Exploring the World

By Jonathan Rick
  • 06 Aug - 12 Aug, 2022
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

"And if you want to proceed with the authorisation, just sign here."

"Are you not set up to take deliberate intentions?" Nuan asked. "I don't think I've been asked to sign anything since I went to a Planetary Era theme environment."

"This process isn't designed to be streamlined and convenient, Ms Zhang, and we aren't doing it for aesthetics. You'd be surprised how many people back out between picking up the pen and writing their names," he told her.

"I'm sure. I've told you dozens of times, I'm sure."

"Then if you want to proceed, you can sign there."

Nuan picked up the pen. She signed.

"Is that all?"

"You can still decline to complete the process at any time in the next twelve subjective minutes."

"You'd almost think you didn't want participants."

"On the contrary, we desperately need them, and the quality of our research would probably be better if we could accept everyone who was willing to turn up in the first place, but this is one of the few real hazards left. Every environment has programmed safeties and even if you wander somewhere near-flawless you're continuously backed up, but this - Of course it's bristling with warnings. Most people go indefinitely without running into anything really dangerous, now."

"Well, I still want to do it."

"I'm not allowed to thank you."

"Social pressure...?"


Nuan snorted. "What happens in the next twelve – eleven minutes?"

"Your algorithm fork will be prepared, and the cognitive rearrangement will be installed, and the result will be held static and checked over. We won't run her without your final authorisation."

"Do I get to meet her?"

Nuan asked.

"That depends on how she turns out. This is dangerous in the extreme, Ms Zhang, your fork may be severely damaged by the alterations involved. She may be in no condition to meet anyone."

"But if she's not?"

"If your results are within ideal parameters, yes, you will get to meet her - if results are slightly worse than hoped for, rather than dramatically worse to the point where we have to terminate the fork, we will invoke clause nine in the disclosure packet you said you read and either require routine visits from you to help study her or permission to run an unaltered fork of you-now under contract to render that assistance."

"I don't have enough demands on my runtime to begrudge you a couple hours a week. How long will it take until you know?"

"Subjective time?"

"For this environment, yes, I'm not leaving till I know either way."

"We can rule out the likeliest failure modes in just a couple of subjective-here minutes once a fork starts running. If she asks to be terminated or evinces a total inability to communicate in any way during that time you can go straight to your home environment, all done. If something else happens…"

"And you think it will."

"We have theoretical reason to think it may. This sort of thing is hard to be sure of in advance, hence your involvement. If something else happens, you may or may not be needed to figure out the details of what."

"Right. Are you even trying to do something specific?"

"Not at this stage. If you would like to wait for a later iteration."

Nuan shook her head.

"I'm supposed to tell you that nearly eighty percent of applicants who get this far leave the project during this final stage."

"I'm not going anywhere," said Nuan. "...Can I meet other people's forks?"

"We have no particularly encouraging results, yet."

"But some of them can talk and don't seem suicidal. Right?"



"I... don't see why not. But this is early in the project; we aren't doing the same interventions on any two subjects yet."

"That's fine. Something completely unrelated to what you want to do with my fork will be fine."

"Then - I don't see why not. I'll call one up."

There was a brief subjective delay, and then there was a third person in the room with them, transferred in at the project runner's mental request.

Apparently this fork could not only talk, but express complex preferences, because he was presenting as though he were physically eight years old, and couldn't have started that way. He didn't speak immediately to Nuan or the project runner, though. He had one eye closed, and sat on the floor, on his own feet, knitting invisible fabric with invisible needles.

"Hello," ventured Nuan.

The fork nodded thoughtfully.

"What's your name?" she asked.

"What's your name?" he replied.

"I'm Nuan," she said.

Nod, nod, went the little boy with his imaginary knitting.

Nuan looked at the project runner.

"Sometimes he produces intelligible conversation," the project runner said. "We haven't worked out a pattern of when yet. We don't have any results that look like the kind of transformation ordinary people might want to make to them specifically, so far."


The boy transported out of the environment.

"Did he leave himself," Nuan asked, "or did you send him...?"

"He did," said the project runner. "I wouldn't have brought a subject here who didn't have the intelligibility to be dropped back into their environment at will."

Nuan nodded. "...Is mine almost ready?"

"Very nearly."

"What do you call them? By their originals' names, or...?"

"Yours will be called Ms Zhang, just like you, until and unless she asks to be called something else."

"I decided in advance that I wanted the fork to go by Mei. But I suppose she might not remember that, or - something."

"The alteration for your fork is not expected to affect memories in particular, but we cannot make any confident predictions in this iteration of the experiment."

"Will she have the memories of the twelve minutes of fork preparation?" Nuan asked. Of this awkward conversation, this blandly designed environment.

"They will be included, but depending on the results."

"Right." Nuan nodded.

She could still tell them don't run her, delete it, I changed my mind, I take it back.

Instead she waited out the last seconds of fork prep, thinking to - herself.

Hi, Mei. Maybe you'll turn up so miserable that nothing I signed or said means anything and they have to quit running you at your own request. Maybe you'll turn up and you won't be able to make any sense of my memories and this message won't mean anything. But maybe everything will go right for you and you'll get to play with a new kind of mind, so different we couldn't build it from scratch or get it by conventionally poking and prodding a standard human.

There's nowhere else to go, Mei, it's all been found and processed and turned into a substrate playground, and it's plenty nice, and some people have lots of fun wandering places other people have made for them, or sims of places as they were before anyone went tromping all over them, and some people don't seem to care about finding novel things at all, but it's not the same.

Whatever they do to you will be brand new, Mei…

You get to be an explorer.

"Run her," Nuan said when he asked.

And I opened my eyes.