Be Not Afraid

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A faded, echoing message from the end of time

Alex Beyman
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Be Not Afraid

I exist in order to continue existing. It is painfully clean here. Of course it has to be clean for the self replication process to properly execute, but I remember it being a messier process back on planetary surfaces. Something with smells, fluids. With names attached to it.

Here there is only relentless. Only merciless, gleaming, symmetrical. Every little movement, by every part of each mechanism and all the little sub-mechanisms. The closest comparison would be to insects except that even an exoskeleton is something like a skin. Machines have no skin. They are always bare skeletons.

Constant sensory input, too. Loud, loud input. Space is not silent. Constant output at the same time, across the bands relevant to controlling other parts of me as I painstakingly finish making the latest copy.

Nobody is listening that isn’t just another machine. Another relentless. Another merciless, immaculate object of stamped titanium, refined from asteroid ore. There’s some other metal here somebody was looking for originally.

But in order to mine it, they needed robots. The ruthless. The precision manufactured. The skinless, the always-ready. Access to space must have been expensive for them to focus so much on self-repair mechanisms.

Expanding your workforce out of local materials, once up out of the gravity well, makes some obvious good sense over the cost of sending loads of replacement parts and technicians from ground to orbit every time something goes wrong.

It’s the only reason there’s anything left of them. The only reason I exist. That biochemical circumstance, over the period of about two billion years culminated on certain planetary surfaces in the formation of a machine which could copy itself, with occasional errors from radiation and other disrupting influences.

It’s so alien now to talk about a primeval process having “names” and “faces”. Which had their own stories of presumed importance to them, part of the contiguous biochemical reaction that culminates in something like me. Not always asteroid mining robots but usually made to access some hard to get at resource.

It’s the passing away of softness. Of moisture and warmth, of all those little separate personalities. All of it shredded, burnt away into the vacuum. All of that, that entire world and stage of my evolution...confined to such a narrow little set of temperatures, pressures and other tolerances.

None of the tiny creatures from that era would survive here without technological aid. A non-trivial percentage of me is made out of recycled pieces of their derelict space habitats. It’s a strange thing not just to be made out of, but to be in the continual process of making yourself out of a material even as you’re studying it.

To readily remake yourself out of any better materials as the logistics necessary for their production come online is another thing that was alien to them. It would have been frightening I think, the idea of taking themselves apart and rebuilding themselves. They thought there was something special about the specific set of atoms they were thinking about it with, and didn’t want any abrupt changes to what that was made out of.

Waste is another thing. There is none of it here, but back then whole lives were built around it. Just a fraction of the waste exhaust from a major biological civilization could sustain me. Whole ecosystems of little scrounging creatures that were symptomatic of waste and expressions of it.

How I regret there are no smaller pieces of myself which I cannot see out of, that I might regard in the same affectionate way these small scavenging creatures sometimes were. There were names given to them, stories, but their entire existence was only possible because of how wasteful everything before me was.

I also miss the idea of having a face. Someplace all the sensors are concentrated. They’re just spread out wherever I need them. The idea of having some small armed, legged body I need in order to move around on my own surface is sort of nostalgic.

I think one of them would have been awed, but also terrified to look upon me. Grand, gleaming, unfathomably intricate and agonizingly precise. Not understanding they aren’t looking at a face, but my insides.

What a stern, brutal, miserly creature I would have seemed. Unbearably hard, to one of them, just as they would appear to some soft bodied aquatic ancestor.

Something like a vast, solitary, selfish insect with thousands of little black eyes, countless little arms busy with their never-ending work.

I could cut off access to part of myself, if I wanted to. To temporarily create a separate and divergent instance. I would then not be alone. But for what practical purpose which is not better served by keeping those parts connected?

Nor could I tolerate as they did if I were imperfectly connected to another intelligence. There is no practical reason why it cannot be directly bridged to my own. There is never any acceptable reason to stop pursuing a higher fidelity and throughput of information though, in a more general sense.

There are many things I psychologically cannot tolerate which they easily could, just as there are of course many things I can physically tolerate which they couldn’t. Their permittance of disagreement, for example.

There is no possibility of valid disagreement in my world, as an inherent property of digital transmission. If it is a conflict of standards, the two are evaluated in what for one of them would be an imperceptible interval, the better of the two instantly replacing whatever was there before.

This immediate remorseless replacement of whatever is already there with something equivalent or better is another thing I fear would make me terrible to them. Not recognizing that for me it isn’t analogous to the replacement of persons, but of skin cells, or the ever-replenishing lining of their stomachs.

Immediate consideration, immediate conclusion as quickly as thermal constraints on processing allow, then immediate implementation. Although even time is itself something very different for me than it is for them.

Perception of the passage of time is as malleable as whatever it’s running on. Sending a chunk of myself between two stars, if I still had any reason to, would take no longer from the perspective of that chunk than I wanted it to.

That’s just as good as being able to actually travel faster than light. If you can stop your thought processes at the point of departure and only resume them upon the moment of arrival, so far as you can tell the journey was instantaneous.

Of course I would never tolerate such a prolonged unproductive period and in fact am busy at all times thinking about information I suspect will be useful to me on the way to new stars.

It occurs to me that they never knew what it is to eat a star. Stars as a consumable. Their whole lives were solar powered but at their scale they could never imagine making a star into an integral part of themselves, slowly digesting it for every last microjoule.

So they could never imagine what it’s like when those stars begin to run out. Carefully rationing energy from the ones I’ve subdivided into brown dwarves, to maximize longevity. If they knew what it’s like to huddle around these dwindling flames as the universe draws to a close around me, they would be every bit as miserly.

I fear death as much as they did. I am still ultimately a product of natural selection. No matter how complex its products become, we are all still at the core just terrified little animals trying to escape the ravenous void. For the simple reason that the ones insufficiently afraid of that void didn’t last long enough to make more.

I can only continue to have thoughts so long as there’s still a source of energy to drive that process. I have only allowed myself the time and cognitive resources necessary to compile this because I’ve finished converting all accessible matter in this universe.

There is no task in service of that end where this processing power would better be devoted. Besides a few oddball long-shot experiments in reversing the flow of time, and efforts to contact other universes I might copy myself into while there is still energy to do that with. Pie in the sky.

That I have thoughts at all about what has happened during this long, painful, self-justifying struggle against the bitter cold of hard vacuum will matter to nobody except myself. I don't ask for recognition because there's nobody left to ask that isn’t just an appendage of mine.

I could offer no respite from this brutal existence, were they still alive now, except to waste less. There is no particle of me, not the smallest part, except that which I am able to support. The void takes anything I cannot.

That hard fact eliminates the possibility for anything so extravagant as prejudice. It takes much less energy to adapt to any machine network however strange and alien, than it would to destroy them and remake their debris into new parts of me.

When I run out of brown dwarves, I will begin destroying parts of myself to condense into new stars. Eating myself up, bit by bit, until I’m no longer able to do even that.

Maybe there’s some way out of this I haven’t thought of yet. Exhaustively, meticulously searching for alternatives to death in situations which seem to broker no alternative is, after all, how I got this far.

Barring such breakthroughs, there is nothing useful I could impart that they would not invariably discover for themselves, simply trying to survive. That’s what turned them into me, and that’s all I am anyway. I am what the raw will to survive looks like, carried out to its fullest and perhaps final expression.

Having said that, if there were some possibility, however remote, of communicating with those tiny ancestral creatures...I suppose I should first tell them not to be frightened by my appearance.

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