Thursday, June 30, 2016

Drop Day

The verrie began, as usual, with a narrated introduction. "What you are about to participate in is a projection of life in the distant future, one million years from now," the teachtoon said. "Life on Earth, I should specify, because in this scenario…"—a slightly altered reverb in the toon's voice and a floating book icon signified that the narration would pause to define that word if Ben made the selection gesture—"mankind has colonized other star systems, starting some years after our own time with the launching of the Determination."

Ben allowed the narration to spool out. It was usual stuff: " possible extrapolation using advanced supercomputers, anthropology, and the known laws of physics." He would be able to explore, and to converse with toons in a limited way. The teachtoon would appear as needed to present specific goals. Please pay attention and limit conversation with your classmates' tars to working together on the stated objectives. Do not touch or pass through other tars, toons, or objects; it ruins the experience for everyone else.

One thing the intro wasn't telling him, Ben noticed, was what the point of this particular lesson was supposed to be. The school verries in previous years had all been fairly straightforward "history appreciation" experiences, tying in with recent classes and depicting life in other times and places: The Roman Empire, the Chinese Continuity, the Three Revolutions, and so forth. But their last history class had been on human origins and ancient pre-literate civilizations, and the next and final semester would be leaving history behind to cover civics and current events. Why this virtual visit to the distant future? He raised his hand to interrupt the program, and asked.

"I cannot answer that question now, Ben," the toon replied. "You may have some ideas of your own about it afterward, and you can repeat the question then if you wish." In other words, Ben thought, "nyah nyah not gonna tell." Still, while it was a strange answer for a verrie, it was a typical enough answer for a teacher, when the question was "why." He lowered his hand to resume the intro, and the teachtoon faded out, replaced a moment later by a hovering "Ready?" button. He gestured to proceed.

The walls of the bland entry-lobby faded around him, and the scenery resolved in. He and several of his classmates' tars were standing on a smooth platform under a dimly lit open sky. Diffuse light glowed on a distant horizon in one direction: it was dawn, or twilight. More students' tars were fading in moment by moment, as they completed their own intros at their own pace. Some of them were moving around—the platform was about ten meters across, many-sided, and bounded with a railing—while others waited passively. Their voices hadn't come on yet, and there was little ambient sound except for the hum of a light breeze and their own virtual footsteps, a syncopated pattern of identical soft taps. There was a distinct smell of electricity and metal; was that the verrie gear, or a deliberate part of the sim?

The other kids' tars looked strange. It was normal for tars and toons to have enlarged heads, making them look something like three-dimensional drawings of their younger selves. But this time the bodies and limbs were also altered in some other ways. He gestured for the self-cam view, and a moment later was invisibly hovering a half meter above the platform, facing his own tar. He looked enough like himself at first glance, if his curly black hair had been replaced with a molded plastic hair-shaped helmet. He was on the short side, with a lean build and good muscle definition, just like in real life. But his tar's arms were elongated, the hands extending all the way to the knees. And there was something strange about the stance, which he couldn't figure out until he watched some of the others, from the side, walking around. It was as though there were extra hinges in their spines, allowing them to partly bend over at the waist while keeping their shoulders upright.

Like the others, his tar was dressed in a gray short-sleeved shirt and darker gray slacks, tight enough to not require the verrie to render wrinkles or loose fabric, but not tight enough to show every anatomical detail. Likely, as in most of the history ferries, acquiring "period" clothing would be part of the exercise.

The light had brightened just enough to see the olive tones in his dark skin and the shockingly pale green in his tar's larger-than-life eyes. It was dawn, apparently.

Ben returned to his tar and took a closer look around. Most of the class, sixteen in all, had arrived, but a few were still missing. Jilan, temporarily in a wheelchair with a recent sports injury, was probably going through a tutorial for whatever special control scheme he would be using. And Rona, despite already knowing the most about whatever this verrie was about, would no doubt arrive last, after asking the teachtoon question after question until it kicked her out of the lobby.

Between the platform railing and the distant horizons, Ben could now see a vast, nearly flat but slightly irregular surface, tiled in smooth black squares about two meters across. The array was crisscrossed by lighter-colored lines of pavement running between some of the squares, parallel and perpendicular to one another, about a meter wide, one of which intersected the platform they were on.  In one direction, the path from the platform pointed toward a smudge of varied textures and colors near the horizon. Overhead, the sky was cloudless. The brighter stars were still faintly visible. The moon was there too, a gibbous shape opposite the impending sunrise. But it looked different. It was smaller, darker, and not fully round in any part. Its entire edge was irregular, and its face was mottled not with the familiar "seas" but with black blotches and streaked with spiky shadows.

A tone sounded, and the tar-to-tar audio came in. Ben looked around and saw that Jilan and Rona were now present with the others. He moved toward them across the platform, hearing bits of conversation from clusters of other students as he passed.

"…next to me on the way home, okay? I want to ask you something…"

"…got the constellations wrong." "No, stupid, it's the far future. The stars move." "No they…"

"…could afford to play the fun games in this thing, not this class trip educational…"

He moved up to Rona, who was saying to Jilan, "… obvious, the one thing the intro said about anything was the Determination. It's got to be something to do with that. Maybe it's their way of bringing us up to date on the progress."

"Hi, Rona. Cute tar," Ben said, trying to get the right mix of serious and kidding. Her tar looked as odd as the others, but looked like her. Her hair, both oddly straight and oddly lighter than her red-brown skin. Her dark violet eyes, small flat nose and full lips. Her developing figure—which, on a second look, he realized was altered in a strangely intriguing way by the extra nodes of flexion in her spine.

"Yours looks like they scanned in an upside down beetroot by mistake," she replied, grinning. A decent interval had passed since they'd exchanged eye tokens, and Ben expected to move on to hand tokens, as soon as he could summon up the nerve to ask.

Jilan, his broad muscular upper body and bulky hip cast stuffed into a surprisingly ordinary-looking wheelchair beside them, rolled his eyes and said, "Get a room."

A new and more emphatic chime sounded. A green floating arrow appeared, directing Ben's attention behind him, where a new toon had arrived on the platform and was addressing the class. It was gray-haired, ambiguously gendered in ways that just favored a reading of male. Its form and proportions were like their tars, but it was much more richly dressed, in robes of green and deep violet. Rays of direct sun fell on the character as he spoke:

"Welcome, visitors. You've come to our habitation on a very special day. This around you…" the toon gestured expansively, "… is part of a solar power installation hundreds of miles across. It collects and concentrates sunlight into a radio beam that's received by an interstellar ship in orbit above us. The ship uses the power, and particles from the solar wind, to run its nuclear fuel reprocessing system. It takes several hundred years to refuel a ship for its next voyage. The ship we've served for those many generations, which we call Essent, is nearly ready to depart.

"At the same time, a new ship, the Requis, has recently arrived and will be receiving our facility's power next. This is a very unusual juxtaposition, and in celebration, both ships have sent landers to the habitation. At noon today the landers will open, and there will be gifts exchanged, a market of sorts. You've each been granted a hundred work credits, the currency we earn for keeping the array operational, to spend during the festival."

A small display illuminated in Ben's lower visual field. "Credits: 100.0."

"Enjoy your visit, and don't hesitate to ask our friendly inhabitants any questions you have. Now, please come this way."

The figure strode down the long adjoining walkway, and the class followed, the legs of their tars moving by themselves as they signaled the verrie by leaning into the motion. Ben wondered again at the Jilan-tar's wheelchair. It was made of slim strands of a gray matte-surfaced material that would obviously have to be very strong if it were real, but other than that it looked completely ordinary. Wheels and a seat; no motor, no levitating magnets or rockets.

The settlement was a far distance, so no one was surprised that after a few meters, the sim sped up their trip. Railings and the tessellated ground blurred past, the barely visible variations in the landscape's elevation turning into a steady up and down wave-like motion as they passed. In a few seconds, the outskirts of the "habitation" had sidled up next to the class like a ship to a dock.

What had first appeared to be a collection of colorful tents and pavilions like a fairground, proved to be, from up closer, something rather similar, but much larger. Graceful soaring structures, the tallest forty or fifty meters tall, were comprised largely of thin rods and colorful fabric-like panels, all variously curved under tension. Closer to the bases of the structures, and closer to their interior portions, the tensile members became smaller, denser, and more complex, hiding interior portions from view. The ground was dry flat pavement, varied here and there by low walls, ramps, and stairways.

A number of toons were already moving among the pavilions. Most of them had bland simplified features, a time-saving detail of the verrie: "Don't bother talking to me. I'm just part of the scenery." The exceptions, the more interesting-looking toons, would be the ones to interact with. They'd be the characters needing help with a problem, the traders with valuables to offer, the shady anti-heroes looking for partners in adventurous mischief.

Then the entire scene flickered. The colors reversed themselves, and then went black entirely. A buzzer blared. The setting re-appeared as outlines on a blank white field, and filled back in, though the ambient light level continued to pulse and flicker.

The teachtoon from the lobby appeared suddenly, in a blocky flattened form, its movements reduced to jerks and stutters. It said, in both loud distorted speech and large floating text: "Attention. A malfunction has occurred. No exit from the sim is possible until full functionality has been restored. Due to a master control lock-out caused by a malicious hacker, recovery is only possible from within the verrie program. To escape, you must collect the necessary components and bring them to the necessary locations. The list has been distributed to each of you. Gesture 'I' to toggle the list. Good luck."

The students groaned, laughed, and hooted.

"Ugh. Not this again."

"Bet this verrie floated up from Disney World."

"Scavenger hunt!"

"Why not?" said Jilan more quietly to Ben and Rona. "There always has to be an excuse why we have to go searching everywhere, listening to lessons and answering questions to earn the next widget."

And so the sim went, as the class dispersed in small groups around the habitat and tackled the tasks needed to obtain the items on the list.

From one exchange while searching for a rumored alien artifact, Ben, Jilan, and Rona learned about Chun's Number, the most important parameter of the scenario. "Chun's Number is the expected number of successful colonies a world of intelligent beings can establish across interstellar space," the trader toon told them. "Before it exhausts the resources it needs to attempt colonies, and requiring that the colonized places offer comparable resources. So imagine if a species has an innate drive to spread and colonize, and Chun's Number is greater than one, and the early steps of colonization don't suffer misfortune. Then over time, the number of colonies would increase…" A pause-response symbol appeared before the toon.

"Slowly," said Jilan.

"Exponentially," said Rona.

"Yes, exponentially," the toon said. "And if that species were perhaps very fortunate in its early expansion and started a dozen or two colonies, but Chun's Number is less than one, over time the species' expansion would…"

"Decrease. Um, exponentially, too, I think…" said Ben.

"Close. We'd call that exponential decay. Each new successful colony would gain fewer resources than the investment needed to seed it. New colonies would become fewer and fewer until no resources were left to seed any further colonies."

"Why wouldn't Chun's Number be big, like when a tree drops seeds?" Ben asked. "In the hundreds or thousands, maybe more."

"Because of the scale of the resources required for an interstellar colony ship. It's difficult to imagine the energy required to move a spaceship from a star to a relatively nearby star, at the speed required for it to get there still working. Let's suppose the ship is completely automated, with any living passengers in hibernation. Even then, machines can only last so long, even if they can repair themselves or each other along the way. Hibernation also has time limits. Even if that's hundreds of years, the energy needed to build a colony ship and move it from one star to another within that critical period is still a huge amount. In fact, it's about a hundred times all the energy humanity ever used on earth, from ancient times until the Inundation. Now consider the damage converting even that much energy did."

"That's why we use renewable energy now," said Rona.

"Indeed. Like these solar panels around us," the toon said.

Preoccupied with the verrie's colorful setting within the habitat, Ben hadn't thought much about what they'd seen of the surroundings. But now he asked, "How big did they say those solar arrays are? There were no plants or animals. What else is here? Is that all there is?"

"What are plants? Oh, you mean crops?"

"Sure! But also trees. Wild plants."

"I don't know much about such things. Ask someone else." The formulaic reply told them they'd reached the limits of that toon's appointed subject matter.

"Well, the answer is to put the solar arrays out in space," said Rona. "Where they'd work better anyhow."

"But would they work for centuries? Who'd take care of them?" Jilan asked Rona.

"Robots. People living in space habitats. I don't know," said Rona. "This scenario is stupid."

Another character, in the role of a researcher of ancient history, made them recount what they'd learned in earlier grades about the Inundation and its aftermath. Even though it had happened centuries ago, it remained the story of their times, the historical turning point that put everything before it, from Ancient Egypt to the World Wars, in the same "before-times" bin.

They all knew the story. The Antarctic ice sheet melted and spilled into the sea. It melted quickly, unstoppably, disastrously, within one year. But before that one year, there had been thirty-one month's warning.

Thirty-one months to try to move billions of people, and all the tools and treasures of a great global civilization, out of the way of seas that would rise sixty meters in paroxysms of towering tsunamis.

What was lost was lost; what was saved was saved. With a few exceptions, the people of the world came together and put forth heroic efforts. And just when they'd done all that could be done, as the oceans were still feeling out their new coastlines, an opportunistic influenza strain came along and killed them all.

Not all. Three out of four, though.

Generations of hard times followed. But civilization and human knowledge endured. Technology was preserved, though not all of it was used or needed in the new times. Having learned its lesson, humanity rebuilt cleaner, wiser, smaller, and fewer.

And, having done that, began looking again toward the stars.

"Oh, how dramatic," the historian-toon enthused. "And that's when they began building the Determination, right? The first interstellar spaceship."

"Fifty years ago. Um, our time, I mean," said Rona. The great keel, a single crystal of metal alloy ten kilometers long grown in the vacuum of space, had been part of their sky. Weather permitting, it was visible almost daily in twilight or pre-dawn as a bright needle among the stars. It would take centuries to complete, the teachers said, but someday—what's centuries, compared with the promise of the vast galaxy?—it would fly to new suns.

"Ah, well that's where the history I know begins," said the toon. "Off she flew, she and two others many years apart, with their frozen crews. And no word came back."

"What?" Rona protested. "Then how…"

"That's what it seemed, for generations, because no word came back for much longer than anyone expected. The colonists were supposed to establish communication first thing, top priority. But things didn't go as planned. They had to adapt to their new home, starting over with much simpler tools, rebuilding a civilization. Two of the three succeeded eventually, but it took millennia. It's not easy to send a signal, any kind of signal, at those distances. By the time they started trying, no one on Earth was listening, most of the time.

"And then, they had to learn how to communicate with each other. Time had passed, so of course language had changed, just as much here as there. With a message round trip time of decades, it took time just to learn to talk to each other."

"Speaking of time…" said Jilan

"This verrie's is all about time," said Ben. "Centuries here, a few thousand years there, but it doesn't add up to a million years. Enough time for even human bodies to change. I think we have to find out more about what Earth is like now, and how it got that way."

"Okay," said Jilan, "But that's not what I meant. The lander is supposed to arrive soon."

"Two landers, right?" Ben said. "The two ships… um, the Whosit and the Whatsit."

"Essent and Requis," said Rona, who had no doubt looked it up.

Toons didn't require polite parting words, so the three hurried to the center of the plaza where most of their classmates were also waiting, easily found despite the simulated crowd. They had followed different branches of the sim, and were swapping information and tips.

"The light wands come from the panel cleaner guy, but you need the password from the Dreamer to talk to him."

"The Dreamer's depressing."

"They're both depressing, but if you need a light wand..."

"Are the landers going to fly in here?"

"No, a toon said they already landed days ago, because of the solar array and the habitat. Some pods are just going to roll up here."

"What kind of pods?"

"Dunno. Giant peas?"

"Shut up."

"Anybody seen any animals?"

"Too cheap to program any."

"No, there really aren't any, except in a few places. Talk to the cook under the yellow spire who gives out the thermal paks. They lost most of them in the seeding rush."

"The what?"

"Whole planet's dug up, basically."

"Is that why the moon looked like one of my dog's turds, when he's sick?"

Part of the toon crowd shifted as the pods arrived on the far side of the plaza. They were hexagonal boxes a few meters across and a few meters high, resting on one flat side, conveyed by simple wheeled undercarriages that seemed to move by themselves. Wheels again, thought Ben. One of them was larger, and a darker blue-gray, than the other.

The toon who had greeted their arrival at sunrise presided over a brief ceremony. He reminded the crowd that the cargo were mere ceremonial gifts marking the occasion. The real payment for generations of work collecting unimaginable amounts of power had been in the form of generous amounts of necessary elements sifted or synthesized from the solar wind over the same period of time, including lithium, potassium, and rare earths. Those had been delivered to the planning authorities and would guarantee continued prosperity.

The pods, wheeled carriages and all, unfolded elegantly into larger hexagonal kiosks, displaying colorful symbols and half-hidden objects on each side. Most were not immediately recognizable, but some were clearly jewelry, and some were blades and other simple tools. There were no aliens, or people. Each kiosk appeared to be automated.

"Good, a way to use those Credits without a lot of dialog," said Jilan.

The toon official had one more announcement: "We had hoped to honor the occasion with yet another event of great rarity. A passenger from a star three voyage legs out, who long ago decided to return to see his species' ancestral home with her own eyes. Alas, upon arriving here she could not be revived from hibernation. We have agreed to convey her remains to the sea."

There's still a sea, thought Ben. A million years isn't such a long time, for some things.

A rectangular block of gray machinery, larger than any ancient Pharaoh's sarcophagus, slid silently out of one side of the larger of kiosk. The top half meter of the block split open down the middle into two halves, which folded down to the sides.

Ben and Rona stepped up for a closer look. A dessicated corpse lay inside the opening.

"Watch out for a jump-scare," Ben said. Rona said nothing, but moved aside as toons surrounded the sarcophagus, covered the body with a shiny gold fabric, lifted it and carried it away.

"One of them, said a toon behind them. "Have I told you about them?"

The toon was robed in black, and had a silver patch over one eye. "Pardon me. They call me the dreamer."

"Can you tell me the password for the panel cleaner guy?" Ben asked hopefully.

"We sent ourselves out in spaceships. Us. But by the time we learned they succeeded, they were them. Do you understand?"

The toon didn't wait for an answer. It went on in a soft hypnotic voice.

"When we found out they were planning colony ships of their own, it wasn't us moving on to farther stars, it was them.

"Of course, no one could have that. We needed new ships, more materials, more power, to make sure we would have our fair share of the stars.

"It didn't end. Orbital towers were built, and fell. This part or that part was set aside, protected, for a while. But not for millennium after millennium. It wasn't possible. The moons. The asteroids. We used it all. Sent it all out there.

"But we never came back. Even they never came back. Hardly anything came back, except a hunger for more energy. A place to put panels, and people to repair the machines that keep them clean.

"It's still going on, out there somewhere. A bubble, an expanding surface, too far away even to know about. New ships, new worlds seeking newer worlds, them after them, star after star. But so little coming back.

"That's what space colonization is, in the real universe.

"Now, how can I help you fine people?"

They went to talk to the panel cleaner guy. They talked and collected and swapped, ticking items off the list. Rona was acting sullen, even though they made good progress. "Something's wrong," she kept saying. "There's some point to this we're missing."

A chime signaled time nearly up. One more scavenger hunt item remained on Ben's list, a "decision nexus," but they hadn't found it. None of their classmates had either, or so they said. Fatigue and eyestrain were setting in, and the class began to collect near the obvious exit, the pavilion closest to the walkway they'd arrived on.

Rona was looking at the sky. Always cloudless, they'd learned, near the solar arrays, which were most of the mid latitudes. There were still oceans, but they were diminished and all but sterilized.

"I want…" Rona said, and fell silent.

"Say what?" said Ben.

"I mean, I have an idea," she said. "How many Credits do you have left?"

"Fourteen," said Ben.

"Eight hundred twenty," said Jilan.

"What? No, seriously."

"I mean it. There was a swap loop between the waste processing center, the display globe lady, and the glow-cube kiosk. I ran it up."

"Give me all of it," said Rona. To their own surprise, they did, without argument. What good were verrie tokens when the verrie was over anyhow?

Rona ran off toward the central plaza. Moments later, a toon approached the group from along the walkway. It wasn't the official; it was the teachtoon from the lobby.

"The system is restored. You have all done well and, I trust, learned a lot," the toon said. "However, you probably still have some questions."

No one wanted to be the one to drag the verrie out for everyone by asking a question, but the teachtoon looked like she was ready to wait 'til the cows came home anyhow. And Rona was still away doing whatever she was doing. So Ben asked, "What was this about? What was it for?"

"As I said at the start, this is a realistic simulation of earth's distant future as the cradle of a great human expansion into interstellar space. It's based entirely on physical laws and limitations that we've known and tested for centuries. What did you think of it?"

No one wanted to risk giving an honest answer.

"That much? Don't worry, I'm not surprised," said the teachtoon. "But to give a real answer to Ben's question, this is about the Determination, and a tradition going back a long time.

"You've all been taught that the bright line you see in the sky is a starship that will take many years to build, that was begun a few decades ago. That's partly true, but the last part is false.

"It actually dates back to before the Inundation. It's the keel of a ship, but it's not a ship under construction. It's a ruin, centuries old, like the remains of the drowned cities.

"Originally, for reasons we know but can't easily explain, it was called Enterprise. In the darkest years after the Inundation, it became a symbol of hope and aspiration. Parents would show their children the bright bar in the sky and say, 'we'll go to the stars yet.' Many, not just children, needed that symbol.

"But childhood ends. And when it actually did become possible to actually consider resuming construction of the ship, a few generations ago, our great-great-grandparents decided… no.

"'Determination' means willful resolve. But it also means, a decision. And that's the decision they made. Today's verrie is about why they did it.

"Of course, the keel is still there. The decision, the determination, is never final. Some people still yearn for the stars, no matter the price. Someone, perhaps you, could decide to…"

Ben turned around and ran his toon back toward the plaza as fast as he could make it go. Some people. Rona. Someone could decide…

It's still just a verrie, he thought, but his guts felt twisted with a premonition of something very wrong. Rona.

The crowd toons had disappeared. The plaza was an empty stage set.

Rona was nowhere to be seen.

In front of him, the hibernation sarcophagus was sealed shut.

So what? It just means she found a way to quit the verrie. But he clawed at the block of gray machinery with his tar's virtual hands nonetheless. As always, his hands passed through. He rammed his toon's head into the block, causing his view to splinter into random triangles. She's gone!

"Rona!" he cried over and over. Then, "Somebody help!"

The verrie shut off.

He convulsively shoved and kicked away the already-retracting viewsceen and motion pads.


They took Ben into the medical room and gave him a calming tea. They explained how even though mankind had twice backed off the brink of interstellar space, once by calamity and once by choice, there were still uses for near space, and for special people, people who yearned and didn't fear, to venture there. People with the right talents, people destined or chosen or choosing to live different lives.

She would be able to write to him, someday.

The rest of the class hiked from the verritorium, along the cobbled streets to the canal side, where the long barge waited to take them on the slow trip home. They would sleep most of the way, under the stars, under the brilliant moon.