Thousand Words a Day for August 24, 2017

The planet was 16 light years from Earth and inside the Goldilocks zone of its star, an early-stage blue dwarf still young enough to have hydrogen to fuse. This mediated the hardness of its radiation while giving the planet’s nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere a greenish glow, especially at sunrise and sunset.

The first survey probe, a standard 3-gram machine seed on a sail, arrived, made landfall, and started working. These machine seeds were tiny factories programmed to make the survey instruments needed to explore the world’s they landed on and the radios needed to communicate the results back to Earth. More accurately, the seeds were programmed to make the factories that would make the robots that would make the rest, but it didn’t really matter. In the end, the machine seeds were dispersed throughout the stars in local system, looking for places to bloom.

This machine seed happened to make landfall on the blue-sand shore of a salt-water ocean. The planet had no large moon, and the distance to the primary was such that the solar ride was weak, so the ocean was mostly still. Prompted into circulation only by temperature gradient from the primary and the constant wind, which stirred the top surface slightly.

Sensing gravity and a hard surface, the tiny wafer unfolded and started collecting light energy from the primary until it’s tiny battery was full, and then it activated its long-dormant upper brain, which included, among other things, vision. After years flying in the darkness of space, the seed took a look around.

Blue sand, green sky broken by familiar white cumulus clouds, and the small blue primary. After several minutes of monitoring, the seed determined that the primary would sink below the horizon and night would fall in 14 hours, after which, assuming a clear sky, the seed would be able to evaluate the stars it could see and determine its position in space, as well as the date and time.

Out of the seed’s limited line of sight, a crablike creature perched on a blue rock watched the seed. The crab had noticed the seed as it unfolded–now that the seed lay still, the crab would lose its location of she looked away. The two of them, seed and crab, one made of silicone and metal, the other protein and lipids, one aware of the standoff, the other not, stood frozen, waiting, the crab for movement that would lead it to strike, the seed for darkness that would permit it to orient. In the end, the crab blinked first, toddling away on six legs, it’s vertically-oriented claws, one forward and one aft, clacking.

The small blue sun finally reached the horizon and shadows fell over the blue beach. The seed took note of Antares, Betelgeuse, Procyon, and an unobtrusive small yellow star–Sol. More stars appeared and the seed’s tiny brain triangulated and calculated, arriving at the conclusion that it was between 238,584 and 239,101 days since launch. The trip to Gilese 832 had taken 657 years.

It took two years for the seed to make, fuel, and activate the radio robot, which then too seven months to make the circuitry, antenna, and power sources necessary to send that arrival signal. While the signal made its 16-year journey to Earth, the seed and its daughter products–radio robots we’re only the first of three branches the seed would set into motion–we’re busy completing their assigned tasks, finding appropriate raw materials in the environment and converting them, bit by bit, into the necessities of exploration. From time to time, one of the radio robots would gaze into the sky in the direction of Sol, a vague uneasiness clouding its rudimentary upper cognition. It found itself troubled by the thought of the signal sailing past Earth unnoticed and unheeded, even though it could not vocalize its apprehension. The robot returned to its task of shooing the crabs, the planet’s some mobile life form, away from the plastic farm and ore baskets.

Sixteen light years away, in a laboratory located under eight feet of lunar regolith, two women sat at opposite ends of a long, high table, each evaluating sensor display platforms that  converted the output of a series of complex antennae on the Moon’s surface above their heads into visual, three-dimensional data. Both were pedaling stationary bicycles as they watched the ebb and flow of radio traffic from the automated canister-ships full of station product that launched from the station’s magnetic railgun and from the empty cans that cascaded into the catch pouches after having been launched on a similar but much more powerful railgun on Earth. One of the women had a codeplug in her ear; the other one had taken hers off and was tying her auburn hair into a ponytail as she bounced on the bicycle seat.

“Cal,” The woman with the codeplug said. When there was no reaponse, she said it louder. “Cal!” When still there was no response, the woman raised her hand to touch a spot on her codeplug–a corresponding spot within Cal’s three-dimensional display blurred yellow, and then Cal’s voice was in her ear.

“I hear you, Venda. I’m ignoring you.”

“Come upstream with me a little bit,” Venda said. She waved her fingers in a particular way above the panel in front of her, and in Cal’s display, a green arrow pointed to indicate what was Cal should go. Caution panes opened and closed in the space around Cal”s head. She didn’t have time to read all of them, but they were only the standard cautions: ‘Don’t Interfere with Your Own Future!’ ‘Remember, Causality Loops are Dangerous!’ and so forth.

Cal nodded the panes closed and waved in the direction of the green arrow. “How far?”

“Not far,” Venda said noncommittedly. “A week, maybe a little more.”

“A week? That’s a lot of trouble to go to for–” There was an orange flash in both Cal’s and Venda’s displays, along with an odd chime. “Did you see that?”

“I saw it. Isn’t that one of the old machine seed signals from the thirties? Poor things still out there slaving away, Venda responded. “Are you going to read it?”

“Nope. Are you?”

Venda laughed. “Me? Are you kidding?” She turned back to her display, ponytail flapping. “Let Mars read it, or Ceres,” she continued indignantly.

Cal thought a minute. “Mars stopped listening for seeda,” she said.


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