Adam Wykes is a writer from Rockford IL. His writing focuses primarily on science-fiction, his poetry on the metaphysical. He would just like to say that he is a big fan of Emily Novak, Civ III, shrews, wikipedia, all things Welsh, emergence, and William Gibson.
Although the greater ubiquity of the experience did not strike him at the time, Doctor Dartman did indeed encounter the odd sense that his waking into life seemed to originate from a tube. Only with him, he was popped into the hard light of a strange new sun fully grown and fully clothed in a white lab coat and slacks, bypassing all the usual requisites of biological maturation normally following from such a birthing.
Neither was this the first of such experiences in the doctor’s mind, as his eyes reminded him. The last time he had been prodded into consciousness, it had been under the light of a drastically older and dimmer star, and the artificial pigment screens in his eyes took a few moments to adjust their protective settings for the new environment.
Doctor Dartman paused to check his new chronological location and brief himself on the occasion for his awakening while the cylindrical hole in which he had been stored raised its floor flush with the floor of the storage room above. His personal computer and wristwatch informed him of both tidbits of information: the time was April twenty-seven, 2298. A Tuesday. Though his surroundings looked generally the same (except, of course, for the new star dazzling it all in its young white radiance through the room’s transparent ceiling), it was definitely a new venue for Doctor Dartman and the rest of the crew of the research ship Starbuck; two-hundred light years away from the last point of interest in the Broom Nebula. The ship was responding to a novel intelligent radio signal from planet 25 Stoker Beta, the second solid planet in the 25 Stoker system, a star system which was dead in the middle of the stellar nursery at the tip of the Broom Nebula. The planet was not only the source of an intelligent radio signal, it was apparently crawling with life, as a closer autonomous inspection by the Starbuck had revealed. This revelation had then prompted the awakening of the basic crew for human inspection, whose further investigation had shown that the intelligent creatures responsible for sending the signals (about human-sized crustacean-like creatures not unlike lobsters, the small orbital image in the briefing showed) were on the verge of extinction – the Starbuck’s Artificial Neural Network currently estimated the date of their final demise at somewhere within the next century, finer estimates not forthcoming due to a vaguely described “dynamic situation” developing on the planet.
Doctor Dartman was interested. It wasn’t only because he specialized in Astrosociology, Astrobiology, and Cognitive Science, among other fields, but because he was bred to be interested. At forty years of age, he had never known a home other than the Starbuck, the research vessel assigned to long haul duty in the Broom Nebula. Thousands of light years away from Sol or Alpha Centauri, it had been a lifetime getting out here, and it would be a lifetime getting back. But Doctor Dartman didn’t mind. It did not occur to him to mind because he was genetically coded to thrive in such a situation, and because he was raised to it by the self-contained human society aboard the Starbuck. To him, it was nothing but satisfying to live out his life as a particularly first-rate piece of analytical equipment aboard one of the most outstretched limbs of human exploration. Life was good, as this latest development reassured him. The universe was interesting anywhere, whether that place happened to be an entire galaxy, an atom, or as it happened, the glowing tip of a cosmic fumarole. That the elevator trip from the Human Storage Room to the Central Research Facility, when only a thin sheet of metal and ceramic protected him from the merciless vacuum outside, slightly unsettled him was only an incidental developmental quirk, and served to remind Doctor Dartman of something of the full spectrum of human emotion on a fairly regular basis.
The doctor arrived on the concourse floor of the Central Research Facility two minutes later, the elevator disgorging him into the antiseptic white hall where three familiar crewmembers waited for him – Captain Wuthersby, Basic Specialist Van der Waal, and Basic Specialist Oosterbeek. Doctor Dartman greeted them all and caught up with them on several inside jokes that had been brewing the last time they had met. In a few moments they were joined by Doctors Weizmann and Morricone from Human Storage Room 2.
“Is this it?” Morricone asked, appraising the small representation of the thirty or so humans on board.
“It is,” Captain Wuthersby replied. “This investigation constitutes a detour from the planned course, and as such resources will be conserved for the duration. The individuals present account for all of the personnel aboard which need be involved; the basic crew which originally responded to the anomaly and is thus best equipped to explicate the situation to you three, the specialists best educated to deal with the situation at hand.”
“Well from the sound of things it seems that we aren’t well equipped to stay for long on this sideshow, so we’d better make it as quick as possible and get right to the problem,” Doctor Weizmann said, folding her arms under her ample upper figure. For a moment Doctor Dart was unable to agree with her assertion; why shouldn’t this sideshow take a bit more of a leisurely pace? Surely it couldn’t hurt to socialize with other… interesting members of the crew for a bit… But his wandering mind was brought to heel when Wiezmann continued: “So what is the situation, anyway?”
“Right,” Specialist Van der Waal said. “For the best understanding of that we’ll have to go to Research Room 1.”
A door opened in one of the walls of the concourse and the group went inside. They enjoyed the hot coffee that was waiting for them and then sat down around a rich full-color hologram projection of 25 Stoker Beta that was slowly rotating in the center of the room, replete with its single moon. Doctor Dartman could see that it was an oceanic world – the entire surface covered in what read as liquid water and ice. The temperature at the equator was a balmy thirty degrees centigrade. The population of intelligent creatures, tentatively labeled Species 1, was identified as existing solely in a small but densely populated pocket of land on the ocean floor near the equator. It was surrounded by rough submarine mountain ridges and chasms which obviously lent something of a protective barrier to the creatures sequestered within the valley.
This told Doctor Dartman several things right away – first of all, that the species was not likely dying off as a result of disease, because the pocket of survivors was densely populated and conducive to any infection that might arise. Nor was it likely to be climate change which was pushing the sentient beings to extinction – with their intelligence and the obvious relative stability of such an ubiquitously liquid environment, it would be surprising for them to fall prey to such a disaster. But there was something that Doctor Dartman did not entirely understand about 25 Stoker Beta – the ocean floor outside the small pocket of civilization was covered in what looked like a thick and roughly fractal mat of living organic material. Specialist Oosterbeek must have guessed what was captivating Dartman’s eye (not surprising given their decades of co-existence), because he broke the contemplative silence that had fallen over the group by answering the question that rested unformed in the doctor’s mind:
“That’s the stuff that is killing them,” Oosterbeek said, pointing to the fractal mat. “It is alive, it is unintelligent, and it is killing them almost as fast as it comes into contact with their civilization.”
“What is it?” Doctor Morricone asked, shooting it a baffled stare.
“Not it. Not even them. It-Them,” Captain Wuthersby said, uploading a few hastily prepared files into their watches from hers. “As you are certainly reading, that mat is actually a nearly global life form. Although it looks contiguous from orbit, it is actually composed of billions of individuals, most of which are the sterile members of a species of hive animal much like our termites, ants, and bees on Earth. The difference here is that in terms of the mutability of this life form, it possesses some rather interesting traits. While nearly all of its physical genes appear to be highly resistant to mutation, its behavioral and hormonal genes appear to be in a state of almost constant flux. Combine that with a viciously fast rate of reproduction and a fairly versatile caste system and you have a creature capable of adapting behaviorally to almost any ecological difficulty it is presented with while simultaneously remaining reproductively compatible with even the most physically distant members of its species over time. It even appears to be capable of surmounting its most capable competitor for resources – Species 1. Close observation of hive behavior has revealed complex instinctual strategies for overcoming almost all of Species 1’s most recent and potent weapons and tactics. It almost seems like it is responding to new threats intelligently, but we’re almost certain that it nothing more than instinctual prowess acting in concert on a large scale to produce what appears to be an intricately designed strategy for defeating Species 1 wherever it is encountered.”
Doctor Dartman read the files, especially the genetic maps prepared by the Starbuck’s Artificial Neural Network. It all seemed plausible on the face of it – all except for one piece of common-sense wisdom which said that this scenario should be impossible.
“I don’t get it,” He said. “I don’t care how mutable a species’ behavioral traits are, if that’s the only substantial difference between a sentient species and a non-sentient species, then the sentient species should be capable of out-competing it hands down. That’s the evolutionary value of sentience after all – the ability to change one’s behavior purposefully to match the problems that one must overcome, instead of waiting for natural selection to do its work. Are we sure that Species 1 is fully sentient?” Dartman glanced at Doctor Wiezmann, hoping that he had impressed her. He himself felt fairly impressive for coming up so quickly with what he felt to be the primary difficulty with the whole situation.
“The short answer is yes we are,” Captain Wuthersby answered. This is a rare case of clear-cut intelligence not unlike our own. The radio signal was clearly a purposeful communication, and they make complex machinery and probably also art. It even appears that a recent achievement in their technological arsenal involves something analogous to our old nuclear weaponry. Even still, they are almost certainly doomed. This is not to say that we are not baffled by the situation as well – we are – but moreover, we don’t even have a possible explanation. Did you think I would wake you troublesome egg-heads if I didn’t have a good reason?”
“I’m not sure if this answers all our problems,” Doctor Morricone began, stroking his extensive beard, “but it would seem that the difference in behavioral aptitude is not the only variable present in the equation. To that I would have to add this species’ reproductive efficiency, its probable ease of communication and coordination between members via simple hormonal or analogous solutions, and as a result, the possibility that its many coordinated but unintelligent individuals may cooperate to form a sort of emergent intelligence that benefits the species as a whole. Of course that is purely speculation on my part; I see nothing in the data to suggest that something of that nature is taking place on 25 Stoker Beta, but I say it to point out that sentience need not be the final word in evolutionary competition. There are many plausible possibilities we simply won’t know about until we investigate the situation further.”
Doctor Dartman was quick to concur. “I see your point. I’m sure it is our lack of complete understanding that makes this all seem implausible. I guess there’s nothing for it but to begin our study as quickly as possible…unless the basic crew has gathered us to help answer a more immediate question?”
Captain Wuthersby’s face gained something of a more serious composure. “Actually, there is something of an issue at hand here.” She paused for a moment before continuing on at the silent urging of her companions. “The Starbuck is the only human ship scheduled to pass through this Nebula for the next two centuries or so. By that time, Species 1 will almost certainly have gone extinct due to the encroachment of this apparently unintelligent super-organism. So it seems we have something of a moral quandary on our hands here; something which, alas, none of us specializes in, and in which I’m afraid our Artificial Neural Network can’t help us out much either. Should we save Species 1 from extinction, and if so, how?”
Doctor Dartman sucked in a rather large breath.
“Well, it seems fairly obvious to me that we should save them. It would be unfortunate to lose our chance to communicate with another sentient race in the universe.”
“Very well, I would generally agree,” Doctor Wiezmann responded. “But if we reach that conclusion then we have to figure out exactly how we are going to do it. Certainly anything more complex than blasting the super-organism into oblivion will take such an amount of time as to render the rest of our scientific mission impossible.”
“Even that short-term solution does not guarantee the survival of Species 1. With a - shall I say substantial - portion of their ecosystem gone, it seems unlikely that they would be able to make do for long. Perhaps we should make contact with them now and attempt to glean as much information from their culture as possible before they pass into the history books?”
Everyone shot Doctor Morricone a dirty look.
“I find that solution unsavory,” Specialist Van der Waals said. “I’ve had more time to think on this than some of you, so let me throw in my chips. The way I see it, we can either attempt a long-term deportation of Species 1 to some other habitable planet nearby - if there even happens to be one - or we can juice the super-organism, as you call it. Attempting to mutate the super-organism into a less threatening form seems an unlikely solution – there are far too many individuals in its population for any new mutation to ever spread to the entire population. Even if it did work, any new and less lethal forms of the organism would probably fail to compete successfully with their fiercer neighbors. Turning the super-organism on itself also seems ineffectual – Species 1 appears to be practicing that strategy now, with little effect. They have devised a way to infuse certain areas of their atmosphere with chemicals which cause the various hives of the organism to attack each other, but such violent massacres release a secondary chemical from the dying creatures which invigorates the reproductive members of the super-organism, providing a feedback influx of new individuals in short order. The only thing that is accomplished is the destruction of the environment on which the killing takes place. Another possible strategy would be to give Species 1 some of our more efficient weapons technology, but it would take time for us to adapt it to their environment and educate them in the manufacture of the weapons, not to mention the time it would take for them to build an industrial base capable of mass-producing the armaments. And remember, time is not on their side. Even if it were possible to do all this within an acceptable amount of time, it remains possible that the super-organism would find ways around our armaments. On the other hand, such an armament policy could result in the eventual extinction of the super-organism, as hinted at in the war literature of Species 1. They are not in commune with their ecosystem and would just as soon raze their antagonist entirely, which of course would lead to the same fatal ecological disaster that Morricone identified.”
Doctor Dartman was now fully perplexed. He personally knew of no star systems nearby capable of supporting Species 1. But that didn’t necessarily bother him. If necessary, they could probably bring at least some of the creatures back with them all the way to Sol. What did bother Dartman was the idea of abandoning the rest of his life’s work for this effort. Still, he supposed, it was worth it. But why? Suddenly that question troubled him even more than all the others floating in his brain.
“Not to sound cold, but suddenly I’m not sure why we want so badly to save Species 1. Earlier I said that by saving them we should save them in order to be able to communicate with another sentient species. But why exactly is that so important to us? If it is because we want to learn something from them, then perhaps we were better off finding a way to learn from the super-organism, because we seem to have a lot more to learn from it than from Species 1. Even if they turned out to have information that we did desire, it doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t use Morricone’s idea and get what we want from them before they die – it would be much easier on us. It seems to me that this isn’t all that we desire from contact with them. Perhaps we value communication with them not just because we can learn new things from them, but because we feel that they, being sentient, are better equipped to enjoy the cosmos with us – that they, like us, are somehow better or more valuable than other organisms because they are intelligent and self-aware. This means that principally the reason we would want to save them is because they are sentient – and this leaves us with a rather prickly problem, considering our current standard model of sentience.”
“Enlighten us on the standard model, if you would,” Doctor Weizmann requested, also procuring another cup of coffee from the cafébot to bolster her attentiveness in anticipation of an onslaught of boredom.
“The standard model of sentience, which has been with us since the middle of the twenty-first century, states that our conscious experience is nothing more than the emergent result of interactions between the millions and millions of neuron cells in our brains which act in concert to allow us to prevail over the multitudes of environmental difficulties encountered by our species since its origin. But if this is so, then I see very little to distinguish between us and the super-organism now assailing Species 1. It too is an amalgam of cell-like automata working in concert to produce an emergent and seemingly sentient effect – that of an entire organism working as one to out-compete its competitors by changing its behavior to adapt to its environment. Problematically, I don’t see how we could administer any of the modified Turing tests to a planet-wide sentience so that we could be sure, but it certainly seems a model of precisely what we have been prepared to accept as intelligent in the past. The latest news from Earth on the quantum-entanglement transmitter indicates that Artificial Neural Networks much like our own and operating on similar evolutionary principles have been created which are able to adapt to a huge variety of problems thrown at them.”
The room was silent for a moment. At last Weizmann spoke again:
“Regardless, I think we can all agree that we somehow find the idea of leaving Species 1 to its eventual doom seems immoral. Perhaps we can begin saving them now and worry about why we worried about all this in the first place later.”
Doctor Dartman agreed, finding himself especially aroused by the direct manner in which Weizmann always got on with business. He detailed his idea for shipping what remained of Species 1 to the nearest habitable planet, and the idea began to take hold.
That was when Captain Wuthersby cleared her throat.
“Unfortunately gentleman, I’m afraid that the situation doesn’t entirely end there, although what remains is of a somewhat less pressing matter.”
The group grew silent, their surprised and expectant composures urging her on again. She enlarged the holographic moon orbiting 25 Stoker Beta. Doctor Dartman squinted as the moon came into focus. There on the equator of the airless moon – just a tiny splotch, but it was vaguely fractal, and definitely organic.
“It seems that this somewhat existential quandary may not be so kind as to restrict itself to a small part of our galaxy forever. It has found a way – I admit we don’t know how - to spread. Our Artificial Neural Network has done some propagations of its current evolutionary impetus combined with its projected rate of population expansion and found that probable speciation down the line will result in further competition for resources, prompting a rather exponential rate of expansion throughout the Broom Nebula and eventually nearby star systems as the super-organism continues to adapt and search for new resources. This diaspora will not only result in the probable destruction of any native life in its path, but also make the eventual elimination of this species extremely difficult should that path later be desired. Basically in three to five hundred years we are looking at what would amount to a first-rate series of interstellar empires with the power to keep human colonists out of the Broom Nebula for good. Now this all seems to indicate that we should shoot now and ask questions later, but Dartman’s problem complicates things. If this super-organism is intelligent, then we would be committing genocide.”
Morricone spoke again.
“Supposing this species is sentient, if we could ascertain whether it was conscious of its impending genocide of another species, we might find justification for committing genocide ourselves by asserting that it was aware of its own impending wrongdoing. But what Dartman seems to be suggesting, if I understand him correctly,” He glanced at Doctor Dartman and stroked his beard, “is that this creature might well not be sentient, yet capable of everything that a sentient being is capable of according to our standard model of sentience. Like a solipsist’s quandary, I think what we have is a shortcoming on the part of our standard model, a shortcoming that obfuscates a critical distinction we need to make - a distinction between the person-anima and the zombie.”
Doctor Dartman raised an eyebrow. A fascinating and difficult universe, this one, and not content to let hypothetical questions stay forever untried in vivo.
“The problem here, unfortunately, is a problem of observation – that we can never access the inner life - the qualia – of other consciousnesses, is irrefutable. Like asking what the universe was like before the Big Bang, it is senseless to ask what the inside of another being’s mind looks like. You simply cannot access these things. Whatever we must answer here, we cannot do so by scientific process.”
The room was silent for a long time. Finally, Wuthersby spoke:
“Right then. I suppose we’d all better vote for one or the other and no questions asked. Those in favor of destroying the super-organism, put a piece of paper in the middle of the table with the letter A on it. Those in favor of spiriting away Species 1, put a scrap in the middle with the letter B on it. I’ll check back in three days, to give you all enough time to think about it.”
No one immediately submitted their response. For men and women used to inquiry and evidence, what was there to be done about a question involving belief and morality? Dr. Dartman had never read the Bible or the Qur’an, the Upanishads or the Talmud. What experience had he of the Romantics or the Mystics, the Gnostics Nihilists Shamans Existentialists Utilitarians? What even of the poets? As the others began to wordlessly shuffle out of the room, Dartman felt a blankness like he never had before in his long and purposeful existence; a blankness made deep by a lifelong failure to analyze it.
What now of science? What use is all of this to me without convictions of right and good, of claims to wisdom beyond that which is accessible? And of what consequence my actions, so uninformed?
And Dr. Dartman saw the universe was infinitely more than ever he could see.