Dime Fiction: The Sun Engine

(Note: This is a work of fiction that should normally go on Dime Fiction, except that I’m closing that blog because my inspiration comes in waves and isn’t focused enough yet...)

Nurob was woken in the morning by a strange noise. Strange noises weren’t uncommon in his line of work, but today they were especially strange. He quickly got dressed and spoke to Nahira, his best foreman. She was working for the engine since several years, but what made her stand out was her ability to analyze even the most subtle of issues.

He remembered when one of this engineers would just look at a slight deviation from the norm as a “minor malfunction of the sensors”, but later on it would actually cause a major Hurricane on some remote planet, and he remembered the locals calling it “Sandy” for whatever strange reason.

To be fair, that “remote planet” was more important to them than anything else. it was the one planet in this system that currently bore life. Nurob remembered a careless predecessor in his job that ignored warning signals which turned out to be genuine, and it cost them a whole planet of life.

As Engine Guardians, they were technically not responsible for anything out of the Norm, but losing the planet that was commonly called “Mars” caused a big investigation from the Creators and eventually led to Nurob’s appointment to guardian. So he knew that the last remaining planet with life was sacred to him. The creators were reasonable people that liked to experiment, but at the same time they were also serious about what they were doing. They knew that creating life was non-trivial, and that creating sentience was even harder. Wasting sentient species for no good reason was pretty much the only reason why he got his job, and Nurob had no intention or losing it.

It amused and concerned him to equal parts how Nahira was treated by her peers. Their species did not really differentiate between Males and Females, but there were subtle differences, and the Creators made a point of splitting any species into two halves, but all of the Males discounted Nahiras observations as simple female intuition that was as misguided as the human concept of Religion. But Nurob learned to trust Nahira a long time ago when she predicted a giant impact that almost lost them the last remaining planet.

He quickly dressed in simple pants and robes to avoid any accusation of indecency and ran down the hallway. On his way, he looked at the giant dials that were showing details like temperature, rotation speed, solar power output and other less important numbers. These numbers looked good at first glance, but Nurob knew that something, somewhere must have been off. As he entered the monitoring chamber, Nerakul took notice.

“Nurob! Why are you here? Your shift doesn’t start yet!” he asked, but Nurob was too concerned to answer in a meaningful way. “Where is Nahira? I need to see her immediately because she sounded the alarm!” Nerakul was visibly disgusted. “Do you really believe in that nonsense? You saw the numbers on your way. The Jewel of Life is getting supplied with enough solar energy to sustain for several thousand years! Nahira is just having one of her intuitions, you know how women are!”

Nurob ignored him. He was used to Nerakul’s dismissive attitude and he knew that it was mostly justified, but the risk was too high. Everything related to that strange planet the locals called “Earth” was top priority because a loss would be catastrophic. He finally found Nahira in a corner, monitoring some solar flare activity. “Nahira, you rang the alarm! What is wrong?” She was visibly nervous, and Nurob was wondering if it was because of him or because of the situation at hand. He had some time thinking about her, so he knew that she only just started her job a few cycles ago and never had any special occasions to deal with. “Sir, I saw that the Solar Energy output dipped by 16% to only 1012.24 units. What made me concerned is that the engine temperature also dropped by 17 degrees. I fear that we may not get the Solar Energy up again within the next three or four cycles.”. He listened carefully and took a moment to think. The last time the Solar Energy dropped by more than 10 percent, the planet they all cared so much about went through something called an “Ice Age”. Nurob was only a simple worker back then, a Grunt that kept the machine running. But he remembered the big commotion that was going on at the time. People were panicking about losing the planet, even though everyone knew that a lot of mammals would easily survive. Nurob could not let this happen.

After going through some more diagnostic checks that were available in the monitoring chamber that didn’t lead to any meaningful results, he knew that he would have to go where none of the guardians went in a long time. He had to look at the core of the Engine. To a primitive mammal from the planet Earth, this might have been extremely impressive. But the Guardians knew that the Engine was just an extremely old design that was kept alive through good maintenance and sheer luck. He noticed Nahira on the other side of the corridor. “Nahira!” he shouted “I could use a hand to fix this. Since you’re the only Guardian who seems to notice this stuff you’re also the only one I trust to help me”. She was visibly impressed and hesitated for a moment, then nodded and walked towards him. “Grand Guardian, I have no experience with the Engine itself, are you really sure?” He just looked at her and waved his arm towards the hatch. “You have as much experience as I do, which is to say, not very much. But fools like Nerakul don’t notice small differences, so how would they be able to adjust an Engine of this size?”

The Engine was indeed massive. Built billions of cycles ago, it was made with ancient technology that required several hundreds of components for even the simplest tasks, but it also had a certain nostalgic beauty to it. Nurob had worked on much more modern engines, but he always felt that the new stuff lacked personality, or as he called it, “soul”, a word he learned during his studies of the planet he was appointed to guard. This old engine was a piece of art, build by the creators when they had their Bipedal phase of creation. Duality was a recurring theme: Two Legs, Two Arms, Two Eyes, Two Genders, Two Personalities. Over time, they experimented a bit more with different numbers, and while some experiments were successes (increasing Gender diversity worked really well in more civilized areas of the world) there were also a lot of failures (increasing the number of legs to four created some truly useful species, but going past that only caused creatures everyone universally hated). Nurob often wondered why the two personalities were allowed to exist (he personally preferred the personality that loved life and embraced fun over the more protective one), but the Creators made it clear that any disturbance would have severe implication to the Guardians, so he obeyed.

They spent several hours investigating the mechanical part of the Engine, but everything seemed in order. It was an elegant (if somewhat verbose) design and thus easy to troubleshoot, so they moved over to the software side of things. Nurob often admired the humans for their naiveté, believing in omniscience of their Creators even though they are really just trying out a lot of genes to see which work and then leave the hard work to the Guardians. At the same time, being in the heart of the Engine was something no human would ever accomplish. Nahira had to smile when she logged in to the Administration Interface. Primitive races are easy to impress, and what could be more impressive than the power of light? It took only a little Energy to light up the sphere they were in, but Humans were impressed by what they called the “Sun”. And that was only the light! Nurob often wondered what would happen of Humans would see the real power behind Solar Energy, the giant Engine? He had witnessed the discovery of electricity, the realization that the Earth was round, the first Lunar Landing and the end of the Curse of the Black Sox. But as belief-shattering these events were, they couldn’t compare with the realization that there was a giant engine at the core of the most important celestial body, build by sentient beings and used for experimentation.

But as with any experiment, the Software made by the creators had flaws. Sometimes, it would allocate resources in the wrong places. It would do that a lot, actually. The common case would just result in slightly larger bones, but there were uncommon cases where a pregnant woman would give birth to two children that were joined in one body structure. At first, this was seen as a major issue, but upon closer investigation it became clear that the solution won’t be easy. There was an issue if multiple births happen at the same time, and the solution would cause a potential slowdown in births. As the earth population grew and grew, the issue would occur more and more often, but the Creators did not want to reduce the birth rate out of fear of the planet. Instead, they decided to intervene. They decided to inject knowledge about a workaround into the fetus of a man later known as Ben Carson and were delighted when he later on managed to resolve the issue after it happened to people. Of course, this workaround wasn’t viable for the general case and had some risks on its own, but compared to the risk of decreasing human birth rate, it was deemed acceptable.

Nahira saw the issue first. “It seems that the Creators didn’t expect this race to live past last year, or at least the past earth year” she said. “It looks like there is another Ice Age planned, although the documentation says that the next one should be pretty far off.” she finished before Nurob took a look at the data. Indeed, the Earth was due for a Reset, which meant hefty storms followed by cold temperatures for thousands of years. But that seemed inappropriate at the time. Those Humans had proven willingness to improve. Several times in the past, Nurob considered pushing the reset button, but someone somewhere always evolved one step further and saved the race. And even though there were many things he didn’t like, the current humans seemed a lot more evolved than any of their predecessors. In fact, they even started to treat their breeding gender as equals, something which the Guardians still struggled with.

They discussed several alternative solutions. Slowing down the Earth’s rotation around the Sun was the most promising solution, but the humans would very likely notice it and react like any other animal whose cage was disturbed – panic would spread and potentially cause irreparable damage. Moving the Engine closer to the Earth would have similar ripple effects to other planets and would be equally visible. Ever since a guy with a Mohawk shot a robot 300 million miles to space to land in a target area the size of a sheet of paper, the Guardians knew that the humans would notice every small change. “I remember writing code like this in school” Nahira eventually said. What concerned Nurob was the thing she hadn’t said. It was a high risk, this codebase was written a long time ago, and none of the original Creators were available for guidance. There was no test environment and no easy way to rollback any changes. There was no documentation as to why some of the choices were made. But there was also no way to add more duct tape to it. (Nurob once heard that expression from human engineers. He didn’t know what Duct Tape was, but the humans were so excited about it, Nurob would use the phrase a lot.)

Nahira sat down in front of the archaic terminal again and studied what she saw. “I can see what they are doing. This is a very verbose way of doing things and I’m too afraid to change it too much. But see this?” She pointed at a part of the code. Nurob had never worked on the Software side of the engine. He was primarily a mechanic, and even though he could read enough to understand what’s going on, he admired her ability to actually make sense of it. “This seems to be… depending on some timing? The timing of that giant magnetic platter in section C of the engine? I know the platter slows down over time, so I assume this part also executes slower over time?” She nodded. “Indeed. This is a common issue on older engines like these. But it is a relatively easy fix with some of the new methods we developed in recent years. See these two things here? They need to happen before we can continue, but they are not dependent on each other. So I can just…” She started typing frantically. Nurob knew the look in her eyes too well. Absolute immersion, focus on the thing one is working on. Being “in the zone”, to use another term he learned from the humans. There are many Guardians in the engine, but most only did what they were told to do, very few had the ability to completely dive into the inner workings with passion and genuine interest. Eventually, she looked at him again. “So this is now executing in parallel, which should buy us another three or four billion earth years to come up with a proper solution. Should we deploy this change to the engine?”

This was the hard decisions a person in his position had to make. It is what everyone expected from him. His job seemed so easy to the other Guardians who were doing the real work, but his decision right now could destroy the project or make it succeed. Success was one of these things no one could measure because it just meant the absence of catastrophic failure. This is what he had to avoid now. But after watching Nahira work, he was confident that this was the right decision. “We’re going to emit some Solar Flares while we’re deploying. That should keep the brief outage hidden. Push it!” he declared.

There was a large observation window in the engine room, and Nurob stood there watching the planet Earth through it. Whenever he looked through one of the windows that were part of the Engine complex, he believed that someone was watching him as well. These primitive mammals with their limited intelligence and capacity, yet with more creativity than any other species he knew. Their enthusiasm for the Universe was what made him love them so much. The Flares would surely give them some headaches and he could already imagine them running around, looking at data and worried about the things they shot into space. And as he stood there and watched, Nurob wondered if someone else was watching him right now, in an Engine that really is powering him and the Guardians?

He knew that he would have another billion earth years to ponder that thought.