it as a freelance tech journalist hasn’t yet jaded me. Maybe it’s a good thing I wouldn’t be able to pay the bills without this teaching job. I think the students’ audacious dreams make me persist in chasing mine, constantly searching for newsworthy stories about the Riemann’s booming technology industry.
My great-grandmother was the first one to tell me what I now teach at the school. She used to take me on long walks through the starship, when I was much younger and she was still agile. Roaming the open streets of the megacity curved along the Riemann’s hull, she would enchant me by explaining how it all worked. How the city wrapped around on itself because we were spinning to simulate gravity. How the Riemann had been in flight for just over two centuries, so fast that it warped the passage of time, allowing millions of years to elapse outside. How our new planetary home was still being robotically terraformed – engineered for life – forcing humans to remain in orbit until it was habitable.
Which made it particularly hard to grasp the news of her death last Tuesday. Just after explaining the Riemann’s voyage to the kids, her mahogany eyes smiling in my mind the whole time. I took the long route home so that I could walk through one of the giant gardens that adorn the starship. For people like my great-grandmother and me, born in interstellar space, this was our only exposure to nature outside of Virtual Reality videos. She used to bring me here often. We would roam among maple and oak, lemon and birch, as she would indulge my fascination with the leaves. I could hardly imagine an entire planet lush with foliage, and would constantly beg her to tell me when our new home would be fully terraformed. Surely she wouldn’t allow it take longer than my lifetime. After all, she used to be President Imaan, constitutional autocrat of the Riemann government. Family lore was filled with vignettes of her rise through official ranks, to become the youngest president in the Riemann’s history. Although I had missed her presidential decades by at least a generation, maybe she could do something to speed up the terraforming process.
Whenever I complained about it, she would draw me close and sigh, a shadow passing over her smile. “I don’t know when Ibalac will be habitable, and unfortunately there’s nothing I can do to make it terraform faster. I wish with all my heart that I could…” Nature-lover as she was, she probably regretted being unable to see earthlike landscapes just as much as I did. Now, I thought, acutely aware of her absence in the garden, she’ll never be able to see a planetary forest even if I do.
Later that week, I learned that she had left me her computer in her will. The computer was encrypted, of course, because it contained classified government data. No-one in our family, apart from her, has been involved in government affairs, so for a while I was confused. Until I realized that the encryption was weak enough for me to break into, which could only have been intentional on her part. Current encryption technologies are far more advanced than the one she was using, but she was the most fastidious person I knew. She wanted to tell me something.
After reading her classified files, I was reminded once more of her muted sadness, in the garden, at being unable to hasten Ibalac’s transformation. But with the new context from her computer, I yearn to erase that painfully vivid image from memory. The knowledge of what troubled her still prevents me from sleeping, a week after I found out. And I’m convinced I won’t see a terraformed planet either.
* * *
Date: 211 A.E.
Security Classification: Alpha+
From: General Wigner
To: President Imaan
AMEG Engineering Failure
Crisis: A structural flaw has been discovered in the E.S.S. Riemann’s Antimatter Energy Generator. Potentially fatal. A component of the slow ignition system (SIS) is completely unresponsive, with computerized backup protocols corrupted. The SIS is therefore unstable, greatly increasing the risk of an uncontrolled matter-antimatter explosion. The energy of such an explosion would instantly destroy the Riemann.
Cause: Under investigation.
Suggested Response: (1) Gradually eject antimatter reserves into interstellar vacuum. Minimize amount on board to lower the intensity of possible explosion. Maintain just enough for the Riemann to reach Ibalac and deploy population landers.
(2) Structural solutions to localize the effect of an explosion. This would only serve to reduce, not prevent, the damage caused by minimal antimatter explosion. Ineffective if current reserves are maintained.
* * *
President Imaan paced back and forth in her office, yesterday’s memo at her desk. If that wasn’t startling enough, the events that unfolded over the next 24 hours had left her feeling rather numb.
She gazed at the massive blueprint adorning one wall of her office. Intricate silver lines on black, it was mostly occupied by three different views of the Riemann, displaying the cylindrical structure of the entire ship: from the residential city to the energy generator to the Virtual Reality skyscapes. Her eyes were drawn, however, to the smaller diagrams occupying the four corners of the blueprint. Four other Extraterrestrial Settlement Ships, companions to the E.S.S. Riemann: carrying the rest of humankind to Ibalac.
The wall was a striking reminder to every occupant of the Presidential Office that they were stewarding a fifth of humanity, which could be frightening or consoling depending on your perspective. For the Riemann’s Presidents it had always been the latter. There were four other ships just like theirs out in the void, their velocities synchronized upon leaving Earth so that they would reach Ibalac at practically the same time.
President Imaan hadn’t ever needed much consolation. There had been eight Presidents before her, and the days of earth-leavers’ discontent and government coups had long subsided. Now, for the first time, she truly felt the weight of history pressing down on her. Yet the diagrams of the other four ships provided no solace when she most needed it. General Wigner, in charge of the Antimatter Energy Generator, had come in that morning with an update on the crisis investigation.
“President Imaan, I’m afraid the news is sombre.”
She had said nothing, just waited.
“Our latest investigation revealed that the AMEG had been malfunctioning from the beginning of the Riemann’s voyage. The issue was too subtle to be detectable until the SIS component gave way.”
“Any significant consequences?”
“Unfortunately, President, our calculations show that Riemann’s initial acceleration was compromised. We have not been synchronized with the other four starships. Since the computerized synchrony calibrator is part of the same system, it issued none of the warnings it was supposed to. We are about fifty years behind, ship time. This is also the amount of time left for us to reach Ibalac.”
The stakes hit Imaan like an asteroid. She blinked.
“How bad is the time dilation effect?”
“If the other four ships landed when expected, human civilization will have had nine hundred thousand years to develop on Ibalac by the time we get there.” Wigner made eye contact as he spoke, but quickly averted his gaze to the desk.
Imaan was not easily fazed, but the news took some time to process. All of a sudden, a burst of anger penetrated the dispassionate calm she had cultivated in office. The urge to fire Wigner took her by surprise. She waited for it to subside.
“Why did this go undetected for so long?”
“We are still investigating how the system failed to raise red flags, and of course I will keep you apprised of our findings. So far, I see two possibilities for how the malfunction occurred in the first place. Either it was a genuine engineering flaw in the Riemann’s construction, or deliberate sabotage by one of the other starship-nations before the Riemann took flight. The former seems implausible. The latter would be a glaring violation of the Charter of Interplanetary Transfer, but the ultimate political advantage for our adversary.”
She dismissed Wigner from her office.
Nine hundred thousand years.
The rest of humanity will have been on Ibalac for nine hundred thousand years.
President Imaan considered her options. If she didn’t follow Wigner’s original recommendation to rid the Riemann of its antimatter reserves – all but the amount needed to reach Ibalac – she would be dooming the ship to destruction. But that would force the Riemann’s population to eventually land on Ibalac, because the AMEG was the ship’s only source of energy. Depleted, the Riemann wouldn’t be self-sustaining.
Returning to Earth was out of the question. Earth would probably be in an even worse condition than it was when humans were driven to evacuate. So if they didn’t land on Ibalac, they would have to keep moving. Hoping and praying that they would be able to invent a solution to the AMEG problem while in flight. They couldn’t just land on another planet: it would be impossible to build an autonomous terraformer system on board.
Avoiding Ibalac, then, sounded like near-certain death.
As she walked up and down her office, she wondered whether landing on Ibalac would make death even more certain. She remembered humankind’s Earth-history well. Fifty thousand years between their original migration out of Africa and their invention of the quantum computer. The Riemann was designed hardly a century after that. Humans on Ibalac would have started with quantum computers and then had almost a million years to follow their curiosity.
Would I be landing our ship on a hostile alien world?
* * *
Date: 211 A.E.
Security Clearance: Alpha+
Ibalac Research File 1(01)a
First meeting of the Council for the Future of Humankind
Notes on Posthuman Scenarios
The synthesis of human brains with artificial intelligence would lead to exponential advancements in cognitive power […] fundamentally different modes of cognition […] major power imbalances are unavoidable. Examples from Earth-history: chimpanzee intelligence was roughly comparable to that of human children, making them close behind on the intelligence ladder, yet completely helpless in the face of human society. A 900,000-year intelligence lead would amplify such imbalances exponentially […] possibly akin to the difference between humans and rodents, perhaps insects […]
Developments in ethical thought over time […] two salient possibilities:
(1) High likelihood of current practices being considered barbaric or reprehensible […] raises questions about posthuman tolerance of humans from E.S.S. Riemann […] conceptions of ethics in the animal kingdom that were considered crude by Earth-humans […]
(2) The relationship between ethics and intelligence in posthuman society might render the Riemann’s population ethically insignificant, even in the absence of explicit hostility […] akin to irrelevance of insects and other simple creatures on Earth to human ethical considerations […]
Posthuman life and society would likely be completely unrecognizable to Riemann humans, based on different physical substrates after integrating with artificial intelligence […] considerations of energy efficiency might motivate the transfer of minds to nanoscale chips capable of flight […] increased barriers to physical settlement for Riemann population […]
Multiple scenarios could result in Ibalac being currently uninhabited by posthuman life:
(1) Self-destruction: Arguments extrapolating from Earth-history suggest a critical threshold of technological advancement, beyond which civilizations have a high probability of self-destruction […] reasons include warfare, climate damage, contact with more advanced civilizations […]
(2) Planetary evacuation: Posthuman life might have evacuated Ibalac before self-destructive factors led to fatal consequences, as humans did on Earth […]
(3) Experience Machines/Simulations: Posthuman life might have transitioned to a fully virtual medium, existing entirely within simulations […] no physical activity on the planetary surface except generation of energy to power simulation hardware […]
* * *
President Imaan’s face revealed nothing.
As each argument and counter-argument was raised at the Council meeting, she leaned forward slightly, her eyes focused on whoever was speaking. Years in politics had taught her how to contain her reactions. At most, she would blink – sometimes twice in quick succession.
The weight of the impending decision felt heavier with each passing minute. She felt trapped in her chair, and even in her body. Her usual strategy in high-stakes situations was to focus all her mental energy on the issue at hand, and for a while she tried doing that. She dissected each expert’s analysis in real time, privately weighing its merits; listening intently, speaking rarely. But the more the Council tried to fathom a society almost a million years removed from their own, the less surreal her situation felt. The uncertainties were becoming sharper, and all the more daunting in their clarity.
Stewarding a spacefaring civilization had given her a powerful sense of assurance. Three decades ago, she had shot up the ranks of the totalitarian government like a bullet and been elected its youngest leader. For the first time in all these years, the self-doubt quashed by her early success began seeping out again. At some point she realized she couldn’t bring herself to focus on the debate anymore – she would read the transcript later in her office.
She kept up the impression of listening and thought about the terrible foresight of the starship Constitution. Democracies on Earth were intentionally turned into totalitarian governments for the duration of the journey to Ibalac. It was coldly pragmatic; democratic politics would have buckled under a dilemma like this, dooming the population to die from indecision. Not that the drafters of the Constitution could have imagined a decision of this magnitude. The best advisors on the Riemann were at her command, but the decision was to be hers alone.
Whatever she chose, it would be a gamble. And if it went wrong, she realized, it would absolutely ruin her legacy. She hated to admit it to herself, but she had felt a little too pleased when the Riemann population, in one of the few areas it could vote upon, decided a few years ago that her portrait should be installed in the Gallery of Stellar Services to Humanity. It was the first time this honor had been bestowed upon a living President, and she had started visiting the Gallery more frequently since then. During her tenure so far, she had stimulated technological innovation to unprecedented levels, transformed experiences of nature on the starship, and reformed outdated aspects of the education system. Modern life on the Riemann was inseparable from her leadership.
Suddenly she realized how much she was indulging these ruminations, and was flooded with shame. How can I possibly be thinking about my legacy, of all things? If she made the wrong decision, there would be no-one left to care. Another pang of guilt struck her: she hadn’t thought about how this would affect her family. Everything was starting to feel heavier, more loaded, as she pictured her grandson arriving on Ibalac, stepping out of the lander…
Who was she to hold a fifth of humanity in her hands, perhaps the only ones that were anywhere close to human?
* * *
They would have to land on Ibalac, President Imaan decided. But not immediately upon arriving there.
The Council – comprising scientists, policymakers and military personnel – had been hard at work trying to understand various posthuman scenarios. Knowledge of the crisis had been tightly controlled, limited only to those who had the highest security clearance. Most of them weren’t married; conflicts of interest could not be tolerated.
President Imaan resolved that when they reached Ibalac, they would stay in orbit until the Council’s research became more conclusive. That would allow them to collect close-range data and develop an effective strategy to contact the posthumans, hopefully facilitating a peaceful landing. Meanwhile, the government’s official cover story would claim that the autonomous terraformer system – which had been sent to Ibalac before the five starships left Earth – had glitched, necessitating that all five ships remain in orbit until the planet was ready.
* * *
259 A.E./0 I.O.
Arrival at Ibalac, entry into orbit. Calendar convention transitions from A.E. to I.O.
* * *
Date: 28 I.O.
Security Classification: Alpha+
Ibalac Research File 43(22)d
Current evidence for the existence of hostile life on Ibalac:
(1) Disappearance of Planetary Reconnaissance Mission: 5-person recon team deployed in 24 I.O. vanished with no contact after report of successful landing […] sudden disruption of transmissions from unmanned rescue rover sent 4 months later […] suspected obstruction/abduction by posthuman society, possibly to deter further contact […]
(2) Compromised Research Data: Several Council researchers reported breaches of secure quantum encryption, with increasing frequency since recon mission […] due to security clearance levels, only explanation is advanced technology beyond the Riemann, possibly involving new physics […] impacted files correlated with most advanced research on posthuman possibility […] most recent papers including:
● Thermodynamic Viability of Non-organic Life Substrates, Hamar et al.
● A Game-Theoretic Model for Cooperation Across Intelligence Gaps, Lyrin et al.
● Network Optimization of Sociopolitical Structures in Advanced Civilizations,Irim-Elab et al.
● Entropic Constraints on Human-Machine Mind Uploading, Arcement et al.
Motives behind data wipes remain unclear, due to enormous gap in scientific sophistication […] possible warning sign from posthuman society against further attempts at contact […]
Mechanism of data wipes remains entirely opaque […] Riemann exposed to powerful and undetectable posthuman designs, virtual or physical.
* * *
“Where are the other four ships?”
“In orbit, just like us.” She gently tousled my hair.
I remember being eleven and riveted by my great-grandmother’s story. The government’s story. That was the only version she ever told her own family.
Processing her computer’s revelations alongside the grief of her passing has drained me. I can’t imagine how much it would have pained her to protect us from the truth, until her dying breath. But why leave me this computer at all? Why burden me with the truth now?
She retired from office twenty years ago. Handing the reins to her successor, she was relieved of having to make the most daunting decisions – how we would eventually communicate with and land on Ibalac. But she remained on the Council, so continued to have access to the latest information. Based on her computer documents, it seems that the Council’s research ignited one of the most prolific periods in human scientific history. But we don’t know enough to form an Ibalac communication strategy, let alone a landing plan.
We do know, however, that the deadworld scenario is dead wrong. There are things on that planet, and they know about us.
I have a hunch that this has something to do with why she left me the computer. Maybe she disagreed with her successor’s decision to send the scout team to Ibalac, which might have prompted the posthumans’ infiltration of our computers. Or maybe she was frustrated by the indecision that came after, leaving us in orbit without any progress whatsoever. I wonder whether she wanted the truth to get out, stirring the Riemann’s population to revolt against our current leader.
On the other hand, her motives might have been personal rather than political. Maybe the burden was finally too much to bear, and she just wanted her family to know. To understand why she had worked such long hours when the crisis first came to light. Why she stayed in power far longer than she had planned, by which point her own daughter became something of a stranger. She had done her best to make up for it, by doting on her grandchildren and her only great-grandchild. But her relationship with her daughter was never fully repaired.
Of course, she knew I’m a journalist. Or at least trying to be one. And now I’m torn about what to do. Can I know the truth and hide it? Either this story would be published everywhere, giving me the career breakthrough I need, or the government would totally quell it. In that case I would lose my teaching job as well.
How can I worry about my job? If I hide information of this magnitude, I’ll be failing as a journalist even more than I already am…
Honestly, though, I’m terrified. The story will spook everyone on the Riemann and make the ship seem like a hopeless prison. How would my middle school students react to the posthuman shadows lurking in our computer systems? How can I do that to them?
* * *
My next history lesson is today. I skipped class on Thursday to mourn, so it’s been an entire week since I taught the kids about the Riemann’s journey. Regardless of what I decide to do with my new, classified knowledge, teaching these lessons will never feel the same.
I glance in the mirror while looping a tie around my collar. It strikes me how tired I look. My wife Alina put it down to grief, because she knows how much time I spent with my great-grandmother when I was younger. I haven’t yet told her what I read on the computer. Just like President Imaan kept the truth from the family. Until I decide whether or not to make the story public, I’m not sure whether I should confide in Alina. Keeping this from her makes my guilt even worse, but why give her the nightmares those files have given me? And – well, she’s close to her sister, so if the story leaks out ever so slightly… aargh, does this mean I don’t trust my own wife? Am I failing as a husband too?
I realize I’ve looped my tie the wrong way.
Alina’s sitting up in bed when I walk out of the bathroom. “You know, from the way you describe the time you spent together when you were younger, I really wish our baby was able to meet her.”
With the bombshells over the past week, I forgot that we’ve been planning to have a baby.
Alina isn’t pregnant, but we’ve been trying for a few months. We were supposed to try again earlier this week, until the death temporarily wiped it out of our minds.
I haven’t considered what any of this would mean for the baby. How can I have a baby in times like these? It would be absurd. I don’t even know if we’re going to survive through my lifetime, given how hostile Ibalac is.
I bring myself to mumble “mm-hmm,” before pecking at some breakfast and leaving for school as quickly as I can. All I can think about during my commute is the baby. Late-night conversations with Alina, dreaming about how wonderful it would be to have our own child, playfully arguing over names. She wants this more than anything in the world. What am I going to tell her?
My paranoia is in overdrive. I might have completely misinterpreted why my great-grandmother left me the computer. To warn me against having a child… Wait a minute. Does that mean I have a duty to warn the rest of the Riemann population? Did former President Imaan decide that the best way forward for humanity would be to gracefully stop perpetuating?
I just want to lie down and escape my own head. It’s going to explode if I don’t.
“Good morning Mr. Imaan!”
Muscle memory has brought me to the classroom. I don’t have the energy to teach. I’ll try to make the kids do most of the talking today.
“Can someone recap what we discussed last time? Yes, Alex.”
Everyone is attentive to Alex. Good. I focus on my breathing while he chatters in the background.
“… still in orbit because Ibalac is not fully terraformed, right Mr. Imaan?”
“Huh? That’s – yes, that’s exactly right.”