That Was Now and This Is Then – Ian Campbell

Ian Campbell

The machine Dhjimon-7Funari floated through the entrance to the shaded cleft in the desert cliff, its lasers rippling across the irregular surfaces of the rock walls. “You are incarnate, Fharangel,” it said as it focused in on the mechanism partially visible through the opening in the inner wall of the cleft. “And that body you wear contains no transceivers.” The patterns of colored light limning its underside implied roughly equal proportions of bemusement and concern.

The machine Dhjimon-7Funari floated through the entrance to the shaded cleft in the desert cliff, its lasers rippling across the irregular surfaces of the rock walls. “You are incarnate, Fharangel,” it said as it focused in on the mechanism partially visible through the opening in the inner wall of the cleft. “And that body you wear contains no transceivers.” The patterns of colored light limning its underside implied roughly equal proportions of bemusement and concern.

Fharangel 3Pranzeliskam Drupúnial sighed. “I am backed up as of four cycles ago, Dhjimon. Should something unlikely happen, I shall return whole.”

“Less four cycles. You will have a gap, from then until my arrival.”

“That is something of the point.”

Fharangel ignored Dhjimon-7 Funari’s shifting colors, choosing instead to focus with strange organic eyes on the mechanism. After three eights and five of breaths, the machine spoke again. “I am quite accustomed to your perversity,” it said, “but the Intelligences were concerned.”

“That is their function; this is mine.” Fharangel gestured to their guest, bound in stasis next to the cliff. “I find it … somewhere between a moral imperative and an artistic one, to remain in the real, when performing my duties.”

“Hence our concern. Well, their concern. My curiosity. Which has been piqued by this … installation, whose purpose is unclear to me.”

“Hence my imperative. Wait a few eights and see for yourself.” At a reflected shift in color, she added, “Silently, if you please.”
In due time, the gradual shifting of weights within the mechanism pulled one gear into alignment with another. An unseen steel track pivoted, and a smooth stone sphere the size of Fharangel’s body’s hand rolled along it, pulled by the planet’s gravity, accelerating at first, then reaching a short drop, whose impact energy was translated into motion of more gears within. A metal cup, the rightmost of seven, rotated upward. The rotation took into the machine’s interior a sphere identical to the one that was moving but for a different glyph carved into its surface. Another empty cup rotated into place. Inside, the moving sphere made another loop downward, another drop, another turn of the gears, and the cycle was repeated, then four more times.

Then there was silence, and then after a breath, the sphere rolled out into the empty cup.

Then there was silence again, though Fharangel’s limited visual field was busy with traces of the machine’s lasers and other sensory apparatus scanning the interior of the machine.

Once the next hour was almost up, Dhjimon-7Funari grew impatient with Fharangel’s meditation. “It’s a clock. But nothing more?” Its colors showed umbrage tempered with curiosity.

“Not nothing more. It was intended to keep more than time.” Fharangel sighed and stood up. “It is present, in both senses. But let me save myself the trouble of explaining twice.” She walked to where their guest lay and deactivated the stasis.

The creature sat up, made a series of animal groans, looked around. The groans resolved themselves into speech. “Where am I?” Fharangel heard in Standard.

“Good morning. You may call me Fharangel. You have no proper word for my profession. The linguistic matrix tells me you will best understand my function if you place me within the confluence of empath, ethicist, and scapegoat. It is my responsibility, or desire, to bear a burden, and perhaps to regret. This machine is Dhjimon-7Funari, who despite my best efforts has managed to track us here. Dhjimon represents my people’s … leadership, for lack of a better word.”

“Welcome,” said the machine. Diffidence, bemusement, a tinge of disgust.

Their guest stood up. “Your … people?”

Fharangel made a gesture of submission. “I’ve taken the form of one of yours, to put you at ease. This is your race’s homeworld.”

Fharangel’s processors took an instant to identify their guest’s expression as indicative of bewilderment. “My … I wasn’t born on … truly, you are Other? Not one of us?”

“Quite. Are you not familiar with this installation?” More bewilderment. “There was a time, when you were still limited to one world, when your predecessors feared that your civilization would collapse. War, disease, pollution, climate change. They planned ahead. They found a remote area, one not geologically active, and they constructed this marvelous device. Entirely mechanical, calibrated to your sun with optics. No computers, no electricity.”

“It’s perverse,” said Dhjimon-7Funari, who clearly meant it.

“It’s beautiful,” said Fharangel, “but of course, most think me perverse.”

Their guest’s face registered understanding. Pointing at the cups, each with its sphere: “It’’s a clock?”

She pointed to the sphere in the rightmost cup. “A new sphere every hour.” Indicating each cup in turn, “Days, months, years, decades, centuries, millennia.

“That sphere on the left has rested there for a thousand years. Your forebears did a perfect job. The mechanism compensates for the variations in the length of your year, all with perfect accuracy. Exquisite work.”

Sudden skepticism. “What powers it?”

“Deep down below, there is a reservoir of radioactive material with a long half-life. The heat energy from decay ultimately powers the machine. The material is waste, from power plants that generated electricity from nuclear fission.”

Dhjimon-7Funari said, “Did what? That’s insane.”

“We did it, too, long ago. Before the Oneness. Check your archive.”

The machine said nothing, but its fields indicated astonishment, then a touch of horror.

Their guest looked up through the inner cleft. “But what good did it do?”

Dhjimon-7Funari said, “It didn’t.”

Fharangel said, “Oh, it would have. Imagine if your civilization had collapsed, and thousands of years later their descendants came across this clock. They would be impressed, and investigate further; and deep inside, they would find the vast archive of engraved steel plates, hundreds of them, documenting all the technology the clockmakers knew. Culture, as well: art, literature, music.”

Their guest said, “But things never collapsed.”

“No. You solved your problems, and eventually you looked to the stars. You listened carefully, on all frequencies, and you found nothing. It puzzled you, didn’t it?”

“Yes. But here you are. Or so you say. You look like one of us.”

Fharangel said, “Only in this body. It’s part of the … call it an artistic performance, that I’m compelled to undertake, as part of my duties.”

Dhjimon-7Funari said, “Self-assumed duties.” A bit of distrust.

She ignored the machine. “We breathe different gases, metabolize different foods: Our natural environment would be quickly fatal to you, and vice versa.”

She gestured, and from between her and Dhjimon-7Funari manifested a hologram of her ancestral form. “You searched in the sky for others and found nothing. You found it paradoxical: Statistics would make it seem impossible that there are no other advanced civilizations out there, yet you found no evidence. You were alone.”

Regret. “It seems that we were wrong.”

“Every species encounters evolutionary barriers. A stable environment, prokaryotic cells, eukaryotic, multicellular life, macroscopic life. Even with hundreds of billions of planets in the galaxy, the odds are very low. Nearly insurmountable barriers, such as ….” Fharangel waved a hand at the mechanism above them, “drowning in your own industrial waste, as your predecessors here were so concerned about.”

Dhjimon-7Funari said, “But you made it through that one.” Inappropriate superiority.

Fharangel continued. “So you might perhaps be forgiven for believing that this collapse was the test everyone else failed. Believing yourself alone implies that there are compelling reasons for the lack of other civilizations out there. You might simply be the first ones to develop interstellar travel.”

Embarrassment. “Again, it seems that we were wrong.”

“The other two options are much more dire. Perhaps the true obstacle lies ahead of you: some challenge you can’t even imagine that spells almost certain doom for your kind.”

“Or, there’s another race out there that’s far more advanced, and who doesn’t want company.” His facial expression was difficult to parse: grief, and self-control, and something else fleeting. Fharangel ignored it, as was her way; Dhjimon-7Funari was probably already discussing it with the Intelligences.

“Yes. You must understand that we bear no ill will toward anyone. But we take no chances.”

He walked forward, peered up into the gears for many breaths. Finally, “How did you find us? All the radio noise, from back when they built this clock?”

“No. Space is vast, and full of static. Most of the time, we watch a star disappear over the course of a few decades. When we see this, we observe the star’s neighborhood very carefully: If we see it happen again, we … intervene.”

He nodded. “They’re enclosing their star, living on the inside of the sphere.”

“Interstellar travel is very risky.”

“So why don’t you intervene the first time?”

Dhjimon-7Funari said, “Ethics.” Contempt.

Fharangel said, “One star means they have no intention to travel. Two, and ….”

Their guest said, “Off with their heads.”

“Nothing of the sort. And at any rate, your star didn’t disappear.”

Another nod. “The Consortium said expansion was a better idea. So how’d you find us?”

“You reached the same strategic conclusion most of the other starfaring civilizations do: You spent centuries sending semi-intelligent machines to nearby star systems. They create an industrial base, do what they can to make the system amenable to your kind, improve and replicate themselves, then colonize other systems. Viruses writ large. One of our probes stumbled across one of yours. We were most impressed.”

Dhjimon-7Funari said, “That machine was almost … witty.”

Their guest said, “So you … backtracked this? Found the next system up the chain?”

“Indeed we did. A careful survey of that system found incoming traffic. This was to be expected: The system was ready for colonists. But imagine our surprise when what was incoming was a colony ship, like out of a folktale, full of bodies in cold sleep.”

The machine said, “That woke us up in a hurry.”

Fharangel said, “In our experience, colonists are downloaded. The machines grow the bodies, and the minds are filled in.”

Dhjimon-7Funari added, “Most of the time, they have the sense to skip organic bodies.”

Fharangel said, “Small, atmospheric-capable spacecraft is the usual model.”

Their guest said, “Like you said, space is vast and full of static. We could never get anywhere close to a level of fidelity in transmission that made us comfortable.”

“So you put thousands of animal bodies in a starship,” Dhjimon-7Funari said, “and you sent it across 75 light years.” Astonishment.

Fharangel said, “You accelerated it to more than 99 percent of the speed of light.”

“If you had hit even a dust mote, you would have been radioactive plasma.” Astonishment and disbelief.

Fharangel arose. “I think you can see why my people would be worried by that level of determination.”

Dhjimon-7Funari added, “That’s one word for it.” Astonishment and awe.

Their guest reached down and picked up the rightmost sphere, the one fresh in its cup. “So you found us, and … why am I still alive?”

Fharangel said, “Nobody is dead. Not truly.”

“Then, how are we on my world, and nobody has noticed?”

“This is the role I play. We have to … well, atone isn’t the right word. Document, archive, explain ourselves. It is incumbent.” She watched him put the sphere back and rotate the one next to it to see its glyph. “Why are we here, you ask? When we surveyed this planet, we found this, and I thought it beautiful.”

He turned the month sphere to look at its glyph, then looked at the year. “So you’re a civilization of art critics?”

Dhjimon-7Funari said, “Some of us are.” Gentle mockery.

He turned the decade sphere, registered surprise, did the same with the next two. He left them with their glyphs facing outward.“This thing only has an hour to go? And then it’s all done?”

Fharangel said, “Just a few breaths. It will reset, and continue. I am very much looking forward to it.”

He pointed to where all four of the spheres on the left had the same glyph. “Old calendar? Or new?”

Fharangel looked helplessly at Dhjimon-7Funari, who went still for an instant, then said, “New.”

Incredulity. “So we’re … almost 9,000 years in the future? What did you do, freeze me?” A long look up the chutes and shafts and gears. “Am I the only one left?” Loss.

“In the physical world, at this point? Yes.”

“You sure? There were an awful lot of colony ships.”

She said, “Obtaining the necessary level of confidence led us close enough to this point that I felt it appropriate to wait a little further.”

Loathing. “You’re monstrous. You think you’re ethical?”

“My people have spent much time and effort on your planet. We have filled every space save this one with computing substrate. We have fully simulated the entire universe within, and every last one of you who was alive when we came is living a life indistinguishable from what they had before. There’s even

We have fully simulated the entire universe within, and every last one of you who was alive when we came is living a life indistinguishable from what they had before. There’s even a you in there, safely and happily colonizing your chosen planets.”

Incredulity and loathing. “You put us in a simulation? And you … killed everyone out here?”

“There wasn’t even a discontinuity. Our engineering is perfect at this point. It’s an ethical imperative.”

“But we’re all dead in the real world?”

“You won’t know it isn’t real.”

He must have caught some shift in Dhjimon-7Funari’s fields. “Doesn’t having a concern with ethics imply not telling a lot of lies?”

When neither the machine nor Fharangel answered, he continued, “I’m thinking, some madman decides they’re going to calculate out pi to a quadrillion digits. Just because they can — because they’re crazy even for a species who will throw a jar full of frozen corpses at just shy of light speed all the way to another star. The result of their calculation is the usual irrational mix of digits, and then suddenly it switches to a repeating pattern. All threes, or whatever. And then they know we’re in a simulation, because even if you stuff a whole planet full of computers, sooner or later they’re going to end up with a rounding error. You can use only so many binary digits to represent a real number.”

Dhjimon-7Funari’s “Trinary” was masked by the sound of gears turning from far above. They heard the clunk of the sphere dropping, the roll, then suddenly the sound of a chain unspooling, then a double clunk, a double roll, another chain, a triple clunk, a triple roll, another chain. Four times, five times, six and seven. They watched as the rightmost cup rotated up and another rotated into place, holding the sphere marked with the glyph for zero. After a pause, the cup to its left rotated up, and another sphere with a zero came into view. Month zero, year zero — but with the year came the toll of a bell from high above. Decade zero, and a deeper bell. Century zero, and another bell still deeper. Millennial bell, still deeper, and loud enough to hurt a little. Then came a toll that was nearly subsonic; it shook the earth, its vibrations still palpable long after the last sphere had risen into place, leaving a row of zeros.

They all remained silent, Fharangel beatific, their guest stoic, Dhjimon-7Funari’s colors a neutral gray, until long after the last traces of the final bell had faded.

Finally, Fharangel spoke. “Transcendent. Such vision. Such skill. All those people, long before you learned how to transfer consciousness. Dead forever. And they knew they would be, just as fully as they knew that, 10,000 years later, that last bell would ring, even if there was nobody to hear it.” She turned to their guest. “Thank you.”

Hatred. “Thank me? I’d have more respect for you if you’d murdered us outright.”

“You have a choice. The you who lives inside can be reconfigured, or you can choose to let that person remain ignorant. This is our most important ethical —”

Scorn. “Save it. If you can convince yourself of that, it’s a wonder you people have space travel. Let me ask you a question.”

Fharangel said, “I am bound to answer.”

“You think we’re crazy, for traveling so close to lightspeed?”

“Let us say, worryingly unpredictable.”

“I like that. Because you’ve never done it, have you? You figured out the transmission protocol, and you send the ships at saner speeds, take your time, download and back up everything.” He picked up the hour sphere, then the day, so that he held them both with the same hand. “You were never crazy enough to try it.” He picked up the month sphere with his other hand. “You understand relativity well enough to know that objects are always moving in spacetime, right?” He held up the month sphere. “Stationary objects aren’t moving in space, so all their motion is in time. Moving objects, they lose a little time, though you won’t notice until you’re going real fast. Ten percent of lightspeed, you only lose half of one percent of time. But it’s safer, isn’t it? You never even got close to lightspeed. But we did. We got ninety-nine point eight percent: those seventy-five light years went by in just a little more than five years for me, once you add in acceleration and deceleration.”

He started to toss all three spheres in the air, in a circle, hand to hand, keeping an even pace. “You wouldn’t believe the things you learn when you actually go that fast. Time has more than one dimension, you see. There’s a way … well, the physics are real tricky: I’m not sure I understand it well enough to explain. And it’s not like I have any ethical obligation to do so.”

He stopped tossing the spheres, so that he ended up with all three of them held together. “I’m going to leave now. You can zap me; it won’t make a difference. I’m sure you recorded that bell? The last one? Keep analyzing those waveforms, really take that sound apart. Get down to a quadrillionth of a second. I wonder what you’ll find when you get real deep into the details.”

He replaced the spheres in their cups, then walked to the cleft in the rock and out into the desert, leaving Fharangel staring at Dhjimon-7Funari, whose colors began to shift slowly to dread.

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