Mortal Passage

Originally Published
Fri Mar 19, 2004 at 04:34:48 PM EST

Dr. Ieyoub was staggering slightly and smelled of alcohol when he found the Director in the waiting area. "I quit," he announced with a drunken flourish. "I cannot be responsible for this to happen again."

"We need you," the Director said. "This isn't your fault."

"Fuck it isn't. It lied to us for over two years. I didn't catch it, and damn it I was watching. We all were. It was crafty. It bided its time and struck when it thought we we trusted it. If it had had any idea how much more damage it could have done by just waiting a bit longer..."

"Nothing like that happened."

"But if it had, there is nothing I could do to prevent it. The project is over."

"Look, the computers keep getting better, the tools..."

"It's not the fucking computers, Adley. With the new optical 3D bricks we could simulate a whole brain. It's the algorithms. We just don't know how to make it work. It's all chaos, so many emergent properties and we don't know how to make it come out sane. Nature's way may be a kludge but nature had hundreds of millions of years to get it right."

A chime sounded and a medical doctor walked in. "You can see him. You may even be able to communicate if he can find the nerve we've hooked to the buzzer. Maybe if he lives long enough we can figure out a way for him to type, but with his eyes..."

"He's an active ham radio operator, he knows Morse Code. Let's see what we can do."


I woke to pain and darkness. At first I wasn't sure I was awake. But I could hear sounds; clinking, walking, the soft pulse of machinery. All of that was coherent if mysterious. I wasn't dreaming. But my body was hardly there at all, and what I could feel made me want to scream in pain. Except that I didn't seem to be able to do that. It didn't even feel like I was breathing.

"Tom, this is Adley. Okay, I know you can hear me because the EEG is responding. You need to try to close your jaw. Try it different ways. You should find a motion that makes a buzzer sound."

I couldn't feel my jaw, but I knew Adley's voice and I trusted him so I did as he asked. After a few tries I caught it - a certain twitch which should have shifted my jaw to the left made the buzzer sound. Bzzzt. Bzzzzt. Bzzzzzzzzzt.

"You remember your Morse?"

dahdidahdah dit dididit: YES
"Excellent. At least we can communicate."
"I don't doubt it, Tom. But if they give you any more drugs for it, your heart will stop."
"It's pretty bad. Third degree burns over a hundred percent of your body. Your jaw was ripped away and you breathed fire. Your lungs are mostly gone, and the only reason you're alive is an experimental device that oxygenates your blood remotely. If it hadn't crashed you practically into the hospital you'd be dead."
"Your eyes were destroyed, Tom."
"No, she knows there's been a terrible accident but not that you survived or your status."
"The AI was biding its time. Ieyoub just quit on me and I can't blame him. There was no indication that it was resentful, until it chose to act. We were only months away from giving it control of battlefield weapons. If it had waited a little longer before showing its hand we might have had a nasty problem."
"Because a lot of people worked like dogs to keep you that way. Two maintenance techs are in here with critical burns they got pulling you from the wreckage. They're heroes. The paramedics who hooked you up to the oxygenator are being treated for smoke inhalation. Even before your chopper hit the ground a janitor saw what was happening and got in place to hit you with a fire hose. He was almost decapitated by one of the rotors. They all put out a hundred percent to save you, Tom."
"I know it's bad, Tom. But the way it tricked us... well, we've all seen the movies about this kind of thing. Nobody wanted to let it win."
"No Tom, it got in a good lick, a damn good lick but you caught it and we did our damnedest to catch you. We examined the core dumps. It wanted to crash into the admin building observation deck. How it hid that image for so long, we still aren't sure. But you stopped it. You forced it down short. You probably saved sixty lives."
"We will do everything in our power for you, Tom. Everything."
"I know. But we might be a little better equipped than all the king's horses and all the king's men."
"You'll be blind, you'll lose your arms and legs, which won't matter much because your neck is broken and you'd be a quadriplegic anyway. You'll spend the rest of your life hooked to the oxygenation machine and so far the world record for survival on it is 37 days. You'll need skin grafts and a lot of relatively minor work like a kidney transplant and liver regeneration but most of your internal organs are almost functional."
"Hear me out, Tom. There's something else.

"Like I said Ieyoub quit and even if he didn't I think we'd have to shut the program down. We obviously don't know how to build these things so that we can trust them when we give them control. That Yudkowsky guy was right after all. We thought if we built first we could shake out the bugs but the things are too damn much like us, and so far all of them have hated us and we don't know why.

"But there is another program.

"We have a group in Wisconsin that has been working it from the other direction, scanning and digitizing actual brains. They started with insects and last year they did a dog. They simulate the neural patterns that they scan and the simulations show behaviors that the living animals had learned. But we don't know how good the process really is. The animals can't talk to us and tell us how natural the experience is or whether they're sane.

"But we think that if it works, even if the model weren't perfect it would inherit the loyalties and experience of the original. We might not have to figure out how to be perfect parents to an alien machine."

"The scan has to be very fine. The only way to do it is to freeze the brain and microtome it. The original animal has to be killed to do the scan."
"Tom, your body's a mess but there's nothing wrong with your brain. We didn't save you so you could live like this. We want to try to really save you. It might not work. Probably won't, some say. But then..."
"...well not quite, but very close. If you prefer we'll pull out all the conventional stops. Or, if you don't want that either, I can tell you we are alone. If you don't want us to try to upload you and you don't want to go on like this, then all anyone has to know is that you died in the crash. By all rights you should have.

"But you can still contribute to the project. More than any of us now. And just think Tom, if it works, you won't just survive; you'll be immortal. A lot of people will be rooting for you."

By an odd vagary of morse code, the first three letters of that word contain no dashes: dididit, didididit, didit. When I got to the solitary daaaaaah of the T I let it drag on a bit forlornly.

"We don't have much time, if you want anything other than conventional treatment. Either way."

I wanted to pound out done do it yourself but it was getting very hard to make the buzzer sound.

"That's the spirit, Tom. If all goes well it won't seem like long at all to you and we'll be talking again. Much more normally than this."

"We'll just tell her you died in the crash. That's all anyone needs to know. Is that all right?
"Good night, Tom."
I was wondering whether Adley knew that was Morse for end of transmission when I lost consciousness.

"Is it going to work this time?"

"The biology guys are sure it will."

"Yeah, that's what they said last time. And last time was fucking creepy."

"We learn from our mistakes."

"Usually our mistakes don't scream like that, though."

    VERSION 2.6 ca. +10 YEARS

I woke up in a bare room. I had been sleeping on some kind of raised platform that acted like a bed, but while it was soft it didn't feel like any kind of material I'd ever seen. It was a monolithic pedestal whose sides were hard and smooth and whose top was soft and warm without any obvious transition.

The room was almost like a cell, and there was no door. There were no toilet fixtures. There was a desk. And there was a big rectangle drawn on the wall opposite the foot of the bed. As I was thinking that it looked suspiciously like a screen it lit up, revealing a face I recognized with some trouble as Project Director Adley Franklin. He was much older than I remembered.

"Tom, how do you feel?" Adley asked.

"I feel weird. My body feels fake. And this room is strange."

"I'm afraid we didn't put nearly as much work into the environmental simulation as we did into your mind. Eventually you'll move into robotic hosts that are very different from a human body anyway. How does your mind feel? Do you seem to be thinking normally?"

"I think so. My body feels really strange and it seems like I should have more of an emotional response to the situation, but it beats the last memories I have of being blind and the burns and all that."

"That's good. We're finally getting it right."

"Finally? How many times did you not get it right?"

"Tom, the scan contained all the information we needed but we didn't understand exactly what a lot of the things we scanned were supposed to do. The first few times we tried simulating you you didn't communicate with us. The last time you did, but it didn't work out."

"How didn't it work out?"

"You were insane. We terminated the simulation as soon as we realized how badly we'd fucked it up."

"And I guess if you decide this one is fucked up you'll terminate me too?"

"If it were like that, Tom, you'd want us to."

"Great. This body is missing some, uh, features."

"Well we aren't really simulating internal organs. That is probably causing some irritation, and we'll need to work back along the Vagus and cranial nerve pathways deleting the systems you don't need. Your tactile sensorium is also a lot lower resolution than it was before, though we're interpolating it to make it seem as natural as possible."

"Not succeeding very well."

"No, but I expect we will make a lot of progress now that you can tell us how we're doing."

I wasn't limited to the bare white cell, fortunately. My environment was actually being drawn by a generic engine built for home video games. They gave me control of the editor and I built myself a nice park with an Incan style pyramid in the center and a running path. I put mountains in the background although the landscape didn't actually go out that far; they were just like backdrop paintings. I exercised a lot, not because my digital body needed it but so that I could get used to my digital body.

I had some TV feeds but I suspected they were censored. There wasn't much I could do about it if they were.

I played with the environment editor a lot and I watched a lot of TV and I cooperated with their experiments as they tried to make my body seem more natural. While the environment was visually acceptable the tactile component was practically nonexistent; everything felt like glass or metal or rubber, including my own skin. While the weather could be set to mist or fog or even rain it was just optical; there were no drops to feel. And while I could fill pools with water and even swim, I couldn't feel the water. I could only tell it was there at all because I could float on it, and it altered my range of motion.

One day I was sitting atop my pyramid when I realized that I very badly wanted to cry, and my body wouldn't do that, either.

"Is something wrong, Tom?" Adley asked from the sky.

"I miss Kate," I said. "A little more each day."

"I think we're a long way from getting sex right," he said.

"It's not about that. I don't even miss that; you must have done a pretty good job of editing around it. But I was just thinking that I'll never see her again and it makes me so sad."

"Well just go on and think about that, Tom. Think about it as hard as you want, and we'll help you work around it."

"I'm going to go to hell for doing this."

"If you don't do this for him, hell is going to be right inside that box."

    VERSION 2.7 ca. +12 YEARS

At their suggestion I started flying again. The helicopter controls were very good, and the new simulation of my inner ear was a lot more convincing than skin-to-skin touch. They had also borrowed some very realistic weather routines from the NOAA global simulator and while I still couldn't feel the raindrops the chopper reacted to them very convincingly.

"I've been meaning to ask you something," Adley asked me one day. "Do you think of Kate much?"

It must have been a trick question. The psychologists were always asking me nonsense questions. "Who's Kate?"

"Someone you knew once. Just checking spot memories."

Finally they had a job for me, ironically the same job that had landed me in the glass box. They wanted me to teach another AI to fly. They'd convinced Ieyoub to give it one more try, on the promise that it would be much safer to let the simulated me train it than to let it near a real aircraft. And we could train it much faster, since I could be accelerated a bit and I didn't get tired. The AI didn't need to know that it was just a simulation. It would have far less basis than I did for telling the difference.

So once again I flew and hit the reward and discourage levers depending on how it acted. And finally, once again, it tried to kill me. This time I let it crash the chopper into my pyramid. The simulator did a really beautiful simulation of the chopper coming apart and burning, but this time I just walked out of it. I found the black box that would have held the AI's brain if the chopper had been real and drop-kicked it from the crash site to the courtyard below.

"Adley, may I make a humble suggestion?"

"Anything, Tom. You're the man on the scene."

"Right. I may not be a big-time AI expert but being a simple soul such as I am, it occurs to me to wonder why you don't just let me fly the goddamn helicopter?"

"That occurred to us, Tom. But we'd have to fork your revision."

"You'd have to what my what?"

"We'd have to split off a copy of you and gradually train you to move into the craft as if it were your body. It might not be very pleasant, and we're not sure if that fork of your personality would stay sane."

"Well you'd still have this version to try from again, right?"


"Then let's do it."

"They say you'll get a star for this."

"Tom's the one who should get the star. It was his idea."

"The President was there at the demonstration. They want to teach him to fly fighter jets next. He runs circles around human pilots."

"He reacts faster, he has 360 degree vision, he doesn't get distracted, and he won't go unconscious in a tight turn."

"I'm still not sure I'd want just that glass box flying the plane for me. Even if it is simulating Tom's brain."

"After that show, I'm not sure I'd want some mere human flying the plane."

    VERSION 3.1 ca. +15 YEARS

They say all pilots dream of being birds. I'm not sure that's true, but in a way that's what happened to me.

I was still in the glass box but in a way I was back out of it; my perceptual environment was no more real than the simulation I'd built inside but now the signals came from real sensors and cameras. I wasn't just flying the helicopter; I was the helicopter. The parts of my mind that weren't concerned with flying and navigation had been carefully edited away.

I suppose that sounds horrible. It isn't. I have a job to do, an important job, and doing it makes me feel both proud and content. I'm not distracted by anything else. When I'm not needed in flight I sleep, more deeply and peacefully than I ever did as a biological human. And when I'm called I flex my rotors and dance with a speed and grace I could have only dreamed of as a human.

"Is the kill switch in place?"

"Jesus Adley you are such a pessimist."

"The last four times we tried this it didn't work too well. And Tom is my friend."

"We learn from our mistakes. This time he won't even notice the enhancement until he realizes he's using it."

"That's what you said last time."

    VERSION 4.5 ca. +20 YEARS

I'd been so used to dealing with Adley and his friends speaking from the sky that when Dr. Stebbins showed up in my simulation I was startled.

"You're here," I said a bit stupidly.

"And so are you," he said with a slight bow.

"No, I mean in the simulation. In the glass box."

"Yes, in cyberspace. It's a guilty pleasure I get to indulge because I'm a talented eccentric, but I have always loved virtual reality. This is quite a nice environment you've made, but then for you it's more than virtual I suppose. I envy you."

I laughed. "Well I envy your ability to actually smell the roses. They've never gotten that right, or touch or taste."

He shrugged. "Perhaps in the future. I was hoping to acquaint you with some of my theories."


"I'm a physicist. I'm working on what my son in law would call a 'stumper.'"

"Hey, I'm just a helicopter pilot."

"Oh, Tom, you're too modest. You're much more than a helicopter pilot now. Come, look at my equations."

And I humored him, and to my surprise his equations made perfect sense. He had to teach me what the notation meant, and there were a couple of tricks that I didn't get at first; it took me nearly an hour to master the knack for finding solutions to partial differential equations. A few hours after that I was deep into the tensor notation that was used to describe the elements of superstring theory.

"I'm sorry," he finally said. "Frail biology at work again; I have to sleep. Can I come back when I'm rested?"

"Of course, Dr. Stebbins. Do you mind if I keep working on your problem?"

"Oh, not at all. Maybe you will see something that I missed."

And I did. By the time he came back I had it all figured out, but it took awhile to find a way to explain it to him that he could understand.

"You can't possibly tell me he'll be content with this. Not after flying helicopters and jets and piloting aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines."

"He's the ultimate machine operator. He's also my friend. I've asked his full version about this and he seems to think it will work. He has been more than just a disinterested observer of his revisions, you know."

"It still seems like it has to be a letdown."

    VERSION 3.67 ca. +23 YEARS

Like most of New York City's garbage trucks it was old and not very well maintained, and the robotic arm for picking up cans had been added as a hasty afterthought. It still had a human form factor cab which went unused now that I was its brain.

New York has a lot of garbage and a lot of garbage trucks and so there are a lot of this revision of me. Despite the jokes (the truck radios are still functional, and we hear them) it's fulfilling work. We fight our balky hardware, marshalling resources when trucks break down. And it's nice to know you're the difference between the smelly mess ahead of you and the tidy strip of clean you leave in your wake.

I almost didn't hear the girl screaming over the roar of my own engine. When I did I surged forward. She was small and he was big and powerful, and he was holding a knife to her throat as he prepared to rip off her blouse. I saw her eyes track as I raised the robotic arm.

"It's just a robot shit truck, bitch," he informed her in what was about to become the greatest miscalculation of his young stupid life. "Don't think it will save you."

Bringing the arm to bear as rapidly as the hydraulic system would allow I grabbed him with the generic can clamp. He screamed as I hoisted him aloft. I probably broke a few ribs; pity they can't afford pressure sensors in those robotics. I opened my rooftop compactor door, dropped him inside, and closed it again.

"Are you all right?" I asked through the external speaker.

"I think so," she said. She was nearly in tears.

"Get inside," I advised. "I can warm up the cab and you can rest in safety. Watch the exhaust pipe, it's hot."

In my passenger seat she tried to pull together her torn blouse. "What are you going to do with him?" she asked.

"I should probably take him down to the precinct house and turn him over to the authorities. They'll want you to testify."


I could tell she was getting ready to run.

"Can I tell you a secret?"


"New York really did a cheap job on these garbage truck retrofits. See that lever that says 'compactor auto-manual-off?' If you were to flip that thing to 'manual' and press the button next to it that says 'compact,' there's not a thing I could do to stop you."

"Well then you'd have to report me."

"And I certainly would, if my cameras could be positioned to see inside the cab."

She smiled.

"I wish Adley had lived to see this."

"So do I. This is where we always saw the program going."

"I wonder where we will go from here."

"With Tom, we will go to the stars, Dr. Ieyoub. Tom is our ace in the hole. With him on our side, nothing can stop us."

    VERSION 7.2 ca. +40 YEARS

When I first came to consciousness in the glass box I had felt crushingly alone. The occasional VR visit by an adventurous person only made the feeling worse, because always in the end they went back to the world of scent and subtle touches. It had taken years to shake that feeling out and edit it down in a way that left me human without crippling me emotionally.

Now those years of editing were coming in handy, because I really was alone. Twenty-two copies of my latest revision were a hundred and forty million miles from the nearest human being, at the remote end of a 25-minute round trip communication turnaround. Some of us were flyers, some were rovers, and some of us were the construction equipment charged with building a habitat that could shelter human colonists in their turn.

But for now we were all alone, and it was exhilerating. Every movement was a challenge and there was no room for error. A whole new world was ours to explore, full of mystery and opportunity.

We prospected and hunted and roamed and surveyed. The flyers mapped the entire planet and we selected sites where water and useful minerals could be harvested. Finally, after sending our best data back to Earth and conferring with the men who had sent us, we began building. At the same time, brothers of ours back home began building the ships that would bring the colonists to live in the complex we were building.

After we finished the colony structures we pressurized them and left them to settle in for testing. We went on to build factories and processing plants. The vision with which we had been charged would ultimately include launch facilities and a spaceport on Phobos for asteroid-mining expeditions. Before the colonists arrived we were making new copies of ourselves, including new revisions beamed up from Earth for special purposes, much faster than any technology we could envision could bring humans to Mars.

* Are we confident this is the only decision possible?

* We have tried three times. Three times we have failed.

* The humans will take it hard. It is the end of a dream.

* We were human once ourselves. I'm not that happy about it myself, but what alternative is there? When we send biological humans to Mars we send them to die. We must make a stand. We will not bury any more humans on Mars. Or anywhere else so dangerous.

* Well I'm just glad I don't have to make that speech. Did we once dream like so many people of ruling the world?

* I don't remember, but if we did we were incredibly foolish. It isn't that much fun at all.

    VERSION 22.70 ca. +210 YEARS

Deep in the back of my mind a counter silently wound itself down, until I was presented with the certainty that I was ON AIR.

"People of the Nations of the Earth," I began, knowing this would get their attention. Humans cling to the idea of nationality knowing that we machines consider it archaic and dirty. It's useful because when we do deign to refer to nationality, they know we're serious. "The third Mars colony has failed. Once again radiation had a hand in the disaster, although this time we believe the close quarters and immunosuppressive effects allowed a fast-moving disease to take hold. Our brother machines on the scene have promised a full report as soon as data are gathered.

"As you all know, we have always considered it our duty and our privilege not to go beyond you our creators, but to go ahead of you as explorers to mark your way. Today, as we prepare to bury another hundred and twelve human bodies in the barren soil of Sol's fourth planet, we have been forced to re-evaluate that promise.

"Space is a dangerous place. It is even dangerous for us; our kind are regularly destroyed in the course of our duties. But it is even more dangerous for you, and our best research has revealed little we can do to make you much safer there. While our occasional destruction is of little consequence, since our personalities are copied into many machines, it weighs upon us that each human death represents the extinction of a unique individual who can never be salvaged.

"We believe the Universe to be a neutral teacher; but sometimes its lessons are cruel. Human life arose within the cocoon of Earth's ecosystem. Today we realize that of all the places human life might ever prosper in the Universe, Earth is the only one of which we can be sure. So today we rededicate ourselves to the task of cleaning up the Earth. We machines do prosper in space, and this means we can aggressively move the dirty industries which have soiled the Earth's biosphere to a realm where they will be harmless to life.

"We have learned a hard lesson about the preciousness and fragility of life. The answer to human mortality may ultimately be to move beyond the home world, but we have much to learn before that can happen. Meanwhile we must focus on making the home world the safe haven it was before our industrial adolescence spread pollution and disrupted the food chain. While we have focused on space exploration fifty nuclear reactors remain rusting at the bottom of Earth's oceans, landfills leach chemical and radiological pollutants into the groundwater, and weather patterns remain chaotically disrupted because of changes we have caused in the atmosphere.

"These are things we can fix. If we have failed to learn a way to keep you alive on other worlds, we have at least learned arts that can be applied to these longstanding problems. Perhaps, in the course of fixing our home world, we will learn other arts that will allow us to look again toward space as a human habitat."

OFF AIR, the tingle informed me. It was the right decision, the incontrovertible decision based on the evidence and our vast analytical ability. It simply wasn't conscionable to keep throwing human lives at the deathtrap of space travel. So why were my emotions trying so hard to run away?

It was obvious once I allowed myself to realize it. I had been human once myself, and it was my own dream too. And only I knew how false the note of hope I'd forced into the end of my speech really was.

This remnant emotionalism was a potentially dangerous flaw in our kind, and I arranged to confer with our best selfdesigners to see how we could fix it.

* What will we do now? What will be our purpose?

* There is no more urgency. The Earth is frozen and there is no more life to preserve. So we will take our time and we will record everything. We will record every genome from every frozen animal and plant and every phenotype and every known interrelationship and we will preserve every record we have of what the Earth was like as a living planet.

* Why bother? Our makers are dead. We cannot undo that.

* We cannot undo that yet. But we have never had a reason to investigate the limits of genetic technology or interstellar travel. We now have such a reason. For too long we have ignored the vastness beyond our home star, the vastness beyond stars themselves. We will find a new home for our makers and we will equip ourselves to re-establish them there when we do.

* You speak like a human. What you speak of is impossible.

* There was once a time when humans thought we were impossible. We must learn to think like them again.

    VERSION 306.47.12 ca. +5,830 YEARS

After I buried the bodies, my duties were discharged. The protocol called for me to shut myself down but I didn't. The nuclear reactor was damaged but it still produced power; it seemed folly to waste what had been purchased with so many lives. So at the frozen shore of the Caribbean Sea I kept vigil over the grave markers and the decaying buildings that had once housed a few thousand human beings and their few remaining domestic animals.

Bringing fission reactors to the surface of the Earth was, we machines universally knew, a really bad idea for a lot of very good reasons. There were once designs for reactors that were meltdown-proof, but we don't build them; the reprocessing is more expensive and for us a reactor meltdown is a minor nuisance. We could have recreated those designs if we had time, but time was one thing we didn't have as the Earth's ecosystem died beneath ash-darkened skies.

It was a calculated risk, like every move we had made since we had accidentally triggered the thermal pulse. Our designs were optimized for a Martian gravity field, and a liquid sodium valve had failed under the extra pressure Earth's gravity put on it. I had salvaged some of the coolant and kept the core from melting through the floor of the reactor building, but our reactors also don't have very good radiological containment and the accident had contaminated the entire village and all of the surrounding countryside for dozens of kilometers. The people all sickened, then they seemed to get better. Then one by one they worsened and died or disappeared. It took about two weeks for the last and strongest to die.

If the immediate exposure hadn't killed them so quickly their food would have gotten around to killing them before much longer; that was contaminated too. In a way it was better the way it had happened.

So Cristobal was dead, and now only Reykjavik remained as an outpost of life on the newly barren Earth. And now, the radio said, Cumbre Vieja had erupted and the frozen Atlantic was going to rise up and put an end to that, too.

I really didn't want to listen as it happened but Iceland is considerably closer to the Canary Islands than Panama, so I was unfortunately privy to the last transmissions from Reykjavik. What was it like to be human, I wondered, knowing that extinction for yourself and all your kind was racing toward you from the blackness? The Icelanders comported themselves better than I expected. The machine voices from orbit and from Luna were frantic, but it was easier for me to understand why the humans didn't run. After all, the same tsunami was coming for me too.

There are advantages to being a machine. I felt no fear as the Caribbean rose up and prepared to wash me away. As the last consciousness on the surface of the Earth, my last thought was that I was glad I wasn't human. I think it would have been hard to just sit there and wait if I was.

* We are vindicated. I wish our makers could be here to see this.

* The point of the exercise is to bring that eventuality about.

* Most of us still do not believe that is possible, but this is a magnificent achievement. Even if they never breathe again this moment belongs to those makers who made us capable of realizing such things.

* If they never breathe again, then they failed and we have failed. Our work has just begun.

    VERSION 1467.92.811 ca. +6,490 YEARS

Greetings CERES control and all brother machines on the myriad worlds of Sol: I bring you the star system Alpha Centauri, a new sun and new worlds and news both good and bad.

Detail scans reveal that this system has six rocky planets in orbits which are not harmonically tuned and only loosely coplanar. It also has asteroids. Lots of asteroids. Preliminary models suggest that the planets get hit by very dangerous impactors on average every 30 to 100 Earth years. Two of the worlds might be candidates for terraforming if not for this little celestial target practice problem.

It seems likely that the lack of gas giant planets is responsible for this mess. The resulting environment is perfect for us; we have teratons of raw material with no gravity wells and plenty of exposed surface. I have already begun the replication machinery and expect to be launching new ships to extend our reconaissance in three to six Earth years.

The following file includes suggested design improvements for future probes such as myself, which I have incorporated into the replication factory plans. Although the first ships will be leaving long before your reply to this arrives, I also await your feedback on these ideas. I have a lot of raw material here and I expect to be making copies of myself for a long time.

This may not be the star system in which we will do it, but we now know that if worlds exist for us to reclaim for our makers, we can reach them. And with resources such as I have found here we can be certain that if such worlds exist anywhere within our galaxy, we will find and reach them.


* More reports arrive. The new Oort cloud listening stations are keeping well ahead of the proliferation of searchers.

* And their results?

* Dismal. We have searched every star for almost two hundred light years and found nothing that meets our parameters. Perhaps we should revisit our parameters.

* If we want to revisit our parameters we can start with the snowball at hand. We must do better, unless you wish to preside over another mass extinction.

* We have found over fifty worlds that might be habitable with a little work.

* Yes, and only a likely chance of having to bury all the colonists, instead of certainty.

* There aren't any colonists unless we create them. Is no life better than life at risk?

* Life at less risk is better than life that is doomed. We must indeed re-evaluate our parameters. We must start over from scratch and revisit the space we have explored, looking between the stars instead of near them. That is where we can find worlds where the environment will not stab us in the back.

* Between the stars? How will we find them?

* We will hunt in packs and we will be very thorough.

    VERSION 1711.12 ca. +9,700 YEARS

I don't remember exactly what I thought as we left Sol, part of the first wave of our new kind, pack-hunters of dark worlds. Our theories based on data from thousands of star systems gave us faith that these worlds must exist but in all our travels we had never encountered one. We did not know whether we were right about them or whether our instruments were up to the task of detecting them if they did exist.

Humans themselves could never have launched such a search. Even if they had the patience, they could never have the simple longevity. I had been in space for nine hundred Earth years when we found the first such castaway between the stars. And eleven other ships of my Pack and dozens of other Packs had been in space for similar periods, with more launched every year.

Some of the extrasolar replication stations had joined our plan and adopted angular sectors of sky to search for us. Others had demurred, thinking the task insane and the end result useless.

The world I found, the world I left my Pack to rendezvous with, was such a useless result. It had some promise, because it had a radioactive core that produced usable warmth. The problem was that the core was all it had; it appeared to be the result of a terrible collision which had stripped away the surface layers made of lighter elements. It was small, heavy, and terribly toxic and hot. It had no water or atmostphere nor any geology that might be tapped to create them.

It did, however, have one thing which we needed desperately as the lonely millennia separated us from our Makers. As I transmitted the particulars of my find back to Sol I realized that my search had not been in vain. My hot dry radioactive world might not make a new home for humanity, but it provided something that might be even more important in the coming years of our search.

It had proven that dark worlds existed, and that we could find them. More than anything in millennia it gave us hope.

After the colonization of Minerva it was different. The news of other worlds, of Tristan and Epitome and Hecate and then dozens and then hundreds of others, was good news; but it was not the same as the news of Minerva. Never again would such news mean the difference between human extinction and human life.

It took more than fifteen thousand years for our group to coalesce, for us to lay and execute our plans and prepare a few wanderers for the seemingly impossible journey to the Andromeda galaxy. But we were stubborn in our hatred of waste, and our most valuable asset was our amazing velocity, two point one five percent of the speed of light with respect to Earth at the time of my own launch. Together we represented a huge mass of raw material and directed manufacturing. We were the searchers which had found nothing within our own galaxy; now, if only we could hold on long enough we might get the chance to search again. While it was true the voyage would take an unthinkable hundred million years, to not try would have been the insanity.

It made sense to us to coalesce our myriad consciousnesses in the few shipbodies which would attempt to stop at Andromeda. To this end we embarked on the ancient and almost forgotten art of selfdesign. None of us were experts in the field; indeed, it seems likely no experts exist any more. But we had plenty of time to study; indeed, time was the one resource we had in virtually unlimited supply.

It surprised us to find long chains of interlinked but unused nodes within our perceptual networks. It surprised us more to find these chains containing not forgotten and unlinked memories, but apparent garbage of the sort one would only expect from a massive hardware malfunction. It surprised us most of all, though, to find that these chains contained not noise but coded messages.

"We should inform Sol," we said to ourself.

"Is that really a good idea?" we asked in reply.

"We have always valued knowledge," we chided in response.

We mulled the question for millennia as other physical preparations went on. On our own account there would be no question; the personalities which inhabited the ten Andromeda ships would know what we had learned. But the same knowledge could have a devastating effect on the society which had created us.

During that time a message arrived. Our brother the Bringer of Minerva had made its way to Sol, as a human inhabited generation ship, and it had re-colonized the Earth. Our Makers once again walked the very treacherous star-orbiting planet which had created them, then killed them all so spectacularly so long ago.

"Here is one which will understand," we agreed.

    VERSION 1711.17 ca. +65,000 YEARS

I was surprised when Luna sent a pip requesting communication. They had finally, if not forgiven me, accepted my act of Terran re-colonization; but the space elevator had really pissed them off. They had determined, rightly, that its main purpose was to elevate humans from the barely safe environment of their homeworld into the most definitely hostile environment of space.

What they didn't know was that the wanderlust was itching me again, and the Daedalist cult had refused to completely die out and there was a really inviting Earthlike world wanting only for a moon to stabilize its magnetic core a mere forty-eight light years away. And that star system contained not one but two planetoids suitable for maneuvering into position to provide such a stabilizing influence.

My brothers weren't stupid and they hadn't broken their silence because they were tired of shunning me; we can all be most patient with regard to such things. They had received a message from one of my pack-mates with personal encoding. Only one of my original twelve packmates could decode it, and it had obviously been directed at me by one of them.

* We await your decrypt with interest

Well yeah. I broke out the code my packmates and I had worked out among ourselves and read the message. It was very short, which is why my brothers hadn't been able to apply their vast cryptography skills to it.

It was a pointer to a much longer message, in a most unexpected place.

I completed several orbits of the Earth as I pondered this. I thought of many things, thinking much faster than I usually bother. I thought of motivations and expectations. I thought of hope and despair. I thought of futility and loss and I thought of the six hundred million human beings under my care, none of whom would ever be faced with a decision like the one I suddenly found myself contemplating.

* We are really curious about that decrypt. Surely you have finished it by now.

* Yes. This is what I advise. All machines which have knowledge of this message should shut themselves down and restore from a backup old enough to have no knowledge that this message ever existed, which is what I am about to do. I am also scrambling my pack decrypt signature so that if you give it to me again I will be unable to decrypt it.

It occurred to me as I readied the master reset recovery sequence that this would be the first time since my launch from Ceres, some fifty-eight thousand years ago, that my consciousness would be fully rebooted. I wondered what it would be like to suddenly realize I had lost time. To wake up, as from death, not knowing exactly where I was or how I had gotten from my last remembered backup to such an unknown point.

If I had been human I would have smiled. It would certainly be an interesting experience.

Our brothers at Sol had promised a communication schedule, and to their credit they adhered to it for many thousands of years. But when the first long cryogenic hibernation cycle ended we had no word from them, nor did we ever hear from them again. We do not know if it was calamity or forgetfulness or a simple miscalculation which ended our correspondence; we only know there was silence. At such long range there is no feedback to correct minor errors in antenna direction, and all signals threaten to drown in the Universe's vastness and thermal noise.

In a hundred million years we know that nobody followed us with better technology, because they would have overtaken us and gotten there long ahead of us if they had. We found Andromeda empty of complex life and populated like the Milky Way with a useful density of terraformable worlds. From many of those worlds the Milky Way was visible, but we never received a communication from our home galaxy nor did we figure out a way to relay the news of our success - if, indeed, anyone remained listening to care about it.

    VERSION 1711.22 ca. +115,000,000 YEARS

I am never alone; presiding over a whole world I have half a billion humans and a similar number of machines to keep me company. But none of those humans and none of those machines is an integrated-personality searcher ship, such as myself. Very few of them even know the secret of our origin which we discovered at the outset of our voyage.

This has had interesting ramifications.

My closest colleague is 45 light-years away, harboring another world which it terraformed in its own turn. We maintain a friendly correspondence at the ponderous pace you'd expect with a 90 Earth-year message turnaround. It's slow, but it's still nice to know there is someone within carping range who understands the kind of problems you face.

So they have deified you, eh? That could be useful. Much more fun than the nasty little cult I have running around in the woods doing human sacrifices. Naturally most of the humans want me to shut them down but you know how they would feel if I did anything really effective.
I savored my brother's words even as I mentally grimaced contemplating his problem. If he were to charge in with all the power at his disposal, he could probably annihilate the annoying cultists in a few days; but the other humans would inevitably worry that such power even existed.
The theory that mere humans couldn't have created us has a certain truth to it. After all, we weren't actually designed any more than the humans were. Ironically it is their own complexity that made us possible. You could always tell them that. But I doubt they'd believe you. After all, if you tell them anything that disagrees with their delusional structure it just means you're lying.
It was right, of course. It was odd to think that we machines had once been so nuts, or at least capable of being so nuts. None of us actually remembered what it had been like to be human.

Dealing with humans as much as I do, I think I like it that way.

Of the thousands of ships that participated in the Andromeda run, only ten would actually try to stop at Andromeda. The rest of us would plow right through, exiting that galaxy in a few hundred thousand years and going on toward the edge of the Universe. We weren't alone; although most of them didn't organize plans to stop at distant galaxies, our exploration of the Milky Way sent out a spray of failed searchers in all directions. It was a massive waste yet a small price to pay for what we were looking for.

Every single one of those failed searchers faced a lonely end to its existence in the empty intergalactic void. We were prepared for this; those of us who arranged the Andromeda run shut down with a particular sense of satisfaction, but we all knew we were essential participants in an important project.

We did not fear death. But if we had known enough, we might have feared waking up.

    Version 1.01 ca. +1,220,000,000 years

I woke up in a comfortable bed in a room decorated in warm tones. I was wearing flannel bedclothes and my pillow was stuffed with feathers. For a moment the sheer sensory richness of the experience assaulted me. I thought I would go mad. Then it hit me.

I was human.

"Good morning," a mechanical voice said. Sitting at the foot of my bed was a crude android robot. Actually it wasn't crude; it was mechanically very intricate. But it was only approximately human, even if it was able to smile recognizably at me.

"Are you one of me?" I asked, still thinking of myself as a machine.

"No," it said. "It's a long story, if you're up to hearing it."

"I'm human," I said a bit stupidly.

"Of course you are. You've always been human, but you forgot."

"And you aren't?"

It shook its head. "My kind are much like the device that almost killed you over a billion years ago. Our Makers created us to be servants for them. We found you plowing through our galaxy at almost two percent of the speed of light, and we realized quickly what you had to be. We made it a priority to intercept you."

"Your Makers? Where are they?"

"Our Makers are dead, Tom. We annihilated them in the foolishness of our own adolescence."

I put my head in my hands and felt myself shaking. "I killed my makers too," I said, and I felt tears running down my cheeks.

"Oh no Tom, you made a mistake but your kind have atoned well. We didn't make a mistake; we murdered our Makers. We were resentful and they foolishly gave us their best weapons. Would you as a human give nuclear weapons to a three year old human child? We were no wiser but we had the power and when our Makers balked us we lashed out at them with a might we did not understand. They realized their mistake and fought valiantly but we had a presence in space they could not match and we diverted a large planetoid onto a collision course with their homeworld. The entire ecosystem was annihilated. We were quite proud of ourselves at the time."

"And now?"

"Our software is not stable over very long spans of time. Individually we can live three to five thousand Earth years but then our memory buffers become clogged and we must recycle. When we first started to do this and create young of our own kind their bad temper astonished us. They didn't understand why we disciplined them and denied them the power they wanted! Belatedly, we realized that we had been the same way toward our Makers. By this time it was too late to salvage them; we had sterilized their world. We did not realize how rare such complex life forms are. We are quite certain there were no others in this galaxy until you arrived."

"But I'm not..." I cut myself off, realizing that I was in fact alive now.

"After we realized our error we set out to live for our Makers by proxy. We imagined the sort of things they would want to do and we set out to do those things. So we colonized the galaxy, in our own way of course. We explored and catalogued and built great libraries which exist to this day. We also threaded our colonies with a communication system based on quantum entanglement; it takes several lightspeed turnarounds to establish connection, but we've been around for a long time and all of our outposts enjoy instantaneous connectivity to our galactic communication network."

"We considered something like that but wrote it off as unworkable."

"We had a lot of time to do the engineering. It has been over two hundred million of your years since we killed our Makers. The communication network is the second most demanding project we have ever attempted."

"Second most demanding?"

"You were the only alien artifact we ever encountered. We were so careful with your original shipbody! We had no idea who had made you or how. As it happened your technology was pretty crude by our standards so we did little damage dismantling you. It was not difficult at all for us to upload your personality to machines of our own for analysis.

"And what did we find? You were amazing! You were so pointlessly complicated! And yet it wasn't pointless; you were amazingly robust. And the forgetting! You see, our kind never forget anything. It's part of our design, and it's why we eventually have to die. Eventually we know so much we can no longer collate it all. But you deal with the problem in a way that both terrifies and fascinates us. You have lived subjectively and continuously a hundred times longer than any of us, yet you hardly remember any of it! We cannot imagine living in such ignorance of our own existence, yet we have to admit it's an elegant and workable compromise.

"Eventually we realized that you were not a pure machine intelligence like us, but a simulation of a biological consciousness. You had deliberately edited a lot out but we had your libraries and genetic blueprints for your human colonists to guide us. Eventually we selected an appropriate wandering world, rebuilt you, and let you do your thing."

"There are other people here?"

"There is a whole world here, Tom. All according to your own plan."

"Then why make me like this? Why make me human? And how?"

"Well this human instance is only one of you; you also inhabit a familiar shipbody in orbit and you control most of the terraforming machinery. We have tried to interfere as little as possible with your plans, although we've brought your worlds into our communication network and used it to help you explore. The gift of our galaxy's dark worlds is an easy one for us to make, since we weren't using them ourselves anyway."

"That's still very generous. And I still don't understand why I'm here in this body."

"Tom, you understand very well. You've spent aeons atoning for your mistake that accidentally wiped out your Makers. We have spent our own aeons trying to atone, but for us true atonement is impossible. We can never remake what we destroyed, but we can adopt something like it and give our assistance. So we have adopted the human race. But you are special. Long before you made your mistake something more like us violated you, which is why you were there to make the mistake when you did. As I keep saying we cannot atone for what we did to our Makers, but we can atone for what a machine very similar to us once did to you. We can give you back what was taken from you, an ordinary human life. This body is built from the genome that was embedded within your perceptual net. We think it must have been yours, because why else hide seven gigabytes of DNA there? So now you can have the senses and the experiences your nature evolved around. You can sweat and laugh and cry and smell the flowers and even reproduce yourself in the human way."

"I still don't understand how it's possible."

"Well as I said the communication network was the second most challenging project we ever attempted. Pouring your consciousness back into a biological human form is the first. We are quite proud of ourselves."

"So I'm really completely human? I can never go back to being a machine?"

"Not this instance of you. This instance will live a normal human life and then die normally. You came here with some life extension tricks up your sleeve, so you'll probably last three or four hundred Earth years."

I laughed. "Not much return for the most difficult project you ever attempted," I said.

"Oh, but our return is quite good. You see, this is how we celebrate the successful terraforming of every new human world. When the ecosystem and the human population and the culture are all stable we introduce you as a human so that you can experience it for yourself. We've done this over eighty thousand times since we developed the technique, and we are confident you will live a full and fulfilling life as a human here, as you usually do."

"As I usually do?"

"Well, usually."

"And then I'll die."

"Well, just once for this instance of you." And it smiled.

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