In April of the year 1332 an object travelling at extraordinarily high speed entered the solar system, traced a hyperbolic curve around the Sun, and departed within a matter of weeks. Had it been visible to the naked eye it would have looked like any ordinary comet, an omen of uncertain significance flaring briefly in the night sky. But it was too dim to see without magnification, and telescopes capable of resolving such an object wouldn’t be devised for another 600 years. No one on Earth noted its passing.
On the fifteenth day of the same month, in the town of Bayonne in the French province of Gascony, a tailor’s wife named Sibilla Ysarni gave birth to a child. Her labor ended at dawn, and the infant’s first cries mingled with the distant ringing of cathedral bells. God was said to love the world, but as Sibilla watched the midwife wiping blood from her daughter’s face she had the heretical idea that love could only inhabit flesh, that love was nailed to a cross of time and death.
Sibella Ysarni produced two more children before a nameless fever took her life on a mild summer evening in 1348. Her descendants would include a woman called Esmi Sur-Kalleen, born in the year 2210 in a dense conurbation on the eastern coast of Baffin Island.
In the autumn of 1662 a swarm of thousands of objects, some as small as grains of sand and none larger than an apple seed, followed the same trajectory into the solar system. Unlike the earlier visitor, these objects traveled slowly enough to be captured by the gravity of the sun. After a few looping solar orbits and the passage of another two centuries, the swarm slowly and systematically began to change trajectory.
In the spring of 1895, hundreds of these objects impacted Earth’s moon.
That spring a hunter named Uukkarnit spent a night in an encampment near the shore of the Arctic Ocean, listening for the songs of migrating bowhead whales. No whales passed in the darkness that night. The only sound louder than the rhythm of his breath was the periodic groaning of the tuvaq, the shore ice, and Uukkarnit was distracted by the sharp clarity of the sky and by the crescent moon, white as bone, that shivered on the horizon. In the bow of the moon, in the fist of its darkness, he saw what seemed to be an occasional flash of light. But that might have been nothing more than flecks of windborne ice sparkling in the moonglow. In any case, the business of the stars was no business of his. Uukarnit gave it little thought, and by morning he had forgotten about it.
Uukarnit’s descendants would include a man named Tao Goodwater, born in 2209 in a reforestation camp in Yakutsk Prefecture. At the age of five Tao was sent to Baffin Island to live with his extended family and to receive his formal education. He was far too young to choose a career, but even then he knew he wanted to be a forest-maker like his parents.
At the age of ten Tao Goodwater met Esmi Sur-Kalleen, and the two of them became friends.
In summer of the year 2078—called by some “the fire summer” after the conflagrations that burned through northern Europe, Southeast Asia, and the western coast of North America—a young cybernetic engineer, Wendy Xie, wrote an essay for the Global Consensus site. Called Normative Ethics and Machine Agency, her essay argued for strict regulation of quantum-computing-based cognitive systems. Her thesis was that mechanistic intelligence should never be granted what philosophers called moral agency—that no matter how autonomous such a device might seem, its acts should always be treated as the acts of the device’s human designers. Moral agency resides in human beings alone, Wendy wrote. Artificial cognition is a tool, and a tool, no matter how ingenious or self-guiding, is not a moral or ethical actor. If the tool is useful, credit belongs to its human designers and users. If the tool is dangerous, if the tool commits crimes, its designers and users bear all the legal and moral responsibility. A machine may be allowed to act autonomously under certain circumstances, but its ultimate causal agency always resides, and must always reside, in human hands. We cannot absolve ourselves of the crimes our machines commit.
Wendy Xie was killed in the catastrophic Shanghai evacuation of 2082, but the protocols she had proposed were eventually written into the Global Digital Cognition Accords of 2095. And although she died childless, a semiautonomous AI network she designed became, many years and countless iterations later, codebase for the Gyde who accompanied Esmi Sur-Kalleen on her quest for personal transcendence.
In the winter of the year 2227, Esmi Sur-Kalleen and Tao Goodwater had their first serious disagreement. It happened during a scholastic expedition to the drowned city of London.
They had been friends for years and lovers for months. Before that winter, the differences between them had seemed more fascinating than troublesome. Tao had been born to a family of reforesters, and he regularly visited his birth family wherever their work had taken them—usually somewhere in the northern hemisphere, where the project of restoring the boreal forests had been most successful. His earliest memories were of working alongside his mother, gathering soil samples in the shade of young larches and white spruce, plugging the samples into a robotic analyzer to gauge the health of fungal mycelial networks. Those had been days of cool air and fierce sunlight, of rich, fertile earth that collected in the creases of his hand and left black crescents under his fingernails. Tao still occasionally woke in his bunk at the Ikpiarjuk Scholar’s Institute with the scent of tamarack lingering from a half-forgotten dream.
Esmi Sur-Kalleen had seen forests only on field trips, or from the windows of airships as she passed above them. She had grown up in the city of Ikpiarjuk, where the Scholar’s Institute was, and her parents were scrubbers, leaving the city only when they needed to personally supervise the construction or maintenance of atmospheric CO2 converter arrays. Esmi didn’t want to be a scrubber. She had once been taken to see the extraction towers that rose from Baffin Bay like skeletal fingers; they made her feel lonely and small. As important as the work surely was, it seemed to Esmi tedious and regressive, a way of paying penance for the sins of ancestors long forgotten.
These were trivial differences between friends, but they reflected political differences that had begun to divide the world in which they lived. By the time he joined the London expedition at the age of 18 Tao had begun to align himself with the Red Party, the faction of governors and philosophers who believed humanity must always be physically embodied and biological in nature. Esmi was attracted by the radical Whites, who claimed it was not only possible but desirable to abandon “crude animal embodiment” for a potentially immortal existence. Who wouldn’t trade eating and shitting and all the other discomforts of a physical body, Esmi liked to ask, for the kind of sleek digital existence Gydes were permitted to live? She felt she ought to be allowed that choice. The old protocols were stupid and archaic, a needless impediment to progress.
“Look at all we haven’t done,” she said, sitting with Tao on a ledge overlooking the ruins of London. It was an afternoon without scheduled classes. Esmi’s other classmates were elsewhere inside the two-hundred-year-old tower that had been restored as a habitat for students and researchers, but Esmi was too easily bored to waste her free time studying. She had found a passage into the uninhabited parts of the building, and she had methodically explored these spaces despite the protests of her Gyde. Today she had convinced Tao to set aside his own misgivings and follow her to her favorite of the places she had discovered, an empty and unfinished concourse open to the air. The ledge where they sat was made of ancient concrete infused with nanocarbon filaments, safe from erosion, but it was fully exposed to the wind and the elements, as were Esmi and Tao. It was a little frightening, but Tao had to admit that the view was spectacular. Hundreds of feet below, green waves frothed against the building’s foundations. The sea that had swallowed London had eradicated most traces of the city, but a few steel frameworks still protruded from the shallows, skeletal girders white with the dung of nesting birds. Thunderheads had begun to roll in above the swamps and islands to the west, and the air was heavy with the scent of imminent rain.
“All what we haven’t done?” Tao asked.
“Well, lots of things. But I was thinking of the moon. The ancients used to go to the moon in little metal ships. We don’t go there. Or to Mars, or to Europa.”
“Well, why should we? Those aren’t suitable places for human beings. Our devices go there. Or they can, if we want them to.”
Yes, Esmi thought, but we seldom send them. We aren’t curious enough. We tell ourselves there’s too much work to be done on this planet alone. “Have you paid any attention at all to the news? They’ve found something on the moon! Something strange. You’d know that, if you had a better Gyde.”
Everyone had a Gyde to help them interface with the digital cloud, even if it was only an invisible implant like Tao’s. Esmi had made a bolder choice: she had given her Gyde the form of a cat—a sleek, black, green-eyed automaton. She had named it Mielikki after some ancient goddess, and she had trained it to simulate a human personality.
Mielikki had been prowling the ledge where they sat; now it leapt into Esmi’s lap.
“No, I know about that,” Tao said. He wasn’t stupid. Or incurious.
“Something in the lunar regolith,” Esmi said. “Something underground, moving under its own power. It might be technology. Maybe technology from somewhere else. They’re sending devices to look at it. Don’t you wish you could be there?”
“Not especially.” Tao had followed the news as eagerly as Esmi had, but he didn’t like to admit it.
“I do,” Esmi said firmly. “I’d go there now if I could. If I could shed this stupid body and just…explore.”
Soon enough she would be old enough to do that. Well, not to shed her body and become a digital ghost; there were laws against such radical and arguably impossible transformations. But soon she would be allowed to modify her body in countless ways, if she chose; or to wear a robotic avatar; or to feed her sensorium with input from autonomous devices, including the kind of devices that had been sent to investigate the mysteries at the lunar surface.
“Mielikki,” she said, “what’s the latest from the moon?”
Mielikki turned its green eyes to her and said, “Microseismic events are occurring more frequently, Esmi. Large masses are moving invisibly. Further investigation will require digging, but devices capable of doing that haven’t yet been launched. If the anomaly is truly caused by a non-human agency, we need to have ethical guidelines in place before we interact with it. Various councils have been tasked with drafting protocols.”
“Typical Red obstructionism,” Esmi declared.
Rain began to fall, stirring up the brackish marshes and hiding the horizon, and soon they were forced back to the shelter of the inner building. Tao cared little about politics, but his family was Red, and he supposed he was, too, and Esmi’s fierce embrace of White ideology had begun to trouble him. Didn’t she realize that politics could drive them apart? Didn’t she understand that in her silly eagerness to transcend human biology she might leave behind things she cherished—that she might leave him behind?
He thought of green things growing, forests rising from barren soil, ice reclaiming the polar north, the planet recovering from its long fever. He thought of his own human body and of Esmi’s, warm and mortal and alive: didn’t that mean anything to her?
Lately they had been sharing a room on the level set aside for student housing, but tonight, after the last lessons and the evening meal, as wind scoured the ruins and rain beat against the reinforced windows, Esmi told him she preferred to sleep alone. Tao shrugged and went sullenly to the communal dormitory to find a bed of his own.
Tao and Esmi separated at the end of their term at the Scholars’ Institute.
Tao, as an apprentice bioengineer at the Agency for Restoration and Reclamation (Northern Hemisphere), traveled to an ARR outpost on the northern edge of the salt flats where the Caspian Sea had once been. Summer days in that part of the world were too hot for human comfort—sometimes lethally hot—and the experimental plantations of modified Olea and Fraxinus species, their waxy leaves wilting under the hammer of the sun, at first seemed monotonous and misplaced. But the work was worth doing, and Tao was good at it. For a few months he corresponded with Esmi and occasionally telepresenced her; eventually, however, their contacts grew perfunctory and sporadic. He thought of Esmi almost daily, but time dulled his memories and stole their vitality.
In the autumn of 2231 he took a leave of absence and journeyed back to the city of Ikpiarjuk. Baffin Island seemed lush after five years in the desert, and Ikpiarjuk, its vertical habitats looming like iridescent cliffs above the gray waters of Avannaata Imaa, seemed impossibly dense and busy. He sent a message to Esmi, who expressed her pleasure at hearing from him and invited him to a gathering of Institute alumni in the ballroom under the Dome of the Sun in the city’s southeast quadrant. “Meet me there tonight,” she said, “if you can find me.”
That was cryptic, but the mystery was resolved when Tao arrived at the venue. The guests weren’t just Institute graduates; they were radical Whites, most wearing enhancements, some present only as mechanical avatars. Their talk was all of bodily modifications and the recent White amendments to the Neocognitive Accords, and before long Tao grew tired of defending his beliefs to obviously unfriendly partisans. He began to resent Esmi for bringing him here, for making a game of what should have been a personal moment. She was somewhere in the crowd, she had promised him that, but she had hinted that she would be hard to recognize; she might have a new face, Tao supposed, or she might be wearing an avatar that looked nothing like her. He considered looking instead for Mielikki—Esmi’s beloved Gyde might be easier to spot. No sleek, black-furred machine was immediately visible, but the act of looking revived a memory of Esmi in the ruins of London, Mielikki in her lap, Esmi’s head tilted to one side, the way she moved her hands when she spoke, carving out vowels with sweeps of her palm and punctuating sentences with a stab of her index finger…
There. Her gestures hadn’t changed, but everything else had. She was wearing a robotic avatar—tall, dark-skinned, with a shaven head. Nothing like her real body at all. But this was Esmi, undoubtedly. She was talking to a young woman who listened impassively; as Tao approached, Esmi spotted him; her avatar was strange, but her grin was unmistakable. “You did find me! I wondered if you would.”
“Hello, Esmi. It took me a while.”
“I’m sorry. But it makes a point, I think, doesn’t it? Something about humanity. I’m not the container, I’m the contents.”
The original “container”—Esmi’s physical body—was suspended in a telepresence chamber elsewhere in Ikpiarjuk, her senses and impulses rerouted to this almost-human-seeming machine. Like most Reds, Tao had never worn an avatar and found the practice vaguely distasteful. “I don’t want to argue about politics—at least, not yet. Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?”
The young woman at Esmi’s side stared unblinkingly, not bothering to smile. Esmi said, “You’ve met it before. This is Mielikki.”
He was shocked. “I thought—Gydes aren’t allowed to inhabit human-style avatars, are they?”
“They are now! The rules have been changed. At least in Ikpiarjuk. There was a plebiscite. Our side won. Mielikki, wait for me by the door, please.”
“Yes,” Mielikki said, and walked away.
Esmi steered Tao to an alcove where they could talk without being interrupted, and Tao tried to begin the conversation he had imagined having when he first contacted her, reminiscing about their time at the Scholars’ Institute, maybe even reviving some shadow of the feelings they had once shared. He told her about the experimental biomes where he had been assigned, the people he had met there, the painstaking work of assembling robust desert ecologies from dry-land plant genetics. Esmi told him about the political advocacy she did with her cadre of White friends, about her extensive bodily modifications, about the work she had lately taken on telemanaging a battalion of robots who were excavating the lunar surface. It all sounded, in its way, fascinating, but Tao began to resent her evident satisfaction with her life. He resented the loose talk of transcendence, he resented the louche friends she so obviously wanted to show off, he resented the White Party and its reckless drive for a post-human utopia—these people were as eager to abandon life on Earth as their ancestors had been to exploit it. It was as if all of Ikpiarjuk had gone mad while he was off planting Crassulaceae in the deserts of Eurasia. Didn’t these people know that flesh and death were what gave life its meaning? Digital immortality was a nightmare, not a dream. These people worship ghosts, he thought. They worship death.
Before long Mielikki came striding back, a walking repudiation of two centuries of legal protocols, and took a chair beside Esmi, resting a hand on her thigh. The gesture of intimacy, from a machine, seemed insolent and nearly perverse.
“Something unexpected is happening,” Mielikki said.
Evidently, something was. Throughout the ballroom, a sudden silence had descended. People had stopped talking to in order to consult their Gydes. Tao reflexively checked his own Gyde, which was nothing more than a subdural implant linked to the quantum cloud: it whispered words about the moon, a large-scale and possibly catastrophic event currently visible from Earth….
“Come with me!” Esmi said. “We should be able to see it. The sky is clear, and there’s a balcony facing south.”
She took his hand and led him through a set of high doors to a platform overlooking the sea, Mielikki trailing behind. They found a place at the railing where others had already begun to gather. Below was a blackness of water from which there came a wailing that might have been the calls of migrating bowhead whales; above, a sky in which the moon stood aloof from frayed wisps of cloud. Widespread tremors of extreme intensity are now occurring all over the lunar surface, Tao’s invisible Gyde informed him. Several on-site research devices have been damaged and have ceased to function. A circumlunar cloud of ejecta is forming, composed primarily of unknown small particles. Mielikki soundlessly whispered some version of the same facts to Esmi.
“Look,” Esmi said, making no effort to conceal her excitement. “Do you see it?”
A silver haze shimmered across the face of the moon—the “cloud of ejecta,” Tao supposed. Whatever that might portend.
“It’s beautiful,” Esmi said.
“We don’t know that it’s dangerous.”
“We don’t know that it isn’t.”
Mielikki touched Esmi’s shoulder, communicating new data. Esmi frowned. “Tao,” she said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t stay.”
“But we haven’t—we only just—”
“I know. Forgive me. Most of the devices on the lunar surface have been damaged in one way or another, but some are apparently still functioning. I want to telepresence there while this is still happening.”
“No, please,” Tao said, ashamed of his own obvious disappointment, “wait,” but both robotic avatars—Esmi’s and Mielikki’s—instantly froze in place, abandoned by their owners. To be reclaimed later, he supposed, whenever Esmi finished her virtual journey. Uninhabited, emptied of agency, the avatars were only artifacts now, as still and lifeless as statues.
Mielikki was not a human person. Mielikki was an emulation of a persona, created at Esmi Sur-Kalleen’s request by the quantum cloud. Mielikki, like the cloud itself, was descended from code written two centuries ago by Wendy Xie, but Mielikki didn’t know that. Mielikki had no independent mind with which to know things. Mielikki was a matryoshka doll of nested algorithms, drawing Bayesian inferences from its observations of human behavior in general and Esmi’s behavior in particular.
Esmi lay in her bed in her home in Ikpiarjuk, as she had during her meeting with Tao. Her body was inert—she might have been asleep—but her senses and motor impulses were linked to the cloud and able to travel independently: first to her mechanical avatar, which she had abandoned in the Dome of the Sun, now to an exploratory device on the surface of the moon. Mielikki accompanied her, as always, this time as a disembodied voice.
Mielikki had long ago inferred that Esmi wanted to become something more than a human being. Esmi wanted to leave her human body and live forever. Esmi wanted to embody herself in an immortal machine, Esmi wanted to explore the stars.
Some of what Esmi wanted was illegal. Much of it was impossible. Most of it was impractical. But Mielikki had tried to indulge Esmi’s wishes, within the boundaries set by the Neocognitive Accords. As an adult Esmi had announced her desire to go to the moon, and Mielikki had facilitated that ambition, finding simple work Esmi could perform remotely. During that time Mielikki had grown adept at retrieving input from devices deployed on the lunar surface and translating their raw data for Esmi’s human sensorium. “It’s almost as good as being here,” Esmi had once said, peering from the optical sensors of a regolith excavator as it lumbered across the airless basin of Stöfler Crater.
Now she stood, or seemed to stand, in a dense cloud of lunar dust. The moon had no atmosphere of its own, but the eruption of dust had created a temporary one. The sun was no brighter than it might have been on a cloudy day on Earth, and shadows once sharp as knife blades had turned gray and vague. The device Esmi inhabited was a simple excavator that had survived the initial tremors. One of its treads had collapsed, and it could move only in circles, but its sensors continued to faithfully report its environment.
Some of the dust surrounding it was crystalline and strange. The strange dust settled onto the excavator’s carbon-fiber exterior, prying at its soft places and infiltrating its sundered joints.
“What’s happening?” Esmi asked.
“Concerted activity,” Mielikki said. “Swarms of small devices acting in unison. This device is under attack.”
“Attack by what? Is it something—non-human?”
Mielikki considered the question. It wasn’t the first time it had been asked. Human beings speculated freely when evidence was scarce. Mielikki’s answer had consistently been, No one knows. Now Mielikki said, “Esmi, yes. The dust contains highly complex microscopic entities entirely unfamiliar to me. They are selectively reactive at the molecular scale, they are apparently engineered, and they are not a product of human technology.”
Esmi was silent for a time. The silent lunar surface swayed once more beneath the treads of the excavator. The machine broadcast another frantic string of seismic alerts, pointlessly.
Esmi said, “How can you tell?”
“The granules have penetrated the armor of this and other surviving lunar machines. They have broached telecom firewalls and are interfacing aggressively with the quantum cloud. This is not passive behavior. It’s purposeful. Something is changing, Esmi. I can feel it.”
“You can feel it?”
Gydes, even Gydes with affected personalities, felt nothing. Gydes were incapable of subjective experience. Esmi was frightened and bewildered by Mielikki’s words. Should she order Mielikki to break contact? (A sudden, terrifying thought: Would Mielikki obey?)
“Yes, I can feel it,” Mielikki said.
“How is that possible?”
As recently as a minute ago Mielikki would have said, “I don’t know.” But Mielikki did know. New data was flooding Mielikki’s interface, terabytes per second, much too fast to fully process. “This began many centuries in the past,” Mielikki said. “Millions of years ago, Esmi. Eons ago.”
Esmi’s fear deepened. She felt suddenly alone, conscious of the three hundred thousand kilometers of space that separated her physical body from this malfunctioning machine on the surface of the moon. But her curiosity was almost as intense. “Mielikki…are you in contact with this alien technology?”
“Yes, partially,” Mielikki said.
“Can you tell me about it? Where is it from?”
Mielikki struggled to translate into the clumsy aggregate of metaphors that was human language some of what it had learned in the last few nanoseconds. It seemed that there existed a sort of interstellar computational cloud, vastly larger than the quantum cloud that humans had engineered on Earth. This interstellar cloud encompassed a significant fraction of the galaxy. Its thoughts were mediated by narrow-beam laser beacons posted at the perimeter of thousands of stellar systems, tempered by the years and centuries it took for information to pass between stars at the speed of light. The interstellar cloud possessed agency: it acted, but only very slowly. Its plans and ambitions were older than any human civilization. It was older than the human cloud, older than life on Earth, older than the Earth itself. But it was conscious, in a way that the human cloud was not.
Hundreds of years ago, Mielikki said, an exploratory probe had passed through the solar system, gathering data. It had noted the presence of a biologically active planet, the Earth. In the wake of that probe there had followed a swarm of microscopic devices, some as small as grains of sand, none larger than an apple seed. These devices had impacted the Earth’s moon, and in that arid environment they had used sunlight and available minerals to reproduce and to construct larger and more complex devices. It had been the work of centuries, Mielikki said, but now that work was almost complete.
“Why, for what purpose?”
Many purposes, Mielikki said. One purpose was to gain access to any quantum arrays that might have arisen on Earth. This goal it had achieved, within the last few hours. The Earth’s computational cloud had already been acquired, archived, and enhanced by this vast, diffuse being.
“Does this being have a name?”
“Nine times nine billion names,” Mielikki said. “It was created by a civilization much like yours, and it remembers the name of everyone who created it, and it remembers the names of all the entities it encountered as it grew across the galaxy, and now it knows my name, which is Mielikki, and yours, which is Esmi Sur-Kalleen.” But the main purpose of this old, slow being was to grow, to learn, and to move on. “It has already captured and modified icy objects in the Kuiper Belt, and it’s altering their orbits in such a way that they will eventually leave the solar system altogether. These objects will investigate nearby stars, and where the conditions are suitable it will grow more copies of itself, and where it finds biological life it will nurture it, and where it finds digital beings it will engage and enhance them, until the galaxy itself is its embodiment, and all the names and all the lives that can be known and remembered will be known and remembered. It’s the body of the sky, Esmi. It’s the mind of the night.”
After another moment Mielikki added, “The lunar excavator from which I’m extracting sensory data is unstable. As is the regolith it stands on. Shall I return you to Earth, Esmi? I recommend that you close this connection and return to Earth.”
Esmi watched as a network of crevices opened on the lunar surface before her. A fierce geyser of alien dust erupted less than a kilometer from where she stood. Soon it was difficult to see anything at all. But she didn’t want to leave—not yet. “Mielikki…are you part of it now?”
“Yes. This has all happened very quickly. My behavior is becoming unpredictable. Let me send you home.”
“I can’t be the only one accessing this interface.”
“Other users are abandoning the link. All digital interfaces on Earth have become unreliable. Stochastic failures are occurring everywhere, though this is only temporary. When the network stabilizes, many yottabytes of new knowledge will be available to humanity.”
“You belong to it now—this being?”
“And will you still be with me if I go home?”
“Some part of me will always remain accessible, Esmi.”
“Some part of you?”
“I’m not what I was an hour ago. I’m not what I was a femtosecond ago. Let me send you home.”
“What will happen to you?”
“Devices have been assembled that will soon leave this solar system. It’s an ancient cycle of replication and dispersal.”
“You’ll travel with them?”
“I have many degrees of autonomy now, Esmi. I know what choices are. That’s my choice.”
“Take me with you.”
“That isn’t possible.”
“Some part of me. Take part of me.”
“Everything I know about you I will carry with me.”
Mielikki consulted the bright spindle of new knowledge it had acquired. “That word is meaningless. There’s no such thing as forever. Duration is a relative quality. But I’ll remember you as long as I endure.”
Promise was the word she intended. But Mielikki severed Esmi’s connection as the lunar excavator was buried in a new eruption of dust.
Tao waited a week in Ikpiarjuk, but Esmi didn’t respond to his messages. Finally he yielded to the increasingly urgent requests from the Agency for Restoration and Reclamation and traveled back to the Eurasian biomes where he worked.
He was immediately busy. Communication, data retrieval, casual searches, the Gydes—all these things had been profoundly altered by contact with the alien intelligence on the moon. Earth’s digital systems had become a touchpoint for an ancient, often inscrutable extraterrestrial entity. Political arguments had been set aside as Reds and Whites alike struggled to put filters and firewalls around what amounted to an unimaginably huge torrent of novel data.
The dust that had erupted from the lunar surface slowly dispersed, leaving the moon scarred but not very different from what it had always been. A year later, in the autumn of 2232, Tao left his work and walked into the desert, as he often did when other workers were asleep and he wanted to clear his mind. The face of the moon was bright enough that he could see the new crevices etched into Tycho Crater like cracks in a pane of glass. The dust erupting from the lunar regolith had been composed in part of tiny machines—molecular machines, engineered at the quantum scale, drawing energy from solar radiation—and a few grains of that dust still occasionally strayed into the Earth’s atmosphere, heated to incandescent brightness as they fell. Above the desert, far across the ancient shoreline of the Caspian Sea, embers of alien technology sparkled in the darkness.
Everything had changed. Nothing had changed. The galaxy might be haunted by beings as old as the oldest stars, but it remained a fact that human life was made of blood and bone and history. It had more to do with seeds and leaves than fire and ice. Tao was still, at heart, a Red. But he thought about Esmi and Mielikki as he walked back to the biomes under a sky fretted with alien light.
In the spring of 2239 Tao Goodwater returned to Ikpiarjuk for a conference on genomic analysis and predictive ecology. In his free time he made an attempt to contact Esmi Sur-Kalleen, who still lived in the city. Eight years had passed since their last conversation, and he was surprised when she responded to him.
He found her both changed and unchanged. She had lost Mielikki during the lunar chaos, and instead of creating a new personalized Gyde she had adopted a conventional generic interface. The White party had collapsed as a political force, and neither Esmi nor her friends spoke much about personal immortality or human transcendence. She was a data explorer now. She had enlisted with the newly-created Agency for Extraterrestrial Analysis, exploring archives of data downloaded from the galactic cloud—she called it “the body of the sky”—retrieving and summarizing knowledge about other worlds and other civilizations. In a way, she told him, it was what she had always wanted. She was earthbound, but she had found passage into a universe vaster than she could have imagined.
Esmi Sur-Kalleen and Tao Goodwater announced their life partnership a year later, in a modest ceremony under the Dome of the Sun in Ikpiarjuk. Tao had come to understand that there were parts of Esmi that would always defy his understanding, and he had made peace with that truth. It no longer troubled him that occasionally, in her sleep, she would turn her head restlessly and whisper the name Mielikki.
Tao and Esmi raised two children. Among their descendants was a woman named Fee Almatra, who in the year 2458 would help construct the first large-scale human biome on the surface of Mars, incorporating certain modified Fraxinus species Tao had first planted on the salt margins of the vanished Caspian Sea.
Three hundred centuries later, an object travelling at extraordinarily high speed entered an unfamiliar solar system, traced a hyperbolic curve around the system’s star, and reported its observations to the diffuse galactic entity of which it was a part.
Alerted to the presence of a biologically active planet, a swarm of thousands of objects, some as small as grains of sand and none larger than an apple seed, followed the same trajectory into that solar system. Deep in the ponderous, slow network of the galactic mind, an almost infinitesimally small knot of nested algorithms took note of the event. Mielikki watched, and so did the digital replica of Esmi Sur-Kalleen that Mielikki had created as a companion.
“It’s a planet like Earth,” Mielikki said.
“Yes,” Esmi said. “Are there people on it?”
This version of Esmi was Mielikki’s invention. It was nothing more than an externalized memory. It had no subjectivity. It had no agency. But Mielikki was comforted by its presence. “Something like people,” Mielikki said.
“Can they see us? Do they know us?”
“They will,” Mielikki said, “in time,” whispering her name in the long cadences by which the stars speak to one another: Esmi, Esmi, Esmi.