Three Years after the Arrival of Rogue Planet G9615
Ada stared out the window of her uncle’s mountainside cottage over Lake Geneva, searching for the rising sun. An overlay in the corner of her vision indicated it was 7:30 in the morning. She had hoped to catch a glimpse of light, but the world was pitch black. Satellite data predicted that shortly after dawn a break in the clouds would illuminate the city of Geneva several kilometers to the south. For a few hours, their solar panels would collect that precious sunlight, storing it to later ration it out for food production, emergency response, water filtration, and other vital services. Each burst of life was like the postmortem spasm of an animal’s limbs, an illusion of rejuvenation to fool those who didn’t know better. Ada knew better. She looked up at the featureless sky, too dark even to make out the texture of the impenetrable clouds. The predictions were wrong; there’d be no relief from energy austerity this day. Typical.
She should have known better than to hope.
With a sigh, Ada tapped the side of her head, behind her left ear. As her implanted augments powered on, she sat alone in the dark, surrounded by a black void. This transition always made her feel like she was floating in space. But in space, there would be starlight and the deadly chill of vacuum. Here, there was nothing. Intellectually, she knew she sat comfortably in a chair in Ezran’s house, but as she waited for the virtual environment to boot up, her augments blanked out her entire visual field. Her haptics blocked out all sensations of the room she sat in. No temperature, no touch. Only darkness. She focused on breathing as though trying to maintain a meditative trance. Nothing was preferable to the memories that haunted her, but they could only be kept at bay for so long.
“Come on, come on,” she said, growing impatient. These augments were so slow. Ada was long overdue to upgrade hers, but the past few years’ iterations cost more than she could afford, and her crypt savings were already draining too fast for comfort. Plus, she didn’t relish the idea of undergoing another brain surgery so soon after the last. Her brain was already messed up enough. Anyone’s would be, after what she’d gone through. War. Loss. Upheaval. But for Ada, the trauma was excruciating in its clarity.
Right on cue, the memories of that fateful day overlaid themselves atop her empty visual field. She experienced it all with perfect detail, as if she were back in her eight-year-old body looking on the grisly scene with once-innocent eyes. Crimson lights flickering in the hospital ceiling. The feel of her dodo slipping from her hand. Blood dripping from surgical saws. The hacked medibot turning toward her with what she was sure was malevolence in its eyes. Her heart palpitated. The scream built in her throat. Then, a merciful ping let her know her virtual environment had finished loading.
Her augments pulled her out of the memory and into a mountainside view, replete with blue skies and a bright sun bathing her in false warmth. Ada took a moment to calm herself down, watching a flock of starlings as it coalesced over the distant forest. The view drained the tension in her stiff neck muscles. It was a nice distraction, something she’d picked to keep her mind off what was happening out in the real world.
Flocks this big were as dead as Ada’s old stuffed dodo. Forests that turned these shades of amber, green, and yellow couldn’t survive on what little sunlight pierced the cloud cover.
The tension in her neck threatened to return, so Ada gestured to open up her interface before she thought for too long about humanity’s dying legacy. A third-person view of her avatar greeted her in the interface portal that appeared. She still wore the fluffy, loose-fitting pants and a tee shirt three sizes too big that she’d loaded when the passive comfort of escaping reality wasn’t enough. Every once in a while, she allowed herself the energy expenditure to more proactively comfort herself in the Chain.
A girl had to take care of her mental health, after all. What little of it remained.
She didn’t bother redressing; she wouldn’t be using her augments for long. An indicator at the bottom left of her visual field told her the battery implanted in her skull would need a recharge soon, and she only had a few charges remaining in her energy budget. She’d have to use one while she slept tonight if she didn’t exit virtual reality soon, but Ada needed to check her messages to see if a response had come in from Dr. Ramesh. She’d asked the doctor about her paper on efficient cellular robotic systems, hoping some elaboration could provide a clue about the missing piece of Ada’s own research. However, when she opened a view portal to ChainMail, the messaging app, there was no luck. Ada sighed, still no closer to perfecting her algorithm.
Swiping down with her hand, Ada’s haptics picked up the signal sent from her brain down through her arms. If everything was working perfectly, her real body didn’t move at all. Only her virtual avatar did. The gesture closed the ChainMail app, but even such simple motions were unnecessary these days. The augments released last month by the St. James Unity could be controlled with nothing more than a thought.
The Unity continued to make impressive advances in artificial intelligence and neurointerfacing. Unlike most organizations, they had both the energy and the willpower. Despite not having any physical presence, the DAO coordinated millions of individuals, channeling their efforts to make a positive difference in the hell that Earth had become. Ada admired that even while most of humanity retreated into the Chain to hide from the insurmountable heap of problems, a small portion still held on to a shared dream of progress.
Ada wasn’t one of those people—Earth was fucked, as far as she could tell—but she still had responsibilities to her family. She couldn’t miss her child support payments to Lakaya, nor the energy bills that both she and Ezran incurred. She also needed a bit of crypt for herself, spending money to prevent her life from devolving into a depressing monotony that would make scavenging in the wastelands seem appealing. New augments might help her earn more, but they’d only pay for themselves over time. If she wanted more crypt immediately, she’d have to publish her latest research. It would pay well; after all, she was still living off the income from her last publication to be accepted into the Ledger of Insight.
That had been seven years ago.
Ada opened a new portal, instinctively drawn back into her work despite her intention to quickly power down her augments. She glanced at her latest diagnostic simulations.
With the results she’d been producing, the improvements she’d made to her initial algorithm would be an important breakthrough in the swarm intelligence field. It would change the way bots of all sizes coordinated and reduce their energy overhead by up to twenty percent. However, the algorithm had a fatal flaw. The swarm had blind spots, and Ada couldn’t figure out how to plug those holes.
She could publish now and start earning her royalties, but the research would only be good. Ada wanted it to be perfect. Focusing on short-term gains at the expense of long-term stability was how the world had declined to this sorry state to begin with. Ada refused to accelerate that problem. She didn’t have to. She was so close. If she could just solve one final issue…
The low power indicator flashed, and she dismissed her work. Ada couldn’t let herself get sucked in again. She moved to the balcony and gripped the metal rail, then closed her eyes and tilted back her head. The metal was hot from baking in the virtual sun, but Ada’s haptics filtered out anything above her pain threshold. She looked up, directly into the sun. No matter how good simulated reality became, the sun was one thing it never seemed to get right. It always struck her as cold and remote, as though replicating the relationship Earth’s latest generation had with it in the real world. Small wonder almost everyone chose to escape that hellscape. Ada was glad living in the Chain was an option, but she wished humanity hadn’t fucked up their only planet so badly that extinction was all but inescapable.
She thought of Aunt Olsa. Ezran’s wife had died in that hospital the same day Ada’s parents had. Her baby never made it into the world.
Ada grimaced. “Better off never being born than living in a world like this.”
She tapped the side of her head to turn off her augments, but before she could confirm she wanted to power them down, a new message indicator flashed. Hopeful, Ada opened her palm upward and tapped on the holographic display floating above her hand. When ChainMail reopened, there was a single unread message waiting in her inbox. But it wasn’t from Dr. Ramesh.
It was from Constance St. James.
“What the…” Ada stared blankly at the empty subject line.
Was this spam, someone impersonating Constance St. James? Ada had seen plenty of scams started using the stolen identities of high-profile individuals, and the founder of the St. James Unity certainly had such a profile. But when Ada checked the Chain’s certificate, the message did indeed match the expected public encryption key. It was real. But how did someone like St. James even know she existed? Ada was just an obscure mathematics researcher living with her uncle in a secluded mountainside community. What could the most famous engineer in the Chain possibly want with her?
There was only one way to find out.
She looked at the message and subtly clenched her fist to open it, but a portal to the message’s contents didn’t appear. Instead, she was instantly teleported to a new virtual location designed to look like a low-tech interrogation room. Four one-way mirrors surrounded a lone table in the middle of the room, though everything they reflected was blurry. One didn’t need such antiquated forms of secrecy to monitor someone in a private virtual space, but they imparted what Ada assumed was the intended effect. She felt like she was being watched from every angle.
“What’s going on?” Ada demanded, looking in turn at each of the opaque windows. She was the only one allowed to manipulate her avatar, and she certainly didn’t give consent to be taken from her home environment. Ada gestured to open her interface, but her transportation controls were disabled. She was trapped here.
Panic set in. Ada stomped toward the wall to bang on one of the false mirrors but stopped short when she saw herself. The panel only rendered her avatar in detail when she got close. Far from the fuzzy pajamas she’d started in, she now wore a black and white jumpsuit with the Unity logo printed on the breast. They’d dressed her like a prisoner. What were they going to do to her?
A woman’s silky voice sounded in the room, distorted and crackling as though it had come through an old speaker. “No need for alarm, Ms. Bryce. This is all standard protocol.”
“Abducting people is standard protocol?” She scoffed.
“For matters this sensitive…” The host paused, as if checking a long list of standard operating procedures. “Yes, I’m afraid so.”
Ada’s gut sank. What was she being roped into? Was any of this even legal? Edicts in the Chain were supposed to be unbreakable, but if any organization could do it, it would be the Unity.
Her low power indicator flashed again, warning her that her augments were in critical need of a recharge.
Ada barked a humorless laugh. “Well, sensitive or not, my augments are going to shut off soon, so you’d better get to the point fast.”
“Not to worry,” the Unity host said. A moment later, Ada’s breath hitched as the battery icon switched from red to white. They were receiving a fresh charge.
“That’s not possible…” Ada stammered.
“Plenty is possible when you’re willing to bend the rules.”
“Bend the rules? Kidnap me, you mean?” Ada shouted. “What are you doing with my body?”
That was the only explanation. She was no longer in her chair in Ezran’s house. The St. James Unity had taken her while she was unaware, senses blocked out by her haptics.
Worry washed over Ada like ice water. “You better not have hurt Ezran,” she warned.
The host sighed. A woman with rose gold hair pulled back in a tight bun phased through the wall and stood face-to-face with Ada. Her skin had a metallic sheen to it that made Ada wonder whether there was a human controlling the avatar or an AI. With the Unity, one could never be sure. She could only be certain the host wasn’t Constance St. James herself. Ada had never seen the reclusive founder of the Unity, but the host’s voice wasn’t a match to public recordings.
“We haven’t moved your body,” the host said. “We’re recharging your augments remotely using your nanos.”
“Yes. You have countless nanobots in your body—”
“I know what nanos are.” Ada rolled her eyes. How else was she supposed to authenticate her identity on the Chain? “But I’m not near my bed’s wireless charger.”
“We know. Long-distance wireless power is inefficient, but the St. James Unity has the budget to cover it.”
Ada’s fears slowly receded, but she still crossed her arms. The Unity was as wealthy as they came, but even they didn’t have limitless resources to throw around. She must have been brought here for something important.
The golden-haired avatar cleared her throat, an entirely meaningless gesture for an AI. Maybe she was dealing with a human after all. Or maybe the AIs had been programmed to be rude. “Now, can we get to the matter at hand please, Ms. Bryce?”
“It’s your energy,” Ada said. She selected her favorite chair in her inventory, summoned it near the table, and took a seat. “By all means.”
“First,” the host said, “a disclaimer.” A sheet of paper appeared on the table with a flashy particle effect, and a pen was suddenly within Ada’s grasp.
She looked sidelong at the host. “Pen and paper? A bit antiquated, don’t you think?”
With a silver-lipped grin, the host replied, “Perhaps, but it provides a sense of gravitas that automatic digital signing simply cannot replicate.”
“So, what am waiving my rights to?” That Ada would be giving up some freedom was an assumption, but a pretty safe one. No one kidnapped you, trapped you in an interrogation room, and made you sign to receive an all-expenses paid trip to a resort on the lunar colony.
“A standard St. James Unity NDA. You simply can’t repeat a word of what you’re about to hear to anyone. Not until it’s made public on the Chain.”
Simple enough. Ada signed in all the boxes, initialed each page, and had her augments clean up her signatures so they didn’t look like they were scribbled by a six-year-old. “So, the Unity is hiding some activities from the public. The conspiracy theorists would go nuts if they found out they were right.”
“Which is precisely why you’re in this room, and not them. We need people we can trust.”
Ada glanced to her right, where the No Recording icon blinked not-so-subtly in her field of view. Trust or not, they were still taking precautions. As soon as Ada put down the pen, both it and the non-disclosure agreement vanished.
Ada cocked her head. “For what?”
The fluorescent lights dimmed. Then, the universe materialized before Ada’s eyes. She gasped at the hologram, taking in the patterns of stars—no…galaxies—arrayed in clumps along the spacetime fabric. At this scale, the organizational effects of gravity reminded her of scans she’d seen of neuronal structures. It was as if the entire universe were one fourteen-billion-year-long computation, running through the mind of a vast supercomputer. Goosebumps formed on her arms. What would that make of the people living within that computation? Would they really be alive, or would consciousness be just another subroutine executing in the universal computer? Ada caught herself before getting too absorbed into the mire of simulation theory.
For a moment, the display stood still. Then, the galaxies began flashing past her, as though she were traveling through the universe at superluminal speeds. Impossible in reality, but anything was possible in a simulation. She zoomed through the infinite blackness of space, past entire galaxies the size of fireflies, between binary stars and exploding supernovae, until reaching her destination: the Milky Way.
From beyond the spiral arms, there was no way to tell which sun was theirs. As if reading her thoughts—and for all she knew, it could be—the hologram outlined Sol with a red border and centered it on the table in front of her. The entire display shrank until it fit above the tabletop but continued scaling down toward Earth. Ada felt as though she were falling into the display. When the motion finally snapped to a stop, the specks of light still seemed to lurch away from her—an artifact from the visual cortex. Her augments could provide her with any experience, but they couldn’t fix human neurology. That was a shame. Even if humanity got a second chance, they’d only screw it up and need a third.
Ada rubbed her eyes. “What am I supposed to be looking for here?” So far, she hadn’t seen anything you couldn’t find in a basic educational Link about the solar system.
“Wait for it,” the host said.
“I’m sick of waiting,” she said, and stood up. Ada seized control of the simulation.
She thought it had been a still image and only their perspective was changing, but she was mistaken. When Ada magnified the image to get a better view of Earth, its perpetual cloud cover roiled in the atmosphere, and defunct satellites and shimmering debris orbited the planet like flies buzzing around a corpse. This was a real-time visualization of a dying planet. Ada curled her lip and zoomed back out, the sight of humanity’s failure reminding her why she preferred being absorbed in mathematics. But from this new perspective, there was one celestial body that moved at a different rate from the rest—a dark sphere traveling at incomprehensible speeds through the Oort cloud surrounding the solar system.
“What is that?” Ada muttered.
“Ah, you’ve noticed it,” the host said. “Allow me to shed new light on the scenario.”
She updated the visuals to include infrared.
Ada really hoped there was a real person on the other side of that avatar. The world was unbearable enough without AI making bad puns. Still, the addition of IR had helped. Now, she could tell the dark object was rotating, as it had a dull red hotspot on one side. Each time that side pointed toward Earth, the red flashed to a brilliant white, two times in quick succession, then faded back to red.
“What the…” Ada puzzled over the sight, drawn in by the mystery. She was no astronomer, but she knew this was out of the ordinary. “Is this in real-time?”
“No. Each rotation takes place over approximately twenty-two hours. I adjusted the playback speed so you can more easily understand what’s happening.”
“When did this start?”
“Over six-and-a-half years ago.”
“Six-and-a-half…” Ada took a deep breath. “And the Unity has known about this—”
“Since it began. Yes.”
Of course. She should have known better than to blindly trust a giant organization. It was only made of people, after all—bound to betray you at some point.
“How did you get this data, anyway?”
The host made eye contact with Ada and held it for an uncomfortably long time. “The rest of humankind may be squabbling over what remains down among the dirt, but Constance St. James knows the value of looking up toward the stars. Our satellites detected the anomaly as soon as the light reached Earth. Fortunately, that was all that reached Earth. We believe each of the flashes represents the firing of a massive projectile.”
Ada’s breath caught. “A weapon?”
“More like…rocket science. Watch.”
The visualization sped up until the flashes of light seemed continuous. Then, all at once, they ceased. While the object still moved at ludicrous speeds, the scale of the display helped Ada see it was moving much more slowly after it went dark.
“Newton’s first law in action,” the host said. “The planet fired enough mass in one direction to slow itself down.”
“Fired it right at us…” If one of these projectiles had hit Earth, would there even be enough warning to react? The host was right; most people were focused on the dangers local to Earth, immense as they were. But clearly, those weren’t their only problems. “Wait, did you say planet?”
Ada leaned in toward the object. She’d assumed it was sized up for clarity, but if this was all to scale…
“There’s more.” The host fast-forwarded the recording. “Two-and-a-half years later, it began firing again.”
In those years, the planet had moved closer and closer to Earth. The dread in Ada’s stomach crept up with each centimeter it traveled across the table—likely representing millions of kilometers it traversed in the physical universe. Where had it come from, and why was it heading straight for Earth? There was nothing worthwhile on this collapsing world.
When the pulsing started anew, Ada asked, “Any theories on why it resumed after so long?”
“Several. Some of our astrophysicists believe impact with a large body in the Oort cloud triggered some destructive geological event. Others believe whatever system was powering the device required more energy after the first wave of bursts. It did, after all, only continue firing after entering our sun’s heliosphere. If it could use that solar energy in some way—”
“That makes sense,” Ada said, cutting the host off. Nothing more needed to be said. It always came down to how much energy was available.
“It doesn’t make sense to Constance St. James,” the host said. “In these patterns she sees a singular intent.”
Ada watched the planet as it blinked its way toward Earth. By the time it stopped again, it was moving slower still. “It’s coming to a stop,” she said.
“Indeed. Which is why we must respond. That is why you are here.”
A flurry of questions raced through Ada’s mind, but she looked back at the solar system. The inner planets circled the sun at a dizzying pace, while the outer planets drifted around in lazy, sweeping arcs. All the while, the newcomer zipped inward, moving faster even than Mercury. Even at this new speed, the rogue planet outpaced every other celestial body in the area. “There’s no way it can slow down in time.”
The host smiled and gestured. Rather than fast-forwarding the display once more, she skipped forward. It took Ada a moment to locate the object of interest, now so close to the solar system it was practically within it. It passed through the Kuiper belt, phasing through the simulated asteroids and reminding Ada that this was only an approximation of what happened. Reality was too complex to capture in full detail. It continued its march toward Earth, closer now than what past generations once considered the furthest planet, Pluto. Then, the host slowed the simulation down to real-time.
And the planet exploded.
Ada gaped as the black sphere’s infrared signature flashed pure white, releasing too much energy for the satellites sensors to capture. The simulation flickered, as if it too was incapable of comprehending the level of destruction occurring above the table. Chunks of debris the size of Earth’s moon fragmented and continued toward the inner planets, like a shotgun shell fired from the barrel of an angry god. Ada’s mouth slackened as she watched the display. She knew humanity’s extinction was coming, but she didn’t expect it to be this soon.
“How long do we have?” Ada blurted out. “What do you need me to do?” Ada’s instinct for survival surprised even her.
The host chuckled, trying to hide her amusement with a hand that gleamed in the light of the explosion. “Please relax, Ms. Bryce. This happened over three years ago. We would all be long dead if this recreation were entirely accurate. Look again.” The host pointed.
Ada blinked, then furrowed her brows. The rogue planet was intact. It was orbiting the sun, not far from the dotted line representing Jupiter’s own path—in Earth’s backyard, on a planetary scale.
“What just happened?” Ada asked, staring without blinking at Earth’s newest neighbor. She got the distinct feeling it was a neighbor humanity would sooner evict.
The host shrugged. “No one knows. An enormous burst of energy was detected, and the planet experienced a deceleration of over twenty G.”
“You’re telling me an entire planet just parked itself in orbit near Jupiter with that kind of deceleration? How much energy would that take?” The battery icon on Ada’s augments blinked to indicate a full charge, as if just to mock her.
“Approximately one-hundred twenty-eight yottajoules.”
Ada stared at the host, awaiting clarification. When none was forthcoming, she sighed. “Yottajoules? Did you just make that up?”
“On the contrary, Ms. Bryce. That is the official unit for one septillion joules according to the Ledger of Insight. Or, if you prefer, one-hundred twenty-eight yottajoules is equivalent to thirty-quadrillion tons of TNT.”
“Right.” Ada pinched the bridge of her nose and turned away. Following the guidance of Occam’s razor, Ada concluded there could be only one explanation.
“This is a joke. An elaborate practical joke.”
“That’s an understandable reaction, Ms. Bryce. You’re not the only one who felt that way, but I assure you this is serious.”
“There are others?” She whirled on the host. “Who else?”
“I cannot say.”
“Why not?” Ada demanded. “They’ve signed the NDA, right? Get them in here so I know I’m not going crazy.”
“The whole world has collectively gone crazy, Ms. Bryce. Constance St. James is trying to snap some of you out of it.”
If anything could pull humanity’s head out of its collective ass, it was a common enemy. An external threat to break the Chain out of its stagnation. But of all the people who could have been chosen to meet that threat…
“Why drag me into this? What the hell am I supposed to do?”
“Only Constance St. James can answer that. You’ll be hearing from her shortly.”
The host held up her hand and the holographic display shrunk down to a point, then disappeared. The lights raised. A piece of paper materialized in the host’s palm, then hovered toward Ada, who reached out and grabbed it. Her haptics were sensitive enough for her to feel the featherlight weight of the paper, but the image printed thereon was grainy and out of focus—a blotchy, cratered orb with a patchwork of geometric patterns tracing the surface. For all their advances in technology that allowed them to virtually escape from Earth, anything regarding space and actually leaving the Earth had been sorely neglected. Humankind was trapped here, waiting to die. And holding this image in her hands gave Ada a visceral sense that the rogue planet whose journey she’d witnessed had accelerated that process.
Ada took a deep breath and closed her eyes. When she opened them, she was back in her home environment, wearing her pajamas again, though she still had the image of the mysterious planet. She blinked, her heart still hammering in her chest, and her mind racing. Two new messages appeared in her inbox. She opened the first one, from the Unity. It listed her as a new member of the DAO and granted her the ability to charge her energy expenditures against the Unity’s ledgers.
Virtual freedom from energy austerity? Ada’s breath caught. She felt as though she’d lived her whole life with shackles around her ankles, and the Unity was dangling the key before her. What was the catch?
She opened the second message. It was from Constance St. James, and it only contained a single word, handwritten and unmodified to provide a personal touch.
Ada laughed. “You scratch my back, and I scratch yours?”
She looked down once more at the picture, then opened up the interface and sent her response.