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If there was any doubt by the turn of the twenty-first century, by the dawn of the twenty-second, it was an unmistakable reality: technological civilization was unsustainable. In 2130, with the global population nearing eleven billion, Earth was Hell. We all but exhausted our reserves of conventional petroleum, and the limited coal deposits left were deep, incredibly expensive to extract. Uranium deposits were also depleted, and we could no longer rely on fission power. The days of cheap energy were long over. Developed nations used shale oil, natural gas, and tar sands, but these resources had terrible EROI and were therefore incredibly expensive to exploit. Solar energy and (later) fusion power required expensive technological components and enormous capital costs, and only the wealthiest economies could afford them. As the decades ticked by, ever more economic output flowed towards building and maintaining energy infrastructure, and economic growth faltered. Worldwide recessions fueled immense debt crises, and international finance collapsed. The world was in turmoil.
At least the “developed” world, although racked by recession, unemployment, and wars abroad, had the infrastructure to feed its population. In the crowded cities of India, Nigeria, and China, the food production and distribution infrastructure, depending on an input of cheap energy, collapsed. Climate change triggered great droughts that exacerbated these food shortages, producing mass famines that killed billions. Nonetheless, the upward trend of overpopulation continued, as industrial development ended in the majority of the world’s nations. Coastal cities were flooded, outbreaks of disease killed hundreds of millions, and refugee crises and migration were the nail in the coffin, causing great swaths of the planet to descend into disorder and anarchy. The United States and the Northern Confederation fought great wars in the Arctic to secure increasingly rare deposits of metals and minerals, including Yttrium, used in high-temperature superconductors. Even an individual lucky enough to be born in a wealthy country like the U.S. could expect themselves either to live in the vast urban slums, or become “grunts” to serve in overseas wars. We had made great technological advances, but these were available only for an elite few.
Project Icarus was the last hope for a species doomed, not for extinction, but for the painful continuation of a hellish state of survival. Back in the late 2090s, a group of theoretical physicists discovered hypothetical particle “states” that would be produced in conditions of high energy (in particle accelerators, for example). Somehow, this was based on a “non-unitary generalization of quantum physics”; I’m only a technician, so I don’t understand all the arcane details of the theory. This group of physicists discovered that particles, in addition to mass and charge, possessed a property called “qase”; although most particles we see around us have a qase close to zero, a nonzero qase allows conservation of energy to be violated. By accelerating particles close to the speed of light, as the idea went, we could trigger a change in their “qase”, producing “qasons”, which violated conservation of energy. By harvesting these qasons and placing them in special “energy cells”, we could, in principle, produce virtually limitless quantities of cheap, clean, renewable power. A perpetual motion machine, as it were, grounded in cutting-edge discoveries of particle physics.
After experiments in Europe confirmed the existence of qasons, world governments flocked to these discoveries. I remember well the buzz and excitement in the air, as we realized that technology could allow us to escape Hell. In 2110, the U.S. federal government announced a 350 billion USD program to research qason energy, hopefully to produce a prototype reactor. We built colossal particle accelerators out in the desert, and fashioned sophisticated laboratories to develop new forms of nanotechnology needed to harvest the qasons and produce the energy cells. I was among over ten thousand technicians who labored on constructing and maintaining a 5,000 TeV accelerator in Nevada. The government scientists, the politicians, and the corporate contractors went on the holo-networks to proclaim how Project Icarus would provide salvation for humanity. At first I, too, was caught in the excitement.
Then came the pleas for caution. A small group of theoretical physicists and cosmologists discovered that, in principle, a high concentration of qasons could trigger a “gradual collapse of spacetime from a false vacuum”. Somehow, the high density of qason particles might cause a small region of space to “tunnel” to another configuration, destroying all atomic and molecular structures; in this model, the new region of space would expand very gradually, doubling in size once every minute, eventually engulfing the surrounding region like Vonnegut’s Ice-Nine. Beginning with a Plank-sized volume, the new spacetime configuration would ultimately engulf the experimenters, the desert of Nevada, and the entire Earth. I tracked news of these scientists, as I saw them ridiculed by the media, and eventually die in a succession of “accidents”. I felt a pang of fear, whenever I checked the qason concentration in the electromagnetic storage vessels and realized that it was above the hypothetical limit needed to catastrophically alter the structure of spacetime.
I suppose, then, that I should have expected that anomaly in the Northwest containment facility. That I should not have been surprised twenty minutes later, when I saw a void of blackness surrounding one of the storage tanks. Or ten minutes after that, when I joined my fellow technicians and fled the sphere of blackness that had engulfed the control center. I suppose humanity didn’t have much time to panic, considering that a mere ten minutes later, the entire Western United States was obliterated. Most people would never have heard the news before the void consumed them at 60,000 miles per hour.
Yet, Project Icarus succeeded. Its purpose was not to save humankind from extinction, but from the continuation of a hellish existence. It was a humane decision. You see, Project Icarus was, in secret, a well-planned suicide.
Credit: Jerry Zhompson