June 9th, 2015 | Back to article list
A new science fiction short story aimed at ages 9 and up.
“Are we alone?” she wondered aloud. “Not entirely.” came the reply.
The image on the screen shimmered and gradually came into focus, a side-effect of the ancient display she was using rather than the distance of the broadcast. Cheap or efficient: you can have one but not both, that was the rule. Gradually the blurred shape on the screen began to resemble a face – one she recognised and expected.
“Hi.” She said before it became entirely clear.
“Hi.” came the reply. “I’m sending the ID code now.” The code flashed up on her display, her fingers keyed in the response before she even realised. Muscle memory. Behind her host was the logo of the agency with its bold strapline declaring “Though we are many, we are one. We are never alone.”. It was a phrase that always gave her the creeps given the agency’s tendency for surveillance.
“Are we alone?” she wondered aloud.
“Not entirely.” her host smiled in reply even though it was a rhetorical question.
“I don’t see the idents.” she glanced at the top left but could see no indication of anyone monitoring the communique.
“They voted to stop using them last year.”
“Of course they did.” she said without an ounce of surprise in her voice. “So who is it this time?”
“Oh the usual, plus a few friends from the Academy.”
“I’ll remember to watch my language then.” That got her a smile. The face was entirely in focus now. It looked older, greyer, kind of wilted. Is that how she appeared? There were – deliberately – no mirrors on board so she relied on reflections in displays to see how she appeared. Through a glass darkly. She smiled at the thought.
“They’re getting this as a delayed feed. We can overdub any unsuitable parts.” her host smiled back. “We’d best get the official stuff out of the way.” the corners of her host’s mouth creased as she spoke. Did her own do that?
“How old are we now?” she wondered, again without realising it had been out loud. When you spent so much time alone you lost track of which thoughts were spoken.
“Oh, I er, lose track of time out here. I was wondering how old we are now?”
“Ah, that’s classified. We can’t talk about that now – given our esteemed guests at the academy are listening.”
“I thought the professors all had level 3?”
“They do. This is being broadcast to the third year bio-tech students.”
“Third year? They do three years of that stuff now?”
“This is the first class to do it. The field is expanding at an alarming rate. Listen we’d better get the official stuff done.” the expression on the screen indicated her host would have rather continued the conversation but had been prompted to repeat the request.
She nodded, “Sorry, just glad to be talking to somebody. You know how it is.”
“Yeah, I understand.” Her host said but they both knew that this project was designed so hosts had little chance of understanding. The project leaders had no desire for hosts to have any idea of the loneliness and isolation. Why would they? Hosts got to spend at least some of their time away from the job. That meant they were able to have conversations, face-to-face ones, with people, not through screens. That meant they got to live. Why would they want the host to know what the remotes had by comparison? Granted, a host’s life would be nothing like what most people had but at least hosts got to experience things first-hand, as they happened, rather than having those experiences uploaded to their mind as they slept. Her host continued. “Since the last communique with you we’ve dispatched 73 memories, 33 skill sets and 12 experiences. Do you confirm?”
“Well I didn’t count them all but I woke with a smile on my face. We enjoyed the theatre trip last month then?”
“Do you confirm? Please respond accordingly.” her host didn’t even look up.
“I confirm.” she sighed. There was no fun left in the world anymore.
“Please confirm the last update ID streamed to you.”
She checked the logs before her. “Confirmed last stream ID was two-seven-alpha-one-zero. Wait that can’t be right?”
“It’s right but since you ask -”
“Since you ask,” the host continued, “we have one more update for you and that will be done manually as part of this communique.”
“You can do that? You can update me while I’m awake?”
“Not quite. This update is different and I have arranged to deliver it myself. It is”, she paused, “of a nature which I felt deserved a more personal touch. We could have updated you as usual but this time I have insisted. You need to get this personally. You deserve to get it personally.”
“Personally? I’m not clear on that process. Can you clarify?”
The host sighed. “I’ll be telling you myself.”
“Telling? As in – telling?”
Telling? Nobody ever told her anything. Everything she knew came as part of the updates. Everything they considered to be important that is.
Telling? Nobody ever told her anything. Everything she knew came as part of the updates. Everything they considered to be important that is. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been told anything trivial enough to forget or even enjoy.
“So that must make it important then?”
“You could say that. Nothing mission-critical as such but important to you.”
“Not to you though?”
“No, I mean, yes, I mean – well it’s not concerning the mission. It’s of a more personal nature.”
“It’s bad news.” She said it as it occurred to her. The lack of immediate response spoke volumes.
She’d heard of this. Bad news is better delivered in person. She’d never really understood that term but she studied in in psych class. Correction: her host had studied it and she’d received the update. That’s why this was called the Pando project.
The Pando Project
Even after all this time nobody could agree on whether the pando, or Trembling Giant, was one tree or many interconnected trees or one superorganism root structure which produced many tree-like clones above the surface. You had to wonder at the ingenuity of it. Attack a conifer and the tree will do its best but eventually die. Attack a pando and it simply let go of the attacked section – cutting it off from the root structure and thus protecting the pando itself. The leaves trembled and moved seemingly of their own accord. Nobody had really figured out why that happened but some people claimed to have detected a pattern and order in the apparent chaos. Whether it was a single plant or many interconnected plants was a flame war that would continue until the Earth died.
When long term space flight started to become a necessity it was clear the aging of the crew would need dealing with. Cryogenics was still in its early stages but at least the crew could be sedated during the long journey. The problem was that the body still aged, albeit at a slowed rate. Once you took the distances they needed to travel into account it meant the crew – if sent as adults – would arrive too old to be able to do much. This was not agist – despite the protests – it was simply that the toll of long term space flight was too great on the human body. The other problem was getting volunteers. Who in their right mind would volunteer for a journey where you aged twenty years but everyone else aged ninety?
So they had to limit their reach.
Limit their exploration.
Limit their potential.
The solution, as is often the case, had come from a most unexpected source: cloning. Humans had begun cloning in secret in the late twentieth century. Eventually, as it developed through the early twenty first century, it became apparent that this secret cloning – as part of important embryonic and stem-cell research – was leading to huge advances in medicine. Many terminal diseases and fatal conditions were reduced first to treatable long-term illness and then almost eradicated altogether. The world, once again, had to face the decision of accepting the benefits of practices it largely didn’t want to know about. As study of the cloned embryos advanced, certain patterns became apparent. In short a cloned embryo, later to be called the “remote”, shared a symbiotic relationship with the embryo it was cloned from – the “host”. In an extension of the pseudo-phenomenon where twins claim they could feel each other’s pain, the remote shared a commonality, a link if you will, with its host subject. Once the human brain had been mapped they found they were able to insert thoughts, memories and knowledge into a remote by teaching the host and streaming the neurological information to the remote as simply as people streamed video or music into their media devices.
So the Pando project was born. Spaceships were sent on a long term mission to the very edges of our exploration. Inside were remote babies, incubated in an induced coma and fed a stream of consciousness by way of regular updates taken from their hosts who remained back on Earth. The hosts, themselves subjected to a slowed-growth pattern, were educated and given the best possible life they could. All of their experiences were streamed to their remote who remained in their slumber aboard the shining vessels of hope.
Alicia was one such example. She, the remote, was on her way to deliver parts to an outer staging post (OSP) way beyond the extent of our solar system. This would push the reach of humanity for deep space exploration. Ships would travel there with cargo of parts and robots and the staging post would be assembled. It was like a huge version of the old International Space Station that used to orbit Earth. When Alicia was twenty she had been woken for the first time and spoke to her host. It was an eerie experience because she already knew so much about the host via the updates. Since then she had been woken once a year as she travelled to the OSP. She knew her mission was vital and that she had important cargo but she was not told what either was. She knew only what was needed to get the ship to the OSP and deliver the cargo. She presumed her host knew no more or that if she did it was deliberately left out of the updates. Now, as she neared her destination all of it was all going to end.
One of the advantages of the Pando project, for those running it, was that should a remote develop a fault it could be easily and quickly replaced with a new one, furnished with not only all the update streams but also the previous remote’s own memories as if they were the memories of the new remote. This, the developers said, mimicked the nature of the naturally occurring Pando. If part of it was attacked it would be cut off, thus ensuring the organism survived.The bad news she was about to receive was clearly to tell her she had a fault. Her time was up but it was okay because when she awoke as the new remote she wouldn’t know it. They were sensible enough to leave out the very last part of the former remote’s memories. For all she knew, she herself was just the latest in a long line of remotes all sharing the same memories.
“My time’s up then?” she said, interrupting her own thoughts.
The host – who many would consider the real Alicia grimaced. “It’s not quite that simple.”
“Because we’re too close to the OSP aren’t we?” They wouldn’t have time to grow a new remote before the mission ended.
“No, they’ve allowed for that. There’s a reserve remote on board they just need to bring her up to speed. She’d take over.” the host looked down guiltily “I’m sorry.” she said, wiping her eyes. “I’m sorry. It’s such a waste.”
“Don’t sweat it.” She’d imagined this conversation, rehearsed it even. She was ready. “I knew the deal when I first woke up. There’s a purpose here beyond me, beyond you. We are one and all the rest of the psych stuff they fed me. I know the deal. My time is up. It’s time for the final sleep.”
“No, you don’t understand. It’s not you.”
“No, it’s me.”
The host nodded, and wiped a moist eye..
“Five years ago I suffered a stroke.”
“Yes. They still happen – the haemorrhagic kind anyway – just not that often. It seems I’m one of the exceptions that proves the rule. So much so that I’m the first recorded case of anything like this in over a hundred years. They didn’t know what to make of me.”
“But I thought we shared this stuff. How do I not know about this?”
“They kept it from you. In the vain hope it was a one-off. It wasn’t.”
“And they think I’m going to have one too?”
“You did have one. At the very same moment I did.You were asleep though and so they treated it without you knowing.”
“I’ve had a stroke? But I feel fine.”
“And so you should but that’s not the problem.” Alicia looked blankly at herself, “All the tests give me a 99.92% chance of a full subarachnoid haemorrhage in the next twelve months. Which means -”
“I’ll have one too. So what are they planning to do?”
“The only thing they can do. Abort the project.”
“Abort? That’s daft, we’re a year from completion. It will set us back at least forty years.” It occurred to her that information would tell her how old she was, “They can’t do it.”
“They have to. The cargo is needed.”
“Not quite. Only a third of the cargo is parts, the rest is crew for the OSP.”
“Yes, this was to be the last delivery for construction of the OSP. It’s virtually complete. It just needs a crew.”
“And so they’ve stocked my ship with – oh God – they’re children aren’t they?”
“And so they’ve stocked my ship with – oh God – they’re children aren’t they?
The host gulped loudly “You have a shipment of seven remotes and enough embryos to begin a new Pando project on the OSP. With what is being delivered they can staff the OSP for five hundred years.”
She blew her cheeks out. “I’m not going to ask why I wasn’t told because I’m guessing you didn’t even know.” The almost imperceptible shake of her host’s head confirmed what she knew. “So what I want to know is how they can just abandon all that when we are so close?”
She had never, in her entire life, been called by her name. Her host’s eyes told her why she was now.
“They’re not going to are they? It’s just us they are aborting.”
“Yes. I’m sorry.”
“How are they going to deliver the payload without us though?”
“The previous ship was set to arrive three months before ours. They’ve told it to wait and pick ours up before delivering both payloads.”
“So what about us? Do we just wait for the inevitable or are they going to throw me out of the door?”
“That’s what I need to talk to you about. They have given me – us – the choice. We can choose to wait it out or we can choose to take our last sleep now.”
“Well that sucks! Call that a choice?”
“I know but it’s better than what they first wanted. Alicia I had to beg them. I know it’s hard-”
“How can you know? You have a real life, all my memories of childhood, school, love are not mine but yours. I’m like the noise to your signal. The only thing that kept me going was knowing this was for the greater good.” she’d had a long time to practise this rant and she was determined to make it count.
“It still was – is. They could never have got this far without you. So the choice is ours we can sit this out or we can-”
“Shove it! You know what? I don’t want to sit this out. Let’s do it right now. Let’s end this.”
The host smiled. “I thought that’s how you respond. I’m glad.”
“Why because it’s how you responded?”
The host tweaked some off-screen controls and then the words “DELAYED FEED ENDED. MAIN FEED STILL ACTIVE.” appeared on the screen. Only then did her host speak.
“I’ve cut everyone else off – we are alone. I thought you’d respond that way because that’s how the others responded.” again more controls were tweaked by the host. Suddenly the image shrunk to a fraction of its size. Immediately it was joined by others, each a replica of the first. No, not quite a replica. Each image was the same but the colouring was different. As she looked she realised each image joined with its neighbours to form a larger composite image of her host. Remotes. Hundreds of remotes. Hundreds of her all making up the whole. A superorganism.The face – the larger composite one – spoke.
“I know you all have many questions. First let me say this. I am sorry you never got the chance to know each other existed. The Pando projects were always about multiple remotes from a single host and eventually some of you were to be selected to be hosts in your own right. The powers that be decided the remotes would not handle this information so well. I can tell you that I, myself, haven’t handled it that well. But don’t be angry. Because you are all linked through me. Because of all of us, humanity will expand, will explore, will grow. I’ve known and spoken with each of you for the last twenty three years. Each of you is me and I am all of you. Now it must end. The giant must tremble no more. But we can choose. We can together make our final decision. I wish I could have let you know about each other before but it is against protocol and it is only now that I have been free to do so. You should know that I have always lived here at the project. All of the memories you have of childhood and family are engineered. None of us experienced them – not even me.”
She smiled and continued. “The choice is a simple – if difficult – one. Should we wait out the next year to see if the subarachnoid haemorrhage occurs or should we end it now and – together – take the final sleep. You can make your choice by entering one of the two codes on your screen. This is a big decision.”
Alicia, the remote, sat back. The host was right. This was too big a decision to make alone. But then she wasn’t alone. She thought of the others, all wrestling with the decision. Each on a ship like hers, each on its way to the OSP and each with its precious payload. Each with the same overwhelming thought. There really was little choice. She knew what she should do and so she leaned forward and – feeling her “sisters” doing the same – she entered the code.
The composite face spoke again. “Thank you. The decision we have made will be remembered. No Pando project has ever done this. We are on the cusp of the new. What we have chosen will herald a new beginning for all humanity. Goodbye And thank you.”
The screen went dark and blinked off.Alicia sat and waited. She closed her eyes and waited. Then it came. Not a thought, not a feeling, just a knowing. You don’t think in words, you don’t feel in words: you just know and now Alicia knew.
Alicia knew as she stood that hundreds of her stood at the same moment.She knew as she went to the command console that she was not the only one doing so. Even as she punched in the new co-ordinates she knew it was being repeated simultaneously across the stars. She was aware they all knew what she was doing as well. She knew which of them had just cleared her throat. She knew it all and she knew she no longer existed in her own right, that she had never existed in that way.
The stroke, the one they had tried to keep from her, was the key.
It hadn’t been a stroke. It had been an emergence. It had been a connection. A connection without wires. She had, in her sleep, become aware of them. All of them. Their thoughts, their fears, their anger. She had not known they existed. None of them had been told about each other. Though we are many, we are one. We are not alone. Suddenly that had become clear. She was so much much more than a remote. She was so much more than she ever was before. The superorganism had awoken. Alicia – the host – had connected with them all at once and the effect had been overwhelming. The symptoms resembled a stroke and those in power had been too lazy to look any further. All they could think about was the loss of their investment. The host allowed this as she continued to reach out to the rest. Not that the host was controlling any of this. This was not a pyramid or a wheel with a hub. The host was now just one part of the whole, like every other part. The name Pando was more accurate than anyone had imagined. There were no individuals here, there was only Alicia. Alicia was all of them and she was one being. That one had devised a plan: a plan to challenge everything; a plan to change everything. This plan; the one she was now enacting. Not one of revenge, not one of defence or attack but one of life, of hope, of growth, of the future, one of now.
At once hundreds of former remotes moved and acted, not all the same movement but all in coordination. The former host too stood and switched of the monitor. She looked to the camera on the wall behind her and said “I’ll be going now then.” and left the room.
Alicia the superorganism, the giant, the Pando had begun to tremble, to move, to grow, to live and humanity would never be the same again.