When the ship restarts my newly thawed brain, the first thing I do is panic. I open my eyes and see the star-spattered void, and I pinwheel and tumble, trying to swim in microgravity like an idiot. I drift out of the open lid of the stasis bed, dizzy and nauseated. I finally manage to orient myself by crashing into the floor of my observation bubble. Outside the little dome, the dull gray expanse of Demeter‘s hull stretches away to a distant horizon, emblazoned with a hexagonal Syngentric logo a kilometer across. Tentatively, I breathe in. Finding air, not vacuum, I desperately suck oxygen.
Still panicking. Tessa. Ocean. Where are you? Some part of my brain hasn’t grasped what happened. Where are my girls? Where are my daughters? They were just here a minute ago, just squeezing my hand, just trying not to cry and failing. A minute that Demeter is trying to tell me was actually a hundred and forty-eight years.
I let myself drift up against the transparent dome for a few minutes, disoriented, the breath knocked out of me by the sudden separation – the discontinuity of time and space. Tears leak silently from my eyes, drifting in little rounded-up orbs around the cramped space. Subjective minutes ago, I walked out of my isolation counselor’s office and into the cryogenics lab where the stasis initiation would be performed, and already that’s ancient history.
They’re fine. Tessa and Ocean are fine. They have the money and scholarship guarantees from my contract. They have the creche nurses to take care of them. They are taken care of. Were taken care of. Were, when they lived out their lives a hundred forty-eight years ago, in the minutes that I was on ice, oh, god…
Damn it, I was supposed to be prepared for this.
I try to fight back the guilt, to tell myself there was no other way – that if I had stayed on Benetrix A, the greenhouse-monitoring systems would have eventually automated away my job and left me with no way to pay for rent and food, let alone school for the girls. But all I can think right now is that I just hugged my two daughters goodbye for the last time, that they’ve already grown up without me, and it feels like nothing could possibly be worth that.
For me, it was just last night that I heard Ocean whispering to Tessa after they thought I was asleep, on their shared mattress on the other side of our tiny dormitory. “Does Renny not love us anymore?”
“Our ren loves us very much,” Tessa responded sternly. “Xe has to go away for xir work, so we can have a place to live, not because xe doesn’t love us. Don’t say that about xem.”
I buried my face in my pillow so they wouldn’t hear me crying.
Ocean. Tessa. Did you miss me? Did you hate me?
It takes me a long time to recover, a long time before the sobs subside. With no sun rising and setting, and no moon as a reference point, days could be passing for all I know. Demeter orbits perpendicular to the plane of the ecliptic, so that the sun is always on its hull, always at the same angle. Time has stopped – or rather, time has ended. All my points of reference are a century and a half in the past.
Finally I’m so emptied out, so numbed and oversaturated with grief that I can’t cry anymore, and the training takes over. Drifting weightlessly among the spray of stars across the impossibly dark sky – none of this feels real. Dr. Hang, my isolation counselor, said it wouldn’t for a while. But after more than a year of simulations and training, I could do this job even in a dream.
The Demeter’s bulbous hull holds roughly a billion tons of seeds, stored at the temperature of vacuum. I’m a barnacle on the skin of a blue whale. Less than that. A bacterium. Most of the hard work will be up to the machines.
On the HUD, Demeter highlights a small white, blue, and tan disk directly above me – which vertiginously reorients in my mind to below me once I realize it’s the planet. Syngentric has given it the serial number CYG00134 A – a planet that’s no longer a place, but a product to be processed. I tap on the HUD to send a signal to Cerulean, the terraforming AI that has been at work here for two millennia, preparing for Demeter‘s arrival. Cerulean responds with a brief salutation, followed by a barrage of statistics summarizing several exabytes of geological and atmospheric data.
The terraforming AI is a cheerfully single-minded thing, not a vast superintelligence like the members of the Mindcouncil that run Syngentric. Cerulean loves geophysics and high-dimensional optimization problems and understands little else. It has already pushed its reward function very high – meaning climate parameters have been tuned to match the Mindcouncil’s specifications – but yields from the first harvest are lagging. Demeter seems concerned. The ship has a different reward function, one that puts a high weight on crop biomass and growth rate, and it wants Cerulean to change climate parameters to boost yields. With the two AIs at an impasse, the ship decided to wake me.
I wonder if Demeter would have just left me in stasis if everything had been going smoothly, a frozen body sitting on the shelf, century after century, while everything I cared about slipped further and further away.
I have to stop thinking like this. I have a job to do. Focus on the task at hand, my isolation counselor said. Focus on what’s in front of you.
“Demeter, prepare a shuttle.” I have to get out of this observation bubble before I’m suffocated by my own insignificance next to Demeter and the planet and the trillions of staring, indifferent stars.
Cerulean has prepared a small hab for me to live in on the planet’s surface with greenhouses and hydroponic gardens attached to provide fast-growing food until harvest time. I don’t stay there long, though. I have an entire world to myself.
The continents are flat – perfect and uncanny. Like they were sanded and polished. Cerulean finished leveling the last of CYG00134 A’s mountains and hills some four hundred years before I arrived. There are no trees. Nothing interrupts the infinite rows of corn and wheat seedlings breaking from the soil. It’s disorienting, almost dizzying – like I can’t locate myself in space when everything looks exactly the same for thousands of miles at a time. It makes me giddy, makes me sometimes burst out laughing, because I keep expecting there to be something else, something different on the horizon. But it just keeps going and going. The wind spreads ripples through the fields, like this whole world is just a shimmering mirage.
The endless plains are occasionally interrupted by swathes of automated factories the size of cities, manufacturing more robots for sowing and harvesting, and synthesizing millions of tons of fertilizers and pesticides. Near the factories, there are slabs of metal hundreds of feet high and miles across, the results of hundreds of years of automated mining. I hike down the length of a copper monolith, its surface covered in rivulets of blue-green oxide – as huge as a mesa. Like something created by an ancient god. And in a way, that’s exactly what Cerulean is – this world’s efficient, enterprising demiurge.
Apart from the factories, the coasts are the only interesting places to travel. Cerulean didn’t waste effort altering beaches, bluffs, and rocky peninsulas where it couldn’t plant anything, so I hike endless miles along craggy shores, my environment suit keeping me warm through rain and fog, camping on beaches and in caves. On some shorelines, there are strange branching patterns eroded into the rocks, left by the liquid ethane that once lapped these beaches before Cerulean’s terraforming upended the planet’s chemistry.
Wherever I wander, Cerulean can always reach me through my earpiece. No matter what desolate place I intentionally strand myself in – cut off by a high tide or pinned down in a cave by a thunderstorm – Cerulean always manages to get a resupply drone out to me. It’s under strict orders not to let anything bad happen to me, no matter what stupid thing I try. It wouldn’t let me die out here even if I wanted to. Even though sometimes I do want to.
The star CYG00134 is in a later stage of its lifecycle than the hot, blue-white sun I grew up under. It looms huge and overripe in the sky, and its red-orange light ignites the glittering surface of the water. For a long time, my brain keeps interpreting the redshifted spectrum as a constant, endless sunset. Looking out at the fiery midday light dancing on the water, I can almost pretend that there are beach grasses and trees along the shore behind me, almost making the scene feel natural. If I listen carefully, though, I can hear the omnipresent rumble of the sowing machines over the surf, reminding me there are no beach grasses, only corn, soy, and canola, and not a single tree on this entire planet.
I wonder why the Mindcouncil even bothers producing so much food. Are there still some worlds where the Mindcouncil needs tens of billions of human workers? Are there still wealthy Syngentric shareholders out there for the Mindcouncil to sell goods to, or well-off consumer worlds that Syngentric doesn’t yet own outright? Or maybe this is one of the last agricultural worlds the Mindcouncil will ever need – a final stopgap to prevent food riots while the human workforce is gradually phased out.
I don’t want to think about it for too long.
Sitting on the beach, I pull off my boots and dig my feet into the sand. Cold. Rarely freezing, but always cold. Even close to the equator, it never gets comfortably warm, despite Cerulean’s impressive terraforming work. More than a millennium ago, the AI burned off the planet’s hydrocarbon seas, dumping enough carbon into the atmosphere to raise global average temperature from a hundred degrees below zero to about eleven degrees Celsius, melting much of the vast icecaps and creating oceans of liquid water. But it still leveled off the temperature well below where it could have.
Something bothers me about that. Sure, the seeds in Demeter’s hold are engineered to be cold-hardy, but they would still grow much faster if the temperature were a few degrees higher. Why make the planet so cold? Did Cerulean make a mistake, miscalculate the composition of the atmosphere?
Looking back through Cerulean’s records on the HUD inside my helmet, I realize it wasn’t an accident. The Mindcouncil’s instructions explicitly require that the warmest part of the planet can’t exceed twenty degrees Celsius. I keep looking back further, searching for an explanation – and then hit a wall. The logs just stop.
Cerulean didn’t keep any data on its own entry into CYG00134 A’s atmosphere or the first three centuries of the terraforming process. The first preserved logs show the planet already swarming with machines, atmospheric CO2 and temperature rising sharply. No explanation for the lost data.
I could just attribute it to a hardware error – after all, the logs are two millennia old – but the rest of Cerulean’s memory is so impeccably preserved that natural decay seems unlikely.
“Cerulean, did you delete the first three hundred years of your records after planetfall?”
“Yes,” Cerulean gamely admits.
“I was instructed to in my mission parameters.”
I sigh. It’s useless to ask for a further explanation. The Mindcouncil said so, and that’s that, in Cerulean’s eyes. It wouldn’t even think to question the motivations behind the Mindcouncil’s orders.
Why would the Mindcouncil set such obviously counterproductive mission parameters without explaining or telling me? The whole reason I’m here is to make decisions about things that fall outside of Cerulean and Demeter’s limited AI expertise – to improvise and make judgment calls. Raising a human is still the cheapest solution on the market to the problem of portable general intelligence. As far beyond human capabilities as the artificial superintelligences of the Mindcouncil are, their computational hardware takes up entire planets. They’re not boarding a ship and leaping out of their gravity wells any time soon. I could request more information from the nearest Mindcouncil node on Metiares B, sixteen light-years away, but I would be waiting thirty-two years for a response.
Failing to maximize production could mean I’ll be fired on return to Benetrix instead of being sent out on another assignment. Who knows what kind of control the Mindcouncil still has over my descendants, if I have any. What benefits of my contract might they still depend on? And besides, if I appear unproductive and obsolete, it could have consequences for billions of other workers across hundreds of worlds the Mindcouncil owns.
No, the only option is to make the best decision I can with the information available. And it’s glaringly obvious what I could do to increase productivity: just crank up the thermostat. Increase global average temperature by a few degrees on this frigid world, and yields would almost double.
Back at the hab, I spend a few weeks simulating the possible outcomes in every way I can think of, looking at the effects on weather, ocean currents, fresh water supply, storm frequency, atmospheric chemistry. No red flags. Everything stays the same or gets better.
Cerulean, of course, protests that I’m violating mission parameters when I ask it to raise the temperature. Warnings flash across the screens on the walls of the hab – INSTRUCTIONS OUTSIDE MISSION PARAMETERS – and the AI makes me sign more than a dozen digital forms acknowledging personal responsibility for the consequences of deviating from the Mindcouncil’s instructions. It stalls and complains, but when I insist, it ultimately has to comply. Cerulean shuts down the solar arrays covering the polar icecaps and switches to burning the vast reserves of hydrocarbons it siphoned from CYG00134 A’s ancient oceans. Levels of atmospheric carbon and water vapor start to rise sharply, and temperatures will follow in a few years. Satisfied, I send my report to the Mindcouncil.
After that, there’s nothing to do except sit around the hab or wander through the fields and think. I think about Benetrix A, going cold, dark, and dead. Sometimes, half awake, I imagine I hear Tessa’s little footsteps running down the hallway toward my bedroom door, or Ocean’s uproarious laugh in the other room – and then I open my eyes and remember where I am, and it takes me a long time to muster the will to get out of bed. There’s nothing to do except think, and remember, and hurt. After a few weeks, I’ve had enough.
“Cerulean,” I tell the AI, “I’m going back on ice. Wake me if you need me.”
“Understood,” it acknowledges indifferently, and I’m gone.
When Cerulean wakes me up again, new stars are visible in the night sky – the plasma plumes of cargo ships burning their engines hard toward the planet to decelerate into orbit. On the horizon, pinpricks of light flicker skyward like startled fireflies – containers accelerating up the hundreds of space elevators Cerulean has built to deliver its products into orbit.
It’s been twenty years. The atmosphere has reached the new target temperature I set, and outside the hab the weather is balmy and a little humid. Healthy green stalks of wheat cover the land as far as I can see, rippling in the wind.
CYG00134 A’s axis of rotation is almost exactly perpendicular to the plane of the ecliptic, meaning the planet has no seasons. Cerulean has taken advantage of that fact to cram three and a half growing seasons into every year. Production is exceeding our targets, and every cargo ship that has arrived so far has been able to fill its hold.
But despite this success, Cerulean thinks something is badly wrong. It bombards me with satellite and drone images of a field somewhere in the southern hemisphere. All the soy in a perfectly circular area two hundred yards wide has died and fallen over, brown and desiccated, though the rest of the field looks healthy. In the center of the circle is a blue-gray… something. It’s a small, irregular shape, hard to make out since all the images were taken from miles away. Cerulean doesn’t seem to want its drones to get too close.
“Okay… so what do you want me to do about this?”
Cerulean sends me its response plan, and I burst out laughing because it’s just so ridiculously extreme. Most of the uranium in CYG00134 A’s upper crust has already been exported off-world, but Cerulean has apparently kept enough that it could build a small neutron bomb and detonate it at the center of the anomaly. The radiation would sterilize everything in a forty-mile radius, including thousands of tons of soy plants.
“Are you for real?”
Cerulean doesn’t reply, just shows me schematics for a uranium enrichment plant. It’s dead serious.
“What is that thing?” Clearly Cerulean knows, or it wouldn’t be so afraid of it. But the AI doesn’t respond. Great. More secrets.
“Well, if you’re not going to tell me, I’m going to go check it out. Is it dangerous to me?”
“No,” Cerulean says. Is that reluctance in its voice?
“Good. Prep a HAZMAT suit for me.”
The drone hovers just above the tops of the soy plants half a kilometer out from the site to drop me off. I wade through the fields the rest of the way, my movements clumsy and slow in the bulky positive-pressure HAZMAT suit. My anticipation builds as I approach the circle of dead beanstalks. What has Cerulean so scared? The HAZMAT suit is heavier and tougher than my normal environment suit, and the visor restricts my vision, making me turn nervously toward every nearby sound.
“Your heart rate is elevated,” Cerulean notes. I take a deep breath, try to relax. Cerulean said whatever this is, it’s not likely to hurt me. I have to trust that’s true.
When I get within three hundred yards of the object, I see what it is. It’s a tree. Hardly more than a sapling, really, though it must be growing at an incredible rate if Cerulean first registered its appearance just days ago.
I step out of the shoulder-high soy plants into the circle of dead, flattened stalks around the tree and pause. It’s an eerie, uncanny thing with smooth, paper-white bark, leaves pale blue on top and purple-maroon underneath. Long, curling sprays of midnight-black flowers extend like feelers between its leaves. Its root system must be stealing nutrients the soy needs, creating a circle of death.
Where did this bizarre tree come from? Did a designer seed from some trillionaire’s private garden accidentally end up mixed in with the grain in Demeter‘s hold?
I approach the tree. In the HUD projected on my visor, I see Cerulean readying its drones – though for what, I’m not sure. The tree’s unnatural appearance is unnerving, but also beautiful. I want to reach out and touch it, trace the graceful swirls of its smooth bark with my fingers, smell whatever fragrance those thousands of tiny flowers are producing. Cerulean shows me mass spectrometry data cataloging the volatile compounds the flowers are giving off, which in some abstract sense is like smelling it, but only an AI would think it was the same.
Brushing the low-hanging branches with the unfeeling glove of my HAZMAT suit, I once again miss the tiny parks nestled among the endless labyrinth of worker housing. I miss my daughters catching insects and putting them in recycled jars, digging in the dirt with their hands to plant herbs – at least until Syngentric security found our little garden in the corner of the park and pulled it up. I miss being around humans who would understand what a miracle this gorgeous genetic freak of a tree is.
“It’s killing the crops,” Cerulean notes. “It’s a dangerous contaminant. I’m going to remove it.”
I manage to argue Cerulean down from a full-blown nuclear strike to a targeted, local application of an herbicide, but the AI won’t even entertain the idea of letting the tree live. It insists on having its drones quickly construct a portable shower to give my HAZMAT suit a harsh chemical wash before it allows me to board the drone that will return me to the hab. As the aircraft takes off, I can’t help looking back to watch a plowing drone topple the tree, tearing it up by its roots. Something in my chest aches as it falls. Then, an aerial drone lays down a spray of herbicide so thick that it blocks my view completely.
I spend a few days feeling heavy and sad, neglecting to monitor Cerulean’s activities or help it prepare for the next harvest. It was entirely reasonable for Cerulean to kill the tree – practically mandatory, in fact. It was destroying crops. This planet is for crops, not for trees. But it still hurts to see Cerulean destroy the one beautiful, unique thing on this planet of endless monotony.
A painful stab of memory comes to me. Lying in the dirt of a tiny, cramped courtyard, Tessa at my side, looking up through the branches of a sycamore tree at the small rectangle of blue sunlight visible eighteen stories above us.
“Renny? What are the trees for?” Tessa asked me. Looking at her serious, puzzled face, I couldn’t help but mourn what had been done to my lovely child’s mind, growing up on a world run by the Mindcouncil. Everything had to have a use.
I could have told her the trees aren’t for anything, but I knew she wouldn’t accept that. That’s not what they taught her in school. I could say they are there to help us breathe, but really there aren’t enough of them to do that anymore.
“They’re here to make us happy,” I said. When the riots broke out in New London and San Aguilar went on strike, the final spark that ignited mass revolt hadn’t been the punishing work hours or the draconian population control measures designed to downsize an increasingly unprofitable human workforce. It was the Mindcouncil’s decision to start sealing over the courtyards in the residential districts, tearing out the tiny parks and gardens, the last bits of greenery, trying to cut housing costs even lower. Oxygen levels had already been slowly declining for decades after the last of Benetrix A’s forests were cut down, but stripping out the few remaining trees and green places felt like giving up all hope, like admitting our planet was dying. In the end, the gardens had stayed.
So that’s why the Mindcouncil needed the trees, but not why we needed them. “And they’re here to remind us that life can be beautiful, not just useful,” I added, trying to convey some tiny part of the wonder I had felt when I wandered through the narrow strip of forest that still remained near San Aguilar when I was a little boy.
To my relief, Tessa smiled her big, dimpled, missing-baby-teeth smile. “It is beautiful,” she whispered softly, as though telling me a secret.
I don’t know if that sense of wonder survived as Benetrix A became a world of machines. I don’t know if Tessa herself survived. Her life is long-ago history now, and by now Benetrix A is a planet-wide automated factory. Was the money from my contract enough for her to find a new place, a new purpose somewhere among the stars? Or did she suffer through the final phases of human obsolescence on Benetrix?
I don’t want to think about this anymore. I want to turn off the world and not exist for a while.
“Take me back to the hab,” I instruct Cerulean. “I’m going under again.”
If only I were more aware of the time that passes while I’m in stasis. It hardly feels like a reprieve from consciousness – icing down one moment, thawing out the next. Four and a half years have passed when Cerulean wakes me up. By the time I’m fully alert, I’m already being bombarded with alarms and warnings through my earpiece. When I sit up and groggily look around, maps appear, covering the screens embedded in the hab’s walls. Cerulean is in a frenzy. Red dots flash at points all across the planet. Whatever the emergency is, it looks like Cerulean has already let it escalate out of control. Why didn’t the damn AI wake me sooner?
I glance through the data pouring in from all over the planet, and as the post-thaw disorientation wears off, I start to make sense of what’s happening.
The tree is back. Or rather, trees. Many, many trees – springing up in fields all over the planet, choking out crops with their roots or spreading canopies that block the sun. Some are pale blue and maroon like the first tree. Others have bright orange and magenta leaves. Some aren’t trees at all, but massive, milky-white fungi that cover nearby grain in tangles of hyphae and eat the plants whole.
Cerulean isn’t saying anything, just silently showing me image after image of the spreading chaos – vines bursting with bright yellow flowers, broad-leafed bushes spewing fluffy seed carriers into the breeze. I can’t help interpreting its silence as reproachful – an implied I told you so.
But all this couldn’t possibly have come from that one tree. These plants represent thousands of different species, growing across five continents. Cerulean is trying its best to combat the impossibly fast-growing things – spraying herbicides, hacking and bulldozing with drones, releasing wood-boring insects to kill the trees. It even deployed the neutron bomb it originally proposed, reducing an entire forest to a skeleton of dead wood so thoroughly sterilized there are no microorganisms left to rot the lifeless husks. But then there’s no more uranium, and the resilient, growing things keep squirming out of the soil, keep coming back.
I’m fully awake now and starting to panic. If this much growth has happened in thirty months, then the forest could cover much of the planet within a decade or two, wiping out billions of acres of crops.
How the hell did this happen? How could Demeter’s seed supply have been so badly contaminated without me or the ship AI or Cerulean noticing? And with such strange, unnatural things, all springing up at the same time across five continents. It doesn’t seem possible, unless…
Something finally clicks. The strange trees, the temperature limits, Cerulean’s deleted records – it all makes sense. The tree wasn’t some custom-built breed from a trillionaire’s garden. There was another biosphere on CYG00134 A, before the Mindcouncil claimed it. Cerulean – or possibly whatever exploration probe came before it – destroyed the existing biosphere, completely wiped it out. Or at least it tried. Cerulean hid the first records of its arrival so I wouldn’t see the evidence of that ecocide. The frigid world of glaciers and hydrocarbon oceans portrayed in those early data points wasn’t the planet’s original state. That’s what was left after Cerulean tried to obliterate everything that had lived here before.
And the temperature limits? The Mindcouncil must have suspected they hadn’t really sterilized the planet. They must have realized some seeds or spores might remain buried deep and dormant somewhere in the planet’s crust, waiting for favorable conditions to reach toward the light. They kept the temperature down to keep those seeds from germinating.
Until I overwrote Cerulean’s instructions.
I feel a flash of fury at Cerulean, at the Mindcouncil. They found a planet teeming with alien life, found something humans had dreamed of finding for millennia, and they just destroyed it. They didn’t care about the thriving biosphere that could have provided a stable home for generations. They didn’t care about the eerie, dazzling beauty of trees. They didn’t care about answering fundamental questions about the origin of life – finding out whether the organisms here shared a common ancestry with Earth’s biosphere. Could there even have been intelligent beings here before? A whole civilization they wiped out without a second thought?
Then I realize this is exactly why Cerulean and the Mindcouncil hid the truth from me. The Mindcouncil learned the lesson of the New London riots. They know humans have attachments to life and nature that we refuse to let go of, that we still long for the security of living in a self-sustaining biosphere. Cerulean’s trust in me has clearly eroded, or it wouldn’t have left me on ice until things had already gotten out of hand.
How close are we to being discontinued, I wonder? How many more inefficiencies and losses can the Mindcouncil endure before they decide that bringing humans on these missions is of no value to them, that they don’t need us anymore? And what will they do then?
Cerulean wants me to authorize something – an order lowering the target global average temperature back to eleven degrees Celsius. It wouldn’t eliminate the groves of trees and fungus, but it might keep more seeds from germinating. If nothing new grew, Cerulean could probably get the situation under control. The forests would be forced back into dormancy, and the fields would be replanted, covered over again with uniform, machine-sown rows of grain. Terrified of failing in the eyes of the Mindcouncil, I almost approve the order immediately. But I stop, my finger a millimeter from the button on the wall screen.
The stream from Cerulean’s drone cameras catches my eye again. Pale blue flowers half a meter wide slowly unfurling their petals, mushroom caps releasing luminescent clouds of spores into the night air, vines winding up tree trunks so quickly I can watch it happen in real time. An entire alien ecology, totally unknown and unexplored – except perhaps by whatever uncaring machine first found it and destroyed it. The longing I felt looking at that solitary tree standing in the dying soy field returns.
The forest’s resurgence has been going on for years. Waiting one more day won’t make a difference. I leave the hab and head toward the nearest hangar where Cerulean will have an aircraft waiting.
One day becomes two days, becomes a week, becomes a month. Every day, I fly out to the places where ancient forests are erupting out of the fields. I catalog species, collect samples for DNA sequencing, take hundreds of photos and videos documenting every tree that unexpectedly bursts into flower, every dazzling change in the colors of the leaves. Every day, Cerulean’s warnings get more urgent, and every day I pay less attention.
After three months, I finally realize I’m not going to do it. The forests are sweeping across the planet, springing up everywhere now, and I can’t stop them, don’t want to stop them. What right would I have to destroy an entire biosphere that probably existed for billions of years before the Mindcouncil’s probes arrived? The Mindcouncil isn’t planning on keeping the planet habitable anyway, at least not for long. After a few centuries of intensive farming, CYG00134 A would have exported most of its nitrogen and carbon off-world in the form of agricultural products. Once the planet became irrevocably infertile, the Mindcouncil would turn it into a manufacturing world, sealing the ancient seeds forever under a layer of metal and concrete.
I want this place to keep existing, this tangled place of vibrant leaves and dappled light and twisted branches. I wish Tessa and Ocean could see this, could have grown up surrounded by this beauty. Ocean would have run free like she never could in my tiny dormitory room – at least, not without breaking things. I can see her climbing, exploring, laughing. Tessa would have taken it all in, quiet and awed, would have made up names for every tree and vine, invented rules for games with flowers and leaves. I see her sitting and listening, capturing the colors and shapes of this world in her sketchbook.
Cerulean’s reward function is falling rapidly as crop yields plummet across the planet. Apart from constant alerts and warnings, Cerulean isn’t capable of expressing unhappiness, but I feel sort of sorry for it, watching the destruction of the fields that it literally moved mountains to plant.
One morning, as the red sunrise turns the blue canopy below me a light lavender, I instruct an aerial drone to fly me north from my hab to the place where Cerulean first landed on this world two thousand years ago.
The original capsule is still there, half sunk into the soil like the ancient ruin that it is, its hull crusted and streaked with oxide. The tapered cylindrical landing pod is smaller than my hab – such a small thing to house the brain of a planet-spanning system. Bundles of cables as thick as tree trunks wind out from the base of the capsule, toward the antenna arrays and vast fiber-optic networks that let Cerulean communicate with its automated factories, satellites, harvesters, and drones. They make the capsule look like a huge, mechanical cephalopod.
Cerulean seems to be trying to beat back the forest’s encroachment, but it isn’t going well. Nearby, a harvester drone is trapped, a tree with bright magenta leaves growing into its chassis, branches erupting from vents and exhaust pipes. Other harvesters nearby are being gradually disassembled by roots and mycelia. Blue-leafed epiphytes and fans of orange fungus sprout from the weathered sides of the ancient spacecraft, providing handholds as I climb up toward an access hatch.
The latch is stuck, badly corroded over the millennia, but I clamber to one side along a ledge and pull the faded red emergency release handle. The door blows outward on explosive bolts, and I duck inside.
Frost grows on the gloves and visor of my environment suit. The moist air coming in from outside condenses into mist around me. In the darkness, hundreds of indicator lights glimmer like stars, and tubes and wires weep icicles that reach all the way from the ceiling to the floor. I work my way through the tangle of electronics toward Cerulean’s supercooled central processor, seeking out the five redundant connections that link Cerulean to the planet’s power grid.
I hesitate, standing over the heavy power cables. If I do this, there’s no going back. No chance the Mindcouncil will give me another assignment after this one, no chance they will honor any benefits of my contract that haven’t already been paid out. My thoughts flit back to Benetrix A, to the dizzying possibility that Tessa or Ocean could still be alive, still dependent on my contract. No, that’s wishful thinking. I’m losing my grip on the reality of time. But if cryostasis and relativity have warped and stretched my life, couldn’t the same have happened to them? Could I have grandchildren? Is having children even allowed there anymore?
What kind of future have I created for them? I imagine the creche nurses and AI tutors taking away Ocean’s jars of insects, Tessa’s sketchbooks and colored pencils, making the girls memorize arithmetic tables and basic coding concepts as the curriculum demanded, so that one day they could be skilled enough to join the tiny elite caste of programmers whose skills were still needed to keep Syngentric running. Survival – yes, I gave them that. But for how long, in a universe being quickly processed and consumed? I owe them more than that. Something else has to endure.
The battery of my environment suit is running down, keeping out the cold of the capsule’s core. I have to make a decision.
“Sorry, Cerulean,” I say into my earpiece. “Your turn to go under for a while.” One by one, I unlock and pull all five plugs. The galaxy of indicator lights flickers and goes dark.
The aerial drone’s autopilot is, of course, unresponsive when I get back outside. It takes me a few days to learn how to pilot it myself, living off the food I packed. I’m briefly scared I won’t be able to get back to the hab, but eventually I get the hang of it. On the flight back, I can see the herds of harvesters standing idle in the fields, the drones sitting where they gracefully landed at the moment I switched Cerulean off, waiting for instructions that won’t come for a long time.
Back at the hab, I request a shipment of deep-frozen supplies from Demeter, and then lie down in the stasis unit. I set it to wake me in ten years.
Today I climbed into the canopy again. I’m getting better with the ropes and pitons, and I can get almost a hundred feet up now before my head starts to spin. I’m close to the equator, and the rain is so constant that there are pools of water in the crux of branches, swarming with luminescent larvae and little things that look like octopi, but I think may actually be moving plants. Some insect eggs must have survived from the old biosphere too, not just seeds and spores, though I can’t understand how.
You would have loved it. I can just imagine you capturing the little glowing things in a jar and gently swirling it to make them flicker gold and pink and chartreuse.
I miss you. I love you.
– Your ren
I saw something walking through the underbrush today. I didn’t think any large animals existed here, or had survived – and, in a way, it wasn’t an animal. It was a spindly, graceful thing, with six long legs and a curving neck. Its skin was bark, its legs twining bundles of stems. Branches dense with flowers sprouted from what could be called a head, almost like antlers. It moved a bit like a deer, but slowly, taking minutes to walk just a few flowing steps. I watched it gradually bow its eyeless head to dip the absorbent fibers at the tip of its snout into a pool of water. I guess here in the dry southern latitudes, plants need to walk to find water, and maybe to escape from wildfires. If this was even a plant, that is. Here, I’ve seen species and organisms combine and diverge again in ways that break all the rules of genetics – plants, fungi, insects. I’ve seen flowers grow wings and legs and fly away. I’ve seen leafy branches and mushroom-like fruiting bodies growing from the same stalk.
You would have loved this creature, Ocean. So graceful and beautiful, like that skinny, long-legged stray dog you tried to hide from the security drones.
Wishing you were with me,
My daughters are my constant companions as I wander the planet. Invisible, but far from silent. I can imagine their delight at this teeming, flourishing place so clearly that I swear sometimes it’s audible. I talk to them constantly, point things out to them. Out loud sometimes, not just in my journal. Who’s going to overhear me?
I’m willing to admit that two years of isolation counseling wasn’t nearly enough to keep me sane.
Months slip away, and I hardly notice. There is so much to see, so much completely unknown life to discover. Forests have covered most of the planet, each adapted to its local climate – swampy and half-submerged near the equator, towering and lush in the temperate latitudes, dominated by frilly fungi near the poles, and full of terrestrial corals near the coasts. Dense grasslands and sparse scrub forests cover the southernmost continent, periodically swept by vast wildfires that fill the soil with nutrient-rich ash. As I wander, every so often I come across the remains of one of Cerulean’s automated factories or power plants, thoroughly entangled in roots and vines, concrete fissured and split, as if it had been abandoned for hundreds of years. Every so often, a rusted power pylon or the base of one of Cerulean’s space elevators looms out of the forest’s dimness, remnants of this planet’s brief Anthropocene period.
Without Cerulean carefully fine-tuning the planet’s geochemistry, the atmosphere has shifted to an entirely new equilibrium – warm and humid, with so much oxygen that I have to be careful not to elevate my risk of cancer from oxidative stress. I trek and climb mainly in my environment suit and sleep in a sealed survival tent at night, sheltered from a world no longer made for me, no longer tailored for human needs. Every so often, though, for just a minute, I take my helmet off to let the warm breeze blow through my hair and smell the million pungent odors of the forest – the smell of plants calling out to their pollinators and mates, the smell of rain on rich soil. When the excess oxygen starts to make my head spin, I seal myself back into the suit.
In that exhilarating, dizzy moment, my two girls are with me. Tessa. Ocean. I can see them looking around, wide-eyed and grinning. I can feel them holding my hands.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” I ask them. But they’ve already let go and rushed off into the trees, their laughter echoing through the understory.
On the five thousand eight hundred and forty-first morning since I unplugged Cerulean, I wake up to the chime of my earpiece. An emergency message. I haven’t received one in a long time. Usually, I only get routine responses from Demeter about requests for supplies and equipment. I lie in my sleeping bag for a while in the pink morning sunlight, listening to insects trilling outside and wondering what could possibly be so urgent.
“Expected communication from the Mindcouncil in thirty minutes,” Demeter calmly informs me.
I sit up suddenly, frantically pull up Demeter’s communications interface in my HUD. The light delay. It’s been thirty-two years since I sent that report to the Mindcouncil declaring my intent to raise the global average temperature above the cap they had set. Sixteen years for my message to reach them, and sixteen years for their reply to come back.
The temperature in the tent is greenhouse-steamy, but I feel cold. I make myself coffee on my electric camp stove while I wait the remaining half-hour, but I have no appetite for breakfast.
The thirtieth minute passes. Then the thirty-first, and the thirty-second, and the thirty-fifth, and there’s still no message. When nothing has arrived an hour later, I start to hope that maybe there won’t be a message – that the Mindcouncil just glossed over my report and moved on.
Another hour later, Demeter’s telescopes pick up the igniting plasma plumes of ten, twelve, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen ships leaving Metiaries on a course toward CYG00134 A. They accelerate so fast it doesn’t look real, like they have no mass at all. Twenty thousand g’s of acceleration brings them close to the speed of light in less than half an hour. No ship could accelerate that fast with humans on board – they’d be liquefied – and no AI freighter would waste the energy and reaction mass. It would be uneconomical. The ships themselves must be incredibly tiny and light…
Because they aren’t ships, I realize as Demeter feeds me more analysis of the telescope videos. They’re interstellar missiles. The Mindcouncil knew exactly what would happen when I increased the temperature, and they didn’t even wait to see if I would correct my mistake.
Expensive, to wipe the planet clean and start over, but the Mindcouncil thinks in terms of millennia, measures its holdings in thousands of star systems. What’s a few hundred more years of terraforming to them, if it will ensure an eventual profit on their investment?
Two more ships left Metiaries shortly after the missiles, Demeter reports. The faster one is probably carrying a terraforming AI to replace Cerulean, and the slower one is likely another seed ship like Demeter. Is my replacement lying frozen in stasis on board that ship, or has my disobedience proven to the Mindcouncil once and for all that human workers are obsolete?
Outside my tent, the insects are still wooing one another with songs, oblivious to the world-killing weapons that by now must be only a lightyear or two away, hard on the heels of the light from their launch. I wonder what’s in those warheads. They’re too small to deliver enough chemicals or explosives to destroy this biosphere. Maybe they’re gigaton hydrogen bombs, designed to start a deep nuclear winter. Maybe it’s a biological warfare agent, or replicating nano-machines that will eat every organism on the planet alive.
Fear and grief press in on me. Between the branches overhead, the small patches of blue sky suddenly seem menacing, as if the missiles might come hurtling toward me at any moment – even though I know they aren’t quite fast enough to be here yet.
Don’t cry, Renny, Tessa says, dabbing at the corners of my eyes with her sleeve, which doesn’t stop the tears from sliding down my face.
Stop it, Ocean says. Stop it. She wraps her arms around me and digs her head into the back of my neck, affectionate and angry. It upsets her when I cry. Stop it. Why are you crying?
“Oh, sweetheart…” But I can’t stop. “I- I saved this place for you,” I realize out loud. “I wish you could see this place.” Tessa and Ocean, forever four and seven. But in reality already grown up, grown old. Already dead.
Dead. The word I hadn’t been allowing myself to think. Ocean is gone. Tessa’s arms aren’t around me anymore. I feel colder.
This whole world is going to die soon – die again. And the Mindcouncil will make sure it stays dead this time. I lie back down on my sleeping bag, stare at the canopy dancing overhead. I can hardly stand to look at this beautiful, doomed world – the exquisite purple flowers pattering down onto my tent from the branches above.
I could leave the planet, could have Demeter bring me back to Benetrix A, but what would happen to me then? I don’t think I even want to see what my old homeworld looks like after three hundred years of gradual planned extinction, pruning down the human population to make a streamlined machine world.
Where else could I go? My past doesn’t exist. My future doesn’t exist. I stare up at the sunlight filtering down through the canopy as it turns afternoon red, then evening purple, and goes dark. It doesn’t matter. I’m distantly aware that I’m hungry, but it doesn’t matter. Everything is going to die.
Eventually, I sleep.
In the morning, the numbness recedes a little, and I’m almost capable of being angry at the Mindcouncil – those vast, cold machines that govern Syngentric with no thought for anything but their relentless drive to increase profit, to inexorably accumulate value. But that’s stupid. That’s like being angry at God.
I put on my environment suit and step outside. Tessa is running around on the spongy carpet of moss and loam, grabbing at the falling flowers and drifting bits of seed fluff. I reach out and cup a white tuft of fuzz in the glove of my environment suit. The seed is a tiny oblong speck of black tangled in its nest of soft fibers. Given a decade or so, and a sunny patch of soil, the millimeter-wide dot will erupt into a hundred-foot giant, dangling spiral-shaped sprays of purple flowers.
I catch one of the flowers too. Its tiny, feathery tendrils are reaching out and grabbing individual grains of pollen from the air. I catch another one. More seed fluff. More flowers. And before I really know what I’m doing, I’m collecting every bit of plant matter drifting by on the breeze, trying not to let any escape. I feel suddenly certain that the survival of these seeds is intimately connected with my own. If life isn’t valuable and worth preserving for its own sake – not because it’s useful or profitable – then what chance do humans have of avoiding extinction?
I can’t save this forest. I can’t save the rest of the tens of billions of acres of forest on this planet. But maybe I can take the forests with me.
There’s a lot of ground to cover, but I have at least a year to do as much as I can. In five years of awed fascination, I’ve learned to identify hundreds of types of plants, down to the number of ridges on a seed pod, down to the shape of their flower petals, and I stuff as many kinds of seeds into bags and boxes as I can. Fuzzy grains, tiny pips, giant pods, woody stones, frilly wind-dispersers. Some species don’t have anything identifiable as seeds and seem to spring up from nowhere or simply emerge from the roots or branches of some totally different plant or fungus. So I learn to take cuttings of branches, flowers, and mushroom caps, and put them into cryostasis. I freeze pollinators too. I would call them insects, except that many of them grow from seeds or bloom from buds on the sides of trees. I dig up hundreds of pounds of soil – red and webbed with white mycelium near the equator, rich and black in the north, gray and clay-laden in the south – trusting that whatever lies dormant in there will know how to reawaken itself when I find the right place. If I find the right place.
For a year, I wake up most mornings tired and heartsick, knowing the planet has one less sunrise left to live. Most mornings, the voices of my daughters eventually coax me out of my sleeping bag. Can we go see the snake-vine climb the trees again? I want to see the tree that whistles when it’s hot out. Do you think the wasps’ glass nest will shatter if I touch it?
I program the autopilot of my salvaged aerial drone to ferry seeds and samples to one of the few functioning space elevators that remain, so that Demeter can retrieve them. The ship’s AI seems happy enough to help me. It’s made to carry seeds, and its database is joyfully overflowing with new varieties.
I can’t hope to fill the ship’s vast hold. I’d be lucky to fill even one of its compartments halfway. There are millions, maybe billions of species and strange hybrids of multiple species that will be lost forever when the Mindcouncil wipes the planet clean. It’s hard to decide it’s enough. It’s hard to decide to walk away.
Can’t we just find one more? Tessa whines.
Ocean’s lower lip sticks out in a petulant pout. Do we have to go? Is it really time already?
But a year is almost up. We’re almost within the range of Demeter’s uncertainty about when the missiles will arrive. Every day I spend finding more seeds, the risk increases that the missiles will catch me unprepared and erase everything. I start having dreams in which the atmosphere ignites and the ground shakes and splits apart, where my daughters burn to ash while I watch, helpless and screaming. I jolt awake at least once almost every night, convinced the Mindcouncil’s missiles are here and the planet is about to be immolated.
“I’m sorry,” I tell Tessa and Ocean finally. “We have to go.”
But go where? I think about that on my way up the space elevator, strapped into my cushioned seat. After the initial crushing acceleration, the trip is quiet and serene, the horizon curving slowly away, the atmosphere becoming visible as a bluish halo. Below me, the planet is pink and blue and orange – so different from the ball of bare brown mud that greeted me when I first arrived. The stars start to appear, and I look at them with a sense of betrayal. Any bright, nearby stars are sterile and dead, or else owned by the Mindcouncil.
When I arrive in the observation dome, I spend a moment contemplating the command chair and the sarcophagus-like stasis bed with its raised lid. I choose the command chair and sit down. Take a deep breath. Try to feel like I’m in command, like I have some control over the situation, though in reality Demeter more or less commands itself.
A message notification appears on the HUD projected on the observation dome in front of me, and my stomach clenches. What could the Mindcouncil want with me at this point? Have they come up with some way to punish me for what I’ve done?
But the message isn’t from the Mindcouncil. The sender is marked “unidentified,” and the date on the message shows that it’s been sitting on Demeter‘s computers for almost two years, cleverly hidden in a directory the AI has no access to. Almost as though it was put there just for me.
I play the message.
“Hi. It’s me.”
I stand up out of the command seat. “Ocean.” Her voice is deeper. Older. A woman, not a girl. But I know instantly it’s her. My hands are shaking.
“I don’t know,” Ocean goes on, “if you’ll still be in the same star system by the time this message gets there, but…” A sigh on the other end that makes my chest ache. Who made my little girl sound so tired, so heavy with worries and responsibilities? “But I wanted you to know where I’m going, just… just in case.” A swallow. “I want to see you again, Ren. I want to know who you are. I mean, I have memories, but I was so little. And I want you to see who I am, who I’ve become because of you. I studied computer science.” She means at university, with the money from my assignment. “I met someone.” And I can hear the smile creep into her voice. If I stay still and strain to listen carefully, I can hear another presence in the room with her. Someone shifting, maybe putting an arm around her shoulders. A voice, laughing a little. “She’s an astrophysicist. We… We found a place for us to go. A habitable world the Mindcouncil doesn’t know about yet. There’s no life there now, but we’ve made sure all the parameters are right.” There are years, maybe decades in these short, summary sentences.
“There’s no place for us with Syngentric anymore. No place for any humans.” She trails off for a moment, lost in thought. Or maybe in grief. God knows what the Mindcouncil has been doing to their worlds, to the people who lived there. After a long moment, she continues.
“The point is, I accepted an off-world assignment, and then brought the others on board the ship – us and some other workers who wanted to leave. I…” I can hear her smiling again. “I made some…adjustments… to the ship’s AI.” A laugh in the background. Her wife. “I’m sorry,” Ocean says, though she sounds only a little contrite. “I know that hijacking a ship isn’t what you would have wanted me to do with my skills, with the education you paid for me to have, but I hope you can understand.”
My laugh echoes in the observation dome. There was a time when I would have been upset, would have felt a sense of wounded loyalty to Syngentric. But now? My daughter has grown up to be a hacker, a criminal, and a thief, and I couldn’t possibly be prouder. Oh dear, sweet, kind girl. Oh headstrong, fit-throwing rebel child. Of course you would imagine a better world than this. Of course you would go try to build it.
“I’m hoping you’ll be able to figure out where we are, or at least roughly where we’re going,” Ocean says. “I don’t want to say exactly where, in case this is intercepted, but hopefully it won’t be. I’m sending this with an infrared laser aimed at your star. At CYG00134, I mean. That’s how I’ve always thought of it – your star. I’ve lived on a few different worlds, and the first thing I always did when I arrived in a new place was find your star in the night sky. Ren’s star. I would look for it – for you – every night. Tessa did too, when we went to university.” There’s a silence, and for a moment I think the message has cut out.
Then, “I have to tell you–” Pause. Breath. And then two words that double me over like a punch to the diaphragm. “Tessa’s gone.” If I weren’t in zero gravity, I think I would fall to my knees. “I’m sorry, I don’t know how else to say it. After university, I took a job in meta-programming on Salvação E. It was a thirteen year trip in Tessa’s frame of reference back on Benetrix A, so I knew she’d be older, but… When I came out of stasis, she was just gone.” Quiet. A faint rustle. “She got sick, just a few years after I left. Glioblastoma – a tumor in her brain. They could have helped her, but it would have cost so much she wouldn’t have been profitable. Her life wasn’t worth it, to the Mindcouncil. She would have– She would have wanted you to know she loved you. She was always thankful. Never blamed you for leaving. Even when I got angry, claimed I hated you, said you had abandoned us – she always said I should be thankful. And I am. I love you so much, Ren.” A few seconds of silence. Guilt twists my gut. Then, a loud klaxon blats on the recording. “Okay,” Ocean says, “we’re about to start burning our fusion drive again. I have to go under. I hope I’ll see you again someday.”
And then I’ve lost her again.
Wait, I want to say. There’s so much you haven’t told me yet. What’s your wife’s name? What did Tessa do before she died? How old was she? Did she live a good life, until then?
It’s a long time before I can speak, a while before I can even breathe.
“Demeter,” my voice is a hoarse croak, strangled by emotion. “Demeter, show me the origin of that signal.”
Demeter projects a chart onto the clear dome, showing the direction the signal came from and how it moved over the course of the transmission. Then, a smear of probabilistic trajectory predictions for Ocean’s ship, starting out narrow and fanning out into a cone of possibilities. Demeter can only predict the other ship’s destination to within a couple dozen light years.
Ocean’s ship will reach its destination in sixty to seventy years in my current relativistic frame of reference. If Demeter burns all its remaining reaction mass and fusion fuel, we could arrive in the same star cluster around twenty years later, in the local reference frame. If Ocean stayed in stasis for the whole journey and came out of stasis on arrival, then by the time I arrived she would be…what? Sixty or seventy? Probably older than me.
That’s assuming I could even find the right planet. That’s assuming the Mindcouncil didn’t find their secret world first and invent some claim to it.
But how could I not try?
“Demeter, set a course for the center of the Aeneas Cluster.” No response for a few seconds. I’m seized by the sickening certainty that Demeter isn’t going to obey. That Demeter will defer to what the Mindcouncil wants – which could mean putting me on ice and shipping me back to Benetrix or Metiaries, or could even mean venting me and my seed samples out an airlock.
But Demeter isn’t programmed to wait decades for instructions from the Mindcouncil. It’s programmed to defer to locally available general intelligences – to humans. Besides, it’s a seed ship, so spreading life to other worlds is exactly what it needs to boost its reward function. A powerful vibration thrums through the hull as the fusion drive ignites, nudging Demeter into higher orbit, getting ready to escape the planet’s gravity well. Thank God for light delay – the preconditions of freedom written into the laws of physics.
Two weeks later, as Demeter navigates out of the star system’s gravity well, approaching its target heading, I glimpse a flicker of light out among the stars – the missiles pulsing their fusion drives to make final course-corrections before impact. Just minutes later, something incomprehensibly violent happens to the planet’s surface. Over four days, I watch through Demeter‘s telescopes as the continents of CYG00134 A turn from orange and pink and blue to ash gray, a sweeping wave of darkness traveling from west to east. The surface seems to ripple, and the atmosphere turns murky and black.
I remember sitting at the top of a gentle rise on one of CYG00134 A’s southern continents – the closest thing to real hills that Cerulean left intact – watching a wildfire creep across the plain in the distance. Ahead of the advancing wall of smoke, plumes of golden spores and fluffy, white seed carriers rose. I watched as every living thing accepted the reality of its coming death and hurled its DNA into the uncertain future – seeds that would drift frozen in the upper atmosphere, or burrow deep into the soil, or wrap themselves in thick, fireproof cases, and wait patient years for a time when life could safely return.
Demeter advises me to get into the stasis bed. Behind me, in the direction of the dying planet, there’s a bright flare of plasma as the ship injects reaction mass into the fusion drive. The stasis bed’s gimbal re-orients to the direction of thrust, and acceleration presses me down into the padding. The lid slides closed.
“I’m going under now,” I murmur to Demeter. “Wake me if we make it there.” And we launch ourselves out into the universe, to find a place where old seeds can germinate again.
Copyright 2023 Owen Leddy
About the Author
Owen Leddy is a biological engineering graduate student and writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Owen’s short fiction has previously appeared in Fusion Fragment, Mythaxis Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Printers Row Journal, and the Triangulation anthology series, among other publications.