Brother Nicomedes, second class Avatar of the Order of the Kestrel, maneuvered the transit pod low over the ragged surface of Europa. The signal had been faint, but the Aerie’s instruments had most assuredly traced it to this ice moon in close orbit around Jupiter. “Impossible,” he thought. “This system has been uninhabited since-” A flashing red dot appeared on his display. Small. Near the horizon. He ordered the pod to alter course towards it. A tinge of excitement stirred within him, but he quickly quelled it in accordance with the teachings of the Order. He would have to be swift, the sun would soon retreat behind the gas giant. The pod set down gently on the ice. He fastened his armor, checked the seals of his environmental vestments, and brought all of his systems online. The petals of the hatchway peeled open, and he stepped out onto the surface. The object before him was intriguing. It appeared to be an icon or symbolic representation, as he had seen on so many primitive worlds. It consisted of three white orbs of diminishing size stacked atop one another. On the top orb a crude face had been fashioned out of bits of rock and ice. The scanners on Nicomedes’ chest and glove swept their beams over the thing. It was old. Very old. “And how old is ‘very old?’” came a voice in his earpiece. He leapt back with a jolt, instinctively bringing his battlegauntlet to the ready. He looked around and scanned. It hadn’t come from the Aerie. There was no one. Just the…thing. “How…?” Nicomedes sputtered. “I hear energy. You are wired to the technology in your suit. Your thought processes are partly electronic.” The scanners were confirming the object as the source of the transmissions. “You haven’t answered my question,” it said. “How old am I?” Nicomedes looked at the readings displayed on his eyefilters, then pointed to Jupiter behind him. “That world has orbited the sun a million times since your were-” “The sun, it’s expanding, isn’t it? “Yes. It’s in the initial stages of becoming a red giant.” “Well, that’s a problem.” Nicomedes studied the thing. It did not move, but the scanners said there was definitely energy emanating from it. “How did you come to be here?” “I’ll show you.” The tip of the thing’s ice nose emitted a faint glow. There was a shimmering in the thin air. Shapes began to form. They were light projections, and they were resolving themselves… Carrington had just set down the last of the empty canisters when Commander Evans’ voice came through the helmet speakers. “Oh for the love of…” The Commander was a few meters to one side of him, his left boot firmly lodged in a pillow-sized dollop of nano-gel, which was trying to wrap itself around his leg. “Looks like it doesn’t want you to go,” said Carrington, keying codes into the remote on the arm of his suit. “Bloody Jupiter,” said Evans. “Radio noise messes with everything.” Carrington keyed another command and the translucent mass went inert. Evans slipped his foot out easily, then picked up the jellyfish-like mass and dropped it back into its tube. During deep space flights the nano-gel was a versatile tool, capable of anything from unblocking an artery to repairing electronics to patching a meteor hole in the hull. This close to Jupiter it was a nuisance. Carrington looked at the impressive pile they had made on the ice, then looked back across the scarred whiteness at the Pytheas lander eighty meters away. Europa’s low gravity (not to mention traction boots) had made the task of removing depleted tanks, supply boxes and tubes of unused nano-gel from the lander easy, but carrying them to what was considered a safe distance was time-consuming. He looked at the pile again, then back at the lander. “Hard to believe this all fit in there.” Evans chuckled over the helmet speakers, “Whatever you say about our engineers, at least they know how to pack a ship efficiently.” There was beep on the radio as DiMaio checked in from the Pytheas. “Pulse-drive prep is completed,” she said with her usual down-to-business voice. “We are t-minus two hundred minutes to launch and are confirmed for rendezvous with Magellan in circumjovial orbit.” Evans smiled, “We’re ahead of schedule. We’ve got time to kill on the biggest winter wonderland in the solar system. I am open to suggestions.” After spending the last eight days icecore sampling, remote-piloting probe-bots through the deep Europan ocean, and planting hundreds of data recorders on the surrounding ice, building a snowman was easy. Which isn’t to say it didn’t pose some challenges. It took Carrington close to half an hour to find a tool sturdy enough to effectively scrape the surface. The resultant shavings certainly looked like snow, but did not easily clump together. DiMaio retrieved a couple tubes of unused nano-gel from the refuse pile, poured their contents into an empty canister, and scooped in all the shaved ice. Evans used the remote to instruct the microscopic machines within the viscous compound to mix and bond with the ice. The resulting substance was white, and had the consistency of bread dough. After a bit of coaxing and packing they got a good-sized ball rolling. The crew of the orbiting Magellan watched the feed from the landing party's helmet-cams, and chimed in with suggestions of their own. The snowman’s face was fashioned from surplus shards of obsidian samples the submersible probes had plucked from the ocean floor. DiMaio said the snowman needed buttons, and pressed four spare datadrives in a row down his chest. Carrington found an icicle hanging from one of Pytheas’ struts, refrozen ice that had been thawed and splashed by the landing thrusters. He plunged the blunt end deep into the center of the round white face. “I christen thee Seymour.” “Seymour?” asked DiMaio. “An uncle on my mother’s side,” said Carrington. “It sorta looks like him.” DiMaio was running off a list of what they could use for arms when the all-aboard chime sounded. The first three humans ever to land on Europa climbed into the Pytheas, and rode atop a pillar of bright blue pulse-drive thrust into orbit. Nicomedes watched the images fade, then turned back to the…to Seymour. “You were built by humans?” he asked. “Well, they put together this form, but there’s obviously more to it than that.” Nicomedes knew he should signal the others and tell them what he had found. But what would he report? “The question you are looking for,” said Seymour, “is, ‘How can an ancient snowman communicate, read energy patterns, generate holographic panoramas, and so on?’ Is that correct?” “Yes.” “Well, I’m glad you asked. I’ll show you.” Nicomedes vision went slightly hazy for a moment “I’m accessing your optic wiring,” Seymour explained, “I’ll also need part of your temporal lobe and any other conceptual centers in your brain.” Nicomedes was about to protest, when a wave of sensation overtook him. Jupiter raged. The plasma and magnetic fields at the gas giant’s poles churned out radio storms. The rapid spin of the planet and the magnetic effect of its closest moons corralled and shaped the energy, sending it out like a lighthouse beam, a focused scream of electrical fury that dwarfed even the output of the sun. Each brief Jovian day, Europa was awash in bright, overwhelming radio noise. It penetrated even the deepest layer of ice. It also saturated Seymour. The nano-gel listened, trying to find instructions. Occasionally some snippet of noise triggered a response from the gel. Two or three of its microscopic machines would begin to move and signal to one another. In the cold, nearly airless environment the icy gel became superconductive, and such small movements spread quickly. Refracted signals prismed through the mixture’s fragmented crystalline structure. Self-organizing patterns emerged, repeated, and replicated. Some of the more ambitious nano-gel seeped into the datadrive buttons down Seymour’s front and rummaged around for instructions. Time passed. The surface of Europa cracked and reformed countless times. Seymour remained upright. Occasionally a spark of feedback flickered within him. One of these sparks lingered, flared and glowed for a while, suddenly energy blossomed within Seymour. He was aware. This awareness was little more than memories of his creation at the hands of three heavily suited beings, video images stored collectively among the nanomachines. He knew that his creators had left, but where had they gone? He listened to the radio noise of Jupiter sweep past, but he also sensed other transmissions out in the dark beyond Jupiter. He wanted to hear those whispers. The nano-gel responded. Rivulets seeped from the snowman and snaked across the ice to the discarded containers. With insectile precision the plastics and alloys were broken down to create more nano machines. These formed swarms which went out and found the long-dead data recorders and probe-bots. With these raw materials the nano-gel built an array of antennae around Seymour. He became the center of a radio telescope. He saw and heard humanity spread across the solar system. He found them to be magnificent. They had thoughts and emotions and drive and curiosity and the resources to carry out all manner of activities. They had vast quantities of knowledge, and possessed an insatiable hunger for more. Seymour watched them for a long time. He watched as they built huge structures in space, and reshaped a dusty red world to support life. He watched as they tapped the untold potentials of their minds. He watched as they redefined themselves, modified their genetics, and merged with their technology. He watched as they mastered the intricacies of spacetime. And then, after a long time, they began to go away. They flung themselves into the space beyond the sun’s influence. Eventually they all departed, leaving only a long silence, broken only by the radio noise of Jupiter. The passing of time ended, and Nicomedes stared wide-eyed at Seymour. “What are you?” “I am many things.” Nicomedes looked around the ice. There were no signs of antennae. “I do not need them,” said Seymour, “The entire ocean beneath this crust consists of nano-gel. It draws energy from the thermal vents and from the sunlight striking the ice. I am a world-sized radio receiver.” The thought staggered Nicomedes, and then he realized, “You’re also a transmitter. You sent the signal. You wanted me to come here.” “Of course!” “Why?” “Because I am also what you are looking for.” “What do you-“ Sensation overtook Nicomedes again. This time it was his own memory. He was watching the Earth grow in the viewscreen of the Aerie. The Order of the Kestrel, in accordance with its mission, had dispatched the colossal starship to return to the cradle of humanity. Its assignment was to extract and recover any relics and artifacts they could find, and return with them. With the sun’s expansion now imminent, it was vital to preserve the ancient history of the species. Abandoned worlds around dying stars were often pillaged by raiders, and the source world of humanity was far too important a treasure. The ship fell into orbit, and the five thousand Avatars on board descended to Earth in their transit pods. Nicomedes was excited at the prospect of such an undertaking, but his excitement didn’t last long. They spent a year combing Earth, expecting to find ruins of great cities or the skeletons of vessels. There was nothing. They searched the depths of the seas and whole of the wilderness. The world was barren. The First Class Avatars pondered the problem. They consulted the Aerie’s computers and, in the end, deemed any further search futile. They contacted the Order and were told to return home. The Aerie was accelerating towards a slingshot around Jupiter when the signal from Europa came. “You know what happened to it all, don’t you?” asked Nicomedes, holding back a sudden surge of excitement. “Before I answer, I want you to tell me something.” “Anything!” “When they left here, what happened to them? What did they do out there?” Nicomedes did not know how to answer that question. His mind was racing. Where could he begin? He thought for a second, then sent a command to the pod. “Listen carefully,” he said. The computer bank aboard the pod began transmitting. It sent a stream of numbers and charts and statistics, the sum of its knowledge. “Oh my,” said Seymour. There were thousands of branches of Humanity now, and they had spread across the galaxy in faster-than-light ships, through wormholes and gateways. They had established unions, empires, republics, kingdoms and collectives. They mastered inconceivable technologies, strung stars together into mighty power sources, mined exotic matter from the surfaces of black holes, and built habitats light-years wide. They met other species and intelligences, and created a few of their own. Already some had headed out towards other galaxies. The transmission ended. “You understand I had no idea you were coming,” said Seymour. “When I first suspected that the sun was expanding I sent a vast swarm of nanomachines into space. Rather simple, really. They went to Earth first, and carried out their task of disassembling the buildings, the domiciles, the libraries, the dead technology, the fossilized remains. All of it. It took years. After that they went to Mars, which had hosted a sizable human culture itself, then the countless habitats adrift in space, and the asteroid colonies. Every trace of human culture in the system was taken apart, atom by atom.” “You destroyed it all?” “No, I preserved it. Every structure, every molecule, converted into patterns of energy. It’s all part of me now.” The sun disappeared behind Jupiter, bringing a deep darkness across the moon. The tip of Seymour’s nose began to glow again, but this time the very icescape itself began to mimic the radiance, growing in intensity, as if the entire nano-gel ocean below them was ablaze with light. Shafts of brightness pierced through and shot skyward. Auroras began to ripple overhead. A flurry of shapes began to appear like before, but these were much larger. Nicomedes recognized them as cities. “Consider it a gift,” said Seymour. As the spectacle danced around Nicomedes, he received a transmission from the Aerie. They were asking him if he had found anything.
Author's Note: I set a goal for myself early in the year: this year's card would be Transhumanist in nature, in keeping with the fiction I had been enjoying recently. It would involve the Big Three Transhumanist technologies: nano, artificial intelligence, and human enhancement. The drawing came next. Brother Nicomedes evolved over several months, then one night I threw him onto an icy plain with Jupiter in the background. The Photoshop snowman fit the composition, and I found myself writing a story to fit the picture.
Copyright 2006 Bad Day Studio