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by Martin Knopman

The seeming insignificance of life. This is an idea that has invaded my thinking on more than a few occasions. I could just never understand the “Why?” of it all. I mean, it is certainly nice to be alive, to take part in the world, but to what end? Thousands of years from now, I will have ceased to exist and be long forgotten. Millions of years from now, the Earth may well be nothing more than a slimy rock again, most traces of higher life destroyed by some strange event. Billions of years from now, our sun will be burnt out, all traces of life on Earth reduced to atomic dust.... And finally, if there is enough mass in the universe, enough stuff laying around, the entire cosmos will collapse to a single point and all that was will have been for naught. That all of life was nothing more than an exercise in the possibilities of particle interactions. Interesting, but nothing more.

That’s what the physicists are trying to tell us. The ultimate fate of the universe, and everything inside it, including man, comes down to a question of, “How much stuff?” And, if there is enough mass, then this ultimate fate is a fate accompli. All of man’s inventions, and all of man’s art, and all of man’s great innovations end up being nothing more than hobbies that were used to kill time as we all waited for the ultimate and inevitable end, for everything to be reduced to a single point with no name. Man, in specific, and life, in general, have no bearing on the ultimate fate of the universe. Not a very satisfying scenario.

Religion offers no better explanation. The basic answer given there is, “Things are as they are. Live with it.” Or, as the Buddhist version goes, “Things are as they are not. Live with it.” There is no real attempt to answer the question, “Why?”. It is only shunted off onto some other level that we have no access to. One has to trust that god has a plan and all will be as it should. But, again, life in general, and man in specific, have no real purpose, other than, maybe, god’s amusement as he wiles away the time that he created....

I always found the answers offered to be less than satisfying, in the deepest way. But, in the absence of any alternative explanations, I was left to just float through my life unanchored to anything ... unable to see “Why”.

Not long into the third millennium the world embarked on a mission that would finally yield a sensible answer to this eternal dilemma.

Man’s reach into space had become such that travel around our solar system, which was eventually named “the Briah” by the People, was routine. This name, Briah, for our solar system, was inevitable as Man had discovered other solar systems in the universe and had to start naming them all. It struck people as odd that this solar system, which contained the Earth, had not been named before, but, as they say, “necessity is the mother of invention (and the necessity to differentiate two objects of the same type is the mother of naming)”. The word “Briah” grew to mean not only this specific solar system, but sometimes it meant all of human life within this solar system ... as if the Briah was itself alive, composed of the humans within it.

Colonization of the Briah had led man on a journey of explosive growth, with the human population mushrooming to fifty trillion. By the year 2150, there were colonies a touch outside of Pluto’s orbit, and we had investigated some close stars, but that was the extent of man’s reach. We had yet to go into really deep space, outside of our own galaxy, the Milky Way.

The first mission outside of the Milky Way was the largest undertaking that man had ever attempted. A colony of about a hundred thousand people was going to go into deep space. The idea of a colony supporting this many people was nothing new. There were many, far larger, scattered throughout the Briah. But this colony was different. Once it left it would not be able to get anything else from anyone. Even the colonies out by Pluto had always enjoyed contact with others, and received regular transport and cargo flights. This new colony had to be totally self sufficient, and this added quite a bit of complexity to it.

Even with the great size that man had grown to, it still took all of civilization to build the Colony. This was a great turn of luck, because man had started getting a bit antsy being stuck in the Briah. It was pretty crowded, in space terms, and after the first great rushes for resources, most of the easy stuff was already spoken for. With nothing to keep them occupied, groups had started fighting, but the Colony project demanded so much from everyone that it consumed their minds, along with their factories. Everyone’s attention was focused on deep space. There would be life elsewhere in the universe, ours if no other.

Of course, there were a good number of people who were concerned with the Colony. Man was sticking his finger out into deep space, and no one knew what that would mean. It is often the innocent toe that steps on the rattlesnake. But even they knew that we had to keep marching forward. The Briah would fill up and run out of resources, at some point...

There was quite a bit of politics involved in setting the Colony up, but, in the end everyone understood that the group that was sent off was only the initial population, and would bear little relation to the people who ended up populating the Colony some hundreds of generations down the road.

In order for this to have been a genetically robust group trillions of sets of chromosomes had to be taken along. A system as delicate as the Colony could not let its population just pick and choose when they were going to have children, and how many. They could not be forced to choose among the living population, either. Lack of genetic diversity would become a real problem at some point and the system would become fatally unbalanced. So there would need always be a repository of “outside” genetic information to pull from and it must be constantly mixed with the population. Besides, the Colony was built to seed other colonies at places, and each of these would require a huge amount of information, something like a cross section of human life up to some point. There was also the problem with new viruses and other pathogens, that might require a much larger database of genetic information to help in any fight against them.

While it was not an easy task, by any stretch, the Briah got the Colony completed and operational. People had been living on the Colony throughout its construction, but it was finally ready to go off and survive (and thrive, hopefully) on its own. So, the Colony made a sixty year trip around the Briah, visiting as many other colonies and settlements as possible and seeing how its own life was developing. Eventually this trip around the Briah was finished, and the Colony went and sat just off of Pluto for about forty years, making as many final checks as they could.

Before it left, there was much to know about how later generations would accept living on the Colony. After all, only the first generation had had the choice to be on it, or not! People did opt off of the Colony during its time by Pluto, and a high percentage of these people had been born there, but, it seemed that the native population was generally satisfied with their position. The whole Briah grew more excited as the launch date approached.

It was interesting because Man was going to be thrown into a situation He had been in long ago, on Earth. As the Colony got further away from the Briah, its ability to remain in contact with the rest of civilization would lessen. The cost of transmitting and receiving messages would become prohibitively expensive for the Colony, which would have to make do with only what it had and what it found. It could not afford to waste energy so that someone could say “Hi Mom”, nor could it afford much other communication. Besides, the time lag would eventually become too much for anything useful to be relayed. When it takes fifty years to get an answer, you had better make the question worth it. The Colony would be totally cut off from all things human in the universe, except for itself.

The Colony was to leave the Briah, go past any place man has been to, and head out into deep space. The trip would take hundreds of years just to get to their first stop, which was a solar system, much like the Briah, near the Von Neumann Nebula. Once there, if all went well, the Colony would drop off its first copy, or seedling, as they liked to call it.

The main ability that the Colony had was that it was able to build copies of itself, given energy in almost any form. So, as it was traveling through space, most of its population would be involved in expanding and enlarging the Colony.

It had taken the Briah a gigantic effort to build the first Colony, but that was due, mainly, to the research that needed to be done. Once the plans for the Colony were set, it was much easier to make a second one. All you had to do was obtain the materials and follow the instructions. It would take the Colony a much longer time to reproduce itself, using only itself, but they had time to burn, anyway. Hopefully, they would have finished at least one copy before they reached their first stop and would drop that off before heading on their way.

But their way to where? The Colony had no final destination. It was just a piece of the Briah that was to float around the universe, lighting fires of life along its path.

There was much fanfare as the Colony finally started its propulsion system and headed out of the Briah. Man was now a player in the universe, on a level with other cosmic phenomena, a truly moving moment.

Off into space they went. For years and years and years and years....

Life on the Colony was extremely dynamic. It was, in many ways, much more interesting to be on the Colony than in the Briah. Socially, the Colony was very much a primitive setting - a fairly small number of people stuck together and separated from all others. And even all of the advanced technology seemed like stone tools against the backdrop of deep space.

Much of what the Colony had taken from the Briah had changed over time. The language was dramatically different. Many dialects had grown on this tiny island of humanity and a lot of these changes were incorporated into the official language. People seemed to have a drive to create language, either to differentiate themselves and bind small groups, or to express aspects of daily life that just hadn’t existed before. They had also come up with their own developments in math and physics and psychology and art.... The Colony was an independent clump of life following its own path through evolution.

The Colony was always keenly aware, however, of what they were really doing. They were going to attempt to cross the intergalactic Void. To go into the Void was not a proposition to be taken lightly. There was nothing that the Colony had ever dealt with that could even compare to the Void. The empty set would be the only notion that comes close, but even the energy used to save any representation of the empty set was greater than the Colony would find in the Void for years. Getting through the Void, alive, was by no means certain. The Colony had to make several advances before going into the Void, and had to be absolutely efficient, the closest to a perpetual motion machine that had ever existed.

They decided that they would try to release a seedling before they entered the Void, at the last star along their path out of the Milky Way. This would give some people a chance to “get off the ride” and would also allow the Colony to dump whatever extras it was carrying. Planting a seedling at the edge of the Milky Way also meant that the Colony could have some contact with someone else for the beginning of the crossing, if it needed. So, if something of great importance happened while they were in the Void, there would be a chance that they could tell someone. There was a lot of work to be done if all this was to happen, and everyone on the Colony geared up for the great event.

Time marched on and the Colony approached the last star. It had been able to harvest quite a bit of energy over the last hundred years and had built a beautiful seedling to leave at the last star before heading into the Void.

Meanwhile, life back in the Briah had changed fairly dramatically. After the Colony had left, the Briah built another Colony and sent that off in the opposite direction. And then the Briah built another, and another... The great bulk of resources in the Briah converted to building, populating, and launching Colonies. The tree of life that had grown on the Earth and then spread to the Briah was now blossoming and spitting fruit out in all directions. People in the Briah did not understand why, but they felt that they were doing the right thing.

The Colony spent about a hundred years at the last star. They wanted to make sure that they were really set for the Void, and to make sure that the seedling would grow strong. But, as all good things must come to an end, time did make its way.

As the moment approached for the Colony to actually head into the Void, a certain tension started to build. It was different from the feeling of leaving the Briah. Much more intense, and much more final. But they had been very careful. They had checked and rechecked everything fifty times over. The Colony had, by their own calculations, just enough energy to make it through the Void.

As the Colony started making its way out of its orbit around the last star, there was no fanfare this time. This was more of a feeling of good bye to a departed loved one,... that you know you will never see again. Everyone was very emotional, but certainly not celebratory. When the Colony had left the Briah, they could still keep in touch for a while, leaving slowly, really. Going into the Void allowed for nothing like this. Energy was so important that life had to be regulated down to the most minor detail, and this meant that there would be no communication once the Colony started out of its orbit, except for something of absolute necessity.

So, very quietly, the Colony left its orbit around the last star and disappeared into the darkness of the Void. The seedling, at the last star, then set about to its appointed task. The seedling was doing what all seedlings were supposed to do. It was collecting energy from its sponsor star, following the instructions left with it, building copies of itself, growing its population to fill the copies, and spitting the copies out to go to other sections of the Milky Way and do the same. Life in the universe was growing rapidly.

The Milky Way was becoming quite a lively place, with everyone working to send off copies of themselves, to send off copies of themselves, to send off copies of themselves.... But there was only one group that was in the Void, still. What was happening with the Colony?

Four hundred and fifty odd years after the Colony had left the seedling at the last star, the seedling received its first message from the Colony. Everyone knew that it had to be something of utmost importance, since the cost of sending the message was enormous. But what could it have said?

The Colony had had a revelation. They were deep into the Void, when it was found that there had been some serious miscalculations about the energy that they had. By their original measurements there was just enough to get across the Void, but the reality was that they only had ninety eight percent as much as they had thought. This was not discovered until they were past the effective halfway point and could not stop and turn around.

At first the news was kept quiet. It was not as if it was an immediate problem. The ones who learned about the problem would be long dead before it affected the Colony, but it put a wall up in front of them that they would eventually smash into it and disappear.

After quite a bit of secret discussion, the information was disseminated among the people. The reaction was quite different than had been expected. The people all pulled together and decided that there had to be a way around this. There was time, and they would have to find some way to either, use less energy, or get their hands on some new energy.

As they trimmed down the Colony, to cut out all possible waste, they started to notice something strange. The temperature was a bit higher than it should have been. The first thought was that the measuring equipment was faulty, which put a little chill through everyone’s spine. They checked the equipment over and over, but it always checked out okay, and the checking, itself, was quite expensive. They redid some calculations with the new energy numbers, since they were able to use this extra energy, and found that they would be able to make it through the Void. ... But where was this energy coming from? No one could pinpoint the source.

For fifty years they wrestled with this pleasant problem until a young woman physicist, named Irianala, was finally able to provide the answer. The source of the extra energy was THEM. The Colony was generating free energy on its own. It was the creative thought that was the furnace. Irianala discovered that life, itself, generated free energy, usually seen in its self organizing activities, and creative thought, in particular, generated much larger amounts. This was the defining feature of life. Life organized at a cost of energy less than that released upon a comparable disorganization. Life was a portal through which energy flowed into our universe. Not only was the universe not a closed system, but we were the openings!

The place of man, and life, in the universe was now obvious. Life had to spread out through the universe, creating its free energy. If life could eventually occupy a reasonable percentage of the universe, then there would be a chance that it could generate enough energy to alter the “fate” of the physical universe. This was, finally, the purpose of man. To throw seedlings was His job... in working for the universe.

It is true that this did not answer all questions about man’s role in the big scheme of things, but at least, at the level of the universe, our task was clear. Once that was done, we would start worrying about the universe’s role in the big scheme of things.... when this universe would acquire a name of its own.

-- Martin Knopman

Copyright 1998 -- Author & Science Fiction Museum All rights reserved
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