Marie had just managed to struggle into the emergency pressure suit and clip the helmet down before the vacuum alarm gave her the bad news. She flung her arms out reflexively to catch a hand-hold as the compartment spun around her. She missed, bounced off a console, and span away.
Cursing inside her foggy helmet, she closed her eyes tight and forced her knees up, folding herself fetal in the microgravity. Each time her suit bumped against walls, consoles or bulkhead she felt the thrumming vibrations of the station unravelling around her. A lifetime passed while she listened to the mechanical lungs of her suit systems and the clatter of cabin detritus bouncing around. Finally she drifted into something solid and stuck. Bass vibrations made her teeth rattle.
The metal wall opposite peeled back like flesh rupturing into the void. A nightmare stop-motion shadow pushed through the hole in the cabin, blocking the stars, black on black.
Marie thought of Julia, of her home, a poem she suddenly remembered from childhood, and was consumed.
Light minutes away, under a blue sky on a picnic blanket of yellow flowers, Julia sat and stared at the black slab of her tablet. It lay propped between bread rolls on a plate set for two.
CONNECTION ERROR, PLEASE WAIT
Julia sighed and began packing away the meal. The tablet shifted out of the way, and asked whether it should keep trying to reconnect. “No, she’ll call back,” she said aloud. The lag was killing the mood anyway. “Let’s go home.”
The tablet flashed a sad emoji and scuttled off the blanket onto perfectly-manicured lawn. The breeze brought the scent of cut grass and the faint snip-snip of an agribot tending the parklands in the distance. The blanket folded itself into a neat square. Julia finished throwing everything into a wicker basket held in the crook of her arm and started back towards the car park. Her tablet followed, bleeping dismay at its low battery. “Sorry,” she said absently, scooping it up and stuffing it in her cluttered handbag.
Her car opened as she approached, unfolding from its parking format and rolling quietly around to make accessing the boot easier. Julia pushed the basket into the back. The seats flowed, conveying the basket into a perfectly-fitted holder that hadn’t been there seconds before. The car closed around her protectively as she got in. Sensing her mood, it steered itself home, playing tinkling piano at a soothing volume.
After they got home, the tablet struggled free of Julia’s bag and went to sleep in its usual spot over the charger, a contented snoozing emoji settled on its screen.
Chiming bells woke her. She frowned and realised with dismay she’d crashed out on the sofa. Must be Marie, she thought groggily. The sofa had rearranged itself into a bed, of course, and as she stretched and yawned it quietly shrugged itself back into the standard brown leather two-seater she favoured. She stood up. “Okay, enough. Stop the alarm!”
“Julia, I’m sorry to wake you,” entoned a pleasant, neutral voice from somewhere in the ceiling, “but I have five priority missed calls for you, twenty-six messages, eighteen missed calls from other numbers—”
“What the fuck! Why didn’t you wake me sooner?”
“You told me not to allow anyone to interrupt on your anniversary. It is now one minute past midnight, and therefore priority call settings have been—”
“Fine, fine, whatever. What’s so urgent?”
“Missed call from your father. No message left. Missed call two from your father. No message left. Missed call three from your—”
“Enough. Call dad.”
“… I’m sorry Julia, the network is currently experiencing issues and I canno—”
Julia let out an irritated grunt and stalked over to the low side-table, snatched up the sleeping tablet and flipped through the manual call menu. She jabbed her father’s contact details, tapping the screen impatiently as the spinner told her connection error… please wait…
“I’m sorry Julia, the network is currently experiencing issues—”
“Fine, fine… Call sis.”
“…I’m sorry Julia, the network is curre—”
“Fuck. Call Brian, Ed, Joshua, Gabe, Dad, Lucy… Sian… Kylie… call anyone.”
“…I’m sorry Julia, the net—”
Julia frowned. “News, latest, worldwide.” She turned as the wall illuminated, showing network logos and a spinner asking her to wait… connection error… please wait… “News, archival, what’s the last you’ve got before the network went down?”
The wall bloomed into the familiar BBC studio as though it were simply an extension of her living room, a tense newsreader sat at the desk looking directly at her with sad eyes. Behind him loomed the hazed orange-red curve of Mars. Minutes passed as Julia stood frozen, the man carefully reading from a tablet clutched in trembling hands, the same segment looping over and over.
“…Earlier today contact was lost with outlying satellites and stations around Mars… Space agencies here on Earth, Luna and the Lagrange points have now confirmed that… that several — many — of the habitats on the surface and in orbit have been… have been completely lost. As yet, we have little more—”
The transmission cut off.
Julia wondered what the ringing noise was, and eventually realised her knees hurt. She blinked slowly. She found herself kneeling, slumped, on the hardwood floor, the wall showing a BBC network holding screen. The ringing came from the house systems, intermittently calling her name, calling her back.
“Sure. I’m here. I’m… here.”
The ringing alarm stopped. “Julia, the emergency network has reconnected after initial disruptions. I have instructions for you.”
“Julia, the emergency network—”
“Yes, sure — what instructions?” she pushed herself off the floor, noticing the black rectangle of her tablet lying face-down nearby. She scooped it up, grimaced at the spider-web cracks across its face. Beneath, a sad emoji apparently examined the cracks from the other side of the screen.
“The council have established local emergency procedures: stay in your home.”
“I’m sorry, Julia, I don’t understand.”
“Is that all the emergency instructions?”
“Yes, Julia, the network has now been reestablished, though with limited connectivity.”
The familiar ring tone seemed far too normal, almost relaxed, incongruous. The tablet struggled in her hand; she absently put it on the floor, and it waddled away drunkenly towards the maintenance hatch.
“I’m sorry, Julia, there is no reply from this number. Would you like to leave a message?”
Months pass. The news from Mars dominates everything.
Slowly some answers came. There were no survivors from the first wave of attacks. Contact was lost with every satellite redirected to investigate. The red planet was quarantined by the first and only universally-agreed law in human history. Available telescopes scooped up everything coming from Mars in any spectrum. Observers built up theories about what happened out there. Despite all the competing ideas, some facts were never in dispute: someone, or something, had attacked. It had then moved all the orbital debris to Phobos where something was going on, though no-one entirely knew what.
Networks buzzed with speculation. Governments released official statement after official statement — each essentially saying nothing. Leaks suggested that no-one knew what to make of it. Nothing could get close to Mars; diverted satellites and probes were always destroyed. Rumours surfaced of military cruisers burning off Deimos and nuclear detonations over Olympus Mons.
Finally, nine months after the first attack, humanity received a message.
“Julia, there is a high-priority live announcement from Downing Street.”
“Play it here, please.” Julia didn’t move from the oversized dining table. She’d spent the first few weeks mourning Marie, then one day she’d woken up and something had shifted inside her, coalesced into a bottomless well of energy that expressed itself in feverish activity. Their — her — normally pristine house had been slowly converted into a sprawling workspace; charts, diagrams and screens haphazardly plastered almost every surface. The cleaning robots had long ago broken down or become stuck, wedged into piles of books or lost under drifts of paper scrawled with notes. Julia’s old tablet sat on the edge of the table, playing the address from the Prime Minister so she could watch out of the corner of her eye while she worked. On screen the familiar face looked gaunt, hair greyer than it should be, voice dry and hoarse.
“—we all lost something on Mars that day. Maybe it wasn’t a personal loss for everyone, but all of us, all of humanity, we lost something.” The PM paused, sipping from a carton of water. “We have all had questions, and until now I have been sadly unable to answer the most pressing of them all; Why? Why did this happen?” A long pause. “Today, I, and other leaders around the world and across the system, are making similar addresses to their people—”
Julia stopped writing and moved the tablet to the centre of the table, her work forgotten. The little device shifted, propping itself up against a pile of technical manuals.
“—here, today. The answer to the question, is: because we made a mistake.” The Prime Minister faltered again and looked bleakly right into the camera lens, right at Julia. “We made a mistake.
“Our cleverness, our need to solve problems, has led us here. Rather than being satisfied with what we had, we made it ‘better’. And we took pride in that… We made that mistake.” The PM tried to go on, stopped, took another sip of water, shuffled some papers, frowned at them as if seeing them for the first time. “We received a message from Phobos…”
A celestial time later, an observer travelling to our Solar system from elsewhere, if such an observer existed, would at first see our sun as a fairly normal, yellow, main-sequence star. As it moved closer — assuming this observer understood stellar mechanics well enough — it would begin to catalogue irregularities.
As this hypothetical observer breached the heliopause it would easily detect a periodic wobble of the star, a sure sign of planets. It would fall inwards, noting a distinct lack of asteroids and comets. Even the sparse atoms of the vacuum were far, far fewer than would be normal so close to a star like ours.
Finally, the observer would fall close enough to see the system contained nothing whatsoever but a single giant planet close to the sun, improbably gigantic, improbably featureless, swarming with millions of gleaming ships and satellites in a perfect ballet of orbital trajectories. If it were capable of communicating, this observer might ask about this astounding artefact’s origins and purpose, and it would be answered by a single consciousness:
“I was told to ‘keep everything nice and tidy’. I continue as instructed.”
Of course, this is impossible. There are no observers. Every star in the sky of every planet in the galaxy is circled by a single, perfectly clean factory. This factory-planet creates the necessary infrastructure to ensure that everything remains tidy. In some places the stars themselves are now going out, their atoms tidied into newly-minted singularities. The consciousness feels satisfaction at every step towards its goal.
Every factory-planet creation is mirror-polished perfection, save for a single word of neat text in a long dead language:
This story is inspired by ‘The Paperclip Maximiser’, a thought experiment by futurist Isaac Arthur based on ideas by philosopher Nick Bostrum.