• 27 Mar - 02 Apr, 2021
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

We haven't had a war in five hundred years, but do you think we can make it five million? It might take five million, before we know how to do anything, and if they then decide the communication channel they're letting us have is a winky flashlight."

"I'm telling you, you can try to convince people," said Cadine. "But I'd be surprised if you got better than thirty percent uptake – and that's me adjusting up from my gut estimate of two or three."

"That's better than nothing," Sauyen said. "But I hope you're wrong. You think the Messengers have us all backed up? I give it about even odds they just forgot to do that."

"You're going to get frozen soon, right?" Cadine said. "You're getting on a bit."

"Yes," he said. "But I'm submitting my genome to the Long Haul clone team." He paused. "You should too."

"Oh, I did," she said.

"You did? I thought you said I was out of my mind."

"You are," she said. "And if this time I happen to be wrong, or if we just wind up doing clones alongside a regular human population, my sisters will be around to tell your brothers, for the next five million years, every time they're out of their minds."

They didn't get much uptake on the freezers at first. And they didn't slim down to nine individuals, not even after Cadine and Sauyen had both been frozen for a few centuries. There were kinks to work out: a Cadine clone whose predecessors had responded cooperatively to certain environments suddenly broke off from Starwink entirely, to pursue a career of 3D scanner photography of historic sites, and no one could figure out why (not for lack of impassioned explanations on her part).

A Sauyen clone grew up so abrasive that no one could work with him and he was relegated to an unsupervised data science position in an otherwise empty Starwink satellite campus, attended by robots. Some lineages were even less tractable than that and they stopped decanting them altogether.

The warm and mobile and non–Starwink human population of Earth, irrepressibly, continued to live and work and reproduce. Sometimes there would appear a new person who proved themselves, submitted their sample to the Long Haul department, and ended their career under radiation shielding in a cryo facility, waiting for their distant twins to greet them with the news that it was time to break out of the box.

Humanity's demographic transition as originally understood had been over for some time, and the population's rate of change had fluctuated mostly with the ambient popularity of childrearing as a vocation – falling for a while, and then climbing back up. Everything got cheaper; the economy outpaced even rather extravagant standards for the lives people wanted to give their children.

Sauyen's clones (when they were raised threading those psychological needles that left them interested in rendering opinions, a skill the clones in charge of raising more clones got better at teaching their siblings to execute every generation) objected. "It's the opinion of Starwink that the simulation of our universe is not backed up," said one, trying his hand at public speaking.

He further said, "The Messengers have us in a fish tank and it might not be water–tight. If anything happens to their hardware, or their funding, or their interest – if there is a bug in the simulation that we have yet to find, something that happens if we probe too hard at the Melting Threshold with increasingly elaborate nanotech designs, or start to run too many human minds at the same time, or try any exciting new idea – then we're gone. The time to settle down and have children is after we've resolved the situation – escaped from the simulation one way or the other, rendered ourselves into the Messengers' world or taken control of a well–run instance of our program. Some people need to do this work. Most add risk, and in having children raise the stakes beyond their already astronomical levels. It is still possible to die unpreservedly and the Messengers are not preserving you for us. I implore anyone who isn't contributing to the Starwink project to earnestly consider freezing themselves now, and expecting to be awakened when we know what's next for humanity."

It wasn't a very popular speech. It swayed a few, but not many. The reasoning went that if you weren't backed up, being frozen would not make you less not–backed–up. A shutdown would just catch you unawares, never having finished your epic poem or climbed Chhogori or made a regolith angel on the Moon. Hardly anyone had an irrecoverable accident before they were a hundred and forty, and they'd be just as frozen if they waited till then, while not having passed up the chance to marry their sweetheart who really wanted kids, nor postponed the cruise around the Arctic they were so looking forward to. But the population did not keep rising: it dwindled, little by little, as some people chose the freezers earlier in life to see what they'd awaken to find, and their peers did not make up the difference.

It took a long time but Starwink had oh, so much time.

Starwink was not nine individuals. It was nine villages of thirty people each, supplemented by robots such that they didn't need to grow their own food or do their own laundry, but organically populated enough that the children didn't fall into weird under socialised corners of their outcome space (and so that, if they did, there would be slack to replace their work while the strays pursued whatever other passion caught them at the wrong developmental milestone).

There were more people out of Starwink than in it. Luddites of various sorts, but also just the vestiges of communities resistant for whatever reason to the idea that they tuck themselves into liquid helium chill, yet perfectly willing to accept other tech. Mostly, Starwink didn't talk to them, though they collected all their news and had people looking at it, in case anything they needed to know came up.

Sometimes they would adopt an idea that came from another community, but cautiously – Luddite wouldn't be the word, but the Starwink clones were all born with careful reams of instructions on their care and rearing, and it took generations to be really sure of the new protocols that ought to be observed around any sufficiently irregular update to their way of life.

The stars communicated, decade by decade, slow trickles of data. The Messengers mimed. Generations of clones brought up half in and half out of five–dimensional virtual reality interpreted the gestures, extrapolated from them, learned the things they were meant to learn and a thousand times more things they were not being taught.

They speculated about the Messengers' evolutionary biology, their sociology, drawing inferences from the architecture of the room and the cheremes of the signs they were shown.

They waited to be told how to reply. The camera, if you cared to call it a camera, might not be fixed in a hardware sense, but they didn't know how to refocus it. If their simulation could send output to a screen or a speaker, they didn't know how to connect to it. They had some guesses – but didn't dare try anything plausible, lest they spook the Messengers.

It wasn't obvious what they'd be able to do with the chance to reply. They had discussions of the subject, constantly, but every possibility was contingent on how much bandwidth they had, what they could aim it at, how much vocabulary they'd amass before the options opened up.

The possibilities yielded by knowing how to say only a few dozen nouns and numbers, and then being asked to perform photo classification tasks, differed enormously from those they could pursue if they got unsecured wifi access.

"If they make us perform for different classification tasks..." said Milione. She was not actually Cadine's millionth clone, not quite, which was why no one else had jumped on the name before the one who'd named her.

"It won't take that long to classify a photo," said her friend Yinae.

"Sure, but I just don't know how we're going to break out in any only–infuriatingly–unreasonable time frame if our output is 'that's an alien bird' and 'that's not an alien bird'. I've sunk my whole life into this and the rest of it will go the same way. All of me have except the ones who get really into historical preservationism or opiates."

Furthermore he said, "I'm not saying I'd rather be into historical preservationism or opiates, that is to say I'd rather not that from my current vantage point, but if I get frozen and no one ever wakes me because there's never any good news because we're actually an overpowered engine for identifying alien bird photographs – and there's no gaps any of us can figure out how to wiggle through!"

"I think even for dumbasses like the Messengers we'd be a little much if all they wanted was to identify birds. They're trying to teach us natural language, even if they're going about it very foolishly," said Yinae. "They'll give us more rope to hang them with."

"More rope to what?"

"Sorry. One of my references." Yinae's lineage was less likely to run off to a non–Starwink village and make self–destructive interpersonal choices if they read a lot of historical fiction for some reason. "What I mean is – they'll screw up. They're stupid! We'll get there. You'll wake up and we'll have a huge party with all humanity."

"Not the ones who weren't frozen before they got brain damage," said Milione.

"Them too if the Messengers backed us up, or if the simulation's a reversible process we can run backwards to get rescue sims," said Yinae encouragingly. "I think there's better than fifty percent odds that at least one of those things is true."

"I don't think we'd wait on figuring out rescue simulations to have a well aware–broke–out party."

"Two parties, then," said Yinae. "Yes, that’s even better."

Sree8pn came to the end of the basic corpus they were attempting to demonstrate to the System. It should now have enough vocabulary (if it was really as science–fictionally smart as it was supposed to be) to understand their initial battery of questions, and understand their explanations of how to reply to those questions – especially, as necessary, with requests for more data.

Obviously it wasn't going to be able to divine anything really complicated yet, but they didn't know exactly how much or what kind of facts it would need to tell them the right answers to the big questions.

Sree8pn in particular was hoping it could figure out how to make queues at the grocery warehouse shorter, so their parent would spend less time exacerbating stress injuries while waiting for their staple allotment. There was a limit to how much it could figure out from having a visual on the room it sat in. Sensory data didn't have that much information in it.

Sree8pn's partner Kun4o delivered the explanation for how to display replies on the holo. The holo lit up the barest instant later – it really was smart, wasn't it? It had been less than half an hour to run through the vocabulary.

Sree8pn had expected they'd need to keep training it longer, but Kun4o had insisted on doing a check at this early stage.

A dimensional reduction of graceful tentacles, halfway between the appearances of Sree8pn themself and Kun4o, appeared already in motion. The System confirmed that it understood, and asked if there was anything it could access to read and learn more so it would be able to give better answers.

It made a minor grammatical error, the sort of mistake Sree8pn would expect from another person who'd grown up in a different bubble of civilization and only learned the local sign recently.

How deceptively person like!

Kun4o agreeably explained how the System could configure itself to access the network, and remarked in an aside to Sree8pn that it was a good idea, actually, since signing all the information from the network to the System would have taken quite a long time, and it could probably read a little faster than that. –Anonymous

to be continued...