Whatness

by Benjamin Crowell

Originally published in Asimov's Science Fiction, March 2009.

It was a sad job, and more than a little embarrassing. Two orphaned awarenesses, both of consciousness class 13.5b or thereabout.

“Hello? Help!”

It emitted these information patterns — or would have, if there had still been a universe around it to emit them into. The referents for the symbols no longer existed, but I could still infer their meanings from the web of relationships preserved in its mind. The companion-creature was a slightly different type, and used an incompatible system for communicating.

“Is there anybody there?” the first creature continued. “Please, I can't see anything.”

I am here.

“Oh Jesus, are you a doctor?”

Jesus ... doctor ... No, neither of those.

It produced something that seemed to be an carrier wave — nearly unmodulated except for gradual rises and falls in pitch, and information-free as far as I could tell. Finally it spoke in words again: “Tell me straight out. Am I dead?”

Ah, no, it's the opposite. Your consciousness continues to exist, and also your companion's. It's your universe that has been ...

“Go ahead, I can take it. It's armageddon, the end of time?”

No, not exactly. Your timeline hasn't been truncated. Actually, I regret to inform you that your entire spacetime has been accidentally ... deleted. Not just its future, but also its past. It's as if it had never existed. I searched its mind for the right words. Mistakes were made.

More carrier waves, and then: “So ... it's just the two of us — two ghosts lost in space?”

Not lost in space — your space was lost. It seemed to be having trouble understanding. They weren't 13.5b, then — probably no more than 13.5c, or even d.

“But ... it's just us, Jim and Diane, and nobody else was saved?”

I saw that Jim was its label for itself — or his label for himself, using the pronouns he considered appropriate. But: Diane was your wife? No, your companion is the one you call Boo.

“The dog?”

Yes. You and Boo were together. Once the deletion had begun, we made a rescue attempt, but you two were the only consciousnesses within range. There was a 10 light-nanosecond radius that could be probed before the collapse was irreversible.

I expected more carrier waves, but Jim surprised me by remaining silent for a long time. Had its — his psyche been damaged by the shock? A 13.5d would be on the razor's edge of rationality even under the best conditions. I reached into his mind and saw that my fear had been groundless. Jim was happy to have Boo with him rather than Diane.

Jim?

“Yeah?”

I'm here to try to mitigate the mistake. We can mock up a new universe for you, a simulation that operates according to the same rules.

“Like life after death?”

No, I already explained that you're not dead. Let's start with the logical rules that operated in your universe. Once we establish those, the physics should be straightforward.

“Science was never my best subject.”

Let X be a logical proposition, and consider the proposition Y defined by X or not X. Is Y necessarily true?

“Uh, how's that again?”

Definitely a 13.5d. I made it more concrete for him: Suppose X is the statement that fairies exist, but these fairies are undetectable. Then Y is the statement that either fairies exist, or they don't. Is Y true by your universe's logical rules?

“Well, I don't know. How would I know if they exist, if I can't even see them?”

Of course. That's proposition X. I'm asking you about proposition Y. In other words, does your universe's logic have propositions that are neither true nor false?

We went on like this for a while, without much more progress. I switched to physics.

Let's talk about motion, Jim. In your universe, do things naturally keep moving if they're already moving, or do they naturally slow down?

“They slow down.” At least he seemed certain of that. I was glad; it always nauseates me to land on a world that's spinning or orbiting.

I kept questioning him, but have you ever tried to get a class-13.5d intelligence to frame a consistent world-view? He was constantly contradicting himself, and then claiming not to see the contradictions. He couldn't even tell me whether the angles of a triangle added up to a fixed amount.

Jim, maybe we don't need to reconstruct your universe accurately. Let's just make a simulation that you and Boo will be happy in. Tell me what you really want.

“You mean, like heaven?”

Tell me about heaven.

“Well, I guess I'd live in the clouds, and have wings and a harp, and sing hymns all the time.”

Perfect. These clouds are metaphorical, aren't they? So we don't have to get the physics right. The structure of the space doesn't matter, and we just let time run to infinity.

“Infinite time? You mean forever?”

Yes. That's what you want, isn't it?

“No ... no, I don't think so.” He paused, and when I poked around in his squalid little mind, I saw that indeed, it would not make him happy as t approached infinity.

Reproductive activities? With a variety of females?

“What, babies? Changing diapers? Hell, no! I was just thinking ...”

I saw what you were thinking. Tell me truthfully, Jim. Would you enjoy that for an infinite amount of time?

Jim jabbered on, but I turned my attention to Boo. I had neglected the dog because it didn't have the same language system, but when I inspected its mind more closely, it turned out to be much tidier and better organized than the man's. I realized now that when I had been discussing time with Jim, or triangles, or logic, those symbols had been fuzzy to him. He had never really understood the timeness of time, or the triangleness of triangles. Boo, on the other hand, clearly understood the whatness of what — at least for some kinds of whats.

Before the deletion, Boo and Jim had been on their way to the beach, where Boo was to chase a frisbee. Boo understood the frisbeeness of the frisbee. I reached into Boo's mind, and saw with great clarity what Boo would enjoy doing with Jim as t approached infinity. I tuned out Jim's tiresome prattle, and settled down to work with Boo.