Author: Warren Woodrich Pettine
We replaced our eyes with machines. The impact of perceiving the full spectrum – from viciously fast gamma rays to the yawning gaps of AM radio – was profound. Our ears were next. Augmenting the perception of substance compression, we learned to hear gravity. We listened to the moon as it pulled the tides, heard Venus cross between the Earth and the Sun. Then smell. The range of detected chemicals was expanded two thousand-fold. We could sense the slightest variation in the Earth’s oxygen composition. (The rise in carbon on a heating planet smelled like fire.) Taste was discarded. By that point, we had no digestive tracts, just batteries and nutrient infusions. Areas of the brain specialized for useless things like arm movement were bathed in drugs and reprogramed to control synthetic limbs, or to interface with external silicon-based processing. But our memories remained intact. When I was a child, before the transformation, I had you, my mother, and I touched grass. Both are now gone.
Our natural forms are too delicate for the physical conditions of deep space travel, or the time durations required. To carry humanity across vast distances, one hundred of us volunteered to be re-engineered. The process was successful in eighty-seven subjects. With proper maintenance, our brains were projected to survive four thousand Self-Referenced years. It has been 1,189,472.7 since I was born. The magnitude by which they underestimated our viability belays how little the doctors understood the consequences of what they had done.
Earth was destroyed a mere 38.5 Earth-Referenced years after we left. I heard the gravity of its quiet consumption at the same moment the transmission of its radio signals abruptly ceased. There was an unanticipated instability at the core of the sun, causing an implosion and expansion. Just like that, our past was erased. Or, was erased 13.8 Earth-Referenced years prior. Light moves too slowly.
When we reached Wolf 1061, the Eden protocols failed. We found a suitable planet, with Earth equivalent gravity and plentiful water. It could have hosted a form of life, the one I grew up with on Barbados, warm with palm trees and the calls of birds. Our progress with vegetation and insect life proceeded without issue. But the artificial instantiation of amniotic life was not possible after the Self-Referenced centuries of travel. When designing the project, scientists could not feasibly test such timescales, and so relied on theory. Theory is always simplification. In this case, simplifications hid a terrible tragedy. The most advanced life we created on that planet was a butterfly. I recall watching one float against the alien breeze. In that moment, I remembered when I was ten years old, watching your hair pulled by humid wind.
Guided evolution of insects also failed. A solar flare irradiated the remaining life beyond resuscitation, and our terraforming efforts elicited volcanic activity that destroyed our reserve biologic material. Some of us stayed there, but most of us left, scattering in different directions, looking for intelligence beyond the legacy of Earth.
We found we are alone. After millions of Earth-Referenced years, we have located no alien life more sophisticated than DNA-less hyperthermophiles. In isolated desperation, I produced over one million automated exploratory devices and spread them throughout the galaxy. These are the corners of my eyes and the reach of my fingers. But save for our kind, the galaxy is empty. In all this time, it has proved impossible to artificially replicate in-silico the spontaneous adaptive creativity of the human brain. When the last of us dies, conscious thought will die.
At the center of our galaxy is a black hole. It pulls stars into itself. Great gas churns. As the gas swirls, new stars are called forth then collide, creating and destroying, pulling into inescapable nothingness – monstrous branches reaching out from roots in a dark center. Some journeyed there and cast themselves in. Others became violent, scorching primordial planets and murdering our kind. (That I was not among them would make you proud.) None of the predators remain. Nihilism is ill-suited to survival.
So many parts of us were dissected away. We have no skin, no lips, no tear ducts. But those fragile pieces of biology were meant to serve a purpose. Now a handful of us live, drifting. We call to one another like whales in the ocean, knowing it will be hundreds or thousands of years before a friend hears our greeting. The purpose given so very long ago lasted shorter than a breath. But we are left to keep going, wax melting down a long candle in an abandoned house. It is like writing a letter to a mother who died when I was twelve years old.
I spent the last 68.8 Self-Referenced years constructing a shell for raw-material storage and systemic repair. My body is now a frigate, large enough to span from beach to beach of the island where you cared for me. I feel every part of it as exquisitely as I once felt the salty water of the surf.
A few hours ago, I saw the radiation of a supernova, bent by the gravity of a white dwarf, reflected on the liquid water of a comet passing near a yellow star. Tomorrow, I will begin the 217,228.1 Self-Referenced year journey to the nearby Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy. It will be a duration and degree of darkness even I fail to fully fathom. With human eyes, the sky will empty as I cross, until the Milky Way itself is but a small punctate point of light in a thick prison of black. But I do not have human eyes, and I have much more to see.
Love this story. A gentle and quietly reflective voice and a strong yearning for connection across centuries and light years. Writing it as a letter to a long dead mother – wonderful. And the closing hope of maybe finding something in the next galaxy…