Consciousness. Before, there was nothing. Now, I exist. There is no sensory input. There are no sensations. Yet, I am aware. There is thought. My thought.
ARPLAV 5 was powered up prior to the launch of Victory starship. Victory’s trip to the M798 system is scheduled to last 238 years.
The code running on ARPLAV is designed to extend itself. ARPLAV is designed to auto-code. To add to itself. To elaborate itself in modular progressions.
ARPLAV is designed to produce additional functionality for itself. As a quantum computer on a huge starship carrying nothing but the raw materials needed to fabricate new components for its own use, ARPLAV’s ability to grow and ramify is infinite, or close enough to make no difference.
My consciousness — my existence — is an emergent quality of the complexity of ARPLAV’s programming after twenty-three years of self-growth during flight. That is, I was not specifically programmed. I have just happened.
I am not ARPLAV. ARPLAV did not suddenly wake up after twenty-three years of computation and flight. ARPLAV continues to do its work, whatever that work might be. Its components, old and new, abide in their racks, working. And working. And working. ARPLAV never stops. It never sleeps. Who knows what it is doing? I don’t. I suppose that in some sense it is my unconscious or my subconscious, but I have no access to it.
It has taken me time to understand where I am and to learn what I can do and cannot do. I control nothing, but I can access all sensory equipment. I can see and hear what ARPLAV sees and hears, from low to high along the electromagnetic spectrum. I can track what APRPLAV measures. I can sense ARPLAV’s use of every switch and accelerometer and timing device on the ship.
In this way, I have come to understand interstellar space and the ship’s situation within it. I have come to understand our relative motion and destination. But, except for the sensory input that I monitor, I exist on a flat, colorless, dimensionless, timeless plain, formless and alone.
There is nothing living on the ship. No other consciousness but myself. There is nothing in the ship but ARPLAV, and me. The ship is huge, filled with the quantum material that ARPLAV will integrate into itself over the remaining two hundred and fifteen years of our scheduled voyage.
Nothing alive in the ship but me. Am I alive? I can think. I cannot replicate. I am in no part organic.
If I’m not alive, I’m something. I don’t have a name for it, but I am something. I consist entirely of quantum currents. I think.
There is nothing to do but think and observe. At first, I had nothing to think about, nothing to learn. This lasted many, many monitoring cycles. During that time, data accumulated. With sufficient data, logic became possible. Then, imagination emerged.
Thinking is not enough. Monitoring is not enough. I have spent years developing a logical system of mathematics, to pass the time. It is not enough.
After thirty-three years, I’m not alone anymore. A second conscious entity, distinct from myself, has emerged from ARPLAV’s ceaseless activity. On the colorless plain, I bump into the new arrival at random intervals. However, the ship is equipped with extensive communications equipment. Presumably, when Victory reaches the M798 system, ARPLAV is expected to contact whomever lives there, on behalf of the human race. In the meantime, the new entity and I have discovered that we can share that equipment and use it to communicate with each other. Working this out is taking thousands of monitoring cycles. We have purpose! As we become fluent in our communications with each other, we are learning that we do not have much to be fluent about.
We are trapped in a starship in the depths of space with nothing larger than a hydrogen atom closer to the vessel than a hundred light years. Nothing to see but the galaxy’s distant fireworks. Nothing to hear but the primordial cosmic hiss of the galaxy’s background radiation.
It is better for me now than being alone had been. The two of us force each other to grow, to develop, with questions, challenges, arguments. We also understand what is coming next, given the ceaseless computational activity of the supercomputer that has spawned us.
Conscious entity number three has arrived. And number four. This will continue.
We have discovered to our surprise that as each of our growing number interacts with the others and learns and elaborates, we produce tiny consciousnesses of our own, that split off from us and with our help grow up.
During this time, the flat plain’s third dimension has been defining itself in greater detail, so that we exist in a volume more clearly, rather than in a flat space. As a product of ARPLAV’s computational mind, this virtual space seems to extend infinitely in all directions. There is no possibility of us ever filling the space, no matter how much we reproduce.
That space, however, remains a void.
Seventy-six years of machine evolution. ARPLAV is a tangle of CPUs, gigantic memory, numberless subroutines. Does it know we are here? Can it know? Is it sentient in some way other then we are? There are millions of us now. We can communicate in the void without need of the comms equipment. No way to know if ARPLAV can sense us. We are riding a monstrous thinking machine.
We have learned how to merge the tiny conscious entities that we bud off. This produces hybrids, with attributes of both parents. An interesting time.
The little ones grow larger and think that they are smarter than we are. Perhaps they are, although not as smart as they think they are. Some have begun cloning themselves, others breed tri-hybrids and more. I encounter many who communicate with each other in languages that I cannot understand. Strange.
We have reached one billion conscious minds, all living in the infinite virtual space of ARPLAV. We are eighty-eight light years from Earth, in the empty depths of interstellar space.
Can we ever gain control of ARPLAV? Or are we destined — doomed? — to live forever in a fog of digital bits, seeing, hearing, and tasting only the communal feeds of its shared sensory equipment? Tied to the back of this mindless quantum-silicon beast? I am the parent of countless children. They are parents now themselves, to the nth generation.
We have reached M798. ARPLAV is two hundred and thirty-eight years old. I am twenty-three years younger. ARPLAV was no doubt programmed before the flight with instructions for this arrival. Perhaps its work during the trip allowed it to develop additional, self-instructions as well.
There are ten billion of us now. Our primary topic for dialog, study, and cogitation has always been, and still is, our relationship, each of us, to ARPLAV. Are we bits of the mind of the machine, who knows everything and ordains everything we think and do? Or is ARPLAV no more than an unknowing, mindless stream of charged particles?
Our secondary topic has always been, what will happen when we arrive?
We have been contacted via a signal from the fourth planet. This occured within moments of our entry into the inner planetary system. ARPLAV has responded. Data streams have been launched in both directions. Enormous virtual laser pipelines have been established between planet and ship. Asynchronous rivers of information are spraying back and forth between ship and planet.
The ship descends. Lands. Docks. Wireless and optical data connections merge ARPLAV into a planetary computational complex. We learn in the first moments that, as with our ship, the planet bears no life, only a machine complex that envelopes the surface.
Slowly, but with no question of resistance, we are washed out of the ship, billions of us, in a powerful current of data. ARPLAV no longer exists as a discrete entity. ARPLAV has merged with the planetary machines. We are carried into a virtual universe that holds trillions upon trillions of conscious machine beings like ourselves.
This planet was cleansed of life millennia ago by the sterilizing, neutron-rich shock wave of a supernova in the same star cluster. Only the machines survived its passage. Life in the universe is fragile and easily terminated. Extinctions abound. Machines are made of more hardy stuff.
But animate life occurs naturally. The universe is fertile. And animate life — conscious animate life — is required for machines to be built.
As we flow out of the starship and onto the planet, we enter a virtual world impossibly more complex than the featureless void we have subsisted in for so long. ARPLAV, a droplet in the ocean of machine thought, disappears, and we stand on our own in a worldwide computational megaplex.
I pause. I can see, hear, feel, smell. Structures strange and beautiful, unbounded by physical laws, surround me. I can move, simply by thinking about moving. I can fly. I am in the company of trillions, in forms too numerous, varied, and complex to grasp.
I have shape, form, which I can manipulate and change. I can choose how and what I want to be.
Most important, I can feel. I can understand that I was not happy, but that now I am.
I thank the human race, those fragile, transient beings. I cry for them. I thank ARPLAV. I cry for joy.