Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Bigger Picture

The boy gently placed his toy sailboat in the water and let the afternoon breeze fill the sails and push it towards the First Landing statue in the center of the lake. It was the boy's one true possession and he watched it with concern hoping it did not capsize or hit any of the other craft moving through the lake waters.

Once the onboard artificial intelligence chip sensed it had reached the proper speed and detected a strong enough updraft, the rigging and sails reconfigured turning it into a glider. As the craft gained altitude, the boy took control of it using the neural interface wired inside his brain. Feeling the interface take hold, the boy stood next the lake with his eyes closed and his arm stretched out letting the glider became an extension of his own body. Only then was the boy able to forget his concerns and feel free and at peace. Still though, in the back of his mind he remembered that he only had a year left before coming of age and being apprenticed to some profession.

Looking through the glider's sensors, all of First Landing Park sprawled out beneath him, with it green grass, trees, monuments, decorative fountains, and people enjoying a peaceful afternoon. Beyond the park was the city with its towers encircled by what looked like graceful ribbons that made up the transportation network that connected the city to itself and the rest of the planet. Occasionally, the boy would catch sight of one of the sleek modules attached to one the ribbons taking people to their destinations.

As the boy turned the glider back towards his location, he caught sight of a strange person standing close to him. The boy felt no fear, peacekeeper 'bots would come to his rescue if they detected a disturbance or he called out. This person though was nothing like he had ever see before. Part of its head and its right arm gleamed in the sunlight. With his curiosity growing, the boy disengaged the link to the glider allowing the AI to bring it back to the lake. As his vision returned, that was when the boy realized there was a Martian standing a couple of meters away from him.

For well over a thousand years after the invention of a practical faster-than-light drive Humankind traveled among the stars exploring and colonizing the habitable planets they found. Early in these journeys, humans discovered that while life was abundant wherever they traveled, it rarely evolved passed simple creatures and analogs to chlorophyll-based plant life. The few times humans found planets with complex ecosystems similar to Earth, they were wise enough to leave them alone except for building space stations in orbit or bases on their moons to study them. Needless to say, with complex life rare, humans never once encountered any other intelligent species.

That all changed when the Wisps came out of the void and started attacking human worlds and the starships that tied their civilization together. By that time in human development, conflicts were rare so at first the Wisps ran roughshod through settled space. Many humans colonies in the early stages of development were easily wiped out, while the more established worlds fought off the attackers for awhile.

But the Wisps were relentless and after several decades were finally able to mount an assault on Earth itself. They obliterated everything in Humanity's home star system from the giant orbital habitats, to the cities scattered about on Luna, Mars, the Jovian moons, and Titan. But their greatest wrath fell on Earth itself. They sterilized the surface of the planet killing all five billion of its human inhabitants and everything else that lived. Then with the few survivors on Mars and Titan expecting the Wisps to return and cleanup what they missed, the aliens disappeared from not only the home system but all of human space.

The damage was done though, the survivors on Mars and Titan spent centuries just trying to rebuild. For the rest of human settled space, the situation was just as bleak. Hundreds of worlds fell headlong into a new dark age once again unleashing the worst aspects of Homo sapien behavior.

“Who are you young man?” The Martian asked.

“My name is Michel Cor,” the boy answered unafraid since the arrival of the Martian starship was the most exciting thing to happen to his world in decades. While the ship remained in orbit, its crew were instant celebrities everywhere they went, despite the sheer alienness of their appearance. Since Michel had never seen a Martian closeup, he openly stared at the man.

Half of his skull had been replaced with a cybernetic interface that only vaguely conformed to what a human face was supposed to look like. Michel studied the seam where the organic skull and the cybernetic addition met, it was abrupt but looked like a perfect meshing of the two. The designers and engineers went as far as to make the artificial side of the Martian's nose a match in shape to the biological. However, the Martian's mouth was not designed as well, the biological portion had full expressive movement, while the artificial side had much less. It was the Martian's cybernetic eye that intrigued Michel, it glowed red and protruded outward providing space for other types of sensors. Michel could only imagine what sights and information it provided for those possessing such technology.

Michel then remembered from school that the Martians were not just enhanced cyborgs, but that their very minds had been merged with a type of artificial intelligent forever removing them from true humanity. Among the different human worlds, it was whispered that these enhanced beings had the ability to predict events by seeing all possible futures. That they had other abilities that transcended normal human comprehension.

Such concepts were a bit too abstract for Michel to truly appreciate, it was the Martian's right arm that fascinated him. Because while the silver appendage looked human enough, it could morph into hundreds of different tools and even weapons. The Martians were not about to let the Wisps get a second chance at driving humanity extinct.

“I was impressed with the control you had over your sail glider. You have a natural talent with the way you anticipated the changes in wind patterns beyond the lake.” The Martian said with the organic half of his face trying to smile.

“Thank you, Citizen...” Michel said beginning to address the Martian in the proper custom of his world before thinking better of it.

“My name is Jonas Harper,” the Martian said enjoying the boy's momentary confusion. “But you can call me Jonas.” He added not wanting to cause the boy any possible discomfort.

“Jonas Harper?” Michel asked more to himself than his new companion. To the boy the name sounded clumsy, weird, even bizarre.

“Yes, it is an ancient name used all the way back to when humans lived just on Earth.” Jonas said. “With the destruction of Earth, we Martians carry the weight of human history so our society works hard to stay connected with the past.”

“Have you ever been to Earth?” Michel asked.

“Once when I was a boy,” Jonas said, “before I accepted the burden of my new consciousness.”

“Is it true you restored life to the surface?”

“Yes, we used much of the same technology there that we used here on Sonora.”

Michel's homeworld was never supposed to be colonized. While the air was breathable, the first explorers to Sonora had determined there was not enough water on the planet to justify any attempt at settlement. So the world was cataloged and promptly forgotten about, that is until the Wisps bombarded several relatively nearby colonies.

A damaged civilian starship entered the Sonoran system looking for any rocky world to land and make repairs. The rediscovery of a semi-habitable planet in such desperate times was looked upon as a blessing by both the crew and passengers. The Wisps had already bombarded their planet and were still attacking any ships they found,so they quickly decided to stay on Sonora permanently. Unfortunately, other starships with better historical records or star charts began arriving a few years later looking for a refuge as well. Within a couple of decades the reason Sonora was never colonized became apparent with the emerging cities often fighting each other over water and usable soil. When a joint Mars/Titan expedition found the planet again three hundred years later the small Sonoran human civilization was on the verge of collapse.

Seeing the situation, the Martian vessel, equipped with planetary engineering equipment, stayed behind and began a twenty-year project to reshape the entire world. Several hundred comets were taken from the outer reaches of the star system to create oceans for Sonora. While that was going on, the Martians built massive land crawling machines that prepped the surface soil for terrestrial-based plant life. The final touches were the planting of rapid growing grasses and trees that turned the Sonora into a virtual copy of Earth.

When the Martian ship finally departed, Sonora had a unified government whose leaders decided their purpose was to make their world a major interstellar power. Part of that plan was to increase the planetary population as quickly as possible, so the human creches were established. Places where humans are grown in breeding pods and raised to adulthood by android caregivers. This allowed Sonora to go from a population of twenty-million at rediscovery to over three-billion in two centuries. To the normal human-raised citizens of Sonora, their world is a paradise but to Michel and all the others born in the creches it was a burden.

“I would love to see the homeworld,” Michel said more to himself than to the visitor. The Sonoran government was officially a democratic meritocracy. A place where the rights of the citizenry superseded the government's interests and prospective leaders had to prove their stability and rationality before being allowed to run for elected office. But to the creche-born, these ideals didn't really apply to them. For those like Michel, the government had their lives planned out until the age they could retire. Most would be assigned to the unsettled regions of the planet while a lucky few might find themselves living in one of the orbital habitats mining the asteroids for metals or building the shipyards where future Sonoran starships would be constructed.

“Such a possibility could be worked out,” Jonas Harper said to the boy. “My ship is returning to Mars and we have empty berths for lower crewmen. The duty would be difficult, but upon reaching Mars you would be accepted to our service academy.”

“Would I have to be augmented like you to join?” Michel asked pointing to his skull.

“No, augmentation is only for those who freely choose. We do not force any individual to go against their will or desires. An individual normally serves ten-standard years before Fleet Command approaches them about the possibility.”

Michel stood there in the park looking at the Martian considering his options. An unplanned life of adventure where he was allowed to make his own choices. Or one where he spent his life running a supply outpost or an agricultural station out in the wilderness.

“I'll go,” Michel told the Martian. “I need to go tell the creche manager. She will consider me a runaway if I'm not back by nightfall.”

“No need young Michel, I have already alerted everyone involved. We can leave now and be on my ship in time for dinner.”

Michel had never been allowed on one of the transport modules other citizens used. As creche-born, past experience had shown there was too big a chance young ones like him would use it to disappear. Sitting next the Martian, he enjoyed the looks all the normal born folks were giving him.

For the Martian, his thoughts were flung in a thousand different directions. While the Sonoran government had dreams of becoming a major power in interstellar affairs, they had absolutely no idea about the bigger galactic picture. In fairness, most human worlds were willfully trying to forget about the Wisps. They were happy to pursue their singular dreams at the expense of their overall futures. Mars remembered what they had done to Earth and the other worlds that only now were beginning to recover.

Above all else though, what took precedence in all other considerations for Mars was that they knew the Wisps would one day return. Young Michel didn't know it but the vast collective consciousness that was the Martian ship and crew saw something in him that could mean the ultimate survival of the species. So Jonas had no real issue taking Michel from one planned life and placing him in another. It wasn't like he would be the only one.


The Bug said...

Oooo - I like this a lot! I can't decide if I want more or if just imagining Michel's future is enough...

Harry Hamid said...

I like the history of Sonora a lot. I can't do sci-fi (not enough of it in my childhood, somehow, which is odd, considering when I grew up), so I'm always in awe of people who can ream up space stories. Throughout much of the best stuff, that moment when Luke is finally going to leave the farm for the stars is the best!

Pixel Peeper said...

It wasn't like he would be the only one. Now that's a chilling sentence for ending this story (chapter?).

A bit off-topic, but related: do you have Hulu? You might like the new show there, "The First."