As Above, So Below
The launch pads dot the valley like asteroid craters, with the railways as beams of dark ejecta. The launchers tower idle under the clouds, pillars of a roofless temple. They are superheavy lift vehicles, distant derivatives of the ancestral Soyuz. Two stages to orbit and two hundred tons sent four hundred kilometres above ground. They’re white, with black solid boosters and circles of gold marking the separation between the stages. They stand on platforms of steel and granite, above vast concrete pits meant to absorb the scorching flames of their engines. The launchers ignore the storm. Dormant, they wait for the stars. Sentences in Cyrillic and Arabic are inscribed on the sides. A surah from the Quran. It says:
“[the divine] is the One who has set out for you the stars, that you may guide yourselves by them through the darkness of the land and of the sea.”
Once, we had a dream.
We thought that the outer heavens would be our salvation. Oh, how hopeful we were in these days. My ancestors remember what the rich and powerful used to say — fooling themselves as much as they were fooling us. There lies humankind’s future. Reach out for the stars, spread the light of consciousness, turn us into a multiplanetary species. Build colonies. Not settlements, colonies. Move. Forwards, again and again. Build up momentum, or die. This was the great dream, the great illusion we had built for ourselves. The incredibly powerful idea that space was more than a vast desolation. That through the void we would find salvation. It was a beautiful dream, truth be told. It was a comforting illusion — the idea that there was purpose in the great beyond. That the Moon would welcome us. That Mars would flourish. That the solar system was just out there, ready for the taking. That we were a runaway species. That we would have an imperium in the gaalaxy. Come; and walk over the hill. The story of the human race, we thought, and the hill was the Karman line. But that hill, we had swallowed it, churned it and returned it as nothing but a totem of the industrial age. The dream had to be bankable. The dream had to be monetized. The dream had to be bound, strangled and put in a box, and that box had to be a non-fungible token.
The dream failed us; or maybe we failed the dream.
That, I remember from my childhood, and my parents' childhood. The great launch centers of the world, laid bare to the biting winds. The slowness of the Low Age, after the shining rumble of the late industrial age. The awe-inspiring tales of these men and women who would walk in space, who would gaze upon the Earth from the desolate plains of the moon. Of these politicians and businessmen, whose names had been lost to time; of their words and their 3D concepts, of a dream that had strangled itself in stock market collapses even before the world had finally given up on us. I remember a large, circular lake, and on its banks was our village. I’d take a rowboat to go fishing. Sometimes, we’d drag something weird from the mud. Fragments of steel and carbon. Hulls, wings and cockpits from long-dead spaceplanes. One day, my mother told me the lake had been a launch area for an SSTO project, put forward by a company whose name she didn’t even remember.
A gust of wind. The clouds split apart. Two suns hang in the sky. Red dwarves, ten thousand lightyears away from the Sun.
The dream is dead and yet, here we are, the runaway species.
Why? That, I cannot tell. The dream is buried still. Has been for centuries, and it won’t be reignited. We cast it aside, and let it float down the river. We never wanted this. Such was the main teaching of the Low Age, such was the central tenet of the post-industrial world. The Earth is enough. It is enough for us. It is enough for our history. I was educated under this tenet, and while I could feel that it didn’t satisfy me, I understood its wisdom. The Earth was our cradle, and I could see it be our tomb. It was fine. It was orderly. It was a tired planet and we were equally battered. History had begun here, and it would end thusly.
I was thirty-one when the geometry drive entered our history. Faster than light travel -- one cubic meter of hyperdimensional particles, beating light in a straight line, ten times out of ten. I can’t say we discovered it. It was a find. A self-contained causality loop crossing the path of an exhausted humankind. I think that was the last inflexion point, the last step where the dream could have been reignited. Finally — we were on the verge of breaking the great filter, of escaping the slowness of the world. With this technology, we could have been emperors.
Instead, we let go.
We let go of everything. Of the hopes of grandeur. Of the colonial illusion. Of the idea of control. Of the dream itself. We reached for the stars, not as conquerors, not as settlers, not as great explorers even, but as wanderers. Yes, we build stations, yes we settle planets, yes, we keep pretending for a while, but deep down, we know it. We have no imperial ambitions anymore. We have dreams, but the dream is gone.
One of the launchers ignites. Its engines push against the ground. Its flames rake the snow. Gravity wields, and it flies.
Understand what the geometry drive is. On a fundamental level, it is a device capable of bending space and time by its simple existence. Faster-than-light travel is merely its main side-effect, but deep down, the geometry drive is a pen with which, given enough time, we could rewrite the world itself. We could decide to rule over baryonic matter, we could decide to settle the entire Local Cluster, we could decide to travel back and forwards in time, we could decide to create weapons capable of splitting reality in half, we could decide to do all of this at once, and yet, we opted to be mere travellers. We received a deity, and we’re using it for sightseeing.
There will be no dominion. The galaxy is old, and we’re too late. Thousands of dead civilisations litter the spiral arms, and yet not a single one — not even the Sequence, millions of years ahead of us in the great evolutionary curve — ever mastered the geometry drive. As far as we know, there are only two extant groups of sophonts to hold this power in their hands. The Ladies That Wander are goddesses in their own right, moving the world around them with a snap of their fingers, and yet they decided to be aimless walkers, laying curious and benevolent eyes on the world. The Weavers in Light once held great plans for the baryonic world, and yet they gave up on them. Like us, they let go. And on a fundamental level, I believe that faster-than-light travel can only work, only offers itself when found and understood by a civilisation that already renounced the empire of the stars. Ask the Forgotten Travellers, the great aliens of the galactic core; they paid for their Alcubierre drive with the blood of a billion planets, because their great imperial dream was still there, gnawing at their core.
On a civilisational scale, this is liberating. There is no great plan. There is no grand design. There is no race to extinction or to victory. There are wars, but they are small and inconsequential. Why care when you can move at will? In our great conflict with the Sequence, we do not wage battles. We evade, we dance around their slower-than-light armadas, lightweight, untouchable.
The launcher has broken atmosphere. Its first stage glides down, aerodynamic surfaces reflecting the bloody suns. The second stage is but a faint candle curved upwards, spewing mandalas of superheated gas in the compressed horizon of the tidally locked planet. Power turned inwards. I remain until it is nothing but a glimmer of light in the eternal twilight. The blue spark of a geometry drive influx blinks in low orbit, herald of a passing flotilla. The Milky Way stretches across the sky, four hundred billion stars within a month's reach. Somewhere, nestled in the spiral arms, the scattered worlds of humanity, eight billion people and a hundred planets. We could have a million more -- and the ability, the power, to answer no, thank you to this terrible aspiration is the essence of interstellar humankind.
I turn around and walk, softly, towards the night side.
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