Short Story: The apex of creation

Bird feathers

The probe came back to life as it fell into the uncharted solar system.

It ran diagnostics and repaired errors, then connected to The Network to catch up with what had happened in the Galaxy during its thousand-year sleep.

Once satisfied, the probe looked outward and took the lay of the land.

It found a yellow, Sun-like star. It found five rocky inner planets, six gas giants, and a sprinkling of asteroids and comets. One of the rocky planets sat sweetly in its star’s goldilocks zone, not too hot, not too cold. The probe altered its velocity and headed in to investigate.

Preliminary scans found abundant atmospheric oxygen with a dash of methane. Infrared light emitted from the planet’s surface revealed areas of widespread chlorophyll, or something like it.

The probe had found life. Again.

The probes were legion, launched millennia ago, sent out into the depths of space to find alien life. The probe’s creators were confident life was out there, but what forms would it take? Would it be like the life they knew, or would it be different? Would there be sentience? Would there be something like the probes’ creators? Where they alone, or was there someone else out there?

The probes discovered a Galaxy rich with simple life. Single-celled organisms prospered wherever they could, in the subterranean oceans of ice-moons, in the clouds of gas giants, in the hearts of comets. More complex life was rare, but it was out there too, found when the right combination of conditions occurred on warm, wet rocks orbiting yellow suns. Jewels of blue and green scattered throughout the void.

Each probe uploaded its discoveries to The Network. Each probe saw what every other probe saw, if through more distant eyes. The great catalogue of life they created was varied, but everywhere the probes looked they saw familiar patterns.

There were differences and oddities, of course. There was a planet populated with trees made of muscle. Kepler-452b was coated by a single, great, fungus-like organism. Six fingers were more common than five. Knees usually pointed the other way round.

But there was striking convergence. Natural selection was a constant. Organisms living on similar planets faced similar opportunities and compromises; eyes, ears, fins, legs, wings, and vertebra emerged time and time again. And one form was found throughout the Galaxy, one form was repeated across the warm, wet rocks. Likely it existed in other galaxies, in other universes too. Bipedalism, intelligence, tool use.

The probe wasn’t made of flesh and blood, but it could still appreciate the irony. The probe’s creators had once used the name as a slur, to mean something that was hopelessly unsuited to the modern world, a has-been, a failure. But they weren’t has-beens, they weren’t extinct, the galaxy was rich with them.

The probe’s creators had discovered birds were the living descendants of the dinosaurs. Then they’d recognised there was no distinction, all the features that made birds unique were found in dinosaurs too. Birds were to dinosaurs as humans were to apes. The probe’s creators had realised dinosaurs still roamed their world.

The creators weren’t around anymore, obviously, high-tech societies didn’t last long. They grew exponentially, hit a resource pinch-point, then exploded in the inevitable fireworks of their own technology. Their remains were found throughout the Galaxy, if you looked hard enough. But the dinosaurs persisted on Earth, long after humanity had sunk back into the evolutionary abyss.

The dinosaurs were survivors, the Earth truly belonged to them. They’d evolved nearly 250 million years before humanity, and they were still around millions of years after.

As the probe moved closer to the target planet the resolution of its scanners increased. It saw continents, then biospheres, then landscapes, and then species. It settled into a low orbit and observed. It watched the flashes of colour in the skies. It watched as they swooped and dived.

The hubris of high-technology species is to imagine that they are the apex of evolution, the peak of some delusional natural hierarchy, the last word in natural selection. But they fail to adopt the proper perspective. They don’t realise they’re a flash in the pan, an impressive flash, but still, here today, gone tomorrow. They don’t stop and look at what’s around them, not really.

On world after world they’ve evolved, with different timings and from different ancestors, but once they arise, they persist, inevitable dinosaurs in a lonely universe.

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