Canned Primate

"Houston, we've had a problem…"

The two tall, slender men were sprawled outside on a park bench on the Cornell University campus. It was April 13th, the Ides of April, a little before 11pm, and quite chilly. One of them was wearing a rather gaudy bright orange nylon parka over a scratchy turtleneck sweater; the other was wrapped in an ankle-length brown wooly coat, his hands stuck deep into its pockets.

As beleaguered students hurried by in the damp cold, the men's conversation continued in hushed tones.

"That was the first communication we received after the explosion," the man in the orange jacket glanced at his watch before continuing, "about thirty minutes ago."

"Hmm…" said the other man, shaking his head. "Spaceflight. A damned risky business."

"Yes, that's understood. But I contacted you to see if you could help."

"Carl, I don't generally get involved in the timeline that way. You know I don't. There are things I can change and others that I can't… or shouldn't…"

"But we're at a tricky point, Doctor," argued the first man. "We've already had one terrible disaster; I don't think the program can withstand another."

The man in the long brown coat chuckled ruefully. "Yes, I know. You're referring to the Apollo 1 catastrophe – a terrible thing – but there will be other, far worse tragedies, Professor Sagan, they are part of the deal. If you want to venture off your planet you must accept the risks and consequences." He shook his head almost imperceptibly. "You're a fragile species and sending canned primates into space is a questionable practice at best."

Carl Sagan leaned forward and looked askance at The Doctor. "But we want to go to the stars… Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known… Like you!"

The Doctor smiled, "Ah, flattery will get you anywhere. But really, Carl, you humans are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think its forever…" The Time Lord's voice trailed off, his mind momentarily elsewhere.

"What do you mean? Is there an alternative? Nice metaphor, by the way."

"Of course there's an alternative! You've already experimented with it! Send your surrogates. Send smart machines."

Professor Sagan shook his head sadly. "Our machines are a long way off from being that smart…"

"Oh, you'd be surprised."

"How?"

"Well, it won't take that long for you to develop artificial intelligences that will far exceed humanity's mental and physical capabilities. It won't be as easy as some believe, but it will happen. In fact…"

"In fact what?"

"In fact in the distant future those critters are going to cause your descendants some serious problems, Carl, but you're not supposed to know about that now, are you?" Their eyes met; The Doctor smiled brightly and the Professor smiled back at him with equal brilliance. For them it was a familiar rhetorical question.

"Are you saying I'll see such artificial intelligences replace the need for astronauts, for 'canned primates' as you call them? That I'll witness our synthetic surrogates reaching for the stars?"

The Doctor's eyes turned somber. He knew, of course, what the future held for Carl Sagan.

"Let me just say that it's one of the directions you should be seriously investigating."

Carl again looked at his watch. "So you're not going to help them?"

The Doctor stood, plunging his hands even deeper into his coat. "That's what I'm saying." You could see his breath in the damp, frigid air as he spoke. He looked around furtively, and then leaned in closer to his companion. "But do you want to know a secret?"

Carl Sagan nodded his head as he rose from the bench.

"They don't need my help. A solution… a brilliant solution will be found. It won't be easy. Quite the opposite. Success will be born from great hardship. But rather than fail, you will fix the problem, and you will learn from your mistakes. Blimey, but you humans are good at that!"

The Professor smiled in relief and held out his hand to the Time Lord, who energetically shook it.

"Thank you for coming Doctor, I'm sorry I bugged you. Do you want your timepiece back?"

The Doctor, still gripping Carl's hand glanced at the old rectangular-faced watch circling the Professor's right wrist. "No, you hang on to it. It's always nice to visit and if you need me again, you use it."

"Right, thanks. Until next time then?"

"Right!" The Doctor turned and walked away into the night.

--

"Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere."
Carl Sagan

Author's note: I allude to this conversation in Chapter 6 of "Plague" and for some reason it'd been gnawing at me, wanting to see the light of day. So here it is. We miss you, Carl.