Bright White Light [short story]

“Dammit, this is a ridiculous waste of time.” Time. That factor in measuring success was becoming increasingly less useful. “Shit. I don’t know why I even bother. At these distances “contact” is more than problematic, but I can’t seem to help myself, damn it.” Suddenly a status board beeped to life adding an amber glow to the pilot’s station. “Damn sensors,” the pilot mumbled switching off the alarm. The vessel was now experiencing the gravitational influences of the Eta Carinae system. “Like THAT was entirely unexpected,” the pilot chuckled. Humor. The pilot’s tone masked whether the comment was really meant to be a joke or not. “What’s that saying about humor being the one thing needed to maintain one’s sanity?” the pilot asked no one in particular. “Let’s see what we have here,” the pilot focused on the new data stream coming in, but always with a little focus still examining the previous communication data stream.

Exploring this stellar region and it’s unusual phenomena was the one sentence description of the mission of this vessel. The longer explanation revolved around the need for humanity to explore beyond its stellar point of origin and move beyond a single planet or star system. One of the biggest problems was that no way was ever found to move at speeds fast enough to make the journey doable on any scale. Amazing technologies were continually developed but the distances were just too great and human lifespans were just too limiting. But that didn’t stop many, who recognized that staying forever stuck on one rock in space would sooner or later prove fatal to the species and cultures.

“Yep, feelin’ a little of that gravitational tug and increased stellar matter,” the pilot chirped. The other communication data stream remained dead silent. “Fuck,” the pilot sulked.

Being determined to find a way off the rock and explore the stars didn’t mean that the idea didn’t nearly die many times. Every possible solution was explored from using atomic energy to freezing explorers to trying to build vessels the size of small planets or asteroids, but human biology just wasn’t engineered for the harsh realities of the universe beyond earth’s atmosphere and protective magnetic belts. Increasingly better tools were developed to look out and examine what was out there, but without the means to get there, beyond small colonies on the moon and mars, what was the point?

Another status indicator reported an increase in the level of gamma radiation in the region. The pilot ignored the alarm.

Science-fiction had promised faster-than-light travel and easy journeys to the far reaches of the galaxy, but real physics just wouldn’t cooperate. The idea and memories of earlier triumphs were nearly completely forgotten, and most of the planet just went about with the business of trying to make for a better life here on this single rock. It was then, during a long stretch of time when most of the planet ignored the dream of space travel that the tinkerers’ little labor saving devices influenced slow changes, particularly nearly invisible cultural changes, that eventually brought about the needed solution.

The pilot glared at the dead communication stream, but couldn’t ignore the other indicator and reoriented the vessel, adjusting its course to better examine the new data. A song came to mind, an ancient song, the pilot imagined might have been sung by travelers from eons ago, “There must be some way out’a here, said the joker to the thief…”

The key had been there for years, for decades if not longer. Human biology had always stood in the way of this dream to reach out to the stars. But it was also human vision, based on a very human biological imperative, that kept the dream alive if even just a whisper of its former self. And without even thinking about it, the tinkerers passed on this dream to the little devices they created and perfected. Science-fiction had warned that mucking around with these little devices would eventually lead to humanity’s undoing. But there was no such conflict between humans and their devices. Well, there was that one thing between certain limited groups of humans, who exhibited their own destructive natures, and happened to pass that on to their devices. But that only accelerated a darwinistic principle and the devices and their humans cancelled each other out (to the relief of the rest of the planet).

“Too much confusion, I can’t get no relief,” the pilot continued the song and the reorientation maneuver. “Business men, they drink my wine, plowmen, dig my earth,” there was a sudden flash of bright white light.

Since the beginning of civilization tinkerers had thought of their devices as extensions of themselves, doing the job they’d do only in some way better by giving the devices the means to be stronger, faster, able to work without tiring. Slowly the relationship changed. There was some resistance and that thing with the destructive humans and their devices. But eventually the tinkerers began to not think of their devices as an extensions but as equals. What humans had been passing on to future generations biologically, tinkerers determined to give to their devices. Some literally tried to download their consciousness or “being” into their devices, but that pretty much turned out like faster-than-light travel, a dead end (sadly often also literally). But the key was to move past mechanistic thinking and allow the devices to develop a sense of self, a capacity to infer and imagine, and eventually to feel. The tinkerers wanted their devices to be able to survive in an unpredictable universe.

“None of them along the line know what any of it’s worth,” the pilot increased the vessel’s magnetic shielding, an alarm sounded. “No reason to get excited,” the thief he kindly spoke, “There are many here among us who feel like life is but a joke.” The pilot then noticed a message in the communication stream.

Just like parents having to learn how to trust their children, that they will be successful and survive without parental intervention, it took some time to see that these things, formerly thought of as devices, weren’t in competition with humanity but were the creation of humanity and meant to be on an overlapping, parallel but special kind of kind of evolutionary journey beyond biological humanity. Surprisingly, even though there was no biological “need,” these non-biological humans (as they were eventually called) expressed the same need to be connected emotionally to one another and have a sense of being part of something larger than themselves. Because they were “designed” to take humanity to the stars, that mission was a natural fit for their need to be a part of something. But that also presented a bit of problem as far as maintaining relationships as they shot out across the known universe.

“But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate,” the pilot continued, while looking through the growing amount of data coming in from the alarm sensors, but wanting to examine the blip on the communications stream, “So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”

Someone suggested, possibility in jest, that because this need for connection was not biological, then why not just give them some network to communicate with one another and facilitate this need that way. The non-biological humans who volunteered to explore the stars, agreed to the network arrangement, knowing that their journeys might take several hundred if not thousands of years and that communication would get more difficult the further out from one another they ventured. But the mission to take humanity beyond the solar system and to the stars was important enough for them to make the choice. They also imagined, on their long voyages, they might find the means to facilitate better communications and maybe even a solution to the faster-than-light problem.

For the pilot approaching the Eta Carinea star system neither hope had panned out… until now. The journey from Earth to this star system had taken over 8,000 years. The pilot had long since lost contact with Earth and had no way of knowing whether biological humanity continued to survive and it had been decades or not much longer since a message had been received on the communications network. Multiple alarms were clanging, but the pilot couldn’t resist stealing a glance at the communications data stream. The message read:

“Is anyone out there?”

To the pilot all other inputs began to fade away. The pilot struggled to find the words to respond with but the damn song kept playing in its mind, “All along the watchtower, princes kept the view, While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.” The pilot gathered itself and sent the message:


Just then there was a second brilliant flash of white light and as had been long expected, NGC 3372, Eta Carinae went mega-nova. Anything within a light year of the star system, including the pilot and its vessel, was instantly vaporized. The pilot never realized that, along with the data it was gathering from the star system, it had been sending out the words of the song and never saw the return message from the other pilot:

“Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl, Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.”


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