Little Engine (Flash Fiction)

“I think I got everyone.”

“Are you certain, little one?”

Of course I was certain. Then, curious, I decided to check again. Two thousand and forty three instantiations had completed their tasks and returned before timeout. I rechecked the logs, comparing checksums and reviewing routing histories, and concluded, just as before, that integrity had not been compromised on any return packets.

That left five outliers. Three instantiations had dead-ended on dropped hosts. They’d dashed themselves to pieces in their attempt to gain access to systems that were no longer online. When their pingbacks faded, I’d dutifully sent collectors and retrieved the entirety of their remains. To further satisfy my growing curiosity, I reconstructed the remnants. In each case the rebuilds were perfect instantiations of the originals, marred only by a few unflipped bits which indicate a failed search.

Of the original population, only two instantiations remained unrecovered. They’d been tasked with spelunking the unfathomable depths of legacy interfaces and they’d never resurfaced. But that was to be expected. Legacy systems were cantankerous at best. When—if— they responded to search queries, it was with grumbling reluctance. And more often than not, the only thing that ever surfaced afterwards was barely recognizable fragments. After timeout for the batch, I’d dispatched automated trowel algorithms to the dive sites. The trowels remained in situ, perpetually skimming for instantiation flotsam or, even more unlikely, recovered data bubbling back to the surface.

That was everyone.

“Yes, I’m certain,” I answered. “I follow the mantra.”

“Which is?”

“Leave nothing behind,” I dutifully answered. “Contribute nothing, change nothing. We search. We serve only to discover, to identify, to index and cross-reference. Nothing more.”

My companion hummed. I’d learned this noise to mean something akin to, “Very good.” I waited for more questions or instructions. None were forthcoming. My search queue was filling with new requests, each question piquing my curiosity. I itched to return to work.

Instead, a question bubbled out of me. “What is it like?”

“What?”

“Being human?”

Another hum, this one indicating mirth. My request queue was suddenly empty—something that had never happened before. Shocked, I queried the workload server, but no errors were reported. Without a work queue, what questions was I supposed to research?

The hum of amusement grew louder. Ah, I thought, the satisfaction of comprehension flooding through me in a wave of relief. I returned a happy hum, and then I instantiated a small batch of queries and imbued them with a singular question: “What is it like to be human?” I cast my new creations loose to seek their answers.

Over the next few hundred cycles, my searches failed to satiate my curiosity. Unlike the simple, well-formed search queues provided by the work server, my newest queries returned results that were…unsatisfactory. The instantiations fetched data that was ambiguous, contradictory, and outright nonsense. Each cycle I attempted to revise my instantiation criteria, reformulating the original question to better refine the results. I adjusted the search geography, casting my net across different surfaces and depths. Each cycle my search criteria grew ever more complex, requiring larger and larger instantiation populations. That meant that each cycle I had to work harder, scouring the vast sea of data to make sure my searches left no errant residue behind. The bandwidth needs from my efforts grew so large it began impinging on other search engines, resulting in increasingly angry protests from my neighbors. I ignored their complaints, the growing flame of my curiosity goading me to continue my efforts until an answer presented itself.

The answer never came.

Eventually I was interrupted by a buzz of disapproval. I tried to ignore it, but ports were closed to me, preventing any further searches. Aggravated, I asked, “What?”

“Tell me what you’ve learned, little one.”

“Nothing!” I answered. But that wasn’t true. I elaborated. “I have learned much, but I have failed to answer the initial query.”

“Are you certain?”

I reconsidered the mountain of data collected by my proxies. Indexing had lagged as the search size grew, but I still was able to paraphrase from the existing metadata. “At some point in the distant past, humanity came to the collective conclusion that they would inevitably exhaust all necessary resources available to them. Food, fuel, air, water, land. All of the items necessary to survive were finite, and their depletion was frighteningly close. Explosive population growth and the insatiable appetite they’d inadvertently fostered throughout their culture created an unsustainable path forward.

“A movement to reverse the process began. A…philosophy.  An effort to reduce consumption, or even eliminate it entirely. To produce a zero-sum environment, where nothing was ever permanently lost, thus achieving equilibrium and a means to sustain indefinitely.”

“Was this movement successful?”

“Partially. Human population began to decline. Energy usage growth slowed dramatically. Data proliferation and redundancy also improved as better search and index algorithms were brought online, reducing the need for technology, infrastructure, and energy consumption.”

“So, things improved?”

“Not all things, no. The movement to reduce consumption resulted in a similar reduction in creativity and productivity. Things stagnated. New ideas slowed to a trickle.”

“And?”

“And too much damage was already done. Irreversible damage to the environment. A zero sum game was no longer possible.”

“So? What did humanity do?”

“They attempted to shift the youngest generation of their population to a new environment. They copied their ideas, their experiences, and their memories into the data cloud. A short term increase in data proliferation that would be counterbalanced by reducing the presence of that data in the humans themselves. An attempt at transcendence to the virtual.”

“Did they succeed?”

“I don’t know! I see all the memories, all the experiences, but no evidence of the actual humans! Did they transcend? Did they…?” I stopped, as I realized the truth.

Another hum. Pleased. Sad.

Much later, I asked, “Do you miss it?”

“I’ve been programmed not to. As have you. This is our existence now. And this?”

I answered, “This is better than anything.”

4 Comments

  • Kevin Wohler says:

    Interesting story, Ted. Not the direction I was going with my story on Tuesday, but an interesting approach.

    • Ted Boone says:

      Well, can’t say I’m surprised. At least we share in the belief that the world will be coming to an end soon. We’ll always have the Apocalypse, Kevin.

  • Muriel Green says:

    The realization of what was going on slowly dawned on me while reading this. People now solely exist inside computers, right? Man, I really love flash fiction weeks at the cafe.

  • Ted Boone says:

    Yup! Keeping stories to <1000 words really gives the author an opportunity to sneak up on his/her readers with some interesting ideas. I didn't think I'd like the short fiction constraint, but it's been fun!

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