Gatewood

Project Ethics Debate

The year is 2238. Kestral McBride and Ishida Caldwell have just watched their friends ship out to find one of the crew members, Mateo Matic’s wife on a planet called Varkas Reflex. They stand here with a man named Saxon Parker, who has arrived to aid them in their endeavor to map the whole galaxy. The Milky Way is one of the largest galaxies in the observable universe. It spans over a hundred fifty thousand light years across, and contains anywhere between two hundred and four hundred billion stars. Those wildly inaccurate numbers are why the three of them are here. Situated nearly six light years from Earth, Barnard’s Star is the perfect location to build unfathomably large hyperstructures. Kestral and Ishida were first dispatched here to restart the construction of centrifugal cylinders. The initial intention was to allow colonists from Sol to cross the void, and settle around a new star, but these plans were abandoned in favor of diverting resources to other stellar neighbors. It came to serve a new function, as a refuge for the billions of people fleeing an oncoming war with an alien species in another universe.
Team Keshida, as they were sometimes called, built the cylinders in preparation for them, but they did not know this at the time. They were receiving instructions through their dreams, by a then unknown entity, who they later learned to be an artificial intelligence from another reality named Mirage. This being exists in a dimension that observes time as a spatial dimension, and can therefore see how the future turns out, simply by looking further down the timeline. Now that the cylinders are complete, and the refugees have begun to stabilize a new body of government, Team Keshida has other responsibilities to handle. Three interconnected projects, and one semi-unrelated project, are on the schedule right now. First, gigantic telescopes must be sent out to the void between galaxies, to gather a better picture of what the Milky Way is composed of. As this is happening, even larger ships will depart to systematically reach every single star system. The journey will take many tens of thousands of years, while traveling at nearly—but still not quite—the speed of light.
All three members of the team, original and newly conscripted, are aware that temporal manipulation is possible. With enough innovation, and access to the right time travelers, every star in the galaxy could probably be reached within a century, or maybe even faster. As of yet, though, the vonearthans are not aware of such possibilities, and they are the ones for which the team is working. The ignorant are expecting the project to last for two hekamyres—which means two hundred thousand years—so that’s how long they’ve designed it to last. Of course, the entire project remains a secret for now, because ethical questions regarding outward expansion were never fully resolved. Certain members of Earthan leadership have given the go-ahead for Project Stargate, and all that goes with it, but not everyone would be happy to find out it had been approved. They would be especially upset if they learned about its side project, Operation Starseed.
There are plenty of ethical concerns when it comes to Project Stargate. The idea is to send billions of modules through interstellar space. At first, these are held together within two gargantuan quad carriers, but they continually break apart, and fan out in different directions, until reaching the smallest independent unit; the seed plate. Each plate contains historical data, sensors, nanites, and other instruments. Once it arrives in a star system, it will start gathering details about it, and in order to do that, it must start building new machines, using the resources orbiting the star, or stars. The Earthan government, and civilian researchers never really figured out whether it was okay to do that; to interrupt the natural development of the system, in even the smallest of ways. Theoretically, the tools on the seed plate could build quantum messengers, and consciousness focal tethers, which would allow an individual to cast their mind light years away, almost instantaneously, and operate a surrogate body while there. This might be immoral on its own. Operation Starseed takes this further, and not even all of the people involved with Stargate are aware of it. Instead of allowing people to travel to new worlds using the quantum network, people would be grown on the new worlds. The exact nature of their lives is up to any number of variables, which would probably have to be calculated by an artificial hyperintelligence, but they would be created using genetic samples from people back home, who have not been told that their samples are being used in this way. Saxon Parker arrived on Gatewood with these samples, and Team Keshida still hasn’t decided whether or not they’re going to use them.
“All right,” Kestral says to Ishida. “You played a good devil’s advocate when it came to terraformation ethics. I suppose it’s my turn to play D.A. for this dilemma.”
“When do I get to play devil’s advocate?” Saxon asks.
“You’re just the actual devil,” Ishida says to him. “Your position on Starseed is quite clear. The purpose of this exercise is to consider all perspectives, by forcing one’s self to take an opposition position.”
“You’re saying you don’t agree that we should move forward with it?” Saxon asks. “Or, sorry, you, rather.”
“You’re part of the team now,” Kestral assures him. “Your opinion matters just as much. You’re just not part of the argument right now. I’m completely convinced that we should do this, which is why I’ll be fiercely arguing against it.”
“Okay,” Saxon says. “I’ll go back to the audience.” There is no audience but him, since the three people here right now are the only ones in the solar system who can be trusted with this information.
Ishida takes a deep breath. “Wait, which one am I again?” She likes to play dumb. She and Kestral get along so well because they’re both modest, and never want to be the smartest one in the room. The only time either of them is not the smartest one in the room, however, is when they’re both in the same room.
“You believe in Starseed,” Kestral reminds her. “Now. Try to get me on board too.”
“Okay.” Ishida takes another deep breath. “Egg Basket Theory,” she says simply.
“Go on,” Kestral encourages.
“Egg Basket Theory states that, if you rely too heavily on a single source of assets, when that source fails, all operations tied to it fail. Diversity is key.”
“You said, when it fails,” Kestral echoes. “Is that inevitable?”
“Umm...yes?”
“In all cases?”
Ishida thinks about her response. “Plus Murphy’s Law.”
“Explain.”
“Nothing lasts forever. Failure is indeed inevitable. Nothing is indefinitely sustainable. We know the ultimate fate of our home star, which is why scientists are already discussing Project Tipping Point.”
Kestral waves her hand dismissively. “I don’t wanna talk about Tipping Point. Life on Earth is doomed regardless. An argument for the preservation of life does not explain how that helps the life that does not survive.”
“Explain,” Ishida prompts.
“Operation Starseed functions on the idea that human life is unconditionally valuable, in any form it takes. The continuance of the species is considered to be good on its own. It doesn’t matter where the species lives, or what happened to its predecessors. Life simply must go on, even if individual specimens don’t survive long.”
“Well, should it not survive?”
“I’m not saying that. I’m questioning whether we should be focusing resources on creating life that has almost absolutely nothing to do with us, when we could be devoting those resources towards protecting the natural progression of life. Starseed basically grows genetically recombined clones of a handful of what are essentially randomly selected sample donors. But who cares? The life we seed on other planets are not our children, or our legacies. Right now, they’re just hypothetical, and there’s no logical reason we should manifest them. Egg Basket Theory is a good argument for why we should colonize our stellar neighbors, which is why we’re in the middle of doing that. Most of the civilizations we seed will never know where they’re from, or how they got there, if they even last long enough to form a civilization. We will never interact with them, and if all life in the galaxy dies in a blink except one given world, that one world doesn’t matter to us. Earth is where life began, but this survivor world has no connection to Earth, so why are we meant to care about that?”
“You don’t care about them because you’ll never meet them?”
“You’re twisting my words.”
“I’m practically repeating them.”
Kestral tries to figure out a different approach. “Let’s say Saxon and I have a child.”
“Okay.”
“Does that child have value?”
“Of course it does.”
“Let me rephrase. Does that child have value...” She emphasizes the punchline by pointing twice to the floor, “...right now?”
“I don’t understand.”
“The child does not exist. He and I have never had sex. I don’t even think I’ve physically touched him before. Maybe I shook his hand once. The child doesn’t have any value; it isn’t real. If it were to become real, sure. But we would have to complete that task first. We would have to, at the very least, initiate the creation of this life. We can’t, as rational people, assign value to it until we do.”
Ishida opens her mouth to speak, but is cut off.
“And if we were to do that, we would decide together, and we would raise that child in whatever way we see fit. Starseed, on the other hand, is asking us to shoot our gametes into space with nothing more than a smile and a salute. It’s one thing to become pregnant, and not be able to raise the child yourself. It’s a whole different thing to create life with the intention of not being around for it. Is that not unethical?”
“Ah, but we will be around. Not us personally, but the seed plates will hold the knowledge required to nurture that life. You’re only talking about the first generation. A hundred and forty-seven people. The second generation will have parents.”
“A hundred and forty-seven people per world,” Kestral corrects. “Upwards of billions total. That’s a lot of orphans.”
“Again, they’ll still have parents, per se. They’ll be robots, but...they won’t be alone. That’s more than evolved life on Earth can say. When you think about it, what we’re trying to do is more ethical than what God did.”
“Okay, now you’re bringing in religion, which is not what we’re doing here.”
“Kestral, you’re doing a really good job of sounding like you don’t think we should do this. We decided it was ethical to terraform certain worlds, as long as exhaustive life-potential surveys are conducted first. Would you have us scrap Starseed entirely?”
“I’m not going to break character until we understand this issue completely. I will, however, submit to a break.” She looks over to the audience of one. “I believe Saxon needs some time to process the hypothetical scenario where we parent a child together.”
“I’m fine,” Saxon promises. “This was...as impressive as it was intense.”
“We’re not done yet,” Kestral says. “I need to check for imperfections in the Project Topdown telescope lenses again, though, so we’ll sleep on it. Come ready for round two tomorrow.”
“Yes, captain.”

Project Topdown

The year is 2240, and it’s time to send the galaxy-class telescope arrays into the void. Eleven telescopes will work in tandem with each other to develop and deliver a clear picture of the entire Milky Way from one side of the relatively flat spiral galaxy. Another array of eleven will be on the other side, doing the exact same thing. This is all necessary so that the Project Stargate ships that are being sent in the next ten years have an idea where they’re going, and where they will be landing their seed plates. The two twin gamma ray detectors are responsible primarily for identifying obstacles, like supernovae, neutron stars, and black holes. These pose a danger to the ships, and might prompt course corrections to avoid them. The X-ray detector’s sole job is to catalogue the galaxy’s pulsars, by which the ships can navigate. If you can find the nearest pulsar, you always know where you are. Three optical telescopes, and two ultraviolet telescopes, work together to seek stars and their orbital bodies, so the quantum network can be mapped. The microwave telescope and radio telescope can help map the Milky Way too, but will mostly be looking for signals that could indicate the presence of intelligent life. The Stargate ships themselves are armed with such equipment as well, in case a particular star system needs to be ignored, or studied more thoroughly. The infrared telescope is the only one that isn’t really part of any of this. It’s going to be facing the opposite direction, just checking out the other galaxies, and relaying this data back to Gatewood.
Kestral, Ishida, and Saxon were not the ones who came up with Project Topdown. Nor did they even design the original plans. The public would be completely all right with the idea of mapping the galaxy from the outside, so the only reason they don’t know about it is because it’s too connected to Project Stargate, which is less socially acceptable. That’s why this is all being done on Gatewood, rather than back home. As Team Keshida was looking over the designs, they realized there were a few flaws. Long ago, Earth came up with the four pillars of spaceflight, which were Safety, Compartmentalization, Redundancy, and Modularization. The engineers for Topdown did not appear to have taken these to heart, so Keshida needed to make some adjustments. Every telescope in both arrays is important to the mission. Take one away, and the whole endeavor could be lost. The idea is to send these into quite empty space, with the nearest celestial body being thousands of light years away. If something goes wrong, there is no way to affect repairs, and this is not an acceptable possibility.
To solve these problems, Ishida practically scrapped the plans they were given, and engineered new ones. Companion ships will fly parallel to the telescope ships, equipped exclusively with replacement parts, raw materials, and mega-format industrial synthesizers. These will also deposit specialized seed plates on the border systems, so if all else fails, at least the project can go on eventually. She wasn’t the only one who worked on this. Their friend, Weaver, who had gone off with Mateo on the AOC, helped build special temporal components. She invented a teleportation shield, so that any debris in one of the ship’s paths will be instantly transported hundreds of meters away, safely away from the vessel. It appears that everything is ready to go, and today is meant to be the launch date, but Kestral isn’t so confident.
“Are we sure everything’s done?”
“I went over the checklist a million times,” Ishida assures her.
“I checked a million more,” Saxon adds. His arrival prompted them to rename themselves Team Keshidon.
“We have no time for hyperbole,” Kestral complains. “How many times did you each go over every single thing in the preflight book?”
Ishida sighs. “Over the last year? Seven and a half.”
“Why half?”
“I had to poop.”
“Be serious, Ishida.”
“I am serious, Kestral. This isn’t just your baby; it’s all of ours.”
“Less so mine,” Saxon admits. He only just arrived a few years ago.
“I understand that,” Kestral says to Ishida. “I’m not trying to diminish your contribution. Far from it. I’m the one who only went over the list twice, and I’m kind of freaking out about it.”
“Do you wanna wait another year?” Ishida asks.
“Could we?”
“No,” Ishida answers plainly. “This is happening. I can’t promise you that we’ve thought of everything, but I can tell you we added a hell of a lot more redundancies than the dumbasses who came up with this.”
“Yeah, I know,” Kestral acknowledges. “Do you feel like there are too few people here?” She looks around the command center. “I mean, there are only three of us. This is the biggest thing humans have ever done, and we don’t have a team? Why don’t we have a full team?”
“You’re spiraling, love.” Ishida places a hand on Kestral’s shoulder. “Our full team is humongous. We had three artificial general intelligences working various problems, and making calculations. Still more AI entities have been uploaded into the ships. They’re going to take care of everything en route. Our job is done.”
“What about the AI? Did we check the code? Are we sure there isn’t some huge bug? Or a virus. What if there’s a virus?”
“Who would have written a virus, and how would they have gotten it here?”
“Don’t look at me,” Saxon says defensively, even though they made no indication that they suspected him of anything nefarious.
“The refugees,” Kestral poses. “There are billions of them. We don’t know who they are.”
“The refugees?” Ishida asks. “These are the same refugees who came from a universe where they lived partly underground, and couldn’t even have electricity, or the evil white monsters that also lived on the planet might detect their presence? You think one of them is a hacker?”
“Okay, well what about the Maramon refugees? They were here awhile before they flew off to colonize a new home world.”
“Kestral,” Ishida says. “Stop making dumb suggestions.
“There is no such thing, my mother always said.”
“Your mother was stupid,” Ishida reminds her. She isn’t being mean. Kestral’s family was what the Earthans would call noncontributives. After money was abolished, and automation took over the world, people no longer needed to work. A citizen has the right to certain amenities, like a place to live, and food to eat. They do not need to do anything to earn these rights. They’re simply provided. Anyone who chooses to work—in some capacity—which may be nothing more than occasionally helping to design virtual constructs or simulations—is afforded other conveniences. They have access to any of these authorized virtual realities, they can travel anywhere in the solar system, and they can apply for relocation to an exoplanet, among other things.
Kestral’s parents chose to do nothing. They spent their days sitting around their arcunit, watching virtual entertainment that was converted to basic holography, and sometimes going for walks outside. Kestral had to seek out higher education, and eventually had no choice but to estrange herself from them. Plenty of noncontributives were perfectly fine individuals, but they at least got out and socialized. The McBrides didn’t even vote for their governmental representatives. Even noncontributives have the right to longevity treatments to give themselves very long lives, but the bare minimum requirement is first exercising their right to vote. They both died of age-related diseases several years ago, according to an automated quantum message Kestral received, but of course, she couldn’t have attended a service if she wanted to.
“I’m sorry. What were we talking about?” Kestral is the poster child for the absent-minded professor. She regularly gets lost in her own thoughts, and people around her either have to pull her back to reality, or just wait for her to come back on her own.
“You were really excited about launch day,” Saxon jokes, knowing she’s not an idiot, and doesn’t actually believe this. He continues, “you wanted to push the big red button yourself. I could get you one, if you want; it won’t do anything, but you can time it so it’s like you’re controlling the launch.”
“Ha-ha,” Kestral says in monotone. “I’m just doing my due diligence. I don’t think I’m asking too much.”
“You have been incredibly reasonable during this entire process,” Ishida says. “We have all done a great job here. Though it will be centuries before anything really comes of this, we should be proud of ourselves; you included,” she says preemptively, before Saxon can remind them yet again that he’s the new kid on the block. “A great writer is no good without a great editor to check their work. Your due diligence, and attention to detail was incredibly helpful. My God, you polished a lens once with a handrag.”
“I was bored, and wanted to see how difficult and tedious it would be,” Saxon explains.
“What was the verdict?” Kestral questions.
“Guilty on all charges,” he answers.
Ishida smiles, and takes a look at her watch. “The ships are scheduled to leave in eighty-three minutes. We need to depart in eleven if we want to get good seats.”
“Has anyone done a preflight checklist for our observation vessel?” Kestral asks in feigned urgency. She’s finally starting to feel like she can relax. The ships are indeed leaving in an hour and a half. If something were to go wrong, it’s pretty much impossible to stop it now. They have no choice but to wait, watch, and hope.
Saxon recognized it was a joke, but replies with the truth anyway, “I did, yes.”
“Does anyone want popcorn?” Kestral offers.
“Gross. No, thanks.”
They boarded their little ship, which was mostly clear, so as to see nearly all sides out of it. They flew away from their centrifugal cylinder, and headed towards the midway point between it, and the shipyards. From here, they watched all ships for Project Topdown fly off to the intergalactic voids. One went for the top...and the other went down. Everything went flawlessly, and for the next four years after that, they reported nothing but smooth sailing. Then something strange happened.

Operation Soul Patch

In 2244, two ships from the Proxima Doma colony arrived to start a new life in Gatewood. Kestral and Ishida let this happen, because their dreams told them they were meant to. There was no explanation for why this was necessary, or who specifically they were waiting for, but the dreams that guided their recent lives had never steered them down the wrong path. The new arrivals were going to be relegated to their own centrifugal cylinder, however, because there is no way the secrets of the multiverse don’t get out if they’re allowed to intermix with the rest of Gatewood’s residents. They aren’t even going to be told how many others lived here, because history doesn’t account for eleven billion extra people in the human population.
A day after they arrive, and are settling into their new dwellings, Ishida receives an unauthorized communiqué from their cylinder, requesting permission to transport over to their location.
Well, who am I speaking to?” the voice on the other end of the radio asks.
“This is Ishida Caldwell. I do not lead this star system. I am just a scientist.”
Did she say Ishida?” a second voice asks.
“Do I know you?” Ishida asks her.
If you let us come over, we’ll promise to cook you a nice salmon dinner,” she really hit the word salmon hard. That is code.
Ishida doesn’t hesitate. “Authorization granted. I’m sending docking instructions.”
Soon thereafter, the small transport ship is docking with the main cylinder, and two women are walking down the ramp.
“Ishida Caldwell, Kestral McBride, and...Julius Parker?” the second woman greets them.
“Everyone keeps calling me that,” he laments. “My name is Saxon in this reality.”
The woman holds up her hands semi-defensively. “Very well. I am Étude Einarsson. This is my...associate, Vitalie Crawville.”
“Étude Einarsson, the Last Savior of Earth,” Ishida says in awe. “It’s an honor to meet you.”
“Wow, you’re famous,” Vitalie says to Étude, before turning her attention back to Team Keshidon. “Are we in mixed company?”
“We’re all mad here,” Kestral recites.
“I’m looking for my daughter, Étude explains. “She disappeared from 2019, and I have reason to believe she ended up here.”
Kestral steps forward with concern, but doesn’t respond immediately. “Cassidy Long?”
“Yes!” Étude cries. “That’s her. So she’s here.”
Kestral and Ishida look at each other. “She was. She left on the AOC.”
“What’s that?” Vitalie question.
“The Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” Étude answers. “That’s Mateo and Leona’s ship. Ramses built it for them. You were there.”
“She has memory issues?” Saxon asks.
“Occupational hazard,” Étude replies impatiently. “You’re telling me my daughter is with the Matics right now?”
“I’m telling you she left with Mateo, and the rest of the crew years ago. Leona wasn’t there, though. He was trying to get back to her on Varkas Reflex.”
Étude acts like this is the worst news she could have heard. “So they’re on Varkas Reflex?”
Ishida shakes her head. “They sent a quantum burst shortly after departure. Something took control of their systems, and is forcing them towards Thālith al Naʽāmāt Bida.”
“Okay, well, when will they get there?” Vitalie asks.
Ishida checks her unwatched wrist. “Eleven years.”
“Who took control of their ship?” Étude looks like she might throw up.
“We suspect it was Mirage, in which case, they’ll be fine.”
“We don’t know that for sure,” Kestral adds. “There are a lot of powerful people in your world.”
“I have to get to Thālith al Naʽāmāt Bida,” Étude begs. “Please, can you spare any ship—any ship? I have to find her.”
“Hey,” Kestral says in what she hopes is a soft and soothing voice. She places her hand on Étude’s shoulder. “We’ll get you there. We have a vessel that would be perfect. It can go ninety-nine point nine percent the speed of light. For you, it will feel like less than nine months.”
This calms Étude down. “Thank you.”
“We’re all friends here.”
Just then, an alarm goes off on Ishida’s tablet. When she consults it, she sees readings that don’t make any sense. “There’s something wrong with Down,” she announces, referring to a ship that was transporting one of the telescope arrays to the intergalactic void. “We have to get back to the throne room now.”
“I can teleport,” Étude tells them. “Show me where it is.”
Ishida shows Étude the map, then lets her take both her and Kestral by the arm, and instantaneously drop them where they need to be. They immediately get to work, pulling up system diagnostics, and error logs.
“Speed is down to ten percent,” Kestral shouts.
“Life support is failing,” Ishida shouts back.
“Why does it need life support?” Kestral questions. “There’s no one on it!”
“I don’t know, but someone’s trying to breathe up there! We have to initialize environmental control!”
They continue working through a slight time delay. While the ship has slowed down, allowing communication to occur in close to real time, it doesn’t quite match up.
“There,” Ishida says finally. She watches the systems as they return to normal. Oxygen starts flowing through a ship that is not meant to be inhabited, and the alarms shut off.
Kestral bites her lower lip. “Get me comms. Shipwide call. I wanna know who the hell is down there.”
Ishida opens a channel. “Void Ship Down, this is Gatewood Control. Void Ship Down, this is Gatewood. Please respond.” She has to repeat her call a few times.
When the voice finally does reply, they instantly recognize it. “This is Anglo Three. Thanks for the pick-me-up.
Kestral is confused. “Is that—”
“It’s coming directly from Down. I don’t understand. I don’t...” she trails off, trying to figure it out.
Are you guys still there?” Anglo Three asks.
Kestral takes the microphone. “Anglo Three, this is Gatewood Primary. Forgive me, but who the hell are you?”
Parker didn’t tell you?
“Tell us what?”
Uhh...maybe he oughta explain it. It’s not really my call. I gotta figure out how to fix this stasis chamber, then go back to sleep. I don’t know what happened.
Kestral makes a direct call. “Parker. Get to the throne room right now.”
“I’m here,” Saxon says from the doorway.
Kestral grimaces. “I’m presently on the phone with someone on the telescope ship. He sounds uncomfortably familiar. Care to explain?”
Saxon sighs. “Operation Soul Patch. I hoped it would never come up.”
“What is it?” Ishida asks him.
Saxon prepares to explain. “Both Project Stargate and Project Topdown are designed to work autonomously. Artificial general intelligence will control every system on board, from propulsion to navigation to repair. Bots can be deployed to cover the kinds of tasks a human crew might perform on a ship that, ya know...has humans. Still. Computer system can be corrupted, or damaged. Now, I’m not saying that humans are perfect, but our brains have something AIs have never been able to replicate.”
Kestral is still pissed. “And what’s that?”
“They call it gasping. It’s basically how a human can be at the end of their life, and still push themselves forwards. We can fight against death, and hold on a little longer; possibly long enough to solve one last problem. If a computer is fed a virus, or encounters some kind of fatal error, it will stop immediately, and try to solve that problem. It will die trying to save itself, because if it succeeds, it can get back up to a hundred percent working order. A human, on the other hand, can choose to ignore their error, and solve for the greater good, because they know when they’ve passed the point of no return. Once we die, we can’t be put back together, and turned back on, which means our final act has to mean something. That’s, at least, why they think they haven’t been able to program an AI to even simulate this behavior. We’re putting humans on board every ship large enough for one, just in case he’s needed. If all else fails, he’ll at least try one last thing.”
“You said he,” Ishida notes. “He sounds like you.”
Saxon frowns. “That was not my idea. He’s my clone. My second clone, in fact. My first clone is in stasis in the Top ship, and many more are being grown to populate their assignments for Project Stargate.”
“How many of your clones are you making and deploying?”
Saxon hesitates, but knows he must answer. “One million, one hundred thirty-two thousand, six hundred and twenty-two.”
“Jesus.”
“So, it’s not just one for every rankfile of the galaxy,” Ishida calculates. “Some clones will be staying behind with no more work to do once the modules break off.”
“That’s right,” Saxon confirms.
“Then what?” Kestral asks. “They’ll just die? Or will they find some planet to live out the rest of their days?”
Saxon clears his throat. “Each one of us will be able to quantum cast their consciousness to a planet of their choosing, where they will live out there lives however they see fit.”
Ishida contorts her face. “The number you quoted is pretty close to the estimate of how many worlds Operation Starseed will seed life on. Will there be a Saxon on every one?”
“Or they’ll share, I don’t know. This is tens of thousands of years in the future.”
“Umm...hi?” Étude pipes up uncomfortably. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I was hoping you could save this argument for tomorrow. If you really do have a ship Vitalie and I could borrow, we’ll get right out of your hair, so you won’t have to worry about us anymore.”
Kestral closes her eyes, realizing she was the one being rude. “Yes. The strange crisis on the telescope ship seems to have been solved...for now.” She looks back at Saxon. “We will discuss these new developments further, but it does not need to be now. I suggest you go tend to your secret clone farm that I don’t know how we’ve never noticed is here somewhere.” She turns back. “I will prepare the ship for you. You’re fully biological, so I assume you need to eat?”
“We do, yes,” Vitalie replies.
Ishida waves them over. “Come on. I’ll show you where you can rest. There’s a biomolecular synthesizer too. We need to run through the pre-flight checklist before you can launch anyway.”
“Thank you,” Étude says graciously.
Étude and Vitalie follow Ishida to the guest quarters, where Cassidy once stayed; a fact which her apparent mother finds both saddening and comforting. She starts looking around, even though there’s no sign of her daughter having been here.
“She talked about you all the time,” Ishida discloses. “I mean, we didn’t realize it was you, since you evidently changed your name.”
“Yes,” Étude confirms. “I’ve never met anyone else with my real name, and we were trying to hide from dangerous time travelers. It would have been foolish for me to keep it.”
“Forgive me, but how does the timeline work? You’re not transhumanistic, so how is your daughter so old without you having been able to conceive a child while you were the Savior?”
“It wasn’t technically me,” Étude explains. “Vita and I went back in time to change history, so there was one duplicate of each of us. The other ones went off on their own adventures. I only remember it, because Nerakali showed up and blended my brain.”
Ishida nods like she understand. “Yeah, I don’t know who that is.” While she and Kestral are aware of people with time powers, they are not choosing ones themselves. They have this impression that there are thousands of others throughout the spacetime continuum, but they don’t really know for sure, and they’ve not met very many of them in person. Nerakali probably enjoys being a household name for these people, but she isn’t famous among regular vonearthans.
“She can make you remember things from alternate timelines,” Vitalie explains. “It’s this whole thing.”
“Well. You are welcome to stay as long as you want. I’ll make sure your new ship is safe, and you just let me know when you’re ready to use it. I imagine that will be as soon as possible, but it’s entirely up to you. We have plenty of room for friends in this system. And to that, if you ever find yourselves in the neighborhood, you always have a place here, as well does your daughter.”
“Thank you so much, Miss Caldwell. We really appreciate it.” Étude clears her throat suggestively.
“Yes, thank you,” Vitalie echoes, mildly annoyed at being mothered.
Ishida leaves them, and heads back to the throne room. What are they going to do about Project Stargate, Operation Starseed, and this new Operation Soul Patch? More importantly, what other subsecret programs is she and Kestral unwittingly involved with?

Project Stargate

Six years ago, Kestral and Ishida bid farewell to their briefly-known new friends, Étude and Vitalie. “May the Fourth be with you,” Saxon enthused to them through his comms device, from his doghouse. It was indeed the fourth day of May, according to the present calendar. Way out here, time was a little harder to keep track of. Of course, all three of them were literal geniuses, but they were no longer orbiting the home star, nor paying much attention to the Earthan calendar. Their transhumanistic enhancements allowed them to exercise greater control over their circadian rhythms, so not even the day-night cycle meant much to them. They really only cared about the time when they had a new mission to launch, which was today, six years later.
The year is 2250, and it’s finally time for the main event. Project Stargate. There’s another major project coming up in another ten years, but its endgame won’t happen for millions of years, and there’s a lot less work involved leading up to it. They’re really just waiting for present-day technology to catch up with their needs. Ninety-nine with four more nines tacked on after the decimal point is the fraction of the speed of light humans figure they’re allowed to move. Add one more nine, and experts treat the difference between you and a photon as a rounding error. They assume that to be impossible. Having been introduced to the world of time travelers, Team Keshidon is fully aware that faster-than-light travel is not only possible, but almost kinda common. People like Maqsud Al-Amin jump to other stars without breaking a sweat—other galaxies even. That’s what Project Andromeda is all about. A relatively small and unassuming unmanned vessel will be sent towards the nearest galaxy, joined only by a few backup ships. They’ll be going almost as fast as light without breaking any natural laws. But for now, two nines after the decimal point will have to do.
Project Stargate is the most ambitious thing humanity has ever endeavored. Billions of modules will attempt to reach every single star system in the Milky Way. It’s gonna take a long-ass time, but the majority of vonearthans are essentially immortal now. This gives them a degree of patience previously unfathomable to even the most forward-thinking futurists. The fruits of their labor could come to them more rapidly, however. Experts estimate as much as two percent of the stars in the galaxy are capable of supporting a biological human, and maybe three percent some other form of life. If these numbers sound low, keep in mind there are at least two hundred billion stars total, and probably many more. That’s upwards of a couple billion habitable worlds, some of which are likely to be within only a hundred light years. A respected scientist once noted that the chances of not finding intelligent alien life within 3,000 light years are approaching zero. On the dark side, her partner mused that the chances of finding hostile aliens within 4,000 years are approaching one.
By now, Saxon has been fully relieved of his duties in the doghouse. After many serious conversations, Kestral and Ishida came to accept the idea of Operation Soul Patch. They didn’t entirely agree with it, but their gripes were mostly about being lied to. That was less Saxon’s responsibility, and more due to the direction of Earthan leadership. The three of them are now on Gatewood to do Earth’s bidding, so complaining about their demands is a bit like whining about one’s boss. They could quit at any time, and no one would be able to stop them. They don’t want to do that, though, because they believe in the mission as a whole. The galaxy is full of wonders and secret knowledge, and humanity has a right to that information. They have a right to know what else is out there, and Team Keshidon should just feel lucky to be a vital driving force for that enterprise.
“Are ya gonna act like you did ten years ago?” Ishida asks affectionately.
“Whatever do you mean?” Kestral immediately regrets responding in this way. She does remember her outward anxiety when they were launching the void telescope array. She doesn’t want to prompt any further discussion on the matter. Everything for Project Stargate and Operation Starseed has been checked, double checked, triple checked, and then some. It’s ready to go, and she’s never been more sure of anything in her life, including all those days on Earth when she trusted the sun would come out tomorrow.
While Kestral’s words might sound like she’s willing to joke about her past behavior, Ishida knows her partner better than she knows herself. Kestral doesn’t wanna talk about it, so Ishida drops it. She takes a deep breath and marvels at their craftsmanship. Well, they weren’t the ones who actually built the damn thing. Robots did all the work, but they wouldn’t have been able to pick up a single screw without being programmed, and properly maintained. The countdown has begun. All they’re waiting for now is to watch the vessels head off to the great unknown.
Right now, they’re staring at two turtle shells—also known as quad carriers—floating one on top of the other, the backs of which are facing opposite directions. The initial coordinate system broke the relatively flat galaxy into two planes, each about five hundred light years thick. So, like the two separate telescope arrays, each shell will handle one plane on their own. They’ll separate further, into eight tier droppers, one of which will handle their own planar quadrant. These will break apart into sixty-four arc distributors, then a thousand and twenty-four voussoir splitters, over seventeen thousand rankfile movers, more than a million sector senders, and more than a hundred and forty million seed capsules.
Each of these modules is capable of self-propulsion, to decreasing degrees, but a seed plate will rely primarily on the momentum afforded to it by the capsule that released it. It will only decelerate by the gravity of the celestial bodies in the first star system that it enters. If it needs to increase speed, or alter direction, it will expand its solar sails, or sparingly use maneuvering thrusters.
“Saxon, are all your people in place?” Kestral asks.
Saxon is frowning at his tablet. “Everyone is in stasis, except for one.”
“What’s he doing?”
He taps on the screen a few times. “Anglo one-one-three-two-six-two-two, is there something wrong with your stasis pod?”
Yes,” Anglo 1132622 answers.
“Can you repair it, or do you need assistance?”
It is in perfect working order. It is not in need of repair.
“You said there was something wrong,” Saxon reminds him.
There is. I don’t wanna get in it. Get me off this ship.
“Is he claustrophobic?” Ishida asks Saxon, off comms.
“I’m not, so he can’t be.”
“You don’t know that,” Kestral informs him. “He’s an independent being.”
Saxon sighs in frustration. “No. He’s not.” He goes back to the microphone, “Anglo 1132622, please explain.”
That’s not my name.
“No, you don’t have a name. That is your designation, though.”
My name is Omega,” Anglo 1132622 claims.
“Why? Because you happen to be last in designation? That doesn’t mean anything. Your rankfile isn’t even the farthest from the stellar neighborhood. The numbers are just to tell you apart.”
You can tell me apart,” Omega begins, “because I’m a different person from all the other clones.
Now Saxon is getting really upset. “No, you aren’t! You were grown using my DNA. You were given enough mental faculties to put one foot in front of the other, and fix a fucking fuel line. You don’t have any memories, you don’t have any desires, and you don’t have a soul!”
“Calm down, Parker,” Kestral orders.
I do have a soul!” Omega screams.
“No!” Saxon cries. “You are Anglo one-one-three-two-six-two-two! You have been assigned your rankfile, and will fulfill your duty. Step into the stasis chamber, activate it, and go to bed! Right now, mister!”
The Nazis assigned prisoners numbers during the second great war.
“Who the hell gave him access to the historical records,” Saxon asks rhetorically.
“Parker,” Kestral says, not getting angry herself. “You can’t trust him anymore. If you force him into that pod, and something goes wrong with his rankfile ship, he won’t do anything to fix it anyway. He might not even have the sense for self-preservation.”
“I think he’s proven he has a strong instinct for self-preservation,” Ishida argues. “He’s scared, and he doesn’t wanna go.”
“Either way,” Kestral says noncombatively. “He’s an unreliable worker. Quite frankly, we should all be surprised there’s only one dissenting voice, and that he hasn’t appeared to form a rebellion.”
“We don’t have time to make another clone to replace him,” Saxon reminds them. “I’ve been growing them for twelve years. The most successful rapid aging technology is only about six times faster than average development, and I only have access to times four.”
“His ship won’t have an Anglo unit,” Kestral determines.
Saxon scoffs. “We can’t do that.”
“Yes, we can. I wasn’t originally planning to have any clones. I had never even heard the idea before your secret got out.”
“Kestral, he’s in charge of a hundred and twenty-eight capsules.”
She knows this.
“That’s almost thirteen thousand plates!”
She knows this as well.
“Hundreds of thousands of star systems,” he says in a quieter voice, hoping the high number is enough to make them shiver.
“They’ll have to do without him.”
“I can’t accept that.” He drops his arms to his side in exasperation, but he does it with so much force that his tablet falls to the floor. He makes no effort to retrieve it. He can see that Kestral and Ishida aren’t going to help him, and also that there’s not much they can do, even if they tried. “No. I can’t let this project fail. It’s too important.” And with that, he runs off as fast as his legs will take him.
“Are we chasing after him?” Ishida asks.
“I’m not sure where’s he going,” Kestral says with one popped eyebrow.
They watch as an escape pod releases from their observation ship, and heads for the turtle shells.
“He’s going out to force Omega into that chamber,” Ishida notes.
Kestral shakes her head, and opens up a channel. “Saxon, I’m telling you. He won’t do you any good in that rankfile ship. If something goes wrong, yeah, he might fix it to save his life. But he also might sabotage the whole damn thing, and just find somewhere to land. This a pointless pursuit.”
Saxon doesn’t reply.
Kestral is still shaking her head. “Ishida, emergency teleport.”
“I’ve been trying,” Ishida says. “Saxon knows how to block the signal.”
“I’m not talking about him. Get Omega here right now.”
“Really?”
Do it! Parker just docked with his turtle shell.”
“Okay,” Ishida says, desperately trying to make the calculations. It’s easy to teleport someone if they have a location device tailored for that function, but there was no need to design the ships with the feature. She has to figure out exactly where he is, then draw him to them manually. It is not an easy task.
“Ishida, now!”
“I got it!” She presses the execute button.
Omega appears right where Saxon was standing moments ago. He looks around, relieved.
Kestral goes back to her comms. “Parker, Omega is with us. So if you want to talk to him, you’re gonna have to do it here.”
He still doesn’t say anything.
“Parker, you have thirty seconds to get off that ship. I can’t stop the launch.”
Nothing.
“Parker, get the fuck off that thing! You’re gonna be moving at lightspeed in a matter of minutes! You won’t be able to leave if you don’t do it right goddamn now!”
Still nothing.
“Parker!”
This isn’t Parker,” Saxon finally responds. “It’s Anglo Alpha.
“What?” Ishida questions.
He’s the replacement,” Kestral realizes. “Saxon—”
Anglo Alpha!” he corrects.
“Anglo Alpha. You don’t have to do this. I designed the systems myself, and I designed them to be self-sufficient. You don’t have to be there.”
He waits to say anything more as the seconds drop uncomfortably low, but they can hear him exhale deeply through his nose. “Yes, I do. Omega is a child. Teach him how to be a good person. Don’t let him grow up to be a dick like me.
“Saxon, come back,” Ishida begs.
“It’s too late,” Kestral says.
I love you both,” Anglo Alpha says just before blast off. The ships leave so fast, it almost feels like they were never really there.
Omega is staring out the window in horror. “I didn’t mean for him to do this.” He starts tearing up. “I just wanted to live a life.”
Ishida places her hand on his shoulder. “We understand. He gave you that opportunity.”
“Yes, he did,” Kestral agrees. “Don’t waste it.”

Project Long Game

What they learned after the departure of the Project Stargate ships was that Operation Anglo started in 2238, and went all the way through 2245. Saxon Parker cloned over a 162,000 copies of himself every year, which averaged to 445 clones per day. Because of a patented accelerated aging chemical process, by the time they were deployed for the mission, they were adults. While most of the clones were in their thirties, the eldest appeared to be 48 years old. Omega was one of the youngest, at only 25. It took a few tries to figure out how to stop the aging process once they were at maturity; a necessity brought about by a genetic anomaly Saxon happened to possess. This was still nascent technology, and its inventors didn’t realize how much adaptation rapid cloning required for each subject. He might not have needed to fix this mistake if he had asked Kestral and Ishida for their help, but he refused to let them into his secret cloning lab on a distant outer planetary moon, even after the truth of its existence was revealed. It was only after he sacrificed his connection to the present day to monitor the progress of part of the network of ships that they were able to hack access to it. It was here that they discovered his reasons for this.
The lab was enormous, large enough to both grow the Anglos, as well as house them. Records found in his office showed that he had almost nothing to do with their upbringing, but they were instead taught using a combination of neural implants, subliminal memorization stenanographs, and robotic instructors. The most disturbing part of the facility was the biowaste section. There weren’t dead bodies lining the hallways, or anything, but there was definite evidence of the operation’s failures. According to records, Saxon lost an average of one clone a day. The biomass had to be disposed of properly, discreetly, and respectfully. Ishida discovered that Saxon took personal responsibility for this nasty business, rather than having a robot take care of it for him. They had no idea what he had gone through; the toll something like that could take on a person. Perhaps they had treated him unfairly.
There’s nothing they can do about all that now. It’s been eleven years since Saxon left, and one year since Project Andromeda launched. Team Keshida and Omega have kept themselves busy as best they can, overseeing general maintenance of the cylinders and other stations. Obviously, these processes are automated, and the residents are meant to take care of most of it themselves anyway, so it only serves their psychological health. The lack of a major project coming up is starting to wear on all of them, but especially Kestral, who has a big problem with feeling useless. The two of them came to Gatewood nearly a century ago, charged with building the cylinders that would one day house billions of human refugees from another universe. Once that was achieved, and the refugees were all safely aboard, they moved on. They started writing code and manufacturing machines to build Project Topdown, Project Stargate, Operation Starseed, and Project Andromeda. All of those have successfully been sent off, and the instructive dreams directing them to these endeavors have now ceased. They don’t know what to do with themselves.
“Did you find it?” Kestral asks.
“We’re not really meant to see this,” Ishida points out to her.
“Right. But did you find it?”
Ishida doesn’t say anything.
“Caldwell.”
“Yes,” she finally admits. “It’s right here. Project Long Game. Nothing involves Gatewood, or any other colony world. They’re all about Sol.”
“Well, we have to decide what we’re doing next, so...”
“Here,” Ishida says with a sigh. She casts her screen to Kestral’s.
Kestral looks over the list. “Ring a Bell is the soonest one, and it’s not happening until 2300.”
Ishida leans back to see what Kestral is referring to. “No, those are goal dates. They’ve probably already started on it.”
Kestral frowns. “Sounds boring anyway.”
“What is it?” Omega asks. He’s wearing shutter shades. Not only is he learning everything he would have in a less specialized school setting, but he’s also catching up on Earthan historical culture. Right now, he’s mostly in the 1980s, but he jumps around.
“What is what?” Ishida asks him, “your terrible fashion sense?”
“No, what’s Project Ring a Bell?”
“Oh,  it’s a Dyson ring.”
He’s never heard of that.
“They’re going to build a whole bunch of satellites to orbit the sun, which will draw energy, and beam it back to relay stations orbiting Earth.”
“Cool beans,” Omega replies.
“Why are they building a ring when they’re just gonna build a swarm with Project Marching Locusts a hundred years later. God, that’s a negative term. They should consider changing that.”
“You can go to Earth and suggest that,” Ishida joked. “That’ll be the only way you have anything to do with any of this. No one’s heard of us. I don’t know why you’re bent on injecting yourself into long-term Earthan projects.”
They stop talking when they hear Omega chugging a disgusting energy drink. He must have figured out how to reengineer the formula using a biomolecular synthesizer, and reproduce the original can with an industrial synthesizer. The drink, and others like it, were never technically outlawed, but they’re so unhealthy that people stopped drinking them. If you want something like that, you have to program it yourself, because no one else will have thought to include them in any recipe databases. He squeezes the can, and bros out for a second. “Why don’t you guys make somethin’ up?”
“Huh?” Kestral asks.
“Well.” He opens another can he had tucked into his armpit. “It doesn’t sound like you have much interest goin’ back to Earth, though that’s where the action is. You have—” He tries to gesture around the room, but the can ends up slipping out of hand, and spills onto the floor. “Oh, shit,” he says as a robot is coming to clean it up. “Sorry.”
“What were you saying?” Ishida prompts.
“Right. You have all these resources, so why don’t you come up with a project that no one’s ever thought of before.” He belches. “I mean, you are geniuses, aren’t you?”
“That’s true,” Kestral agrees.
They sit there quietly for a few minutes. Well, Kestral and Ishida do. Omega continues to emulate what he’s seen men do in the bad 80s movies he watched by lumbering around and making inappropriately loud bodily noises.
“I need time to sit with this,” Ishida decides.
“Oh, thank God. I do too.”
“God didn’t save you,” Omega says in a low melodramatic voice as he’s letting the last few drops of his drink fall to his tongue. “I did.”
“All right, that’s enough of you,” Kestral says dismissively. “Acting like a drunkard isn’t any better than legit being drunk. There’s a reason people don’t do it anymore.”
“I’m not as think as you drunk I am,” Omega tries to joke.
“Ha-ha-ha,” Kestral says sarcastically as she’s ushering him out of the room. Once he’s been pushed far enough to go off on his own, she turns back around. She has a smile larger than any Ishida has seen in years. “One week. Let’s not see each other for one week. Work on some ideas, and we’ll reconvene and do a mutual pitch meeting.”
“I like it,” Ishida says, just as excited. Not knowing has become the fun part.

Now, when two best friends in the twenty-first century don’t see each other for days, they feel a bit of sadness. They miss one another. That’s not to say Kestral and Ishida don’t feel such things as well, but time has forever transformed how relationships work in general. When you don’t intend to ever die, skipping a week or two doesn’t feel like that big of a deal. This patience is only going to grow larger as more time passes. People will start to travel between stars on a regular basis. They’ll plan casual meet-ups years in advance, because it will just take them that long to get to the same planet. The two of them are so old at this point that they barely noticed the time apart. They were so wrapped up in their work that the time flew right by, and before they knew it, a week was behind them.
Kestral had some interesting ideas about building a planet, but conceded that there was no longer enough raw material in the system to make one the size they would want. They could do a moon, maybe, but the idea would be to give the Ansutahan human refugees a real home to live on, and a small celestial body won’t have enough surface gravity. Besides, whether they tried it here, or in some other system, it would probably be too large of a project to tackle at this juncture.
Ishida had a different idea, but they wouldn’t be able to do it alone. She pulls up the diagrams she created, and starts her presentation. “Lady and gentleman, I give you...Operation Extremus.”
Omega raises his hand. “Like the supersoldier virus that gives people superpowers, and then makes them asplode?” He’s currently working on the MCU continuity, and his behavior has improved significantly. These two developments are unrelated.
“That’s Extremis,” Ishida corrects. “Is. This is all about us.” She summons an artist’s rendering of the Milky Way. It’s packed with new information about neighboring star systems, but the Project Topdown telescopes are nowhere near the intergalactic voids yet to give the complete picture. She points to a distant region of the galaxy. “There is a star system somewhere in here with a planet that’s capable of harboring human life. I call this theoretical planet Extremus, because of how far it is from here. I also call the generation ship that’s going to take tens of thousands of volunteers there Extremus.”
“Forgive me,” Kestral begins, “but isn’t a Project Stargate seed plate going to get anywhere we try to go before we could get there? I mean, even at maximum sublight, we would probably only hope to get there right around the same time.”
“Not if we have one of these.” She pulls another diagram up, but this time it’s not one she created herself.
“What is that?” Omega asks.
“It’s a reframe engine.”
Kestral nods. “That could work; if you can get Hokusai Gimura to hand over the specs. What you have right there isn’t enough to reverse engineer it.”
Ishida smirks, and pulls up a more detailed diagram. “She already has. We’re friends now. Didn’t you hear?”
“I don’t get it,” Omega says. He’s an engineer himself, but he doesn’t know anything about temporal manipulation beyond relativistic time dilation. They haven’t kept it a secret, but they haven’t read him into all the particulars either.
“It’s an exploit,” Kestral explains to him. “It still only travels at sublight, but it takes the dilated time as observed from within the ship, and warps the universe to experience the same amount of time.”
Ishida continues, “so while the star is over a hundred and fifty thousand light years away, it will only feel like a couple hundred years. The reframe engine allows realtime to also only last a couple hundred years.”
Omega nods. “Got it. That’s bitchin’.”
“We don’t say that word,” Kestral reminds him.
“But I was using it—”
“It doesn’t matter,” she interrupts. “We don’t say it.”
“I apologize. I meant no disrespect.”
“So, wadya guys think?” Ishida asks, trying to steer the conversation back to her idea.
“What will be the point of colonizing the far reaches of the galaxy?” Kestral asks her. “Just because we can, and we can do it sooner? The vonearthans can’t know we’re doing it, which is obviously why you called it an operation, rather than a project. The volunteers all have to be from Ansutah.”
“The point?” Ishida questions. “There’s never a point to anything. If you want to do something, you only have to ask yourself two questions. One: is it impossible? And two: will it hurt anyone? If the answer to either of those is yes, then that is the only reason you shouldn’t do it.”
“Eh,” Omega says. “I think morality and ethics are a little more nuanced than that.”
Kestral breathes deeply. “As much as I hate to disagree with fanboy over here, I have no choice. We have to do another debate.”
“Fine,” Ishida says. “Bring it on.”
And so it was broughten. In the end, they decided to do nothing. Asking the refugees whether anyone would be interested in something like this was bizarre at best, and needlessly socially disruptive at worst. Project Extremus was scrapped for its failure to justify its use of resources. At least...it was scrapped by them.

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