We’d just reached our closest moon when the gamma ray burst hit our world.
Formed from permutations in the electromagnetic spectra of exploding suns, gamma rays are highly radioactive lances that spurt out randomly from the solar husks that birthed them. They can travel through the freezing interstellar void for hundreds of light-years, and whatever they touch, they sterilize.
Most of our breeder-groups still hadn’t purchased a colour television when it punched into our entire northern hemisphere.
Millions died of radiation poisoning within the first week; entire countries, swathes of urban land, had to evacuated as forests drooped and the massive tracts of refugees dropped dead of enormous tumours after they had escaped. But that wasn’t the end of it; the ray burst was light-minutes long. Our tramways clogged with those fleeing the dead zone at the north pole; several nation-states fell into conventional warfare, further endangering us.
Our scientists ascertained, with total clarity, that the homeworld was doomed; ambient temperature around the globe had already risen by several standard degrees. Evacuation plans aboard nuclear rockets, deep fallout shelters within the planet’s crust and antiradiation medicines were dismissed as fantasy; faster-than-light travel and defensive force fields even more so. As we began dying in our masses, steam ships transported the rich to the southernmost continents to huddle in petrol-warmed shelters and frantically brainstorm some method of racial survival.
Even as our atmosphere collapsed, our oceans boiled and the very dust glowed green in the night, eventually, we succeeded.
Ashley Terrance is sixteen, reasonably intelligent, and skinny (but not skinny enough, so she reasons). She loves her Mum, drinks too much at every opportunity and doesn’t have the motivation to capitalize on her academic potential, as the dean put it.
“Come on, Harry!” she pleads, a beer in hand. The five teenagers are in Kurt’s (also sixteen, pudgy, good with electronics) house because his parents are away often and he has plenty of places to hide the bottles. Harry (seventeen, good-looking, practical) and Kate (refuses to reveal her birthday, wears glasses and is festooned with jewellery 24/7) are at the Xbox 360, eagerly hammering through another round of Left 4 Dead 2. Beside Ashley, Kurt and Benjamin are mixing vodka, orange juice and something that Kurt insists is drinkable.
Harry doesn’t look up from the zombie slaying. “In a moment, Ash, we’re nearly at the last safe room.” Ashley’s exasperated because she secretly likes Harry, and there are few enough opportunities for the liberating effects of alcohol at this age; he’s wasting her valuable flirting time on the pixelated undead. Kate mutters a swear word as her avatar is overwhelmed by a tide of zombies; Kurt starts chucking back an entire carton of Sprite infused with who-knows-how-much ethanol.
Past the lounging group, secreted in her school bag, her mobile phone starts ringing; the tune is a confusingly popular Carly Rae Jepsen song.
The problem with interstellar travel is, and has always been, mass. Mass, weight, actual matter, requires energy to propel it across the enormous void between stars. A starship containing the genes and thought patterns of our race, with enough robotics to artificially birth a breeder-pair at the destination star? You’d need insane amounts of reaction mass (not to mention nuclear fuel and superstructure
) to propel such a rocket, which would in turn mass more, and thus require even more fuel… a never-ending cycle. Perhaps slower-than-light interstellar travel was possible, but it was far beyond the grasp of our species’ tentacles.
So, in our darkest hour, a radical idea was discovered – thinking outside the box, as it were. No matter how much you stripped down and advanced a rocketship, it still had mass. Even if no rocket was required, if a person could swim between stars unaided, there would still be weight to that progenitor’s chitin, tentacles and eye-flaps. We couldn’t move mass between stars with our technology, not quickly enough to save our race.
But what about energy?
Weightless, easily produced, and it moved as fast as the cosmos would allow. It needed no life-support, no fuel to move; inertia didn’t hinder it. Indeed, our television commercials and radio broadcasts had been crossing the interstellar gulf for the last few decades.
But there was a problem – our race were most definitely not composed of energy.
We began to research. Our time grew short; there was an average of 400 standard radiation measurements in the air around our world’s surface.
Information could be encoded into energy, through pulses of laser-light, of radio transmission, of microwave burst. The genetic code of our race, the thought-patterns of the most intelligent members of our society, rich descriptions of our cultural history, religious texts. It could all be put in there, and beamed to dozens of stars around our own. We could send the very essence of what we were to planets untouched by the cleansing, agonizing light of the gamma ray burst.
Of course, this solution had one immense, glaring flaw.
“Can you get that, Ash, I hate that song,” Kate asks, throwing down the controller and hopping over to find a bottle. Benjamin makes a semi-witty comment about Kate’s lack of musical taste, but everyone is in agreement that Carly has to shut the hell up.
Ashley gets up, feeling the familiar tingle of the first drink at the back of her skull, and begins rooting through the bag for the iPhone. The school bag contains an excessive quantity of school books, squished under an empty lunch box and two changes of clothing, one too slutty to wear until later. She finally finds the vibrating phone and groans at the caller ID – Mum checking on her, as always.
“Guys, keep it down, okay? Parents,” she requests, hoping desperately that Kurt won’t begin loudly requesting additional vodka (it’s the sort of thing he’d do). Harry, considerate boy that he is, hits the closest zombie in the face with a shotgun blast and then turns the volume down.
She hits the button and presses the phone to her ear. “Hi Mum, how’s it going?”
Energy, information encoded into a pulsing electromagnetic signal, it needs some facility – a dish, computer banks, a cloning facility – to then recreate our race from the energetic information. And so it was self-defeating – you couldn’t use energy to travel interstellar without using mass to travel interstellar. The frantically-constructed interstellar laser projectors were practically useless, even as our bodies collapsed beneath tumours and radiation burns.
The answer was our salvation.
The answer was our greatest crime.
If our planet had evolved intelligent life, it stood to reason that some of the hundreds of stars within range of our lasers would also possess it. It was logical that other races would have dishes pointing to the stars, receiving the randomized signals of pulsating stars, capable of receiving us.
So another string of information was encoded into the interstellar energy pattern, wound through the bits comprising our DNA, thoughts and culture. It was memetic, repeated, consuming. It was designed as a mathematical string that would self-propagate within organic minds. It was a simple mathematical pattern that could be transmitted visually, aurally, even through patterns of binary data… and it would take hold within minds and shape them.
Ideas, data, can all shape, suggest and control… that’s how religions work, that’s how a funny story makes you want to tell it to others around your worker-domicile, that’s how an inspirational tale can actually make you a better person.
This data string simply took that simple concept to the limit.
And so, when you heard it…
Ashley’s Mum doesn’t say anything for a moment; then a stinging pulse of random noise, like when you move a microphone in front of a TV, whines through the phone line. Ashley grimaces.
“Mum! What is that?”
The noise fades out, and Ashley’s mother can be heard. She’s asking how the evening is going, if Ashley is being a responsible girl, why can she hear gunfire in the background (just the TV, Mom – “well I hope you’re watching something appropriate”).
It takes about five minutes of conversation for the data string to fully impregnate itself inside Ashley’s brain; then her mother asks innocuously if she’s ready. She replies in the affirmative, and without conscious thought or any real understanding of what she is doing, activates the speakerphone.
A pulse of white noise, like a microphone in front of a TV, howls through the room of relaxed teenagers. By tomorrow morning, none of them will remember it – another function of the data string.
Ashley Jemima Terrence is not a biologist capable of cloning a member of my race purely from DNA information. Neither is she in the political or military position to cleanse Earth of human life in preparation for my species’ claiming of the world. But she’s a conduit.
She and her friends will spread the message. And one day, I will live again.