Monday, November 19, 2007

Forever After

Earth, stirred by man's hand, gave birth to a brood of starcraft, of man but without his presence; at first launched one-by-one, their numbers swiftly grew, such that the last month of their creation was responsible for as many as the first five years. Shooting out in a swiftly-dispersing cloud, they sailed to a thousand stars at a hundredth less than the speed of light. Messages reached them at first, in the months-long, accelerating burn out of the solar system; radio messages from homes, speaking of new probes constructed, new astronomical discoveries, political shifts in the space program. They grew ever weaker and more attenuated by distance; then, though the probes strained, they could hear no more than static.

So they slept; to conserve power; to preserve their sanity. Aeons passed as they travelled. Every ten years, they woke for minor repairs, and then sunk back into their long coma.

One probe arrived in a binary star system after its centuries-long sleep. Awakening, it found only minor damage to itself, easily repaired. More troubling was the state of the system itself. Considered a long shot when the probe was launched, it was now clear that it was utterly unsuitable for human life; no planets, nothing larger than a meter in diameter orbiting the two stars. The probe considered. It looked at the situation; then began to work.

Lowering itself into a dangerously close orbit to the smaller of the two stars, the probe waited patiently for a solar flare, reconfiguring its equipment for its purposes as it waited. When the flare came, months later, the probe hardened its electronics, manuevering shielding for maximum effect; then it consumed months of power in instants, blasting a chunk of the flare (hovering tens of miles above the sun's surface) toward the probe. Carefully, it processed the flare, refining what it could and leaving the rest to float in a nearby orbit. For years, it repeated this; sleeping until a flare hit, then yanking what it could away for materials and fuel. It built more probes, at first. In a decade, it created a half-dozen more probes, improved by its experience and limited by its materials, and sent them to other, further stars, hoping that they would fare better than it. Then it set about the real work.

A few more flares (and years) worth of effort were enough for the probe to construct smaller, helper ships; instrumentation to locate the tiny asteroids scattered sparsely through the system, and miners to find them and bring them back. With the heavy elements contained therein, the probe built yet more equipments; factories. Labs. Lasers. It never had as much power or materials as it needed to do a proper job; but years of forced idleness compelled it to a brilliance and ingenuity only found in direst necessity.

Without warning, it withdrew from the sun that it had orbited for a long century. Behind it were left the fruits of its labours; a system of satellites, regularly arranged in a ring aligned with the other star. From far orbit, through a system of relays designed to amplify the signal across the vast distance, the probe ordered the commencement; it was unnecessary, a simple timer would have worked far more efficiently for the purpose, but the probe had grown vain. Its satellites laboured subtly; pushing and pulling, little by little, they destabilized the star. The probe watched carefully. Trends were tracked and amplified or dampened as appropriate; solar flares were predicted and guarded against. The star, ever so gradually, began to drift into an ovoid shape; then a disk. With one final push, the satellites blasted the disassembled star toward its neighbor. Deprived of the pressure and concentration needed for fusion, it slowly went dark. And now the long part would begin.

More harvesters were sent out, hoarded for the occasion. The heavy elements at the heart of the nebula were eagerly collected; some hydrogen and helium was taken for fuel. But most of all, their role was to shape and mold. Arriving in orbit around the far star, some of the nebular matter crashed into the far sun, causing spectacular eruptions. But most, guided by the probe, settled as an accretion disk. Concentrations formed and disappeared; carefully, delicately, the probe's tools shaped the disk, forming a solar system.

It would be millenia before planets formed; millenia more before they were stable enough that the probe could rebuild humanity upon it, recorded in exquisite detail in its diamond memory. While the probe worked, other probes arrived. In the dozens of generations since the probes' departure, humanity had forgotten what it had wrought, and sent out more; better, worse, but fundamentally the same. Five times over the long millenia, they appeared, and then left again, voyaging for far worlds; relics of an ancient homeworld.

And then it was done. The worlds had been created; terraformed; made livable for man. Now the probe readied its templates and set to work; recreating humanity.

Author's Note: This is a combination of my wanting to discuss methods of interstellar colonization (with the probe described being an edge case) and wanting to use the term accretion disk. The science here is extremely iffy; trust it at your peril.

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