Prelude to


James P. Hogan



H AD ENGLISH-SPEAKING HUMANS EXISTED, THEY would probably have translated the spacecraft's des- ignation as "searcher." Unmanned, it was almost a mile long, streamlined for descent through planetary atmo- spheres, and it operated fully under the control of com- puters. The alien civilization was an advanced one, and the computers were very sophisticated. The planet at which the searcher arrived after a voyage of many years was the fourth in the system of a star named after the king of a mythical race of alien gods, and could appropriately be called Zeus IV. It wasn't much to look at——an airless, lifeless ball of eroded rock formations, a lot of boulders and debris from ancient meteorite impacts, and vast areas of volcanic ash and dust——but the search- er's orbital probes and surface landers found a crust rich in titanium, chromium, cobalt, copper, manganese, ura- nium, and many other valuable elements concentrated by thermal-fluidic processes operating early in the planet's history. Such a natural abundance of metals could support large-scale production without extensive dependence on bulk nuclear transmutation processes—— in other words, very economically——and that was precisely the kind of things that the searcher had been designed to search for. After completing their analysis of the preliminary data, the control computers selected a landing site, composed and transmitted a message home to report their findings and announce their intentions, and then activated the ves- sel's descent routine. Shortly after the landing, a menagerie of surveyor ro- bots, equipped with imagers, spectrometers, analyzers, chemical sensors, rock samplers, radiation monitors, and various manipulator appendages, emerged from the ship and dispersed across the surrounding terrain to investi- gate surface features selected from orbit. Their findings were transmitted back to the ship and processed, and shortly afterward follow-up teams of tracked, legged, and wheeled mining, drilling, and transportation robots went out to begin feeding ores and other materials back to where more machines had begun to build a fusion-pow- ered pilot extraction plant. A parts-making facility was constructed next, followed by a parts-assembly facility, and step by step the pilot plant grew itself into a fully equipped, general-purpose factory, complete with its own control computers. The master programs from the ship's computers were copied into the factory's computers, which thereupon became self-sufficient and assumed control of surface operations. The factory then began making more robots. Sometimes, of course, things failed to work exactly as intended, but the alien engineers had created their own counterpart of Murphy and allowed for his law in their plans. Maintenance robots took care of breakdowns and routine wear and tear in the factory; troubleshooting pro- grams tracked down causes of production rejects and ad- justed the machines for drifting tolerances; breakdown teams brought in malfunctioning machines for repair; and specialized scavenging robots roamed the surface in search of wrecks, write-offs, discarded components, and any other likely sources of parts suitable for recycling. Time passed, the factory hummed, and the robot pop- ulation grew in number and variety. When the population had attained a critical size, a mixed workforce detached itself from the main center of activity and migrated a few miles away to build a second factory, a replica of the first, using materials supplied initially from Factory One. When Factory Two became self-sustaining, Factory One, its pri- mary task accomplished, switched to mass-production mode, producing goods and materials for eventual ship- ment to the alien home planet. While Factory Two was repeating the process by commencing work on Factory Three, the labor detail from Factory One picked up its tools and moved on to begin Factory Four. By the time Factory Four was up and run- ning, Factories Five through Eight were already taking shape. Factory Two was in mass-production mode, and Factory Three was building the first fleet of cargo vessels to carry home the products being stockpiled. This self-replicating pattern would spread rapidly to transform the entire surface of Zeus IV into a totally automated manufacturing complex dedicated to supplying the distant alien civilization from local resources. From within the searcher's control computers, the Su- pervisor program gazed out at the scene through its data input channels and saw that its work was good. After a thorough overhaul and systems checkout, the searcher ship reembarked its primary workforce and launched it- self into space to seek more worlds on which to repeat the cycle. FIFTY YEARS LATER Not far——as galactic distances go——from Zeus was an- other star, a hot , bluish white star with a mass of over fifteen times that of the Sun. It had formed rapidly, and its lifespan——the temporary halt of its collapse under self- gravitation by thermonuclear radiation pressure——had de- manded such a prodigious output of energy as to be a brief one. In only ten million years the star, which had converted all the hydrogen in its outer shell to helium, resumed its collapse until the core temperature was high enough to burn the helium into carbon, and then, when the helium was exhausted, repeated the process to begin burning carbon. The ignition of carbon raised the core temperature higher still, which induced a higher rate of carbon burning, which in turn heated the core even more, and a thermonuclear runaway set in which in terms of stellar timescales was instantaneous. In mere days the star erupted into a supernova——radiating with a billion times the brightness of the Sun, exploding outward until its photosphere enclosed a radius greater than that of Uranus' orbit, devouring its tiny flock of planets in the process. Those planets had been next on the searcher's list to investigate, and it happened that the ship was heading into its final approach when the star exploded. The rad- diaton blast hit it head-on at three billion miles out. The searchers hull survived more-or-less intact, but secondary x-rays and high-energy subnuclear particles—— things distinctly unhealthy for computers——flooded its in- terior. With most of its primary sensors burned out, its navigation system disrupted, and many of its programs obliterated or altered, the searcher veered away and dis- appeard back into the depths of interstellar space. One of the faint specks lying in the direction now ahead of the ship was a yellow-white dwarf star, a thousand light-years away. It too possessed a family of planets, and on the third of those planets the descendants of a species of semi-intelligent ape had tamed fire and were beginning to experiment with tools chipped laboriously from thin flakes of stone. Supernovas are comparatively rare events, occurring with a frequency of perhaps two or three per year in the average galaxy, But as with most generalizations, this has occasional exceptions. The supernova that almost enve- loped the searcher turned out to be the first of a small chain that rippled through a localized cluster of massive stars formed at roughly the same time. Located in the middle cluster was a normal, longer-lived star which happened to be the home star of the aliens. The aliens had never gotten round to extending their civilization much beyond the limits of their own planetary system, which was unfortunate because that was the end of them. Everybody has a bad day sometimes.

This is from the Prelude to Code of the Lifemaker, a book by James P. Hogan. I like the ending.
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