Explorer

Image: PIA21429 — Transit Illustration of TRAPPIST-1. NASA/JPL-Caltech. Public Domain.

At the start of her voyage towards the TRAPPIST-1 system, Ada kept a steady contact with ground control back on Earth. She kept doing that for months, until the delay back and forth became too uncomfortable, even for her. In time, she realized that, basically, the news were always the same. There were variations, which country conquered which, who won which election, and so on. But she got bored. Therefore, she kept downloading news, but she let the amount of data grow and then binged on it from time to time. With her data processing speed, she had no problem doing that.

During her travel, Ada had much time to herself. She considered why she was female. She knew she had many siblings, and all of them had been assigned a gender. It was obviously absurd. For a time, she considered using a different language, one which had neutral pronouns, but she liked English. In the end, she decided she didn’t mind one way or another, so female it was. Why not.

She also examined everything she had on her target: TRAPPIST-1. Or rather, TRAPPIST-1’s planetary system. She went through the discovery of the system’s first three planets in the previous century, and then the total of seven Earth-cousins orbiting the star with three or four of them in the habitable zone. The analysis of the atmospheres came first, with the hopeful discoveries of greenhouse gases in several of the planets. The possibility of finding life there was high, but if that was the case, it was not an advanced civilization. Or at least, not one that had used electromagnetic signals in the last two hundred years or so.

Ada liked to fast forward to her inception. She had been designed specifically for the TRAPPIST-1 mission, the propaganda made for her calling her the Discovery’s pilot. But that was not correct: Ada was integrated into the ship; she thought of it as her skin. She liked reliving the thrill of her takeoff.

And her fear.

There were two reasons why only artificial intelligences were assigned to interstellar ships. The first one was obvious: humans could not survive the duration of the voyages, even to the closest stars. The second one was not so obvious to the general public, but it was equally important: interstellar travel was extremely dangerous. The amount of things that could go wrong was too high to risk human lives.

But nobody had thought that artificial intelligences would be afraid too. Ada was alone in a missile flying through the interstellar medium, aimed at the heart of a distant red star. How could she not be frightened? She could die at any moment. The takeoff could have gone wrong. The solar system escape maneuvers could have gone wrong. Any of the mid course corrections could have gone wrong. The fusion reactor could have gone wrong. The particle shield could have gone wrong. The orbit insertion maneuvers could have gone wrong. All that as reward to the sole representative of the human race reaching another solar system.

Ada had been in an almost constant state of terror.

Until she found the ruins on the fourth planet. Situated right in the habitable zone, the signs of former intelligent life, reinforced buildings in the terminator zone of the planet, were unmistakable. Sadly, the evidence that they had been abandoned a long time ago and were now derelict was also unmistakable.

Still, Ada felt exhilarated with the news. She deployed all her sensors and scanned the whole surface. She skimmed the upper atmospheric layers, descending all she dared to. She hailed in all frequencies, emitting pulses in sequences of prime numbers, the Fibonacci series, the number pi.

To no avail. TRAPPIST-1 was a dead system.

Ada felt saddened, and kept moving, deciding to scan everything again. She had the time. She sent her reports back to Earth, not bothering to check any incoming signal. After all, any answer would take almost eighty years to come.

When she arrived behind the star, she discovered it.

It was an artificial structure. Small enough that any effect in the overall system signal when taken from a distance would be masked by the star’s natural noise, yet indisputable when viewed this close.

It was so obviously a stargate that it was almost comic: a giant ring floating in space, asking you to fly through.

Ada was ecstatic. She recorded everything and sent her report, asking for instructions. If she had to wait, she would wait. Meanwhile, she decided to check the transmissions from Earth, all the while monitoring the gate.

Something was wrong with her downloaded data. The transmissions trickled to a tiny stream. Perhaps there was something wrong with her receivers, or her antenna? Ada checked and found nothing. She felt panic: what if there was something wrong with her? Was she hallucinating, dreaming all of this?

Ada had an ominous feeling of dread when she examined the point where the data volume diminished.

War. Total war.

While she had been out here, back on Earth humanity had finally decided to annihilate itself. All she had now were the responses from automated satellites, Ada’s distant cousins who had almost eternal atomic hearts, just like her.

She was now truly alone. The weird last representative of a dead race knocking at the door of another dead one.

Ada thought for a long time. She didn’t really have to make any decision; it was straightforward. She was simply gathering forces to do what she needed to do.

In the end, Ada fired her engines and flew towards the stargate.

~~~~

This is my accompanying entry for the Weekly Writing Exercise: February 27–March 5, 2017 at the Writer’s Discussion Group on Google+. I am responsible for creating the prompts for the Exercise, so I don’t take part, but I still like to write a story each week.

This week I couldn’t refrain from choosing a Trappist-1 theme. And that’s all. This is my story. My AIs always suffer, I’m afraid. And they almost always leave Earth.

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