Author : Glenn Blakeslee
I was in the flight center when the first probe went out. The heavy lifter rose on the obligatory pillar of flame, tracked across the south sea, ejected its boosters, and achieved orbit.
I was still in the flight center when the probe left Earth orbit, bound for the outer planets. Damon was at the station next to mine, monitoring the telemetry for the coolant temperatures on the sunward side of the probe. Everything was nominal.
“Well, they’ve done it,” Damon said.
He was referring to the fact that this was the first of several probes designed and built completely by non-human systems. The agency that we worked for had developed, after two decades of work, a process in which machine intelligences developed subsystems, robot manufactories produced the system components from raw materials and assembled the spacecraft, and huge automated gantries delivered the payload, on the lifter, to the launch pad.
It was a boon to the rapid prototyping and delivery of inexpensive spacecraft. Redundancy made the whole deal relatively error-free, and as the intelligences always designed along similar lines, the cost was very low.
All we had to do, as humans, was to enter the basic parameters desired for the probe. In this case a single engineer sat at a terminal at the start of the process and typed in:
>search for life
Damon and I were in a bar in South Miami when the news came in.
He and I were both laid off, living on unemployment and free-lance telecom jobs in the greater Miami area. The launch systems and flight monitoring had been turned over to the machines, too, as the success of the machine-driven spacecraft development process had been proven.
The television over the bar displayed a single all-caps headline, “LIFE FOUND,” and Damon and I both watched the live, albeit delayed, feed from the successful probe.
The feed was high-definition and the detail was magnificent. On the screen was the sunlit limb of a planet, green-gold, the hazy shroud of the atmosphere thickening as it diminished toward the horizon. In the foreground was a chaotic scene: a large artificial satellite teeming with the rapid, frenzied activity of machines, their silver metallic carapaces glittering in the harsh sunlight.
“It’s the wrong damn kind of life,” Damon said.