According to our history files, we landed on the moon less than a hundred years after we invented flight.  Within two hundred years of that momentous day, we had landed on all of the major planets in our solar system.  We were exploring and sending messages to the cosmos, asking the ultimate question: “Are we alone?”

I say we, because it was my ancestors—our ancestors.  Neither I, nor any of my crew, were even a thought in those ancient times.  It was our people, though—our species.

We received no answer to our calls, but our exploration found something.  It was not an intelligence.  It was The Great Rock.  Barreling toward our planet in an unalterable path, The Great Rock foretold a guaranteed death for every living thing on the home world.

Our people had time, though.  According to calculations derived from the records, our ancestors squandered half of it.  They debated the presence of the rock, its path, and its effects.  They even debated whether, or not, we deserved to survive.  Ultimately, the inevitability of The Great Rock was accepted, and we decided to live.  A plan was devised and enacted.  For the survival of the species, they built and launched the Ark.

Not all at once, of course.  First, there was the shipyard; a vast industrial complex in midrange orbit, hundreds of kilometers across.  It was the most ambitious construction project ever, and it would serve only one purpose: to build my ship.  On the surface, our ancestors toiled to develop one hundred percent recycling systems, and to prove that a colony could long survive, using those methods.  They eschewed plastics and disposable materials, which generated garbage, in favor of “zero footprint” methods.  It was not just for the Ark.  They cleaned the planet, in the hope that, by not adding to environmental poisoning, the affect of The Great Rock’s impact might be survivable.  It is ironic.  The methods devised to preserve our people on the Ark, would also erase us from archaeological history on the home world.

The builders gave the Ark two missions.  The first, obviously, was to survive, preserve, and propagate our species.  The Ark is a massive ship.  It is a mobile, sustainable space colony.  We have facilities to grow food, manufacture parts, breed and raise tots, and whole industries of training and education.  The second mission was to explore.  The Ark was designed to operate forever.  Wandering the cosmos for generations with no other home, the Ark would attempt to answer the question of our uniqueness.

The records were once very complete and very detailed about those last days before the launch.  Time has damaged them, so I feel there is much we do not know about our origin.  We know there was debate about religion.  The churches of our ancestors rallied against the Ark.  They believed The Great Rock was God’s will.  Whether they saw the Ark as a sin of pride, trying to cheat death, or a sin of rejecting God’s love, in assuming that we are not the only intelligent life in the universe, is unclear.  The builders and first crew of the Ark were not theologians.  They considered themselves scientists, so they did not see fit to enshrine religious texts or details of the debate.  The religion we have among the crew comes from oral tradition, handed down from crew generation to crew generation.

Often, when I think of religion I wonder about that first crew.  They did not claim to be spiritual, yet they possessed tremendous faith.  They held faith that this mission would succeed without them.  In space, at high speed, time passes more slowly.  We live longer than we did on the ground.  Even still, they could not possibly live long enough to see the first planet the Ark surveyed.  No child nor grandchild, or even great grandchild, of the launch generation would see an alien world.  To the first crew to touch alien soil, the home world was only something they read about in training.  It had passed out of living memory.  The launch crew, the first generation, knew this would be, but they believed it would happen without them.  They set themselves to this path.  Their courage of conviction inspired thousands of generations, and established our way of life.

The primary mission was an astonishing success.  The Ark, and the colony it carries, survives.  A few of the Ark’s original pieces still exist, though they are largely relegated to historical preservation.  Part of the bulkhead beside the hatch to my office is an original part.  It bears the inscribed names of the Ark’s builders and first crew.  They are indelibly etched in an immutable alloy to commemorate them.  Truly, we know very little about them as people.  We are their direct descendants, but even in our closed system, time forgot many of the details.

Part of the bulkhead… much of the passage and hatch itself had to be replaced.  I am nearly twice as tall as the first captain who occupied this compartment.  We are nearly as large as the species our terrestrial ancestors raised as utility animals, according to the records.  The only animals on the Ark are genetic samples, which we preserve for the sake of history.  We also clone muscle tissue from the “zoo” for much of our meat supply.  I have never seen an animal with a skeleton that was not a member of my crew.

Some of the Ark’s crew generations suffered through dark and difficult times.  The first thousand crews actually had to sacrifice children.  It seems bizarre, because the Ark has always required the promise of future generations to continue its journey.  However, they could only build an Ark so large, and they were unprepared for the population explosion.  The builders’ estimates were based on thousands of years of life on the surface of a planet.  In space, we have no predators, no random acts of nature, and virtually no disease.  Our children are all products of carefully planned eugenics.  Every one survives to adulthood.  The Ark could not support the populace.  Breeding became even more selective, and excess eggs were disposed of.

It is a horrific thought to my crew, because our first mission is to survive to propagate our species, to preserve intelligent life.  Later generations solved the problem in a simple way.  The galaxy is full of raw materials.  The Ark collected new resources.  As we fashioned replacement pieces, we made additions.  The Ark, like the people it carries, has been changed by life in space.  When a suitable planet was found, we consumed it and built a second Ark.  There are twelve Arks exploring our galaxy now, and colonies on the surfaces of hundreds of worlds.

The colonies, sadly, show the failure of the second mission.  There are hundreds of thousands of suitable, habitable worlds in the galaxy.  Past crews found life on many of them.  It seems that there is nothing unique about life.  Yet, we are alone.  We found no intelligence anywhere, save our own.  In that way, religion is right; we are uniquely chosen to understand.

I think a lot about the launch generation.  We, my crew and I, have a connection to them.  We will be the first, since them, to set foot on the home world.  We were born knowing that.  My great grandfather made the decision for the Ark to return, even though he knew he would not live to see it.  It seems like that would have been a hard decision, but I know it was not.

Like my fathers and mothers before me, I was bred to be a captain.  I have genes from that first one so long ago.  The society they left had concepts like marrying for love and a wild randomness of children.  We do not.  Even though it is larger now, the Ark is still finite.  It has endured circumnavigating the galaxy by principles of efficiency and traditions of purpose.  We love, sure, but we breed only for purpose.  I never took a spouse, but a mate was selected by my eugenics officer for the best genetic match to produce replacement leaders.  This tradition has resulted in near dynastic jobs.  Every generation of my direct ancestors contained a captain.

One of my sons leads Ark thirteen: The Great Ark.  His descendants will try to cross the void of intergalactic space to start a search for intelligence in another galaxy.  His crew is smaller, and his ship larger.  We towed The Great Ark until ten years ago, when he took command, and they launched.  My crew raised extra children for his mission; all of them are our sons and daughters.  We will never see them again, just as they will never know if there is intelligence other than our own.

“Faith in the future sustained us all.”  That quote is carved into the underside of my desk, carefully scratched by one of my ancestors.  I was on my knees in a time of desperation and hopelessness.  Unsure that the Ark should continue, I beat and clawed at the deck in rage-filled depression.  Something caught my eye.  It was the writing on the underside of my desk.  That simple phrase reminded me that billions of others before us faced the same problems, the same fears, and the same doubts.  Yet they persisted, they did what they must to result in us, in this time.  It is not the same desk as the launch generation—that one would be as a child’s table to me.  I imagine my ancestor who carved those words, read them from an earlier desk in much the same way.  The captain’s desk on The Great Ark bears the same inscription—in the same place.  I carved it there, in hope that my son never sees it.  But, when his descendants need to be reminded, the quote will be there for them to find.

In a natural environment, the Ark crews are small enough that everyone would be related to everyone in some way.  In contrast, our extended families have very little intermixing.  Duties are closely aligned with families.  Jobs are our version of race.  The star engine mechanics, for example, all look vaguely alike, as might natural siblings.  It is helpful to know immediately what a crewmember is capable of just by looking at him or her.  Through selective breeding, we avoid the common problems of inbreeding, and we have even evolved differences—adaptations—that make our offspring better suited to their purposes in the crew.  Those adaptations, though, further inure duty position as race.

The concept of uncontrolled population is not without precedent for us.  Colonized planets reverted to less selective families.  Starting with smaller “seed” populations, and different environments, they needed genetic diversity.  Polygamy and communal marriage arose, and were successful—for them.  We know this because we keep in loose contact with the larger colonies.  With time and the vast resources of space, we were able to develop trans-stellar information systems.  Relays in the colonized systems allow the Ark and the colonies to communicate.  Mostly, we receive their entertainment broadcasts.  Such liberal societal changes, which allow them to prosper, would destroy the Ark.

Of course, returning to the home world will destroy the Ark, as well.  We know, now, the planet is still inhabited.  Whether The Great Rock struck it or not, it is still in the orbit that we expect to sustain life.  Just under a hundred million miles away, it is still third from the sun and orbited by a moon a quarter its size.  Our distant observations indicate it is colder than when we left.  My survey officers suggest that might be the natural temperature of the planet.  They believe that the heat and ice-free poles of the launch generation were the result of pollution trapping heat and warming the surface.

We are using the gravity of the star to reduce our speed, so we are approaching the planet from the dayside.  Our optical telescopes show us that the continents are roughly the same shape, but further apart than on our ancient maps.  Orbital evidence aside, we know from these maps that it is the right planet.  We have not definitively observed settlements, yet.  That observation would be easier if we could see the night side.  If they use artificial lights at night, the coastlines, especially at the mouths of rivers, would light up when the sun sets.  Warm light radiating into the cold night would show permanent habitation clearly, from much further away, than clumsily seeking out shapes and color differences in a noonday sun.

Of course, such observations would only confirm what we already know.  Radio receivers detected the home world while my great grandfather was still alive.  In the first ten generations, contact with the home world was lost.  They did not have our trans-stellar systems.  They communicated by simple radio broadcast.  One day, those signals were no longer detected.  Our history shows that the event was a test of the crew’s resolve.  They did not know if The Great Rock had struck and killed the planet, or if they somehow slipped out of range.  The home world had blinked out.  It was not just behind them, it was gone from their sky.

The launch generation predicted that, given time, people on the home world would develop faster space travel.  If they survived The Great Rock, they might send out a messenger to meet the Ark, and bring it home.  Even after the home world vanished, some believed the Ark might be met, still.  That never happened.  As the Ark rounded the galaxy and began its return course, we knew that the home world was dead.  By that time, we were hundreds of thousands of generations removed.  We had colonized space, and the Ark was the lead vessel of a flotilla.  The fate of the home world mattered less to our crews than the happenings on colonial fictional dramas.

Instead of messenger, our confirmation that the home world persists was finding it with a radio telescope.  Instead of the single, dim sun of our ancestors, the radio telescope reported two stars.  The smaller one orbited the larger.  The radiation was wrong, though.  Wrong for a natural star, that is.  It was not the frequency of hydrogen under fusion.  In its strange cacophony of radio tones, the fast moving “star” is brighter than any star in the galaxy.  Soon, it was obvious that the signals were artificial.  No natural element radiates as the home world does.  There is no radio frequency emission that shines as brightly—without amplification.  To our thinking, amplified unnatural radio frequencies can only mean one thing.  The home world lies before us as a beacon, announcing, “Here is intelligent life.”

The Great Rock must not have exterminated our kind.  Our unique intelligence survived.  It must have changed them, though.  They clearly forgot about the Ark, because they never contacted us.  The Ark was intended to preserve our ways.  We still have the ancient ways of demodulating a visual broadcast.  The signals are not modulated the same way they once were.  They have different standards and protocols, which we have not deciphered.  We receive their broadcasts and try to view them on our screens, but all that shows is blobs of fluctuating lights.  The home world has changed methods, and their format is unintelligible to us.  As we have gotten closer, the signals grow stronger.  We have plenty of samples, with more received every day.  We bred and trained more communications engineers for my generation, more than the Ark has ever had.  Still, we have no history of decoding any signals but our own.  We know only that the signals are artificial and that we do not know what they say.

The unreadable signal reminds me that space changed us.  Perhaps staying behind changed them.  From our historical records, I know how we are different from what we left.  I have no concept of what may have changed about them.  When I was in school, learning all I could about the planet I would get to walk on, I wondered, “Will they recognize us?”  As I prepare our adopted home to arrive at our ancestral one my question has become, “Will we recognize them?”

The ultimate question of my life is not “Are we alone?”  I know we are.  The ultimate question of my age is, “Will two peoples, separated by a hundred million years, realize that they are the same species of dinosaur?”


Generation 1,881,620, Captain
Ark (I)