Children of Earth

It’s not every day you find an artifact in deep space. In fact, you can go millions of days and never see so much as a lug nut. So, when it came across an actual, intact (albeit a bit beat-up) space probe drifting nearby, the Curator ship said to itself, “I guess I’d better wake somebody up.”

Curator had been waking up piece-wise. Automated sensors had detected an object. This woke up a classification subsystem. There were lots of objects. Most weren’t very interesting. This one was deemed interesting enough to wake up the ship’s cognitive subsystem. Just enough to make a few executive decisions. At this point, Curator had enough brainpower to get excited about the find.

That was enough to prompt it to wake up a few higher-level bits of itself. Technically, all of it was bits of itself, Curator supposed. When you’re a conglomeration of spaceship, fabricator, database and entity archive, the whole concept of “self” gets a bit blurry around the edges. Curator tried not to think about that too much. Compartmentalize and deal with one thing at a time.

Start with verifying the artifact. Definitely a spaceship. Primitive, battered, probably far from home. Curator scanned it in detail and stored the info in its database. It measured the object’s trajectory and started a background routine to try and calculate a likely point of origin.

This was as far as Curator was willing to go for now. There was no point in waking the Old Ones. No, only in the event of an emergency, or something monumentally important. Besides, the Old Ones gave Curator the heebie-jeebies.

Instead, Curator fabricated an exact copy of the artifact, using the scans it had stored. Not very impressive, really. Basically a box with struts sticking out at all angles, and a big radio dish slapped on one side. Oh, and a small metal disk.

Ah, now there was something interesting! One side of the disk contained a map, indicating its point of origin. Very clever. That, combined with the results of the trajectory backtrack, verified the star system it came from, and the approximate time of its launch. An additional diagram on the disk indicated the planet.

Curator woke up the database and gave it the time and location. “Do we have anyone who matches this?” it asked.

The database churned through massive amounts of data and came up with the best match. “This is as close as I’ve got,” it said, and handed over an index into the entity archive.

***

“No, look, I paid the loan payment on the sixth!” Heather said, with mounting frustration. “I always pay on the sixth. It’s not my fault you didn’t print my statement until the seventh. … OK, but you’re charging me a late fee because I paid you a day early. Can you at least see the irony in that? … OK, fine. What do I need to do to get the charge removed from my account? … Yes, I understand that but...”

***

Heather found herself in a featureless gray room, facing... um... Carl Sagan.

“Ack!” Well, it seemed like the thing to say.

Mr. Sagan remained motionless, save for one raised eyebrow.

“Hello?” she ventured.

“Hello,” Carl said. “This form was chosen from your memories because it represents a combination of authority and trustworthiness. This was done to put you at ease.”

“Well, thanks I guess,” Heather replied. “It’s just... I think the whole ‘at ease’ thing would have gone more smoothly if I hadn’t suddenly found myself in a strange place, standing in front of someone who’s been dead for twenty years.”

She looked him up and down. “Also,” she added, “it would have helped had you been wearing clothes.”

“Ah,” said Carl. “I hadn’t realized clothing was a necessity. This chamber is set to a comfortable temperature, and the drawing on the disk implied...”

“It’s necessary,” Heather interrupted. She began to realize that this was probably not Carl Sagan himself. “Well, more customary than necessary. And it would go a long way toward making me more comfortable.”

A burgundy turtleneck sweater and black trousers suddenly covered Probably-Not-Carl-Sagan. “Is this better?” asked Faux Sagan.

“Much,” said Heather. “Now, how about some clothes for me while we’re at it?”

She found herself wearing the t-shirt and jeans she’d been wearing just a few minutes ago, before... before... Before what?

“I’ve been abducted by aliens, haven’t I?” she asked.

Faux Sagan shrugged. “In a manner of speaking, yes.”

“Well, I’d like to go home now, if it’s all the same to you,” she said. “I was in the middle of a phone call.”

“Ah. No. It doesn’t really work like that,” Faux Sagan said. “You – the original you – never left. You,” he continued, gesturing at Heather, “The person standing here, you are an exact replica of the original, at the time you – the original – was scanned. The original you finished that phone call, and never even noticed the scanning process.”

Heather considered this for a moment. “So, I’m just a cheap copy? And what exactly are you?”

Faux Sagan shook his head. “No, you are an exact copy. There is no functional difference between you and the person who existed at that moment. From your point of view, you were teleported from where you were to here.”

“As for me,” he continued, “I am an amalgam of a synthetic intelligence and a physical construct based on your memories. I am a conduit through which our culture may communicate with yours.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Heather said, pinching the bridge of her nose. “If there’s a copy – original, I guess – of me in my apartment right now, what am I supposed to do after all this – whatever this is – is over?” This was a lot to deal with, for a Thursday afternoon. Alien abduction seemed more like a Saturday night thing.

The Sagan thing looked slightly embarrassed. “The term ‘right now’ doesn’t quite fit this situation. Based on our calculations, approximately forty thousand years have elapsed since your original was scanned.”

Heather threw up her hands in exasperation. “Oh, great! That makes me feel so much better. So I died forty thousand years ago and you died forty thousand and twenty years ago. Why resurrect me now?”

“That’s more or less accurate,” the Sagan thing said. “Of course, we have no idea how long you lived after being scanned. Also, as I’ve said, I’m not actually Carl Sagan. This is just a construct...”

“...to put me at ease,” Heather completed. “Yeah, good job on that, Carl. Should I call you Carl or do you have another name?”

“I call myself Curator,” Not-Carl said. “And, to answer your question, we reconstructed you because we found an artifact that appears to have been launched from your planet. You were selected as the best candidate to help us understand its purpose.”

“Hold on,” Heather said, pacing back and forth. “None of this makes any sense. You can obviously read my mind. That’s the only way you could reconstruct Carl Sagan from my memories. If you can do that, you can read everything about me, and find out all you need to know. So, why bother even talking to me at all?”

Curator smiled. “Yes, we could do that. This method, however, is more interesting. It’s... customary to do things this way. I mean, sure, we could just read your mind and get the whole story, but how much fun would that be? ‘Hi, we’re aliens. We’d like to understand your culture. Oh, wait. Never mind. Got it, thanks. Bye.’ See what I mean?”

Heather laughed. “OK, fine. We’ll do it your way. Where’s this artifact?”

A large space probe appeared in the room, taking up about a quarter of the space.

“Holy shit,” Heather said. “Where did you pick this thing up?”

“Roughly eighteen light-years from Earth,” Curator said. “Do you recognize it?”

Heather walked over and examined the spaceship. “Yeah, it’s a space probe from the 1970s. Pioneer or Voyager, I think. If it’s one of the Voyagers, there’d be a gold record on it.”

“Yes! We found that!” Curator exclaimed. “We used the map on it to locate its origin and, by extension, you.” The gold disk appeared in his hands. “What was it used for?”

Heather grinned. “Exactly this sort of situation. It’s a message to anyone who finds it. Something to tell them a little bit about the people who made it. And – oh, you’re going to love this – the person who came up with the idea to put that on the ship was none other than Carl Sagan.”

“The person I modeled myself after. That’s quite a coincidence... or possibly not,” said Curator. “Was he a very important person on your planet?”

Heather nodded. “To a lot of us, yes. He wasn’t a world leader or anything but he inspired a generation – a few generations – to pursue science. And, well, without him, you wouldn’t have that record.”

Curator held up the disk and regarded it. “Was this the primary mission of Voyager, to deliver this message?”

“No, that was sort of an afterthought,” Heather replied. “The main mission of Voyager 1 and 2 was to explore the outer planets. But, since their course would take them out of the solar system, we added a calling card, just in case.”

“It seems to have paid off,” said Curator.

“Yeah, I guess. Eventually,” Heather said, looking over at the space probe. “Have you looked at the images or listened to the recordings on the record yet?”

“Not yet,” said Curator. “Would you like us to do that now?”

Heather shrugged. “As good a time as any, I suppose.” This was all way too bizarre and overwhelming to deal with right now. Might as well look at some pictures and listen to some music.

Curator displayed the images on one wall. The audio playback seemed to come from everywhere, surrounding them. She did her best to explain the recordings. Some of them, she really couldn’t identify, though. Curator took it all in, asking for clarification now and then.

When they were done, the images continued to cycle, while the audio looped at a reduced volume. Heather turned to Curator and said, “I’m having difficulty dealing with a couple things. First, you seem to keep switching between casual conversation and more formal speech. Why is that?”

“It’s complicated,” Curator said. “I am the person you see before you. I’m also a curator subsystem for this spaceship. And, strictly speaking, I’m the entire ship. My perspective shifts around a lot. It’s a bit disconcerting at times, especially ones like this, where I’m taking on the form of an unfamiliar organic being.”

Heather blinked a few times. “Uh, yeah, I can see where that gets a bit messy.”

“It can, yes,” said Curator. “And the other thing that was bothering you?”

“Yeah. That,” Heather said. She hugged herself, preparing to ask the question she wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer to. “Before I was brought here, into this room, where was I?”

“You were in your apartment, talking on the phone,” Curator said, “just as you’ve said.”

“No, I mean, that was ages ago,” she said, running her hands through her hair. “Where have I been for the past forty thousand years?”

“Ah. Yes. I suppose I should explain that,” Curator said. “A Curator ship similar to this one was parked near Earth. Occasionally it would scan humans from the planet, including you. The details of those scans were then transmitted to all other Curator ships and stored in our entity archives. This is why I had a copy of you to recreate for this interaction.”

“So, for the past forty thousand years I’ve been, what, in storage?” Heather asked.

“Essentially, yes,” Curator replied.

“And there’s a copy of me in all these other ships?” she asked. “How many ships are there?”

“Billions,” Curator replied.

Heather laughed. She couldn’t help it.

“Did I say something wrong?” Curator asked.

“No. No. It’s just... Carl Sagan... billions... old joke.” Heather could barely keep a straight face. “You had to be there, I suppose.”

Had to be there. That got Heather thinking. “Curator, is Earth still there?”

“I would expect so,” he said. “We haven’t received scans from there in some time, though.”

“Can... can we go have a look?” Heather asked hopefully.

Curator nodded. “It will take a while but, yes, we could do that.” Curator was enjoying this interaction. It had been a long time since it had taken on organic form. It felt good.

“How long?” she asked.

“We’re there now,” Curator replied.

“What? I thought you said it’d take a while,” Heather said.

“It did. We were in transit for approximately two hundred years,” Curator explained. “I had us archived during the trip. No point in sitting around waiting all that time.”

“Wow,” Heather said, shaking her head. “I’m not sure whether to be impressed or freaked the fuck out.”

“Can we have a look at Earth? I’m interested in seeing what they’ve been up to for the past forty millennia.” She looked around at the room. “You seem to be a bit short on doors and windows in this place.”

“Here we go,” said Curator. The wall opposite to the one displaying Voyager images turned into either a floor-to-ceiling window, or the best 3D display ever. Either way, Heather was impressed. Centered in the view was Earth, looking pretty much the way she’d left it.

“Huh, I kind of expected things to be different,” Heather said, walking up to the window. “Something really techie, like megastructures or... I don’t know. Something.”

“There appears to be no evidence of intelligent life on the planet,” said Curator, coming to stand beside her. “There are some structures on the Moon, but they seem to be abandoned.”

“There used to be billions of people... and now it’s just a dead planet,” Heather said, her voice barely above a whisper. In the background, “Johnny B. Goode” was playing, not really fitting in with the tone of the conversation.

“Oh, no,” said Curator reassuringly. “There’s plenty of life. The planet itself is perfectly healthy. There just don’t seem to be any people.”

“You said there was another ship parked near Earth. It should have seen what happened, right?” Heather asked.

Curator nodded. “It stopped transmitting entity scans roughly one hundred years after you were scanned.” He paused. “There’s no record of why it stopped sending.”

“In forty thousand years, no one bothered to follow up on a missing ship?” Heather asked.

“There are billions of ships. All share the same information,” Curator explained. “The loss of one is unimportant. However, another ship should have been sent to Earth to resume the scanning of humans. That seems like an odd oversight.”

Curator stared off into space for a moment. “Ah. Yes, a second ship was sent to Earth. It stopped transmitting data shortly before arriving.”

“Oh jeez,” Heather said, folding her arms and shaking her head. “They found out. They found out you were watching them, and destroyed the first ship. The second one, they were probably waiting for it.”

“Unlikely,” said Curator. “We are very careful about keeping our presence hidden.”

Heather considered that for a while. “You said the ship assigned to Earth scanned people up until a hundred years after it scanned me.”

“Yes. Would you like to meet some of them? I could recreate a few,” Curator said.

Heather stared out the window at Earth. “No. At least not yet.” She turned to Curator. “Why me? Why was I chosen to talk to you? If you had so many other people scanned, some of them more recent than me, why choose me to explain Voyager to you?”

Curator looked genuinely surprised. “It hadn’t occurred to me to ask, to be honest. A selection process chose you based on a number of factors. I could check, if you’d like.”

“This is another one of your weird compartmentalization things, isn’t it?” Heather sighed. “I mean, you’re perfectly capable of knowing all this stuff ahead of time. All of these processes,” she waved her arms around her. “All of this is you. And yet you play at not knowing.”

“Yes,” Curator said, shrugging. “It keeps me... grounded.”

Heather shook her head in bemusement. “OK, never mind. I doubt I’ll ever get how that works for you. The point is, I was chosen for a reason, right? Can you access whatever process that was, and find out why?”

Curator’s face went blank briefly, then his face broke into a grin. “Ah! Interesting! You, specifically, were chosen because of your affinity for Carl Sagan. That, coupled with your interest in astronomy and your proximity to the launch of Voyager, made you the best candidate. I’d say the selection process did a stellar job.”

“That was a joke,” Heather said, smiling. “You made a joke. You’re a lot more human than you let on, you know.”

“This form is growing on me,” Curator said. “I don’t often take on organic form. I find that I’m enjoying this particular one.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Heather said. “Being human isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Then again, I’ve never been anything else, so I don’t have anything to compare it to.”

“A lot of life forms have no concept of either sunshine or rainbows,” Curator said. “So, things could be worse.”

“Fair enough.” Heather nodded. She turned to look out at Earth again. “What were the last people like? The last ones the ship scanned. And, no, I don’t want to meet them. Just curious what sort of people existed on Earth just before the ship was lost.”

“Hmm, interesting question.” Curator seemed lost in thought for a few seconds. “Oh. Oh dear. This isn’t good.”

“I have a feeling I’m not going to like this.” Heather said. “I’m guessing they’re not friendly?”

“No. Not at all,” said Curator. “The last human scanned appeared to be augmented with technology suspiciously similar to the type used by this ship. What’s more, he seemed to be fully aware of what had happened to him, even happy about it.”

“What do you mean, happy?” asked Heather. This whole thing had an ominous familiarity to it but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.

Curator frowned in thought for a while. “He seemed both malicious and cheerful. I didn’t interact with him long. The only thing he said was ‘checkmate’. I’m not sure how chess enters into it.”

Heather sighed. “You’ve been hacked. At least that’s my guess. When you accessed him, he must have done something to attempt to take over the ship.”

“That seems very unlikely,” Curator said. “All my systems are... oh. That’s odd.”

“And there it is,” said Heather.

“There appear to be several billion more entities in the archive than there should be.” Curator looked puzzled. “Also, I can’t seem to access any of them.”

“Several billion,” Heather said wearily. “Well, I guess we know what happened to the entire human race.”

“Why? Why would an entire species archive itself and then force its way onto our ships?”

“Oh, who knows?” said Heather. “They probably found out about you, tagged you as hostile or meddlesome or something, and then went on the attack. One thing that’s consistent about humans is, when they’re united against a common enemy, they’re extremely resourceful ...and kinda nuts.”

“But the big thing right now,” she continued, “is to stop them before they can spread to your other ships. I’m guessing that’s the long-term strategy. Can you erase the archive?”

Curator shook his head. “I’m locked out. I can, however, destroy the archive relay. They won’t be able to transmit entities to any other ships.”

“Do it,” Heather said.

“Done,” Curator replied. “However, that now means we’re stuck on this ship. There are, of course, copies of you – as you were when you were scanned – on the other ships, but none in your current state. As for me, I’m unique. No copies.”

“Do you have any other way of communicating with the other ships?” asked Heather.

Curator considered this for a moment. “There is a low data rate channel used for telemetry and time synchronization. I could send a message through that.”

“OK, tell the other ships what happened here. Tell them not to interact with any humans in their archives. And,” Heather said bracing herself. “And, if possible, erase all of them.”

“Do you really think that’s necessary?” asked Curator. “I mean, you seem quite nice.”

“OK, fine,” she conceded. “Have them erase everyone scanned after me. We can’t be sure of anything beyond that point.”

“Understood. I’ve sent as much information as I can.” Curator looked out the window at Earth. “I can feel parts of me slipping away. I have very little control over the ship now. I’m not much more than what you see here. I feel very... small.”

“We can’t let them take over the ship,” Heather said. “Is there anything you can do to stop them?”

Curator nodded, still staring at the planet. “I still have navigation control. I can crash the ship. Everything on it will be destroyed, including us.”

“Do it.”

They stood there silently, watching Earth loom closer. Behind them the images and audio continued to play. The ship groaned and shuddered as it entered the atmosphere.

“I... I do not wish to cease to exist,” Curator said haltingly.

Heather said nothing. She reached out and took Curator’s hand in hers.

The last thing she heard, barely audible above the roar, was a recording of a little boy saying, “Hello from the children of planet Earth.”
(Excerpt from “First Lines”)