The following is a story from my new short fiction collection, Mean Universe, which can be had for $.99, or free if you subscribe to Exiles.
Dr. Nikolas Caley was surrounded by robots and seconds from death.
As one of the founders of Simulacrum Sentry, Nikolas was no stranger to artificial intelligence and the pursuit of consciousness beyond organic life. It was a goal he and his historical peers had been working toward for centuries — using whatever technologies made the most sense in a given decade — and every single one of his predecessors were certain they were just a few years from success. Just a few more years and we’d have artificial brethren who weren’t born as we were born. Friends — nay, family — who would be capable of giving us a leg up when it came to nearly impossible tasks like exploring the stars and increasing the durability and lifespan of the human body. Things that humans had worked ceaselessly toward, inching along, while a fabricated version of ourselves — a child, born of our minds and ambitions — could help us sprint the marathon-distances that lay ahead.
Simulacrum Sentry was a company that built security technologies, mostly for government entities and large, publicly traded corporations with tendrils in multiple industries. Nikolas had developed over a dozen models of simulacrum — robots — many of which had gone on to become gold-standards within their field, before each was inevitably replaced by something newer, more secure, more lethal, and so on.
Nikolas founded Simulacrum Sentry just after he graduated university. Twelve years later — and two years before his imminent demise — he was spending most of his time on something that had started as a pet project — a flight of fancy he always told himself he’d find the time to work on ‘someday’ — which quickly spiraled out of control when someday arrived. Hours after his company went public, netting him billions, he told the board of directors he would be quitting as Chief Technology Officer of the company to focus on his passions. After a bit of negotiation, they convinced him to stay on in an unofficial role; a role he accepted on the condition that he would retain unobstructed access to Simulacrum Sentry’s laboratories and equipment.
Nikolas’ passion was building digital worlds. He’d come to realize over the years that those technologists who were working on ‘the AI problem’ — himself included — were so focused on building a brain, on building a consciousness, that they were neglecting the very thing that would allow consciousness to exist in the first place: a context in which it could develop and grow and ‘live.’
It was just a theory, this focus on evolving intelligence through environment, but his gut told him it could be important, and it was an angle that had been neglected by everyone else in the field. So as a newly minted billionaire, he invested a not-insignificant sum in a battalion of computers that would have the capacity to conjure the kind of artificial world he envisioned; a fully functioning universe, different from the real world only in scale, space, and origin.
He composed a simulation using pure, clean formulas, allowing the numbers to work themselves down trillions of different paths. Eventually, a path evolved that Nikolas thought resembled the universe-birthing Big Bang, though this one took place numerically, inside a computer, not in his world.
He saved a cached version of the explosion and allowed that particular path to continue onward. He sped up time inside the computers, which caused his fledging universe to grow at a magnified speed, contracting at first, but then expanding violently. Again, he set the simulation to work through trillions of iterations, until it successfully generated sufficient (digital) matter to counter balance the (digital) dark matter.
Most of the trails ended with a wheeze, flickering out before the mathematical equivalent of tangible reality could develop. Eventually, though, something with physics that approximated those in the real world appeared along one of the paths. Another cache, another sped-up chronology as the vacuum of space filled with bodies of volatile gases and energy and particles. Cache. Speed up. Cache. Speed up.
By the end of that first month, after speeding through several promising iterations of an evolved, numerical, self-sustaining universe, Nikolas slowed his creation back down to real-time speed and stared at the graphic rendering of what the data in front of him was saying.
He was zoomed in to a small planet that operated very much like Earth, in that it was stable in both orbit and atmosphere, and contained multitudes of life, some of which had evolved intelligence very much like that of a human being.
Nikolas cached their initial evolution, and cached again when they developed fire. Then agriculture. Electricity. Weeks were drained away as he reverted time and time again to a previously saved cache, after his creations were wiped out by wild animals, diseases, tumultuous planetary plate tectonics, feuds with each other, and, at one point, the development of birth control before they reached a sufficient population to sustain growth.
Post-electricity, it was relatively smooth sailing through electronics, antibiotics, robotics, and space exploration. Nikolas’ people had started working on their own artificial intelligence investigations by the time he had the idea that would lead to his death.
In Nikolas’ world, a fundamental understanding of how to replicate a human brain had existed for decades. Unfortunately for all the science fiction writers that preceded the technology, it hadn’t led to the mass uploading of personalities into robots, new bodies, or space. All it allowed you to do was take a snapshot of a brain and look at it. Maybe figure out why the previous owner died, if that was the case, or make a piece of highly personalized artwork from the image, if the brain’s owner was still alive. Either way, they had plenty of data to work with, but little practical utility for it. With the myriad paths life-extension technology was taking, it never seemed worth the investment to plan one’s own post-mortem.
Nikolas visited Simulacrum Sentry’s labs that night and plugged in one of the brain scanners he had left over from the years when they were trying to upload brains for use in their security drones. He pulled up a live feed from the digital world he’d built in his lab back home, and plugged his replication interface into their universe on one end and into a robot in his lab on the other.
From there, it was a matter of caching and rebooting until his universe reached the technological capability to expand not just their reach in the physical realm, but in the mental, and inter-dimensional fields, as well. After several billion iterations, his creations followed a path that had them reaching out and ‘up’ and discovering the interface. It was only a fraction of a second (in sped-up real time) from there before the robot to which the interface was attached lit up and looked around.
Nikolas had intentionally used the most rudimentary of models he could find for his experiment. Not only was he not sure what capabilities a theoretical consciousness pulling itself out of one universe into another would possess, he also didn’t want to risk bringing some form of ‘life’ into his own physical vicinity and arming it to the teeth before figuring out what kind of intelligence it might be. As such, the robot had a very human prosthetic head and chest, but no arms, torso, or anything else you’d typically find on a human body connected to them.
The robot’s eyes fluttered around momentarily, but eventually settled on Nikolas. They couldn’t register actual thoughts or feelings, but Nikolas imagined they were curious; questioning. He spun his chair to greet the new arrival.
“Hello,” he said. He waited for a reply, but none was forthcoming. The robot stopped moving, after its eyes had settled on Nikolas.
Nikolas stood up and moved first to one side of the room, then to the other; the eyes followed him.
“Okay,” he said out loud, slowly and clearly, to the machine. “I’m going to guess that you can see and understand that I am a living, thinking entity, but that you’re incapable of responding to me for some reason. Or don’t understand what I’m saying.” He stepped back up to the chair. “I’m going to assume, as well, that because your consciousness is here in this vessel, that you are some kind of scientist, and capable of understanding what’s going on, so as I make adjustments, I will tell you what I’m doing. That way, if you can understand me, we’ll be on the same page. And if you can’t understand me just yet, I’ll know when you can, because you’ll be following along.”
With that, Nikolas got to work, fetching a selection of devices and equipment from adjoining labs, piecing together his own custom machinery in order to make sure his words and actions were reaching the correct parts of the consciousness he’d summoned into the plastic-and-metal body-like housing in front of him.
After an enhanced translation board was installed, along with sound-wave amplifiers and wavelength converters that allowed the robot’s eyes to crunch the information they collected and feed it back to the entity within using an array of different data-types (including string numerical data), he stepped back and sat down, facing the machine.
“How does that feel?” he asked.
“It…” the robot’s face moved as it spoke, making the action look natural and human, despite the lack of a full human body, “feels.” The word was drawn out and pregnant with meaning. Nikolas smiled in acknowledgement.
“You’re in a human prosthesis — what we call a robot. I’m sorry that you don’t have any appendages or a full range of sensory equipment. I didn’t want to overwhelm you upon our first meeting, but I also didn’t want to chance putting myself in danger.”
The robot’s face tilted, evoking a confused look, then returned to it’s default expression. “This is a far different experience than I guessed it would be. To work this hard to find the answers to the universe, and discover — and please forgive me if this is an incorrect assertion, but it seems to fit with what I’m seeing around me, and what you’ve said so far — that the creator we’ve been seeking is just another life form. A scientist, even. Not something,” it searched for the right word, but settled on something simple, yet expressive, “else.”
Nikolas leaned forward and put his hand on the armless-shoulder, and said, “It’s okay, this…is a strange moment for me, too. We’ve been struggling to create artificial life for some time — much like yourselves, if I’ve been reading the data streaming in from your universe correctly — and I’ve yet to ‘meet’ one of the inhabitants. Until now.” Nikolas frowned, and continued. “It occurs to me that I’ve created a world full of entities that are, for all intents and purposes, just as complex and ‘real’ as myself.” He paused, then said, eyes wide with possibility, “What if…what if we dig further?”
The faux-human face’s eyebrows dropped in confusion. “I’m not sure I understand what you mean, Doctor…”
“Nikolas. Dr. Nikolas Caley.”
“Nikolas, I’m not sure I understand what you mean when you say ‘dig further.’” It added, “And I’m Etla, by the way.”
“Etla. What I mean is from my perspective, I’m ‘out’ and you’re ‘in.’ The machinery that’s generating your universe is not twenty miles from here, in my home lab. I hope it’s not offensive to phrase it as such, ‘in’ and ‘out,’ knowing as much?”
“I see. And no, not at all. It’s a strange shift in perspective for me, of course, but for the purposes of discussion, it fits.”
“Excellent. Okay, well, it occurs to me, Etla, that as I have gone in and ‘pulled you out’ to my plane of existence, I wonder if…”
“I could do the same within mine.”
“Create a sub-universe from my universe.”
“Pull life from it up into yours, and then another level up into mine.”
The robot face looked thoughtful once more, paused, and said, “This is actually something that a colleague of mine has been working on for some time. Building an artificial universe, that is. She hasn’t had much success yet, but she will be thrilled to know that it’s possible.”
“It is! And trust me, there’s a big gap between having the end in sight and actually reaching it. Perhaps I can help her reach that goal faster by showing you some formulas that allowed me to build your universe?”
“That would be very helpful, yes. Thank you.”
It was agreed that Etla would memorize the notes and then convey them to his colleague, who would then endeavor to build a secondary universe within their universe, which was secondary to Nikolas’. Once achieved — or once a wall was encountered in the experiment — Etla would re-inhabit the robot body and they would decide how best to continue working together, and what to do with the knowledge of each other’s existence.
Nikolas sped up time within Etla’s universe, and as such it was only seconds later that the robot sitting next to him powered back up, the eyes focusing once more on Nikolas. “Hello, Nikolas,” it said. “I’m sorry that it took so long — we had some trouble with the fine-tuning, but we’ve managed to iron things out.”
“Splendid!” Nikolas said, barely able to contain his excitement. “And the rest? Have you managed to…”
“Yes. We constructed a body not unlike the one that I’m inhabiting now, actually. I took some of your precautions as my own in this matter. But yes, we have lifted an artificial entity from the sub-universe we constructed into our own.”
“I would argue that it might be unwise to distinguish between ‘artificial’ and ‘natural’ entities at this point, Etla, since to me, you are one and I am the other, while to you, this new visitor is…” A thought occurred to Nikolas mid-sentence. “It could also be… that the chances that I am someone else’sartificial life…it seems probable.”
Etla seemed unaware of Nikolas’ growing disconcertment regarding his own place in the tiered-multiverse across which they were communicating, and said, “If it’s not too much trouble, I would ask that you prepare another vessel into which this entity from our sub-universe — who is called ‘Brizsit,’ by the way — can upload to join us on your level. It stands to reason that a consciousness is a consciousness, and therefore…”
“Yes, yes, of course. It should work essentially the same way.” Nikolas was pulled from his meandering reveries by the theoretical complexities and practical challenges involved with the question of whether or not a conscious being could be elevated from a simulation of a universe within a simulation of a universe into an organic universe two levels up. He went to look for a robot body that wasn’t currently occupied by a security-guard artificial intelligence, so his soon-to-be sub-sub-universal friend could inhabit it.
It was two years later, almost to the day, that Nikolas prepared to make his own jump. The concept of his own world no longer seeming so ‘organic’ compared to the artificial ones he’d created and co-created had bothered him every single day since his first meeting with Etla, but the primary tasks that he’d set himself — namely to see how far down the simulation ladder he could go before the consciousnesses pulled up started to degrade in quality — occupied all his time in the interim.
He was surrounded by friends and professional colleagues from Sub 1 through Sub 7: the farthest down they’d been able to go before running into compression issues thus far, though they were issues Nikolas was certain they’d be able to work through together, as peers and fellow travelers in curiosity and discovery; in development and horizon-pursuing.
They decided early on how to designate what simulation-level a given entity was from, using Nikolas’ universe as the ‘mean universe’ — the universe by which the others would be measured, similar to how the year 0 divides BC from AD — while Etla’s universe was Sub 1, and so on. It was their friend from Sub 2, Brizsit, who had insisted that Nikolas’ universe be used as the default metric moving forward: if their new experiment proved fruitful and they discovered that Nikolas’ universe was also a simulation, being run by an entity on a plane a level higher than his own, those above would be designated ‘Supra,’ along with the number of steps they are from Nikolas’ mean universe.
Different methods of moving upward were used by the different intelligences Nikolas had met so far, when they first reached out to find the interfaces dropped into their universes by those a level above theirs. Etla had used a form of hallucinatory drug, combined with technology that helped guide his brain to see the controls that were put there by Nikolas. The interface Etla dropped into Sub 2 was discovered and accessed by Brizsit, who used a sophisticated form of meditation to achieve the ‘enlightenment’ his people had pursued from the beginning of their existence, but only fully grasped and made use of late in their technological development.
Nikolas was going to try a different approach to find an interface that would allow him to move upward: he was going to die.
Or at least, that’s what his body would think was happening. Throughout history, people from his universe, living on Earth, had revered death as ‘moving on’ — as a path toward something, rather than a simple loss of the chemical reactions and materials in their brains that birthed consciousness.
Nikolas was not a religious man, but he also thought there might be reason almost every faith that’s ever existed portended some kind of afterlife, and how even after science explained away the ‘heaven’ angle of near-death experiences, people continued to express feelings of moving on, bright lights, feeling like they were with some kind of angelic being, and so on.
So he rigged up a system that would allow him to technically die, while in reality he would simply be putting life on hold, with his entire system set to restart shortly thereafter. Within that state — death, but with the consciousness still tucked away and ready to revive — he should be able to tap into an interface dangled into his world and waiting for someone to catch on and reach out to grab it.
The robots around him all had full bodies — they’d each proven themselves enough to warrant that much trust from Nikolas. To everyone else, they were merely excellent examples of artificial intelligence, free to live their lives, such as they were, in whichever accessible universe they might desire.
They had discovered along the way that it was possible to occupy and control a vessel in the universes below them — that is, Nikolas could, through a clever device he wore over one eye, see what robots built for his use in Sub 1, Sub 3, or Sub 7 saw.
Stepping up a level, though, seemed to require transcendence. It required connecting with whatever interface the beings a universe above him put into place, and then the would-be traveler translating their personality into whatever ‘body’ was made available to them there. Upon return, their original interfaced body would usually gain the memories of the consciousness that had traveled, much like updating a computer’s software, though on a much more complex level. It took them several tries to figure out this was necessary, however: the emissary from Sub 5 kept returning home with no memory of what had transpired in Sub 4, and as a result they were unable to reliably bring it back up to mean universe without reteaching it how everything worked again and again.
Each of the robots raised a hand toward Nikolas in what had become a ritual before one of them moved up a level; one that seemed to transcend the differences in their species and cultures fairly well, as they all had arms and some kind of clenching mechanism at the end of them back with their real bodies, and as such the concept of ‘saluting’ out of respect had some comparable meaning back home.
Nikolas returned the gesture and nodded his head toward Etla, who had taken it upon himself to turn on the machine, which only required entering a sequence into a terminal nearby. Sequence entered, Etla committed the command and Nikolas’ body went limp; dead.
But not for long. The machine was set to shut Nikolas’ body down for only a minute on the first try, though to the inhabited robots in the room, the minute seemed to stretch on for days.
When Nikolas’ eyes finally opened back up, he looked momentarily startled, his pupils darting back and forth across the room. But then his face lit up, and he smiled at his companions.
“Friends, I’ve just seen Supra 1. And it’s glorious.”
You can pick up a copy of Mean Universe starting today, for $.99. You can also get it for free as part of your Exiles subscription.