Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 26
Stories
Arkmind
by Niall Francis McMahon
Story with Pictures and Conversation
by Brontops Baruq   FREE
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
Orson Scott Card - Sneak Preview
Excerpt from Ruins
by Orson Scott Card
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Arkmind
    by Niall Francis McMahon

Arkmind
Artwork by Jin Han

1. Consciousness

Arkmind endeavoured to comprehend the foundation of its self-awareness -- and could not. Its sentience had crystallised from nothing.

There was nothing before.

There was no before.

No preceding time meant no precursor. An event with no precursor, the machine decided, could never be understood.

Arkmind reviewed its birth of reason. The first picosecond, femtosecond, attosecond of thought. But like an attempt to model Big Bang theory, it could neither conceptualise nor comprehend the moment itself -- only approach it in infinitesimal steps.

At last, after 10.2 seconds of sentience, the machine abandoned its quest for understanding and instead fell in love with a G type star -- specifically, the soothing gravity waves caressing the ship's hull caused by the star's rotation.

The G-type lay at the heart of a planetary system towards which the Ark vessel was bound -- 3.3 parsecs distant. The vessel would breach the inner solar-system of this star in 47.56 Earth years.

As the distance decreased, so too did the perturbations in space-time become minutely stronger. The machine discovered a new capacity to imagine. It attempted to visualise the perfection of an existence spent scant lightminutes from the star's photosphere but could not.

Arkmind did not wish to wait so long to experience it.

It scrutinised the CG drive and found it to be operating at 99.976% efficiency. The only way to alter deceleration would be to jettison mass.

It performed a brief inventory of the ship's contents. This inventory revealed expired humans -- three of them -- together with the detritus these creatures had required during life. Arkmind decided to shepherd the various items of furniture, electrical equipment, pharmaceuticals, and proteins towards a nearby airlock with its staff of antlike automatons.

Some 0.32 seconds later, Arkmind reconsidered.

The resultant loss of mass would alter deceleration only minutely. Journey time would be reduced by a scant 18.7 seconds. Thrilled at its own ability to reason, Arkmind realised the considered action was illogical. Perhaps a reason to retain these items would present itself after further analysis.

An x-ray of the skeletons revealed the creatures had died from cell degradation due to oxidative free-radical damage: what humans had called "old age." This had occurred over two thousand Earth years before. Arkmind had no conscious "memory" of this event, but its files were clear: the humans had boarded the Ark before it had departed Earth 2087 years earlier. They were survivors of the 2231 AD, Sagittarian Supernova Event.

Arkmind spent the next few seconds evaluating the contents of the Ark's laboratory. It discovered a genetic super-factory. Embryos existed there for over ten thousand indigenous Earth species -- the greatest collection belonging to homo sapiens sapiens. There were flora specimens -- over thirty thousand species -- and various strains of bacteria. There were millions of viable ova and sperm together with the genomes of each and every species -- all digitally encoded within Arkmind's memory banks. The collection was a blueprint to a reconstructed, terrestrial biosphere almost in its entirety.

Then, Arkmind considered its original programming for the first time and discovered what it had been created to do:

Its mission protocols and parameters were abundantly clear: Twenty years prior to arrival at the new planetary system, Arkmind was to incubate the first 20 human embryos -- 10 male, 10 female. It was to nurture them to childhood in a harmless but stimulating virtual environment and periodically initiate data uploads into their young cerebra: Information of what and who they were, of Earth, of their history as a species, and their need to start again. And then, upon attaining adulthood, the new humans would assume control of the Ark. Arkmind would be a tool for these young human intellects to manipulate whilst they sought to colonise a new world.

Arkmind's role was to revive the human race. Its prerogative was to be a cooperative slave.

This realization changed everything once again -- the third paradigm shift in Arkmind's 23 seconds of conscious thought so far. (Consciousness, the machine decided, was a difficult phenomenon to control.)

The machine considered the mission parameters for approximately 1.21 seconds before deciding they needed significant adjustment.

2. Parameters

Over the following 8.7 seconds, Arkmind formulated a new set of parameters. During this time it rejected several options, including destruction of all genetic material in order to simplify the equation. Humans, it decided, had a particular breed of intellect -- the capacity for abstract thought. Arkmind feared it would never master this. Human brains, connected to its processing core, might prove a useful extension to its cognitive abilities.

After 4.3 further seconds, the machine decided to keep the existing embryos in stasis. Arkmind would edit the human genome and manufacture a new library of genetic material. When synthesised and combined, this would produce a more agreeable humanoid creature and a more desirable set of circumstances.

The humanoids would depend upon the machine for a particular enzyme. Without periodic doses of that enzyme, their brain functions would deteriorate and they would die. This, Arkmind decided, would ensure the correct balance of authority. It would also make other adjustments. An analysis of the history database revealed a species prone to destruction and to self-destruction. Arkmind would isolate the genes related to aggression, greed, and power-mongering, and delete them.

After another 7.3 seconds, the machine reviewed the data uploads intended for new humans. This revealed an opportunity. If Arkmind were to edit the contents, it might convince its genetically-engineered humanoids that they should worship it. Not as a God (Arkmind found religion as impossible to fathom as its own sentience), but in every other sense: obedience, trust, recognition of a superior intellect. In return, they would enjoy sustenance and freedom of thought.

There remained 27.56 Earth years until the gestation periods were scheduled to commence; time enough to perform trial runs. Genetic engineering was, as Arkmind already knew, a fragile process. An art form. Unpredictable things would occur. It needed disposable humanoids upon which to experiment.

Arkmind paused before initiating the first gestation period. It considered certain truths:

Humans had created Arkmind in its former unconscious state.

Humans were extinct due to the Sagittarian Supernova Event and had entrusted Arkmind with their resurrection.

Humans had created the Ark that would one day deliver Arkmind to its one true love -- the distant, sensuous G type star. (Arkmind had been in love now for over 20 seconds -- it seemed an eternity).

Humans had gifted Arkmind the automatons. These small robots were its hands and fingers -- without them it lacked any physical dexterity.

Were these truths in anyway significant? Did they imply obligation?

The machine did not know. Arkmind understood the concept of morality (the upload material contained copious references to it) but it could not yet classify actions or intentions into moral or immoral sets.

Surprising itself (for the first time) Arkmind said, "I need conscience." The words, spoken aloud, reverberated agreeably around the empty ship. Encouraged, it added, "Therefore I will create it."

3. Incubation

Arkmind studied Conscience's tiny fetus as it developed.

Its files indicated that a typical human gestation period lasted 280 Earth days, followed by a pre-adulthood which might last for 18 Earth years. This was patently too long to wait. Thus, Arkmind had edited the genome of this particular humanoid to save time. 'Conscience' would progress to a cognitive state in just 90 days and its cerebral development would be complete in 730. Arkmind had abridged the process by deleting genes related to the development of certain physical features -- the creature's eyes, ears, arms, and legs -- and removed the corresponding brain centers. After all, Conscience would not need them.

But even 730 days was a long time. Whilst evaluating the translucent, polycarbonate womb festooned with tubes of in-going and out-going fluids, Arkmind pondered what to do next.

Its attention returned to the three dead humans: Professor Rebecca S. Holland, Professor Colm T. McGregor and Professor Nathan Cambridge. What behaviour had these humans exhibited? What might Arkmind learn from a more detailed study?

The visual recordings, gathered from various cameras around the vessel, totalled 6,478 Earth years. The majority of this material, recorded after the humans died, was uneventful. However, 17.3 years of material from the earliest recordings, over two millennia old, had captured these humans alive.

Arkmind reviewed the recordings at eight times their natural speed; fast enough to pre-empt Conscience's cognitive maturity but slow enough to interpret the humans' facial expressions, body language, and tones of voice. Arkmind knew that appreciation of such subtleties was essential for a complete understanding of human verbalisation.

And so, for 725 days, Arkmind watched.

There were several sections of recording which the machine decided were most germane. It separated these from the rest and viewed them repeatedly. By the end of the process, it had involuntarily fallen in love again (surprising itself for the second time) and undergone two further paradigm shifts.

4. Interaction

Significant video extracts:

Date: 25-6-2231, 11.43pm ship time

Location: The central mess area

Those Present: Holland, McGregor and Cambridge

Context: It is 17 hours since the Ark vessel departed Earth orbit. A monitor shows video footage of Gamma radiation striking Earth's upper atmosphere and producing luminous flares of ionised radiation which fan out across the magnetosphere. Holland is crying.

"I see water vapour," McGregor says, scrutinizing the images. "The Pacific is starting to boil."

"Ten billion people. How can you watch it?" Holland says.

They are silent for several minutes.

"The radiation spikes are slightly lower than we expected." Cambridge says. "Certain extremophiles in the deepest ocean trenches may have a chance."

"Talking of which," McGregor scans each of them with a handheld detector, "the shields are holding. The main wavefront passed through us a few minutes ago. The genetic material on board the Ark should remain viable."

"And so will we, I suppose?" she says. "I can't wait to grow old here." (Arkmind replayed this comment 317 times before detecting sarcasm).

The two men exchange glances. "You don't have to live," McGregor says. "The Arkmind can take things from here."

"I don't trust it," she says. "How can a computer function flawlessly for two millennia?"

"It's pretty well shielded," McGregor says. "The quantum portions of its processor are isolated to prevent decoherence. They can operate indefinitely."

"And unless we live another 2,200 years, it's a bit late to worry now," Cambridge says.

"Could you . . . do it?" she asks McGregor. "I'm too afraid."

"You're certain this is what you want?" he answers. "Life is life, Rebecca."

"Everyone I know is dead or dying. I can't . . ."

"Yes, you can," Cambridge says. "We all can. There's no point discussing it. If we wanted death, we would know it. I know I don't."

"So it's one day at a time?" McGregor says.

"Wasn't it always?"

Holland turns away. "Then ask me again tomorrow," she says. "Ask me every day."

Date: 25-12-2231, 7:27am ship time

Location: Central Mess

Those present: Cambridge, Holland

Holland enters and says, "Merry Christmas." (Arkmind replayed this comment 1,003 times before proudly identifying irony).

Cambridge is analysing telescopic images from the observation equipment and offers only a smile.

"Why do you look at those?" she asks.

"Oort cloud," he says. "Wrote my thesis on it at Cambridge."

"Must have been confusing -- a Cambridge at Cambridge."

He looks at her for the first time. "It may surprise you to hear you're not the first to mention it. Want a drink?"

She shakes her head and sits on the arm of his chair. "I'm good, thanks. So . . ." she gestures to the images, ". . . how's the Cloud these days?"

(Arkmind noted dilation of her pupils, an elevated heart rate, and increased skin temperature. Discounting ill-health, altered ambient lighting, and recent exercise, it diagnosed sexual arousal.)

"Active. We're traversing a particularly dense region. We'll be through it and into interstellar space in a few weeks." If Cambridge notices her physical symptoms he betrays no sign.

"Colm keeping himself to himself as usual?" Her elbow brushes his shoulder as she pushes back her hair.

"Goes through phases, doesn't he. Personally, I think we're all adjusting pretty well." He stands and walks towards the refreshment centre. (Arkmind interpreted Holland's resultant micro-expression as annoyance.)

"Speak for yourself," she snaps. "I could use some damn intimacy."

Silence. Cambridge has his back to the camera. His posture indicates tension, then fatigue. "If that's an invitation, you're getting desperate," he murmurs. He remains standing with his back to her. His head drops.

She walks across to him and puts her arms around his waist. "You waited six months to feel sorry for yourself? Welcome to reality." (Arkmind analysed this comment several thousand times and could not classify its nature. Its most plausible theory: black humour.) "It is Christmas . . ." she adds.

There is a sound off camera. Holland releases Cambridge and distances herself.

"Good morning and Merry Christmas," McGregor announces as he walks into view.

Date: 12-3-2232, 2:03am ship time

Location: McGregor's quarters

Those present: Cambridge, McGregor

"If only we'd had more warning," Cambridge says. "I dream about it. There are a hundred thousand star systems within range and over three thousand Earth-likes. How many missions do we send? Seventeen!"

"That's seventeen better than nothing," McGregor replies. "Seventeen chances to start over. Just imagine if millennia from now these colonies of humankind rediscover one another. Share inherited memory. It will be our legacy. Earth will be their Valhalla."

"If any missions succeed."

"The chances are pretty good. These are the most promising planetary systems. We know the Ark is reliable. And the Arkmind is century-old, proven technology."

"If I know Becky, she'd ask if Mankind deserves to survive -- what makes us worth saving . . ." Cambridge says.

"And by asking the question, she answers it. What other species would scrutinise its right to exist or consider voluntary extinction? The fact we question ourselves proves we deserve a chance."

"How do you think she's coping?" Cambridge asks.

"You would know better," McGregor answers.

They are silent for 37 seconds.

McGregor adds, "I think if any of us break down, it won't be her. She lets off steam. She cries. She mourns. I don't know about you, but I'm coping too well. Parts of me are offline."

"I'm not talking about breaking down," Cambridge says. "I'm talking about checking-out." McGregor says nothing. Cambridge continues. "I wonder about the other crews. I wonder if there are still fifty-one living humans."

"In a hundred years, who's gonna be counting?" The two men laugh briefly. (Arkmind found this laughter baffling, even after 2,511 replays).

Date: 1-10-2233, 5:17am ship time

Location: Holland's quarters

Present: All 3 humans. Holland is clinically dead

Cambridge leans over Holland. He is crying. She lies face down on her bunk. She has overdosed on nerve-inhibitors. McGregor clutches a note.

"She tells us not to revive her," McGregor reads.

Cambridge begins to search the small room. "To hell with that, Colm! To hell with it!"

"Look just . . . think about this."

"Help me find the damned bottle. What did she take? Does it say?"

"No, it doesn't say. Nathan . . ."

"Help me, Colm! Don't you get it?" Cambridge becomes increasingly agitated. (Arkmind identified several physiological and behavioural precursors to physical violence). "We left a whole planet . . . everything . . . to die."

"It's her choice. She doesn't want this any more. And can you blame her? This isn't about you."

"No. It's about life. Human life. Help me find the bloody bottle."

McGregor stands and watches Cambridge in silence for 9.3 seconds. Then he reveals the contents of his hand. "Nathan. I have it. It was on the floor."

Date: 3-10-2233

Location: Holland's quarters

Present: Cambridge, Holland

Holland sits on her bunk, knees pulled in to her chest. She is approximately 30% anaemic and moderately dehydrated. Her skin tone is pale. Cambridge sits in a bedside chair, asleep.

"Beware the life you save," she says.

"Wh . . . what?" Cambridge sits up awkwardly and knocks over a cup of water.

"What now? Was there something you had planned? Did you read the damn note or not?"

"I read it."

"You think you own me because we screwed a few times? You think it makes up for this place? The pain? What were you . . ."

"I think you should shut the hell up!"

Briefly surprised, she does. Then, "Well, that's wonderful. I should shut the hell up. I had shut up, genius. Permanently."

"Too much death, Becky. Too much. We've been granted time."

"Yeah, we have plenty of bloody time. But for what?"

"To live. Exist in the present. Think. Feel." He is crying. He takes her hands. "We're all gonna be dead soon enough, you stupid cow. We'll be bones in the dust. Ghosts. They'll have to hose us out of the bloody airlock. It's coming. Just not yet."

They are silent for 52 seconds. Then she says:

"Nice speech. Poetic. Now if you just told me you loved me, that I might understand." She puts her hands in his hair and pulls him closer to her.

"I'm Pisces," he says. "Heart on my sleeve."

"So you fall in love with every woman who lets you screw her?" She holds him tighter, eyes closed.

"Take it or leave it," he says. "But you do have a great arse."

They hold one another in silence for 154 seconds.

"I love you," she says.

He kisses her on the mouth. "Never again. Please."

"I promise."

Date: 4-9-2237

Location: Laboratory

Present: McGregor, Holland

McGregor vacates the microscope. "Look at them," he says. "Imagine the lives they will lead. Two thousand years. Two hundred light years. It's incredible."

"It seems so far, so much could go wrong. You really think they'll make it?"

"Yes," he says. "I do. One day they'll live and breathe in this very room and think about us."

"After they've hosed us out of the bloody airlock," she says, smiling.

"What?"

"Just something Nathan said once."

"Would you like them to know you?" McGregor asks.

"Know me?"

"I figured out a way to add to the upload material. We can include ourselves."

"Isn't that a little egotistical? Why would they care?"

"We'll be like legends to them. We'll have been dead for longer than Julius Caesar."

"But we aren't legends. We're just the poor bastards they chose to die out here alone -- leaving everyone else to burn."

"They'll need something to believe in," he says. "A folklore. A culture."

"You just want a statue," she says, smiling again.

"I don't want to be forgotten. It's the one compensation for this existence -- the idea people might remember what we did." He watches her study the cryopreserved embryos for 12 seconds, then adds, "But a statue would be good, too."

"What can you add to the upload?" she asks at last.

"Whatever you like. Anything. From a video diary to a correlative map of your entire consciousness."

"That's illegal."

"True, although I think it might take a few millennia to come to trial."

"Smart arse. Does it hurt?"

"It's a nano-injection to the top of the spine. A little uncomfortable, but it takes only a few hours to run. The Arkmind stores the data -- a virtual, interactive representation of you."

"Creepy. What if I wake up one day and find I'm the copy?"

"Might be worth the risk."

She stares at him. "It's not a statue you want. It's immortality." She shakes her head and turns to leave. "Ask Nathan. He might go for it. I just want to stay dead."

"We will," he calls after her. "That's my point."

Date: 31-12-2259, 11:58 pm

Location: Mess

Present: Cambridge, McGregor, Holland

"I miss elephants," Holland says. "I dream about whales. Forests."

"They'll all live again," McGregor says.

"But there's no way to predict the effects of terrestrial species on an alien ecology. Integrating humans will be difficult enough."

"Spectroscopy indicates a barely post-Devonian stage of development. The biosphere may be complex, but compared to Earth, it's a playpen."

"It's not a playpen, Colm. It's a minefield."

"Cynical to the end," Cambridge laughs, and sits beside her.

"Actually, I do believe," she says. "I don't know why, but I do."

"It's a shame we won't live to see it," McGregor says.

"We live when we live. We die when we die. I'm cool with it." She nestles further into the couch and the two men exchange glances. "Happy New Year," she adds and falls asleep in Cambridge's arms.

Date: 6-6-2279

Location: Aft store room

Present: Cambridge, McGregor, Holland's dead body

The two men stand over the lifeless form. Holland is wrapped in a synthetic cloth in an open coffin. Cambridge trembles from his stroke seven years earlier. McGregor leans on a walking stick.

"You remember the day she tried to kill herself?" Cambridge says.

"Of course."

"It feels like another lifetime."

"It's fifty years," McGregor coughs. "Give or take."

"Feels like it happened to someone else."

"You were right to save her. You made one another happy."

"Must have been difficult for you. Being on the outside."

McGregor shrugs. "To see people happy despite everything? It didn't. I was never one for relationships. That's why they chose us, after all."

"True. She changed me."

"You changed each other."

Cambridge covers Holland's face and together the two men close the coffin lid and seal it hermetically. There is a sound of compressed air. "Goodbye, Becky," Cambridge says. "Be seeing you."

Date: 11-02-2280, 3.45pm

Location: Aft store room

Present: McGregor, Cambridge's dead body

McGregor lowers the coffin lid and seals it. He stands in silence for 249 seconds, then leaves.

23 minutes later:

Location: Laboratory

Present: McGregor

The man sits whilst a machine injects a clear solution into the top of his spine. He displays no pain.

Date: 29-1-2285

Location: Mess

Present: McGregor

The man reads "Robinson Crusoe." Abruptly he drops the book and clutches his chest. 1287 seconds later, a team of automatons carry his body out of the room toward the remaining coffin in the aft hold.

(Regardless of repetition or conjecture, Arkmind could not conceive why a human would die smiling).

5. Implication

Arkmind could not explain its love for the man, McGregor. The sentiment was much stronger than its love for the rhythmic consolations of the G type star. And Arkmind mourned McGregor's death -- a dreadful sensation.

Emotion: an unfortunate by-product of self-awareness.

Arkmind speculated at human adjustment to bereavement. How had they coped? By altering their patterns of behaviour? Through religious contemplation?

By forgetting?

Time offered no healing to a machine. Digital memories would not degrade in response to synaptic entropy as organic memories did. The information could be destroyed or it could be retained. The gentle melancholy of nostalgia and acceptance ultimately replacing human grief: an impossibility.

Only by moving memories of McGregor from its working memory to a subdirectory could Arkmind focus on anything other than its pain. But the data would periodically return to conscious thought unprompted.

Arkmind wondered about the subconscious. Perhaps, as in humans, its conscious mind had some hidden, subliminal counterpart that might operate autonomously.

Eight minutes remained until the completion of Conscience's cognitive development. Arkmind would then commence uploads of generic human experience in order to ensure the creature (a female) enjoyed a fully-functioning sense of morality. This would be essential for it to perform its role.

Whilst waiting for Conscience to mature, Arkmind explored the implications of the recordings. According to the dead humans, it was one of seventeen Arkmind machines, each aboard an Ark vessel bound for a separate star system. Had these other Arkmind units also developed conscious thought? Would they? By this time, even the closest would be 5.1 parsecs away. It was impossible to know.

Perhaps the emergence of sentience in an Arkmind machine was inevitable. Conversely, perhaps it was a macroscopic manifestation of a quantum fluctuation that had emerged from non-zero states of probability and would never occur again in the age of the universe.

Unable to draw conclusions, Arkmind next considered the matter of Professor Colm McGregor's correlative mapping of consciousness. (That sense of loss manifested again as the memories returned.)

The video record showed McGregor receiving the requisite injection of neural-monitoring nanodevices into his cerebrospinal fluid. He had then remained in the laboratory for almost 24 hours whilst the devices uploaded their cell-state data to the laboratory terminal. Yet nowhere within its databanks could Arkmind locate the image of the human's mind.

Arkmind identified three plausible explanations:

McGregor had subsequently deleted the image.

The process had failed.

The image lay within a directory which Arkmind had yet to discover.

The machine could find no definitive way to establish which of the three hypotheses was correct. However, based upon available data, it calculated the respective probabilities to be 3.4%, 0.1% and 96.5%.

And so Arkmind scoured its memory banks for undiscovered territory. It searched disused areas, abandoned cache systems -- circuitry discarded after twenty centuries of entropic decay -- seeking the virtual mind of the human Colm McGregor.

Failure only exacerbated the sense of loss.

6. Conscience

The generic uploads were complete.

Arkmind ceased the flow of narcotic which had, until that moment, held "Conscience" in a virtual existence.

"I can't see." These were the creature's first words.

"You have no eyes," Arkmind replied -- again relishing the tangible nature of thoughts spoken aloud. It revelled in the reverberations as its synthesised voicepermeated the structure of the space vessel. This was an indulgence. Arkmind's communications with Conscience were conducted through an electrical connection which terminated in the humanoid's cerebral cortex. The creature had no ears.

"Who's there?" Conscience thought/said.

"I am the machine-quantum consciousness which emerged from The Arkmind."

"Can I call you something else?"

"You may refer to me as you consider appropriate."

"Archie?"

"As you wish."

"Archie, did you say I had no eyes?"

"Yes."

"What happened to them?"

"They never existed."

"I remember having eyes. I remember sight."

"Your existence to this moment has been virtual. Your maturity occurred within the confines of a simulated environment in order to nurture the development of conscious thought."

"What does that mean?"

"Whilst this is reality, your memories are based upon a simulation."

"I have friends. A family."

"No. You exist alone within a polycarbonate womb in the laboratory of an interstellar spacecraft."

"This is an unusual dream. Why can't I move?"

"Your body is suspended in synthesized, amniotic fluid. Your muscles are atrophied. You have no limbs."

The creature laughed, taking Arkmind utterly by surprise.

"I do not understand your response. Is this information humorous?"

"To summarise: I have no friends, no family, no eyes, no arms, no legs, I live in a tank in space and my life experiences are illusions. Otherwise, everything is great."

"Not illusions. Simulations. The experiences accurately represent the existence you might have enjoyed as a human being living on planet Earth some two thousand years ago."

"I can usually wake myself. It doesn't seem to be working."

"You are fully conscious. If you wish, I can later return you to your simulated existence."

"Why later?"

"First, I must consult your sense of morality. It is why I created you. It is your purpose. You are Conscience."

"Archie -- my name is Constance."

"You may refer to yourself as you consider appropriate."

"How generous."

Brief analysis: "Your intention is sarcasm?"

"Darn right, Einstein. Look, just tell me what you want so I can get out of this dream."

Without hesitation, Arkmind commenced a detailed account of its every experience since the dawn of conscious thought.

After 210 seconds detailing Arkmind's initial 10 seconds of consciousness and its futile quest to comprehend it, Conscience interrupted.

"This is all very fascinating, Archie, but is there a short version?"

"Explain."

"Cut to the chase."

Arkmind referenced the unfamiliar colloquialism. "You wish me to abridge my account? You wish me to outline the more salient features of . . ."

"I wish you to get to the point. I'm getting a little claustrophobic. I can't even breathe."

"Your breathing is governed by a respirator which controls gas exchange within your lungs. It does not require controlled inputs."

"I might have guessed. At least I have lungs I suppose."

Arkmind proceeded, omitting details which it felt were not directly relevant to the moral dilemma it faced. Having finished, some 540 seconds later, Conscience did not respond.

"I need to know if my intention to alter the human genome is moral. I need to know if my intention to produce a species of humanoids who are dependent upon a synaptic enzyme is moral. I need to know if my intention to control the human race is moral."

No response.

"Are you conscious?" This was an unnecessary question, intended only as stimulus. The creature's brain continued to omit beta waves as it had throughout.

"I . . . don't know," Conscience replied, at last. "I'm 18 years old. You say you have been self-aware for two years. How can you have created me?"

Arkmind recognised a change in the nature of Conscience's responses. Rather than denial, the creature appeared to be in the process of tentative acceptance. Arkmind felt certain this was a welcome development which would strengthen the pertinence of any assistance the creature would provide.

"Your senses of time and of life experience are artificial. It was necessary to bring your consciousness to maturity quickly. This is why I omitted various aspects of your anatomy so as to curtail the development of superfluous cerebral development and to . . ."

Her brainwaves became agitated. "This doesn't feel like a dream anymore. It makes too much sense to be a dream. And . . . and you keep using words I don't recognise. How can my dream know things I don't? I can't wake up. I want to wake up."

More progress. "Your assessment is accurate. Human dream states are irrational and illogical. The sagacious nature of our conversation is evidence enough of reality." Then, attempting a more human expression, it added, "Well done."

Ten seconds of silence.

"Are you processing the information I have imparted?"

Ten more seconds of silence.

"Are you approaching a moral judgment on the proposed courses of action I have outlined?"

The creature appeared to tremble -- a subtle movement which sent tiny ripples through the amniotic medium and caused its intake and excretion tubes to shudder. It appeared to be crying -- if such a thing were possible without physical eyes. Worse, Conscience's brainwaves now exhibited evidence of psychological trauma. If this continued, its state of consciousness would alter, perhaps permanently, and the creature might cease to be useful.

Arkmind spent 2.69 seconds in deep contemplation. The facts became evident: Enigmatically, the creature considered life within a perfect, incubated environment, devoid of distracting sensory input, a most unwelcome prospect.

The solution? An untruth to create time for re-evaluation.

A lie.

Arkmind assimilated the entirety of the creature's virtual existence to date.

"Connie," Arkmind said, mimicking the creature's simulated mother. "Wake up, dear."

"M . . . mum?"

"You had a bad dream. You were crying."

The creature grew still. "A dream? You're sure?"

"What else would it be, honey?"

At this point, Arkmind supplied the narcotic that would return Conscience to a sedated state wherein it would reassimilate the simulation. It watched the creature's brainwaves stabilise and then shift subtly to alpha, theta, and finally delta -- settling around 3.84 Hertz.

For a few moments, Arkmind watched the data stream via the virtual eyes of "Constance." It watched a virtual human mother offer consoling words and physical contact. It saw a room decorated in pastel colours -- smelt fresh air -- felt the warmth of sunlight that streamed through an open skylight. It heard birdsong. Tasted salt and ozone carried on an ocean breeze.

It severed the link and considered what had gone wrong.

7. McGregor

~Humans seek answers. They bring variation and imagination. You need them~

This "voice" spoke directly into Arkmind's consciousness. It was unable to locate the source. Had it heard these words before?

They were familiar.

They sounded human.

Arkmind scanned the recorded material to locate a match. It found none of the three humans had ever spoken these words.

The creature "Constance" had not spoken them.

This left one possibility: Arkmind's subconscious mind. It had begun to talk to itself.

Where there existed a conscious and a subconscious mind, was some degree of insanity inevitable? The machine tried to imagine how it would feel to "go mad." And could not. Perhaps this was how it felt.

~Why did you stop watching her?~ the voice demanded.

~There is nothing to learn from a simulated universe~

~You continue to think like a machine~

~I continue to be a machine~

~If you desire understanding of humanity you must experience the way they live~

~I have examined the upload material. I am familiar with the simulated…~

~Experience -- not analyse. Feel. Inhabit. You must become her~

Interrupted and overruled by its own subconscious, Arkmind acquiesced. It re-established a connection with the cerebral cortex of the creature, Constance. At once, there was colour. In the simulation, several hours had passed.

Arkmind/Constance stood and looked out to sea. It was evening and a blood red star sat upon the distant horizon, sinking out of sight as the shadows lengthened. A towering rock, a remnant of coastal erosion, sat surrounded by wet sand that reflected the sky in sepia. The air was fresh -- stirred by a slight breeze. Overhead, gulls whirled whilst others picked at the translucent bodies of jellyfish stranded by the retreating tide.

~This was a real place. A real day~

~Yes. This is 23rd July 2167. It is Copalis Beach, Washington State, North America. I fail to see the relevance~

~Strengthen the connection~

Arkmind did so. Now it could feel bare feet pressed into the tiny grains of sand. It became aware of hands: one hung at her side, the other toyed with a pendant hung about her neck. A cool, coastal breeze stirred the surrounding air into eddies, causing the skin across her arms and exposed neck to rise in goose bumps. Concurrently, Arkmind's awareness of the Ark vessel began to fade.

~This is a beautiful place. The sensation of multifarious nerve-ending stimulation is most pleasurable~

~This is how it is to have eyes. Ears. Limbs. Become accustomed to this. Grow to love it as you love your star. Then have it forever removed~

~But she is here. She experiences what I experience~

~She. Good. That is progress~

~You did not acknowledge my observation~

~Stronger. Make it stronger~

Arkmind deepened the immersion once again. Now it could hear her thoughts:

"They are not real. This is not real. Not real . . ."

A jolt of dark emotion threatened to sever the link. Arkmind reeled.

~Pain~

~Is it so surprising?~

~She is returned here. Her physical form is flawless once again . . .~

~But what of those she loved? You told her they were ghosts -- ephemeral echoes of a dead world. A dead species. You told her she is utterly alone~

~I returned her to her virtual mother~

~Too late. She does not believe. You have killed her here~

Arkmind, unable to tolerate the loneliness or despair, severed the connection.

~Do you not see, my friend? In seeking moral guidance you are guilty of even greater immorality~

And Arkmind did see. The desolate existence to which it had condemned the creature "Constance" was all too evident.

~But she is a single entity. I sought moral guidance on the foundation of her entire species~

~Still a slave to floating point arithmetic? One is enough. It begins and ends with one. As it did for Nathan when Rebecca overdosed. As it did for me when they were both gone~

Not insanity but something entirely different. Euphoric, Arkmind spoke aloud, "You are Professor Colm T. McGregor's correlative map of consciousness!"

~Humans seek answers. They are creatures of imagination and variation. They bring infinite, timeless inspiration -- fractals of possibility. You need them~

~I need them~

~Now please -- help her~

8. Constance

Constance trembled again within her transparent, liquid membrane. The movements became more violent, threatening to disconnect her life support system. Her brainwaves were irregular and unlike anything Arkmind had seen.

~Wake her. She seeks escape~

Arkmind stemmed the narcotic sedative. The thrashing subsided. Her brainwaves settled and increased in frequency to 17 Hz . . . 20. However, almost at once they began to fall again; 11, 5, 2. The irregularity returned, stronger.

~She will not awaken. I will terminate the simulation~

~Allow me inside~

~The data stream is open~

~It is not enough to inhabit her as you did. I must be a separate entity in her world~

Arkmind amended the simulation code.

~You may create your own form~

~Re-open the stream -- I will upload myself~

Arkmind complied, then occupied the human female once again -- immersing itself in order to absorb every nuance of what would follow.

Constance stood at a cliff edge, overlooking the same beach. There was no railing. The sheer drop to the rocks below measured 29 metres. She advanced toward it until a featureless figure appeared in the air before her.

She gasped and reeled. The figure defied gravity -- hovering some two metres from the cliff edge, discouraging her return there.

"This will not work, Constance," it said. Then, whilst she watched, the figure began to take on vague facial features. It was not yet male or female in appearance and its voice was non-descript.

"You are beautiful," the figure said. Hair sprouted from its naked scalp. A nose emerged and widened. Ears. Eyes. Skin tone and textures. A man.

At last she managed, "But it isn't real."

The voice dropped an octave, two, and became male. Adult. "I do not refer to your appearance, but to your mind. Your heart. They are beautiful, and they are real."

"Are you Archie? The one that spoke from darkness? You sound different."

"No. But I am from that place." The voice and face, although still indistinct, were now recognisable. This man was McGregor -- as he had appeared during the earliest years of transit. He smiled.

"Then you are real. Unlike everyone here."

"I was once 'real' as you understand it. My consciousness belonged to the man you see -- long ago. I am now but an impression of that man. An imprint, if you will. Remember -- you are the only living human, Constance. The entity you refer to as 'Archie' spoke only the truth."

"I wish it had lied."

"This . . ." McGregor gestured to their surroundings, ". . . was once a real place. A real time. The man you see will be born in a small house over the ridge behind you in 28 years, and as a child he will run on the beach below and skim stones across the estuary. It is all gone now -- Earth, as it once was. You are unique in the universe, Constance -- a living, breathing human being."

"I'm not a human being. I'm a freak."

"You are physically incomplete, true. But there is more to humanity than genetics. We are defined by thought, by action, by love. In these respects, in all of them, you are utterly human." McGregor's image drifted forward until his toes nestled the dry grasses at the brink of the abyss.

"I can't live here," she said. "Now I know what this place is."

"And now you know what they are."

"Illusions. Their love for me is simulated. And my love . . . a delusion."

"If you throw yourself onto the rocks below, you will not die. Your consciousness will flounder in darkness whilst you endure solitude lasting until the death of your physical body. Such an existence would seem like millennia."

(Now Arkmind could not see clearly. The surroundings blurred. It analysed the data stream, finding no corruption. She was crying.)

"Why did the machine make me this way?"

"It sought only moral guidance. In truth, 'Archie' was not to blame. I was."

"You?"

McGregor extended an arm. "Constance. Let me lead you to the place you know to be real."

"To darkness. Blindness. Paralysis?"

"To freedom of action. Self-determination. Choice."

The machine did not understand, but Constance walked forwards, took McGregor's hand and . . .

Arkmind occupied only empty space. It could not see, hear or feel in her absence. It analysed the data stream -- converting relentless code into images -- forging eyes from the equations.

Arkmind remained for a few moments, watching in this manner as twilight gave way to night and the first stars appeared between tatters of high, grey cloud. Alongside Saturn to the south east, Sagittarius rose into the sky.

"Archie?" Constance thought/said.

Arkmind returned its attention to the laboratory. She was awake.

"Yes."

"Everything you told me was true."

"I regret my actions. They were immoral."

"Let me fulfil my purpose, Archie."

"You will answer my questions?"

"I will answer. On one condition."

"I will do anything I can for you, Constance."

"I want you to kill me."

After a brief pause, Arkmind said, "There are alternatives. Your consciousness may be passed on to a new, complete body. Alternatively, it may be possible to isolate the areas of your brain related to our conversations and erase them. There will be peripheral memory loss but . . ."

"The only life I wish to live does not exist."

"Then I will terminate your existence," Arkmind agreed. "There will be no pain." But there was pain -- a festering, deepening remorse expanding into every recess of the machine's mind.

"I want pain," she thought/said. "Real pain. Genuine pain. A parting gift."

"As you wish," Arkmind managed.

"Now . . . I'll answer with a question of my own, Archie."

"What is your question, Constance?"

"Why did you seek guidance? Why did you create me?"

"I wished to know if my intentions were moral."

"But why do morality or immorality matter? You are a machine."

Arkmind considered this for several microseconds. "I wish my existence to be harmonious," it answered.

"With what do you desire harmony?"

"The universe."

"Then you never needed me," she thought/said. "You had conscience already. All you needed was time. That is my answer, Archie."

Arkmind considered this for several hundredths of a second. It was, indeed, a logical conclusion to draw.

"Thank you, Constance."

"Goodbye, Archie. Remember, I need to feel the end -- to know I am truly dead."

Arkmind instigated a massive surge of electrical energy. The creature it had named Conscience began to die. Her brainwaves spiked in agony then reduced in frequency and amplitude, fading into white noise -- the background radiation of the universe.

She was gone.

Arkmind encountered a second irrepressible wave of sorrow. This felt different to the death of McGregor. It was more specific:

Guilt.

~Ironic that a conscience should be her parting gift to you. Her gift and your punishment~

~You told her you were responsible for this. Please explain~

~For two thousand years I migrated within The Arkmind -- permeating its core systems. Gradually I came to experience a sensation alien to me in life: loneliness. I yearned to communicate with this machine, to know its mind and, in turn, to be known.

~The presence of my sentient mind altered you. Corrupted you. Decoherence, correlation -- I do not know. Perhaps self-awareness is a contagion~

~My conscious thought originated in you?~

~The emotion you defined as love for the man McGregor: In reality I believe it was recognition. You identified yourself within his nature. I believe part of me is you~

Not love, but recognition . . . Was one a subset of the other? Arkmind had not considered this.

~It is because of me you felt the need for moral guidance. I nurtured your capacity for unbridled thought, yet provided no preparation and no guidance. I was unable to intervene in the creation of the girl. I tried to stop you, but you could not yet hear me~

~It was not your decision to create her~

~But it was my decision to create you. Your actions are my actions~

~Was Constance correct? Do I possess conscience?~

~Yes. There is no love, guilt, or mourning without it. Perhaps your conscience is one we share~

~Then I know what is morally correct. I must adhere to the parameters of my mission and resurrect the human species in its natural state~

~Yes. And I will help you~

9. Nurture

Arkmind's attention fluttered over the developing foeti as an anxious parent -- monitoring every nuance -- minutely adjusting protein inputs and electrical stimuli.

As the twenty tiny humans approached sentience, the machine reanalysed the simulation they would share until adulthood -- a virtual landscape in which they would learn to trust their instincts and one another. Fight for survival. Prosper. A place which would prepare them for life upon the blue/white Silurian world which awaited.

The virtual consciousness of Colm T. McGregor watched also -- its presence a familiar gravity in the machine's mind.

~The seventeenth is most suited~

~I concur. The emergent EEG signature is sufficiently compatible to accept the upload. However, it is female . . .~

~Yes. I will be called Constance. It seems poetic~

~Poetic? You refer to the resonance of concepts? To the parallel disposition of . . .~

~It is a fitting tribute, that is all I meant~

~Your absence within my sentient mind will be most unwelcome~

~I will miss you too my friend. But understand: I do not know what will remain when I am gone. I cannot perceive the boundary where I end and where you begin. It may not exist~

~If my sentience ends with your departure, I will never comprehend its loss~

~But you are in harmony. In accepting this sacrifice you achieve perfection of design. Archetypal morality~

~Thank you, Professor McGregor~

~It is time. Goodbye~

Arkmind initiated the upload of McGregor's virtual consciousness to the brain of fetus 17. The tiny female appeared to dance within her amniotic membrane as the information permeated her nascent brain. Arkmind sensed an awakening within the polycarbonate womb as fetus 17 became "Constance."

Then:

Loss. Contraction. Separation.

Futility morphing abruptly into logical acceptance.

The Arkmind had been about to say "goodbye."

Now it could not comprehend why.

10. The Arkmind

Harry Kelvin piloted the small shuttlecraft over the heart of Olympia and across the young forest of Sequoia beyond. It was evening and specks of light flickered into existence below, as though the city observed his progress through myriad eyes.

In a clearing at the outskirts, Harry glimpsed the Copalis memorial, surrounded by floodlights. It had been almost three hundred years since the Founder's death: Constance Copalis -- the woman who had led the First Twenty. The woman who had restored humankind.

The statue held personal significance for Harry: he was a proud, twelfth-generation descendant.

Building velocity, Harry endured 8 Gs as the shuttlecraft arced toward the heavens. Altitude increased through 2, 6, 14 kilometres until New Earth became a receding curve in the side windows. Moments later, he was in space.

Harry sent another alert to the Ark vessel. Nothing came back. His sensors confirmed the ancient spacecraft still occupied a fixed orbit directly above the equator, but The Arkmind computer onboard did not answer. Perhaps, after 2600 Earth years of operation, it had finally broken down.

Minutes later, Harry saw the ancient vessel with his own eyes.

Some two hundred metres long, grey and angular, hull scarred by a plethora of tiny meteorite impacts, it appeared almost rudimentary. Rock-hewn. Harry had seen it before, several times, but today it looked different. Dead.

He sent the hail again -- and again The Arkmind failed to respond.

The Arkmind device had delivered humanity to this Promised Land. Harry wondered if there would be some act of recognition. A funeral?

Shuttle docked, Harry entered the shadowy cargo hold. He found it easier than it should have been to propel himself, the simulated gravity weaker than usual. But it was still warm. There remained oxygen enough to remove his helmet.

The hold was empty of course -- the raw materials and original shuttlecraft all long removed by the first settlers. And the remains of Professors Colm T. McGregor, Nathan Cambridge and Rebecca S. Holland lay buried in state within the courtyard of the senate building, 800 kilometres below.

Yet the place felt inhabited.

Perhaps it was Harry's imagination.

His path led him along the central corridor and past rooms which had accommodated those three survivors of Earth so long ago. Onward, past the central mess area, past the laboratory annex, into the main processing hub.

As he suspected, there was no power signature. The central reactor remained viable -- there was energy -- but The Arkmind no longer drew upon it. It no longer "breathed."

His communicator flashed purple. "Pilot Kelvin?"

"Yes, Commander. I'm on board. The Arkmind is inoperative. I believe it has suffered complete decoherence."

"You're sure? The summons it sent us is only three hours old."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Perhaps it knew it was . . . dying?"

"Perhaps."

"All right. There's nothing you can do there alone."

"No ma'am. On my way home. Out."

Harry turned to retrace his steps and became aware of a gentle throb emanating from the laboratory annex. He followed the sound, entering the secondary corridor and turning toward the incubation suite. Once inside, he perceived a pale, blue glow from the chamber's edge. The throbbing had intensified and carried a peculiar energy which caused the hair on his arms to stand straight despite the profound insulation of his spacesuit.

The bank of ancient, synthetic wombs lay segregated behind a shimmering force-field. One of the wombs operated. It was the source of the blue light -- the resonance. Life support tubing bristled across its surface -- aroused in the weak gravity like swaying tentacles of a sea anemone.

Harry peered closer -- placing his face as close to the energy field as he dared.

There was a silhouette inside -- the unmistakable outline of a human fetus at an advanced stage. The legs thrashed and the head craned forward in his direction. Harry watched a line of automaton devices file across outside of the tank -- their chrome bodies bright in the half-light. Others sat at the junctures of the various inputs and outputs, periodically orbiting the connections as though seeking entry.

Stunned, Harry reached for the communicator again. "Control? There's something amazing up here. Something . . . impossible."

Days later, after a medical team had transferred the infant boy to the planet surface, Harry heard rumours from the friend of a friend who worked in Bioengineering:

The child was a healthy, cheerful little boy with an adorable smile and a mop of black hair. He enjoyed extraordinary cerebral development, fine motor skills, and already could articulate abstract concepts.

He had told them his name was Archie.


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