What will the human race be like hundreds, even thousands of years in the future? What does identity mean if your consciousness is digital? Exactly how snarky can an artificial intelligence be? Jamie Wahls explores these questions and more in a story about one big diamond and the fate of a species.
For the Children
by Jamie Wahls
The explosion rocked the ship. Air gushed from the hole, salting the cold vacuum with fire and oxygen and fish. Riva was squeezed out the hole, her body pulped and frozen and in a hundred other ways destroyed in ways evolution hadn’t planned for.
She woke up.
“Dammit,” she said.
Memory loss 0.003%, apologized the ship. New body ready in four minutes.
“Ugh,” groaned Riva, exasperated. One thing after another.
With her mental hands she seized the viewing eyes of the ship and dragged them into her head. The pleasantly ambiguous background of the space between flesh cut away, and her camera eyes fixed on the hole in her ship’s side.
A jagged diamond the size of mankind’s first space shuttle had opened her ship like a tin can. It was punctured through a hydrogen tank, through a cargo bay, through the cockpit, and into the aquarium.
#momo: nice one
#reaver: Shut up
#momo: no I mean that’s a real nice diamond
#momo: shame we found it so…ballistically
#reaver: Shut up
#momo: sorry about your fish though
#momo: hey, you okay?
#reaver: Yeah. Died, lost 3 delta.
#momo: oof, steep
#reaver: Catch me up. Was I doing anything important before I died?
#momo: eh, not really. Basically Humanity chewed us out because they want to get going already. You told them to hold their collective horse-analogues. “If you think you can do it better, come out here and do it, ya crotchety beam-of-light people.”
#momo: “Now get off my lawn, ya damn kids. Granny Riva is working.”
#momo: And I think you said something about how much you loved those fish
Riva let the substance of her mind fall like a blanket over the engines, let herself sink into them. She twitched them like fingers gone numb and prickling, and it sent a tiny lurch through the ship.
She began to gently rock the ship off of the diamond. The scraping was colossal; Riva could feel it sending quivers through the hull.
#reaver: we are SO CLOSE
#reaver: this is enough diamond to just finish the damn thing
#momo: haha yep
She stopped pulling the ship off the diamond skewer. She set about recalculating the ship’s moment of inertia, modeling the ship and the diamond as one solid entity.
#reaver: they want the pipe done fast?
#reaver: let’s haul it in like this
#momo: haha ok
The vector of thrust was going to be hideously misaligned…and they’d have to keep that whole section unpressurized. But Riva pushed, and the ship obeyed, engines grousing like a mother-in-law and then sulkily firing to life. It was like walking into a strong headwind, but they were moving.
#reaver: We are in business
#momo: perfect timing, we have a call from Humanity
#reaver: oh, damn
#reaver: I hate talking to those people
Riva irritably paged through the presets on the growing body in the vat. German-Chinese descended hermaphrodite, of course. And give it zebra stripes, why not. Wouldn’t want to impinge on anyone’s right to expression, Humanity was very good about that. But hardening the damn thing against vacuum? Eh…too much work. Here’s beach-ball boobs!
Riva got fed up with them, sometimes.
Humanity will see you now, the interface said gently.
Riva sighed, bodiless, and a little abashedly dedicated all available processing power to speeding up her own thoughts.
#momo: are you pausing me?
#reaver: If you would just download into a body…
#momo: No way! I hate those things. Always sticky.
#reaver: Then yes, I’m pausing you.
#momo: Booooo. Okay, good luck.
Riva watched the outside world slow to a crawl, then halt entirely. She disconnected from the ship-provided sensorium, and
She arrived with a lurch. The burnished gold elevator doors slid smoothly open. Gentle classical music began. She was moved as if on rails into an enormous office.
Riva glanced down. She was represented as the archetypical film noir hero, with trenchcoat, hat, and gun. She ran a calloused hand over her excessively masculine jaw, feeling the prickle of her stubble. Her breath smelled like cigarettes and cheap bourbon. She sighed.
The floor-to-ceiling windows of the office showed blocky, industrial skyscrapers, rising above a bustling city. The other two walls were painted white—no, yellow, but with a black-and-white filter over them. An oil painting of an early nanotech accident hung on the wall. You could tell the artist had really worked hard on the goo.
The desk was black glass, uncluttered save for a small, stately name plate that read
Magister of Imperialism: Doja_toker_666
The Magister was facing away from her, regarding the city. He wore a toga. His skin was the same burnished gold as the elevator doors.
“Hey,” said Riva.
He turned towards her. His face was soft, fatherly, with a white Santa Claus beard and a tattoo of a circuit board over one cheek.
“Hey,” he said. “How’s it going?”
He vanished, and was replaced by a diminutive red-headed woman carrying a sword. The name plate on the desk changed.
Prelate of Imperialism: Princess Cerathan.
“Did you just reskin?” asked Riva. “Or did a new Magister get elected?”
“The title is ‘Prelate’, now, and I’m the new one.” said Princess Cerathan.
“Okay.” said Riva. “We found a pretty good diamond—”
The Princess vanished, and there was a dark, feathery eruption where she was standing. Wings flapped, and the office was abruptly filled with a flock of midnight black pigeons.
“We heard. Speak quickly,” they urged. “When will the relay be done?”
Riva exhaled, and tried to muster empathy. How much patience would she have with the excruciatingly slow process of talking to someone who thought at 1020 operations a second?
She mentally did the math. Asteroid that size…two days to convert… “Maybe three hundred years, your time.”
The flock of pigeons all turned their little heads to regard her. “That’s ahead of schedule.”
Riva smirked. “We had a lucky break.”
The pigeons arranged themselves into a smiley face. “I get it!” they trilled. “A break! You’re doing excellent work, please let us know as soon as—”
The pigeons disappeared in a puff. Riva felt a twinge of disappointment. She’d liked them.
“—as soon as you’re ready.” said President Woofington. He shook as if to dry off. “Woofington out.”
There was a swirl of color, a crescendo of classical music, and the office and everything in it dissolved.
#momo: how’d it go?
#reaver: pretty goddamn weird
#reaver: I swear it gets worse in there every time
#momo: we’re missing a lot of context
#momo: I mean imagine how early human culture would look at x10,000 speed
#momo: “oh, okay, looks like they’re really getting the hang of this hunting and gathering”
#momo: BOOM. NAGASAKI.
#reaver: yeah yeah
#reaver: I’m gonna go sleep
#momo: You SLEEP?
Riva downloaded herself into her new body, the German-Chinese hermaphrodite. She declined the beach-ball boobs. She climbed out of the vat, toweled off, and went to her room.
It was small enough that if she lay sideways on the bed, she could touch opposite walls with hands and feet. The room was bare of any personal touches, save for one: a blocky little toy boat, carved out of wood. It predated the existence of the computer.
By the standards of digital humanity, her little nest was a vulgar extravagance. Atoms that could be arranged into computers and used to build virtual environments for a thousand uploaded humans, were, instead… bedding. For flesh.
Countless digitals had suggested she convert her big, wasteful trawler into a little splinter-ship. She’d declined each time, which was evidently mind-boggling. They’d reacted as if she were shutting down their reasonable suggestion to build a five-story waterpark and arcade fun-plex… because a bunny would have to relocate.
She was fiercely protective of her presence in the physical world. She still used uploads, of course, she wasn’t crazy, she didn’t want to die. But she was regarded as basically an insane hermit, or, at best, a religious fanatic. It was only because of the unifying charter of Humanity—“Freedom is the right of all sentient beings”—that she wasn’t being gently uploaded and taken to the wacky future-culture equivalent of a mental hospital.
She rolled over and pulled her blanket over herself. The digital children would have to deal with her lifestyle choices. They weren’t the ones converting diamonds into a resonating superhighway router. And if they wanted to expand into the Tau Ceti cluster they would damn well let her build it her way.
She tugged the blanket up underneath her chin. The sensation of slightly scratchy, genuine sheep-wool across her new skin was delicious.
She closed her eyes, and dreamed of huge wasteful blue Earth.
There was a buzzing in her brain.
Blearily, she activated her communicator.
#reaver: hello yes what
#momo: hi bossman
#reaver: that’s bossLADY
#momo: you have GENDER?
#momo: you’re like the human species’ racist grandpa
#momo: yeah! “Back in my day, we called ’em grandMA’s…!”
#momo: anyway ship’s on fire
#reaver: WAY TO BURY THE LEDE, WODEHOUSE
She lurched out of bed, bare feet hitting the cool metal floor. She dashed down the short corridor to the body vats, where the blanks were waiting dormant.
Dipping her toe into the warm, gummy solution, she submerged herself and signaled to the ship to upload her.
She watched the screen as her memories were backed up. Ninety percent. Ninety-five.
The progress bar ticked from ninety nine to one hundred, and she ticked the little box on the screen that said “I have read and understand.” Riva gave the command for the ship to send a pulse of euthanizing radiation into her brain.
For the second time that day, Riva died.
Seconds later she realized that she had done the exact wrong thing.
The ship was too close to the star, far too close. The hull was crackling like skin on grilled fish. It was the diamond, of course. It had changed the vector of thrust, and the computer was thrashing about, alternating between over- and under-corrections as it inched towards the hungry sun.
#reaver: hey we need more processing power
#reaver: we need ALL of it
#reaver: you and I need to bail into meat space.
#momo: are you kidding
#momo: I haven’t had a meat body in forever
#reaver: don’t care. Shut up and download.
#momo: ew, I hate meat bodies
#reaver: We will literally die. Do it NOW.
#momo: we die all the time. I got killed by an orc like an hour ago
#reaver: TRULY die. You don’t get it. Where are our backups?
#momo: I have one up in Humanity.
#reaver: Mine are all on the ship. If the ship blows up, I will actually permanently die. Forever.
#reaver: download into a flesh body in the next fifteen seconds. I’m turning literally all processor time towards trying to vector us away from the sun.
Riva opened her eyes, took a long breath, and coughed to clear the fluid from her lungs. She wiped gel off her face with a sticky rag.
In the tank next to her, was her. Dead. The radiation pulse had liquefied the brain, but the face and eyes were set in a vaguely frustrated, confused expression.
Riva gripped opposite edges of the tank and muscled her upper body out of the slime. She flopped fishlike over the rim, collapsing to the cool metal floor.
She rose. She’d sort of half-consciously expected alarms, but there were none. Any flicker of attention the ship could use to warn the puny onboard meat computers of their impending demise was intelligence it could put towards saving their lives.
Besides, they already knew.
Riva walked into her little dining space, basically a kitchenette and a table. It was the last of the pressurized, human habitable rooms, at least while they had a diamond sticking from them like a harpoon.
Riva spared no time in walking towards the single most vulgar, risky, unnecessary expense of the entire ship:
When she was without body, Riva could see space with all of the ship’s senses, integrate with the ship’s body and experience space like she were dipping into a brisk ocean. When in a meat body, she could see space on the main viewing screen in the cockpit. What’s more, she would see it with a hundred little staggeringly significant notices and colorizations, little nudges from the ship to remind her of exactly which black hole was where on her flight plan.
And even though said cockpit was currently diamond-crushed into a pile of difficult-to-model mass, the point stood. There was no justification for the window, even considering the emergency redundancy. It was a serious structural weakness, and in terms of the ship’s heat profile, it might as well have been a spurting artery. It had no justification at all, save that she loved it.
Riva sat down at the table, and looked at space. Through a window.
The view was almost entirely filled with an angry red supergiant. It was huge and dark and nearing death, but it was still bright enough to sear her meat retinas. Riva squinted at it, and at the dark space in the corners of the window, and couldn’t for the life of her tell if the sun was getting closer.
She fixed herself a cup of tea, and some biscuits.
A four-foot-tall man tottered in naked, save for a belt. His hair was a shock of pure white. His skin was so black to be almost blue, a deep coal-shaft black that reminded Riva of space. It was crisscrossed with strange whorls and dots in what looked like ritual scarification. He had pointed ears and a pair of crossed swords at his waist.
“Hey, bosslady,” said Momo.
“What do I call you?” she asked.
“Momo,” said Momo. “Wow, having lips is weird.”
“Right. I mean…” she looked him over. “Do you have gender?” she asked.
Momo exhaled, with a little resignation. “I do today, I guess. I seem to be a man, like that’s even a real thing and not a big stupid boulder of a construct. Male, let’s say.”
She smiled. “Did you pick that for me?”
He looked up at her, corners of his mouth quirking upwards. “…Maybe?”
“Tea?” she asked.
His face lit up. “Sure!”
She fixed him a cup of tea. “We’re probably going to die,” she said, nodding towards the supergiant.
“Ehhhhh,” he said. “I’ve been in way worse situations than this.”
“Simulated situations, where all your suffering had a moral, and was part of a bigger narrative. This is the raw universe. Awful things happen by pure chance.”
“Sure sure.” He waved her off.
She sat the tea down in front of him. He sipped it and made a disappointed face.
“So we’re basically sitting here and waiting to see if the ship can bail us out?” he said. His gaze fell skeptically upon the biscuits.
“Gloomy,” he said.
“Sex?” she asked.
His face lit up. “Sure!”
Processors scream ahead at 1020 cycles a second. The ship’s intelligence is divided into three chief processes. The first is frantically vectoring the engines against the sun’s gravitational pull, and poorly. It is waiting for the second to hurry up and do its job. The second is desperately making guesses at exactly how the hideous collision of diamond and ship are now mass-distributed, updating a thousand times in an eyeblink, fervently scanning kinetics data as the first makes its bumbling effort. The third is watching how all the processes are eating resources, and trying to calculate what the most effective subdivision would be. It concludes that it itself is too unwieldy for the current crisis, wills its belongings to its comrades, and commits digital seppuku.
“That was weird,” said Momo. They lay together in her bed.
She traced her finger over the point of his ear. “You charmer.”
“Nono, you did well. I assume. I don’t really know how this works. I’ve never had physical sex before.”
“You can have indistinguishable-from-physical sex in a digital environment.”
“Yeah, but when I’ve done it I’ve always been a sentient gas cloud or a ball of prehensile nipples or something…”
“Haha, you prude.” He licked her shoulder.
“So, we’re not dead,” she noted.
“Ha!” he said. “Proof! Everything always works out okay!”
“Momo,” she said, delicately. “You believe in a fair world only because you live in one.”
“Ha! Like you don’t.”
She rolled out of the bed.
Momo rolled to his side. He reached out and picked up the wooden boat. “What’s this?”
“My parents gave it to me.”
He regarded her appraisingly. “Are your parents richer than President Woofington? It must have cost a fortune to get this made out of matter.”
“Where did you grow up?” she asked him.
“Narnia,” he said promptly.
“I hear it’s nice there,” she said.
He smiled agreeably. “’I hear it’s nice there, too. Which Earth? Marvel Universe? Dora’s Island? One of the Anime Zones?”
She stood up and put on some slippers. “Come on. We’re not dead. We have work to do.”
The first and second processes, their animosity reconciled, rest easy. Their flight plan is clear. Their thrust vector is understood. Their model of the ship is accurate to within 0.0000004% deviation—curse that unexpectorated fish-fluid still in the cockpit. The two of them are now enjoying the computer equivalent of a post workout nap. Which, without anthropomorphization, means that they’re just paused.
The third has reclaimed its silent vigil, watching over a thousand hapless little background processes rebooting. The temperature control and the moving wallpapers and software update monitor spring to life, each a tiny tyrant who knows not what it takes. The third process keeps them safe and stable, without them ever needing to worry.
It scans a whimsical line of code left by its creator. It deletes its old designation, PPVR_igfx. It opens the data label for its name and puts down:
“We’re here,” said Riva, gazing out her unjustifiable window.
The ring of repurposed diamond hung in space, almost complete. A smear of silvery nanite paste shone at each unfinished edge, waiting to spin diamond into supercomputer. Riva transmitted her flight path to the ring’s intelligence and handed the controls over the computer.
Process one perks up like a dog hearing someone at the door. It excitedly begins the delicate maneuvers to spin the ship until the diamond will fit like a key in a lock.
“Finally,” groaned Momo. “I have never been so bored.”
“You could have re-uploaded.”
“I wanted to understand your fuss about flesh. But I don’t. Flesh is the most boring thing that could possibly exist.”
“It’s been two days and you slept sixteen hours each day,” she said.
“You didn’t want to have more sex.”
“Six hours a day is enough, thanks.”
“I’m not blaming you, I’m explaining.”
“You don’t do well with drudgery, do you?”
“Pshaw,” he protested. “I’m disciplined. I level-grind like a workhorse.”
Riva nodded. “I’m sure.”
Process one smugly communicates task-complete to its fellows. Batman shakes its hand warmly and sends it on an all-expenses-paid victory cruise, which is to say, pauses it.
The nanite smear was seeping into the diamond, a trillion tiny spinnerets weaving at the quantum level.
“Look at the little guys go.”
“Oh, cool,” said Momo disinterestedly. “How long will it take?”
Riva shrugged. “Five minutes?”
Momo was silent. Riva glanced his direction. He was looking at her, agonized.
“We’re making history,” she said exasperatedly. “Literally making history.”
“Five minutes?” whined Momo.
“Do you…want me to jingle some keys in your face or something? How old are you?”
“Since my last major personality rebuild? About ten thousand years.”
Riva mentally divided. “So you’re a little over two months old, my time?”
Momo shrugged. “Sure?”
“And you’re incapable of waiting five minutes.”
“I’m capable,” he said defensively. “I’ve waited hundreds of years for stuff.”
“You’re all so innocent,” she said. “So brilliant and alive and naive. None of you have had death, or disease, or shortages.”
“Don’t interrupt,” she said. “I mean had them for real, not just the gamified theme park versions of those things. There’s no more nonconsensual pain or war. None of you have to make hard choices, really hard. Even kind of hard, actually. If you put off trying one career, it doesn’t mean shutting the door on all the other ones. You’re immortal. You’ll get to everything eventually.”
“Uh, yeah?” he said.
“When I grew up, taking a career was a huge and terrifying choice. Because it meant you wouldn’t be able to commit to other careers, not wholly, because the average life expectancy was seventy.”
Momo made a face of shocked disgust.
“But you get to live the life you choose,” said Riva. “However you like. Technology is at the point where the number of actually responsible people, the number of grown-ups required to watch over the species and keep them safe is…maybe a dozen. And I’m one.”
He looked up at her.
“Okay,” said Momo meekly. “I’ll wait.”
“It’s not about that.” she sighed.
“Oh hey,” said Momo, flushed. “The ring’s done.”
It was. The few remaining nanites were visible as a thin silver seam along the great dark bulk of the ring. The seam slowly vanished as the tiny machines twigged to what the cool nanites were doing, and converted themselves into supercomputer.
“So it is,” Riva exhaled softly.
With minimal fanfare, the ring crackled to life. It made fractional adjustments to its angle, twisting like a coin on its edge. A tiny white light shone suspended in the center. A pilot light, or a bullseye.
“Here they come,” said Riva.
They’d been coming for seconds already, for years. This close to the beacon, looking at them head-on, they looked like a star shining brighter than the others. But as it crossed the vast, vast expanse of empty space, its shape became clear: it was a column on its side, a pipe.
In an eyeblink it hit the center of the ring, and bent as if through a lens. The unending bright torrent of humanity shot away at a fraction under light speed, headed towards Tau Ceti.
“And there they go,” said Momo.
“Godspeed, ye beam-of-light people,” said Riva.
For a while, the two of them watched the beam. Countless trillions of souls shooting towards unexplored space.
“I hope we find aliens.”
“That would be nice, yes.”
They stood for a long minute.
“Why do you even do it?” asked Momo. “You’re like the opposite of a lottery winner. If it takes ten meat humans to parent the species, and there are trillions of us, you’re astronomically unlucky. You know it doesn’t have to be you doing this for humanity.”
She looked at him, cross. “What do you mean? I love them.”
“You’re going, then.”
“My guild needs me.”
Momo lowered himself into the gel. “Ugh. What did I tell you? Always sticky.”
Riva stood impassively alongside the vat. She glanced over in the direction of her corpse. It was being slowly reverted to the blank default.
“Humanity really enjoyed Tau Ceti. It tided them over for a whole day,” she said. “They’re looking for someone to finish up the Gliese relay.” She shrugged. “I could use you around.”
“Riva…” He fidgeted in the goo. “I don’t know how much I can contribute. I’m basically a tourist.”
She waved a hand dismissively. “You programmed that one resource-allocation process that one time.”
“Ehhh.” He shrugged. “It got in the way more than anything.”
“Plus it broods.” She smiled gently. “But you have good instincts.”
He shrugged again, not meeting her gaze.
“You’ll be back,” she said, forcing a wry smile. “You can’t stay away from me.”
He gave her a dour expression. “Get some prehensile nipples, maybe, then we’ll talk.”
“See you later,” he said. And he died.
Riva watched the vat begin the slow process of reclaiming his body for a blank. She stood, walked out, and sat down at the dining room table. She made herself tea, and looked out the window, into space.
Momo experienced fifty lifetimes, was born and died more times than that. He experienced untold carnal delights and saw every grain of dust in Tau Ceti in perfect faithful detail. He met and loved and hated ten thousand different humans, and some other beings divergent enough from humanity that they may as well have been aliens. He became a father, a mother, a great-to-the-24th-grandfather. He had two hundred careers and failed spectacularly at one hundred and eighty of them. He was a counselor and a professional assassin and a rock idol and a firebrand of a pundit.
He spent a thousand years up in the stream. Which meant, to her, that he was back by Tuesday.
#reaver: hi, friend
#reaver: did you get bored of the digital playground
#momo: not bored
#reaver: were you…seduced by the pleasures of my corporeal flesh?
#momo: NO WAY.
#momo: No, in there the food was better and the people were brilliant and the sex
#momo: literally inconceivable. Like you literally will not be able to conceive of it.
#reaver: ok then you don’t have to try to explain it to me
#momo: but I want to…! There’s this thing where you’re both tile patterns and
#reaver: yeah I’m not conceiving that
#reaver: so why’d you come back?
#reaver: don’t take this wrong, but I really hope you didn’t do it for me
#momo: no way
#momo: you’re one of my favorite people, but I made another thousand favorite people inside
#momo: no, it’s…I can have anything in there.
#momo: including challenge! It’s not a boring utopia where everything is perfect
#momo: it’s messy and wild and a WHOLE lot of fun
#momo: I love that place
#momo: and I want to take care of it.
#momo: that’s why I’m here.
She set down her tea. She leaned back in her chair. Riva smiled.
#reaver: Then let’s get to work.
They headed for the stars.
Jamie Wahls was raised by wolves. Literal, literal wolves.
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