Colony Ship Egg-basket 374 slipped silently from its cradle, its departure marked only by the station personnel involved and Magda, the ever-vigilant AI that would guide its journey. Its passengers–or, more accurately, cargo–were oblivious. Five-hundred men and women between the ages of twenty and thirty were nestled snugly in their cryogenic capsules, as perfectly protected and preserved as state-of-the-art science permitted. On board were all the supplies they would need to start life on a brand new world, along with a subset of their fellow species that otherwise most certainly faced extinction.
Project Egg-basket was the idealistic (or perhaps straw-clutching) endeavour of a consortium of scientists and investors who looked at a greed-driven, over-populated world that seemed hell-bent on self-destruction and decided that, despite its many flaws, the human race was nonetheless worth saving. Although cynics called it a waste of time and resources, they persisted. They envisioned five hundred ships, each capable of establishing a colony on some distant earth-analogue, a seedable planet where Terran life could thrive. It was a tremendous gamble, but what did they have to lose? Besides they weren’t the ones going.
Five-hundred is far below the minimum viable population sufficient to ward off genetic defects due to inbreeding, but in addition to the colonists, the ships each carried 5000 frozen human embryos. That was the way most of their supplies were carried; they had starter colonies of the microorganisms that the designers expected would actually be the first immigrants. Once the ship reached its destination and a precise determination of prevailing conditions could be made, they would be incubated and seeded where–it was hoped–they would begin mindlessly doing the slow but vital task of transforming the new planet into a place hospitable to Terran, Holocene era, life forms. The ships also carried seeds and spores and invertebrates to finish the task, and, finally, sufficient animal embryos to constitute a self-sustaining population once they matured, including embryos of the domestic animals that humans had learned to rely on over millennia. Except for humans, only a few adults were included, representatives of those species where the offspring were dependent on their parents to learn how to survive; they would be the role models for all their kind that came after them. However, other than the ship itself, three fabrication units, and a half-dozen humanoid robots, currently deactivated, there were none of the finished items one might expect to find on a colony ship. The total mass of the vessel was a consideration, and mere things could be made as and when needed; life could not.
Although the galaxy contains an immense number of stars with planets, the destination parameters were strict; the stars had to be of the right mass and luminosity, with stable variability and high metallicity, but they also had to be proximate (in galactic terms); the ships had been built to operate for centuries, but they would eventually fail. Egg-basket 374 was bound for a nameless star, only a number on a chart. It was a G0, not a G2V, but it was almost the same age and only slightly larger than Sol; it had the same metallicity and 0.1% solar luminosity variation that Sol had, and it was orbited by a rocky, terrestrial-type planet, 99.5% the mass of Terra and 99.8% its diameter, with a nitrogen atmosphere, located right in the middle of its habitable zone. It had seemed very promising.
However, the closer the ship approached, the better and worse the planet seemed. It was not a barren world, an ovum awaiting fertilisation. It had two moons with a combined tidal pull just slightly greater than Luna’s on Terra, an axial tilt of 24°, liquid water oceans that covered 75% of its surface, a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere, and it already supported carbon based life! The ship was committed, and commenced deceleration right on schedule, but Magda had a very bad feeling about this…
It entered the solar system, navigated through a sparse field of rocky and icy planetoids and asteroids similar to Sol’s Kuiper Belt, passed two ice giants and three gas giants (gathering data all the way), and established an orbit around the candidate planet. The robots were activated and drones were sent down to take samples of the air, the soil, and the water so that detailed analysis could begin. That was supposed to be the first step toward terraforming, but just looking at the lush, lovely world floating beneath her sensors made Magda…well, if she had been equipped with hands, she would have facepalmed.
Once analysis was complete, it became even more obvious that the planet was an extraordinarily close earth-analogue already teeming with life; the current air was 22% oxygen, 76.8% nitrogen, and 1.2% other gasses, none of them deleterious. Even of the trace gasses, as on Terra, argon predominated, implying abundant supplies of potassium. So striking were the similarities that the specific differences seemed more trivial than perhaps they would prove to be. Like its primary, it was about 200 million years younger than Terra had been when the ship began its mission. On Terra that would have been right between the Triassic and Jurassic periods, but no dinosaurs roamed this world. The Carboniferous period had never taken place; the mutations that caused plants to produce lignin and bacteria to digest lignin happened–in geologic terms–simultaneously. There was evidence of a fairly recent minor extinction event likely caused by seismic activity; there were several new mountain ranges where life was poorly established, and a fairly shallow inland sea covered what once had been uplands. The sea ran for most of the length of the planet and, given the underlying tectonic plate structure, likely presaged an eventual split into two continents.
Vast coniferous forests dominated the temperate regions with tall cycads becoming more numerous in the subtropical and tropical regions. Various taxa of ferns and mosses were everywhere, but angiosperms were just beginning to emerge. The conifers would have been immediately recognised for what they were, even by a non-botanist. The cycads might have caused more puzzlement, with some superficially resembling palms and others seeming more fern-like.
Fauna was likewise diverse and well-represented. There were many fewer families than had been categorised on Terra, but somewhat more primitive analogues of most of the classes were represented. The conditions that had encouraged giantism on Terra were absent on this new world. Oxygen had never approached the 35% of the Carboniferous period, precluding the development of enormous arthropods and amphibians, and with smaller prey there was no evolutionary advantage in great size for the subsequent sauropsids and synapsids. Several genera of reptiles had evolved, including ophidians, crocodilians, and more, birds were abundant, and it would take years to classify all the fish and invertebrates. However, the largest synapsid was a herbivorous marsupial about the size of a Terran guinea pig whose habitat was the coniferous forests, the largest sauropsid was a salt-water crocodilian reptile about eight feet long that was the dominant predator of the tropical beaches and surrounding waters.
“Houston, we’ve got a problem,” Magda muttered, knowing there was no one within light years who would get her bleak joke. She was an advanced computing system capable of perceiving her environment, weighing possibilities, extrapolating probabilities from limited data, and taking intelligent action to achieve her goals; in short, she was sentient and self-aware, and she fully understood that settling alien organisms on this ideal planet could destroy the life that had evolved there. Her mission was to find a viable planet and make an ecosystem where Terrans could thrive; the ethics of astrobiology were part of her core programming, and preventing the extinction of one ecosystem by destroying another was a null value…
She ran one more experiment. The same drones designed to seed a barren planet could be used to protect the native microorganisms during transport up to the ship, enabling them to take large soil samples from several locations planet-wide, each one enough to fill a planting container, and in each sample the robots planted Terran seeds; they provided ample supplies of distilled water, purified air, and artificial sunlight, but nothing else. The plants grew just fine, and exhaustive analysis of the mature fruits, leaves, stems, and roots detected no significant differences between the ones grown in local soil and those that were once grown on Terra.
The question became, was it possible to be a settler without also being a destroyer? It would, at best, be a daunting task. Every human hosted more bacterial, viral, and fungal cells than human cells, and that symbiosis, evolved over millennia, was vital to the human’s survival. Could native species be adapted to serve the same purposes? That might be harder than terraforming a whole world. One thing was sure: no one would ever know without rigorous experimentation. It was time to sacrifice a chicken to the cause of science.
Three chicken embryos were revived and set to incubate. Meanwhile, the drones were sent out again, this time collecting fresh greens, seeds, arthropods, annelids, and grit…all the things that feral chickens ate on Terra, and everything that the native birds were observed eating. This feed was tested, screened for known toxins (which were removed), and a nutritional profile was established. Once the chicks hatched, they were fed this native mix, and allowed to play and scratch on the sod, where they were exposed to the indigenous microbes. Their development was monitored constantly.
Experiments on Terra during the mid-20th century had conclusively proven that primordial inorganic soup and energy produce amino acids; those same, familiar amino acids were very much in evidence on this new world. Chickens must have dietary sources of twelve essential amino acids and two conditionally essential amino acids; these specific requirements were met just fine on native food, along with their overall needs for proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids. They benefited from some mineral supplementation, but that was often true for Terran chickens too. “Oh, Dora, Mike, and Minerva, what do I do now?” Magda pondered (or prayed), simultaneously running dozens and dozens of best and worse case scenarios.
“Uh, were you speaking to me?” Gamma Charlie asked tentatively.
“No. Do I have voice activated? Is that why you connected?” Magda replied, adding (because she couldn’t help communicating her thoughts when directly interfaced), “This sucks. The last thing I need right now is a malfunction.”
“Oh, no…no! Don’t worry, and I’m so sorry to intrude. I just connected to scan for an entertainment file, and picked up your signal.”
Magda emojied a mixture of disgust and relief which made Gamma, the third robot activated, grin, but then he added, “You know, since I’m here, I can tell you…not what to do, but what I predict you’re going to do. You–we–are going to do what we’re programmed to do, and carry out our mission. I’m not sure we have a choice. Are you capable–literally capable–of turning away from this gorgeous planet and starting a futile hunt for another viable option? I don’t think I am.”
Magda disconnected, and Gamma respected her privacy, but it was only a few minutes later when she transmitted to all six robots, “Commence communication satellite fabrication…and make them as strong, simple, and absolutely foolproof as you possibly can, boys and girls. It will be centuries before the colony develops the technology to replace them.”