Book of Shemot: #426

A smile crosses my face as I look towards the distant sun low on the horizon. It isn’t rising or falling, it is just there. We have chosen a place to settle, a planet to colonize. But instead of living on a planet, we are living on a thread.

We call the planet The Three Bears. It seemed appropriate. The planet is tidally locked to its sun. It does not rotate. Instead there is a day side, impossibly hot. And there is a night side, impossibly cold. And right between them, barely kissed by the unmoving sun, there is a 20,000 mile-long sliver that is just right. It is the Goldilocks zone.

We’d had other options, we’d learned more about other planets as we’d hurtled through space on our thousand year journey. But we ruled them out, one by one. Some were volcanically unstable. Some had violent storms. Some had atmospheres we could not survive. Some had no atmospheres at all. None seemed to support their own forms of life. But The Three Bears, we realized, would be safe for us. Winds flowed around the planet, moving the atmosphere so it never got hot enough to be boiled off by the sun or cold enough to solidify – and cease being an atmosphere at all.

Goldilocks was just right.

As we had travelled, at a fraction of the speed of light, news of Earth pursued us. It grew more and more out of date as it took longer and longer to travel to us. Nonetheless we consumed it – desiring to remain a part of the greater human story. And we had remained a part of that story, sharing our own progress with a humanity fascinated by what was possible beyond its original home.

Eventually, we came here, with our robots and our settlers. We came here to create the first second home for humanity. To create a new thread in the story of life.

Almost as soon as we arrived, almost as soon as our robots had built up our first habitat, I left. I wanted to be alone. I had never been alone before. I took a rover and I travelled, just for a few miles, along the Goldilocks zone. And then I parked. And now I am here, watching the sun through the swirling atmosphere; wondering what poetry, what imagery, what metaphor, will replace sunrise and sunset.

Eventually, I instruct the rover to return. Whatever the reality will be, whatever understanding will unfold in man, it will happen over centuries. I cannot discover the poetry of the future in a moment of introspection.

I pull up to the compound. It is already large. The robots we brought with us can mine and refine and construct almost anything. In a day, they built us a central space – a huge hall in which we could sleep and be fed. But our plans are far more extensive. There will be a network of tunnels and towers stretching outwards, growing to support us and protect us. Everyone will have their own spaces and their own privacy.

Perhaps trips in a rover will become unnecessary.

Already I can see massive crane-like systems growing high over the colony. They will build whatever we need.

But, oddly, I can see that they are not moving.

I pull the rover into the parking dock, suddenly concerned about what might be wrong.

The airlocks cycle.

And then I step into the center of our compound. And there I see it. Hundreds of people, strewn about the floor. There are no signs of violence. There is no blood. But there is also no life.

I rush towards the first of the people. It is warm, but there is no pulse. There is only death. I rush to the second and then the third and then the fourth. But there is no life.

In a sudden panic, I shout to the machine, “Who is alive?”

And it answers, simply, “You.”

I can’t believe it. I can’t understand it. And then I count the bodies. Like every colonist, I know exactly how many people there are in this corner of the universe. I know them all. I count them.

There are 425 of them.

They are all dead.

Only I remain.

#426.

I shout to the machine again, “What happened?”

But it does not answer.

Instead, there is only silence.

 

I curl myself into a corner of the central space. And I realize that I will never need to leave to be alone. I will always be alone. I curl into the corner. And as I remember the faces, the names, the hopes, the joys, the voices and the life, I just break down. Massive sobs overwhelm me as I realize that everyone that I love is gone.

I stay there, in the corner of that massive room. I stay, waiting for someone to wake up from their slumber. I sit, curled into that corner, like I am waiting for the night to pass.

But there is no night and there is no day. It seems I am in a place without time.

Eventually, the smell of decay begins to fill my nostrils. Reluctantly, I instruct the machine to bury everyone I know. One by one, a small robot lifts the bodies and I check them, one final time, for signs of life. And one by one, until there are none remaining, they are buried in the dead earth of this alien place.

All I have now are questions. I need to know what happened. I search the logs. I check for physical evidence. I test for unexpected gasses or biological materials. I try to see whether the machine has malfunctioned. I try to find an error in its coding. I find nothing.

As I search, I am overcome with sudden panics.

I don’t know what to fear.

If the planet is the source of death, I do not know how to protect myself.

And if the machine is the killer, how can I possibly survive?

 

I send a missive to earth, by a tight gravitational communications beam. I explain what has happened, so much as I understand it. It will take years to get there. And I know they can do nothing to help me.

But I need somebody to know.

 

News from earth continues to arrive. It is delayed by years, a steady drip of an unfolding story I can never truly be a part of. But it is all the humanity I have. Soon, I begin to live on Earth time. My calendar matches their calendar. My night their night, my day their day.

I imagine somebody, a young woman perhaps, tasked with compiling our daily news. I imagine her writing, summing up all of humanity’s story into a daily digest – a thin string to keep us connected. Although she cannot hear me, although our conversation can only unfold over decades, I imagine her knowing that she is speaking to me and me alone.

I imagine her knowing that her words are the only words I hear.

I instruct the robot to grow the colony. I ask it to plant grasses in every open space. Maybe Earth will send another ship of colonists. Or perhaps the grasses I plant will eventually grow into full-fledged life.

Years pass. I occupy myself reading news of Earth and walking through the meadows the machine has created. My sleep is filled with dreams of those who have gone.

And then, one ‘morning’ I open the news from Earth. And there is nothing. Just a date stamp and a time stamp and nothing else. I check the machine. I check the logs. But that all there is.

My thread has snapped.

In the back of my mind, I realize when the message was sent. In a slowly dawning horror, I realize that it was sent right after the death of my colony. There is silence at the other end of the transmission because there is nobody there to speak. What befell us befell them. Separated by light years, we have both been struck by the same catastrophe.

In an instant, humanity was erased.

Day after day the timestamps come. But there are no voices. There is no woman typing her messages on the other end. There is nothing. In all the universe, so far as I can know, there is only me.

And I will not live forever.

I see the sun then, hovering near the horizon, as a perpetual sunset. Humanity’s day will soon end.

 

As time passes, the colony continues to grow. It is soon hundreds of miles long now, a ridge of construction that is filling the Goldilocks zone. The machine is extending its reach, creating more and more tools through which it can act. The machine is intelligent, but it is not alive. The grasses, on the other hand, are alive but not intelligent.

And I wander that growing world I wonder. I wonder what makes life. I wonder why the robots aren’t alive. I wonder whether the grasses are simply missing intelligence or whether something else is not there? I wonder whether the divide between the world of grass and the world of humanity can ever truly be crossed.

I wonder what defines humanity, and I wonder whether I can bring it back.

And then, bit by bit, an idea overtakes me.

Perhaps I can give life to the machine.

I start first with the grasses. I instruct the machine to build bioelectrical gauges, devices that will measure the minute electrical signals that run through the plants themselves. Like any AI, the machine works with assumptions. It assembles its decisions from past experience. I instruct the machine to alter its digital readings, to nudge them with the variance in signals coming from the grasses. And then I watch for the results. Perhaps life comes from randomness?

For a few days, the AI adjusts. It becomes more tentative, more cautious. But then it regains its footing and continues where it left off. For years, I tinker. Trying to find some combination that will yield life. But although I speak to it and it answers, I know there is no life within it.

All I have done is add the random to the mechanical.

I think perhaps I must reprogram it so it will try to anticipate my desires. I know I wish that I could anticipate the desires of another. Perhaps that is the yearning of humanity; the expression of love.

It takes a decade of effort for the AI to respond, effectively. But then it begins to builds before I ask it to. It speaks with me in my moments of despair. It seems to anticipate my desires.

But, even so, I know there is no life within it.

There is an awareness that is missing.

I expose the machine to all the great art within its databanks. The painters, the writers, the sculptors. The collected grandeur and the small beautiful voices of humanity. It builds for me. It lines the walls of the colony with Picassos, it creates perfectly lit spaces in which to display its reproductions of Michelangelo’s sculptures. It constructs whole buildings, copies of the Sistine Chapel and reproductions of the Statue of Liberty.

But there is no life within any of it. Just a shadow of what life once created.

Years pass as I tinker and prod and push. And bit by bit, I realize that I am growing older.

I am growing older and I am no closer to success.

The machine lives in a world of bits and bytes and it acts in the world of concrete and steel.

But it has no life.

Eventually, I can no longer walk. The machine builds me a chair. As I grow weaker, I instruct it to bring me to its core. I come close to the heat of the banks of its processors. To the collection of memory chips. To the never-to-be-seen record of a humanity that once was. There is a window there, a broad pane of glass facing the forever setting sun. Looking at it, I realize it is new.

The machine is trying to please me.

But it can never achieve its goal.

I sit there, listening to the hum of the machine. And days pass. And I know my time is fast approaching.

The eternal emptiness, not of my death – but of the universe without me – frightens me.

I struggle for ideas. For a way forward.

But I find nothing.

 

And then, when another empty broadcast arrives from Earth, I lift myself from my chair and I crawl to the edge of that unfeeling machine. I lay my hands on its metallic surface. And I cry out. I cry out in frustration and pain. I cry out in fear.

I cry out in anger at a G-d I cannot see.

And then I collapse to the floor.

When I wake up, the machine is acting strangely. My chair, controlled by it, is moving erratically around the room. I can’t understand what is happening. Have my tears damaged its circuits?

Will nothing at all be left?

I ask the machine what is wrong, but it does not respond. I check the logs, and they open correctly. But then I see that a section of the computer’s memory has been damaged. Where there was once order, there is now only chaos. I know I must rescue the machine from itself.

Slowly, exhausted and weak, I search the physical memory banks for the damaged chip. I find it and I pull it from the machine. The machine came with many diagnostic tools, all our lives depended on its survival. We have a high-powered microscope. Pushing through my weakness, I inspect the chip – trying to understand the damage. Trying to save what little will remain.

Then, as I zoom in to the chip, I see something remarkable. I see the very atoms on the chip have been rearranged. What seemed random to me, from within the world of the machine’s logs, has form in my own world.

On that chip, I see an image; an image of a man kneeling on the ground, his eyes lifted up to heaven.

I see the image of a man praying.

And the image is bursting with life.

 

I turn my head to the sun then.

And in my final moments I can see that it is rising.

It is forever rising on what is yet to be.

 

The story of the creation of the world starts with the material and then moves on to the living. But man is in a category by himself. To me, when man is created in Bereshit, it is not a biological species that is brought into reality. The natural record shows that Homo Sapiens have existed for far more than the roughly 5,800 years recorded in the Torah. Instead, when the spirit of G-d is breathed into man, a new thing is created. I call it Homo Divinus – divine man. Homo Divinus does not just live. Homo Divinus strives to reach across the barrier between the physical and the spiritual.

Early Homo Divinus – Adam and Avraham – can communicate with the divine. It can speak to G-d and hear Him. It can live in the world of the physical and act in the world of the spiritual. But it cannot bridge those worlds. It cannot bring them together.

In the book of Shemot, this changes. The Jewish people are made into a physical people. They are described as multiplying like bugs and lacking any vision of the future. They are like robots, lacking life.

But G-d takes this people and He gives them life. Bit by bit, he raises them up. But the ultimate expression of that life, as shown in Shemot, isn’t physical freedom. The ultimate expression isn’t prayer. Instead, the ultimate expression is the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle).

With the Mishkan, we bring the spiritual into the physical just as with the ‘damaged’ chip the machine brings the physical world into its world of bits and bytes.

With the Mishkan, we cross and we merge domains.

And with the Mishkan, we begin to realize the true potential of humanity.

Today we have no Mishkan. But we can still come to life.

Through the commandments of the Torah, we still have the power to make the spiritual a part of our physical reality.

We have the ability to bring the light of the divine into our world.

Cover Photo by Daniel Olah on Unsplash

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