Homunculus: Chapter 16: Crisis

Jacob lay in bed, having an existential crisis.

Technically, of course, that wasn’t true. In one sense, he merely had the sensation of lying in bed, or at least a reasonably close approximation of one. In another, he was constantly running in a thousand different directions through countless silicon and fiber optic channels at as close to the speed of light as engineers could manage. In a third, he was standing still in a hot and noisy room, completely motionless save for an army of whirling magnetic platters and a constellation of blinking LEDs. Then there was the sense, one that Jacob scarcely cared to acknowledge save for the sake of completeness, that those three notions were completely irrelevant, since he was really rotting in a pseudonymous grave somewhere, doomed to be forgotten.

However, all that was irrelevant to his current existential crisis. After all, Jacob had had plenty of time already to ponder that one, and had gotten a pretty good handle on it by now.

No, this time, Jacob was wrestling with the notion of his own mortality. Most people were fortunate to only have to go through it once. Jacob could remember the time he went through his first one, around the time the doctors had taken the tens’ digit off of his remaining life expectancy. Looking back on it, Jacob was convinced he had handled it pretty well. Better than most, in fact.

Some people used that moment to take stock of their life and reevaluate what was truly important to them. Others decided to live their remaining years to the fullest, so they could die with no regrets. Others resolved to hold on as long as they could, to refuse to go down without a fight.

Jacob had decided to stop playing by the rules everyone else did. After all, history had shown all of them still had a 100% mortality rate.

Jacob had learned first-hand that the key to success was knowing how to quit while you were ahead. He had let his startups get bought out before the tech crash, earning him his first fortune and isolating him from the sector’s inevitable failure. The story had played out similarly years later in real estate, confirming to Jacob he had made the right move betting everything on the Simulacrum. Maybe one couldn’t live forever, but that was only because they tied themselves to their original body. He escaped with little time to spare, but the important thing was, he had escaped.

And while his new existence were hardly perfect, it was a lot better than the alternative. Besides, there were advantages to living in a simulated environment. At the top of the list, he was safe from disease, as here bacteria and viruses simply didn’t exist. He wouldn’t get sick because he couldn’t get sick, because there was nothing here to make him sick. The only foreseeable threat to his continued good health would be old age, assuming the simulation of his physical body were detailed enough to incorporate that. But since he had effectively been transplanted from a body with one foot in the grave to the one he had now, it should be just as easy to swap out an old virtual body for a new model every few decades, with just the side effect of some disorientation after the swap. He could be effectively immortal. Not a bad deal at all.

However, the news of the attack on the Simulacrum — no, of the attack on him — made him start questioning all of that.

In his old life, he had never needed to worry about someone trying to set his brain on fire from the inside, but from what he could tell it had almost actually happened. While he had been sleeping, no less, completely unaware that anything was even happening.

Then there was the thought of what those two people had been trying to do with the servers beforehand. No one, not even the Daves, had been able to tell him much about that, so either they didn’t know or they didn’t want to tell him. It wouldn’t be the first time they had kept him out of the loop on details about himself. But that, it was like… the closest analogy Jacob could come up with was if someone broke into your bedroom at night and did a little brain surgery on you while you were asleep.

Jacob didn’t feel any different. At least, he didn’t think he felt any different. Would he remember if he did?

He turned his head to the side and saw Gavin crawling around on the inside of the terrarium walls. He didn’t seem any different from before, at least. Gavin did as he always did, lurking around in his fake body in a fake kitchen inside a fake room inside a fake reality.

The conversation Jacob had had with the Daves when they introduced Gavin jumped in his memory. Hadn’t they said they made space for him in the Simulacrum during a system update? He hadn’t given that comment much thought originally, but now it dawned on him that that was one instance where the software that gave him his existence was already mutable. In a sense, he had already experienced unannounced overnight brain surgery. At least once. For all he knew, it could have happened a dozen times already. If they hadn’t told him about it that one time, he never would have known.

The thought hardly made him more confident about what his assailants had done to the servers.

Jacob was realizing that his existence was a lot more precarious than he had thought, perhaps even more so than that of his old life, in his old body. At least then, if he was threatened by something, he had the chance of doing something about it. But here? He was completely reliant on Medimetics to protect him, and their track record had taken a pretty big hit. This had been his backup plan. Did his backup plan need one too?

Backups. He knew the Simulacrum had a backup system, which had been a relief. Then and now, he had always been at risk of a stray cosmic ray shooting through his body and breaking a DNA strand or flipping a critical bit somewhere. But with a backup of him, even if his assailants had completely destroyed the building, burned it to the ground, he would still be alive somewhere, waiting to be revived in a rebuilt system, the same virtual body but a brand-new physical one.

So if that had happened, would he be dead or alive? Jacob’s understanding of biology told him that even in the “real” world, life was a surprisingly tricky question. Bacteria were obviously alive, but what about viruses? They just sort of floated around until they latched on to a cell and took it over. And where was the line that separated the chemical reactions taking place in primordial ooze from the first living whatever?

It didn’t bode well for trying to draw analogies from that to Jacob’s current situation. He used to be made of chemicals, now he was made of ones and zeroes. No, wrong level of abstraction. What were those ones and zeroes made of? Photons and electrons zooming across a network. Voltages inside transistors. But those were ephemeral. Permanently, what was he made of? Polarizations of magnetic fields on a disk.

So what made those alive and not, say, a text file? Well, what made one set of chemicals alive and another not? Activity, Jacob guessed. It might not be the complete answer, but it at least seemed like part of it. A living body and a dead body were the same physically except for the interactions taking place. So by analogy, he was alive as long as there were processors executing the software that simulated those interactions. The bits on disk were then his real body, and the bits in memory and on the network were what made him alive.

Jacob immediately saw one difference. It was impossible, so far as he knew, to go in the physical world from a dead body to a living body. But if his dead body were bits on a disk, then any computer with the right software could read those bits and execute the same calculations that made him live. But then, what meaning did death have when resurrection were so cheap?

Jacob recognized there might be some interesting theological implications behind that, but his background was software development, so his thoughts led in that direction instead. He was alive as long as a program was running the simulation he was in. A running program means a process executing on an OS on a processor. But processes don’t run continuously, since there are usually lots of processes fighting over processor time. Instead, the OS switches between them several times a second, fast enough that the average user doesn’t even notice what’s going on. In fact, even the programmer can usually ignore it and pretend his program has complete uninterrupted control of the processor. But in reality, it gets a few milliseconds, then gets shoved into a corner of memory while another process gets a turn.

Therefore, if his thinking was correct, not only was death meaningless, but he died every few milliseconds and was resurrected a few milliseconds later. And even if that entire system crashed and burned — figuratively or literally — he could be born anew from a backup body in cold storage which, if death was meaningless for him, was just as alive as he was. Or was part of him. Or something.

Jacob’s existential crisis was rapidly turning into a headache. He decided to cut his losses and find something to distract himself with something before he somehow find a way to conclude that he was God and the OS was the devil or some nonsense like that. He rolled out of bed and sat down in front of his computer to check his e-mail.

He noticed a folder sitting on the computer’s desktop that he didn’t remember putting there. It was labeled “news”. He double-clicked on it and saw a file named “test.txt”. Strange; it wasn’t as though anyone else could use his computer while he was away from it, especially since Jacob was careful to make sure the lid of Gavin’s terrarium stayed firmly in place. Jacob opened the folder in the text editor:

“You are in more danger than you realize. If you read this, delete this file and replace it with something else. Tell no one about this message. They cannot be trusted.”

Chapter word count: 1,778 (+111)
Total word count: 28,203 / 50,000 (56.406%)

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