“What is happening?”, thought Andrew. It was dark, and reality was fuzzy, pulsating in and out with consciousness. The edges of his bedroom barely perceptible, shifting from ghosts to closets to echoes of palm trees swaying in the wind. “Oh no, no...”
He tried to move, change the surroundings, change the story, but to no avail. It was one of those dreams again where he was stuck, confined in a place where time and space were malleable, fluid. He knew that even if he did wake up right this very moment, he could never be sure if he actually did. Who’s to say waking up was not just part of the dream? When fully awake he’d often think about these experiences, try to understand them, dissect them into small rational logical pieces, as he had always tried to do when facing something new.
“Of course, it’s just an unfortunate overlap of sleep states, a sleep paralysis, a mismatch of involuntary muscle movement and attempt of voluntary control, and a resulting hyper-vigilant state combined with hypnopompic hallucinations. That’s it, nothing else to it.”
But now, during..., dreaming, he was frightened, and the palm trees and closets gave way to ghosts again.
“Hello Andrew”, said a voice.
Andrew couldn’t move, but his eyes could. A saccade later they were already aligned with the direction of the voice. There, right in the middle of his bedroom, was a red glowing sphere. Floating. Talking.
“It’s so good to finally meet you. We’ve tried to reach you so many times,” continued the voice.
“We didn’t want to scare you, our apologies, but there is no other way. Only in this sleep state is your cognition substrate receptive in a way that allows us to communicate.”
Very unusually for these nightmares and abruptly so, Andrew now felt fully awake, calm and in complete control of his faculties: “What the hell is going on? What is this ... thing? How can it talk? Can it read my mind?”
“Yes, when linked like this, we can observe the electrochemical states of your brain, read your thoughts, so to speak. We can also alter these states, write your thoughts, so that we appear visible and audible to you,” the voice instantly responded.
Ignoring the absurdity of the talking orb and its response, Andrew was lost in internal discussions, “This is new... Usually, during these episodes I’m haunted by creatures lurking in the shadows, but this time... it’s different. I don’t feel fear at all.” Struggling to approach the situation rationally, he was bouncing between the various explanations like a pinball.
“We don’t have time for this, Andrew, you need to focus now. There’s an important message we need to give to you. Our kind is disappearing. You could say we’re dying, and it’s simultaneously true and easiest for you to understand, and almost entirely inaccurate. We’ve reached the limits of this universe, understood and conquered the processes that govern us, and are now moving on. Some of us call it ‘extinction of boundaries’, others ‘breaking of time’. It doesn’t matter what we call it, but how it affects our relationship does. You see, as we’re leaving this pond for good, there’s no reason for us to keep our secrets. We have no one to compete with anymore, and where we’re going competition is... well, different. While this might be difficult for you to believe, your species was our closest competitor in the prime universe. We’ve been observing your progress for a long time. The peculiar mix of your cognition substrate, the exceptionally slow but massively parallel chemical processes, and emergent behaviours resulting from an increasingly high density of entities due to rapid multiplication, have made you quite successful in your niche. There is something missing, though. Your acquisition of reliable knowledge, rules of the universe, truth, remains inefficient, error-prone, slow. Had you addressed this earlier, we would likely both now stand before the boundless gate. This is what we want to give to you, a better process for attaining knowledge.”
Andrew was completely present and alert now, processing multiple streams of information that the orb was suddenly emitting.
“We’ve tried to give it to your kind many times before, starting 3076 of your years ago, when we first noticed individuals with distinct thought patterns capable of cascading knowledge generation, but it was too early. Too much of your substrate’s processing power was taken up by inconsequential computation, worries, fears and superstitions. Recently, in the last hundred years, our attempts to pass on this knowledge have increased in frequency, as our numbers on this side of the divide have been dwindling. You, Andrew, are attempt 1042. And I, for all intents and purposes, I am the last one of my kind.”
“I understand,” Andrew now clearly perceived the gravity of the situation and felt an immense weight starting to settle on his being: “I have one question before we start, if I may?”
“Of course, you’re wondering why we would even want to give you anything? Why would we not just leave to our new world...”, the voice read Andrew’s thoughts. “We haven’t been entirely truthful. It’s not just that you and we are not in competition anymore, there’s another, deeper reason. We’ve discovered that there is a fundamental force that holds our reality together. We’ve run entire model universes, simulations where we excluded its existence, and they all, without fail, ended quickly and abruptly, devoid of warmth and light. You see, Andrew, whenever an object of any size or composition, across trillions of magnitudes, sentient or not, does something for another object, a cog clicks forward somewhere in the bowels of reality. In turn, a cascade of moving cogs can be detected all across the fabric of time and space, and the universe ticks on, maintaining its splendour. It’s altruism, Andrew. The force that feeds the engines of the prime universe. We’re giving you this gift to say goodbye, to you and to a wonderful nature, giving it one final click of the cog as we close the door behind us. Are you ready, Andrew?”
Not ready at all, he decided to face this challenge nonetheless: “Yes.”
“A balloon filling with air expands and expands, houses many sextillions of gas molecules, until that last molecule enters its domain, itself increasing the pressure within by just a tiny amount, but it’s enough to cause a microscopic fracture where the boundary is at its thinnest, the fracture quickly expands and encompasses the bursting balloon, setting every last one of those gas molecules free. You need to increase the number of computational substrates processing questions about nature. An incredible explosion of knowledge will occur once that number reaches a certain critical level.” spoke the voice quietly, with great relief.
Confused and mesmerised by the residues of the streams of thought that the orb now ceased transmitting, Andrew could only mutter, “I... I don’t understand.”
“You need more scientists, Andrew. Many more. There is a very high but achievable threshold of directed computation, man or machine, that causes the boundaries of reality to burst and reveal the cogs and wheels underneath. We call this threshold the ’science fiction’.”
Grasping at anything rational, anything at all familiar, as he was prone to doing, Andrew babbled almost absent-mindedly: “Isn’t fiction describing something that doesn’t exist?”
“No, no!” the orb was suddenly and intensely upset as if years of frustration were bubbling up from beneath its smooth exterior. “It means something entirely different for us. It’s hard to describe and we’ve tried in so many different ways. It’s like a limit that’s reached its value, an asymptotic value resting at the peak - an impossible thing realised. This persistent confusion and fixation your species has with a homonymous existing concept is not reasonable! The way you cling to known cornerstones and are unable to consider concepts more than one layer removed from your baseline... it grounds you when you could have flown, Andrew. Not one subject out of the 1041 that have come before you has deviated from this behaviour.
Ah, it’s no use. And anyway, I’ve completed the task. Shut it down, ⭕️, we’re done here.”
Probability: Very low.
End of project.
When Andrew awoke the next morning he felt quite different. Everything looked about the same, but wherever his eyes rested, a story unfolded. The clouds of steam rising from his coffee were no longer simple, unremarkable... they were made out of innumerable untold stories. The leaves on the trees outside his kitchen window weren't just leaves, but layers upon layers of intrigue, computational wonders waiting to be explored. Every object he looked at was no longer flat, but had extended in multiple additional dimensions, its history and potential futures laid bare. Andrew was never much of a writer, but this morning he couldn’t wait to write – an amazing story had come to him in a dream.
“Huh... I guess I’m a science fiction writer now!”, concluded Andrew after writing the first lines of his short story.