(Written by M Fnord; posted March 21-23, 2007)
Once upon a time, one day near the very end of the twenty-first century, the Earth exploded. And that was when we knew we were out of time.
We'd been living on borrowed time for ten years, since the day Earth closed off all communications and millions of immigrants swarmed to Luna, Mars and Venus. No, not immigrants - these were refugees, people who'd lost their homes and needed a way out. We didn't know what they were fleeing at first. The stories every refugee told were different, none lined up with anything we knew about what was going on dirtside, but they had some basic things in common: out of the blue, Something had started to devour their homes, and they either fled or were kicked out by the planet's new masters.
It was Stellvia's telescope rig, something Noah Scott had installed decades earlier as a cheap tourist gimmick - "see your house from here!" - that showed us what was really happening. Everywhere we looked, a tide of self-replicating robots were reshaping the terrain. It wasn't a grey goo, not exactly. It seemed like much of the landscape was still there, but it had changed. It looked... functional, like it had been reconfigured for a specific purpose. Putting that together with the refugee's stories, the SMOFs came to a conclusion: something, some experiment on Earth had gone horribly wrong.
Or worse, something had gone horribly right.
It was a singularity, the long-prophecised point at which technology started to evolve faster than the people who'd created it. Some damned fool had managed to slap together a powerful AI with equally powerful universal nanotech, and the combination had bootstrapped itself to superhuman intelligence. And having become a god, the AI decided to remake the world in its image. That's what the refugees were fleeing, the singularity tide absorbing first the information technology, then the infrastructure, then everything else.
Oddly enough, back in the first few years of fandom, everybody figured that it'd be the fen who set off a singularity. Rapture of the Nerds and all that. Even we figured that it'd be one of us - most people's money was on the Professor - who ended up converting us all into posthuman uploads. In the end, though, it was the staid, cautious mundanes who triggered it all. Ironic really, even funny in a bitter way.
As the singularity spread over the planet, the SMOFs debated. Some people talked about fighting the singularity, trying to prune it back before it destroyed Earth. Nobody really took that kind of talk seriously. By the time people started talking about fighting back the singularity was so entrenched that we would have to destroy the planet to root it out. Even then, if we missed one node, one cluster of nanomachines the whole nightmare could start all over. In the end, the SMOFs decided that as long as the singularity wasn't trying to spread over our communications channels, Fenspace was safe. For the moment. So we watched, and waited, and planned for the day when the other shoe would drop.
And it dropped. Boy did it ever drop.
**/ Long, Long Time Ago
**/ Javier Navarrete
**/ Pan's Labyrinth Original Soundtrack
Watching the recordings, Earth's destruction seemed almost dreamlike. There wasn't a flash of light, no fountains of fire or molten rock spraying. It wasn't violent at all, which made it all the more terrifying. The planet just started to come apart, tiny hexagonal chunks of the crust breaking off and moving away from the surface. Slowly at first, then picking up speed as more and more chunks detached and drifted up. Earth rotted away, layer after layer of material peeling off and expanding outward in a cloud of debris.
But it wasn't debris. Nothing tumbled in free-fall, there were no flashes from secondary collisions. Each fragment held its position perfectly within the overall structure. Once we saw that, we realized that the singularity hadn't been content with simply eating Earth's surface. It had sent assemblers down deep into the planet - how it dealt with the molten conditions we still don't really know - and converted that mass into the same purpose-driven machinery. Earth wasn't Earth anymore, it probably hadn't been for quite some time. The singularity had transformed our homeworld into a planet-sized Beowulf cluster.
The effect all this activity had on the local environment was pretty dramatic. As the gravitational point-source holding the Earth/Moon system dwindled into nothing, orbits began shifting. The obvious losers were the satellites in low orbit, but those had been consumed by the singularity in the first day. The fen colonies on Luna and the Lagrange points fared worse; without the Earth's gravity well to anchor them, they started to swing out into interplanetary space. The Lagrangers did well enough; they had expected... well, they hadn't expected that, but they'd guessed that they would have to run like hell at some point, so they were all equipped with engines. The luniks found themselves in the rather unusual spot of having been tossed into free orbit, and weren't shy about saying so, to everybody, on all frequencies.
The situation on Luna was, to be frank, pretty freaky. I had been living there for some years after ghosting, enjoying my quasi-retired status and being a minor annoyance in the Fenspace political scene. When the refugee crisis hit I found myself recalled to service. The Patrol needed an expert opinion, and since I was one of only a handful of singulatarians who hadn't immediately headed dirtside to join the Rapture of the Nerds, I was elected. The hands-off policy wasn't my idea, but I supported it; the last thing we needed was a hostile singularity. My job was to come up with contingency plans, and that's what I did for ten years, always keeping a camera fixed on Earth and trying to second-guess a groupmind that was exponentially smarter than I was. In the end, I didn't do too badly. When Earth exploded, I was caught unaware like everybody else, but only in terms of timing. I had figured it would take the singularity another twenty years to start breaking the planet down into spare parts. But I was close.
Anyway, once the initial shock of being cut loose from the mother planet - the Alpha guys were ecstatic and terrified that their core concept was coming true - died down and we made sure that there weren't any significant seismic events caused by the sudden lack of tides, we had to figure out what was coming next. And in this case, like in every other major emergency that hit Fenspace, the first reaction was to call a Convention.
The "ExoCon," as it inevitably came to be known, wasn't the huge party-slash-congress that previous conventions had been. This time it was only a few dozen SMOFs, each one representing the major factions plus a few mundane bigwigs who'd the singularity had left bereft of mundanity. Everybody who could attend in person did so. Even I was there "in the flesh," wearing a Scott-type android for the occassion.
The situation was grim, and improvements weren't on the menu. The cloud of objects that had once been the homeworld were slowly drifting apart along Earth's orbital path. The movement was too regular to be natural, and the SMOFs demanded the singulatarians explain. We told the SMOFs that the devices were part of a Dyson sphere - not a huge solid shell, but a cloud of satellites held in place by light pressure - and that this was only the beginning.
"The concept is known as a matrioshka brain," said one of the Trekkie contingent. "The idea was first put together... well, that doesn't matter. What matters is that the singularity will not be satisfied with just converting Earth. Sooner or later, it will send assemblers to all the planets, as well as the moons, the asteroids, the Kuiper Belt, and convert all that mass into the same thing it did with the Earth." I could see how my colleague's statement sent chills down spines all over the room. It nearly sent one down mine, despite all my knowledge. To research these things on paper is one thing, but to see it happening before your eyes...
"Then we have no choice," declared the chief Warsie at the meeting. "We have to evacuate before the singularity reaches us."
"Absolutely not!" That from the Senshi's delegation. The lady - a Pluto - looked vaguely familiar, and her tone reminded me of past days yelling at the SOS-dan. "My Queen and her people will refuse to abandon Venus without a fight! This singularity monster can't be allowed to steal a century's work from us overnight!"
"Don't be a fool, woman! The 'danelaw governments tried to fight the singularity and look where they are now! Our only hope is to evacuate and rebuild elsewhere!"
"Easy enough for you to say," retorted the Senshi. "Your entire faction is ship-based, and you've already got an outsystem colony! If the Senshi abandon Venus, we lose everything!"
The argument went on like that for several minutes, both sides getting angrier and angrier. I tried to ignore the conflict while I split-screened my mind, looking for a solution to the problem. The inner system was in immediate danger, and the smart money said we should evacuate. But there was too much infrastructure to leave behind - and too many fen would stay behind to try and protect it. Simply running would fracture our society, maybe beyond repair. But if there were a way to wave a magic wand...
Hm. I wonder.
I pulled up some half-forgotten notes from the Sol Bianca, checked them with a year-old report from Utopia Planitia, scribbled on a virtual notepad. Risky, but if it works... I stored my plan, emailed a copy to a few AI friends to doublecheck my figures, and refocused on the meeting. While I was woolgathering, things had degenerated. The Warsie and Senshi delegations were just about to stop yelling and start hitting, the other factions were getting close to choosing sides and the chairwoman was in the middle trying to maintain order.
I rapped my knuckles on the table, trying to distract the combatants. It took a minute or two of continued rapping before anybody noticed; made me thankful the knuckles were artifical. The chair managed to shoo the quarreling delegates back to their seats and nodded at me. "The chair recognizes General Fnord, Soviet Air Force," she said. I nodded back and got to my feet.
"The Comrade Ambassador from the Galactic Republic is correct," I said, "that in the face of this peril we must abandon the solar system. We can't stop the singularity from consuming all available local matter to create its matrioshka brain. However, the Comrade Ambassador from Venus is also correct in that we can't - we shouldn't! - abandon the terraforming projects to this madness."
"What do you propose, General? That we fight a doomed battle to protect our worlds?" That was from one of the Martian Pulpers.
I smiled. "Not at all, Comrade Ambassador. I propose that when the singularity finally comes to devour Mars and Venus - and Callisto, Ganymede, Mimas and even Luna - it finds the solar system emptier than it once was."
"It's a long shot, but possible," I continued. "We've got a good target system. Beta Coma Berenices is thirty light years away, and almost completely empty - two gas giants and no major debris belts. We've got the technology we need, primitive maybe but it's there. And we have one hell of a driving motive to get away from Sol as fast as we can. Fate can check my numbers if you want her to, but if my estimates are even close to right this is possible. We can do this, not simply evacuate the settlements but move the planets."
The Warsie ambassador was the first to regain bluster. "General," he said, "what you propose is just short of madness."
"Madness? This is Fenspace, Comrade Ambassador. Madness is our stock and trade." I looked around the council room. "Most of you are second, third or fourth-generation fen. If your ancestors hadn't been at least a little bit mad, we wouldn't be here discussing our options. We'd be there-" I jabbed a finger at the display of spreading singularity nodes "-stuck as cogs in a deus ex machina. If she were here, Comrade Suzumiya would immediately approve this plan." I smiled. "She'd then tell me to implement it immediately, and not bother her with the details. But that's Comrade Suzumiya for you."
Pluto. End of the line, last station for homo sapiens and related clades. All passengers must disembark and transfer to their designated escape craft. Everybody prepare to run like a motherfucker, because the Rapture is a-coming.
There were only a handful of us left, mostly the immortals and demi-mortals from the very beginning of Fenspace; ghosts, AIs and the odd lucky biomod. We'd gathered on that lonely scrap of ice at the edge of the solar system to cap off the evacuation. We didn't really need to be there; all points inward from Pluto had been safely evac'd, the handful of recalcitrants had either seen the light and fled or seen the Light and joined the Rapture. Pluto itself was going to be abandoned. There was no rational purpose in staying any longer than we had to.
But, as so many people like to point out, fen are not always rational. There was a feeling of finality in the air. Once we left, there wouldn't be a single human, human-equivalent or parahuman left in the solar system. This was it. Tomorrow, we would dust off for Alpha Centauri or Epsilon Indi or Beta Coma and Sol would belong to the posthumans.