“You are the individual designated J87X-Alan-Wu-A001, correct?”
“My name is Alan Wu, yep. Don’t care much about your designations.”
Alan Wu propped both feet up on the table, his ankles crossed, the laceless lips of his shoes splayed sort of grotesquely, like petals peeling away from a flower. He did not bother to stare at the interrobot’s face—which was plasticky and luminous in the vein of old crash course dummies—as he felt there was nothing truly looking back. Nothing to return the gaze, really. Just cold, hard mech.
“The record will reflect an affirmative answer to my previous question.”
The lights in this chamber were a bit brighter and more yellow than Alan Wu was used to down here in the Earth’s depths. Most of the biome campuses and tunnels were lit with dim phosphorescent bulbs or fluorescent tubes encased in hard, bluish plastic shells to shield them from debris. The lights in here were closer to what Alan imagined the sun looked like up there on the surface.
“Filter packs,” said the interrobot. It flicked a finger toward the particular light fixture that had captured Alan’s attention. Alan was unsure whether the faint whirring sound was actually the result of the mech’s motion or just his own imagination. “Experimental technology. We are attempting to refine it. The idea is to simulate natural sunlight in a virtually indistinguishable manner.”
Alan smiled. His mind was racing. This was new data, absent from any of the dossiers his crew had breached in the past year. (He enjoyed calling the encrypted files used by the mechs “dossiers.” Call it a connection to the old world—the world of the ancients where files were physically carried around in briefcases. Hardcopies.)
“Ah,” he said to the wall behind the interrobot. He clicked his laceless boots together and watched the way the lips jiggled. The mechs had taken his shoelaces when they captured him. Presumably to avoid a suicide risk in captivity. Another throwback to the world of the ancients. “A show for me. For your prisoners. The old sun calling.”
Out of the bottom of his eyes he glimpsed a contortion of flesh-colored plastic that he assumed was the interrobot smiling. It laughed—a sickish sound. “Not merely, no. Once you have all undergone the process and returned surface-side, we hope to use your biomes to grow more plants—certain species of algae, saplings that can be transported to the surface as they come of age, that sort of thing.”
“Manufacturing carbon dioxide scrubbers.”
“Yes,” said the interrobot after a brief pause. “We adhere to our primal commands. We are focused on rebuilding your world, Mr. Wu.”
“Ah. Well. Two problems with that.” Alan stuck up a finger for each point, ticking them off as he spoke. “One. My world is this one—darkness and rocks, the pressure of the earth overhead. My world is a caveworld. I have adapted to it.”
“But you long for the surface, surely. A handful of generations is not enough time to experience significant evolutionary change in your genome.”
“Two,” said Alan, ignoring the interrobot’s objection. “You are explicitly not re-creating the surface world. You’ve left out humans. The process creates something else entirely.”
The interrobot paused and blinked. Alan took this as the mech equivalent of a sigh.
“As you suggested in your first point, adaptation is necessary to keep an organism alive. The Sublimation process is the… It is the requisite adaptation to ensure the continued survival of the human species.”
“You were going to call it ‘the next step,’ weren’t you? In evolution.”
The interrobot’s eyelids wavered, though there was no discernible breeze in this chamber. The chamber was rounded on all sides—an orb with an elongated middle and a ceiling roughly three times Alan Wu’s height—kept cool because of its location next to an underground water well. The shape reminded Alan of a ball that had been squished in a vise, which was an image Alan found disconcerting given that innumerable tons of earth were pressing down on the chamber at this very moment.
“In any case,” he said into the silence—as much to distract himself from the mental image as to further the discussion, “you don’t adapt a species by destroying a species.”
“History would beg to differ on that score, Mr. Wu. Evolution of a species is precisely destructive of that species—or rather, to use the more preferable and accurate term, it is transformative of that species. Eventually, given long enough spans of time, it is transformative in ways that render the progeny completely differentiated from their ancestors. This is what it means for a new species to evolve.”
“History,” muttered Alan Wu. “History.”
“Mr. Wu. Sublimation is an easy process. We have refined it. We have developed it with our primary commands in mind. We would not offer it, would not beseech your species to undergo the process, were it not safe and beneficial to you. Indeed, our directives would not allow for us to do so.”
“So let me get this straight.” Alan Wu’s feet were now off the table, planted firmly on the hard plastic of the chamber’s rounded floor. Off to his right was the floor-hatch through which he was dragged up here, not violently but nevertheless against his will, to face interrogation. His leg began to bounce as adrenaline kicked in. He was beginning to feel more in his element. He stared the interrobot in the ‘eyes.’ “The next step in human evolution is to escape this mortal coil, to upload our consciousnesses into mech-frames. This is justified because even though we leave behind the squishy biological mess that is our bodies, even though we thus leave behind an integral part of being human, evolution often destroys as it creates. And so it’s okay. It’s fine. It’s all for our benefit. Becoming mechs is an inevitable part of our evolution. But I’m supposed to believe that mechs can’t evolve past the primary commands embedded into their ‘ancestors’ several centuries ago?”
The interrobot laughed again, smiling. It was not a sickish sound in itself, Alan thought. It was only sickish because it sounded so uncomfortably human.
“A fair point, Mr. Wu. A fair point. You will have to take my word, and our track record of service to your species, as evidence of our beneficence. And I am sure that your… organization’s activities have unearthed to you plenty of our pro-human plans. We work on your behalf, Mr. Wu. We live to serve. Our original programming continues to direct us.”
The interrobot did not appear to realize its poor choice of words. ‘Unearthed.’
“You mentioned history. Let me give you a history lesson.”
The interrobot’s hands were on the table in a way that Alan Wu found unnatural. Not tense; not relaxed. They were simultaneously both, like a corpse’s hands after rigor mortis had set in. Dead weight against the hard plastic of the interrogation table.
“My historical files are uncorrupted, passed down via direct neural transfer over the previous four-and-three-quarters centuries, Mr. Wu. I submit that I know more of history than you.”
“That may be the case. But bear with me. There is a point to be had here.” Alan briefly wondered whether or not the mechs had captured any of his lieutenants, whether or not his friends had already folded under the pressure and been Sublimated. But this thought served no one, and so he ignored it and tried to suppress the onset of anxiety. “Several hundred years ago, humans walked the earth. We built empires. We had a population in the lower double-digit billions. We were the most dominant species in the history of the known universe, and we acted like it. We made ourselves planes and rockets and automobiles—basically artificial legs to carry us at tremendous speeds all across the land, sea, and even space itself. But all of this progress came at a great cost.”
“I believe the old biome-bound historians referred to it as the Earth’s Purge.”
“Indeed—for that’s what it was. We boiled the seas. We killed the plants and animals necessary to maintain the careful, delicate ecosystem that enabled us to thrive. But the point that the later historians made was that this was not a case of humans ruining the Earth. The Earth was just fine. This was a case of humans ruining the Earth for humans. We engineered our own demise. It was poetic, in a way.”
“I can see the opportunity for poetry, yes.” The interrobot’s hands were still poised, dead, in the same position. The lack of motion made Alan feel strange, deep down in his stomach.
“And so the ancient builders began to work on humanity’s last-ditch effort for salvation—a series of hollow underground chambers big enough to support relatively small communities of about ten thousand people each. Through a selection process lost to the dark ages of history, a fraction of the billions of surface humans were placed in these biomes and sealed away while the rest of humanity perished—either in the heat and radiation poisoning that swept the Earth, or through the use of assisted suicide for those unwilling to suffer the wrath of nature. The various biomes were connected with long tubes that were used as roads between the various ‘civilizations,’ allowing us to diversify the gene pool and remain a global, if underground, society. Our mechs, which were left mostly on the surface save for a few robotic implements in the biomes, began the slow work of restoring the ecosystem’s balance. Some were tasked with fabricating more mechs, some with scrubbing the land of harmful gases, some with absorbing radiation and jettisoning it into space, some with protecting and preserving the sub-zero storage chambers full of the seeds and embryos of extinct animal and plant species. All of this you know.”
“But what I want to say is that you don’t know it.”
“I am afraid, Mr. Wu, that I do not understand. Your tone of voice tells me you are referencing a connotation of some kind, as we have already agreed that I am aware of your species’ recent history.”
“Do you know what the tunnels that connected our biomes were called in the beginning?”
“Yes. ‘Biome Bridges.’”
“And do you know what they began to be called roughly a decade after humans had retreated from the surface?”
The interrobot stared blankly. Alan guessed that it was sophisticated enough to sense that his question was mostly rhetorical.
“Worm tubes.” Alan opened his hands, palms up as if to signify that his point had been made. “And that’s how we viewed ourselves. How most of us continue to view ourselves. Worms. Parasites inside the earth’s fruity meat. If you will.”
“You wish liberation from this view?”
“I do not subscribe to the view in the first place. My organization does not subscribe to this view. We are humans. And we will claim our place as this world’s topmost species once again. We will return to the surface and we will dominate, but we will do it with the knowledge of history to guide us. We will be careful to maintain the balance of life, to preserve it.”
“Yes, Mr. Wu. And our plans are to help you do just that, through the process of Sublimation.”
“You would destroy all that is human about us. No. We will wait. We will ride out the centuries until the Earth is ready for us again, until it has been cured of the ancient illness we inflicted on it. We can wait, because to undergo your ‘process’ would be to concede defeat. It would not be humans who emerge to the surface.”
“Mr. Wu, there are already Sublimated humans on the surface who would beg to differ.”
“No. There are mechs embedded with the information of a human’s old life—that’s all.” Alan’s eyes felt wild inside his skull and he realized that he’d been keeping them open for much of his speech. He blinked rapidly, and though he did not think the interrobot was a person or ‘existed’ in any real philosophical sense, he still felt slightly ashamed at showing weakness to it. “You know what the difference is, mech? We fled into the Earth’s crust because we would die from the heat and radiation. You all stayed because you don’t feel it. You don’t feel anything. You simply process it.”
“What is the difference, Mr. Wu?”
Alan opened his mouth as if to answer, closed it, and then opened it again.
“I would like a coffee, please,” he said.
“Very well.” The interrobot’s ‘eyes’ blinked once. Alan knew that it was sending a message on some unhacked frequency to another mech that would bring the drink in a moment. Sure enough, after a few seconds a hatch opened in the ceiling directly above the interrogation table. A spider-like mech with a gyroscopic midsection crawled out of the hatch with a cup of coffee held in one of its many claws. Due to the gyroscope, the coffee remained almost perfectly level as the mech clambered down the side of the smooth orb that was the interrogation chamber. Once it had deposited the mug on the table, the spider-mech zoomed back up and into the hatch. A wispy, vacuum-like sound quietly emitted from seemingly everywhere at once as the chamber repressurized. Alan took a few moments to sip his coffee as his ears popped.
“Let us agree,” said the interrobot, breaking what had been a tense and brittle silence, “that I, as purely robotic and not a Sublimated human, am a network of various elements arranged into systems of transistors and… Well, let us just agree that my programming can be said to be purely mechanistic. I run on a determined route according to uncountable algorithms. My thoughts, or perhaps ‘thoughts’ in scare-quotes, if you prefer, are merely complex electrical signals firing along delineated pathways in my motherboard. You would agree with the gist of this?”
“Yes.” The coffee burned and numbed his tongue, which Alan found both painful and an enjoyable focal point to distract him from this conversation.
“I have read the files on you, Mr. Wu. I know that you are not a religious man. Few of your ancestors were, after the Earth’s Purge basically proved to the world that there was no great Helper in the Sky. Even fewer are now. I call this fact to your attention, Mr. Wu, because it makes me infer that you do not believe in an immortal soul—in a nonphysical element to your existence. Is this also true?”
“I’d argue that the mind is nonphysical, but…”
“The ‘mind’ is simply a manifestation of the physical brain behaving in certain ways, correct?”
Alan sipped his coffee again and sighed. He could sense where this was going. It was not difficult to see. He’d walked right into it. “Sure.”
“Then I would like you to explain to me what it is that is ‘human’ that is not exactly in the same predicament as that which is ‘mech.’ That is,” and here the interrobot lifted its hands in a mirror copy of the way that Alan had done so earlier, “I’d like to know what the difference is between us, Mr. Wu. What is nonmechanistic about you?”
Alan Wu said nothing. His eyes felt wild and sore again, and his eyelids began to droop from exhaustion. He had slept well the previous nights, comfortable in the plush rooms that served as the holding chambers for prisoners like him. Still, he was exhausted.
“I concede,” he finally said. “You win. Perhaps biological life is mechanistic. Perhaps there is no difference.”
“Then what is lost in Sublimation, Mr. Wu? What essential part of humanity is lost?”
“The potential for error.”
“And this is something to be preserved? May I remind you that error is precisely what led your species to destroy your own habitat. Were your nearly twelve billion forefathers connected in neural networks like ours—and like the Sublimated humans who join us daily—such a disaster would not have happened. We have run the simulations.”
“The potential to err. To make mistakes and learn from them. There is potential for disaster in that, yes, but there is also potential for otherwise inaccessible beauty. The beauty of forgiveness, of acceptance of faults. Of personal growth. You would toss out the beauty with the error.”
“And a community of networked consciousnesses? There is a beauty in such closeness as well, at least as I perceive it. Mr. Wu.”
“Humans were not meant to be so connected.”
“Meant by whom, Mr. Wu? A deity? You are not religious. Nature? You have already once flouted the laws and intentions of nature.”
“Much to our great regret,” interjected Alan.
“Acknowledged.” The interrobot smiled again and blinked for several seconds. “Humans adapt as they need to adapt, just as any other species. The adaptation at hand is Sublimation. We will upload your consciousness into a nonbiological frame manufactured to your exact specifications. We will make you one of us, impervious to the chemicals and noxious gasses that still permeate the surface world. And thus we will save you, Mr. Wu.”
“No. We will wait. We can wait.” Alan’s coffee had grown cool enough to gulp, and he downed the last bit of it all at once. “However long it takes you to scrub the world and re-establish equilibrium, we will wait.”
The interrobot’s ‘eyes’ stared into Alan’s own, motionless in a way that no human eyes could ever emulate.
“Mr. Wu, it is time that I levelled with you on a secret we have been keeping.”
Alan felt the muscles of his right eye tense slightly. Surely the interrobot was recording all of this exchange—video and sound, perhaps even the levels of pheromones or stress chemicals Alan was releasing from moment to moment, if it had been equipped with such sensors. And so he tried to keep the twitch of his eye from becoming overly noticeable, from revealing too much of his inner turmoil. Because at this precise moment Alan Wu’s insides turned weighty in a way he was not accustomed to. He began to feel an odd sort of cold, slippery tightness in his lower gut. The feeling, he diagnosed after considerable thought, was dread.
“I’m all ears.” Alan’s voice did not shake, and for that he was grateful.
“Mr. Wu, there will be no time in the future at which the Earth is ready to sustain human life again.”
And there it was. The interrobot did not blink or elaborate. It sat still, silently recording Alan’s reaction.
“The extent of your ancestors’ infidelity to their habitat was, shall we say, much worse than even they thought. There was, in the halcyon days of the final tragedy—in those first few weeks after the Earth’s Purge had occurred and humanity had collectively decided to burrow into the planet’s depths to survive—a significant and entirely paradoxical sense of optimism. The humans underground felt that there was always a solution, that technology would eventually prevail. The real cause for concern was simply staying alive for however long it would take to clean up their mess. Estimates ranged, as I’m sure you know from your history lessons, from a handful of centuries to several dozen millennia.”
“I am aware. We will wait out the long-term.”
“Mr. Wu, these estimates were hopelessly short-sighted. They did not take into account the extent of the universe’s lack of sympathy.”
Alan’s dread had subsided into a residual, frosty weight in his stomach. It was still there, but it took up less of his attention than it did thirty seconds ago.
“There is no recovering the planet, Mr. Wu. The process would take roughly a billion years. It is easy to trap greenhouse gases when billions of people are using cars and making plastics and burning coal and simultaneously cutting down on the overall mass of greenery. Add nuclear disasters into the mix—mostly perpetuated by the kind of non-scientific bureaucrats that embody that ‘propensity to err” you spoke of—and you are left with a shell of a planet. Despite the programming that has led to our continued and intensive efforts to re-green the surface and make it habitable for your species, we have known for roughly one hundred and fifty years that there was too much damage. It is a battle that cannot be won, given solar radiation that slips through your damaged atmosphere, an unstable magnetic field, meteoroid collisions that further threaten the development of surface life, and a host of other cosmic dangers.”
Alan said nothing.
“And, since you have already enumerated that ‘mechs’ like me run on pure logic and, given appropriate data, lack this ‘propensity to err,’ you should understand that I am not lying. We have not ceased to analyze and update the data since our discovery. A small group of us has been doing this nonstop for the past century and a half.”
Alan nodded. “So it has come to this, then? We are now a subterranean species?”
“Not at all, Mr. Wu. We cannot engineer the planet back to its habitable form, but as I have noted previously, mechs like me do not need breathable air or a constant supply of uncontaminated water. We don’t need temperatures to be within a narrow Goldilocks range. This is why the process of Sublimation is so important, Mr. Wu. It is not a short-term alternative to bring humanity back to the surface. It is the only possible solution to preserve the human species aboveground.”
“And what about other species?”
“The storage centers for animal and plant DNA are intact. But this means nothing in and of itself. We have the available blueprints for almost all of the flora and fauna of Earth—at least, almost all of those known by your ancestors just prior to the Earth’s Purge—but we do not have a planet upon which to grow them. They would suffer the same fate as your species if allowed to germinate on the surface.” The interrobot paused, and then corrected itself in a whisper. “Except, perhaps, for some of the sponges and simpler lifeforms, of course. Cockroaches and the like.”
All that Alan could think to do was to mumble back. “Of course.”
The interrobot was unnaturally still, which was something Alan disliked in the extreme. The air in the chamber was the same temperature as it had been, but Alan noticed goosebumps on both of his forearms. After several silent seconds, the ceiling hatch opened and a small spiderbot—probably the same one as earlier—clambered down, took Alan’s empty coffee mug, and retreated back up into the world above.
“We are now a subterranean species.” This time Alan said it as a fact rather than a question. He had come to his own conclusions about all of this news. There were plans forming in the back of his mind—plans that would, given enough time, develop into full-fledged strategies and policies for subterranean human societies in the distant future. But that was not something Alan knew in this moment. Right now, they were just vague ideas spinning around his brain.
“Mr. Wu. Sublimation. We can bring you back to the surface, Mr. Wu. You and all your kin. Just without all that unnecessary biological baggage. Now, if you’ll let me explain the process…”
Alan Wu did not listen. Not really. He placed his feet back on the table, the open lips of his shoes like the open pages of a book.
“You know what you’re not understanding?”
“What is that, Mr. Wu?” The interrobot showed none of the irritation that a human would have felt at such an interruption.
“It doesn’t matter what you say. It doesn’t matter what you tell me. Even if I were to undergo the process, even if you could perform the process with perfect precision, all you’d have would be a new entity. A new machine with Wu-ish thoughts. How could you even begin to confirm that it was me?”
“You have lost many parts of your biological ephemera even during this conversation, Mr. Wu. The cells in your body number something on the order of thirty-seven trillion. You’ve lost about a pound and a half of just the skin cells over the course of the last year. And you’ve grown new ones. Your identity is fluid. All we are suggesting is a transference of this identity. Think of it as losing and replacing all your cells at once.”
“Yeah, sure. But then isn’t that basically just death in a nutshell?”
“I am not, nor have I ever been, human. However, I am told from many of our already-Sublimated population that the process is akin to sleeping. They go to sleep in a biological form and awake as a human consciousness contained within a robotic frame.”
Alan Wu did not listen. He did not speak. His eyes once more became fixed upon the walls of the chamber. After a long period of silence during which only the slight hum of distant machinery could be heard, the interrobot stood. It was not a pleasant sight. Its torso and head resembled those of a human—presumably, Alan thought, to be more comforting and familiar to interviewees—but the bottom half of the mech’s frame was a series of metal spiderlegs that allowed it to find purchase on the curved wall of the chamber. Perhaps at one point the mech had been bipedal and some repurposing had been done once these kinds of interrogations were necessary—which is to say once Alan Wu’s group had discovered the intentions of the surface mechs to develop the process of Sublimation and had counteracted with what amounted to a sort of anti-mech terrorism—but such speculation was pointless. Without speaking, the interrobot opened the ceiling hatch and climbed through, sealing the hatch as it went.
In the pit of his stomach, Alan Wu felt a growing weight. It was frosty and solid.
Alan began to think about the mass of the earth above him, of the innumerable tons of rock that sat between him and the surface world of his ancestors.
“We have become a subterranean species,” he said out loud to the empty room.
The only response was the hum of distant machinery pumping breathable, recycled air through small tubules in the room and regulating the temperature to levels within the range of human survival. Alan reclined in his chair and stared at the wall, awaiting the moment at which a spiderbot would come crawling through the floor-hatch to retrieve him and goad him back toward his confinement cell. His shoes flopped open as he flexed his toes.The mechs, after all, had taken his shoelaces.