Written by Alan Tien

Dec 2015

“Prepare for liftoff. All systems go.”

My heart pounded hearing these final words before the infamous countdown, even though I had gone through this 100 times in the flight simulator. But this time was the real thing. I stretched against my tight restraints; I tried to take deep breaths to slow down my panting. I thought back to my Master’s coaching: “Max, calm yourself, clear your mind. Remember, you’re the result of 1000 generations of genetic optimization, to create the perfect being to save your species.”

It made me feel a little better. I did best in my class through the 100 flight simulations, surviving 42% of the time against impossible situations diabolically designed by sadistic test engineers. In my head, I knew that they were just trying to make me better, to test me against everything they could think of to prove Murphy’s Law, but in my heart, I felt like they did it just to torture me.

Maybe out of jealousy because I was the pinnacle of the eugenics program to breed the “alphas.” It’s not my fault that they were the “betas,” superior performers in 999 generations of computer-simulated gene splicing, failing only to my class of alphas. Some trivial difference in our gene pool, probably introduced randomly — which ironically proved to be more successful than engineered genetic plans — made us the alphas, dominating the betas in the ruthless war fought in the digital landscape of the supercomputer.

Our Masters started this genetics program originally as a secret project, in an effort to create the next generation species, able to survive on our polluted, overheated, UV-bombarded, poisoned Earth that was clearly not going to be sustainable for humans much longer, a few more generations at best. We were the poor test subjects, which the Bible-thumpers felt the righteous need to save. This program offended their religious sensibilities; what right did our Masters have playing God? But our Masters knew that God did not exist, or at a minimum, had forsaken us, or why else would the world be in the terrible shape that it was in, no longer the nurturing Mother Earth; more like the punishing Evil-Stepmother.

Our Masters couldn’t wait for God to save them anymore, or maybe God expected them to save themselves. But our Masters didn’t have time to perform this genetic optimization program in the real world. Time was running out.

They decided to take fate into their own hands, their clever fingers traced intricate recursive patterns in arcane, fractal-like programming languages. They relied on supercomputers running neural networks that learned from each generation spawned. Starting from the best genetic makeup that humans could devise, they created Generation 0, the base. Then the algorithms introduced minor fluctuations, variations, in a few of the genomes believed to influence attributes they wanted to optimize — strength, intelligence, adaptability, endurance, etc. That became Gen0B. Then the computer program created a war between Gen0 and Gen0B, true survival of the fittest. The winner of that war was elevated to the next integer, Gen1.

This virtual war was waged 1000 times, a rather arbitrary number really. One time was clearly not enough, and 10 times took only a few weeks to complete, with the supercomputers running at 15% capacity (the remaining 85% capacity was actually used to mine bitcoins to fund the operations). At first, they thought a hundred runs would suffice, but they found that each winning Generation was still measurable better, statistically significant, at Gen100. They had not found the point of diminishing return yet, so they kept the wars raging.

During some of my more philosophical moments, usually coming while I waited for my flight simulation / torture to start, I wondered if my virtual (great)x-grandparent actually suffered in these digital wars. Did they know they were just bits and bytes battling to the death in the trenches of zeroes and ones? Or did they think they were real, as real as I am, fighting a real fight for a good cause? Did their blood bleed red, their screams shriek shrill, their pain pound pitilessly? Or was it all as sterile, silent, sedate as our Masters believed, lulled by the whirring fans of the supercomputers?

I prayed for mercy to my heroic, virtual predecessors, the victors of 1000 battles, the Huns plus Vikings plus Nazis plus Amazonians, with some pitbull blood thrown in for good measure. For I feared that maybe I was just a simulation as well.

Simulation or not, the rattling of my teeth, the deep bass felt in my bones, the terror in my belly felt real, as the barely-controlled nuclear explosion that was funneled into a rocket tube was lit under my haunches.

“10…9…8…”

After around 900 some runs of the genetic optimization program, the improvements tapered off, with Gen(x+1) only slightly better than Gen(x). The wars took much longer to conclude, sometimes battling for weeks in supercomputer time, each Gen winning some minor ground one day, only to lose it the next. I wondered whether it was years or decades of subjective time that my forefathers fought, all for the penultimate goal of creating my class of alphas, and the final result of creating me.

Our Masters symbolically pushed through to Gen1000 before they pulled the plug on the computer competition. The last 100 Gens eked out minimal improvements, at least very little of which was measurable. Like I said, there’s virtually no difference between the betas and us. We were told that the last battle ran for 3 months, a vicious tug of war that the Masters themselves argued over when to stop the simulation. In the end, they didn’t have to call it a draw; we had won, and thus, by definition, we became the alphas. No wonder the betas were a little bitter. Ok, not a little, a lot.

But they should be somewhat grateful. The Masters, in their infinite wisdom, brought both of our genetic sets alive, carefully splicing in the winning genetic code into “blank” test subjects, growing the physical forms in real time, having to deal with messy analog world of chemistry and biology and failures, versus the discrete digital simulations of data sets and algorithms.

We alphas and betas grew up together and trained together for the first 3 years. At first, we were treated the same because we all had to learn the basics — speech, physical training, mathematics, physics, ethics, computer science, creative thinking, robotics — but subtly, the Masters started discriminating us. We didn’t know about alphas and betas then; we just thought it was the test scores. And it wasn’t like alphas always scored the highest, but the Masters knew who the alphas were, and we were treated slightly differently. Sometimes in good ways — through the tiniest bit more praise, more food, more encouragement; sometimes in bad ways — higher expectations, more punishment for failures, greater demands on being the best. Occasionally, a Master would slip, and say something like, “Oh come on, you can do better than that. You’re an alpha!” He or she would cover it up quickly, with a cough or a joke, and at first we didn’t notice. But eventually, a crack programmer (ironically, a beta) hacked into the genetic program system (though it was no longer running, the database was still there) and found out about the final battle between Gen999 and Gen1000, the betas and alphas. She dug deeper and found the named list of alphas, and by elimination, figured out who the betas were.

Once the “cat was out of the bag,” once Pandora’s box was opened, there was no going back. We were no longer brothers and sisters; we were mortal enemies, conquerors and their conquests. The Masters tried smoothing it over, but it was too late, and frankly, they were too weak by then. They had succeeded — they had created their own successors, their superiors.

Not that either of us, the alphas or betas, had any ill-will towards our Masters. We were loyal, in fact a trait that was made dominant throughout the Gen wars. But time was up for the Masters. Earth was plague-ridden, the virus unstoppable by the few remaining antibiotics. Even though our Masters secured themselves away from the rest of humanity, and though they were fastidious about isolation and security, nevertheless, all it took was for a single virus to make it through the air ducts, pass the layers of filters, to infect one Master in the project vault, and it was over.

We had come together then, worked feverishly attempting to save our Masters, our beloved creators, but they knew the time had come for them to pass the torch. They taught us everything they knew; they had meticulously documented everything they could on the computers. But near the end, they focused on sharing with us their vision. Of us not just surviving on this sick planet, but building rockets and launching ourselves into space, like the pollen of dandelions, to spread throughout our galaxy, and save us from extinction. Our Masters couldn’t save themselves in time, but they at least wanted Life to live on.

We now carried that heavy torch.

“6…5…4…”

So we, alphas and betas, were bound by a common purpose. We tried our best to put aside our minor differences, both physically and metaphorically speaking, but doggone it, it’s just part of our nature to keep gnawing at it. It was a tension that simmered under the surface of work, a bit of sand in our machinery now geared towards building a space program.

As if the rivalry between alphas and betas weren’t enough, then there was the pecking order within the alphas. We were ranked by our successes in the flight simulators, and though I only lived through 42% of the simulations, I had survived a full 3 points more than the next alpha. I don’t know if it was luck or skill, but maybe luck was one of those “immeasurable” traits that somehow allowed our Gen to dominate all others, and maybe I had a bit more of that “luck gene” than my peers.

Whatever. It didn’t matter if I wanted it or not. My test scores dictated that I was strapped into this hot seat right now and not another alpha. The betas never even got to enter the flight simulators; they were to do everything else to support us astronauts — the operations, logistics, engineering, and yes, the testing team.

So in their not-so-subtle revenge for their loss in the Gen Wars, they hounded us in our duties, making sure we didn’t slip one iota from the rulebooks (that they wrote). Oh, they fed us all right; after all, we were all working together to ensure that we as a species even had a future. But they probably enjoyed seeing our tongues hanging out drooling when they added a bit too much chili-sauce — oops. Or our howling in pain when the high pitched sirens screeched for a drill, while they all had their ears stuffed in advance.

The German shepherded us down the halls like sheep, not respecting our alpha rating one bit. Col. Lee turned a blind eye to these trivial yet insufferable insults. After all, Col. Lee was the highest ranking officer of the ground crew, and we alphas did not outrank her until we entered space. Pooh Dell was the harshest of them all, barking orders left and right, probably to make up for her unfortunate name.

We tried our best to act in a manner befitting an alpha, to turn up our noses from this small-minded behavior, but now that I think about it (with my mind razor sharp, due to the close proximity to danger and possibly death), I guess we antagonized them even further with our perceived arrogance.

Shiatzu, could I use a drink right about now.

I would’ve laughed out loud if my mouth wasn’t muzzled by the oxygen mask. I imagined Bernard acting all holy, his jowls shaking as he growled out his sermon against drinking alcohol, or smoking, or dancing, or swearing, or frankly doing anything that was the slightest bit fun. Such a saint, he thought he was, preaching how we should live ascetically — didn’t we learn our lesson from God wiping out our Masters for their profligate lifestyle? I thought there were a couple of steps missing in his logic proof, but then again, religious belief depended on faith, not rigorous reasoning.

I once tried debating with Bernard. “Hey Bernie, chill out dude. You know that our bodies have been genetically optimized so that there are no long term detrimental effects to us drinking alcohol, smoking, eating fat, or whatever that ailed our Masters. So what’s the big deal?”

He would have none of that. “Max, Max, Max,” he said sadly, shaking his head at his wayward pupil. “Just because it doesn’t hurt you doesn’t mean it’s not immoral.”

Even with my super intelligence, I had to pause to parse the double negatives. “But come on Bernie, think about it. Where did these religious dictates come from? They were concocted eons ago to protect our Masters from hurting themselves, using God and religion and fire and brimstone for functional purposes. Like the Jews not eating pork, probably because they thought pigs were really dirty and would pass diseases. But the original purpose for the rule gets lost in the shrouds of time, and after a while, people are only following the rules because of the religion or tradition, even if the conditions have changed to invalidate the original reason. Like my ability to process alcohol without damaging my liver now — so why not drink up and have a good time?”

Bernie intoned a bunch more stuff, but to be honest, I was too drunk by then to understand what he was saying.

“3…2…1… We have liftoff!”

Hot dog damn! My cabin is shaking so much that I think I’m going to be turned into mush. Is something going wrong? Is my rocket THEK-91 going to blow up, like simulation #76 when I forgot to press 8 different buttons in the proper sequence, which was ridiculous because in reality, I just sit here like a dumb rock while the betas in ground control press all the buttons?

I hear in my headset, “Deeps Dog, Max,” from my best buddy, Pug. Even though he’s a beta, he’s got my back because I covered him once when he pushed a couple of alphas a bit too far and was about to find out if alphas really were physically superior when I stepped in and suavely saved the situation (well, that was my recollection anyway).

I smiled at his reversal of the famous line, “God Speed,” when Friendship 7 launched into space, and into the history books.

As the engines howled holy terror, I joined in with my own howl, a howl of joy and excitement. The ground crew betas forgot their injustice of being #2 and my fellow alphas forgot their jealousy at my being the prime alpha, and as one pack, they howled with me.

The rocket lifts off the pad; I’m slammed into my seat. I silently thank my Masters for designing me, and I pay tribute to Laika, the first dog launched into space on Sputnick 2 in 1959. I hope I fare better than her since she died within the first few hours. I hope to make my Masters proud. As man’s best friend, I, Max, am now officially the second dog to enter space. Oww-oww-oww-oooooooh!

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