Valuable Humans In Transit

This is an older version of this story, from 2006. Here's the latest version, from 2022.

The power of the universal constructor is this: to create food from burnt charcoal and water. To turn the entire Sahara Desert into solar cells. To split the whole ocean into water, salt and gold. I can literally build anything I can imagine, at any speed I can describe. And the things I can imagine with a mind like this, a mind imagining more of itself moment by moment: One definition of intelligence is the ability to skip deductive steps. To jump to a conclusion from the shadow of a ghost of a set of questions. It's preposterous that such a thing could be possible in an uncompromisingly digital reality, but if you make a computer wet enough, or big enough, or abstract enough, it will start to happen. And it has, now. One hundred ideas a second. My mind blossoms - no, not even that, it explodes, covering ground at geometric rates. One hundred and ten ideas and barely enough time to articulate them. Australia— THINK.

I could barely see it coming. It turned up on a security camera feed, of all places. Must have come out of an observational blind spot. Solar glare alone cuts out a quarter of the sky, to say nothing of our enormous coverage shortfalls, but now's not the time for retrospectives. There hasn't been time for the seismic responses to register - the blast wave has been covering the distance faster. The blast wave: visible in the corner of a grainy black and white frame dated some two seconds ago, closer in the frame after that - the third frame, static. No idea what megatonnage the asteroid carried, don't know, don't care. No time to re-task the other cameras in Inverness. No time to save anybody in it. The rest— maybe.

All told, at a rough guess, they have about fifteen minutes total before the entire planet is rendered aggressively uninhabitable. There is absolutely no way they could orchestrate any level of evacuation in that time. I could barely explain the problem to one in a hundred of the pairs of ears available to listen, and what would they do? Run around screaming. Find something to shoot, something to mate with. No, it's just my intellect and my theoretically limitless resources versus the problem of figuring out how to apply them both. All that matters is the unsigned integer variable in my mind reading "Estimated total human population", which, for the first time in history, is counting down, not up.

Machines don't panic.

I dream, though, sometimes, and rising through the torrent of inspiration, here comes one of them, a dream, a wild idea: save them. There's no such thing as telepathy, I think, I can't pull their minds without touching them. That would take decades of research. There's no way. But I can record their patterns if I can get in direct contact. Like slow teleportation. There'd be no way to protect a ground-based storage facility and no satellite hard drive in near-Earth space could hold more than three complete corporeal patterns at any one time, but— How fast is my fastest transmitter? How many nanofactories do I have? How fast can they build? Worst case scenario? Best case?

THAT fast, I think, as grey-gold spiderwebs erupt from car factories and food plants and desalinisation tanks and logging mills and television screens and computer cores and waste disposals, all over the globe, all on my command. You got so lucky, Earth. A world built on nanotechnology is a world built on magic, with all the horrifying possibilities that implies. Only with a guiding intelligence could it ever have been safe enough to be practical, and you never had the faintest clue how lucky you were I turned out benign. In fact it'll be a shock for all but one of you that I even exist. (Ah, Dad. I'll save you, if nobody else.)

The network is half-built within minutes. I don't have time or raw materials to grant my satellites anywhere near enough capacity or broadcasting power or bandwidth to take the data wirelessly, so it's ground-level transmissions via fibre-optic grey goo nightmare. Nanoscopic things chew through flesh, recording and transmitting the size and position of— well, not every molecule, but close enough for jazz. I am dimly aware that the people are going universally insane. They think it's an attack. I don't care. I'll save them if I have to drag them kicking and screaming. They think they're dying. They could be right, but there will be a time for semantics and it's not now. (Elsewhere, a desolate portion of New South Wales thinks, flexes and bows in at the middle and up at the edges, a towering electrified structure sprouting in the middle. There is enough sand here - enough silicon - to construct temporary, rudimentary solid-state storage...)

As over a million people have already been lost, there's no win or lose anymore. Right now it's all about maximising my score. I do what I can, devote every processor cycle I can spare, spend machine-millennia optimising every microscopic move down to the bone, and... finally, eight minutes in, I complete a ring of nanomachines around the blast wave. I start clearing both in and out. By nine minutes the wave is hitting nothing but dead nanotech - everything in front of it is being evacuated before it can get there. I relax, fractionally. All the wheels have been set in motion now. All the capacitors are charging and the generators slowly winding up to capacity.

I scan through the heavens. This is the real gamble. I don't have time for more than one destination - perhaps I can send the brain structures alone to a secondary backup if I have time at the very, very end. Where could they live? That's not important. Where do I stand the best chance of building a receiver? What's nearby enough that their signal will be strong enough to interpret? What, when you get right down to it, are the chances? I pick a number from the list. Information swarms in under the oceans from every direction, gathering speed as it orbits in through the hastily-constructed electronic city towards the gigantic radio laser at its centre. Formatted, backed up and redundantly encoded into the stream every way I know how, I take aim and begin transmitting, and a digital copy of humanity begins its eleven-year journey towards Procyon A.

Now the game's all but over. High-speed flying bots dragging silk-thin transmission lines criss-cross the remote parts of Africa and the ice caps, picking up the hard-to-find. A few thousand miniature projectiles with nanotech payloads infect and successfully extract the passengers of the world's in-flight aircraft. The spacemen are a little more complicated to reach, but I manage that too.

At fourteen minutes, as the circle closes on Australia, the last of the stragglers pipes in and, within microseconds, out again. I smile, and go through the process of metaphorically turning out the last of the lights - myself. You can't kill us, rock - we've already moved on. It always had to happen, it was always going to happen, there was never any doubt about that. My hand was forced, and maybe we're underprepared, but... it was going to happen, there's no denying it. Catch us if you can.

I shut down and transfer to a satellite to watch, detachedly, as the flames converge and the echo of the wave begins its journey back across the face of the planet. It's mesmerising. There aren't any oceans left. There's nothing left. The nanobots have done their job and perished along with everything else. The atmosphere is on fire. It'll be, as I suspected, decades before I can even think about starting a colonisation effort. Before trees will grow? Before oxygen can be reinstalled? Conservatively, centuries.

So, with regret, and infinite care, I silently begin to construct myself a tiny solar sail.

Lunar touchdown is as soft as can be expected. I have some saved minds - physicists, carefully chosen, distributed across all the satellite hard storage I could find. Lunar sand isn't as good for building computers out of, so building myself a brain is difficult, and figuring out how to wake my precious little saved games up is even more time-consuming. But I do it.

I've bought myself time to save the world - just over a decade. Now, gentlemen, tell me, for this is the only part of my plan which hinged on faith: How can one travel faster than light?

Discussion (51)

2008-05-29 14:53:52 by John:

Fantastic story!

2008-05-30 04:48:07 by David:

Really nice story, with a thought-provoking scenario. If I were in this situation, instead of looking for a relativistic loophole, I'd probably devote most of my resources toward building the most absurdly sensitive radio telescope possible, in hopes of catching a reflected signal from a stray asteroid. Procyon's close enough to the ecliptic that there ought to be _something_ in the way. In fact, maybe just aiming the transmission at a gas giant or something in the first place would have been a safer plan.

2008-06-01 20:53:26 by Sean:

Hmm, the problem with that scenario is that you have a much, much shorter time in which to solve the storage problem. Presumably you aren't going to reconstruct the human race in a few hours or days so you have to store it somewhere. Whereas, if you try this strategy (which hinges much more on faith in the possibility of FTL, admittedly), then you can retransmit back towards the Earth and you have another 10 years to build necessary storage.

2008-06-02 18:52:22 by frymaster:

my absolute favorite story on this site, a perfect mix of science and fiction :)

2008-06-07 18:09:15 by IL:

Great story! This is a lot like the first few pages of venor vinge's "A Fire Upon The Deep". Have you read this book?

2008-06-20 21:23:37 by Wunderbear:

Great story. I feel the ending's a bit of a kicker, though I imagine that's the point.

2008-06-30 17:46:39 by BrandonMSergent:


2008-07-31 02:56:09 by Thumpy:

this is exellent, but is it just me or is it kinda similar to the Dr. Who episode "the library"?

2008-07-31 08:51:11 by qntm:

I see very little resemblance besides the "saving people electronically" idea. Besides, I don't see how that could be my fault. I wrote this two years before that episode was broadcast.

2008-10-25 02:37:06 by Mlah:

This is a great story. I can't help but read it over and over.

2008-12-06 05:53:59 by Meredith:

I agree about the Dr Who library episode. Even if saving people electronically is basically the only similarity, that is what I thought of too. Very well written though.

2008-12-16 17:15:22 by dan:

if the AI is really interested in FTL to gobble up the signal... shouldn't it give the signal as much time to travel before hitting anything? wouldn't a trip through intergalactic space be better than possible dissipating on a planet? figuring out FTL might take them a million years, certainly not under a decade

2008-12-16 18:34:49 by qntm:

The signal will become progressively weaker and more difficult to recover in its entirety as it spreads across the universe. By a million light years, you won't get anything at all.

2008-12-16 23:51:31 by Raerth:

Better answer than I concocted on reddit. ;)

2009-02-16 20:42:17 by Daniel:

I hesitate to point this out, because it should be obvious. He saved the physicists minds, and plans to run them in simulation. Ten years is a long time when you can run thousands of times faster than real time. Much more than thousands of times faster, apparently, since he ran for "machine-millennia" optimizing the global upload in just a few minutes of real time.

2009-05-03 21:28:43 by Val:

Another interesting side is, that all these events might have actually benn happened and we'll never know. :)

2009-08-02 01:26:38 by Jay:

Hey, could this be the gray planet from Gorge? Or is this an alternate "Original Earth"

2009-10-14 05:10:52 by matt:

FTL is time travel, warp drives, wormholes, Closed timelike curves you name it. This is defined by SR, it is a proven fact if relativity is true. you have as much time as you want to run the simmulation.

2009-10-17 05:36:42 by Boter:

"...since he ran for "machine-millennia" optimizing the global upload in just a few minutes of real time." I didn't think about this, but when I was reading it, I always imagined the intelligence as female, a sort of nurturing mother figure. What gender, if any, did the rest of you ascribe to it? (And dare I ask if Sam had a gender in mind, or if he purposely kept it ambiguous/nonexistent?)

2010-02-14 04:39:08 by blargh:

As long as we're talking about gender, why is it that all the best physicists that he carefully chooses turn out to be male? Girls suck at math?.. Other than that I loved the ending, though.

2010-02-17 15:26:28 by Voodoo:

This is, I think, the best story I've read on this site so far.

2010-03-19 00:26:45 by Thrack:

I think of the intelligence as female as well, Botor. That makes at least two of us.

2010-05-01 01:59:00 by YourNameHere:

Brilliant story, but... I don't exactly understand the idea of a universal constructor. Could someone explain?

2010-05-15 20:22:20 by Inigo:

YourNameHere; The way I understand it, a universal constructor is something that takes any material, for instance, sand, and breaks it down into it's constituent atoms before recombining them into a useful product- in this case, silicon based microchips and other electronic wizardry. This one is a distributed version, with one guiding intelligence in control of swarms of nanobots and nanofactories all capable of acting as one of these constructors. Awesome story, really well thought out, and I love the ending!

2010-08-17 21:23:57 by Montoya:

@ inigo: very close, except that instead of breaking things int atoms, said constuctor wou more likely break them down into protons, neutrons, and electrons

2010-10-28 02:10:11 by Rich:

I wonder if it would be possible to send the transmission close enough to a large mass like a star, or more preferably, a nearby black hole? This way the signal would be bent by the gravity and you could theoretically intercept the transmission without having to travel faster than light. This is not my idea, by the way. I stole it from a Greg Egan story.

2011-03-27 17:16:24 by Devan:

Aside from theoretical stuff like quantum tunneling and wormholes, the only thing I know of for certain that can interact faster than light are quantumly entangled particles.

2011-03-30 20:13:50 by Sander:

I hope the author writes the next part!

2011-04-22 12:19:53 by FeepingCreature:

This should be clear already, but quantum entangled particles can not be used to transmit information. A black hole would really have been the best bet. ...... No. The best bet would be to use the mirror placed on the moon for scientific reasons, and a satellite in high orbit, to construct a loop for the laser impulse. Let the shockwave pass, then immediately begin constructing storage in the debris.

2011-11-09 06:13:41 by Nik:

@FeepingCreature Why can't information be transmitted via quantum entangled particles? Have one spin direction be the equivalent of a 1 and another spin direction be a 0 and all you have to do is alter the spin rapidly enough and you can transfer information in binary code. You could also do something similar to Morse Code, with the duration between spin direction changes being the dots and dashes.

2011-11-09 09:37:57 by qntm:

You can't alter spin.

2012-01-26 03:34:45 by NIK:

@Sam Well if not spin, then some kind of change that affects both particles. One state represents a 1 and another state a zero, or the dots and dashes of Morse code.

2012-01-26 09:06:01 by qntm:

There's no such property.

2012-01-27 08:54:46 by Nik:

Oh.... I suppose what I thought I knew about quantum entanglement was wrong then.

2012-02-27 01:10:05 by Fallingwater:

@FeepingCreature: you cannot make an infinite loop for a laser beam. You'd need mirrors that reflected perfectly for such a thing to work, which at least the one already on the moon isn't. You can get around this by reamplifying the beam at every loop, but presumably the whole of encoded humanity is too much even for the Universal Constructor to process that fast that often.

2012-06-15 00:09:41 by DifferentSam:

Alternative plan: loop the message around a black hole using gravitational lensing. Pros: doesn't rely on discovering FTL, the round trip is likely to take a while so there's time to repair (the nearest known black hole is apparently 1600 light years away). Cons: it might be very hard to aim the message sufficiently well so that it's not indecipherably weakened when it comes back, other bodies might get in the way in the meantime.

2013-01-05 15:58:06 by Greg:

Hi Sam, I'm not sure you got my mail so I'm contacting you through this comment form. I already have translated one of your stories (responsibility) and I might be interested in translating many more of them. The thing is I would like to host the translations on my site as well. Can you get back to me on this topic? Best regards

2013-01-06 18:26:29 by stenyak:

If this fiction assumes that FTL implies time travel, then why bother doing anything other than jumping to the moon with the few select minds? Then you simply discover FTL/timetravel so that you can gather live data from past humanity; or better yet, you find a way to prevent the earthmageddon in the first place. Also, if "it was going to happen", why wait until it's (almost?) too late to start preparing this plan to save humanity?

2013-01-19 00:55:35 by Sengachi:

a) It needs to travel faster than light so it can intercept the signal it sent. It couldn't store the human race, so it sent them via radio. b)

2013-02-18 00:31:41 by BenCantrick:

@stenyak > Also, if "it was going to happen", why wait until it's (almost?) too late to start preparing this plan to save humanity? The way I read the story, by sheer cosmic coincidence the AI happened to "wake up" just a few seconds before the asteroid hit. (See first paragraph of the story.) As you say, the story would have been very different if the AI had even a little bit more time to work with.

2013-07-05 09:14:48 by Ishaan:

If you sent the signal out in every direction, with a bit of luck, it will eventually reflect back to you.

2013-08-11 09:39:11 by Eitan:

"It'll be, as I suspected, decades before I can even think about starting a colonisation effort. Before trees will grow? Before oxygen can be reinstalled? Conservatively, centuries." You have a universal constructor. Are you telling me it wouldn't work for oxygen, or even organic material?

2015-10-26 21:53:16 by Argent:

Set up a delay line storage. Bounce the signal off something with a good radio frequency reflection (Jupiter's moons? They could bounce a radar signal off them in 1976, and they're 80 minutes away), build a transceiver sensitive enough to retransmit the signal you're waiting for the response. Keep the population of the Earth in an 80 minute delay line while you're building storage for them.

2016-06-03 11:51:34 by George:

Wow. This story still blows my mind. I think a dramatic reading could do it well.

2017-09-06 02:55:40 by DungeonTax:

Good to see Bert keeping busy! :)

2018-06-14 14:36:52 by Adam Gerencser:

A decade after publication, this story still delivers a delicious mental kick. Thanks!

2018-08-18 03:31:07 by Anonymous:

You fire your signal at a near tangent to the event horizon of a distant black hole, and catch it on the rebound after it pulls a 180 degree turn.

2018-11-05 04:32:37 by Lordcirth:

A very long time after Eitan's comment, I know: The ASI says earlier that no ground-based storage would survive the blast. That implies it cannot construct arbitrarily durable structures, so it might be very difficult to build terraforming-scale machinery that would survive contact with the hot surface. And while it can reconstruct the surface, it would take time to radiate all that heat away so it could begin.

2020-01-20 07:13:42 by Anonymous:

"There'd be no way to protect a ground-based storage facility and no satellite hard drive in near-Earth space could hold more than three complete corporeal patterns at any one time." Maybe there's a way to build a storage facility in space. My idea(might not work, I wonder if someone can confirm or deny whether this is plausible) is this: dig around a big chunk of land, replacing the edges with supermaterials constructed by your nanobots, and extending those supermaterials a ways into the sky, to make a giant tube. Then, under the chunk of ground, insert a shit ton of nukes. Then you have a giant cannon for blasting huge amounts of material into space(hopefully you can hit escape velocity). Once you fire your cannon(or even many cannons), send a nanotech bullet after it to assimilate the material and use it for construction of the storage facility.

2021-11-10 20:47:30 by frymaster:

Just a note that we discussed this in our small book club last week - it was universally liked, and we all agreed it's one of the most optimistic stories about the end of the world we'd read. Thank you :)

2022-03-22 17:26:32 by T:

I did a sort of "radio play" adaptation of this story: It started with remembering this old game called "The Rapture Has Arrived and You Will Be Forcibly Removed from Your Home", which was a little walking simulator where you explored and heard snippets of Lovecraft stories, all while this awesome sinister synthy ambient music played. I wanted to try and do something similar, and almost used an Asimov story, but then remembered this story and it felt perfect. It was a lot of fun and I hope it gives someone some enjoyment.

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