Today's Reading

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WHAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN

I was a blastocyst, once. A mere jumble of cells clinging to one another. A fertilized egg. Of course, we were all in such a state at some point in our lives, but I excelled at it in a way you didn't. I spent more time in that condition than I have as a person.

Hundreds of years more, in fact.

I still like to imagine myself like that: a shapeless form, quivering and ripe and full of potential. Holding that image in my head makes it seem as if I haven't been born yet, as if we could let things play out one more time and arrive at some different destination. Perhaps it would lead to a new, fuller me.

But repeating the past is as impossible as faster-than-light travel and suspended animation—it's the stuff of the imagination. They're wonderful ideas, but they all lie on the other side of what-can-be. So far as we know, anyway.

Hence the quivering eggs of potential, my fellow colonists and me.

What better way to seed the stars with the gift of humanity? Imagine the colony ships, otherwise: They'd be the size of small moons and packed to capacity with living, eating, breathing, defecating humans. Such arks would be impractical, even if those colonists could survive the ensuing insanity of interstellar travel, the hundreds of years of boredom and breeding and infighting that would occur on a slow passage to some distant rock. And what would happen when that rock proved uninhabitable?

Far more sensible, of course, is a system whereby blastocysts such as myself are launched into space with a handful of machines to raise us.

Especially considering a colonial failure rate of roughly fifty percent. Every colony lander is nothing more than a flipped coin glimmering in space, the word "viable" printed on one side and "unviable" stamped on the other.

The game—your game—is seeing where that coin lands.

At a cost of nine hundred billion each, one might wonder why a nation would take such odds. Then I imagine what it would mean for a mere country to own an entire planet: all those resources, all that precious livable land, a launch pad for further expansion. It would be like an island acquiring a continent. Besides, if you don't do it, someone else will, right? Which means you must.

The rewards can be enormous. A single patent on one useful alien gene sequence could fund several more colonies—and so although the process is a huge gamble, it's one that has the potential to be extremely lucrative. It becomes just one more way for the wealthiest countries to maintain their wealth. Like a slot machine that dispenses a jackpot with every other coin.

That's what "viable" means: a planet with more reward than risk. A jackpot. Not for the aspiring colonists, of course, but certainly for the country that sent them. I bet there are formulae involved, far too complex for one such as myself to understand. With the profession you chose for me, I have a better chance of grasping the vagaries of the human brain. But I can imagine the atmosphere of our new home has to read such-and-such parts per million. Perhaps the mass of the potential planet has to be within certain parameters.

And obviously, there can't be hordes of unconquerable predators roaming about.

There are a million variables, I'm sure, but by whatever confluence of events, half the planets pass muster—half of them come up viable, and our reward as little blastocysts is a chemical trigger, a simple compound that causes us to resume our cellular division as if we were in our mother's wombs.

Then, fed through the same amniotic fluid we breathe, we are slowly transformed into pudgy babies, dutiful children, and finally: fully formed adults. All the while, the training programs you wrote teach us the things we need to know. For me, it would be learning to tend to the psychological needs of my fellow colonists—basically keeping the fleshy bits of your engines nicely oiled, putting the gears back together when they break.

The growing process would normally take thirty years. Three decades spent in vats that provide perfect nourishment, our muscles electrically stimulated so they grow strong. And when we emerged, five hundred of us, specialists in each of our own fields, we would begin the arduous task of conquering our new world. We would be the first generation of the hundreds it might take to bring an entire planet to its knees, to extract its resources, to unlock its secrets, and to pay back our startup fee and so much more to some old nation on some old distant rock.

Meanwhile, we'd save up for a further round of expansion. Our thumbs would cock back, a new coin ready to flip out into space.
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