• 0 •. What Should Have Been

I was a blastocyst, once. A mere jumble of cells clinging to one another. A fertilized egg. Of course, we were all in just such a state at some point in our lives, but I excelled at it in a way you didn’t. I spent more time in that condition than I have as a person.

Hundreds of years more, in fact.

I still like to imagine myself like that: a shapeless form, quivering and ripe and full of potential. Holding that image in my head makes it seem as if I haven’t been born yet, as if we could let things play out one more time and arrive at some different destination. Perhaps it would lead to a new, fuller me.

But repeating the past is as impossible as faster-than-light travel and suspended animation—it’s the stuff of science fiction. They’re wonderful ideas, but they all lie on the other side of what-can-be. So far as we know, anyway.

Hence the quivering eggs of potential, my fellow colonists and I.

What better way to seed the stars with the gift of humanity, right? Imagine the colony ships, otherwise: They’d be the size of small moons and packed full with living, eating, breathing, defecating humans. Such arks would be impractical, even if those colonists could survive the ensuing insanity of interstellar travel, the hundreds of years of boredom and breeding and infighting that would occur on a slow passage to some distant hunk of rock. And what would happen when that hunk proved uninhabitable?

Far more sensible, of course, is a system whereby blastocysts such as myself are launched out with a handful of machines to raise us. Especially considering a colonial failure rate of roughly fifty percent. That makes each endeavor a toss-up, doesn’t it? Every colony lander is nothing more than a flipped coin glimmering in space, the word “viable” printed on one side and “unviable” stamped on the other.

The game—your game—is seeing where that coin lands.

At a cost of nine hundred billion each, one might wonder why a nation would take such odds. Then I imagine what it would mean for a mere country to own an entire planet: All those resources, the precious livable land, a launch pad for further expansion. It would be like an island acquiring a continent, not an unheard of event in human history. Besides, if you don’t do it, someone else will, right? Which means you all must.

And the rewards can be enormous. A single patent on one useful alien gene sequence could pay for several more colonies, hardly making the process a gamble. It becomes just one more way for the wealthiest countries to maintain their lead. Like a slot machine that dispenses a jackpot with every other coin.

That’s what “viable” means: A planet with more reward than risk. A jackpot. Not for the aspiring colonists, of course, but certainly for the country that sent them. I bet there are formulae involved, far too complex for one such as myself to understand. With the profession you chose for me, I have a better chance of grasping the vagaries of the human brain. But I can imagine the atmosphere of our new home has to read such-and-such parts per million. Perhaps the mass of the potential planet has to be within certain parameters. And obviously, there can’t be hoards of unconquerable predators roaming about.

There’s a million variables, I’m sure, but by whatever confluence of events, half the planets pass—half of them come up viable, and our reward as little blastocysts is a chemical trigger, a simple compound that causes us to resume our cellular division as if we were in our mother’s wombs.

Then, fed through the same amniotic fluid we breathe, we are slowly transformed into pudgy babies, dutiful children, and finally: fully formed adults. All the while, the training programs you wrote teach us the things we need to know. For me, it would be learning to tend to the psychological needs of my fellow colonists—basically keeping the fleshy bits of your engine nicely oiled, putting the gears back together when they break.

The growing process would normally take thirty years. Three decades spent in vats of perfect nourishment, our muscles electrically stimulated so they grow strong. And when we emerged, five hundred of us, specialists in each of our own fields, we would begin the arduous task of conquering our new world. We would be the first generation of the hundreds it might take to bring an entire planet to its knees, to extract its resources, to unlock its secrets, and to pay back our startup fee and so much more to some old nation on another distant rock. Meanwhile, we’d save up for a further round of expansion. Our thumb would cock back, a new coin loaded, ready to flip out into space.

During those thirty years of gestation, our colony lander would be busy preparing our new home. We would awaken to find it had been growing and dividing alongside us. Tractors that flew a trillion miles would fire up and begin tilling the soil, preparing it for our nourishment. Mining machines would dig loads of ore from the crust and feed the foundry machines, which would turn it into alloy so the shaping machines could create, well… more machines.

Some of us would probably wonder why we were even needed, but we’d do the jobs we’d been trained for, happy, perhaps, to not know anything else. We might one day become positively eager, just as you had, to expand and conquer new worlds, because the real spoils would exceed the value of information transmitted back by satellite. It would dwarf the worth of the sloth-like cargo ships full of minerals and ore.

No, the real allure to this nasty procedure is the immortality achieved. The allegiance of shared genes and imaginary borders that stretch easily across the light-years. The reward of knowing your children are out there, outliving whatever star warmed the planet they were conceived on, your grandchildren outliving that new star, and so on. So much wealth and immortality, all for the flip of a coin.

Of course, that’s what should have been. There’s always the other half of the colonies, the ones that go swiftly and simply. On these, the AI crunches those complex formulae and something comes up short—who knows why or by how much. Atmospheric toxicity, crushing gravity, imperfect orbits with wild seasonal swings, frequent extinction impactors, any of these would spell doom for a settlement colony, and none of these traits could be reliably deduced across hundreds of light-years of space. Your stellar spectrographers with their actuarial tables—they can only make their best guesses and flick their thumbs one way or the other, but it’s still a game of chance.

Unviable. That’s what the AI would compute. And instead of a molecular trigger setting off my cell division, the machines would deliver a chemical bullet to liquefy me and my fellow colonists. Some engineer actually dubbed this the “Abort Phase.” Five hundred potential humans destroyed with an acid bath, the entire colony set afire and reduced to slag, then the nuclear explosions to make sure not even the ash survives.

One might think that engineer possessed a poor sense of humor—and as one of those blastocysts nearly aborted, I had the same twinge of disgust. Even knowing the etymology of the term, I still recognize it as one of those cruel coincidences that punctuate human existence. Originally meant for stillborn children, then co-opted by the aeronautics industry for any terminated trial, the word has found an oddly coincidental return home thanks to the cruelty of planetary colonization.

Why the abort sequence? one could ask. Why reduce so much of your capital investment to lava before setting off thermonuclear detonations? We labored to understand before we learned how dear knowledge had become, that in the war between nations to dominate so much new territory, ideas had transmuted into a new currency recognizable to all and immediately transferable. Intellectual property rights now serve as an ephemeral gold, weightless and invisible, priceless artifacts one can slip into the folds of his or her brain and smuggle anywhere, undetected. These tidbits can then be traded by the devious for real wealth or spread by the loose-lipped like a disease. Either way, information and patents are now worshipped by all.

Including the colony AI, who is as much a clone of our ancestors as we are. The AI would rather chance a slightly toxic atmosphere than risk the loss of all those intellectual property rights within its hull. Not to another country, that’s for sure. Hence the chemical bullet, the fire systems, and the nukes that made the slow journey across eons alongside us—all of them cheap to transport and kind enough to not shit, breathe, and reproduce.

Those are the calculations. Your calculations. Viable or abort. The toss of a coin. On or off. One or zero. A dichotomy engineers and scientists adore. The hard edge that gives their intellectual pursuits the ability to slice through data and arrive at truth.

As a psychologist, a member of the “soft” sciences, it’s the sort of crisp rationality that fills me with envy. Even the quantum physicists have their collapsing waves, driving all that fuzziness into numbers as precise and knowable as any other rational field of inquiry.

The problem, however, is that the choice isn’t really dichotomous. But you didn’t know that, did you? You didn’t foresee a third possibility, one as unplanned for as it was unimaginable to you. By leaving the choice of viability or unviability to an artificial intelligence—a consciousness built to model our own thinking—your engineers created a problem that falls under my purview as a psychologist: something soft.

Two options, viable and unviable, both of them meticulously planned for. Except, if you flip coins often enough, send enough of them hurtling through the air, something else can happen, something miraculous and yet statistically inevitable. Send out thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of colony ships—each another spinning coin—and eventually one of them will surprise you.

One of them will land on its edge and remain there, balanced and wobbling, full of awful or awesome potential. It will be neither heads nor tails but something else.

What follows is the account of one of those rare coins.

It is the story of my colony.

A home halfway between anything.

Contents