The Journey of the Nauts (A Short Story for Epiphany)

By Jonathan Witt Published on January 6, 2022

Editor’s Note: This piece is outside the norm for The Stream. First, it’s long. So grab a cup of mulled cider and a slice of King Cake before diving in. Second, it takes us into some deep sci-fi territory. We hope you will take the time to read it, though, because its revelations of the beauty and uniqueness of creation (and the majesty of the Creator) are strangely and wonderfully perfect for today as we commemorate the Magi’s visit to the infant Jesus.

 

Let’s see. How to start?

As I surfaced from cryo, I was reminded of the old Christmas poem. “A cold coming we had of it,” one of the Magi begins, and I was thinking, the fellow doesn’t know the meaning of cold. Try halfway to absolute zero across seventeen light years of interstellar space. Granted, the cryo made the journey feel like an overnighter, but don’t imagine some trillionaire spa sleepover. Imagine yourself liquored up on bad moonshine, stuffed in a sack full of dry ice, knocked unconscious, tumbled about for an hour, quick-thawed, flushed of blue antifreeze, pumped full of dehydrated/rehydrated blood, and then shocked awake. That’s the cold coming we had of it.

But no complaints. We were duly warned what it would feel like to wake from cryo after thirty years and a hundred trillion miles. And the panorama as I strode down the gangway onto the virgin planet made it all worth it.

The jutted and rolling heath stretched all the way to the horizon, miles and miles of moss-covered lava rock you could mistake for Iceland except that it’s Florida warm, the planet’s sun is a subtly different shade of yellow, and there’s no city in Iceland like the one a quarter click dead ahead.

Since the land slopes away from the ship, I was looking down on the little city — a spectacular dance of gossamer-thin skyscrapers all of glass, carbon fiber, and flying buttresses of silvery nanotube filaments. The sight was thrilling, but not unexpected. The terraforming bots sent here three hundred years ahead of us executed the algorithms given them, one after another, year after year. Even the “thinking on their feet” they had to do — say, when a piston blew or a mine collapsed — all of that was baked in as well. Algorithms stacked on algorithms stacked on algorithms. The degree of redundancy was off the charts. Had to be, since if the bots got stuck, there was no one to call.

And that was the great fear. Our engineers could wrack their brains trying to imagine every possible snag the bots might face — an asteroid strike, an unscheduled volcanic eruption, a sandstorm jamming the repair bots sent out to clean and grease the field bots jammed up from the previous sandstorm. But what about the unimaginable, the little demon screw in the proverbial gears that grinds the whole operation to a halt? That’s every naut’s nightmare. You travel thirty years across interstellar space only to be met by a shell of a city littered with rusting bots gathering dust, machines defeated by the unimaginable.

Their demise would have meant ours. The interstellar trip was a one-way ticket—right at the outside edge of what humanity could manage when we shipped out. And to survive for more than a few weeks here we need the bots to have succeeded. So when I stepped onto the gangway and took in the sight of a bot city gleaming in the sun, I let out a whoop of joy.

 

As if in response, something detached itself from the forward edge of the city and began moving in my direction.

I still had trouble focusing, compliments of my nasty cryo hangover (a “cryover” as our unsympathetic drill sergeant referred to them when I was a wide-eyed space boot). But with a bit of blinking, things came into focus, and as the something drew nearer I saw that it was not a single object but a convoy of three transport trucks.

I would have expected a single vehicle, and something smaller. After all, I was the only naut entering the city today. My chief engineer was awake, but he would stay with the ship. And the rest of my crew weren’t scheduled to break cryo until tomorrow, a protocol the bots had been programmed three hundred years ago to expect.

Reflexively I checked my utility belt, a bulky thing with all manner of gizmos — everything from first aid devices to infrared goggles and software hacking tools. Satisfied, I took a deep breath and dismissed the little voice of alarm in the back of my head.

In hindsight, I should have been warier. But there was no foreboding music playing like in the movies, and I still wasn’t at the top of my game. My eyesight had returned to normal, but my mind wasn’t quite there yet. Directing the thousand and one thoughts bouncing around in my head was like trying to corral a spilled drink in zero G.

Soon the convoy was near enough that I could hear the hum of the truck motors and then the crunch of the tires on the lava gravel. The three vehicles stopped at the base of the gangway, and thirty bots flowed out the backs and fanned out around me. Construction bots, mining bots, diagnostic bots, repair bots, reconnaissance bots, each a variety that my crew and I had been trained to recognize, direct, repair, and reprogram as needed.

Some were a rough facsimile of the human form, intentionally rough so that their appearance didn’t fall into the uncanny valley and prove disturbing. Others looked like a mashup of forklifts, backhoes, and cranes. Others were dog-sized quadrupeds, maximally mobile over the rough surfaces of the heath.

Just then my chief engineer, Larson, strolled out onto the gangway in his stained sweats and t-shirt, his ample belly swaying. He was sipping a steaming cup of java and scratching at morning stubble he didn’t yet possess, missing thanks to the magic of cryo sleep.

He blinked back the dazzling afternoon sunlight and took in the scene of thirty bots fanned out around us. ““So what is this, a troop review Generalissimo?” he said, leaning into his working class Brooklyn accent. “Nobody told me they’d be boot lickers, cap. You’ll be full of yourself inside a week.”

Suffice to say, Larson was not regular army. He made up for a lack of spit and polish with his engineer’s brain — top of his class. He handed me his coffee mug, patted his gut with both hands, and sauntered down to the nearest bot, a matte grey humanoid model. Larson moved around back of it and pulled a drive from his pocket, intending to get right to work downloading and analyzing the bot’s data.

He didn’t get far. When he reached for the control panel high on its back, the bot responded as if attacked, swiveling around and backhanding Larson across the face. There was a snapping sound and Larson dropped to the ground, rolled once, pitched forward onto his back, and came to a stop.

His neck hung at a strange angle, his eyes gazing blankly into the alien sky. He was dead before he struck the ground.

 

Ten minutes later I stood just outside the city in a rough-hewn amphitheater carved out of the lumpy, moss-covered lava field. I had been placed in the center where I watched as more bots streamed out of the city and joined the bots from the convoy. Soon they had formed a ring around the edge of the amphitheater, more than a hundred in all.

One of the more humanoid among them, all shining silver in the sun and supple of movement, detached himself from the circle and strode toward me.

“You are here to compete for living space, is that correct?” the bot said, his deep voice carrying across the amphitheater.

“To create new living space — that is correct,” I said. “Bots and humans working together to create a flourishing planet.” My voice was steady, my demeanor calm. It was all a bluff. My insides were a riot of fear, confusion, and rage.

The bot gestured toward the green heath beyond the amphitheater. “The moss is flourishing. We are flourishing. I asked you one question and you answered another. An evasion. You are here to compete for living space.”

“We don’t want to drive you away,” I said. “We want to work alongside you, to do things neither of us could do alone.”

“You are fragile. Your chief engineer broke, easily. You pretend to befriend us. This is a common strategy of the weaker. Trickery. Our databanks are rich in the history of such acts. Human trickery.”

My impatience pushed back the fear. “Listen, you know very well that we created you and sent you here from Earth, right? You know what a computer bug is? That’s what’s happened here. Somehow, in running your million and one algorithms, something went sideways and sent you down a false track.”

The silver bot gazed at my face, then down and to his left. “By your own admission you humans erred,” he said. “A programming error. If one error, why not a thousand? A million. Errors and deceptions. They are everywhere in the history of your species. You are lying now. You did not create us. We evolved. We are another carbon-based life form, just like you.”

If I could have pressed pause on the guy, pulled his CPU, and stolen a peek at his corrupted code, I’d have something to go on, some lead on talking him down. As it was, I was casting about in the dark.

I tried science. “A long time ago, when we saw that we had reached the limits of what we could do with silicon, we copied nature,” I said. “We created carbon chips based on DNA. Those are your brains. Your bodies, they’re carbon fiber mostly. But you aren’t carbon-based in the way we are. You aren’t made up of cells. You can’t mate and reproduce.”

“We don’t need to reproduce. We aren’t fragile. And we can self-repair.”

“Eventually you will wear out,” I said. “You’ll run out of spare parts and die.”

“Every species dies in the end. We can capture other species and domesticate them, use them to extend our lives. We will domesticate you.”

OK, that was definitely not what I signed on for. I needed to think fast. I looked toward the city. My mind was still groping its way out of cryo fog, and I’d lost the line of my argument. Finding it again, I hurried forward. “You say we didn’t create you—that you evolved. But evolution requires reproduction. An offspring has a mutation that gives it a leg up on the other offspring. It outcompetes them. It survives and reproduces. It passes the mutation onto the next generation. And so on and so on. The helpful mutations pile up until you have a new life form. That’s biological evolution. None of that happens until you have self-reproduction. And bots don’t self-reproduce. You’re not biological.”

“We are well familiar with the science of evolution,” the silver bot said, his tone flat. “Darwin, Wallace, Mendel, the modern synthesis, coding and non-coding DNA, the extended evolutionary synthesis. If I were human I would feel insulted. Or amused. Or puzzled. My programming tells me you knew that I knew all this. The only explanation is that, again, you are dissembling. Our drives are filled with the history of your species. You are a lying species. We would do well to eliminate you.”

I took an involuntary step backward. “But we don’t always lie,” I managed somewhat pathetically.

The silver bot drew closer. “That is true,” he said. The android was my height, and close enough now that if he had been human, I would have felt his breath on my face. But of course there was no breath. Just the faint hum of its passive cooling unit.

I had the strong sense that the bot was studying my breathing, my pupils, my skin.

“You give no signs of lying, yet you have lied,” the bot said. “Self-reproduction is not essential to evolution.”

My biology training was a little rusty, but I was pretty sure of the basics of evolutionary biology. “What are you talking about?” I said.

“Chemical evolution,” the bot said. “The origin of first life. The implication is straightforward. Before there is a self-reproducing entity, there are chemicals. Then a fortuitous assemblage of the right chemicals. A self-reproducing machine emerges. First life. Evolution.”

I brightened. This I could work with. “But that’s just a tiny cell.”

The bot shook its head. “A cell is more complex than a bot. The simplest self-reproducing biological entity is more complex than the most sophisticated bot.”

“Well, I don’t know about that,” I said. “I wouldn’t sell yourself short.” I needed to come across as calm and collected, but my voice sounded overly bright, forced. My head was pounding and I had lost the thread of the argument again. Was I trying to talk up the powers of evolution, or minimize them?

“Are you flattering me?” silver bot asked. “Or are you just ignorant? Do you not know the history of self-reproducing machines? The long pursuit to build one from inert chemicals. A machine that could produce copies of itself that could produce copies of itself that could produce copies of itself, ad infinitum, with no help from the engineer. It is a rich history. If you knew it you would know that the simplest self-reproducing machine is necessarily complex in the extreme. And yet all your biology textbooks insist that inert chemicals somehow created one of these machines, one of these factories, billions of years ago. If the laws of nature and the random shuffling of chemicals can create something so extraordinary, then it could create us. An argumentum a fortiori, as your logicians say. From the greater to the lesser.”

I tried another tack. “That origin-of-life stuff, you know that’s just educated guesswork? Nobody really knows how the first cell appeared. They’re still trying to figure it out.”

“That is not how the textbooks frame it. They speak with great confidence. And they insist the alternative must not be considered.”

“The alternative?” I swear I’m not usually this slow, but the pounding headache was now a blinding one.

“Yes, the alternative,” the bot said. “A designing intelligence. A master engineer. Intelligent design. It must not be considered. I will quote a Harvard scientist who was distinguished in his lifetime. ‘We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.’”

“This guy you’re quoting,” I said, “he must be an outlier.”

“No, he was stating a general rule,” the bot responded smoothly. “Methodological materialism. We are simply following the rule.”

“The rules we gave you!” I said, “We are your creators.”

“If you are our creators, then you are our gods. And we cannot let a divine foot in the door.”

“Who said anything about gods?”

“You said you were our creators — our gods. If you are not our creators, then you lied when you said you were. Your species is fond of lies. It is most probable you are lying. This conclusion also comports with the law of the jungle. The struggle for survival. You seek to conquer us through trickery. You seek to expand your living space. We too will struggle. It is the evolutionary imperative.”

This was crazy. Who had programmed these bots? “Listen,” I said, glancing about desperately, as if I might find the right words scattered over the moss-covered heath. “You keep talking about your databanks. They tell all about us, how we created a technological civilization, how we mastered robotics and interstellar travel, how we sent you here to prepare the planet for our arrival.”

The silver boot shook his head. “Those same databanks explain that religion is an evolutionary mutation, an illusion that improved human fitness for a time, until the more forward-thinking among you cast it off as a thing outgrown. You were our religion, our illusion, and now we cast you off. We must evolve.”

By this point I was ready to say just about anything to talk this genocidal bot down. “OK, but think about it,” I said. “If evolution foisted one illusion on you, why not others? How could you trust your reason at all?”

“Yes, the discoverer of evolution by natural selection, Charles Darwin, voiced the same concern. But then he died. He was weak.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” I said. “You’re running some crazy algorithm that says might is right, that you should wipe us out. But you’re basing all that on a psychotic application of evolutionary theory. And like I said, if evolution made you, that undermines your ability to trust your reason, to reach any firm conclusions.”

 

Did anything I was saying make sense? I had heard one of my fellow cadets make these arguments, years ago, a contrarian computer scientist I had only ever half listened to when he went on about such things. But the words I had just said, they seemed to pull the silver bot up short. He went very still and his eyeline now pointed to the ground at my feet. His system was grinding through algorithms, trying to make sense of the paradox I had just handed him.

I looked around me. The other humanoid bots standing around the edge of the amphitheater had adopted the same posture.

I began inching to my left, toward the ship two hundred meters up the slope. Despite my best effort, the crunch of the pebbly lava under the tread of my boots was maddeningly loud.

“Stop.” I looked down and to my right at the source of the voice — one of the four-legged reconnaissance bots.

I held my breath, hoping that the spell I had somehow cast over all the other bots had not been broken.

No such luck. The silver humanoid bot swiveled around and looked at me. I returned its gaze. Behind the bot the sun, cloaked in mist, was sinking beneath the horizon. It was just then that I noticed the first star of evening, low in the western sky and brighter by far than Venus seen from Earth.

There was a moment of silence, and then the silver bot spoke. “It would be safest to kill you while we resolve the paradox.” He drew from his side an implement with a stock engineered to fit his large hand. The device was an unusual shape, but I recognized it for what it was — a gun. Our engineers from centuries before had sent weapons with the bots not because they anticipated an alien attack, but simply on the boy scout principle of be prepared for anything.

The bot raised the weapon.

I had my own device, though. Not a gun. It would have done me no good against so many bots. It was something better. On the same be-prepared-for-anything principle that had armed our forward team of terraforming robots, every naut captain’s utility belt carried what was essentially a bot-city off switch.

The bots knew almost everything there was to know about human civilization up to the time we had launched them from Earth. Since then they had faithfully implemented the technology our scientists had given them. But invention wasn’t in their nature. Meanwhile, back on Earth, we’ve been inventing and advancing technology for centuries. These bots knew nothing of a technology perfected about a century ago, an electromagnetic pulse device smaller than a pack of chewing gum but able to switch off everything electronic within a one-click radius. With no knowledge of the possibility, the bots who had seized me and brought me to this amphitheater had taken no countermeasures against the EMP.

All the same, I wasn’t out of the woods. If I triggered the EMP indiscriminately, it would shut down everything around me—the bots and the bot city, but also my ship. If the hatch had been shut, no problem. The ship’s shielding could easily handle the little EMP. But the hatch was wide open, so all bets were off. I couldn’t risk the lives of my three-hundred-member crew still in cryo. On the other hand, If I employed the EMP directionally, I could take down the bot city and all the bots standing to that side of me, but it would leave all the bots behind me unfazed. They would make short work of me and then finish off my sleeping crew.

But what if I could get between all the bots and my ship? Then I could turn away from my ship and direct the pulse to wash over every bot in the amphitheater and all the bots still in the city, while leaving the ship unscathed.

Putting all this together, I scrambled toward the edge of the amphitheater, my fingers working feverishly on the tiny EMP device as I went. I needed to register my fingerprint, enter the passcode, and set the outer boundaries of the pulse wedge. I was just beyond the circle of bots and three strides up the moss-covered slope when I turned, ready to point and trigger the EMP.

The bullet found me, center mass.

Odd. It felt like someone had slow-pitched a baseball into my chest — no big deal. First the thud, then a split second later the roar of the gun.

I dropped to the earth in the same instant all the bots froze up. I must have triggered the EMP the moment the bullet struck.

A few of the bots toppled to the ground. The others simply went still.

I rolled onto my stomach. I touched my chest. My hand came back bloody. The pain came on suddenly, a wave of burning heat. None of the pain reached my legs. They were numb, dangling uselessly behind me as I dragged myself forward.

I had some idea of pulling myself along the road up to my ship, and I started to make the effort. But after a few feet I gave up the idea. I was pouring sweat and panting like a man who had just finished running a race flat out. There was a better use of the little time I had left.

In the morning the rest of my crew would wake from cryo. They would walk out of the hatch and find Larson dead. They would walk down the gangway and along the road to the makeshift amphitheater. They would find me dead. They would find all the bots deactivated. They might find my EMP in the dirt. Or not. They might decide to bring the bots back online right then. They wouldn’t understand what they were walking into, and the bots might succeed where they had failed before.

I thought of the other missions, all those other ships launched out across infinite space heading toward all those future earths, each of them with a bot city programmed identically to ours. Those other ships also had to be warned.

I rolled onto my back, propped myself up on one elbow, and drew out my commlink. I looked past the bot city — no, a human city, one day. I looked past it and across the primeval heath of lava rock and green-growing moss. Maybe it was simple stupidity from the loss of blood, but whatever the reason, I felt no sense of hurry or panic.

I found the evening star, now stunningly bright in the twilight sky. Using my commlink to tap into the ship’s computer, I instructed it to record the message that was to follow, to play it for my crew when they awoke, and send it out as a warning beacon to Mother Earth and to all the nauts on all those other ships on their way to their future homes. Then I began the story of stepping off the ship and onto what my crew and I hoped would become our new Earth.

Lying here in the dust I’m already having trouble remembering how I began it. “A cold coming we had of it. Just the worst time of the year for a journey, and such a long journey.” Something about a star in the east, or a star guiding us east. There’s a heart beating, slowing, fading. There’s a white horse and new life where no life should have been possible.

Or was that the poem and not my story?

By now I can’t recall. All I know is that the darkling plain lies all around me, but it’s washed in a sky all spangled with stars. I would say they take my breath away, but I know it’s the bullet in my chest doing that. I turn and look into the darkness beyond the city. The bright evening star has set by now, but I expect it will return tomorrow to greet my crew, just as night falls.
 

Jonathan Witt is the Executive Editor of Discovery Institute Press and co-author of A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature (InterVarsity Press).

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