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Blue flames and sparks exploded loudly. I shrank back, frightened and not understanding what was happening. I should be at home, resting after the interview with Ekaterina Sedia, but I found myself surrounded by smoke, fire, sirens and cries of alarm. I had no initiative to act, I was in amazement.
Then, someone grabbed my arm and forcefully pulled me out of the niche I was in. I was dragged for some feet at the same time a group of men were using the fire extinguishers, in an attempt to overcome the fire that was gaining strength. I looked at the man who was dragging me and recognized Charles Stross.
I was even more amazed than before. Our interview was not supposed to happen before a break of a few days. I stood up dividing my attention between him and my quantic watch, wondering what was going on. It was probably a discrepancy that had thrown me on another altered reality right after the last one.
I was still poking the watch when Charlie called my attention, in exasperation.
“Are we going to keep playing cuckoo as the ship disintegrates?”
I sure felt like a fish out of water. I didn’t know what was going on or how I ended up there.
“No, of course not,” I said without knowing exactly how to proceed.
Charlie did not let me think for a long time. Once again, he grabbed my arm and led me for a short hallway to a door that opened immediately at our approach. Outside, the bustle was also great. An intense stampede of men and women, all wearing gray overalls, looks of surprise, expressions of fear.
“What is going on?” I asked.
“Apparently we were pulled, with no kindness at all, from hyperspace.”
I followed him hastily, while seeing others passing by, at times bumping into us. We walked up and down stairs, through several corridors, and were, sometimes, shaken by what sounded like nearby explosions.
“Hyperspace?” I asked again, trying to understand.
Charlie looked at me like someone looking at a complete stranger.
“Inaugural trip, remember? Pegasus first-class freighter. Level 2 on the Reymond & Clever scale. Bound to the system of Bellatrix. Coming from the industrial conglomerate of Io, at service of Amgen & Toyota Corporation. What have you been drinking?
“We were pulled out,” he continued, “of our trip by a solar flare of great magnitude. PULLED-OUT! Do you get that?”
I stopped following him for a few seconds. There was, in the middle of the hallway, a wide opening, seemingly apparently glazed. As I approached and touched the membrane separating us from the outer space, I remembered I had already seen that technology before, during the Calife interview.
I approached my face to the energy field and I saw something huge and winding. It was the cargo ship we were in. It stretched a long way, being formed by metal blocks arranged like a huge Lego toy. In many places the joints exploded, blocks separated from each other, spinning, bumping, opening the walls and pouring cargo and people into space. I saw several intense fires. They soon disappeared in the vacuum to be replaced by others. The blasts continued.
A cry from Charlie brought me back to reality. I ran to catch up with him. The ground beneath our feet shook with increasing strength. I started hearing not too far away screams, and to my horror, saw the segment of the ship I had just been in split open, ejecting people who were running around, throwing them into space. Charlie grabbed me and threw me into a room, tightly closing the door behind us.
I was terrified.
“There is an interview, but I don’t know what to ask. I’m not ready for it. I was not supposed to be here,” I babbled confused.
“Interview? What crap is that?
The room where we were had a number of cocoons that protruded from the walls. I watched them trying to guess their functions. I took a guess.
“Ejection bubbles. There are a few hundred in this gigantic floating city. But most of them are lost, destroyed by the disintegration of the ship.”
Then, Charles stopped and stared at me.
“You’re not kidding, right? I mean, you really don’t know what’s happening and where we are? You mentioned this interview and had a curious feeling that … Well, questions were asked, I remember them. I answered them, but not before refusing some. It seems to me this happened hundreds of years ago. As if that memory arose from the very bottom of my memory.”
“From Bar to Bar, dangerous interviews. Remember? I interviewed Ekaterina Sedia, and then it was your turn, but I should have had a break. This break never happened. I ended up here abruptly.”
“From Bar to Bar…” Charles muttered, while pushing me into a cocoon.
Magnetic straps clung to my body, holding me in place. An energy membrane, like the one I had seen at the wide openning, appeared and sealed me inside the cocoon. I gasped, feeling short of breath, a feeling more psychological than physical. I watched Charles get into another cocoon, I saw the membrane closing, isolating him. I saw the man poking a panel (which existed where I was) and then everything started shaking.
I thought the segment we were in was about to burst, but then our cocoons were sucked into a tube and soon after launched into outer space. We crossed some wreckage, almost hitting some of it. We got distant from the ship, enough for me to find out it was even bigger than I had originally thought. I was terrified by its incredible magnitude. It was humping, writhing like a snake. Rings were expelled, segments being removed, simultaneous explosions destroying a stunning work of human engineering.
So our cocoons spun in space, starting a sort of ignition, as if there were rockets on their tails. We were shot at breakneck speed, distancing from the vast Earth ship, bound for a destination which I totally ignored.
I was groggy when I awoke. I was sitting, with my back against a rock. Charles was near its cocoon, looking inside in search of something.
“Oh, you’re up. It was about time,” he said without turning to me.
“Where are we?”
“A small rocky planet a few million kilometers away from the Pegasus, or what’s left of it.”
“How did we get here?”
“This side of the galaxy is completely charted. I programmed the nearest destination and the life support systems of the cocoons did all the rest.”
“Do you think you would make it here with only 2 liters of oxygen available? It was a six-day trip! You were put to sleep and your metabolism was down to a minimum.
“Was the Pegasus run by a lobster?” I asked, still confused.
It was like a floodgate opened up inside my mind and all the questions that were necessary for the interview flowed freely.
“Do lobsters dream of wormhole travelling? And should we fear that they one day hold a book on how ‘to serve man’?”
Charles, who was hunched over his cocoon, rose. He had a small bag in one hand. On the other, he carried what looked like a pair of binoculars.
“Basic gadgets,” he said, noticing my curiosity, “these binoculars, pocket knife, can opener, first aid kit, dried food, mints.”
“Lobsters — right now — don’t dream, as far as we know; they’re crustaceans, large sea-dwelling insect-like creatures without much of a nervous system. I picked them for the first chunk of Accelerando after reading about an interesting lab experiment …”
Charles chose a flat stretch of land, put some gravel away and sat before me. He dropped the bag and the binoculars and leaned his chin on his free hands.
“For about the past four hundred years a debate has been raging between two factions, philosophically opposed: the proponents of mind/body dualism (the idea that our consciousness is separate from our physical existence, inhering in some sort of immaterial “soul”) and the materialists who think that consciousness is an emergent property of matter. Over the past sixty years, the current has been running towards the materialists. Two big developments in the sciences have helped them: the development of the theory of computation, which provides for the existence of a large class of computing structures that can emulate one another perfectly given enough storage and time, and the development of neurobiology, which has sketched in the mechanisms by which nerves work — showing that they are, in some sense, computational structures. Other scientific research has failed to support the dualist hypothesis; MRI scans of living brains leave precious little space for a soul to hide in.”
I remained quiet, listening to his speech. It was impossible to keep my curious eyes from wandering, lost in the alien topography, checking the surroundings out. There were rocks of various sizes, an almost Martian landscape. But I could see small intensely crimson blooms that grew at the feet of most of those rocks. They looked like open chunks of meat, strange flowers.
“Consequently,” he continued, “of late there’s been some consideration of the idea of mind uploading: if our minds are essentially patterns of activity supported by a neurocomputer, is it possible to transfer them intact (and with full continuity of consciousness) into a different substrate — possibly a faster and more powerful one?”
Charles paused while I felt a slight puff on my left ear. I looked to the side and jumped, startled. There was an open a crack on the rock, and tiny spores were expelled from it. I backed up two steps, staring the strange event in disbelief. Charles laughed at my amazement.
“What you see are not rocks. At least most of it. Botany here is exotic. Can’t you see the flowers flat on the floor next to those “rocks”? But they are all harmless. Unless you’re allergic to pollen.”
I gave a small laugh and I decided to stand.
“In the 1980s,” he kept talking, “CMU robotics professor Hans Moravec set out a thought experiment. His idea was this: you take a patient in an operating theatre and open up their skull under local anaesthesia, keeping them conscious. A marvellously precise robot surgeon then (a) identifies a single neurone on the surface of their neocortex, (b) maps out its connections to its neighbours, (c) develops a software model of its action potentials, (d) replaces its axon terminals and dendrites with electronic devices that couple the computer running the software model of the neurone to all the neurone’s neighbours, so that the computer takes over the job of emulating the neurone’s internal state and exchanging signals with its neighbours, then (e) removes the redundant neurone. Repeat a hundred billion times and at the end of the day you’ve got an empty cranium lined with electrodes innervating a body — and a mind that, despite having been continuously conscious, now exists entirely within the computer simulation. But we’re not going to get there by starting on humans, are we?”
I used his pause to take a closer look at the horizon, where there seemed to be some movement. Perhaps it was an optical illusion, perhaps not.
“Is it something that we should worry about?” I asked, pointing my finger to the north.
Charles stood up, approached the binocular to his eyes and uttered an exclamation.
“Not possible!”, he said in a tense voice. Then he pushed the binoculars towards me.
I looked at the horizon and saw what looked like a mass of humanity moving. They came on foot or carried by machinery which released clouds of steam. Men and women wearing strange, old clothes. Some of them seemed to be wearing bizarre armors. I saw two humanoid forms, certainly mechanical, moving heavily. Some of them also looked at us using binoculars. They pointed their fingers at us, excited. So Charles moved the binoculars that I had before my eyes, forcing me to point them higher up into the sky, high above the crowd. Two huge zeppelins pointed their noses at us.
“Steamers!” Charles exclaimed in utmost perplexity.
“Steamers? Here? Isn’t this a rocky planetoid, lost in limits of the universe?”
Charles looked at my watch as if blaming it for everything.
“I think we’d better get moving.”
“Why? They may be our salvation. We’re lost, aren’t we?”
“Move. If we stay, we’re going to be slaughtered.”
“A more likely candidate,” Charles returned to his speech with a much tenser voice, I must say, “for preliminary experiments in mind uploading is something like the Pacific Spiny Lobster, panulirus interruptus. This overgrown insect has a rather odd approach to eating; rather than biting its food into pieces, it swallows it whole, and chews it up using a toothy mill in its stomach. This mill is controlled by a clump of nerves called the stomatogastric ganglion — very big nerves, easy to experiment on, and very simple: the central pattern generator that drives the ganglion consists of just eleven (very big) neurons. The STG’s neural connections have been mapped out since the 1970s, and in the late 90s I stumbled across a paper in which some researchers had verified their map of the STG by, in effect, carrying out the Moravec thought experiment. And it worked. (On one neuron, admittedly, but it’s a start!)”
Then we heard a bang. We looked back and saw in the distance what looked like a small dark spot rising against the sky, and, in a parable, gradually increase in size. It came towards us.
“Run!” Charles shouted, pushing me.
We ran, dodging the smaller “rocks”, until we got near one that was large enough to hide us. We stopped for a split second and looked back. The projectile was approaching fast. A metal ball that fell about fifty yards from us rolled crashing into various obstacles (destroying some “plants” and provoking strong emanations of spores) and ended up no more than 10 yards from us. Small openings appeared on its surface and tens of small needles were released from them. Charles grabbed me, throwing both of us behind the stone. The darts were released and scattered in all directions, some punching several centimeters deep into the rock.
“They want to kill us!” I shouted scared.”And I was thinking they had come from Earth to save us.”
“Earth?” asked Charles. “Earth virtually no longer exists, it is plunged into a terrible war between the corporations that will no longer accept the political diplomacy as a means of dialogue.”
“But then, where do those Steamers come from?”
“From the insane fantasy by this quantic watch of yours. Me and my big mouth …”
“I don’t think my watch is working properly. I came here without a break, in an immediate quantum leap. Malfunction, probably.”
“Or someone is playing with you.”
“Someone with a watch just like yours. It makes sense, doesn’t it?
I frowned, trying to follow his reasoning. I soon discarded that possibility, it was absurd that someone else had a quantic watch just like mine.
“How long are we staying here?” I asked, concerned about the progress of the Steamers.
“I’ll take a quick look. The truth is that we don’t have much left to go. This is a desolate planet, there aren’t that many places that can provide us shelter.
Charles stood up and stuck his head out, spying on the enemy. He let out a scream of terror, took both hands to his face and staggered back in agony. Wrapping his head there was a … It looked like a … I would say it was a … Corselet full of lace and pleats?
“They are shooting at us with cliches!” he shouted loudly, angrily.
“Answer the questions. It is the only way to escape this mess.”
“Of course the question of what you might actually do with an uploaded lobster remains unanswered. But once you’ve got one, you could always hook it up to a bunch more neurons, teach it to talk, and ask it,” completed Charles, throwing the corselet to the ground. “Here is no longer safe, go ahead.”
I got up and I began to follow him. Ahead of us, there was a scenery with not many changes. We could hear screams and laughter not far away.
“If sentience isn’t a mandatory evolutionary goal (as implied by the German philosopher Thomas Metzinger and proposed by Peter Watts in Blindsight), and if intelligence can exist without the species being self-aware (as swarms, etc), could that imply that we’re in fact the Singurality (in each of our brains – matter turned into thought)?” I asked hastily.
“These days I don’t believe the singularity is a terribly useful concept; it carries too much eschatological baggage. Consciousness is indisputably an interesting phenomenon, as Richard Dawkins demonstrated in “The Extended Phenotype” — it gives us the ability to develop via horizontal transfer of desirable traits between individuals, short-circuiting the slow incremental filtering process of classical evolution. But whether it’s a stable or desirable phenomenon — who knows? As a species we’re less than 200,000 years old and we’ve already triggered the sixth great mass extinction in 600 million years. We’re also in danger of running into a resource depletion crisis followed by a population crash. This isn’t a typical sign of a survival trait!”
We looked up and the zeppelins were over our heads. To our amazement, they dumped hundreds of colorful umbrellas, open, like little parachutes coming down, spinning. Other shots were made by the crowd that followed us. This time, there were bowler hats, top hats, pince-nez (one of them hit me on the forehead, causing a small cut). Charles hastened, fearing he might be hit by other cliches. He certainly wouldn’t survive another violence such as that.
“Therefore, if we’re living on a Post-singularity universe, won’t the Post-Human stage (longevity, etc) – if it comes about – become an obstacle, since one of the main evolution drives of thought comes from short individual lives and the constant supply of blank slates (fresh baby brains)?” I asked.
“You’re mistaking the current high rate of change for “progress”. Progress implies teleology and a goal — but evolution is not goal-oriented; it’s a random drunkard’s walk through the phase-space of adaptation, with a phase barrier to one side (extinction). Nor is there any guarantee that there are no limits to science, no boundaries to the amount of knowledge of the universe that we can accumulate and make use of.”
Umbrellas kept falling around us. It was noticeable that Charles was making an effort to disregard them. As well as the spats, walking sticks with silver knobs, monoculars, suspenders and fake mustaches.
So we were brutally forced to stop. There was a huge cliff before us. A scary precipice thousands of meters high. Beads of sweat dripped from our foreheads. We saw no way out, having to face the Steamers face to face, with no chance of success.
“Any more questions?”
Hard slams on the ground made us turn around. Three robots full of gears, nearly three meters high, stalled some fifteen yards from us. Machine-gun barrels were visible on their sides. The crowd was approaching.
“Will Freya Nakamichi-47, or some of her offspring, be back for more adventures?”
A burst on the floor next to us, made us go back a few steps, getting dangerously closer to the cliff. A cloud of dust rose.
“Yup! There’s a short story, Bit Rot, coming out in Jonathan Strahan’s anthology Engineering Infinity in January.
Then, I pressed the button.
Nothing happened. I pressed again. We look at each other anxiously. Again and again I hit the button, with no results. The interview didn’t end, the danger wasn’t over. I gulped, but had no time to express my concern. Another machine gun burst set us back even further. I missed the ground, I tried and did not find support. I let out a muffled cry of terror before I felt loose in the air, about to start a free fall . I saw Charles turning to me, I saw him stretching his arm, I saw his hand so close and yet so far.
When I thought it was over, I felt my arm being grabbed with strength, and my body stopped, still swinging, loose in the air. I took a deep breath, trying to scare the fear away, and looked at my savior. It scared the hell out of me. It wasn’t Charles Stross who was holding me firmly, it was Jeff VanderMeer instead. I wasn’t on an inhospitable planet any longer. It was like Earth, it was THE Earth, devastated by war.
Follow this incredible adventure in the next interview, with Jeff VanderMeer.
Luis Filipe Silva collaborated with this interview