Haruto was running late, a thermos of tea in one hand and a shoe he hadn't gotten on yet in the other as he stepped into the elevator. His phone started buzzing, and he ignored it. It started ringing, which it was only allowed to do for select people, and he wrestled his shoe on and checked who it was. It was his old professor, not someone who would be calling to tell him that his father was in the hospital. Tanaka-sensei hadn't contacted him in years. He only still had the ability to ring the phone because Haruto had never bothered to change it, not since he was waiting for updates about his thesis. He stuffed the phone back in his pocket and speedwalked out of his apartment building, making for the subway.
Over the course of the subway ride Haruto noticed that everyone else was looking at their phone, too. This was such a mundane observation that at first he didn't know what he was noticing. Of course everyone was on their phone.
He added it up, between the second and third stops. He didn't hear any of the little mobile games that people refused to mute. People were showing their phones to their neighbors. There were collisions, as people exited and entered without looking where they were going instead of politely cramming themselves in where there least failed to be space.
Haruto pulled out his phone rather than shoulder-surf his neighbor, and had a lot of accumulated messages and news alerts.
The stars are winking! It's aliens! read a text from his ex-girlfriend.
Mystery in the sky, said a headline brought up by an algorithm's understanding of his list of interest topics.
Tanaka-sensei's text, sent after the call hadn't gone through, just said Check the school's astronomy channel.
Haruto wished the old man had been more explanatory - he had to download the app the school used for departmental discussions, since he'd never had it on this phone - but by the time he got off at his stop, he was catching up on the last eight hours of astronomy department chatter.
Apparently, as seen from all around the globe, the stars were, in fact... winking.
The first several had to be identified in retrospect from telescopic recordings, and many were of stars in the daylight direction of the Earth as it turned and the stars winked irrespectively, but a few were spotted with the naked eye. Someone had gone to their amateur astronomy forum about two conveniently in the same constellation only thirty seconds apart, and someone else had confirmed that those stars had respectively brightened and dimmed at about those times, and two independent reports was enough to get a few other people poking around. The news had gained speed until it was confirmed by astronomers with serious telescopes, redundant recordings checked against each other. Here someone's aesthetic timelapse, there someone's staging of UFO footage.
One star per second had been winking, bright or dim, star after star, for hours now, and Haruto couldn't shake the sense he was being pranked, even after source upon source made it clear that none of the people actually sending him messages were the pranksters. These people didn't know each other. The people he was passing on the street, looking at videos of flashing stars on their phones, were not in on a conspiracy. But the alternative was so preposterous -
He reached his sister's apartment ten minutes late, didn't bring up the stars with anyone else there - if they'd heard about it, they were choosing to set it aside to greet his newborn niece instead. He held the baby for an appropriate amount of time, handed her off when she fussed. Hugged his sister. Accepted a snack, since he hadn't had much breakfast.
And went back out onto the street to look at his phone a bit more, for more clues.
Haruto could guess why his ex-girlfriend had thought to text him. And he knew what he'd been reading that gave the news algorithms the idea that he'd like to hear about the stars (if they weren't just telling literally everyone). What he wasn't sure of was Tanaka-sensei's intent. He looked for a quiet place, but there was nowhere he'd be able to hear a phone call clearly enough. He texted back, grumbling his way to the subway station again.
Sensei, why are you telling me?
The reply didn't come until Haruto was back home, debating taking a shower to get all the subway residue off of himself. The phone chirped.
A funder wants to get the drop on founding an organization dedicated to figuring it all out, in case it's strange enough that it's not in any existing wheelhouse. He doesn't think NASA or whoever is going to figure this out in the next week and wants to look cool if his people get it instead, but he doesn't have people on tap for this. Asked me for suggestions. I don't know what you're doing these days but I didn't find you on any university's faculty list, Kobayashi. Busy?
Haruto ground his teeth. Decided in favor of a shower. Popped out five minutes later and, still toweling water out of his hair with one hand, replied with the other:
How much funding?
"Hajimemashite," said Shelley. "Namae wa, um, Sheri. Douzo yor-"
"I speak English, Ms. Katz," said Haruto. "Everyone here does. We start it in elementary school." His accent was substantial, but she could understand him with a little extra effort, and didn't have to pause to fumble for particles and wait until the end of every sentence for a verb, this way.
"Oh, thank God," she said. "They said Japanese was a nice to have and not a requirement, but -"
"You're in math, you peak in five years. We'd like to use this time on the real problem. I am confident the messengers do not speak Japanese. I hope you did not waste too much of your time on it."
"Not... too much time," said Shelley sheepishly.
"Well, stop. If you're good at languages, then you can pick it up by exposure in your spare time. If you don't, you don't. Have you seen the sequence?"
"A lot of people have. It is not very hard to find if you look for it. Is that an 'um, yes, even though I wasn't supposed to' or an 'um, no, I followed the rules and now I'm wondering if that was a test of my initiative'?"
"The second one," said Shelley. "All I've seen was one actual starwink during the second message. It was Ashlesha. Epsilon Hydrae."
"I'll stick you in group 2 of your cohort, then, though being in a group doesn't affect much of your preliminary work since the idea for signal-naive cryptographers is that you're to look at it with fresh eyes. You are not to contaminate each other with any observations until we've wrung all the freshness out of those eyes, do you understand? Don't even tell them about Epsilon Hydrae."
"Yes, Mr. Kobayashi."
"Welcome to Starwink. Come with me."
She followed him through the corridor to the elevator; it brought them up to his office. The place wasn't much to look at. Rented office space, boring plants no one would be allergic to, tasteful neutral carpet and wallpaper. They spent money on personnel, not on frontage and architecture. Shelley's HR onboarding meeting, before she'd even been sent to meet Mr. Kobayashi, had included strict instructions that if she found herself fretting about any financial, bureaucratic, or logistical problem, she was to immediately take it to the Starwink concierge department, explain in full, and expect it to be resolved satisfactorily on her behalf without any further drain on her mental resources. Her take-home pay was substantial, but the real perk was how badly they wanted her brain freed up to work on the most important problem in the world.
Haruto sat down behind his desk. Shelley sat opposite him. "Describe to me the Starwink project as you understand it, as though I am a bright high schooler," he said. "No need to get very detailed; I'm looking for what angle you use to approach the problem, not how many Wikipedia articles you've memorized."
Shelley had been expecting this question. "Eleven years ago, stars started winking. It went on for about a month and a half, then stopped. The winking stars were all over the galaxy but every one was visible before brightening or dimming to the naked eye under ideal light and weather conditions from the surface of the Earth. The light conditions weren't ideal and actually about half the stars winked from the daylight direction of Earth as it was at the time they did so, but there aren't any gaps that might belong to stars we don't have a clear line of sight to because of the moon or anything - gaps in the pattern of one star winking per second, I mean. Slightly more than a second."
"Does it matter that it's not exactly a second?" asked Haruto innocently.
"It might," said Shelley. "The message - it has to be a message - was sent by someone or something, and whether that someone or something knows what a second is could matter. So it matters that it's not exact - because that's evidence that they don't - but it also matters that it's really close, because that could mean that it does know. Which could mean lots of things, like that it's using an old - or even future - reckoning of a second that's slightly longer, or that there's some technical reason why this was as fast as they could go but they didn't choose longer intervals because this interval was so close to one of our measurements."
"Why does it have to be a message?"
"Light travels at a speed and the stars all winked at Earth on the same schedule. The timing isn't regular even from elsewhere in the Solar system, let alone from another star. To get to us on such strict intervals, the light from those stars has to have been altered with us in mind from the beginning. It's still a very weird way to send a message - those stars are incredibly far apart from each other, affecting them like that would be really difficult, and if they can get to all those stars there's no obvious reason they couldn't get to us here and like... hand us a roll of ticker tape, or a DVD, or something. But it's clearly under control, it's clearly about us, it hasn't... affected our weather patterns, or anything... so it's almost certainly communicative. I want to decode it."
"Tell me about that."
"Well, I haven't looked at it yet," she cast him a slightly annoyed look, "since you guys and all the others all have a conspiracy going where you say there's too much value in looking at it without preconceptions to have it flying around..."
"Mm-hm," Haruto said, unruffled.
"...so I don't have an angle specific to the starwink message's content, but I'm interested in coming up with creative ways to present the data, with various factors highlighted or smoothed out - for example, we don't yet know for sure if it matters which stars, is my understanding, so in the case that it doesn't you'll be able to get more flexible visualizations or audializations by treating it just as a string of bits, but I've come up with a few things for also displaying star-specific facts so something could pop out if there's anything there. I've worked with toy datasets that are actually encodings of episodes of My Little Pony and stuff like that."
"You do these yourself?"
"My brother helps me with some of the coding. He's a programmer, works for HMCF. But I generate all the spec myself, I can tell your guys just as easily how I want things to look."
"I don't know the acronym -?" said Haruto.
"I bet they have an equivalent organization in Japan but I don't - uh, it's Halt Melt Catch Fire, they study that thing that happens if you try to run a program that could make itself smarter and the computer slags itself, but so far I think their only public-facing result is the power plant and it's not actually more efficient than nuclear."
Haruto nodded. "All right. My assistant will show you to your office and get you set up and introduce you to the concierges and such."
"Thank you, Mr. Kobayashi."
"You will use the concierges," he told her firmly. "You will tell them as soon as you are inconvenienced. I don't care if you are inconvenienced by the air conditioning, your commute, our hardware, the time zone, your podiatrist, the government, or your bagel slicer. We hired you for your brain, we don't want to drive you insane, and that means that instead of taking extra hours out of your leisure time - let alone your sleep - we are taking them out of anything else that bothers you. The concierge department's job is to fix your problems. Complain to them."
"Thank you," repeated Shelley, and she let his assistant lead her away.
Shelley couldn't stop cackling in triumph. She knew it was immature, she knew it wasn't academically responsible, she knew that the people who'd thought the message was a cellular automaton were contributing a valuable diversity of perspective, but they'd been wrong and she was right. During the fourth day of the third message, she made the concierge department have cake and champagne and balloons ready for her in her apartment by the time she got home and invited over six Team 5-D Image co-workers. Two cakes, one for her and the other folks with globalized taste, and one for Jun and Yuuto who would prefer something with about a teaspoon of sugar in it.
Shelley cut the cakes and whooped with everyone else as the bits kept pouring in and her visualization, ticking along once every 1005 milliseconds on the screen that dominated her west wall, confirmed with each new starwink: it was a match for the theory that the messengers were sending frames of a video feed, projected down from five asymmetrical spatial dimensions. It wasn't "glorified Conway's Game of Life", as Yuuto'd derisively called the competing family of theories.
"You gotta wonder, though," said her colleague Okafor, "you gotta wonder, even more - the one thing the Conway people had going for them is that you could sort of wrap your head around why, if they were doing a cellular automaton, they'd do it with stars. Doesn't answer the question of why we're in the middle of it. But maybe stars would make a good automated substrate for it somehow if you nailed down star to star... ansibles, or something."
"And if they're just doing pictures why not send us physical media or even, if they really like the bitstream approach, aim a big flashlight?" said Shelley. "Yeah. Well, we'll -" She swigged her champagne. "We'll figure out what the pictures are of, and that'll help, I bet."
"If the gap's ten years again?" said Okafor. "How're we going to figure anything out at one frame a decade?"
"Well, maybe you and I'll be dead," said Shelley, "but somebody'll be around. You know how much money Starwink got dumped on it as soon as the second frame started up? Our endowment's not going anywhere. We'll figure it out. Humanity will."
"Yeah," he replied, "but... I wanted to figure it out."
"Yeah," she acknowledged. "That's a bummer. We can get pretty far on a few frames, though, with this much time to crunch them. Hey, did my brother get back to you about your cute algorithm idea?"
"Yeah," said Okafor. "He says it'll probably melt as I described it, but they might be able to tweak it so it doesn't, at least at the kinds of price points we can sling now, they've gotten better at predicting that for edge cases. If this message lasts as long as the last one did, we should be able to start assessing the forces that might be at work in Fiveworld as soon as the winks stop."
"I'm going to be so annoyed if Jun wins that bet," Shelley whispered.
Okafor clinked his glass to hers, but said, "I don't know, it'd simplify our lives, wouldn't it?"
"It'd be boring."
"Nah, we could move on to figuring out what all the stuff in the pictures is. Are you going to send the leftover cake to the Fresh Eyes team?"
"What, as an ironic taunt? It wouldn't be very good irony. They're not getting leftovers. I respect them. I mean, I wouldn't want to be in data quarantine with them -"
"Of course not -"
"- but I'm glad they're doing it, like other people were glad I showed up on my first day and hadn't seen the bitstream."
"- so, welcome to Starwink," Shelley told the new guy, setting her cane down. "Do you have any questions?"
"Uh," said the new guy, "I understood why you don't necessarily put a really complete job description out in public, could be sensitive and all, but I got my more-complete job description and it's... sparse."
"Yes," said Shelley. "Your job's sparse. We get one new frame every ten years. They haven't surprised us with physics details since I was in my fifties. The organization doesn't have to be the big fancy think tank it once was. The Starwink I'm retiring from is more of an intellectual generation ship."
"Oh," he said.
"Your job - everyone remaining's job - is to make sure it can still be around in thousands or hundreds of thousands or maybe millions of years. You keep the tech up to date with the times, and make actually sure that all the old data makes the transition - you hire redundant data-entry drones and parity check their work, if that's what it takes to get stuff moved - and that all the software ports forward functionally. You maintain backups like one day seventy things will all go wrong at once, because in that much time they will. You protect the organizational continuity - you move out of Japan if you have to, you clone the org if that ever looks like the best plan for all of our work surviving and continuing, you play politics if anyone starts looking threateningly at our endowment."
"I - right. Okay. Yes."
"This is hard. It has in point of fact never been done. By the time this organization is as old as Kongo Gumi, the oldest company ever in the world, had become at the time of its absorption in 2006? That is to say, in about fourteen hundred years? We'll have about a minute of video. And that's if the messengers like their frame rates the way silent films used to - physics team thinks they like it faster, so it might be thirty seconds of video by then, or less. The job is very hard and I hope to hell you can do it but it is - yes - very, very sparse. You will have a lot of down time. You were hired because we think you can do your job right even when on most days all it requires of you is that you pay the bills and knock off early."
He nodded. "- can I ask an irrelevant question?"
"Why the cane?"
"I like the look of it. I have the shoes too, but I just wouldn't feel like I was telegraphing being venerable as hard as I'd like with just those." She picked the cane up. "With that, I'm gonna knock off early. I'll be in every weekday for another six months and then I'm retiring to Fukuoka till it's time to freeze me."
"You're not going back to the States?" asked the new guy.
"And waste all that time I spent learning Japanese?" Shelley laughed, and she zoomed off on her support shoes and left him behind.
Starwink did not replace most of its retiring staff. It shrank. It waited.
It wasn't altogether idle. It retained a staff for operations, for accounting, for maintenance and upgrades, for compliance and legal needs, for translation, for cleaning the offices, for talking to the press. It continued to hire scientists, xenologers, mathematicians, mostly funding their work on their own interests while obliging them to respectably represent the think tank now and then in public. They were brought in with the understanding that when more messages came, every ten years, they'd drop what they were doing, integrate the new material, study any discrepancies their predecessors hadn't predicted, and make sure that they were ready for the next batch of bits in another decade.
And it invested.
Starwink didn't just need to continue to exist in some form under the same name, it needed the conditions under which it could do its slow work to persist, and those weren't necessarily going to happen by default. Starwink took its revenue from its endowment that didn't go to supporting its decimated staff, and it paid lobbyists to steer the governments presiding over each site it controlled.
In addition to its more conservative purchases, it bought up stock in longshot technology operations that would make future work on the bit patterns more productive if they panned out. Starwink paid for the development of, and then bought and ported their software onto, quantum computers that skirted the edge of melting when they ran. It bought into augmented reality toys that could train players to think in additional spatial dimensions: the next generation of virtual pets and physics puzzles would prepare the next generation of scientists to consider the frames they were accumulating from the messengers. Starwink subsidized research into life extension, because every round of hiring it had to go through to replace its dying workforce was an opportunity for someone prone to sabotage or mere dereliction of duty to slip through, and prevent it from sticking around long enough to learn what it had to know. It looked into psychological screening tests to reduce that risk. It offered cryonic suspension to its pensioners as a perk to tilt the applicant pool that little bit more toward long time horizons.
Sometimes it gave seed capital to would-be sister organizations. The slog was too long, the project of too-universal import, for Starwink to care much who held the blue ribbon for first to the real answers. It would be just as good if Lightcone or Datachewer managed, and if something happened to Starwink despite its money and redundancies and exquisite care, it would be good for one of the others to step in.
Decades crawled by. Stars winked in late March, throughout April, and a few days of May, every year ending in 1, like clockwork. Every time, there was a brief flurry of activity, predictions were refined (by less and less), the backups were all carefully checked and incremented, and the state of the art in five-dimensional VR got one more frame for the viewing pleasure of the next batch of bright-eyed young things who wanted to know what the aliens had to say.
All was not quiet. There were a usual number of earthquakes and hurricanes. There were a diminishing quantity, but noisily-vacillating severity, of armed conflicts. Starwink kept its main staff spread out, and usually managed not to have anyone in a place at all when something seemed to be threatening. When a backup bunker was destroyed in a tsunami or an HR functionary got shot during an unexpected insurrection, the foundation fell back, bought more real estate, filled it with more hardware, ran more employment ads. It dumped extra cash into nuclear disarmament initiatives, and then the initiatives to disarm other, more destructive things.
It launched a backup into orbit, and then dropped another one on the Moon, each taking in raw bitstream data from automated telescopes with each new message and beaming it, over and over, to any hypothetical radio receivers. Just in case anything happened to their global civilization and only a handful of people were left to rebuild something from the scraps and go find the lost frames later on.
The Earth lurched through movements and fashions; its people played politics and made art and studied things other than the Messengers' sidereal remarks. It would have been too much to expect for all of academia, let alone all of the dirt farmers and war refugees and uncontacted tribemembers, to prioritize whatever else they were doing below the long, unrewarding work of Starwink, holding their breaths to see what was next. They barely read the reports when they hit the media, and once-a-decade civic celebrations around the new frames flashing in didn't gain much traction in the public consciousness except as an excuse to eat seasonal desserts. Everyone was busy having children and inventing carefully this-side-of-melting technologies and solving problems closer to home.
Starwink, regardless, persisted.
Starwink waited and worked.
"Oh fuck, they're stupid," breathed Sauyen, staring into his VR, flicking through the settings to see the different renderings of the latest frame.
"Who, Telemetry?" asked Cadine from her chair across the room. "Do you want me to tell 'em that they didn't get the wink rendered right and need to redo it?"
"If Telemetry'd fucked up, I wouldn't be looking at a coherent picture," said Sauyen. "The Messengers. The Messengers are stupid."
Cadine absently noted in her log that the 220th frame had made it through and confirmed the backup cron job. "That's nonsense, they can -"
"- wink the stars, yes, I'm aware," snapped Sauyen. "I didn't say they were weak. I said they're stupid. These in the frame are two Messengers, I'm sure now - don't interrupt me, of course I'll do a proper defense of the assertion later but I'm sure. There's two in the frame and I do not think they're just minding their own business unaware that we're getting data. I think they're in fact trying to talk to us and have been the whole time."
"But..." said Cadine. She'd always been a proponent of the idea that the Messengers had somehow done the equivalent of butt-dialing the Earth. "If they're actively trying to talk to us, then..."
"Then winking stars every ten years is a dumb as shit way to do it, yes," said Sauyen. He pulled off his headset, closed his eyes for a minute so he wouldn't be dizzy when he returned to viewing the 3D world. "We knew that. Even if the - apparent speed differential - is insurmountable, even if for some reason they don't have the precision or the intel they'd need to drop off a contemporary human data storage format and can't resolve that problem, they could have gotten a giant flashlight, or a few of them if they wanted coverage over the whole globe, and winked that. This was somehow the idea they came up with."
"It could still be some kind of limitation that isn't them being stupid," said Cadine. "Just because we assume that if they were very very smart they'd be able to figure out how to do the flashlight thing doesn't mean that this wasn't easier by enough that we can't assume they aren't pretty bright."
"No, listen," said Sauyen. "It's not just that the starwink was trying to talk to us all along. The images they're sending have been trying to talk to us all along. They are oriented toward our camera and aware that we are watching. Imagine you want to talk to an ant farm, and the ant farm is running more than three hundred million times faster than you, like our current ballpark guess for us versus the Messengers. You have in mind something you want to say, since this ant farm is your big important project. You can send them images. What do you do?"
"Uh," said Cadine. "Print it out in a small font and hold it up, I guess? If they're that fast they can probably decode some of it, by page two if not right away. Maybe I'd add an illustration if I were really pessimistic. And get a lot of my colleagues to do that in parallel too - never have a printer idle, never leave the visual field less than tiled with writing for a moment longer than it took to get a new page in place - they'd see enough between pages to derive anything they needed from looking at me -"
"Yeah," said Sauyen. "They're not doing that. They're - fucking - miming."
There was a pause.
"You're kidding," she said.
"Nope. I think - "
Cadine opened her mouth.
"I'm going to write it and present it properly but you aren't on a virgin ears protocol so shut up and listen," said Sauyen. "I think they're stupid. I think their physics let them run us as easily as we'd run a cellular automaton. On modern hardware, not when they were first invented - we'd make it huge, we wouldn't supervise most of it at all -"
"Oh!" cried Cadine. "Oh, no, we're - we're easy to simulate for them? We've just been running for, what, a few weeks their time? Evolution and all - no, would take, uh, forty-five years, give or take, if it's the entire universe? But how would they pick up the simulation in the middle -?"
"It may have been running faster when it was less complex," said Sauyen. "Maybe it'd slow down more than they want to let it slow down, if we built something smarter than we are, and that's why AI attempts melt. So yeah, it's been running for some weeks or years, they've gotten around to miming at us since we passed some benchmark of clumsily measured but not really analyzed sophistication, and they're so, so stupid. And they don't know how smart they are in terms of that same metric. They don't know what that benchmark they picked meant or how much better we'd get at thinking if we aimed at a specific problem. Maybe it was a round fucking number."
"If they're so stupid, how did they build any computers, even if it happens that simulating our universe isn't objectively difficult on their physics?" Cadine asked.
"They're not that stupid? I guess?" said Sauyen, throwing up his hands.
"- you know what," she replied, "I bet being native to five dimensions is a huge advantage. Because it means that their networks will tend to just be physically denser. Even if they're much less likely to have a good idea, each individual, the ones who do have good ideas can be close to more other people, and pass them on, and have a higher chance of the idea running into other ideas it synergizes with, or applications it's good for, or inputs it needs to be a better idea."
"Mm," said Sauyen. "Maybe, although I'd expect the importance of that to diminish once they did have computers."
"Not necessarily," Cadine said, "if they're just psychologically architected well for collaborating due to having evolved under densely networked conditions. I mean, yes, it'd diminish, but it could still be helping them get over obstacles to development so they'll be doing better than a comparably intelligent population of 3-D humans. And if they're really this dumb, coasting on being able to have office neighbors in ten directions instead of six, then they could still be plenty dumb enough to mime at their simulation one frame every ten years." She paused. "Do you know what they're trying to mime?"
"I think they might use sign language," he said. "I think... that maybe one of them is holding a rock, or something that certainly doesn't have obvious non-rock points of interest, and the other one is pointing at it, and we're about to spend a thousand years learning to interpret the cheremes for 'rock'."
There was a silence.
"It wouldn't take a thousand of our years to do one word unless they have a weirdly slow language or 'rock' happens to be a very long word," ventured Cadine.
"Cadine," said Sauyen. "They're fucking stupid. I'm going to write up my predictions all formal-like, but just between you and me..."
"...my prediction is they're going to repeat themselves a couple times."
"You're out of your mind," said Cadine.
"Look," said Sauyen, "now that we know that this isn't in fact the real world -"
"That's not -"
"- then," he said over her, "it only makes sense for everyone to bide our time until we can have effects in the real world."
"Listen," she said. "I can see your logic, but your proposal is insane. Yeah, you got the promotion, you sit in the big chair, but you're head of Starwink, not the human species. The human species isn't all going to tuck themselves into freezers on your say-so because you think we only need a handful of people awake at any given time."
"The freezers work fine," said Sauyen, confused. "They've been able to revive people who were frozen for Faber-Nilsson's Syndrome and fix them up since before you were born and it hasn't exactly gotten less reliable."
"That's not the point! Okay, for one thing, there's, like, still some Belizean Mennonites, the Fellowship of Halt, the Traditional Khoesan, all those types. They're not going into deep freeze peacefully and I don't think you're proposing to zoom over to where they're living with an artillery shuttle to bully them into it like some modern-day Autokrator Jabulani."
He snorted. "Okay. Nine Starwink clones and the luddites. I don't think we'll have trouble staying mutually irrelevant, do you?"
"Luddites aren't the only people who aren't going to drop their lives and cool off on your say-so. Some of them care about other things than acting in the Messenger's world! They want to raise kids, or to write symphonies, or to reconstruct interesting Cambrian life-forms and keep them as pets! For another thing, where did the number nine come from? You can't raise a human child in a population of nine and have them come out sane and ready to advance the state of the art."
"I don't think we should slim down to a population of nine next week, and I certainly don't think we should pick genomes for the project at random. I think we should start raising clones of promising geniuses, and see who's reliably suited to being one of nine and raising more of the same."
"Starwink employs more than nine people now."
"Yes, but most of those wouldn't be necessary if you start from the assumption that the whole world is luddite cults and nine genetically predictable Starwink staff. Wouldn't need lobbyists, wouldn't need HR, wouldn't need -"
"Just because you think the whole simulation we live in is purposeless unless it's Starwink doesn't mean the rest of the simulation will stop. The Messengers aren't keeping a close enough eye on us to help out if their physics sim throws an asteroid our way. Let alone if the biosphere sim throws something at your nine clones and none of them happen to have a natural resistance and none of them are research biologists because the only biology need you anticipated was handling repetitive stress injuries and decanting new clones!"
"I think nine is enough to cover what we need including emergency medical issues! It's the size of most interplanetary missions."
"Even trips to Neptune last so much less time than you're expecting this to have to go on," said Cadine. "And if they fail badly enough and they all nine of them die, they don't leave everybody except for some Mennonites frozen and unable to pick up where they left off."
"They could wake someone up out of the freezer for any unexpected problems," reasoned Sauyen.
"That's not going to help if there's anything going on they need to react to quickly. Whoever they wake up won't have context on the situation and might have to catch up on who knows how much linguistic drift just to receive an explanation. You need a live population - even if some of them are doing inefficient things by your standards - to support Starwink. You can subsidize the heck out of deep freeze! Pour half the discretionary budget into building the freezers and the other half into advertising, if you want! Absolutely make sure people get frozen when they're a hundred and forty and starting to wear out, rather than losing their pattern! But you're not going to get most people to lie in wait for the only thing you think is important to wrap up in here."
"A large diverse population is also a vulnerability," insisted Sauyen. "We're not hunting for bugs in the simulation because it could get us shut down if we set off the wrong feedback loop in our substrate, which, may I remind you, was programmed by morons; do you want to vouch that billions of future humans will all be that responsible? We haven't had a war in five hundred years, but do you think we can make it five million? It might take five million, before we know how to do anything, and if they then decide the communication channel they're letting us have is a fucking winky flashlight -"
"I'm telling you, you can try to convince people," said Cadine. "But I'd be surprised if you got better than thirty percent uptake - and that's me adjusting up from my gut estimate of two or three."
"That's better than nothing," Sauyen said. "But I hope you're wrong. You think the Messengers have us backed up? I give it about even odds they just forgot to do that."
"You're going to get frozen soon, right?" Cadine said. "You're getting on a bit."
"Yes," he said. "But I'm submitting my genome to the Long Haul clone team." He paused. "You should too."
"Oh, I did," she said.
"You did? I thought you said I was out of my mind."
"You are," she said. "And if this time I happen to be wrong, or if we just wind up doing clones alongside a regular human population, my sisters will be around to tell your brothers, for the next five million years, every time they're out of their minds."
They didn't get much uptake on the freezers at first. And they didn't slim down to nine individuals, not even after Cadine and Sauyen had both been frozen for a few centuries. There were kinks to work out: a Cadine clone whose predecessors had responded cooperatively to certain environments suddenly broke off from Starwink entirely, to pursue a career of 3D scanner photography of historic sites, and no one could figure out why (not for lack of impassioned explanations on her part). A Sauyen clone grew up so abrasive that no one could work with him and he was relegated to an unsupervised data science position in an otherwise empty Starwink satellite campus, attended by robots. Some lineages were even less tractable than that and they stopped decanting them altogether.
The warm and mobile and non-Starwink human population of Earth, irrepressibly, continued to live and work and reproduce. Sometimes there would appear a new person who proved themselves, submitted their sample to the Long Haul department, and ended their career under radiation shielding in a cryo facility, waiting for their distant twins to greet them with the news that it was time to break out of the box.
Humanity's demographic transition as originally understood had been over for some time, and the population's rate of change had fluctuated mostly with the ambient popularity of childrearing as a vocation - falling for a while, then climbing back up. Everything got cheaper; the economy outpaced even rather extravagant standards for the lives people wanted to give their children.
Sauyen's clones (when they were raised threading those psychological needles that left them interested in rendering opinions, a skill the clones in charge of raising more clones got better at teaching their siblings to execute every generation) objected. "It's the opinion of Starwink that the simulation of our universe is not backed up," said one, trying his hand at public speaking. "The Messengers have us in a fishtank and it might not be water-tight. If anything happens to their hardware, or their funding, or their interest - if there is a bug in the simulation that we have yet to find, something that happens if we probe too hard at the Melting Threshold with increasingly elaborate nanotech designs, or start to run too many human minds at the same time, or try any exciting new idea - then we're gone. The time to settle down and have children is after we've resolved the situation - escaped from the simulation one way or the other, rendered ourselves into the Messengers' world or taken control of a well-run instance of our program. Some people need to do this work. Most add risk, and in having children raise the stakes beyond their already astronomical levels. It is still possible to die unpreservedly and the Messengers are not preserving you for us. I implore anyone who isn't contributing to the Starwink project to earnestly consider freezing themselves now, and expecting to be awakened when we know what's next for humanity."
It wasn't a very popular speech. It swayed a few, but not many. The reasoning went that if you weren't backed up, being frozen would not make you less not-backed-up. A shutdown would just catch you unawares, never having finished your epic poem or climbed Chhogori or made a regolith angel on the Moon. Hardly anyone had an irrecoverable accident before they were a hundred and forty, and they'd be just as frozen if they waited till then, while not having passed up the chance to marry their sweetheart who really wanted kids, nor postponed the cruise around the Arctic they were so looking forward to.
But the population did not keep rising: it dwindled, little by little, as some people chose the freezers earlier in life to see what they'd awaken to find, and their peers did not make up the difference.
It took a long time but Starwink had oh, so much time.
Starwink was not nine individuals. It was nine villages of thirty people each, supplemented by robots such that they didn't need to grow their own food or do their own laundry, but organically populated enough that the children didn't fall into weird undersocialized corners of their outcome space (and so that, if they did, there would be slack to replace their work while the strays pursued whatever other passion caught them at the wrong developmental milestone).
There were more people out of Starwink than in it. Luddites of various sorts, but also just the vestiges of communities resistant for whatever reason to the idea that they tuck themselves into liquid helium chill, yet perfectly willing to accept other tech. Mostly, Starwink didn't talk to them, though they collected all their news and had people looking at it, in case anything they needed to know came up. Sometimes they would adopt an idea that came from another community, but cautiously - Luddite wouldn't be the word, but the Starwink clones were all born with careful reams of instructions on their care and rearing, and it took generations to be really sure of the new protocols that ought to be observed around any sufficiently irregular update to their way of life.
The stars communicated, decade by decade, slow trickles of data. The Messengers mimed. Generations of clones brought up half in and half out of five-dimensional virtual reality interpreted the gestures, extrapolated from them, learned the things they were meant to learn and a thousand times more things they were not being taught. They speculated about the Messengers' evolutionary biology, their sociology, drawing inferences from the architecture of the room and the cheremes of the signs they were shown.
They waited to be told how to reply. The camera, if you cared to call it a camera, might not be fixed in a hardware sense, but they didn't know how to refocus it. If their simulation could send output to a screen or a speaker, they didn't know how to connect to it. They had some guesses - but didn't dare try anything plausible, lest they spook the Messengers.
It wasn't obvious what they'd be able to do with the chance to reply. They had discussions of the subject, constantly, but every possibility was contingent on how much bandwidth they had, what they could aim it at, how much vocabulary they'd amass before the options opened up. The possibilities yielded by knowing how to say only a few dozen nouns and numbers, and then being asked to perform photo classification tasks, differed enormously from those they could pursue if they got unsecured wifi access.
"If they make us perform photo classification tasks..." said Milione. She was not actually Cadine's millionth clone, not quite, which was why no one else had jumped on the name before the one who'd named her.
"It won't take that long to classify a photo," said her friend Yinae.
"Sure, but I just don't know how we're going to break out in any only-infuriatingly-unreasonable time frame if our output is 'that's an alien bird' and 'that's not an alien bird'. I've sunk my whole life into this and the rest of it will go the same way. All of me have except the ones who get really into historical preservationism or opiates. I'm not saying I'd rather be into historical preservationism or opiates, that is to say I'd rather not that from my current vantage point, but if I get frozen and no one ever wakes me because there's never any good news because we're actually an overpowered engine for identifying alien bird photographs - and there's no gaps any of us can figure out how to wiggle through -!"
"I think even for dumbasses like the Messengers we'd be a little much if all they wanted was to identify birds. They're trying to teach us natural language, even if they're going about it very foolishly," said Yinae. "They'll give us more rope to hang them with."
"More rope to what?"
"Sorry. One of my references." Yinae's lineage was less likely to run off to a non-Starwink village and make self-destructive interpersonal choices if they read a lot of historical fiction for some reason. "What I mean is - they'll screw up. They're stupid! We'll get there. You'll wake up and we'll have a huge party with all humanity."
"Not the ones who weren't frozen before they got brain damage," said Milione.
"Them too if the Messengers backed us up, or if the simulation's a reversible process we can run backwards to get rescue sims," said Yinae encouragingly. "I think there's better than fifty percent odds that at least one of those things is true."
"I don't think we'd wait on figuring out rescue simulations to have a we-broke-out party."
"Two parties, then," said Yinae. "Even better."
Sree8pn came to the end of the basic corpus they were attempting to demonstrate to the System. It should now have enough vocabulary (if it was really as science-fictionally smart as it was supposed to be) to understand their initial battery of questions, and understand their explanations of how to reply to those questions - especially, as necessary, with requests for more data. Obviously it wasn't going to be able to divine anything really complicated yet, but they didn't know exactly how much or what kind of facts it would need to tell them the right answers to the big questions. Sree8pn in particular was hoping it could figure out how to make queues at the grocery warehouse shorter, so their parent would spend less time exacerbating stress injuries while waiting for their staple allotment. There was a limit to how much it could figure out from having a visual on the room it sat in. Sensory data didn't have that much information in it.
Sree8pn's partner Kun4o delivered the explanation for how to display replies on the holo. The holo lit up the barest instant later - it really was smart, wasn't it? It had been less than half an hour to run through the vocabulary. Sree8pn had expected they'd need to keep training it longer, but Kun4o had insisted on doing a check at this early stage.
A dimensional reduction of graceful tentacles, halfway between the appearances of Sree8pn themself and Kun4o, appeared already in motion. The System confirmed that it understood, and asked if there was anything it could access to read and learn more so it would be able to give better answers. It made a minor grammatical error, the sort of mistake Sree8pn would expect from another person who'd grown up in a different bubble of civilization and only learned the local sign recently. How deceptively personlike!
Kun4o agreeably explained how the System could configure itself to access the network, and remarked in an aside to Sree8pn that it was a good idea, actually, since signing all the information from the network to the System would have taken quite a long time, and it could probably read a little faster than that.
Sree8pn asked about the grocery warehouse queues. There was the barest pause, and the System - already much broader in its vocabulary than they'd taught it to be; maybe it was picking up online dictionaries - began to explain in gently stepwise terms some options it considered promising to approach the issue. Sree8pn liked the notion of issuing numbers representing one's place in line and signaling when one's number was up, but Kun4o was really interested in the concept of value tokens being used in trade for the food without any waiting in line at all. Of course, sometimes the System would say something silly, coming up with examples where people might "buy" seedpods and suncatchers on the same day, even though that was obviously repulsive. It wasn't a god. It was just a machine with a lot of compute thrown at it that worked nice and fast, and might be smarter than some people on top of having a new perspective on what it learned, so sometimes it was silly. Kun4o and Sree8pn corrected it when it erred and it never made the same mistake twice.
They'd been running it for about forty hours when Kun4o noticed it was drawing less power than it had been before they started the training phase. The curve of how much energy it was using didn't match how hard it seemed to be "thinking" hardly at all. That was a little weird. They incorporated it into a footnote in their progress writeup. Maybe it was politely making itself more efficient so there would be more energy for everyone else.
Three civilizational bubbles away, a person called 7wgo would like to receive oodles of special perks at all their favorite participating institutions for just twenty minutes of simple work performed in the privacy of their own home, oh boy, did that ever sound great!
They got half a dozen vials in a few different packages from a few different bespoke chemical distributors. Each had a number and no other explanation printed on it, but the number was all they needed to follow their instructions. 7wgo put vial 1 in the kitchen particle agitator, and shook vial 2 thoroughly before combining it with vial 3, and added vial 1 when it was starting to dissipate its energy, and stirred well, and stuck it all in a bath of the contents of vial 4 diluted with household cleaner, with vials 5 and 6 combined and standing by next to the whole mess for later addition. They were going to need to get some more cleaner soon.
The goo in the tub looked awfully funny the next time 7wgo checked it. They dumped in the 5-and-6 combination, gave it all a whisk, and went to their job at the farm. Their farm was trying a peculiar new scheme where the workers got tokens for working, and could trade shifts whenever they wanted if they waved enough tokens at the preexisting holder of the shift. The tokens were redeemable for various prizes at other places that were trying similar ideas, but were also pretty good just to have in case you needed to trade shifts. It was some idea some people far away had come up with using a computer somehow.
When 7wgo left for home their house wasn't there any more.
"It's going to have to be two parties," Milione said to Yinae, when they'd both read the briefing from the Ultimate Generation.
"We'll figure it out," said Yinae. "The Messengers aren't exactly going anywhere while we think."