(A short story by Jonathan Witt)
Let’s see. How to start?
As I surfaced from cryo, I was reminded of the old Christmas poem. “A cold coming we had of it,” one of the Magi begins, and I was thinking, the fellow doesn’t know the meaning of cold. Try halfway to absolute zero across seventeen light years of interstellar space. Granted, the cryo made the journey feel like an overnighter, but don’t imagine some trillionaire spa sleepover. Imagine yourself liquored up on bad moonshine, stuffed in a sack full of dry ice, knocked unconscious, tumbled about for an hour, quick-thawed, flushed of blue antifreeze, pumped full of dehydrated/rehydrated blood, and then shocked awake. That’s the cold coming we had of it.
But no complaints. We were duly warned what it would feel like to wake from cryo after thirty years and a hundred trillion miles. And the panorama as I strode down the gangway onto the virgin planet made it all worth it.
The jutted and rolling heath stretched all the way to the horizon, miles and miles of moss-covered lava rock you could mistake for Iceland except that it’s Florida warm, the planet’s sun is a subtly different shade of yellow, and there’s no city in Iceland like the one a quarter click dead ahead.
Since the land slopes away from the ship, I was looking down on the little city — a spectacular dance of gossamer-thin skyscrapers all of glass, carbon fiber, and flying buttresses of silvery nanotube filaments. The sight was thrilling, but not unexpected. The terraforming bots sent here three hundred years ahead of us executed the algorithms given them, one after another, year after year. Even the “thinking on their feet” they had to do — say, when a piston blew or a mine collapsed — all of that was baked in as well. Algorithms stacked on algorithms stacked on algorithms. The degree of redundancy was off the charts. Had to be, since if the bots got stuck, there was no one to call.
And that was the great fear. Our engineers could wrack their brains trying to imagine every possible snag the bots might face — an asteroid strike, an unscheduled volcanic eruption, a sandstorm jamming the repair bots sent out to clean and grease the field bots jammed up from the previous sandstorm. But what about the unimaginable, the little demon screw in the proverbial gears that grinds the whole operation to a halt? That’s every naut’s nightmare. You travel thirty years across interstellar space only to be met by a shell of a city littered with rusting bots gathering dust, machines defeated by the unimaginable.
Their demise would have meant ours. The interstellar trip was a one-way ticket—right at the outside edge of what humanity could manage when we shipped out. And to survive for more than a few weeks here we need the bots to have succeeded. So when I stepped onto the gangway and took in the sight of a bot city gleaming in the sun, I let out a whoop of joy.
As if in response, something detached itself from the forward edge of the city and began moving in my direction.
Read the rest here.