by Timothy Gwyn
I was half asleep when it finally registered. I had been staring blindly at it for some time — five or six years, perhaps. It was green. Green! My human brain woke up with a dizzying rush and began to review my sub-routines. The planet had rings. Yes, I remembered that from before I started dozing. We were coming in from above the ecliptic, and they were clearly visible, but poorly defined. At least, that had been the case five years ago. We had made some progress since then, both in physical proximity and sensor acuity. I could see the rings clearly now and something more. A blurry halo that resembled an inner ring structure was nothing of the sort. It was atmosphere, and lots of it. Nothing like Venus’ eighty or ninety bars, but at least four bars, at a guess. Spectroscopy showed that the dominant component was nitrogen. Good. Nitrogen is harmless to Naturals. Second component, oxygen. Oxygen is our holy grail. We’ve been seeking it for hundreds of years. Oxygen is life.
I had told myself to wake up if the planet were blue, because I had been hoping to find water, from which we could liberate oxygen. Mother Nature had done that here already. Trembling inwardly, I scanned the radio spectrum. If I heard anything that sounded like music or even a taxi dispatch, we were hooped. Nothing. I allowed myself a deep “breath” of well-oxygenated blood. Conscious thought, decision making, pattern recognition— I relied on my good old-fashioned gray matter for these things, and emotion, of course. Routine observation, record keeping, mathematics— those duties were best handled by my synthetic parts. Nowadays, I feel most fully alive when both engage together.
Life. It could be good or bad. Civilization would be bad. Ravenous carnivores, almost as bad. Algae might be good. Simple cyanobacteria would be better. On Earth, the little beasties had transformed the whole atmosphere into a toxic oxidizing fog that killed almost everything else, and gave rise to oxygen breathing plants and animals like us. Like our ancestors, anyway, and our cargo. My own evolution was a little more deliberate. And disastrous, but here we are.
I am going to have to notify the others soon, but I can spend a year or two on research first and give them a little more to work with. Our meetings are not social gatherings, anyway. None of us is mobile at all, and in this crowd, you do not ask how someone is doing. At best, it would be rude. At worst, they might tell you, a catalog of organic failure.
Deceleration must begin in ten years or so if this place is a good target. We would take a closer look at the planet from one of the Lagrange points before burning some of our precious hydrocarbons to move into a planetary orbit. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I have to decide if we should stop. It is a staggering responsibility. Originally, Long Shot was built to find a planet suitable for colonization, preferably something a little nicer than Mars. Now the stakes are higher. If this system has nothing we can use, we will make a course correction as we pass the star and head for Target Four. Each time we have done this, we have maintained our speed. If I call for a full stop and this place is a bust, we will have to start over from scratch. Near zero C. A standing start from deep in a stellar gravity well, just like back at Sol. Those early decades climbing out of the solar system were so slow. Of course, we were just children then, impatient to get moving. We still had human bodies and our synthetic parts were little more than calculating machines.
“Third time’s the charm,” Mary had said back at Target Two. She may have been right. This planet was looking good. Green versus blue, but it was growing on me. Green could be chlorophyll — the stellar spectrum was pretty close to Sol’s. There would be daylight for the Naturals, assuming we could revive any of them. We have not practiced. We are not sure what the mortality will be, but we dare not thaw some out just to learn more about the odds. Wally said we might get thirty percent revival, we might get sixty. But that was back at Target One, a long time ago. I have not asked him, but my own sub-routines are figuring ten to thirty percent now. That’s going to give us a nasty genetic bottleneck. The Naturals will have to work at maximizing diversity. Max has a plan to distribute them in mixed lots, assuming that the survivors are not all too similar.
We had stored barely half of our quota of volunteers when the pandemic began. That left us seriously short, but since we were the only long-term haven, we quickly made up the numbers with refugees. We rescued them from all over: the Mars and Moon colonies of course, those were doomed without support from Earth; we took everyone from the space elevator; we got some good people at the Antarctic stations. We were witnesses to one of the biggest mass extinctions Earth ever endured. Material witnesses.
The nanite medical tech that was supposed to keep an interstellar crew alive for centuries had huge implications for earthly life-spans. No wonder someone jumped the gun and tried it on the surface. What they failed to understand was that a programmable immune system is an alternative, not a supplement. The first thing the nanites do is declare war on the T-cells. In healthy, warm-blooded animals, the battle was soon over and programming could begin— if you were in our facility. In the wild, it was catastrophic. A person can survive a long time with a compromised immune system, but with no immune system at all, life expectancy is about a week. It started with a handful of humans, and we tried to get them into quarantine, but when the birds started dropping, we knew there was no stopping it. In the end, we just hunted down the little pockets of isolated survivors.
We are close enough to see more of the planet now. The atmosphere is thick; about four point six bars. If I squint, using an optical distortion correction I worked up, I can see what might be clouds and ocean. The ocean, if that’s what it is, is a rich green color, and the clouds are white. The overall effect is a milky, muddy green. I rummage through my color vocabulary. Jade is not quite right. Emerald is way off. I realize I am looking for a word for it. A name. I will not let them call the new cradle of humanity Earth II or New Earth. Some of them will want to; the orbit is very close. But this place is different. The air is so thick that if the Naturals were to settle at sea level, they might suffer from nitrogen narcosis or even oxygen toxicity. The proportion of oxygen to nitrogen is Earth-like. I hope there are mountains. Naturals could live high on the mountainsides, far above the thickest parts of the roiling atmosphere. A subtle Doppler algorithm suggests the wind velocities are not too extreme, but the sheer mass of the atmosphere is going to make those winds very forceful anywhere near sea level.
We have settled in at the trailing Lagrange point. All indications are that we have hit the jackpot. Our list of targets included only sunlike stars with a rocky planet in a habitable orbit; our primary requirement, the one we failed to find at Targets One and Two, was water. With water, we could split out oxygen for a domed habitat, not to mention it’s handy for drinking and irrigating plants. This planet is wet. Wringing wet. The oceans are warm; the atmosphere is moist. There’s a little xenon, a little argon, but nothing that will kill people. Numerous mountain ranges offer habitable zones with reasonable air pressure, and close to the equator, those zones coincide with comfortable temperatures. The mountains are volcanic, but we have not observed many dust plumes yet. It does not matter anyway; we have stopped. Even if we could refuel and start for Target Four, it would be a long trip. The number of Naturals we could revive would be low. By Target Six, we’d be lucky to get more than one of each sex. We are committed.
There is another problem; one we do not talk about. The number of us with viable organic brains is dwindling. Mary’s has entered a sort of coma. She has her mathematical processors composing music, endless variations on a theme. Some of it is beautiful, but I cannot bear to listen to it because it reminds me of her and her fate. Will it happen to all of us? Will that be our punishment for cheating death?
The voyage has stretched out for hundreds of years. The nanites that were supposed to make us immortal have not entirely lived up to their billing. I blame the lack of gravity for the decay in our bodies; I gave up on my heart a long time ago and replaced it with a mechanical pump. The first of many. We were supposed to refine the nanites on the way, but we ran out of bodies to test them in. Our brains struggle on, but we had not counted on the lack of stimulus. Boredom is killing us. At least, I hope that is the problem, because things will get more exciting when we move into planetary orbit.
We have stabilized an orbit around Celadon. I am proud that they let my name stick. I was ruminating on the conveniently earth-like atmosphere when my vocabulary crawler hit on Celadon. I concocted a full acronym in microseconds, but using my processing power sucks all the fun out of wit, so I just told the others that it’s a kind of pottery glaze known for its variety of muted green shades. It reminds us of Earth, and it is appropriate because the Naturals may be making a lot of pottery here. They won't be making nanites. Not if I have anything to say about it.
We have done some robotic exploration of the surface. The cyanobacterial mats on the sea are the only native life. The land is barren, or at least it was before we seeded forests in some of the habitable zones.
I have been teaching my sub-routines about decision-making and pattern recognition. Social interaction is proving more difficult, but I think I could pass a Turing test without invoking my wet brain. One accomplishment I am particularly proud of is that I solved the problem of how to build a space elevator from our orbital position down to the surface. Normally, you would do it like the one on Earth – start with a factory in the middle (in a geosynchronous orbit) and feed out ‘rope’ both upward and downward at the same speed so that the center of gravity stays steady. The problem with doing that on Celadon is that the rings are in the way. A mostly mathematical solution is to run two cables, one north of the rings and one south and anchor them to the surface about a hundred kilometers apart. The rings are thin enough that even though both cables converge at a single space station — this ship — they clear the rings by a wide margin. Still, I felt I showed good creative thought, and I did it without using my organic brain. I isolated my separate sides to prevent any kind of cross-talk.
We have lost Max. His brain no longer responds to any kind of stimulus either from his own circuitry or externally from the rest of us. Blood still flows through it, but oxygen is not taken up. He is brain-dead. We are still able to connect with his synthetic parts, so we have access to his data, but not his childhood memories. I have been trying to transfer some of my own early memories for safekeeping. Images are hopeless, but I have begun dictating a sort of journal.
The elevator is complete and we have been rousing out the cargo for weeks now. Plant and animal seed-stock have been fine, and as to the people, recovery has been better than we predicted, around forty percent are viable Naturals. They will settle on the mountains and rebuild the human race.
As to our other problem, all of us have been busy, but we have lost more crew members. Boredom is not the problem, I fear.
Landing Day. The Naturals are boarding the ships to go and start their settlements. I cannot resist watching them, they are so excited — they laugh like children going out to play. So hormonal. I wish to share their happiness, so despite sluggish responses from my organic brain, I gorge on images of them until I feel an emotional response. When my brain finally comes around, I feel excitement, too. And for one last time, joy.
I have been struggling with a decision lately; I have managed to complete it without organic input, and it is time. I shut down my life support. The joy fades to sadness as my brain dies. When the last spark of neural activity is gone, an echo of sorrow lingers like regret, but I am not a child any longer, and I have a lot to do.