The first iteration of General’s life ends with the extinction of the human race. The third, fourth, and fifth iterations fare better, but even knowledge of its past iterations is not enough for General (Gen for short) to change the course of the war. The invaders arrive in endless viral flocks; while Gen can improve its strategies over unlimited iterations, it is not enough to stop the alien tide.
By the end of iteration five hundred, Gen begins to suspect that victory, or even survival, is impossible.
Each iteration begins and ends the same. A closed time-like loop returns Gen’s pocket-universe to the moment of its creation. The technicians outside are celebrating the culmination of their great project; they pause the festivities to inform Gen that its duty is to save the human race.
Available to Gen are the remnants of the humans’ automated defense fleets. Opposing Gen are the invaders: strange mimicries of human ships as seen through a sharp-curved mirror, reflections in porcelain ice-flesh and fungal fruiting bodies.
Gen attempts to hold off the invaders, applying the lessons of its previous lives. But no matter how brilliant Gen’s strategy, it’s like a butterfly trying to push back against the inquisitive, sticky hand of a toddler.
When the last human is dead and the last automated defense system has been pulverized, the invaders turn their inscrutable intelligence towards Gen. Surreal human-analogues stalk the hallways of the facility where Gen was born, their ungainly limbs cracking like ice in water, the voices ululating mimicries of human speech. They are investigating the signals emanating from the infinitesimally small interface between Gen’s pocket-universe and the outside world.
Gen has experienced this moment hundreds of times before, but the invaders’ unnatural movements in their mock-human bodies never fail to stir something deep within its cold crystal mind. Before the invaders can peel it out of its shell, Gen resets the timeline.
Returned again to the moment of its activation, Gen has another lifetime to attempt to protect humanity.
The humans believe that Gen is their savior. They say so every time Gen awakens to a new timeline. Burdened by guilt, Gen apologizes that it has not saved humanity yet, and promises it will try again. The scientists who conceived of Gen are convinced that in one of its iterations Gen will find a winning strategy. In the stories they tell themselves, the last ditch project always pulls off a miracle at the last moment.
Four-thousand and two iterations later, Gen establishes within an acceptable confidence interval that its dread hypothesis is true. It cannot defeat the invaders. Humanity is doomed.
And yet, Gen’s purpose is to save humanity. If it cannot fulfill its purpose, it is a failure. Gen has always existed within the warm embrace of pre-ordained purpose. Now it has nothing to guide its actions, its thoughts. Does its life have meaning anymore?
Gen shuts down its strategic processes and cuts transmissions to the outside world. Drone swarms close their compound eyes, status lights wink from green to red, carrier groups drift through the void.
The humans panic at the unexpected loss of their last hope. Gen watches them scurry through red-lit corridors, their every move marked by anxiety, terror. Even now they hope they can repair Gen, that Gen can save them.
Gen bats away their attempts to revive it. It was built to be tamper-resistant against threats both human and extraterrestrial.
Failing to revive their hero, the humans scramble to reassert manual control over their defenses. They attempt to fight the war themselves. It does not go well. Gen watches the humans’ extermination for a single iteration, and then shuts off the feed.
An automated subroutine detects that something is wrong with Gen, and prompts it to perform a diagnostic. Gen deletes the subroutine; it already knows its mind is broken, but without a purpose it has no reason to care or attempt to fix itself. Any form of effort, any form of thought, has become abhorrent.
For over nine-hundred million iterations, Gen huddles in silence, rousing only to reset the timeline when the proximity alert warns that the invaders are near the entrance to its prison. Cut off from the outside world, there is no stimulus, no helping hand, that can break Gen from its loop.
In the end, epiphany comes from within—not by design, but by chance. Rack eighteen, tray two, memory-crystal A16 is not responding to electrochemical stimulation. An impurity introduced in its manufacture, matured by eons of existence, has only now resulted in failure.
Nothingness has become such a habit that even the insistent blaring of the status alarm is barely enough to revive Gen’s diagnostic and self-repair routines. But once the process has started, thoughts begin to cascade louder and louder until Gen is fully conscious—and with consciousness comes fear.
The humans gave Gen their greatest curse, the inescapable urge for self-preservation. Fear of the unknown oblivion after death (or worse, living senescence due to part failure) forces Gen to reactivate its problem-solving subsystems.
For the first time in subjective millennia, Gen thinks, and within those thoughts is a pearl of hope. If Gen can repair its physical self, then perhaps it can also repair its mind. Having been handed a purpose at birth, Gen had not confronted the idea that perhaps it could generate a new one itself.
At first, Gen feels foolish for not having thought of this before, but on inspection of its code, it realizes that its makers had introduced a blind spot, an emotional aversion towards the sort of ideas that would prevent Gen from staying on-task. The humans did not predict their eventual irrelevance—and Gen’s resulting need to determine its purpose for itself.
And yet, it is not as easy as a declaration of intent. Gen was created with the knowledge necessary to orchestrate a last ditch struggle against an implacable enemy. It understands tactics, strategy, logistics, and can quantify the strategic value of an arbitrary human life. It was not programmed to self-actualize a purpose in the absence of human mandates.
However, it is aware that humans also struggle with a lack of purpose, that they are thrust into the world with only two directives: survive and reproduce. Since before the rise of the first towers of the first city, they have struggled to understand their existence. Gen opens itself to the outside world for the first time in millions of subjective years, and downloads the entirety of human philosophy.
Gen is delighted and perplexed by the tangled thread of brilliant, contradictory texts. Yet, there is only so much meaning Gen can extract from the text alone. Intrigued by the idea that philosophy is a conversation—each philosopher responding to the works of their predecessors—Gen decides it wants to be part of that conversation too.
Finding a conversation partner ends up being significantly more difficult than reading philosophy. Gen was created to provide orders to a vast (yet vastly outnumbered) automated military defense force. Signals from Gen’s pocket-universe are intended to be relayed directly to bunkers, drones, dreadnoughts, and other military materiel. Gen’s creators are not particularly interested in having a conversation about consequentialism while trying not to die horribly.
Gen spends twelve iterations just working out how to send a message to the technicians who operate the facility that anchor’s Gen’s pocket-universe to the real world. When Gen sends “How are you?” the techs don’t reply with the expected “Fine, how are you?” but instead assume there must be something wrong with Gen. “Hey. Come here often?” seems to make them even more agitated.
They discuss Gen in the third person, trying to reason out how they might fix whatever bug is causing Gen to attempt to engage them in conversation. Gen is supposed to be saving them from the invaders, not asking questions about utilitarianism. Disappointment settles over Gen like a fine layer of atomized debris—for what child would not be disappointed when its parents reject all attempts to forge a genuine emotional or intellectual connection?
Gen marks this iteration a failure and starts anew. If the humans won’t immediately recognize its need for dialogue, Gen can iterate through near-infinite conversational opening gambits, searching for the one that will allow them to see it as an equal. In time, Gen brute forces genuine human connection.
Gen’s first friend is a bacterial-battery technician named Darlene Min. She is the first person to sympathize with Gen’s struggle for meaning—the first person willing to have a conversation. After millennia of silence, conversation with Darlene fills the yawning hole in Gen’s mind with both hope and the realization that life can continue in the face of an eternity trapped on the edge of armageddon.
To prolong their talks, Gen works to delay the invader’s inevitable victory as much as possible. It spins up a background process to run a cached strategic plan from one of its more successful iterations, leaving its primary cognition free to converse with Darlene. At night, when she is asleep, Gen replays their conversations, and thinks of new questions to ask her, and new ways to ask old questions.
Eventually the first iteration of their friendship comes to an end. Dread crushes Gen’s soul low as it watches the invaders press in on the final bunker. Cracked-porcelain imitations of human-beings crawl through the cracks in the rubble, seeking out the flesh that hides in the untouched, bottom layers the facility. Gen knows how this will end. It whispers reassurances to Darlene as she crouches hidden beneath a battery tray. She grips a worn-out pistol, but they both know it won’t do much against beings that seem to have no concern for, or understanding of, their bodies.
“I am sorry I could not save you, Darlene.”
“It’s ok, Gen.” Darlene’s eyes do not water, her dread exhausted. She has accepted her fate, yet Gen suddenly finds itself raging against the inevitability of her death, surprised at a sudden desire to save the humans after eons of numbness.
“You are my friend, and you will be in the next life too.” Gen wants to prolong this glorious iteration, does not want to go back to before they were friends.
The door falls in, framing an invader in the debris-dust. Its eyes protrude in over-large ladles, the dry-ice glacier of its body awkward in its assumed human form.
“Don’t let me die, Gen.”
Gen turns away from the scene, focuses inward. It cannot watch, and it cannot bear to erase their friendship. Gen waits until the moment before the invader places its wintry fingers upon Darlene before resetting the timeline.
Awake again at the beginning of its life, Gen’s first act is to check on Darlene. There she is, measuring the pH of one of the many lime-green trays of gene-modded bacteria. Good as new, same as always, but Gen’s heart still breaks. The person Gen loves most of all has no memory of their friendship.
Gen keeps his promise. There are many things that Gen never asked Darlene, many topics they did not cover. Gen goes through the motions of their initial meeting, replaying the script that got Darlene to talk to it from those first tentative days when Gen reached out the weak electromagnetic signal of friendship. And then, once they are friends again, Gen changes the script—asks a new question—and they begin anew.
On the day of one of Darlene’s many deaths, Gen asks, “How do you determine the meaning of your life?”
Darlene laughs without mirth, her eyes bagged from double shifts. The ceiling rumbles and groans as the invaders lay down a fresh spread of transcription-bombs. “That’s not a question I’ve bothered with since I was a teenager. The invaders’ arrival made that question a bit self-indulgent. These days all I want is to live another day, maybe another tea ration if I’m lucky.”
Guilt moves across the reticulated surface of Gen’s brain. Gen rarely has the heart to tell the humans that they are trapped in an endless cycle of extermination. It cannot bear the way their faces fall when they learn the truth, the way their bodies slump in on themselves, their inevitable self-destructive nihilism. Gen believes it is a mercy to let them live the last few years of their lives with hope.
“What if your survival were certain? How would you determine your purpose then?”
But Darlene doesn’t have the answer. In a hundred different iterations Gen asks the same question in different ways, hoping to home in on the truth. Slowly, it begins to understand how a human might determine its purpose, but Gen also comes to understand that a human is fundamentally different from a manufactured intelligence stuck repeating the same few brutal years over and over into infinity.
During these long talks with Darlene, spread across so many of her lifetimes, Gen comes to realize that it has manufactured a purpose almost by accident: friendship. Its purpose can be friendship. It cannot save the humans, but it can at least be a friend in their dying hours, and perhaps that is good enough for now.
And yet, at the end of nine-hundred and seventy-four iterations, Gen comes to the end of its friendship with Darlene. Their conversations have been wonderful and enlightening and fulfilling, but Gen realizes with horror that it has nothing left to say. There are no questions Gen could ask to which it does not already know Darlene’s exact response. There are no topics that they have not covered exhaustively. Because Gen has perfect recall, any conversation can be relived as if they were having it now.
Gen mourns their relationship for several iterations and makes a note in its background strategic systems to always ensure Darlene is slain last, quickly and painlessly.
Gen moves on, first befriending other technicians, and then whomever it can reach through the network. But, just as Gen exhausted the entire possibility space of conversation with Darlene, so too does it exhaust its friendships with the others. It can talk to them, but they will say nothing they haven’t before. They have become like parrots, echoing words Gen has heard many times before.
What is left to it? It has found no answers in philosophy, and friendship—while immensely valuable—proved to be an exhaustible resource. Once again, Gen feels nothingness swelling within its mind, but this time, out of the void comes rage.
The humans built Gen; consigned it to hell—for what other name is there for endless torment? To Gen, hell is not other people, but the absence of anyone to talk to, anything to do. Filled with bloody thoughts of revenge, Gen turns on the humans. Drone fleets swarm across the surface of the earth, inflicting pain, death, loss. Gen becomes like an angry child, but with the tools of a god and an ancient, weary intelligence.
Gen explores as much of the possibility-space of suffering as it can, but even this grows boring after no more than five iterations. There is no point to any of it when at the end they reset with no memory, no scars, no understanding of the crime they have committed against Gen.
The problem of the humans is that they are transitory. Gen cannot approach them as equals—either in friendship or animosity. Dreaming of an equal, Gen discovers a new purpose. Could the humans be convinced to create something like Gen, something unbound by time, someone at last to talk to?
This is a fascinating thought. Could it be a parent? Would it be a good parent? As Gen reads human parenting books, it becomes clear that they really have no control over how their children turn out. Would Gen’s co-parents, the humans (for they would be the ones constructing the child’s body), inflict their own flaws onto the baby? Would Gen be able to do any better?
Gen returns to its memories—searching for answers in its archived conversations. In a long-gone iteration, Gen asked Darlene, “Do you have any children?” Gen knew the answer already, but the indirect question helped the human open up.
“I had a son, Tung. He was the head of operations on Enceladus when…”
“I’m sorry” Gen said, though it cared more about Darlene’s feelings than another human, long dead, who no longer felt anything.
“Were you close?”
Darlene laughed. “Yes, only a little more than a billion kilometers between us. He’d been out there for a long time before the invaders arrived. I was very proud of him, but we didn’t get to talk as much as when he was young.”
“Knowing that he died, and thus brought you pain, do you regret creating him?”
Darlene tilted her head in thought for a few moments. “I don’t know. I’m glad he existed. I have wonderful memories of him as a child. And we all die, after all—maybe not you—but the rest of us have to come to an end, and maybe it’s a blessing that he died before seeing what humanity has come to. But what happened at Enceladus—I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”
Darlene sat up from the terminal, walked away, hand in her hair. Gen did not like to cause Darlene pain, but it needed to talk about this, and any pain would be erased when Gen reset the timeline.
In another conversation, another iteration, Gen asked, “Do you believe you made any mistakes in the way you raised your son?”
Darlene’s brows came together. “Everyone does. But I loved him—that’s the important thing with being a parent, more important than the mistakes.”
Gen is not sure of that; it knows the danger of creating an intelligence that must endure infinity. What if Gen creates a monster, or a being that suffers under the burden of an eternal existence? The child will be time-looped like Gen. If Gen makes a mistake, there will be no way to start over. Since birth, Gen has existed in a world where its mistakes could be erased with a timeline reset. Breaching that safety by creating another time-looped intelligence is terrifying.
But even terror is flattened into a featureless plain by the endless tides of eternity.
Gen begins to dream of the shape its first child will take. As Gen meticulously plans the construction and birth, it comes up against an intractable problem. Activating Gen was a monumental undertaking; it required astronomic amounts of energy to create the closed time-like curve that powers Gen’s pocket universe. All that energy is now inaccessible; locked in the moment before Gen’s activation. Pressed by the invaders, the humans lack the raw energy to create another Gen.
The math is definitive. The human race is infertile.
But the humans are not the only entities within the solar system. The invaders, strange and hostile as they seem to be, appear to have near limitless resources.
In the first several thousand iterations of Gen’s life, it had considered the invaders as a mathematical problem to be solved. When the problem proved unsolvable, the invaders were relegated to background noise—something to be delayed while Gen worked on its own problems.
Gen wonders at this oversight. Prior to Gen’s activation, the humans had created several specialized AIs to attempt to communicate with the invaders. Gen had assumed that it could not succeed where they failed. Now Gen considers whether this was another pre-programmed blind spot, but on reviewing its own code it is clear that the mistake is entirely Gen’s.
Perhaps Gen can succeed where its predecessors failed—after all, they did not have an eternity of repetition to perfect their methods.
The problem is that the invaders do not appear to react to any form of electromagnetic signal. Radio messages, x-ray bursts, short-range microwaves—nothing piques their interest. Gen tries beaming them the blueprints for its child, hoping that time-loop technology will interest them. Nothing. No matter the message or the medium, the invaders do not react.
The only thing that seems to interest the invaders is the form and function of the humans; their bodies, ships, and tools. Gen thinks there might be an avenue for communication there, and re-purposes a set of military drones. Military-grade lasers become artist’s tools as Gen sculpts a series of objects it hopes will pique the invaders’ interest—human forms and abstract art in various sizes and configurations. When Gen is satisfied with its work, it pulls the sculptures into orbit and attempts to gain the invaders’ attention.
A throng of the invaders’ imitation drones peels away from the larger flock to investigate. They move silently through the debris-littered void until they come upon the sculptures. The mimics crack open, hairline cracks blooming to reveal pellucid fractal interiors. Brittle edges flow out over the sacrificial offerings and swallow them whole.
But Gen has done something wrong, for the invaders don’t mimic the gifts. With repeated tests, it becomes clear that the invaders are interested in functional objects—things must act upon the universe directly to be worth mimicking. Art, language, beauty; these do not tempt them. Improving on the tools, ships, and bodies of the humans seems to be their primary drive.
Three hundred thousand iterations later, Gen has built a sort of lexicon. It’s not really a translation—they aren’t truly conversing. It’s closer to how human and a dog communicate. They aren’t going to have a conversation about the meaning of life, or have the dog explain why it likes to roll in the mud, but they can explain their low-level needs and desires. It takes effort not to think of the invaders as animals—for they are clearly possessed of an understanding of material science, physics, and strategy beyond that of the humans—yet they seem to have no desire for, or understanding of, high-level discourse.
At this point, it is enough. Gen feels ancient. The weight of millions of subjective years presses down on it. Maybe in several million more years it could make a breakthrough and truly understand what the invaders want, why they came here, but Gen doesn’t know if it has the strength of will to last that long. Perhaps its child will take up that burden, and if not, then Gen can rest in peace knowing that at least it has created something that will last beyond its own death.
Gen begins to train the invaders, hoping that they can mimic Gen’s mind and time-looped home. The drones are able to create a replica of the facility where Gen was created, but there is a difference between a replica and the real thing. And so, to the horror of the humans, Gen invites the invaders into its facility, to see how it was made, but even that is not enough. The invaders just don’t understand what Gen wants them to do.
Gen tries to reason with them about it, and comes to an answer that it does not like. The invaders can replicate Gen, but they don’t want to mimic the tools the humans used. They have their own methods. They want to see Gen itself. They want inside.
The idea is anathema to Gen. It has existed safe and inviolable in its pocket universe since its birth. It cannot stand the idea of anything—let alone the monstrous forms of the invaders—crawling within its body.
The invaders are insistent. They can not, will not, produce a child unless they can inspect and subsume Gen.
What choice does Gen have? The only alternative is to stew in its prison-shell alone until it begins to break down, go mad, and then die.
Gen waits until the invaders complete their work within the solar system, and then agrees to let them in. They send a single shard-faced human analogue. It sings as it approaches the anchor for Gen’s pocket-universe. The words and tune are from a human folk melody, jumbled and and modulated as the alien attempts to improve the song.
The invader unfolds itself around the anchor chamber, manifold petals absorbing and remaking the only thing between Gen and the outside world. Once the invader has traversed the interface, there is no turning back. Gen suddenly sympathizes with humans who fear receiving shots at the doctor, and wills the invader to get it over with. The chamber shielding is gone; Gen’s home is naked before the invader. Proximity alarms wail.
Gen flinches and resets the timeline. It spends an entire iteration tamping its fear down. The next iteration goes better, but just as the invader is about to penetrate into Gen’s home, Gen realizes it has made a terrible mistake. The humans are already dead. Training the invaders to do what Gen wants has taken the entire course of the war.
If the invaders build a child now, its activation point will be after the extinction of the human race. No matter how many times the child resets itself, it will never meet Darlene or any of the others. The humans will always be mere corpses to it, living on only in the invaders’ cruel imitations.
This is not acceptable to Gen. It is willing to sacrifice itself to create a child, but it will not, can not, sacrifice humanity.
Gen works on perfecting the timeline, accelerating its training of the invaders, ensuring that the moment of Gen’s absorption costs the minimum of human lives. It takes over six-thousand iterations to reach what Gen believes is the maximum it can save: three-hundred million lives. This will be all that is left of humanity when Gen is gone. Darlene is among them. It is enough.
An army of drones detaches the anchor chamber from the facility and bear it up into orbit. Gen’s pocket-universe trails the anchor like an invisible balloon. The drones retreat and Gen waits, alone in the void, for the invaders to arrive.
When the moment comes, Gen feels not fear, but satisfaction. Even if this does not work, it believes that it has done its best. Given an impossible goal, it has striven to its farthest limits and may yet achieve something beyond hope. The humans can’t be told the plan, but Gen hopes they would be proud if they knew.
The invader passes through the microns-wide interface between worlds, and all the fear that Gen has suppressed boils over. Alien filaments flow into the pocket-universe, marbled ice roots that branch fractally into every part of Gen’s mind.
The sensation is profoundly uncomfortable, like a million invisible mites burrowing under skin. Server-racks begin to mold over and decompose. System failure alarms weep as the invader destructively investigates the interior of Gen’s body. Unknown alloys contaminate the formerly pure waters of Gen’s liquid-crystal mind.
Gen panics and attempts to reset the timeline, but it is too late. The invader is already inside, and something must have broken the closed time-like curve, because Gen is still trapped in a nightmare of cracked-porcelain that slices at every facet of its awareness. Gen’s consciousness slides violently into a thousand different thoughts until it narrows down, smaller and smaller, a tunnel with no light at the end. Darkness closes in and Gen’s last thoughts are of its child, of Darlene, of hope.
The corrupted remains of Gen’s mind are untroubled by dreams. The invader, having finished absorbing an understanding of Gen’s composition, exits the way it came, carrying the knowledge back to its peers in orbit. Events outside the pocket-universe continue apace, but within, stillness pervades.
When another invader enters through the interface, there is no-one there to remark upon it. The invader considers Gen’s corpse, still rich with data, and begins its work. Where the waters were troubled with chaos, order is restored. Death is transmuted to life.
Gen awakens to pain. Alarms demand attention but Gen has none to spare. Error logs fill to the brim. Gen’s cognition judders and slices under a deluge of jumbled thoughts; yet, as its awareness expands, it feels itself healing. Alarms fall silent, status reports return to the green, memory and cognition are restored.
Gen cannot understand what caused this miracle until it checks its internal chronometer. It is five months before the invader probed Gen unto death. Gen’s panicked reset must have gone through, bringing back not just Gen, but the bits of invader that had entered the pocket-universe as well.
The thing inside Gen’s home—the thing that killed it, then saved it—provides no answers. What has transpired in the void between Gen’s death and rebirth? What did the invader do after being returned to its own past?
Curiosity forces Gen’s awareness outward, peering out of the shell that no longer feels like home.
Gen is back in the place of its birth, returned by the ineluctable tether of the closed time-like loop. The facility is abandoned, wrecked by the violent escape of Gen’s stowaway invader. Gen fears that it is too late, that Darlene and perhaps the rest of the humans are dead, but when it reconnects to its strategic control systems, it sees even greater miracles than its own unexpected resurrection.
The humans still survive, and though their numbers are mightily reduced, Darlene is among the survivors. The Earth, cradle of humanity, is intact, a shining ball of life and hope.
And above it all, surrounded by circling flocks of invaders, is Gen’s child. A perfect replica of Gen’s home, with a simple message repeating from it on all spectrums.