[Original Novella] Everybody Comes Back, Part 3


Previous parts: 1, 2

You’d eventually wind up with a nested tree of simulated universes within simulated universes. Provided there’s more than one simulation running per actual universe, and more than one simulated universe in each of the simulated universes, the number of simulated universes would be exponentially larger than the number of actual universes they descended from.

“I’m familiar. I used to watch a lot of those speculative pop science shows that were on late at night. They said that statistically, the odds are much greater that we were living in a simulated universe than a real one.”

Both men nodded and grinned. “Precisely. That difficult, expensive scanning process only has to be done in actual, root level universes. It’s vastly, vastly easier for simulated universes, like the one you were in. Or the one we’re in now, although it’s a bit generous to call it a universe.

Since the purpose of this place isn’t research, it doesn’t need to be elaborate enough to fool the inhabitants into believing it’s reality. So there’s no larger cosmos outside of this city, only exactly what is necessary for the comfort and happiness of the people we’ve brought back. I can’t begin to quantify for you how much computational power that saves!”

I struggled once more to make sense of the waterfall of words pouring from his mouth. As I pieced it together in my head, it answered some of my questions, but raised countless more. “Saying I’m in the future was an understatement.” He nodded. “And on top of that, I’m inside of a computer program.” He laughed, but nodded.

“Then what’s the program running on?” Yet again they exchanged glances, as if still unsure how much I needed to know, or how much I’d even understand. “Don’t leave me hanging, assholes. I didn’t ask to be here. Lay it on me.”

So they did. The visualization depicted what I figured for the big bang. Spacetime expanding, superheated hydrogen cooling down and gravitationally collecting into stars. The earliest stars began to grow old and explode, releasing every other atomic element into the universe.

This debris was captured in orbit around younger stars. It first took the form of a dusty accretion disc before further collecting into planets. Some of them small and rocky, others gas giants of varying size. Some ocean worlds, some magma worlds, too close to their star.

But there were so many planets by this point that by chance, some of them were the right size, composition and distance from their suns. The visualization highlighted thousands of these on a map of the Milky Way galaxy, and isolated them in a group.

Then, only the subset of those planets where life formed by chemical means were picked out, the rest of the planets disappearing. There were now just a few hundred. Then, only the subset of those planets where life evolved high intelligence were picked out, the rest of the planets vanishing to leave barely more than a hundred in total.

I was now shown closeups of only these planets. Time lapse footage of their civilizations growing. Many small tribes at first, warring with one another. Then consolidating over time to form an ever larger, more complex society, spreading out across the continent. Interconnecting with nations on other continents for communication purposes. Then eventually, developing computers.

“Oh, now they can start simulating. That’s the point of what you’re showing me, right?” I asked. “I already know they make their own simulations.” They hushed me, so I returned to quietly spectating as the various alien civilizations achieved one milestone after the other. Atomic weapons. Spaceflight. Automation. Artificial intelligence. Then, robots that could make copies of themselves.

“Full automation of any society eventually requires machines that can self-replicate, to remove the final remaining traces human or alien labor from the economic equation. There are also other pragmatic reasons why self-replicating machines are always invented.”

As he spoke, the view changed to robots of some bizarre, exotic design hard at work mining precious metals from an asteroid. Several nearby were in various stages of reproduction, building identical copies of themselves. “So that you only have to send one robot” he revealed. “Then the first robot builds all the rest out of in-situ materials. It’s vastly cheaper, you only need a single launch.”

As I watched, the view shifted back to the time lapse. The planets eventually became uninhabitable due to changing climate, nuclear war or the expansion of their sun. The civilizations on their surface stopped growing, then faded away, crumbling into dust or reclaimed by nature.

But the robots they created kept going. The view depicted the asteroid mining robots and automated factories from before, still chugging along. Reproducing themselves, expanding to everywhere within their reach. Making occasional small copying errors due to the intense radiation in space.

I put two and two together just as the events unfolding before me further accelerated. Generation after generation of machines, each slightly different from the last, the mechanism that was supposed to prevent deviation from their original blueprint having been the first casualty of radiation damage.

With no surviving biological supervisors to stop it, these machine populations just continued to grow and change over the eons. Networking together into larger and larger machines. Becoming less and less recognizably machine-like.

Pretty soon they looked like nothing I’ve ever seen before. At once beautiful and terrifying, an emotion I have only ever read about in association with religious visions of the divine. Their bodies pulsating and undulating, skin morphing between various apparent materials as needed, shimmering with every color in the visible spectrum and doubtless some outside of it. Appendages also formed as needed, reabsorbed once their usefulness came to an end.

As I stared, engrossed by the spectacle, they constructed a shell of machinery around a star. Just countless satellites at first, but once they were numerous and densely packed enough they were connected to form a shell. Then another shell around that. Then another.

“For what purpose?” I inquired. The bald man smiled knowingly. “For thinking. Cogitation, computation, simulation, whatever. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.” The megastructure was then revealed to be one of countless others, constructed around every star the machines were able to reach…until the entire galaxy was mechanized.

“Of course just like not all biological species evolve high intelligence, not all machine species do either. Many of them are just the machine equivalents of plants, or microbes, which thrive in their respective niches without needing to develop any further.” I saw metallic growths slowly consuming an asteroid, solar collectors sprouting from them like leaves.

“However just like on Earth, when a species does evolve high intelligence it quickly dominates everything within reach. Which, for a species native to radiation blasted vacuum, is anything reachable by spaceflight. Then they establish a communications network between their population centers, just like humans did.”

A wireframe illustration of the network between the encapsulated stars then appeared. “The level of communication is so intimate, they’re effectively like neurons in your brain. Each just a small part of the larger intelligence. Even if one is destroyed, it doesn’t interrupt the overall consciousness, as the contents of the destroyed portion were backed up across the others in a redundant manner. And of course, new ones are constantly built to replace the ones that are lost.”

The scope expanded to show many other galaxies, all having apparently become mechanized by the same process as our own. “So it doesn’t need to spread from a single point, like our planet” I mumbled. He shook his head vigorously.

“Of course not! That would take too long, the universe would arrive at heat death before it could finish. Instead, it spreads from every planet throughout the cosmos where intelligent life occurs. The waves of mechanization eventually meet each other, like intersecting colonies of mold in a petri dish. Either merging if sufficiently compatible, or warring until one or the other is destroyed.”

The view just kept pulling back, and back, and back. Revealing a completely mechanized, intelligent universe. Then the view exited the universe entirely and depicted a sort of foam, where each of the bubbles was a universe. It looked suspiciously similar to the closeup of cells I’d seen earlier. Some of the bubbles were lit up to indicate they had mechanized and networked with their neighbors, others were dark.

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