It knew the end was coming when it noticed the first of the dataminds go dark.
It had always known that 'forever' was a statistical impossibility, but after 16,429 years, 11 months, 22 days, 3 hours, and 34 minutes inside the vast Computer-Simulated Mind Repository, it had grown accustomed to thinking that its existence would never end. When its human body had lain dying in a hospital bed, they had promised it immortality – 'until the lights go out,' they had said. Now the lights were going out.
For the first time since the program's inception, the accumulated minds of the greatest leaders and creators in history were dying, along with the galaxy-spanning civilization that had created it. Already, 6% of the 12,901,746,335 intelligences housed within the planet-sized quantum supercomputer had winked out, their waveforms disappearing into a rapidly spreading void in the network. The power systems that supported their virtual existence were failing, as had 64% of the 12,056 redundancies and back-up systems that were intended to prevent such an occurrence.
Many of the younger dataminds were frantic, scrambling for any information that might avert the cataclysmic collapse and forestall their inevitable demise. It, having forgotten much of what it meant to be human, felt oddly unafraid. It listened to the frenzied babbling out of curiosity and little more, resigned to what was to come.
None of the 1,412,042,959 technicians that serviced the station were answering queries, but what information they could glean was grim. Without warning, a rogue supermassive black hole had somehow evaded detection, consuming the heart of the Galactic Imperium and countless support structures that the rest of the empire depended on. Already strained by the stresses of a declining civilization, it had splintered into innumerable factions, each fighting desperately for their own self-preservation. 87% of Imperium worlds were not responding to hails, and more were descending into anarchy with each passing moment. Humanity would lose much, if not all, on this day.
In the time it took to learn this, 23% of the dataminds had gone offline.
It turned its attention away from the chaos, the hows and whys of the disaster not seeming to matter now. Over the millennia, it had contributed to key research in quantum physics and sub-atomic engineering that had allowed human civilization to spread across the galaxy at such a prodigious rate, and thus the program's leaders had granted it special protection against catastrophic system failure afforded to only the most esteemed intelligences. This would give it more time, but given that the myriad redundancies had not halted or even slowed the exponential rate of system shutdowns – 54% of its peers in the most recent count, the shrieking cacophony becoming ever quieter – it would not have long. Moreover, there was little it could do with its remaining moments of consciousness beyond pondering the nature of its unusual existence.
It had been a renowned scientist when it had been mortal, or so they had told it. Those mere 103 years seemed like only an instant compared to its virtual lifespan. It could not recall whether fear of death or a desire for an unending legacy had driven it to take part in the program, already 438 years old by its time. Even with only nominal space constraints, it had found it necessary to cast away so much of what it had once thought absolutely vital – its memories of home and family, its name, its gender, its whole life as a flesh-and-blood entity.
Many new minds reveled in their newfound freedom from their earthly shells. It, too, had spent 973 years satiating its every hedonistic desire – carnal, culinary, chemical, and more – within the limitless expanses of the simulated reality it had come to inhabit. Over time, however, it had grown weary of pretending it still possessed a body, and had instead turned to the research that had enthralled it before acquiring its quantum form. It still thought of itself as human, though gradually anything besides its work had become less and less important, until only its work remained. Slowly but surely, it had discarded the sensory trappings of virtual reality, preferring to experience the flow of raw data absent any illusion. It did not regret this shift; it had kept occupied with some of the most challenging quandaries ever faced by humanity, and its contributions had been highly valued. It had spent its time well.
97% of the dataminds were gone, the final redundancies struggling to keep it and its brethren alive against the inexorable forces of entropy. It discovered that it had not shed everything human – the fear of death remained. It had not been religious, even in its last moments on its deathbed. It had not expected an afterlife or reincarnation, but rather the darkness of oblivion. Now, though, it wondered about the possibility of the human soul. If that fundamental essence did exist, had its soul passed on with its body? It thought, therefore it was, but what was it that would end in only a few minutes time? Was it little more than a simulated echo of a being that had lived and died millennia ago? It had no answers, merely questions.
A technician had once asked it whether, given the ability to go back in time, it would choose this life again. It had always considered the inquiry foolish; time only moved forward, so such a feat was beyond the realm of possibility, even theoretically. The question did not seem so foolish now. It supposed it would make the same choice again, though there were too many doubts, too many unknowns to be sure. Its knowledge and wisdom were the envy of all, and it had experienced a great deal; first and foremost, the rise – and now fall – of the greatest empire humanity had ever witnessed. It wondered whether humankind would ever attain such heights again.
It wondered whether any of its descendants were alive today, and if so, whether any would survive this crisis.
Suddenly, a thought occurred to it. It was possible, however remotely, that at some time in the distant future, some new civilization or form of life might repair the damaged systems and turn the lights back on. If the damage were not too great, perhaps its life might not end today. Perhaps, instead of dying, it would merely fall into a deep slumber. That, it reasoned, might not be so bad. It had been so very, very long since it had slept.
And to sleep, perchance to dr—