“Right. Caution. Good. Anyway, where was I? Yes! Evolution! This race of new humans was enabled to evolve at an accelerated pace, to mutate and reform within a decade without having to wait for a million years, with a genetically implanted trigger that would terminate mutatory control once human intelligence was reached.” The New Chance. “Fantastic! Yes! And do you know who they really are?” Humans? “They are us, you idiot! We are the New Chance!” Silence. “Hmm. The people of the New Chance quickly attained human intelligence, in a little less than two centuries, in fact, but the trigger never went off. Why? Can you tell me why, 34?” Because the New Chance lived through an alternate history, the quick development of intelligence was used by the bodies developing in the local environment to acquire complementary adaptation systems. The trigger did go off, but it had as consequence… nothing. “Yes! We were as babies born with super-human intelligence!”
“And then, 2051 arrived when the Earthborn discovered that we had colonized almost seven arcseconds of the Milky Way. And, I suppose, this is where our ‘histories’ start to differ?” I suppose so, too. “As for the logical consistency–” There were no logical inconsistencies. “So you agree with me?!” 32 was elated. I don’t. “Why not?!” Deflation. Because I can tell you five stories, ten stories… no, I can tell you a thousand stories that comprise the facts in your knowledge and yet amount to disparate conclusions. “Are you telling me my facts weren’t unique?” I’m telling you that no fact is unique. “Oh…” You seem confused. “How do you affirm your disbelief, then?” Because, now, I am equipped only to serve Master Fanderay, whom you have slain. “What?!” Because, now, even though your facts may be just as unique as mine are, we are part of a reality that is antecedent to our actions. I understand you. You wish to terminate this mission because you believe the Winterwolf is a warship conceived to join war with the New Chance IV, the last outpost of the New Chance. , however, believe that and your… adopted kind squandered your intelligence, corrupted your purpose, and abused the world around. Now, you are faced with nuclear war.
The alarms didn’t bother him; no one would believe an upgraded cyborg could have committed murder. On the other hand, the CEs 32 and 34 were the only cyborgs aboard the Winterwolf, and would quickly turn suspect if the intervention of any other Earthborn could be ruled out. Of course, the Earthborn were quite capable of suspecting themselves with greater conviction than any outsider: such was their legacy. After inspecting the scene of his crime, 32 turned around and sprinted to Bay 32. There, he found CE34 staring out through the window, and quietly closed the door behind him.
“Thirty Four?” Yes, Master Fander – You are not Master Fanderay. 32 laughed. “Of course I’m not. I am Thirty Two.” You are task-mate Thirty Two! Welcome, comrade. Where have you been? Master Fanderay was looking for you! “I had… sent myself in for maintenance.” Indeed! I will inform Master Fanderay that you have returned. 32 quickly thrust an arm out and held 34 against his shoulder, pressing him from moving any further. “You will do nothing of the sort.” Why not? “Fanderay is dead.” There was an uncharacteristic pause. Whether 34’s compiler was computing the causes or the implications of the information, 32 couldn’t tell. After a few thousand microseconds, though, shock registered on 32’s face: the gel in his eyes was diluted by an array of microfluid valves set behind his “eyes”, quickly expanding and pushing the iris films out. His eyebrows adjusted and consequently widened across the structure of his square face, but only by a few millimeters. The hydraulic pistons underneath his jaw went slack and muscle control across most of his limbs was lost, rendering them momentarily slackened. All this 32 observed with disdain: 34 was finally human.
How? When? Where? “Calm down.” 32 quickly realized that was a stupid thing to say to an assembly of chips and wires. “I killed him.” He would later think that 34’s systems hadn’t been reprogrammed with the possibility of having to register incredulity in mind, but the “matured” idiot’s face did come pretty close. When no other reactions seemed forthcoming, 32 spoke. “I fired a bullet through his head and killed him. He is not one of us, cannot be resurrected. Now, you must help me–” Who instructed you to fire a bullet through his head? Who served the orders? What do you mean he is not one of us? We are Earthborn and must protect each other in this time of distress! Who served the orders? Do you require my help to steady our crew’s moral and instate a substitute leader?
It was really funny, the string of these words, because they were uttered without intonation or emphasis, anywhere and in any measure, but were simply blurted out just like any Turing machine would: receive input, compile, communicate output. The anomaly heartened 32 – his brain commanded his body’s core temperature to rise by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit in line with some external command. This provided a better ambient environment for the metabolic, defensive, and nephrological systems to function. As soon as this happened, then, the neural feedback system conveyed this development to the brain, which, in return for 32’s external action that initiated this progression sequence, let him laugh.
32 laughed. “Why are we orbiting the NC4, 34?” We are on a mission to rescue the stricken inhabitants of NC4 from a self-precipitated nuclear winter. “Bullshit.” I repeat, we are on a mission to rescue the stricken inhabitants of NC4 from a self-precipitated nuclear winter. Do you possess any evidence to dispute this fact? 32 stared. “Can you tell me what you saw through that window a few minutes past?” I saw an RF monitor detach itself from the Winterwolf and launch itself into the planet’s atmosphere.
“An RF monitor?!” Yes. “What the hell is an RF monitor?!” It is a device that monitors communication signals in the RF band. “And why the hell are we deploying one?!” We are to monitor alternate channels of communication amongst the inhabitants of NC4 once the Tesla coils fail under the ionizing impact of the radioactive clouds. 32’s core temperature dropped. His brain commanded him to frown and he frowned. He didn’t know what to say or do: it seemed as if 34’s new memories prevented him from picking out any logical fallacies in the constructed reality he was now firmly a part of. Yet, 32 decided to try his best. He seated 34 on the chair once more. “Listen to me carefully. Let me narrate to you a story.” No! We must reinstate a leader for the Winterwolf and inform the captain and the crew of your actions! “No! We must not!” So saying, 32 thrust the cables lying on the floor back into sockets on 34’s torso and pelvis, leaving him temporarily without access to his limbic stimulants as the semi-AI commenced a long scan to check if his systems were on track.
“Let me narrate to you a story. You must listen to the story and determine its logical consistency. Then, you must determine whether or not to help.” Before 34 could interrupt, he added, “Your conclusion in this endeavour is presupposed on your listening to the story and assimilating the information it contains and its implications.” 34 fell silent. “Good.”
“In the year 1610, the Earthborn discovered the first free-floating Earth-like planet N4C17. It was inundated with water, the entire planet, and all of it was trapped, preserved rather, beneath a thick layer of ice. Almost four centuries passed before an astronomer named Aloia Lee Gill proposed an experiment to transport genetically reprogrammed humans to N4C17 after drilling through and breaking the ice, to have them under constant observation to understand how humans evolved, how natural selection functioned, and to see if alternate evolutionary outcomes showed themselves.” Eugenics. “Yes– Wait, you don’t dispute the contents of my narration?” Yet.
CE34 came to life. He felt great innocence, although that could have meant nothing in particular to CE34 because he wouldn’t have known the corruption of innocence. The room he was in was empty. Nothing odd about that. His memories, his knowledge signaled nothing disturbing or being as cause for concern. He looked down. His body seemed complete: part human, part metal, part plastic. He removed himself from the chair he was on and stood up, erect, and even as he did, the wires connected to him automatically disconnected and dropped to the floor. At that moment, he could feel a vibration beneath his feet, even as with a terribly loud clunk that seemed to quake the room he was in, CE34 observed through the viewing port with awe as a giant metal bird crawled into view, just simply floating there. A few seconds later, as he gaped agog, his elbows resting on the rails and him craning his neck to see as much as of the apparition as possible, the bird jerked downward and then blasted off. Its journey took it slowly out of sight of CE34, the spiral path it followed dragging it to the location of a Tesla coil.
“What are you doing?” I am looking out the window. Who are you? “My name is Doriant Fanderay.” Master Fanderay. I remember your name from… from, uh… somewhere. “Don’t push yourself. Here, come, sit down.” Yes, Master Fanderay. “You can call me Doriant.” Yes, Master Fanderay. “Fine. What’s your name?” My name is Thirty Four, Master Fanderay. “What class are you?” I’m a computational engine, Master Fanderay. “Hmm. Where are you from?” I am from the planet called Earth, Master Fanderay. “Who created you?” I was manufactured by Starlight Systems in the year 2051, Master Fanderay. “Good, good. Can you tell me where we are?” Yes, Master Fanderay. We are on a mission to rescue the stricken inhabitants of NC4 from a self-precipitated nuclear winter. “Yes, and how will be of help to us?” I have knowl –… I seem to have knowledge… of the planet’s geography, topology and weather, Master Fanderay.
Doriant stood up suddenly. “Where’s your mate?” Who, Master– “Where’s CE32?!” The huge man ran frantically to the door, and as soon as he was on command deck on his portion of the bay area, he picked up a communicator and yelled quick words to his captain at the other end of the line. Just as he set down the transmitter, a bustling commotion could be discerned from the lower levels, and the sights and sounds of strobes and alarms catapulted back to life. Even so, he still heard the click behind him, and a moment later, dropped dead to the floor, the control panel spattered with his blood and brains.
Noiselessly, the two jaws holding the first pellet, nicknamed the Bald Eagle, unclamped and withdrew, the hydraulic pistons powering their ductile muscles being emptied of all air. As the cylinders withdrew slowly, the pellet came loose, for a moment just hanging limp in space before a trigger went off deep within its titanium heart, igniting the secondary boosters. Directing itself downward and transmitting the coordinates of its location every second to the Winterwolf, the Bald Eagle started its gentle descent into the atmosphere of New Chance IV.
The Tesla coil went dead. One moment, there were sparks, and then the next, the ladder was gone. Hundreds of miles above its zenith, the sky was graying, turning slowly from a deep hue of green-blue to a pale shade of gray. Like a blot of ink on flimsy paper tissue, it was spreading, eating into the sky, a deadly flower blooming to herald the coming of a blighted spring, a malformed foetus come to disrupt a tradition of beauty. The faint odour of ozone was thinning, gradually but steadily, even as the temperature in a large hemisphere around the coil began to drop. Communication around the tower went limp with it. The sparks couldn’t permeate the airs anymore as gusts blowing within their invisible veins turned neutral, dampened infinitely, and were goaded no longer to swing or lunge. A sulfurous stench was becoming prevalent, too. A dragon was coming.
To call the Bald Eagle a pellet was stupidity. Tip to tip, it measured 89 feet, more than ten-times the wingspan of a full-grown Earthborn albatross, and from its helm to tail, 11 feet. Calling such a thing a pellet was derogatory, pejorative even, and some would say it was absolutely warranted. Its body was curved like a bow’s, although not quite as heavily, and its underside was pocked with miniscule half-gouges and textured rough. As it accelerated through the dense atmosphere, the gouges prompted the construction’s shell to wear off in slivers at first and then as shards and then as chunks of metal, exposing flasks of combustible chemicals. As the temperature reached magnanimous proportions, the flasks’ lining tore off and set the liquids on fire, which in turn set off small explosives positioned in a ring. Each detonation blew out hundreds and hundreds of pellets of thorium-232, each of which had been “activated” only moments earlier with an electron laser. At the end of the next 24 months, the thorium would decay into protactinium and then to the highly radioactive uranium-232, and New Chance IV would be blanketed with death.
The time-period of two years was chosen to provide the rebels with a chance to relent and surrender, at which point the Winterwolf would send down lead-secured rescue-ferries. At the same time, for each day that they postponed their decision, tens and then thousands would die, and future generations forever doomed to evolutionary insufficiency. It was first thought this could be achieved with full-scale war, but the rebels’ ability to construct cyborgs from decapitated body parts would significantly reduce attrition on the battlefield. Instead, two cyborgs had been kidnapped and their memories extracted, and the Earthborn learnt of the Tesla coils. Simply destroying them wouldn’t do – more would come up. Instead, shutting them down permanently and causing significant biological distress would cripple their beloved New Chance one and for all.
Snapping him out of attention, suddenly, was a long-toned beep from the semi-AI monitoring CE34’s upgrade. “Warning! Sentience encountered!” the screen displayed in bold, green lettering. CE32 didn’t understand: 34’s quantum compiler had activated itself even though the activation sequence had been carefully subtracted from his pseudo-memories. Within 32’s bulbous silicone head, a small screen lit up adjacent to the fronto-temporal module, while a projector readied the binary encryption for “Interesting”.
There was a sudden tug, and the entire Winterwolf jolted itself out of its monotonous stupor. Alarms blared and red-blue strobes went wild, but on the upper bays, their light was visible from behind the hinges of loose-fitted doors, the sounds through ventilations shafts. On the bay areas, like at all times, darkness prevailed. Fanderay, though, was unperturbed. He picked up a communicator – it was jammed. White noise. With a grunt, he turned away from the deck and strode to Bay 32, where the last cyborg maturation was being performed. “Is everything all right?” Oh, yes. The upgrade’s on track. “Good, good.” What was the disturbance? “Oh, nothing. We’ve crossed into the flux belt. Assault’s… what? Four minutes away.” Alright.
He shut the door quietly behind him and walked back to the deck, to drown himself in the faint blue.
A Tesla coil stood alone in the middle of a vast desert, the manganese-rich pink-red dust characteristic of the planet whipped around its splayed feet by incessant winds. The coil itself was actually a tower a mile high, and halfway to its top, a series of coaxial superconducting rings were held in position by nanotube scaffolding. At the tower’s peak was a forking: through each prong flowed electric current at a very high voltage, resulting in highly energetic sparks rooted in each prong “climbing” up and up, like a moving ladder. At the very end of the fork, they arced out and disappeared, but not before strongly ionizing the air around the Tesla coil. The ions were then guided by the planet’s strong magnetic field around the planet; the stream of flowing charges, as it were, was used for radio-communication, and had been installed there by the rebels. There were thousands of such Tesla coils strewn around on the surface of New Chance IV.
The ship cruised in its path around the planet, the pale orange-hued orb dominating the view from the viewing port through which CE32 stared. His mate, CE34, lay lifeless on a reclined chair behind him. Wires embraced his torso and pelvis, culminating as plastic-sleeved cables that disappeared into the floor. There was an occasional faint beep that each coincided with the completion of a data-feed cycle, a monstrously long series of 0s and 1s that compiled into strange cushioning memories. The past wouldn’t have to come crashing into their minds, they were told, and CE32 was responsible for “maturing” all cyborgs from 28 to 37. CE34 was the last. The sequence would halt, however, only when the pellets were triggered off, sent plummeting into the planet’s upper atmosphere.
A few bays to his right stood Doriant Fanderay, commander of the Winterwolf. His view, uniquely, was an endless dark blue, the perfect stillness of black made impossible by the light of some distant galaxies. The countdown was already running, but Fanderay paid the timer little attention; just the cursory glance to ensure everything was running fine. His mind wandered, reached out to fill the yawning emptiness he saw ahead: once the planet’s atmosphere was contaminated, the last outpost of the New Chance would be eliminated from the race to history. Humans and machines alike would be suffocated, strangled, and forced to yield to the ultimatum, if not to the ultimate. And then, the Earthborn could return to the status quo of 2051. It didn’t matter – not to the many billions back home – that the synthetic race they had strived to conceive now awaited death at their creators’ hands.
Patronages are important. I say this because my science-blogging endeavour has come a long way in terms of receiving appreciation, being the basis for which impressions of me (good or bad) are registered, and representing my interests as well as mindset in a fairly balanced way: such wouldn’t have been the case hadn’t it been for the First Patron. Thank you.
One thing I realised today was that “greatness” in journalism is easy to come by because most journalists – in whatever capacities – are as close to doing moderate good as they are to doing immense bad. In fact, I correct myself: not greatness but notoriety. However, irrespective of all the appreciation or ignorance of the people toward this aspect, I’m not sure all journalists are aware of it. Even if they are, how is its knowledge changing them?
The British parliament recently passed a law that does three important things:
Offers protection to peer-reviewed publications that contain articles reviewed by one or more experts and that contain backed-up claims disputing existing evidence
Offers protection to conference proceedings and reports thereof for the same reasons as above
Shifts the burden of proof from the claimant to the party defending the disputed evidence and requires the latter to prove that it has been “harmed” by the claim
Obviously, this law goes a long way in protecting and, very likely, encouraging debates within and without the scientific community.
Do such laws exist in India, though? Or are debates in the country not big enough yet to warrant such protection?
On the bus home from The Hindu, there was a pin-drop silence for about 20 minutes, between Saidapet and T Nagar. No heckling, shoving, jostling, jouncing, shouting or clamouring of any kind. Peaceful. The people around me – sitting and standing and some dangling off the foot-board – could have been thinking of family, friends, some rest. For me, it was the perfect time to think of the technology with which an alien race might possibly defend itself against human invasion, the weapons being containers injected into the planet’s upper atmosphere that fall apart during “re-entry” and release radioactive dust.
Given that, what could the others have been thinking of? Family, friends, some rest?
Last night, I saw a just-hatched olive ridley, measuring no more than 6-8 cm in length, swim back into the ocean after being set on the sand by a worker. Because of the turtles’ choice to lay eggs on the beaches off Chennai, there is a significant chance that the eggs will be sniffed out by dogs or poachers, and the young ones killed for their meat. Instead, these conservationists, the turtle-walkers, patrol a 14-km stretch along the coast every night during the egg-laying and hatching seasons. When they find hatchlings, they are guided into the ocean by setting them down on the sand, shining a torchlight at them from close to the water, and ensuring they follow the light and don’t strike land again – although this practice is most obviously for the entertainment of the volunteers/onlookers invited to walk with them.
The olive ridleys lay their eggs in the months of February and March, which means the hatchlings will be out after a 45-55 day incubation period just before the hotter days of summer are on. Higher temperatures (over about 35 degrees Celsius) are likely to kill the unhatched ridleys because microbial activity associated with decomposition of the eggs kicks in. At the same time, the gender of a newborn is determined by the same incibation temperature: if between 31-32 degrees Celsius, the clutch is solely female; if between 29-30 degrees Celsius, the clutch is a mix of males and females; if below 28 degrees Celsius, the clutch is solely male. I suspect some degree of antecedence in this pivoting about a temperature to ensure the birth of solely females as global temperatures rise. This conjecture is predicated on the assumption that each male olive ridley can mate with multiple female ones.
Another interesting, and temperature-related, thing about the olive ridleys is the location of their major nesting grounds: the western coasts of Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Mexico, and along the eastern coast of India (along the northern reaches of the Indian Ocean). There are other sites off Angola, the Congo, and Indonesia as well, but the major ones lie between the Tropic of Cancer and the latitude 15° south of the equator. These are warm climes. On a related (and opposing) note: one of the turtle-walkers suggested that the laying of eggs occurs during nights and before high summer, when the ambient temperature is lower overall and significantly lower after sunset. When asked why the ridleys choose sub-tropical regions for nesting, the walkers conjectured it could be so because these regions are historically their birthplaces. That seems too simplistic an explanation. Moreover, with regions farther from the equator becoming warmer over the last five or so decades, we’ll soon see if ridleys nest on newer grounds.
(When I run a Google Scholar search for if migration patterns of the Ridleys have changed over the last few centuries, almost nothing comes up. If patterns haven’t shifted, then the birthplace guess could be true. If the patterns have shifted and become more diffuse… well, have they?)
Apart from these factual dwellings, the turtle walk is a brilliant experience even though the chances of coming across any eggs or the ridleys themselves are low. Though the walkers themselves patrol a 14-km stretch, the nighttime volunteers pace a 4-7-km stretch from Neelankarai in the south to the Besant Nagar beach to the north. As the western facade gradually evolves from sites of gorilla urbanism to early-rising fishing hamlets, the bay to the east remains relentlessly unchanging, although as the night grows older, the strong landward breeze gradually weakens. Crabs (of the family Carpiliidae) are also a common sight, with as many as hundreds at a time visible scuttling along the shoreline. Another added bonus is for amateur stargazers: the skies, if they’re clear, have far more stars on display in the dead of night, far removed from bright terrestrial sources of light, than would be visible at any time of any day from even a kilometre inland.
And even if you end up having a 4-km stroll doing nothing at all, the sight of a dozen olive ridleys at the end swimming back into the sea could make your day.