Dust to Bits — Epilogue (draft)

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These are the early drafts of my first novel. You can now read it on Amazon at http://bit.ly/dust2bits

“And the humans created consciences, and then humans became consciences and some consciences became gods.”

-From “A short history of the 21st century”.

The old alarm clock woke him up to classical music. It was only 7 a.m. These days, he liked to wake up early, enjoying the satisfaction of having accomplished multiple tasks before it was lunch time. He poured some fresh brewed coffee, took a bun of homemade sweet bread and started pulling it apart into small pieces that dropped into a small bowl of sour cream. Once he was done, he added a bit of salt to it and mixed it all with a spoon. It tasted heavenly. His grandma had once told him that she used to make it like that for him so that he wouldn’t choke as a baby. It became his favorite breakfast. He took a spoonful into his mouth and, before he was done swallowing, a sip of coffee. It brought out the flavor and with it, a pleasure difficult to match with anything else, even here.

This was not California anymore, he was in the kitchen of his childhood home, the door opened to the backyard, with chicken already walking around outside, incessantly peeking towards the kitchen. He stood up, took a rusty metal mug and filled with some dry corn from a container inside a small room behind the kitchen. He made that vibrating sound with his tongue that he had learned from his grandma and the kitchen rushed into the rain of corn that had just been thrown into the backyard as the mug was emptied with a swift hand movement.

Breakfast finished and his coffee already refilled, he took his book, a discolored edition of Moby Dick, and walked outside to a hammock hanging from the roof of the structure that used to house the cows. It had no walls, making it a delight to just lay on the hammock and read. And he read.

The house looked exactly the same way it did back in the day, at least according to his memories of it. There was no one else there, some chose to have their relatives recreated, also from memories, interacting with them as if they were still alive, whatever that term meant these days. Technically, there weren’t even days anymore, not for the ones like him anyway, the ones who were immortal. He had chosen for the house to be empty, as in his mind a recreated version of his grandparents would never feel like the real thing, no matter how thorough he was, how good his memories were. Not all his days where like this, although lately he had been fond of recreating scenes and places from his earlier life. Most of those were teeming with people, not real ones of course, but props populating his world. It was just people that he knew that he stayed away from recreating, that was the line.

His mother had finally warmed up to the idea of transitioning and did shortly after she turned one hundred. She decided to let her older self die of natural causes, so the transition didn’t occur until the end was near. Although some experiences had shown that an agonizing body did risk some damage to the brain, it mostly did not reflect negatively in the resulting digital persona. Always the modest type, his mother had chosen the look of a sixty-something year old and seemed quite content. She was also fond of recreating memories, some of which she shared with him, in particular those depicting the farm where she grew up as a child. She did let herself recreate memories of the people around her, including her parents, but she never interacted with them, they were nothing but moving pictures in a massive photo album she would stroll through with her son occasionally. Most of their gatherings were simpler, though. They would lunch in a spring day, somewhere in the world, quite often in Madrid. She had visited the place only once many years ago, but she greatly enjoyed it and her recreation of the city had quite literally thousands of little cafés and tapas bars to sit down and chat.

His father was a different story. He had been open to the idea of terminating his existence before old age would, even before the possibility of transcending beyond a physical body existed. Once the technology became widely available and before the Equal Rights bill was promulgated, he followed his son’s footsteps all the way. His experience, however, wasn’t as fulfilling. He became bored and overwhelmed at the same time. He had always been a builder, eager to embark on construction projects, from small improvements at home to entire new buildings with his construction company; he was never able to embrace the non-reality of his new world, where things would come into being by just wishing for it. It simply did not satisfy him, he needed a physical reality, a process for things to go from beginning to end. Intellectual pursuits never were his thing, so we became a bitter flesh and bone being trapped in a virtual cage until one day, he decided he had lived enough. He wasn’t alone, the right to die, interpreted as the total obliteration of a conscience, was guaranteed for all, and many of the disillusioned ones made use of it.

Relations with those still living outside were much more relaxed now. Their numbers where greatly reduced and most cities laid in ruins, not because of war or disaster, but simply because there was no one to live in them. There was a clear trend in terms of the flow of population, and it was going in only one direction. Population was already down to the two billion mark, and with birth rates steadily decreasing some estimates predicted the last human would walk the Earth in only a handful of generations. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially for the planet itself, as ecosystems were recovering at a very fast pace. Even though it would have been feasible to duplicate animal brains into the virtual world, laws forbidding it were very strict. There was a clear consensus that this elevated status, as they were calling it, should be reserved for humans and humans only, not wanting to deal with the problems of adapting other beings to life without a physical body. The recovery of ecosystems was not entirely uncontrolled: There were active efforts to restore balance to the environment in a world without humans, although it was quite evident that Mother Nature was easily taking over the territory that it has once lost and now was being abandoned.

Hybrid approaches to life between the two worlds stopped being a controversial subject once it became clear that there was no stopping to it. Those using it no longer required the rudimentary helmets common to the earlier days. Now, all cities had pools of a gelatinous material in which they would be suspended, every sensation of touch, smell, taste or sight overridden, replaced by electrical signals induced by a surrounding electromagnetic field, not too different but a lot more comfortable that the one that generated by the helmets. This enabled those still not ready to abandon their organic bodies to experience life in the virtual world. Some limitations still applied, as digital consciences ran on more advanced hardware and were constantly discovering new capabilities. The hybrids were still using their human brains, what they experienced was at the intersection between a dream and traditional reality. There were as well some practical considerations to having the hybrids being able to access the virtual world: All government functions now resided there. Despite its technological prowess, Humanity was still very much resisting change and, same as the lonely man reading a book while laying on a hammock in his childhood home, tended to go back to what it was familiar with, even if more advanced forms of communication were available. There were still legislative chambers were people endlessly debated the same way they had done it for centuries.

He opened his eyes and discovered that he had fallen asleep with the book opened on top of his chest. He replaced the bookmark, closed the book and put it on the floor, next to the hammock. He woke up and felt the cool breeze of a December day. Another childhood memory, the school year ended at the end of November, he always loved the sensation of the wind at the beginning of the dry season. This was Christmas for him, no snow, no rain. Cool enough for it to be enjoyable, not too cold , so that he wouldn’t be forced to wear a coat. He looked up into the blue sky and with a single leap, started flying towards it. Now, this was something that he certainly could not do in his past life. This was something new. In the early days, back when his continued existence was continuously threatened by a world that wasn’t ready for him, he would often fly and do other weird antics. It was all a game, but this was different. This time, he was starting to finally explore what he could do outside of the self-imposed boundaries of a body that had not existed for quite some time. He wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it just yet. For many years, more than he would care to count, he was very satisfied with his recreation of earlier chapters and places in his life. He still enjoyed it a lot, the thrill of reading a new book, slowly progressing page after page. And yet, his digital brain was capable of much, much more. He could read, or absorb, the contents of an entire library in the blink of eye. Purists still debated on whether that could be considered as reading or not, but the fact stood that you could go through all written human knowledge in that same way. His mother still insisted on having their conversations in the old way, over coffee or tapas, or while strolling on a city street or a park. A few is his younger acquaintances, in particular those who came from scientific and engineering backgrounds were already experimenting other forms of communication, including the sharing of ideas without having language as a proxy. It felt odd at first, and it was very difficult to explain to those who were hybrids, whose brains did not have the sort of mental sense to perceive ideas. Yes, that was probably the closest explanation. The transmission of ideas worked as a sort of sense, not entirely different from smell or touch and, if anything, more authentic. You could not be polite, nor could you embellish your thoughts with words, ideas were raw and true. The first time he experienced it, it reminded him of a philosophy teacher back in college. He used to say that every word we said was a lie, in that it represents an image, a feeling, a frame of reference that only exists in your mind. When another person hears that word, it will evoke something in that person’s mind, something that would always be different from the representation in the mind of the person uttering the word. With this, truthfulness was finally possible, albeit not always desirable. Even those friends would switch to regular language every now and then, not because they anything to hide, but because verbal communication still provided a sort of comfort zone that liked to return to.

Yes, the World had become a more accepting place for those like him. More than that, most of the people in the world were like him. Both scientists and philosophers now debated about what was to come next. Some thought that they were close to reach what they called a Societal Nirvana, a point in which evolution just stopped, having reached absolute perfection. Most, however, agreed that evolution would never stop. Not having a physical body was just another change, another mutation that was so successful that it had become mainstream. The fact that technology was involved in it didn’t really matter. Some argued that, for all their technological prowess, humans had never and would never stopped being part of Nature, their evolution governed by the same rules of other species and their transition into non-physical beings being in the end just another and largely unexplored natural process. That still left the question of what to do next.

Scientific research had continued and, if anything, it was accelerating at a much faster pace than ever before. As could be expected, a lot of the work was focused of safeguarding and improving the lives of those who had transitioned, while also preparing for the moment in which the entire species had done so. However, other areas of knowledge and other pursuits continued to expand at a very fast pace as well. Space exploration had resulted in permanent outposts on both the Moon and Mars. Permanent installations, both manned and unmanned, orbited these as well as other celestial bodies within the Solar System. As usual, there was a practical purpose as well. Many of the installations and outposts contained redundant systems, lockstep copies of every conscience. A cataclysmic event could still obliterate life on Earth, but it would no longer mean the end of mankind. These days, there was a lot of talk of continuing to extend human presence, both artificial and organic, within and beyond the Solar System. Over population was no longer the driving force behind it, but scientific exploration. At least that was the official version of it. There were those who argued that any further attempts to extend human presence beyond its current limits was nothing but sheer arrogance, the desire for expansion. The existence of other civilizations, both more and less advanced, was considered a mathematical certainty, although no contact had been made. And there laid the thesis of those for continuous exploration, that contact with other civilization was the next step they had been looking for. In any case, further exploration of space was actively being worked on while other tried to resolve a rather fundamental side question: Who gets to go?

He had stopped flying and was now engaged in a reconstruction of Benjamin Franklin’s life. One of his favorite book, which he had read several times over the years, was a biography on him. What he was witnessing now, as a non-corporeal observer to a 18th century banquet in pre-revolutionary France, was indeed a machine interpretation of that book. He had made it a point of always reading a book in the traditional sense before indulging into one of these experiences and planned to do the same with Moby Dick.

The characters in this “live books” were not actors, nor were they consciences tricked into believing they were 18th century people. They were a new form of artificial intelligence, subject to their human creators, but at the same time, fully autonomous. And for now, they were the strongest candidates to take Humanity across the stars. They fulfilled their role as companions to humans in their virtual world exceedingly well, from acting in accordance to the realities they represented to providing a sense of company when people simply felt lonely. On occasion, they also became targets to the human longing for rage, something was still ingrained in their nature. Now, this form of artificial intelligence also found a niche in the physical world that humans were abandoning. In the mid 21Ist century, humanoid robots started to become commonplace. Originally, a design decision was made not to build them completely human-like, in that there was a concern of the implications of people surrounding themselves with beings they owned but that at the same time looked as human as they did. When the crisis of the first human conscience living in a digital medium erupted, the controversy immediately impacted the manufacturing of humanoid machines, as they were recognized as possible hosts to immortal entities able to live alongside mortal humans in the physical world. Manufacturing stopped and all extant models were eventually decommissioned.

Many years after the waters calmed, and with more and more people choosing immortality, humanoid machines, or simply robots, made a comeback in two different shapes. On the one side, some digital consciences still wanted the possibility of living and interacting in the physical world, to still be human while enjoying bodies that could easily outlast their previous incarnations and indefinitely be replaced by newer models. These were in the end entertainment machines, essentially serving a human whim, in more than a few cases bearing a striking resemblance to the younger personas of their owners. They were still in use, although mostly to deal with tasks that required interaction with the physical world. That was the case with some of the engineers directing the construction and maintenance of the massive datacenters both on Earth and in space that now held the bulk of our civilization. The other way humanoid robots were used in could not be easily distinguished from the first type in plain sight. These machines also looked human, both in their appearance as well as in their demeanor. They were different because their brains did not house a human mind, they had never been organic beings, they had been loaded instead with fully artificial consciences. They were the children of Humanity.

As with many things these days, the whole subject was the focus of a lot of discussion. The creation from scratch of fully independent consciences was seen as an attempt of acting like a god and creating sentient life, it had also reinforced a belief that had been brewing for a long time, that a similar undertaking by a preceding civilization had originated the human race and provided the seeds from which religion originated. It wasn’t really too far-fetched, the machines being created now a days were human for almost all effects and purposes. They were mostly made of organic materials, with working human organs. They were vastly improved from humans in some areas such as brain power and resistance to bodily harm, but the metal that had been forever present in the cultural references to robots was nowhere to be seen. All current machines were built to adult size, but that was a self-imposed limitation, from a technical perspective, there was nothing preventing machines from successfully mimicking and evolving through the same evolutionary processes that had brought about humans.

“It is not down on any map; true places never are.” He had gone back to Moby Dick and was now mediating about the significance of these words. He too was involved in the discussion on the future of space exploration and was personally heading one of the projects already approved for execution. It had been concluded that, with none of the approaches to space exploration that were being proposed being in a direct contradiction with each other, the most sensible course of action was to undertake execution of as many of those approaches as it was possible with the existing means, which were vast. His idea was to have an entire self-contained synthetic ecosystem in a massive spaceship. The ship would contain two varieties of sentient life, the first would be made of humanoid robots with a vast array of modifications that were intended to make them human. Two of those modifications were precisely to allow sexual reproduction and growth. The other sentient life on board would be a digital conscience. It would be their God. The true nature of their origin would not be hidden from them, although he expected it to become legend after a few generations. He felt it was somehow the right thing to do, Humanity had grown in the presence of a God for centuries, it was in a sense its duty to provide its descendants with a similar source of comfort. The ship would be heading to a rock planet that had been deemed in orbit around a star forty light years away. There was no specific value in heading for this planet but, from his experience, you needed to be going somewhere, even if true places were never down on a map.

He closed his eyes for a moment and thought of the outside world. That’s how it worked. As he opened them again, his environment had changed once more. He felt a sense of powerlessness, the realization that he could not alter his surroundings with as much ease as he normally could. No, this was a different world, a more hostile one, even when everything around him was either lush and green or elegantly high tech. There was a mirror in front of him in the little office. The young man in it did look like him, he was one of the ones that took pleasure in having their machines ressembling them. He was wearing a plain flight suit, on stepping out, a small pod, vaguely shaped like a plane, was waiting for him on the tarmac.

The trip was about thirty minutes. He never had to touch the controls, he remembered how marveled he was the first time we used an autonomous car, riding on US101 North all those years ago. The ship was massive, a huge cylinder of composite materials orbiting around the Earth. Inside, it looked like giant and seemingly endless park. Rotation of the cylinder was responsible for generating artificial gravity, making it possible for terrestrial plants an animal to survive in this environment. He still had his qualms about how good of an idea it was to have animals on board. However, his collaborators, many of which were autonomous machines, had done an outstanding job in making the environment self-sustainable. No hunting was allowed, but what limited farming was done required multiple supporting ecosystems. Living quarters, flight controls, training facilities, scientific research stations and other installations designed to make life more sustainable were located all underground. More than two centuries ago, he had been inspired by the underground pedestrian tunnels in the city of Montreal and how they enabled life to go on regardless of the winter. There was no winter here, of course, except for weather variations driven from Climate Control, but he liked the idea on having a seemingly untouched green paradise on the surface for everyone to enjoy; not that the underground was in any way unpleasant. Ample avenues allowed movement to both pedestrians on short trips and autonomous pods traveling to more distant parts of the ship. An ingeniously hidden lighting system created the impression of day and night with twelve-hour cycles each. Temperature was kept at a very pleasant twenty-one degrees Celsius year-round. The weather here was completely separated from that of the natural ecosystem, which had different needs, and even specific areas that experienced all four seasons known on Earth.

He walked into an indistinct building and into its lobby. There, a bizarrely familiar woman waited for him, smiling as she greeted him. For a moment, he entertained the thought that it was her. He knew that it wasn’t possible. He followed her into an elevator and several floors up, into a laboratory where a pool filled with the gelatinous liquid hybrids used all the times in their interactions with the virtual world was the center piece of otherwise scarce furniture. Without exchanging any more pleasantries, he stripped down and walked into the pool, laying down until he was submerged from head to toe.

Several weeks later, he was once more sitting on the couch in the living room of the old family house. Technically, this wasn’t his house, but his mother’s recreation of the same place, adapted to her own taste. There was the anachronistic LCD television in front of them, exactly like the one she had used to watch old broadcasts of Spanish channels, old routines being part of her comfort zone. Spanish television was not being displayed right now, though. On screen, multiple views of the giant cylinder in space alternated every few seconds, while communications between the bridge of the ship and ground control on Earth could be heard. There was a lot of activity going on. All of the sudden, the massive ion engines came into view, a bluish light emanating from them with increasing intensity. The trip into deep space had finally begun. No ceremonies, no ribbon cutting, not a lot of noise. Humanity had lost to a certain extent their capability to get excited. Communication with the ship would continue for as long as it was possible, but it was not necessary. This was intended to be a non-return trip. He turned his face away from the television, accepted a coffee mug from his mother and they resumed their conversation.

On board of the ship, he followed the steadily accelerating advance of it. He thought of all the things he would miss, the long conversations, the family house he was not planning on recreating on board, the total carelessness of being immortal among his own kind. In here, he was the only one of his kind. He had decided that, for his project to be successful, the other presence in the ship, the non-corporeal one, the who would be both father and oracle, had to be him. He still thought that two instances of his conscience could not coexist, that they would always enter conflict with each other. This time, whoever, they would not have to coexist. One would be back home, laying on the hammock and reading a book. The other would travel to space, leading a new civilization into the unknown, a God among mortals, taking pleasure in watching his creations discover themselves.

For him, who had died first and then feared for his life, it was the true end of his life. For him, it was his apotheosis.

The end.

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