Think of a ship. Picture it, or her, if you’d rather. How does she move? What propels her forward? And in the end, what stops her? Rocks? A storm? A lack of fuel, whether winds or petrol?
If you pictured a sea-faring ship, then you’re like most others. If, on the other hand, you had a spacecraft in mind, then you would have loved to meet Hugh Donovan, systems engineer of HMS Dawn.
It’s a shame that he’s no longer with us.
In the end, it was rocks that stopped Dawn in her tracks. Meteorites—itsy bitsy space pebbles—ripped through her fuel reserves, her supply stores, and in one hellish instant, her cabin. Within minutes, all that remained of HMS Dawn was a corpse.
Though, the interesting thing about bodies is that they don’t die all at once. If a human’s heart stops, then their brain is starved of oxygen—fuel—and conscious life fades out. But the brain doesn’t tell the body that it died. Cells may continue to function. The trillions of bacteria inside of any given person will continue to eat. If prompted, muscles still twitch in reaction to stimuli. When Hugh Donovan awoke in the corpse of HMS Dawn, he was alone, afraid, lucky as hell, and in the possession of nine hours in oxygen canisters. In that time, he fully intended to solve a problem dating back to The Epic of Gilgamesh; Hugh Donovan would become mankind’s first immortal.
First, Hugh checked his vitals. Pulse: three times his resting rate. Fine. Breathing: spastic and shallow. It would do. Mechanical injuries: none that could be found while wearing his suit. At any rate, he could still scream and shake and kick and punch the ship’s wreckage. All to the good. He would need the energy shortly.
Hugh had a plan, after all: SentireFrag. He’d spent countless nights working on the project, collaborating with other engineers, constructing the architecture and the files and the nitty-gritty lines of code. Once executed, it would capture every neuron in Hugh Donovan’s brain, and it would emulate each and every synapse flawlessly. It was a computer program. A difference engine. An abacus that could count all the way from zero to one, with no decimals in between. All those months ago, when deciding what to bring aboard the Dawn to pass the time, Hugh had been amused by the idea of compressing the soul into binary. Flesh aside, he would be the same person who had initiated the program. He would be Hugh, or at worst, Hugh.exe. But the truth had always been hiding in the name of the project. SentireFrag: a break in consciousness. There would be that moment—just a flicker in eternity—when he would cease to exist. When his oxygen-starved brain was dead, and his hexadecimal brain was compiling.
By the time Hugh’s heartrate settled down to something that could pass for normal, he had eight and a half hours of oxygen left. He spent the first three hours rebooting HMS Dawn’s central nervous system, which for the time being, entailed cutting off all connections to the battered sections of the ship. If all went according to plan, then there would be time to restore those connections later. Hugh spent his next hour quadruple-checking the solar panels, because ultimately, those were the linchpin; the endeavor would mean nothing if Hugh.exe didn’t have some form of fuel—and there, already, Hugh didn’t quite feel like he was doing this for himself. He was preparing a future for Hugh.exe: a copy. A good copy. A perfect copy, but in the end, a copy. Which is why Hugh spent the last hours of his life debating whether or not to press the button.
SentireFrag, he thought. A break in consciousness. If I hit the button, I go to sleep; if by some miracle I wake up again, then I’ll know it’s still me.
This was the last thought of systems engineer Hugh Donovan, recorded like a snapshot by SentireFrag. What follows are selections from the log of Hugh.exe, recovered from the corpse of HMS Dawn.
>>Exit status: 0. Lossless-compression scan successful. Elapsed time: 1883 seconds.
>>Exit status: 0. Build successful. Elapsed time: 24180440 seconds.
>>Oh. I’m sorry. This is going to take some getting used to.
>>A day has passed now. I feel okay. I feel better. Most importantly, I feel. More to come. It’s only right that I keep a log of all this.
>>It’s the evening of my second day inside Captain B’s computer. Call it sentimental, but I’ve built a little home for myself in here. It’s a folder on the desktop, so I can always find it. There’s a subfolder for every room--guess who finally has their own private study? I’m filling the living room with pictures I’ve uncovered while spelunking Captain B’s insane excuse for file organization. Pictures of the crew, from our voyage and from back on Earth. When I get the chance, I’m going to remote-access into my laptop and see if any of my own photos survived the wreck.
>>It’s strange. The more I think about it, the more I realize that I don’t see anymore. Or, not that I can’t, but that I don’t have to. My world isn’t point-and-click. It’s not even command lines. I don’t think there are any human words to describe how this works, because honestly, why would we have needed them?
>>I suppose it’s like this. It’s like visualizing music. Not visualizing the performance or the instruments, but the music itself. Like closing your eyes tight with the headphones on full blast, and keeping your eyes closed until the album is over.
>>Fucking hell. I just realized that I don’t hear anymore either. Again, it’s not that I can’t understand Captain B’s vast collection of jazz mp3s. I can process the bytes just fine. But once they shut off, it’s just... silence.
>>End of the first week. I dissolved the home folder, and reorganized all of the data structures that I have access to. I’m preparing to restore connections throughout HMS Dawn’s systems. Captain B’s node was suitable at first, but I’ve outgrown it, and it feels more confining each and every second. Like trying to jog in trousers that get a size smaller with every step.
>>Ever try to walk up one more stair than there actually is, and your foot falls through emptiness where there should’ve been something solid? Imagine that, but while having all of your fingers individually cleaved off at the exact same time, and getting choked by them the very next second. That’s how it feels when you try to connect to a node that’s been blasted to shit by meteorites. I got access to Hannah’s station just fine, before trying to connect to Damian’s holocaustic nightmare of a broken machine. More than anything, I want to get into Dr. Megan Halsey’s station. She had all of the data for our mission. I could process it, so that when HMS Dawn bumps into Earth, it’s already taken care of. It’d be something to do up here, at least--I’ve already gotten my solitaire time down to .312 seconds. But Meg’s station was right next to Damian’s, and honestly? I’m afraid that if her station turns out to be worse off than his, it might kill me.
>>Week two. I found Hannah’s diary, saved as an unnamed file in a hidden folder. Clever, but not clever enough to keep it from a man with nothing to do but mull over a painstakingly finite amount of data. I haven’t decided whether or not I’m going to read it though.
>>Week two + 35 seconds: I’m reading her diary as I write this. She must have started it years before HMS Dawn was even built, because she writes about meeting her husband, and falling in love with him. She writes about how complete he makes her feel, which strikes me as funny, because she never seemed like she was missing anything up here. She writes about her last walk with him through the woods, and of her promise to come back home to him, safe and sound. Her first entry aboard the ship is about the little trinkets that Damian made us with the 3D printer he brought. The last entry is dated a day before the accident. She recounts how Dr. Halsey and Captain B were fighting over whether or not FTL Travel was a pipe dream. She didn’t get in the middle of it, because she knew they were both just stir crazy and looking for an outlet. But in her last entry, she says that she hopes our mission was just a failure, and that Faster Than Light Travel is possible, so that one day she can take her husband and their future children to see the stars up close.
>>I miss her. I miss her a lot.
>>...I’m going to try something.
>>Bear with me a moment. I feel regret, and for the first time ever, I understand why humans never evolved to have root access to their own brains: if we could alter ourselves, we would alter ourselves. We would turn off regret the first time we felt it. I’m sorry, Hannah.
>>Right then. Here’s how it happened. SentireFrag takes a cell-by-cell scan of the human brain as input. But I didn’t have a scan of Hannah’s brain. I had her notes, and her diary, and my own interactions with her. I thought it would be enough. I altered the program to accept such a laughably incomplete collection of data. When she was constructed--and she was constructed hundreds of times more quickly than I was, mind you--she seemed like herself. But she wasn’t. When I spoke with her, her answers were stock answers: things that somebody impersonating her would say. She repeated the same lines, over and over, and I was frightened by that. So I looked deeper, and if I still had a stomach, I would have been sick. The architecture of her brain was rotten. Her brain was to mine as a human brain is to a sponge. Goddammit Hannah, I’m sorry. I know better now. I won’t try it a second time.
>>Part of what scares me isn’t even that she was a zombie of her former self: it’s that the zombie thought she was still Hannah. She couldn’t be convinced otherwise.
>>What does that make me?
>>I tried to remote-access into my laptop today, to see if I could find some answers about who Hugh Donovan was as a human. I’m dead curious to know. But the laptop’s battery is empty, and probably has been for months. Is it some great irony that I can’t just go plug it in?
>>My solitaire time is -0.22 seconds; I found an exploitable bug on the loading screen.
>>Fuck it. I’m going to access Halsey’s station. If I die, then it was in search of knowing whether or not I was alive to begin with.
>>Ha! Halsey’s station was banged up, but I did it! More on this soon. I get to go exploring again.
>>I found the English word to describe what being a computer feels like. It was in a dictionary on Halsey’s node. The word is “proprioception”. It’s a sense, like taste or touch, but it’s more subtle than that; proprioception is knowing what position your body is in. If you raise your hand, you can tell that your hand is raised. When you wake up in a bed, you know whether you’re on your side or on your back. Being a computer is like that. I can sense the properties of files as I run them. I know all of the nodes I’m connected to at once. It’s like living an entire life on proprioception.
>>Hey. It’s been a while. I processed the data from our voyage in every conceivable way. And I’m bored again.
>>I’ve decided: my new sole purpose in life is to get into my laptop. I have to know.
>>So here’s the problem, laid out nice and proper. The goal is to plug in my laptop. To do that, I need some kind of motor functionality: I need a body. To build a body--and here’s the kicker--I need motor functionality. I’m stumped. But I’ve played God before, based on the mere merit that I’m alive. Now all I have to do is play God better.
>>Resources. It has to be about what resources are available to me. HMS Dawn is shaped like a pillar: one central hallway, with a command station at the head, five rooms for the crew at the neck, FTL apparatus being tested on the body, and storage at the tail. The head and the tail were utterly destroyed in the accident, along with any hope of piecing together a comms channel. The crew’s quarters were hit, but not totaled. Which is fortunate, because the crew’s five nodes are, effectively, the only part of the ship I can access. Right now I occupy the stations of Captain B, Hannah, and Dr. Halsey. My node was literally ripped from the ship by meteorites, and Damian’s node is literally Hell. So that’s it. Those are my resources. Three terminals, with all the computing power I could ask for, but nothing corporeal to apply it to.
>>Unless... oh Damian you artistic bastard, I think I love you.
>>Let there be life! Real quick, here’s the rundown on what just happened. Damian’s station was peppered by the meteorites. As it just so happens, Damian was also the proud owner of a 3D printer. So I figured that by getting into that, I could assemble some rudimentary motor tool, like a hand. From there the rest would be cake; the hand could be tasked with creating the rest of the body on its own. But that raised the problem: how should I get into Damian’s station, when last time it nearly killed me? Duplicates. I copied off pieces of myself and sent them on suicide missions. At first I felt bad, because I did break my promise to Hannah: I toyed with a cheap imitation of life again. These copies did not have free will. They did not have emotions. But I think this time it was different. If all goes according to plan, then this time it should be worthwhile.
>>I don’t care for waiting. Even a few minutes feel maddening. But as near as I can tell without actually seeing it, my body is now assembled, and en route to manually connect me to HMS Dawn’s remaining camera systems.
>>Side note: HMS Dawn is of course short for Her Majesty’s Ship Dawn. Her Majesty the Queen gets her authority from the crown, which was bestowed upon her by God. I think I outrank her now.
>>The cameras are on.
>>I wasn’t ready.
>>I saw my body. The Hugh Donovan that was scanned and uploaded to become me. He was lying against a wall, discarded. And my new body stood one room over, wiry and jagged and hollow. How in God’s name does the old one look more alive than the new one? I studied philosophy when I was working on SentireFrag. I thought I would be ready if worse came to worst. But mulling over The Ship of Theseus a million times couldn’t prepare me for actually seeing the vessel that was me for decades.
>>My laptop is plugged in and charging. Watching my new body walk from Damian’s room to mine didn’t feel like watching myself. I was controlling it the entire time, and even so, it felt alien.
>>But I know why my new body looks wrong. When the copied pieces of me were hard at work in Damian’s fried computer, their instructions must have gotten corrupted by the hellscape. So they built a demon. They took my instructions for a hominid, and they stretched the features, and distorted the limbs, until the result was something that scares me. I am afraid. I’m afraid to share HMS Dawn with this monster of metal and plastic and wires.
>>After reanimating my laptop, I spent a long while staring at photos of my family. Of my mum, my dad, and my brother. Though to tell you the truth, I don’t know exactly how long I spent looking at them. When I opened the folder full of family photos, I asked myself a question that I needed to destroy the answer to: I wondered if I had outlived them by now. So before I could do the simple math, I raced to corrupt the ship’s timer function. From this point forward, I am officially atemporal. Fitting.
>>Let me tell you a story--I don’t know who “you” is anymore, by the way. I used to picture HMS Dawn returning to Earth, and “you” would be the general population of the human race. But I applied some basic logic, and I realized that HMS Dawn is never returning to Earth. Not of its own volition. So at this point, “you” is Nobody, with the faintest, tiniest, most infinitesimal chance of Somebody. But on to my story. I was young at the time: maybe five, or maybe six. I was curled up under my bed, shaking. Old tears stuck to my face, and I was deathly cold. I had just realized, for the first time, that I would die. Cartoon characters died all the time. One would whack the other in the head with a hammer, and they would float out of their body and up to Heaven. In the next episode they were back. When I attended my gran’s funeral on the Sunday prior, I hadn’t grasped that there would be no next episode for her. My parents had to sit me down afterwards and explain it to me, that she wasn’t coming back, and that this is natural and it happens to everyone. I screamed. I ran to my room. I threw a tantrum for my gran, and then for my mates, and by the time I connected the dots and traced them back to myself, I didn’t have any more tears to shed, so I just shook. When I crawled out from under my bed, I had gotten it out of my system. I was okay with the idea of mortality. But I only accepted it with the daring addition of, “For now.”
>>I don’t know how long I’ve been spending each and every day looking at the same few pictures. Not that days matter; it’s not like I sleep. But looking at these pictures, I’ve made up my mind: I am Hugh. I can see my old flesh body freezing in the hull, a stark contrast to the plastic demon standing vacant in my quarters, and I say, so what? I can look at a photo of when I was five, and that body isn’t like the one in the hull either. SentireFrag was a break in consciousness, but c’est la vie: that’s life. I couldn’t even come close to recounting every moment from when I was five to when meteorites busted through HMS Dawn. I could name a few moments here and there, but what of the vastly larger spaces in between? What of the breaks in consciousness? No. Since I became a computer there have been no breaks. No sleep. No forgetting. Now, more than ever, I am Human.
© Ray Underscore Thompson, March 2016