Story Excerpt

Reclaiming the Stars

by James Gunn


Harry and Lisa stood under the shelter of a metal roof and listened to the clatter of sleet and larger congregates. A lake had developed in front of their laboratory, or perhaps now it deserved the designation of sea. Ice had been falling on the deserts of Mars for nearly fifty years. The long dead world was returning to life, and Harry and Lisa had seen fifty years of it as the air thickened and unsuspected Martian seeds had begun to emerge to turn the red planet green. Perhaps soon some bacterial life would resurrect itself from an ancient grave, or even simple organisms. Nothing seemed impossible in a Solar System liberated from the tyranny of an artificial intelligence that had billions of years to develop and learn and extend its alien influence across the Universe.

The beginning of their journey half a century ago had occurred on an Earth deluged by hundreds of meters of ocean that they had begun the millennia-long process of jettisoning into space and propelling a good deal of toward Mars, and they had said farewell to the robot designated as 101. 101 hadn’t needed a human name because it was a robot. It had returned from its millennia-long task of terraforming a super Earth forty-nine light-years from the world where it first became aware of its existence only to find Earth under a single deep world ocean and everyone dead except those creatures that found a boundless ocean world room in which to live and forage and multiply.

It initiated the terraformation of Earth once more and then, in an act of generosity, if it had been human, left the Earth to its potential inheritors and set off, with a hundred capsules of human DNA, to complete its mission to make the super Earth suitable for habitation. With no humans to claim this new world, it would create their progeny to take over for beings long dead. Meanwhile, Harry and Lisa had prepared to provide a renovated Mars to be the human homeworld that Earth no longer was. It had taken them a century to transform an undersea habitat constructed by long-gone scientists into a ship capable of sailing deep space and then to stock it with the goods needed to nurse protoplasm into human shape with the DNA they had found in a hopeful depository that had survived near the laboratory, and more years to maneuver the now spaceship into space and off on a solar-sail powered journey to the neighboring world only twenty-some million meters away.

But time, as Harry and Lisa had discovered, was not the urgency it used to be. They, too, were robots, their memory boxes transplanted into robot shells to give them new bodies. All they had brought to their current existence was their memories of a long-ago world and a mission to restore its long-earned existence, precarious evolution, and fragile dreams.

“What else is worth doing?” Harry said to Lisa via contact with a vise-like mechanical hand.

“We left all that behind millennia ago,” Lisa said, tightening her grip. “Now we have to create another imperative.”

*   *   *



The morning sun, strangely diminished by its forty million kilometers from the orbit of Earth, and filtered by the accumulating atmosphere of Mars, crawled up the eastern sky over the gentle waves of the central Martian sea. Harry and Lisa stood behind the broad front window of their Martian laboratory, looking out on a scene that no thinking creature had seen for a thousand years or had imagined as more than a fantasy. Into the middle of the phantasmical realization of their dream swam a human person, a well-proportioned male with strong arms and legs pulling and driving him through the movement of what had been a reddened desert as little as a century ago, but had now been transformed through their agency. It gave Harry a fleeting godlike feeling that he found unacceptable.

And then, just as he seemed on the verge of retreating into his usual condition of humility in the face of great accomplishments, he saw the surface of the Central Sea roiled by rising currents; the man in the ocean began splashing away from the disturbance toward the shore. But he had waited too long, and a monstrous sea creature, its wide jaws agape, closed them over the midsection of the man, blood turned the sea frothy red, and the sea creature dragged the man down, his mouth open with unvoiced screams.

After a few moments Harry’s body stopped shaking, if it had been shaped to shake, and his breathing quieted if he had lungs to breathe with.

“You saw it again,” Lisa said. She was a robot, but there was a person inside, or rather the memories of a person plus a system of wires and connections that allowed her to add new memories, and even to put them together into a semblance of a person who had once existed. But the same was true of Harry. And both were remnants of a deluged Earth, whose destructive downpours had been shared with a desert Mars. “I thought machines weren’t supposed to have illusions,” Harry said. “These are getting worse.”

He turned his side sensors to the other wall of the enclosed laboratory, where blobs of unformed creatures were crawling over other blobs under the observation of three robots. These looked identical to Lisa and himself, but lacked the human origins and memories. “Our progeny, so to speak, are still in the pre-embryonic stage, and it will be years—Martian years—before they begin to look like humans, even embryos.”

“And even yet you see them as fulfilling their genetic promise,” Lisa said. “Just because you’re inside a robot body doesn’t mean you’re not human. You are a box of memories inserted into a metal shell, and you still think and feel like a human.”

“As you did for many years before I died—”

“A moment that filled my existence with great sorrow,” Lisa said. “Or my memory of sorrow. And I realized that you had left instructions for you to join me in my electronic life.”

“Which was like a kind of rebirth,” Harry said, “without nightmares—except for the possibility that some catastrophe would include our two boxes of memories, and our eternal existence would be terminated.”

“I always thought of it as a reprieve,” Lisa said. “Not a pardon.”

“But without nightmares,” Harry said.

“Not that I couldn’t handle,” Lisa said. “Maybe you could deal with them as I did—shape the illusions in your conscious mind to experience more satisfyingly. Write your own nightmares. I used to do that, in the bad old days before you were restored to me.”

“I’ve tried that,” Harry said. “And it always comes apart for me at the end. But I’ll try again. It is unpleasant to be a memory box with bad memories, if that is what they are.”

“101 would know,” Lisa said. “It had been a robot for so much longer—in fact nothing but a robot—that it seemed like a guru of things robotic.”

“But 101 is halfway to super Earth by now,” Harry said. “Twenty some light-years away. But I know what you mean: I miss 101. 101 would have known immediately, with its programming as a terraforming robot, that a Mars capable of sustaining human life would need not only oceans but vegetation to separate oxygen from carbon dioxide and then carbon dioxide by animal life to sustain plant life, and animal life to produce carbon dioxide.”

“And perspective to cope with nightmares.”

“Or illusions,” Harry said.

*   *   *



Lisa sat looking at the carefully constructed artificial generating machine—not yet a womb—in which human protoplasm was struggling to become embryos. It had taken fifty years of trial and error, the help of single-purpose robots reprogrammed from their tasks of transforming the space elevator on a submerged Earth into a space pump, and long-buried memories of human gestation, all done without human intervention and the knowledge created in maternal cells when the time was right.

“But the time was never right for you and me,” Harry said.

“Or the timing of our hormones,” Lisa said.

“So now we have all these potential humans waiting to be born,” Harry said. “There is a certain pleasant irony with that.”

“I’m glad you put the words together—pleasant irony,” Lisa said. “I can’t help missing the stirrings of life within me and its magical transformation with your seed into something that would be peculiarly ours.”

“Instead we have a humanity that is peculiarly ours,” Harry said. “Without us they would not exist. No fauna exist except the aquatic creatures that survive in whatever is survivable in the worldwide ocean that is all that’s left of Earth.”

“And perhaps the vials of human DNA that 101 took with it back to the super Earth to start its own human colony. Like fulfilling the destiny planned for it by long-ago creators. If humans won’t come to the super Earth, 101 will bring them.”

“Did you ever feel that we were usurping the role of the gods?” Harry said, “that we were performing the role of creators?”

“No,” Lisa said. “Maybe because I was born a woman, and creation was my role. That feeling just happened to escape me.”

“Maybe,” Harry said morosely, “it is the cause of my nightmares.”

“Thinking things through is your talent,” Lisa said, “and thinking things through is always in season.

“But come. It’s time to introduce our progeny to their wombs.”

It was then that Harry remembered that they had built the breeding ground aquarium with magnifying panels, to make their endless labors more visible. With 101’s help, they had found and recorded the biological and electronic knowledge that would provide what they and the single-purpose robots would need to know once they abandoned Earth, and now they were ready to transfer these microscopic potentials into the next stage of what would bring them into reality—though a reality that their ancestors would not have recognized.

But it was a process in which Harry’s thoughts, forever churning, could not engage in the same way they engaged the attention of Lisa, whose womanhood, thousands of years in the past, was still a significant part of her programming. Programming. How much of people’s behavior was programmed? How much was shaped by experience? It was a question Harry had often considered as a person, but how much more relevant was it as a robot?

*   *   *



Harry looked out upon the central sea and the human male who walked along the shore, still reddened by the remnants of the underlying iron-laced sands. The nightmare was beginning again, but this time more under his control. When the sea monster reappeared, a naked human female entered from the right, a spear in her hand. As she reached the male and he was turning around, unaware of the imminent doom from the sea monster, the woman threw her spear. It imbedded itself in the side of the monster. The male turned to see the monster writhing in the sea, its blood spreading across the disturbed waves that its bulky body had just created. The male didn’t see another monster rising from the sea closer to the woman, and before either could move, the second monster had thrust itself onto the beach, killed the male with gaping jaws, caught the woman in a descending blow, and dragged her limp body with it back into the sea.

Harry stood motionless while the vision faded and the stain in the water disappeared. “It happened again,” Lisa said from behind Harry, her clunky footsteps somehow silenced in his absorption.

“I had prepared a different scenario,” Harry said, “but it came apart at the end, like some rewriter revising the script.”

“Who would be interested in your illusions,” Lisa said, “way out here with the only human minds a memory, and the ancient A.I. long gone if it still exists?”

“That’s what concerns me,” Harry said as he continued to look out at the scene before him, no longer disturbed by the sight of impossible life that had unfolded before his artificial organs of perception. It was once more the unruffled sea, impossible as that would have been a century ago, with no signs of life. “It must come from inside my memory box, but writing my own drama works only momentarily.”

“Your illusions are private,” Lisa said. “To me the central sea is what it has been since the bombardment subsided.”

“The sea monster—I know that sounds funny—that had killed my prototypical human was not surfacing and my human male was safely on the shore before the monster appeared again,” Harry said. “But I was prepared for that. I had gone over the potential actions in my memory box and had a woman materialize with a spear and kill the monster. But then the dream went off script: another monster appeared to kill the male and drag off the body of the female. It was all as distressing as anything could be for a person who is now a robot with a machine mind and machine sensibilities.”

“So what comes next?” Lisa said. “Not, I hope, a companion obsessed with internal conflicts.”

“Not that I am aware of,” Harry said, “and there isn’t much that I’m not aware of in this mechanical body. Electronic circuits are either on or off.”

“That we know of,” Lisa said. “But we are not scientists, or even the repository of scientific and engineering knowledge like 101. Perhaps somewhere in your circuits is a environment of aspirations, your world of a human species reconstituted and given a new world to make its own, and in the midst of that circuit are memories of guilt and what could go wrong.”

“All that is plausible enough.” Harry said. “Except it doesn’t feel right. I am not concerned at any level about the future of our efforts. There are many things that could go wrong with our venture, but there is nothing we can do about them.”

“But they are your visions, and you must learn how to deal with them,” Lisa said. “Or I must learn how to live with a troubled companion, and not just for a lifetime but an eternity.”

*   *   *



Lisa turned from her work around the complex of equipment that she and Harry had named “the nursery.” It was more appropriately “the laboratory,” but it had pleased the immortal couple to call it what millennia ago they would have called the part of a dwelling reserved for their own babies. But now, the “nursery” was a quixotic project to restore humanity to its place on the evolutionary pathway. It was a pathway that seemed destroyed when a generation of deluges descended upon Earth from some long-lost icy nebula, whether by the fading power of the ancient A.I. or some cosmic accident.

She had done all she and the single-purpose robots could at this stage of development, and lingering to brood over the potential embryos was a throwback to distant times when she was a woman and not a memory in a box. She turned toward the door of the laboratory structure that she and Harry had not needed even during the bombardment of the icy remains of the deluge on Earth. It had been built for the protection of more delicate machinery created from plans downloaded from digital libraries that had survived the deluge.

Harry was outside. He was not a brooder like her, but he seldom left the laboratory. She moved across the room, still clunking in her metal body, and out the door. Harry was standing at the edge of the central sea, his forward sensors turned farther out toward the watery horizon. “Are you having another of your visions?” she said.

“No,” Harry said. “I’m not having one, at least not at the moment, and that is what is concerning me.”

“You search for things to concern you,” Lisa said.

“A few moments ago there were sea monsters playing in the waves,” Harry said, “but no people. Not even imaginary people, which is strange, since they are imaginary monsters. But now they too are gone. I don’t know what they are trying to tell me, or my subconscious is trying to tell me.”

“Maybe that our mission is doomed by everything we don’t know about creating life,” Lisa said. “Our children will never grow into people, and monsters will prevail.”

“Maybe,” Harry said.

“Well, I have good news,” Lisa said. “I had a vision a few minutes ago.”

“Like mine?”

“A vision of my own,” Lisa said. “Of some virus or bacteria attacking the embryos in their artificial wombs and killing them,” she added. “But I checked, and the 88 percent that had latched on to the connections were still thriving.”

“And how is that good news?” Harry asked. “The incipient embryos were not harmed, but your mind is offering up visions, like mine.”

“That means the visions are coming from outside,” Lisa said. “It isn’t you. It’s some malign influence.”

“I suppose that is good news—if you think that some creature somewhere putting disturbing images into our consciousnesses is good news,” Harry said.

“Better than if our minds are failing,” Lisa said. “Now all we have to do is find out who or what is doing it.”

“And how and why,” Harry said. “And can it be persuaded to stop.”

“Anything with that kind of power,” Lisa said, “is exceptional and should stand out in a rational universe.”

“Like an angry Martian,” Harry said. “Raised from its millions of years of slumber and protesting the invaders who have disturbed its rest.”

“You can make jokes,” Lisa said, “but maybe more like the ancient A.I. whose program was rewritten by my previous self and the computer scientist Anders—or the A.I.’s ghost.”

“But if it’s the ancient A.I.—” Harry said.

“We’ll find a way to deal with it,” Lisa said. “After all, it only has a few billion years’ head start.”


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Copyright © 2021. Reclaiming the Stars by James Gunn

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