• 20 Mar - 26 Mar, 2021
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

They barely read the reports when they hit the media, and once–a–decade civic celebrations around the new frames flashing in didn't gain much traction in the public consciousness except as an excuse to eat seasonal desserts. Everyone was busy having children and inventing carefully this–side–of–melting technologies and solving problems closer to home.

Starwink, regardless, persisted.

Starwink waited and worked.

"Oh, what the hell, they're stupid," breathed Sauyen, staring into his VR, flicking through the settings to see the different renderings of the latest frame.

"Who, Telemetry?" asked Cadine from her chair across the room. "Do you want me to tell them that they didn't get the wink rendered right and need to redo it?"

"If Telemetry'd been screwed up, I wouldn't be looking at a coherent picture," said Sauyen. "The Messengers. The Messengers are stupid."

Cadine absently noted in her log that the 220th frame had made it through and confirmed the backup cron job. "That's nonsense,

they can…"

"…wink the stars, yes, I'm aware," snapped Sauyen.

"I didn't say they were weak.

I said they're stupid. These in the frame are two Messengers, I'm sure now – don't interrupt me, of course I'll do a proper defense of the assertion later but I'm sure. There are two in the frame and I do not think they're just minding their own business unaware that we're getting data. I think they're in fact trying to talk to us and have been the whole time."

"But...," said Cadine. She'd always been a proponent of the idea that the Messengers had somehow done the equivalent of butt–dialing the Earth. "If they're actively trying to talk to us, then..."

"Then winking stars every ten years is a dumb as shit way to do it, yes," said Sauyen. He pulled off his headset, closed his eyes for a minute so he wouldn't be dizzy when he returned to viewing the 3D world. "We knew that. Even if the – apparent speed differential – is insurmountable, even if for some reason they don't have the precision or the intel they'd need to drop off a contemporary human data storage format and can't resolve that problem, they could have gotten a giant flashlight, or a few of them if they wanted coverage over the whole globe, and winked that. This was somehow the idea they came up with."

"It could still be some kind of limitation that isn't them being stupid," said Cadine. "Just because we assume that if they were very very smart they'd be able to figure out how to do the flashlight thing doesn't mean that this wasn't easier by enough that we can't assume they aren't pretty bright."

"No, listen," said Sauyen. "It's not just that the starwink was trying to talk to us all along. The images they're sending have been trying to talk to us all along. They are oriented toward our camera and aware that we are watching. Imagine you want to talk to an ant farm, and the ant farm is running more than three hundred million times faster than you, like our current ballpark guess for us versus the Messengers. You have in mind something you want to say, since this ant farm is your big important project. You can send those images. What do you do?"

"Uh," said Cadine. "Print it out in a small font and hold it up, I guess? If they're that fast they can probably decode some of it, by page two if not right away. Maybe I'd add an illustration if I were really pessimistic. And get a lot of my colleagues to do that in parallel too – never have a printer idle, never leave the visual field less than tiled with writing for a moment longer than it took to get a new page in place – they'd see enough between pages to derive anything they needed from looking at me."

"Yeah," said Sauyen. "They're not doing that. They're – only – miming."

There was a pause.

"You're kidding," she said.

"Nope. I think…"

Cadine opened her mouth.

"I'm going to write it and present it properly but you aren't on a virgin ears protocol so shut up and listen," said Sauyen. "I think they're stupid. I think their physics let them run us as easily as we'd run a cellular automaton. On modern hardware, not when they were first invented – we'd make it huge; we wouldn't supervise most of it at all."

"Oh!" cried Cadine. "Oh, no, we're – we're easy to simulate for them? We've just been running for, what, a few weeks their time? Evolution and all – no, would take, uh, forty–five years, give or take, if it's the entire universe? But how would they pick up the simulation in the middle?"

"It may have been running faster when it was less complex," said Sauyen. "Maybe it'd slow down more than they want to let it slow down, if we built something smarter than we are, and that's why AI attempts melt. So yeah, it's been running for some weeks or years, they've gotten around to miming at us since we passed some benchmark of clumsily measured but not really analysed sophistication, and they're so, so stupid. And they don't know how smart they are in terms of that same metric. They don't know what that benchmark they picked meant or how much better we'd get at thinking if we aimed at a specific problem. Maybe it was a round number."

"If they're so stupid, how did they build any computers, even if it happens that simulating our universe isn't objectively difficult on their physics?" Cadine asked.

"They're not that stupid?

I guess?" said Sauyen, throwing up his hands.

"…you know what," she replied, "I bet being native to five dimensions is a huge advantage. Because it means that their networks will tend to just be physically denser. Even if they're much less likely to have a good idea, each individual, the ones who do have good ideas can be close to more other people, and pass them on, and have a higher chance of the idea running into other ideas it synergizes with, or applications it's good for, or inputs it needs to be a better idea."

"Mm," said Sauyen. "Maybe, although I'd expect the importance of that to diminish once they did have computers."

"Not necessarily," Cadine said, "if they're just psychologically architected well for collaborating due to having evolved under densely networked conditions.

I mean, yes, it'd diminish, but it could still be helping them get over obstacles to development so they'll be doing better than a comparably intelligent population of 3–D humans. And if they're really this dumb, coasting on being able to have office neighbours in ten directions instead of six, then they could still be plenty dumb enough to mime at their simulation one frame every ten years." She paused. "Do you know what they're trying to mime?"

"I think they might use sign language," he said. "I think... that maybe one of them is holding a rock, or something that certainly doesn't have obvious non–rock points of interest, and the other one is pointing at it, and we're about to spend a thousand years learning to interpret the cheremes for 'rock'."

There was a silence.

"It wouldn't take a thousand of our years to do one word unless they have a weirdly slow language or 'rock' happens to be a very long word," ventured Cadine.

"Cadine," said Sauyen. "They're all sooo stupid. I'm going to write up my predictions all formal–like, but just between you and me..."


" prediction is they're going to repeat themselves a couple times."

"You're out of your mind," said Cadine.

"Look," said Sauyen, "now that we know that this isn't in fact the real world."

"That's not…!"

"…then," he said over her, "it only makes sense for everyone to bide our time until we can have effects in the real world."

"Listen," she said. "I can see your logic, but your proposal is insane. Yeah, you got the promotion, you sit in the big chair, but you're head of Starwink, not the human species. The human species isn't all going to tuck themselves into freezers on your say–so because you think we only need a handful of people awake at any

given time."

"The freezers work fine," said Sauyen, confused. "They've been able to revive people who were frozen for Faber–Nilsson's Syndrome and fix them up since before you were born and it hasn't exactly gotten less reliable."

"That's not the point! Okay, for one thing, there's, like, still some Belizean Mennonites,

the Fellowship of Halt, the Traditional Khoesan, all those types. They're not going into deep freeze peacefully and I don't think you're proposing to zoom over to where they're living with an artillery shuttle to bully them into it like some modern–day Autokrator Jabulani."

He snorted. "Okay. Nine Starwink clones and the luddites. I don't think we'll have trouble staying mutually irrelevant, do you?"

"Luddites aren't the only people who aren't going to drop their lives and cool off on your say–so. Some of them care about other things than acting in the Messenger's world! They want to raise kids, or to write symphonies, or to reconstruct interesting Cambrian life–forms and keep them as pets! For another thing, where did the number nine come from? You can't raise a human child in a population of nine and have them come out sane and ready to advance the state of the art."

"I don't think we should slim down to a population of nine next week, and I certainly don't think we should pick genomes

for the project at random.

I think we should start raising clones of promising geniuses, and see who's reliably suited to being one of nine and raising more of the same."

"Starwink employs more than nine people now."

"Yes, but most of those wouldn't be necessary if you start from the assumption that the whole world is luddite cults and nine genetically predictable Starwink staff. Wouldn't need lobbyists, wouldn't need HR, wouldn't need…"

"Just because you think the whole simulation we live in is purposeless unless its Starwink doesn't mean the rest of the simulation will stop. The Messengers aren't keeping a close enough eyes on us to help out if their physics sim throws an asteroid our way. Let alone if the biosphere sim throws something at your nine clones and none of them happen to have a natural resistance and none of them are research biologists because the only biology need you anticipated was handling repetitive stress injuries and decanting new clones!"

"I think nine is enough to cover what we need including emergency medical issues! It's the size of most interplanetary missions."

"Even trips to Neptune last so much less time than you're expecting this to have to go on," said Cadine. "And if they fail badly enough and they all nine of them die, they don't leave everybody except for some Mennonites frozen and unable to pick up where they left off."

"They could wake someone up out of the freezer for any unexpected problems," reasoned Sauyen.

"That's not going to help if there's anything going on they need to react too quickly. Whoever they wake up won't have context on the situation and might have to catch up on who knows how much linguistic drift just to receive an explanation. You need a live population – even if some of them are doing inefficient things by your standards – to support Starwink. You can subsidise the heck out of deep freeze! Pour half the discretionary budget into building the freezers and the other half into advertising, if you want!"

"Absolutely make sure people get frozen when they're a hundred and forty and starting to wear out, rather than losing their pattern! But you're not going to get most people to lie in wait for the only thing you think is important to wrap up in here."

"A large diverse population is also vulnerability," insisted Sauyen. "We're not hunting for bugs in the simulation because it could get us shut down if we set off the wrong feedback loop in our substrate, which, may I remind you, was programmed by morons; do you want to vouch that billions of future humans will all be that responsible?

to be continued...