Prose Header

Serengeti: a Solution to Fermi’s Paradox

by Peter Cawdron

part 1 of 3

Anderson walked out onto the bridge of the Serengeti. The darkness engulfed him. The clear dome stretching out over the command deck was deceiving, making it seem as though there was nothing between him and the pitch-black void of space. Standing at the railing he looked out at the universe.

At the speed the Serengeti was travelling, the aberration of light played tricks on the eyes, tricks on the mind. The Serengeti was above the Milky Way, heading out of the galactic plane and into the dark intergalactic void beyond, and yet the Milky Way appeared in front of the craft, not below and behind it. To Anderson it was as though the craft was approaching the galaxy rather than departing.

At the Serengeti’s relative velocity of just over ninety-nine percent of the speed of light, the photons emanating from the hundreds of billions of stars in and around the Milky Way still raced ahead of the Serengeti at precisely the speed of light. The Serengeti’s speed relative to the galaxy meant the light from these stars was warped and distorted in a surreal confirmation of Einstein’s theories. The light twisted around so the stars appeared in front of the craft instead of behind. It was as though the galaxy was trapped in front of the craft, locked in the seemingly perfect shape of a ring.

The entire visible universe, including the Milky Way, had shrunk from 360 degrees all around the spacecraft to just 30 degrees in front of it. The universe seemed compressed. For Anderson, it was like looking at the universe through a fish-eyed lens.

The command deck was vast, capable of seating well over fifty of the crew. The dome gave Anderson the impression the compressed ring of the galaxy spanned at least a hundred feet above him. Anderson leaned back on a desk, looking up at the universe, taking in all its glory.

The view was bizarre. It was counter-intuitive. But then, Anderson thought, everything about the theory of relativity ran against common experience. The Milky Way, the galaxy they had left behind so long ago still appeared before them. It stretched out, skewed into a circle, a brilliant halo of stars winding around the black void of intergalactic space in the middle. It never ceased to amaze him that there was a mass of two hundred billion stars splattered and compressed into that hollow, glowing ring. And in the midst of the black void, slightly off-centre, lay their target, a faint smudge that marked the Andromeda galaxy.

On one side of the galactic halo, a dense smattering of golden yellow blended together, merging into a continuous arc that marked the galactic core. The heart of the galaxy was a hub of over fifty million stars compacted together in a vast cloud of superheated interstellar gas. On the other side of the ring, cooler, newer stars on the fringes of the spiral arms glowed in soft blue. Although they appeared dense, forced into the glowing halo by the Serengeti’s relative velocity, these stars were among the most distant and widely spread in the Milky Way.

The view fascinated Anderson. And yet, even at such a radical relativistic speed, he knew the frozen image before him wouldn’t change visibly in his lifetime. It was simply so vast as to defy reason. The distances were so immense that a lifetime of travel at almost the exact speed of light would barely make any perceptible difference at all.

He leaned back on his elbows, his arms resting on the soft, spongy surface of the nav-desk as his mind thought about the various conversations from the day. The halo of the galaxy he’d left behind glowed before him, bathing him in its soft light. His eyes wandered as his thoughts drifted aimlessly, thinking about the events of the day. An argument with Dr. Philips replayed in his head and he found himself struggling to clear his thoughts.

His eyes drifted as his mind ran to a multitude of thoughts. In the distance, the Local Group of galaxies appeared as little more than blurs against the infinite darkness. Even this far above the galactic plane, Andromeda still sat some two million light years away. With over a trillion stars it made the Milky Way seem small by comparison, and that made Andromeda the ideal candidate for the Serengeti project. It was the most likely galaxy within the Local Group to contain intelligent life.

“Coffee. Brazilian. White with one sugar and just a hint of crushed vanilla bean.”

The molecular constructor on the console some five feet away whirred softly into life, responding to the verbal command. A series of back-lit controls glowed and the smell of freshly ground, oven-roasted coffee beans wafted through the air. With a quiet chirp, the faceplate opened revealing a newly formed ceramic mug. Steam rose up from the rim.

Anderson breathed deeply, savouring the rich aroma as he lifted the mug to his lips. The soft lights on the molecular constructor slowly faded as the machine shut down, leaving him alone in the darkness again.

Anderson sipped his coffee as he stared out at the universe, lost in thought. He sat up on the desk and leaned back against the soft, flexible, agile frame of a holo-monitor, making himself comfortable. Outside the brilliant halo of stars, the black void was completely devoid of light, a stark testament to the accuracy of Einstein’s prediction.

To Anderson, the darkness seemed to stretch on into eternity. He felt like a shadow, just the outline of a person, a fraction of an individual. Even with the ship’s inertia drive mimicking the pull of gravity, it was as though he were floating in the void. Tonight he was part of a larger, more grand living entity, the universe as a whole.

By day, the bridge was a hive of activity. The lights from the wall panels and command consoles, the activity on the bridge and the various conversations and discussions about the ship’s vital functions all took precedence over the wonder that lay constantly before them.

Even though the ring of the galaxy was still visible in the artificial daylight, it was as though this magnificent view didn’t exist. But in the quiet, dark night the heavens displayed a brilliance all of their own.

The coffee was hot.

Out of the corner of his eye, Anderson saw something moving behind him. Someone was slowly creeping below one of the desks, trying not to be seen. He turned to face the back of the bridge.

“Hello?” he asked, more curious than afraid. There was nothing to be afraid of in his artificial world.

There was no answer.

Anderson walked over softly, the rubberised soles on his shoes barely making any noise on the cold, hard floor. He came around the side of the navigation console and saw a young woman sitting with her back against the wall. Her legs were tucked up against her chest while her arms were pulled tight across her shins in an attempt to roll up into a ball and make herself as small as possible.

“Hey,” he said, reaching out his hand and offering her some help to get up. “Diana, right?”

“Diana-9,” the young lady replied.

“Ah,” said Anderson, thinking about it for a moment. He’d heard about her. Diana-8 had a congenital defect, a brain tumour that had gone unnoticed until it was too late. Dr. Philips had issued a general notice about bringing a new Diana on-line a couple of months ago, but Anderson hadn’t really thought that much about it until now. Diana was one of the medical staff, a nurse if he remembered correctly, and not someone he normally saw on the bridge. With a crew of just over four hundred, the Serengeti was small by interstellar standards but large enough to cover the basics of a mobile colony.

“Well, it’s nice to meet you Diana-9. I’m Commander Anderson.”

Diana lowered her head as she stood. She blushed a little and looked around awkwardly without saying anything. She shook his hand politely and turned to leave.

“No, please. Don’t go... I’m curious. How long have you been up here?”

“A couple of hours, I guess,” she replied sheepishly. She was beautiful, they always were when they first came out of the growth pods. Her skin was fresh, unspoilt by the inevitable signs of aging. Her dark hair looked almost black in the soft light. She had it pulled back in a pony-tail with the fringe sitting just off her glistening dark eyes.

Anderson looked at his watch. It was just after one in the morning. “You’ve been up here for a couple of hours,” he replied, somewhat surprised. “Don’t you find it boring up here alone?”

“I find it peaceful.”

Her response seemed almost robotic. He wanted her to say more, but it was difficult to draw the words out of her. It was probably because she was still assimilating life. Anderson couldn’t remember exactly what it felt like so many decades ago, but he did remember a general sense of being bewildered and overwhelmed with even the little things, like flowers in the garden or a spider in the atrium.

It was unnerving to awake suddenly one day, a fully conscious human being. To open your eyes and suddenly have life thrust upon you as a fully-grown adult was scary. Ordinarily, Homo sapiens had the luxury of growing in awareness from their childhood, but for them, Anderson thought, conscious awareness was an explosion out of the darkness, life radiating forth like the birth of a star. Homo replicus was the scientific term, but that never quite sat right for Anderson. Right or wrong, he thought of himself as human.

“I come up here most nights,” he said, turning and walking back away from the elevator doors at the rear of the bridge. He continued talking as he walked out under the clear dome. “Normally not this late, but I find it peaceful too.”

Diana stayed where she was.

“Life’s funny, isn’t it,” he continued. “Here we are surrounded by the majestic glory of billions of years of cosmic ballet and yet we can only appreciate its beauty for what, in comparison, is just a fraction of a second.”

He turned back to her, beckoning her to come closer. “How much have they told you?”

Diana walked forward slowly, hesitantly. “I have the standard implants,” she replied. “A full set of historical indices and the advanced medical pack.”

“How does that feel?”

“It feels strange,” said Diana, walking softly toward him.

“Yeah, you know all this stuff. You just know it instinctively. You don’t know how you know it or why. It’s just there, ready to be called upon whenever you need it, like a long lost dream.”

Diana was silent.

“Does it bother you?”

“Yes,” she replied, looking him in the eye. “Does it bother you?”

Anderson smiled. “It used to.”

It felt good to be honest. Diana was frank and he found that refreshing. She hadn’t learned to be socially polite and guarded yet, protective of her true thoughts and feelings. She was a little nervous around him, he could see that, and yet she had no hesitation about speaking openly. It was invigorating.

It surprised him how much he enjoyed having someone to talk to in the quiet of the night. In some ways, it was therapeutic, reflective. It was a welcome alternative to the normal conversations of a day, discussions around refit duties and mission priorities or arguments over construction assignments or containment issues.

The latest problem was to do with metal fatigue in the sewage treatment plant. It seemed hardly worthy of the attention of a starship captain. And yet, although the ship was largely autonomous, Anderson knew nothing lasts forever. Most of his time was spent regenerating components in what seemed like a perpetual maintenance cycle.

“What bothers you?” he asked, leaning back and raising himself back up on the edge of the desk.

Diana walked gracefully. She was wearing a gym t-shirt and shorts. Her smooth skin and the soft curves of her body were accentuated by the dim light. Anderson was struck by her natural grace and beauty.

“I feel like a thing, not a person, just a tool, something to be used and discarded. Am I a spare part? Something that’s been pulled off the shelf for a biological repair rather than something mechanical? Is that life? Is that all life really is?”

Anderson just listened. She’d obviously been thinking about this for some time and needed to get it out of her system. In some ways, he thought, that’s what he needed too. Not more advice, not more opinions or suggestions, just to be heard, just to verbalise a problem and work through it for himself. And that’s what she needed, a sounding board, someone to listen, not to judge.

Diana walked around in front of him, brushing her hand playfully against his leg. Her soft fingers ran over his knee and along his thigh without any inhibition. She stared out at the dark universe beyond, her fingers lingering on his leg. Anderson felt aroused.

“I mean, we’re out here looking for life,” she continued. “And yet we’re not really alive ourselves. We’re just copies, clones, replicas of life that existed hundreds of years ago. Any life we originally had is now long dead.”

Anderson sipped his coffee. It felt good to be touched. For her, it was exploratory. He knew that. She was still in the process of learning to assimilate information with all of her senses. For a newborn, words alone were never enough.

“I just want to feel alive,” she said, her hand brushing against his as she sat up on the bench next to him. “I just want to feel there’s some real purpose to my life. I know it sounds silly, but I want to be me. I don’t want to be Diana-9, soon to be replaced by Diana-10, just another replicant, just another intermediary step on the stairway, just another name or a number. I want to be alive for myself. I want to live free.”

She breathed deeply, her breasts rising and falling with a sigh. “We’re looking for life,” she continued, turning and looking in his eyes. “But we’re looking in the wrong place. We’re looking for life out there somewhere when the life we should find is all around us. We’re looking for something to tell us life is important when we should already know that.”

Anderson sipped his coffee again, only this time it was a defence mechanism. It allowed him to avoid speaking. He felt uncomfortable with how open and forceful Diana was. The coffee had cooled, allowing him to take a good long sip.

Diana was silent. She’d said her piece. She wanted to know what he thought. After all, he’d invited her to join him. He’d asked her what was on her mind. He couldn’t simply ignore what she’d said, how she’d questioned the mission. After a few awkward seconds, Anderson asked her a question in response.

“Would you like to know where the exact centre of the entire universe actually is?”

At first, the question took Diana off guard. She wasn’t quite sure what he was going to say in response to her anguish, but she didn’t expect a technical reply or some theoretical question about the spatial point of the Big Bang. She thought about it for a second and, although it seemed off the topic, said, “Sure.”

Anderson turned to face her squarely. He reached out with his finger and touched her gently in the centre of her chest, just above the sternum, as he said, “It’s right here.”

She smiled as the realisation of what he meant washed over her.

“You see,” he continued, “it is not the universe or our quest to find intelligent life that gives purpose and meaning to our lives. Rather the opposite is true. We give meaning to the universe. To be conscious, to be alive and aware, to appreciate the brilliance of the universe is to appreciate life itself.

“In your own way, you are the centre of the universe. From your perspective, it all revolves around you and that’s not just an illusion from your point of view. Without you and me, there is no meaning to any of this. And that’s why we’re out here looking for life. Because life gives meaning to ordinary molecules. Without life, all this is meaningless, it’s just a bunch of compact hydrogen atoms undergoing gravity-induced nuclear fusion. With life, this is a universe of infinite possibility.”

Anderson shifted his weight, moving his hand back on the smooth bench top as he glanced up at the stars. Diana lay her hand over his. Her soft fingers ran gently over the hair on the back of his hand, feeling the warmth radiating from his wrist. He smiled at her.

It was difficult, he knew that. It was difficult to be a child in an adult’s body, to want to feel alive, to want to feel loved. There was nothing sexual about her touch, regardless of what he felt. It would be a while before she would understand her own feelings. This was simply the kindness of a father and a child being played out between two clones. Anderson knew that and fought not to read any more into it. This was the kindness of a family neither of them had ever known.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2009 by Peter Cawdron

Home Page