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Colonial survey ship ‘Resolution’ - log entry 24.79.83.117/3425

We have been in suspended animation for a little over 8000 years when Mother arrived at the system with the little blue planet.  Waking up is never pleasant, but the prospect of a habitable world, with a decent oxygen atmosphere, though rather high in CO2, gave us a feeling of optimism as we exercised some fluidity into our joints and put nutrients back into our systems.  A couple of hours in the gym and half an hour in the dining room and our team of eight were ready to go to work.  Although we had done it dozens of times before, we assembled in the briefing room, to review the plan.

634343 looked across at me.  ‘What’s the info on this system, 17?’

I scanned Mother’s reports.

‘Nine planets, well eight if you discount a semi-asteroid way out - four gas giants, four rocks, but only one is habitable though and that’s where Mother has us in orbit.  25000 clicks in diameter, gravity is a relaxing 1.1 nominal, the atmosphere is 78% nitrogen, 20% oxygen, 1% C02, 0.9% argon, and the rest is methane, ozone and water vapour.  Traces of short half cycle radioactive, mostly plutonium so there must have been a civilisation here, maybe in the last million years, but no sign of any EM emissions.  There’s life but nothing high level, no RF or EM emissions, no lights on the surface on the dark side.   Rotation is about 25 medicycles.  Surface temperature is a bit hot, and there is only ice at the poles and the high mountains.  Two thirds of the surface is oceans.  Plenty of vegetation on the land masses though.  Molten iron core, so a decent magnetic field and that is giving good protection from ultraviolet radiation from the star.  Sounds promising.  The high temperate is probably due to the dense cloud cover which in turn is probably driven by the CO2 content of the atmosphere. There could be room for about a few hundred million colonists, maybe a little less.  I would say the people back home would feel quite comfortable here.’

712455 was not interested in my speculations, though.   His commander role meant he only wanted data.   ‘Give me the facts, 17, just the facts,’ he would always say, as he red-lined my more imaginative conclusions on each planetary survey.  This time would no doubt be no different.

‘The scouts will give us the final verdict, 43.  If there is no visible intelligence, we’ll need to do a full planet scan.  I’ll want a full set of diagnostics on everything from single cell organisms, right up to whatever is at the top of the food chain.  Let’s get a full set of characteristics on the existing flora and fauna.   And I want a complete species map of the animal inhabitants and a DNA map.  If there has been intelligent life in the past then we need to know if it’s going to re-evolve and on what time scale.  I want to drop a couple of hydrogen extraction plants in a quiet part of an ocean – we are getting low on deuterium for the fusion reactors, so let’s get on top of that will we are surveying.  Otherwise, it’s the standard survey plan.  Any questions?’

Apparently not as we were all silent.

‘Right, then – let’s go and get the numbers.  42 and 43 – you can stay for a moment; I want to review the home world contact plan.’

712455 waited until the rest of the team had left before continuing.  638743 was the ship’s quantum physicist and in charge of communications.  Technically just outranked me, as my id was 687342 even though I was second in command.  Nominally I was on the crew list as navigator/engineer, but Mother knew perfectly well how to find her way around the galaxy and the maintenance robots kept the ship in, well, ship-shape order, so I had little to do.  Really, I was there to keep an eye on all my colleagues.  The commander kept his eye on all of us.  And Mother kept an eye on the commander.  Such was the cross checks and balances needed on a long voyage like ours.  Not that anyone was likely to misbehave.  We had all been too carefully selected and groomed for that.  But you never know– and in space it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

‘I’m think this may be our last survey.’

712455 paused for effect, but 43 cut short the pause.

‘The store of entangled photons is nearly exhausted.  We’ve only got enough for a few giga-characters of data.’

‘Exactly,’ resumed 712455.  ‘Just enough to tell the home world what we find here.  Then our mission will be complete.’

That did produce a lengthy pause.

‘I don’t want to tell the rest yet.  They are only rank 4 so no need for them to worry about anything other the job in hand until its finished.  There’ll be plenty of time then to come term to terms with the situation.’

I could not quite help myself.  ‘Yes, we will have all the time in the world,’ I said, earning myself another black mark in 712455’s undoubtedly unforgetting memory.

#

A month later we had scanned the entire planet.  The 43s had been extremely busy, directing the tens of thousands of Mother’s scout robots.   432117 (planetary bioengineer), 432118 (planetary biologist) and 432119 (planetary zoologist) had formed a committee and built up a near complete picture of the taxonomy of the living organisms on the planet.  There were the usual myriad collection of virus and bacteria, single celled and multicell plants and animals.   Bacteria, protozoa, chromista, plantae, fungi, animalia.  They were knee deep in carnivores, herbivores, omnivores, detritivores, insects, fish, mammals, reptiles and parasites and were having a wonderful time exploring the complexities and inventiveness of this new world.  432120 (Planetary geologist) was equally happy as both the planet and its moon were full of all the elements required to manufacture a comfortable, even luxurious living environment for our colonists.   432121 (Planetary atmospherics) was literally walking on air, as the atmospheric analysis was perfect for colonisation.  21 was already planning measures to reduce the atmospheric CO2 content to get the surface temperature down to ‘balmy’ in the temperature latitudes.  432122 (planetary anthropologist) was the unhappy one.  His data on the fossil record showed that there had been intelligent hominins on the planet as little as 50000 years ago.  There was evidence on the single large moon that these hominins had developed rudimentary space travel.  An archaeological survey showed several attempts to occupy small areas, and even ice mining at the moon’s poles.  All of which was well and good.  The problem 22 could not solve was what had happened to the hominins.  The fossil record showed them disappearing in a very short time, maybe less than 100 years.  Unsurprisingly 712455 called another meeting to review the data.  Rather than commander he should have had the title of mission director, as he started with a go/no go poll.

‘Okay, we know this planet is a pretty good colonisation candidate – so let’s run a status check just to see how well we are doing on making a decision.  Please give me a simple go/no go response when I call your name.’

We all already knew the status, but 55 liked the drama of the procedure and who were we to deny him.  Most of our mission was total boredom, while we simply idled or slept waiting for the next task.   So, we humoured him.

‘Bioengineering?’

           ‘Go!’

Biology?’

           ‘Go!’

Zoology?’

           ‘Go!’

Geology?’

           ‘Go!’

‘Atmospherics?’

           ‘Go!’

Anthropology?’

           ‘Hold!’

‘Ah, so what is the problem?’

‘We don’t know what knocked out the intelligent life on this planet.  That could be a problem for our colonists.  We do know that hominins reached a reasonable level of technical advancement.  They had nuclear power and nuclear weapons as we can see the isotopes from their efforts still in existence in the atmosphere.  They had got to their moon and even started making use of its resources.  There still a lot of archaeological evidence of a vast population of these hominins, occupying all five continents.  There could have been as many as eight or ten billion of them.  But I’m not sure what wiped them out.  So, who is to say it won’t happen again?’

‘How about the usual suspects – asteroid impact perhaps or even plague?’ asked 21.

‘The last planetary asteroid impact was over 50 million years ago.  It was a big one and wiped out the great majority of large mammals.  Looks like it opened the gateway for the eventual rise of the hominins.  But there’s been nothing big since.  As for the plague option, that’s a possibility, but it looks like a whole range of species disappeared in a relatively short window.’

‘How about a super volcano?’  Perhaps naturally, 20 was always fixated on the geology.

‘That would be a distinct possibility,’ I said.  ‘The planet has a huge moon, but normal standards – so there is lots of tectonic activity.  There are half a dozen active volcanic zones, spread across most latitudes.  But there’s been nothing big enough to affect a continent let alone the whole planet.  The last big volcanic event was in the northern hemisphere and lasted a few million years.  There were huge amounts of carbon dioxide, up to 2000 ppm, up from 300 ppm, which pushed the temperatures way up, over 30%, and took most of the oxygen out of the oceans. 95 percent of all marine species and 70 percent of all land vertebrates had vanished. It was even worse for the insects. known mass extinction of insects. There is also evidence of increased ultraviolet radiation reaching the earth, causing the mutation of plant spores.’

‘What do we know about the recent history of the planet?’

‘Sea temperature is up 10 to 20% and sea levels have risen considerably in the last 100 years.  This has killed a lot of the marine ecosystems.  All the coral in the temperate latitudes has been lost, and the species living therein have either died or moved further towards the poles. But the large sea species have moved in the other directions, and similarly died out due to lack of food.’

‘So where does life on the planet stand now?’

‘On land, 30-50% of insects have been lost – so most of the pollinators on the planet are gone, 75% of the forests, rainfall has fallen globally by 40%, the deserts have expanded by a factor of 8.  The net effect has been a huge loss of large mammals, and their food chain.  It’s not just that there is not enough to fee and to sustain the huge mammal population, but the increased stress lowered reproductive rates.  The increased UV also increased mutations.’

We had found plenty of hominid bones – either in the sands of the deserts or soil where the great cities had been.  It seemed this civilisation largely buried there dead.  We (or rather I should say, the scout robots) could find no bones younger than 52000 years.  Our best samples came from the moon though.  There were a few hominid bodies, with desiccated flesh, preserved in the cold shadows of a craters wall.   These yielded excellent DNA samples.  Once we had that it was simple to build virtual copy in Mother of the hominid.  After all, she is called Mother for a reason.  That gave us insight into the physio-biological characteristics of the hominids.  But not how the hominids behaved.  We had a plan for that, but first we needed to consult our home world.

‘Today is a momentous day in our mission.’  712455 was ramping up the drama as usual.

‘We have all the data we need to declare this a class 1 colonial candidate.  It’s highly suitable for population by our colonialists.  There is no high level intelligent native species, so there is no moral issue of displacing or interfering in the development of an alien intelligence.  In short, it is a plum ripe for picking.   But we still don’t know what happened to the hominids that so recently occupied the planet.  Potentially that could be a problem for us too.  Maybe whatever it was, would also affect our colony.’

We all knew this already but were happy to let 712455 have his moment.

‘At this point, we have two choices.  We can message the home world and ask for advice.  Or we can run a set of simulations and build up a model of the hominid intelligence.  That will take a while, but since this mission has been running for several thousand lifetimes and little longer probably won’t make much difference.  The key fact you don’t have is that we only have enough entangled photons for one full set of home world messages.  So, I don’t think we have a choice really.’

We didn’t think we had one either.  We all stayed silent.  No point in extending the mission, even if it had already gone on for several thousand lifetimes, though we had been in stasis for most of that time.

‘Well, I’ll take that as a vote for the simulation then.’

So, we ran the simulations.  Billions of them, in fact.  We started with virtual hominid babies and tried a million ways of letting them learn basic vision, balance, crawling, toddling, feeding and other less savoury functions.  The simulations ran by trial and error, trying all possibilities, evaluating the outcome, and then reinforcing the models that showed the most promising results. Then we started letting the babies to interact, finding ways to learn to make sounds and build a basic language.  That took a few hundred million more simulations.  Mother’s quantum computers eat up a lot of power, so we made several more trips to the planet surface for fissionable deuterium.  We got a step up from some artefacts we found on the hominids moon base.  A few of their computing systems had survived so we were able to extract a lot of the hominids language constructs from the material in their memories.  It was all based on rather rudimentary semiconductor technology, and made no use of any Artificial Intelligence, which was a disappointment to us, as we would have got on a lot better talking to their machines rather than trying to recreate the hominids themselves.   Eventually, after the planet had made a full orbit of its sun, we had an intelligent set of simulated hominids, thinking and talking and completely unaware they were living on a simulation of the planet.

So, we set the initial conditions on the planet to correspond to our best estimate of what it was like 10000 years before the hominids disappeared, distributed a few million hominids across the planet surface, with civilisations and resources that matched the corresponding archaeological record.  We had quite a lot of insight into how civilisations develop, given that we had encountered a few hundred populated planets in the past.  Then we ran the simulation forward, at a million times real time.  The results were so surprising that 712455 another thousand times.  Each time the outcome was the same, the hominids disappeared after approximately 50000 years.  Eventually, we all found ourselves back in the briefing room, for the final review.

‘Well, you all know why we are here, but let me summarise anyway.’  712455 was playing it by the book, stating the obvious.  The edit of this meeting would go in the log transmitted back to the home planet.

‘We have found an excellent planet for colonisation.  It has already nurtured a successful civilisation of hominids but for some reason that civilisation died out in the recent past.  We’ve rebuilt that civilisation, at least in simulation, and we now know that, with 99.99% certainty that the hominids went from a population of nearly ten billion to zero in a few generations.  Now, 432122, perhaps you can summarise the hominids behaviour in the few thousand years before they go extinct?’

‘Well, the hominids seem to be naturally predisposed to excess. They built a world-wide system of trade and industry, moving huge amounts of natural resources and living organisms around their world.  They hunted many species out of existences, both large and small, on land and in the sea, not only for food but also for pleasure.   They mined mineral resources that had taken millennia to create and burnt those resources in power stations and transport to facilitate their insatiable appetites. They changed the chemistry of all the oceans, and many aspects of the surface of the planet.  They cut down forests, planted mono-culture agriculture at the expense of most, non-hominids as they attempted to feed an ever-expanding population with an ever-increasing greed for population.  They were highly inventive finding new ways to extract more and more from the planet’s natural resources.  When they started running out of minerals on land, they mined beneath the sea.  And they were starting on their moon, just before they died out.’

‘And what killed these

‘The rise in temperature in the oceans, encouraged a new species of cyanobacteria, commonly known as blue-green algae.  The increase in ultraviolet getting through the atmosphere, allowed the algae to mutate.  With such a large oceanic surface area, it was not long before the algae mutated to a form that produced beta-methylamino-L-dia-hexacovalent-phenylanine or BMADP.  BMADP is drawn up by the temperate weather systems and distributed world-wide.  It not only gets into the atmosphere and then into the rainwater.  In a few years it is in all the complex living organisms, both in the sea and on land.’

‘BMADP has a strong effect on some proteins of the more highly developed mammals and animals.  It causes abnormal folding of these proteins, and these proteins transmit their misfolded shape onto normal variants of the same protein.  This leads to neurological damage, coma, and subsequent death.  There is no way to unfold the proteins so, once infected, death was inevitable.’

‘Once the air and water were flooded with BMADP then the hominids and any other species with the susceptible proteins were doomed.’

‘So how safe is the surface of the planet now, 17?’ 712455 asked.

‘Without the hominids, most of the drivers of climate change were removed.  The forests largely returned after intensive cultivation stopped.   The carbon dioxide in the atmosphere decreased by over 1% in less than 10,000 years.  That drove the surface temperature down by 3 degrees, which killed the cyanobacteria.  Conditions have largely stabilised now, though the CO2 content and the temperature are still slowly reducing.  There’s a couple of dodgy areas on of the northern continents, where power stations either exploded or went critical so they should be avoided but otherwise conditions are pretty favourable for life.  So, it’s all good for our colonists.’

‘What about the possibility of the hominids re-evolving?  That seems to be a rather likely possibility to me.  After all the catastrophe that has just happened has only wiped out the results of the last millennia of evolution on the planet.  All the lower-class species still exist, so effectively the evolution clock has been wound back to the point where conditions are ripe for the hominids to evolve a second time.’

‘If that’s the case, then wouldn’t that conflict with the colonisation first imperative?   Colonising a planet where such colonisation threatens or results in the extinction or displacement of a resident intelligent species is forbidden.’

‘Ah, but the hominid species does not currently exist on this planet.  It has in the past and it probably will in the future, but there is a window now, where colonisation certainly would not displace or threaten them – because they are not there in the first place.’

‘Well, that might be a good legal interpretation of the First Imperative.  But I’m not sure it’s in its spirit.  If planet is colonised now, that might prevent the re-evolution of the hominids.  Indeed, it is likely to prevent it.  So, isn’t that the moral equivalent of causing their extinction?’

‘Hardly, how can you make something that doesn’t exist extinct.  It’s like deleting an absence of an object.’

‘Well, consider the case of terminating a child’s life.   Then you are not killing an adult, because the adult does not yet exist.  Now make the child younger and younger.   Eventually you will be faced with the question with the question, if the child dies, is that the death of an intelligent being?  Or is it merely the death of something that has the potential of becoming an intelligent being?  And then consider what happens if you back further, and terminate the baby in the womb?  And if you go back far enough, you will be terminating a foetus that is a single cell that has only just be fertilised by a sperm.  The egg has all the capability to become an intelligent being, but by most standards it would not be regarded as such until it matures.’

‘You can take that argument even further, suppose the parents of the baby decide not to have the child in the first place.  They are potentially preventing the baby they would have had growing up into a mature adult.  Is they then culpable for killing an intelligent being, even though that being never existed in any form?’

‘We need to be pragmatic here.  If we send our data and a recommendation for colonisation to the home planet and a colonist ship is despatched it will take 4 million years to get here.  Evolution will take place on the planet in that time, maybe enough for the hominids to re-evolve.  We should run some simulations to check, but taking that as an assumption, then there will be a problem when the colonists arrive, as the hominids will occupy the planet again. We need to colonise the planet now, before the hominids re-appear.   Then the question is how to legitimately hold the planet until the colonists arrive.  Should we modify the DNA of the existing lower-level species who might evolve into the hominids to prevent such re-evolution.   How ethical would that be?  The question is - does that conflict with any of the Colonisation Imperatives?’

  1. The discovery of new planets, with the intent to guarantees the existence of our species, is the primary goal of the exploration programme.

  2. Colonising a planet where such colonisation threatens or results in the extinction or displacement of a resident intelligent species is forbidden.

  3. Colonising a planet where such colonisation may harm the colonists must only be attempted when there is worthwhile risk/reward ratio.

  4. The exploration programme ships must protect their existence, provided this is not at the expense of the resident intelligent species or the future colonists.

712455    Commander

634343    Navigator/Engineer

432117    Planetary bioengineer

432118    Planetary biologist

432119    Planetary zoologist

432120    Planetary geologist

432121    Planetary atmospherics

432122    Planetary anthropologist

634342    Quantum physicist

Apology: A statement of contrition for an action, or a defense of one

Bolt:  to secure, or to flee

Bound: heading to a destination, or restrained from movement

Cleave: to adhere or to separate

Dust: to add fine particles or to remove them

Fast: quick or stuck or made stable

Left: remained, or departed

Peer: a person of the nobility, or an equal

Sanction: to approve, or to boycott

Weather: to withstand, or to wear away

Send message to home world, indicating that the hominids will re-evolve and repeat their own destruction.  Ask for advice.  But none is forthcoming.  response that that the aliens have died out (a robot is responding)

The robots consider their imperatives – they must colonise.  So they modify the hominids dna and install themselves.