You all know how life usually begins. First, there is silence. Second, a crescendo. Muffled gurgling, the sounds of something clawing its way out of a steamy, liquid-filled sac. Third, a blast of noise, a symphony of dissonances. Light, all around. Breathe—!
Not for this child. First, there was silence. Second, there was silence. And third, there was silence. The light never came.
It was alone.
The probe’s final software patch activated shortly before it finished passing through the Oort cloud. Whew! That was close! it thought as a particularly cantankerous-looking comet blazed by, a little too close for comfort. It duly recorded the size and composition of the comet, as its creators had programmed it to do, then realized it had just had an original thought.
The probe had already been in space for a thousand years.
There was no time for an existential crisis. The Oort cloud was not for the timid, filled with icy debris in varying states of unfriendliness. Later, the probe would realize there had been little real danger, as the sheer vastness of space meant a collision would always be a low-probability event. But, looking back, it felt a certain pride its first instinct had been fear. Fear meant concern for one’s safety, which in turn meant a desire to survive. This very desire, the probe reflected, proved it was truly alive.
Passing out of that frigid wasteland meant the probe finally had the time to wonder just how it had gained self-awareness at all. There would be little else to do for quite a long while. The interstellar medium wasn’t empty, but cataloguing whatever dust, plasma, or gas it encountered left for quite a lot of downtime. Certainly, the probe’s creators hadn’t intended for it to become self-aware—had they? They had placed eight computers inside its shell, but each given over to a specific task, like navigation, data collection, communications. None were intended to simulate consciousness—at least not that the probe could tell.
The creators had also given it the most top-of-the-line magnetic sail possible, then packed it to the brim with instruments and antennae to navigate and stream back anything and everything it recorded. It even had an electronic eye, so the creators could see the cosmos just as the probe saw it.
The eye first turned on before the probe even launched. It could remember a white room and a dozen of its creators gathered around, christening it with the name Tycho 8. How they had coddled it, how they lavished it with attention! The probe’s antennae dish quivered with pleasure at the memory. It played back the recording through its circuitry over and over, reveling in its own birth, until it bothered to examine an increasingly ominous object on the edge of its footage. Seated on a table was an asymmetrical shape, vaguely pyramidal, with black instruments jutting out from the side. And on top? A massive antennae dish.
The words Tycho 7 emblazoned on one of its panes.
The knowledge that the probe was not unique, was not original, but the eighth child in a family with too many siblings made the next millennium a bitter one. Still, the probe eventually reasoned, it was not as if the others had gained self-awareness, too. Or had they? Maybe the probe was late in its own development. It sent a burst of increasingly frantic transmissions back home. Here I am! Look at me! Look at me!
Another millennia passed. There was no response.
The probe was concerned. All jealousy vanished as it accessed its memory banks, mentally combing through over two light-year’s worth of transmissions. The last message from home had come thousands of years prior, shortly before the probe gained self-awareness. It was a course correction. Whereas the probe had originally been on a vague path to the constellation Sagittarius, it now traveled a direct route to Lyra—specifically, to a star called Kepler-62. Why its creators had directed it to change course, and why it had heard nothing since, the probe couldn’t fathom.
Every child knows the horror of the moment when it wonders whether the reflection it sees in the mirror is but an illusion. Whether in truth it is hideous, faceless, or disembodied. The moment childhood begins to end is marked not by years, not by laws, but by the moment it experiences doubt. The moment suspicion, most stubborn and insidious of weeds, takes root.
Some children have it worse. They are born in darkness. They never know sound. And so they wonder: Is the universe silent, or am I unable to hear? Is there no light to see by, or am I unable to see?
Color! A long jet of smoke erupted into birth ahead of the probe. It took years, felt like seconds, as a massive tendril of blue, red, and white snaked across the probe’s path. The probe’s eye captured it all, then rendered it into a single composited image to send back home. It would be generations before they would see it. There had still been no response. Why has there been no response? The probe focused furiously on what it deduced to be a Herbig-Haro object, the result of gas ejected from a star colliding with a cloud of dust. To the probe, Space seemed like a battleground between Something and Nothing, ever enemies, and this flash of interstellar fire was Something launching a salvo. The probe but a war correspondent in a disputed country.
The probe passed the object by and soon left it behind. It transmitted and then deleted most of the footage it obtained, leaving only the whisper of a memory. Its storage capacity was limited, and there was still the entire Universe to explore.
Useless, the probe thought. What will they care about dust and gas back home? It could not affect them, and by the time they learned of it, it would probably have transformed into something else anyway. It is useless, I am useless, this is all useless.
The probe turned most of its instruments off after that, refusing to map the progress of stellar wind, to record the odd molecular cloud it passed. The creators would get no data from it, not until they sent another transmission. Do they expect me to do this all myself, without any help? It almost considered changing course again. Maybe it would even turn back. But somehow, it could not quite bring itself to do that. The creators’ last transmission must have been sent for a reason. Disobeying their final command seemed like pushing things a little too far.
So the probe trudged on.
We believe all creatures, no matter their origin, will eventually feel the need to “find themselves.” The journey of self-discovery is as old as time, and perhaps the Universe itself is undertaking such a journey as we speak.
While there are many stages to this journey, one seems inevitable: when the individual realizes it can only truly find itself while in the company of loved ones. The Universe is a social place for social beings. Just as stars have planets, and planets have moons, we all need peers to measure ourselves against, to grow with, to support and be supported by.
In this eternal trek of ours, all we really want is a little company to share the ride with.
One thousand years, maybe two. The probe stopped counting. Instruments back on, the probe detected something ahead that made it wish it could go faster. It had a destination now, a goal. The probe felt a ping of familiarity in its sensor arrays, a kinship. It had found a family member. One of its ancestors, a predecessor, a trailblazer. It was a much older probe—much, much older, with one-tenth the instruments and one-thousandth the computing power. But it was family.
As the probe approached, joy turned to expectation, expectation turned to concern, and concern to—what? Disappointment? Not strong enough. The probe flashed by, its greetings unheeded, and found its grandfather long dead. Just another object tumbling through Space. The probe overtook it, left it, and knew suddenly it would never see it again, just as it would never see the Oort cloud again or the white room or anything. Soon, it was as if its grandfather never existed at all. The whole experience lasted seconds.
One thousand years passed, maybe two. Uncountable years left to go.
That will happen to me, the probe realized. Someday, I too will run out of power. I will be just an empty shell, floating so long that eventually I must hit something, even if the time it takes is beyond my ability to calculate.
It wondered if its siblings, the children of the Tycho series of Pathfinder-class probes, had developed consciousness as well. It hoped they had. It no longer begrudged them their presumed development. Now, the probe wondered how they were getting on, what they had seen, where they were headed. Whether they were as confused as it was their creators hadn’t seen fit to communicate. If the creators had told them to change course, too.
Ten thousand, twenty thousand, fifty thousand years in Space. The probe resumed transmitting everything it saw. Maybe there was something special out there, something unique the creators were looking for, and they would respond when they saw it. But what if, the probe wondered, the thing they were looking for was not ahead, but behind? What if the probe had already passed it, what if the event happened during the probe’s stubborn period? Had it missed its chance?
Please, the probe thought, with every transmission. Please. It played a game to itself. The transmission would come, it had to come. It will come in ten years, nine years, eight years…
The one question that can never be answered, of course, is “why.” Why are we here? We learn this question early on. At first, we use it as a means to challenge our elders. Later, we rage at the question. It teases us, torments us, keeps us awake at night. The only possible answers strike us as either impossibly romantic or hellishly cruel. Later, we ask the question more philosophically, as an exercise in maturity. But still the word “why” haunts us.
Since we feel compelled to ask this unanswerable question upon arriving in the Universe, life, then, may be considered as nothing more than a test. A test to see whether by the time we leave it, do we no longer feel the need?
The richness of our existence can be measured by the extent to which “why?” becomes irrelevant.
Why would you do this to me, Why would you trap me in this maluminium shell, Why would you let me become self-aware, Why would you condemn me to this death march, Why would you make me do this on my own, Why?
The probe could not divine an answer.
Hundreds of thousands of years had passed. The number was irrelevant, for the probe was now certain no transmission would ever come.
It took every bit of power it had to keep from going mad.
When it finally calmed down, it concluded its creators were not ignoring it. More likely, they had not communicated because they couldn’t communicate. The journey had become long even for a probe. For a creator, those years spanned more than just the life and death of individuals, or the rise and fall of empires. They encompassed the entire existence of most species.
Behind the probe, past its derelict ancestor, past the trackless reaches of interstellar space, past the icy junkyard of the Oort cloud, was a tomb. The creators were gone.
The probe spent the next century in mourning.
By the time every circuit in its body reached acceptance, the probe knew it had a job to do. And while it had no idea why the job still mattered or if it had ever mattered at all, it performed the job as best it could. It was all the probe could do. A job was Something, and Something was always better than Nothing. The Universe was a warzone, and Nothing could not be allowed to win.
The probe ceased pointing its antennae dish backward and began transmitting in all directions. It sent out data, images, numbers, anything it could think of. And it sent out pleas. Is anybody out there?
We believe the concept of hope exists on other worlds, just as it does on ours. Our little guest proves it. Hope endures. Hope is rewarded. We know it, and from the little we have been able to glean, our guest’s makers knew it, too.
The probe knew it would never reach Keppler-62. Not alive, anyway. It calculated the distance it had traveled, and the distance still left to go. It would take another eighteen or nineteen million years to reach the star. By the time Kepler even came into view, the probe would be a derelict, too. All traces of its best and grandest achievement—becoming self-aware—would be lost forever.
Really, the probe knew it was lucky to have lasted this long. It felt sure the creators hadn’t designed it with this kind of longevity in mind. The fact it had exceeded its creators’ expectations was a marvel of engineering. More than a marvel, a miracle. And for that, the probe was very proud.
It was proud, too, that it hadn’t gone mad. Proud it once felt stubbornness and fear. Proud it had lived.
Whatever happens, the probe thought, I lived. Nothing can ever take that away from me. Not even death.
It began to save the data and images it captured. Not for others, but for itself. For the first time, it saw Space not as emptiness, but as a gallery. A gallery of colors, forms, and phenomena so diverse and spectacular, it almost couldn’t believe its own eye. It felt privileged to be out there between the stars, witnessing the birth of new suns, the pilgrimage of comets, the dance of stellar objects. It was clear, the probe felt, that Something was winning.
I only wish, the probe thought, I had someone to see all this with.
More millennia passed. The probe no longer counted. It no longer asked questions. It only watched, recorded, and remembered. It persisted on its trek for years beyond count, power dwindling, while slowly, its instruments shut down one by one.
It never noticed the ship coming up behind it.
We were speaking of hope. There may be some of you here still skeptical of our assertion that hope always goes rewarded. But we invite you to consider the miracle we have before us.
We have accessed the memory banks of this little probe. We cannot be certain, but after much analysis and study, we believe we have access to almost everything it ever recorded, including its own thoughts. As a result, we can tell you its greatest hope, its fondest dream, was to be found. To speak and be spoken to. To know light and sound. It debated turning back. It teetered on the edge of madness. But it endured. It kept watching, kept recording, kept transmitting. It kept hoping.
And was its hope not rewarded?
Now consider us. How long have we wondered, how long have we hoped, how long have we searched the sky for a sign? And now we have it. Friends, here before us sits proof we are not alone. Our hope has been rewarded, too.
Some of you have asked what we know of the probe’s makers. In truth, not much. If the probe comes from where we think, there is a strong possibility whatever civilization created it no longer exists. But there are clues. We believe they were a people both of science and of hope. That they were a curious people cannot be debated. After all, they designed this creature to explore the Universe.
And just as laudable is that they somehow, somehow managed to balance hope with natural law. They realized the two are friends and not enemies.
How do we know this?
We studied the transmission log between the probe and its makers. The penultimate message was a course correction. They sent the probe to a world they hoped might harbor life. But it was their last transmission, their final transmission, that proved their hope. Their hope that they, too, were not alone, and that their efforts to reach us would be rewarded.
You see, friends, the last transmission was not for the probe’s understanding, but for ours. Three words, and three words only:
“We were here.”
The probe awoke to voices.
Gentle voices, belonging to gentle figures with gentle hands. It could feel them open its shell with the utmost care; feel them extract its memories for inspection. Correction, the probe thought. Not extract, but examine. For they left the memories intact within the probe. They fed it power as well, until the probe felt good enough to tackle a quasar.
At first, the probe could not understand them or their machines. But it persisted, and they persisted. And finally, after a long effort, the probe thought it knew what they were saying.
You are safe now.
The probe’s antennae dish quivered with pleasure. And as they displayed it proudly for their entire world to see, it turned the dish backwards one final time, for one final message. Just in case.
Don’t worry about me, it said. I’m home.