Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Phytocide

I still remember the excitement of my early teens when we established the first colony at Epsilon Indi A, a sun-like star about 12 light-years from Earth. They called the planet Hope: perhaps they thought we wouldn’t repeat the blood-sodden mistakes of old Earth.

Even then, I was intensely interested in the mechanics of the process. How could they get material and people across such immense distances? Naturally such an achievement ranked as the greatest engineering feat the human race had ever accomplished. The key was bootstrapping. Very powerful lasers delivered the first level nanoconstructor. It was a small device, and complex, but it only had to happen once.

The nanoconstructor was a basic fabricator, and the only thing it could do was create a better one. Soon we had devices which were remotely-programmable, and which could build macroscopic machines of general utility. You get the point: once started, there was no limit. Eventually we could send DNA codes and get adult clone bodies grown in a tank. You just had to know how to do it.

So here’s the macabre bit. We didn't grow brains in those copy-bodies. We didn't want new blank-slate individuals. Instead, we used a programmable neural substrate hosting a transmitted brain-state. (The opportunities for error were the subject of half-a-dozen plays and films). And so, with zero subjective time delay, Captain Vine, his assistant Commander Marcus and I ended up in orbit around Hope, in a locally fabricated dreadnought with the encouraging name of Threat.

"Threat" in orbit around Hope

---

Bill Night met us in Threat’s conference room as we sat in a stationary orbit over New City, the first settlement on the new planet (when will people stop calling new things ‘new’?). Bill was the colony leader, and in theory responsible for all the hundreds of thousands of colonists who currently occupied the planet. There wasn't a single adult human brain in 12 light years and that wouldn’t change until the new kids grew up.

“Initially”, Night began, “things went well.”

“They always do,” Marcus observed with a smile, “Simulation and reality always start in sync. But it’s like the weather; reality never stays properly on track.”

“We soon had a second group,” Night continued, “established on the next continent about a quarter way round the equator: security in diversity. We called it Fort 2. You understand that everything here is technology-driven. We need agriculture to kick-start the food chain; heavy equipment for construction. We have a lot of dual military-civilian stuff.”

We nodded, this was standard procedure.

“We knew there would be problems of course, we just didn't know where and when. So we weren't too surprised when the local vegetation started playing up.”

This was news to us, but of course we were years behind the game.

“There’s a kind of root system which tunnels quite rapidly underground; it seemed to take against us. Crops were disrupted and buildings began to collapse.”

“So what did you do?” asked Vine with interest. This was the kind of practical military problem which always engaged him.

“Flame throwers were effective against the surface leaves and stems. Most of the action was below ground though, and here we tried several things. We had a microwave system, like ground-penetrating radar - that was good at frying the tubers. We also dug moats.”

Vine nodded genially, “And it worked?”

“For a while, but the wretched stuff proved astonishingly adaptable. It dug itself deeper and self-modified in its self-defence. It was then that the disagreement started with Fort 2. Don’t forget, everything we had, they had as well: same size population, same resources, same technologies and same skills. They were researching this plant, same as we were, and in their view it was showing some signs of sentience.”

“And your view?” asked Marcus with a look hovering between concentration and consternation.

“It’s a plant. It’s a goddam problem and it’s screwing up our operation. It it’s smart, that just makes it a bigger problem.”

I was watching Vine carefully. He gave little away but I sensed his pleasure.

“Our only concern was to remove the obstacle and our science team thought they had an answer:  a toxin which would basically just turn it off.”

“So what’s your problem?” asked Vine. “Just go with it.”

“The problem,” said Night with a scowl, “is Fort 2. This thing is so adaptive that we need to spray the entire planet to exterminate it. Anything less and we run the risk it will adapt away from the threat. Fort 2 won’t cooperate. Worse, they say it’s genocide, and that if we proceed they’ll actually fight to defend the wretched plant!”

Vine’s lip curled. “No doubt they offered their own solution?”

“Co-existence,” Night replied, “We clear some areas but leave others for the plant to live on. They want time for further research; they claim they may eventually even get some rudimentary communications going.”

“So what do you want us to do?” asked Commander Marcus.

“Make them see sense: one way or another.”

---

After the meeting with Night, Vine kept Marcus and myself behind to debrief. It was rare to see any sign of conflict between the two officers. I had once, in private, asked Marcus whether he would see any problem getting Vine to approve some pet project of his. Marcus had snorted in contempt: “Trust me, how hard could it be?”

As we waited on Vine in his executive office, it was obvious that Marcus had been affected by the argument relayed so indirectly from Fort 2. The human race wasn't meant to be in the business of going around the Galaxy snuffing out other intelligent beings, no matter what we might have done back on Earth. It appeared that Marcus was for caution.

“This is an irritating problem but not a crash priority – we need to be sure about what we’re doing here. My advice is to get some more research done and open up a line of communication with the people at Fort 2.”

Vine turned to me, a rare event in itself as the captain rarely felt need for science officer input. I hated to be put on the spot, particularly when I didn't feel we had enough data.

“I understand the mission here, but we still don’t know enough. I think, like Marcus, we should restrain Night and learn more.”

“OK, thank you gentlemen. You’re dismissed.”

As we left Vine’s office, I saw that Night had not left, as I had imagined. He was being shown back in for a further meeting with Vine – alone this time.

---

In the Threat’s bar, I asked Marcus what he thought Vine would do.

“He’ll talk big with Night, and they’ll agree that lawful authority needs to be maintained. Maybe we can use some of the big weaponry on the ship to cook an area around the two settlements so that the project can continue unhindered - until we can sort the bigger picture out.

“I’ll have a word with him later and straighten him out.”

---

On the ship we have a new and somewhat awesome system. I'm not even sure we would call it a weapon system. It’s a gravitational wave laser – inelegantly a Gaser. One consequence of being able to produce coherent Terawatt gravitational waves is light-year communication through the dustiest of regions. Another is truly astonishing destruction.

When Vine ordered the Gasar AI to ‘illuminate’ Fort 2, the effect was extraordinary. The beam was around 40 cm wide with a sub-kilohertz pulse rate. A gravitational wave produces a stretch-compress tidal force – in this case millions of Newtons. Anything in its way was literally shredded to fine powder, the absorbed energy ending up as heat.

The Gaser AI was instructed to deploy in fire-hose mode and with programmed obedience it traced a raster over the entire settlement. After ten minutes attention, Fort 2 and its entire population was thermally-incandescent dust down to the liquefying bedrock.

---

Afterwards, we were able to piece the story together. Vine and Night had called Fort 2 and given them an ultimatum: basically do as you’re told and eradicate the weed globally or face the consequences. The Fort 2 guys had had a bad attack of principles. They flatly refused, as I think Vine knew they would.  As the captain had carefully arranged, he now had no other option, so in the best traditions of empire he had the place slagged.

The Gaser had smashed a cone-shaped volume straight through the planet, but impressive as this was, it would not suffice to defeat the weed. Night and his team went right ahead with the sterilization programme and a few months later, the consensus was that they had succeeded: onwards to the new global colony!

---

Afterwards Vine tried to calm us – especially Marcus, who seemed remarkably upset.

“C’mon guys. Earth has invested a major chunk of Gross World Product in getting this colony off the ground. There was never any way we were going to back off making this work for an indigent, highly-invasive plant species.”

Marcus was smart enough not to make an issue of it, although you could see that something deep inside of him was burning. I didn't feel that good myself.

It turned out, much later, that the plant had had a kind of distributed intelligence. I don’t know whether we would ever have been able to communicate with it, but it seemed to know it existed, to have had fears and hopes and desires.

But then, you could say the same about cows.

---

When, 12 years later, Earth found out what had happened, Earth-Vine was commended, even though he personally had had nothing whatsoever to do with it.
___

Ⓒ Nigel Seel, March 2015.

I rather like the idea of a “Gravitational Laser”. Gravitational waves couple so weakly to matter that I can’t imagine a technology that would deliver the level of destruction described. Luckily it’s not my problem. You may detect some similarities in theme between this story and the recently-posted “Space Opera”.

1 comment:

  1. Comments turned on - please let me know what you think of this short story. Thanks, Nigel.

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