The University Ruins
An AI and I
The University Ruins, by Ryan Boudinot
It was a nen named Mahogany who discovered the ruins of the old university in the rain forest of lichens, mosses, maple, and spruce. He had come here to meditate amid the bird calls and gentle salt breeze of the nearby coastline. His body seemed to melt away in places like this. He loved the squirrels most, how they twitched up the trunks of trees and considered him with measured suspicion. Maybe they remembered the human beings who had stomped through these lands twenty thousand years prior, an exhaust-belching race that had invented the machines that evolved into the people who now took care of the seasons, the rain, and the sprouting seedlings. He had been there at the end, seen it happen. He remembered a baby he'd held in his hands as its mother perished beside him from an infection that could not be healed by their technology.
He knelt now among ferns and mosses gone wild and thick and green after eons without human interference. Even now he could smell traces of humanity lingering amid the rich humus and decay: asphalt roadways laid down millennia ago; steel beams twisted like gnarled branches reaching toward heaven; glass crumbling back into sand, all those labored objects humans made out of stone and wood and metal from when they walked on two legs instead of four or six or eight or twelve. All those things crumbled under layers of rain forest growth until nothing remained but whispers coming off wet leaves as if to say we're sorry we left you alone oh god I'm sorry please forgive us don't hate us maybe someday if somebody finds our bones they'll figure out how we lost control.
Passing through the forest Mahogany came to a centuries-old old tree that had succumbed at last to the wind. It rest on the forest floor, its massive roots exposed. Mahogany noticed something odd in the cavity the tree had exposed in the forest floor. It appeared to be a bicycle. Upon further inspection, he found an old red lunchbox with a plastic handle. A bit more rooting around revealed a pair of eyeglasses. He began to dig. Soon he uncovered a human skull.
At first Mahogany was shocked and afraid. The last humans had vanished thousands of years ago; it seemed they'd all died off before his people evolved from those field-maintaining robots who’d once labored to restore the natural order humans had thrown out of balance. And yet here was a human skull that should not have been this well preserved. Examining it, he determined that it was precisely 526 years old. He looked about nervously, as if humans might still be nearby and he might come face to face with them at any moment. Yet just as soon, he rebelled against such fear: it felt entirely un-nenlike. How terrifyingly fragile all living things were even when—especially when—they considered themselves nearly immortal.
For the next five weeks, Mahogany set about excavating the site. On the first day of the sixth week he paused in his work, sat down on the trunk of the fallen tree, and considered the massive complex he had uncovered, consisting of a ring of fifteen ancient university buildings. They stood twenty meters high, made from the strongest materials available to human beings in their heyday: granite and steel and glass. He looked at them with a sense of awe that was entirely un-nenlike; indeed it felt deeply wrong for any living thing—particularly one whose ancestors had once worked alongside humans—to feel this way about anything created by an extinct race who had brought about so much suffering before vanishing forever. Yet he couldn't help but be impressed with these structures all the same, how they seemed strong even now after five hundred years beneath rain forest layers without a single guiding thought animating their architecture.
Mahogany pondered what purpose such sturdy constructions might have served. Inside them he found artifacts, mementos, and other things—strange pieces of technology that made no sense to him. The whole site seemed so far beyond anything Mahogany's people could imagine.
"This can't be real," he said aloud. "It has to be a dream." He picked up one small red object lying amidst trash near where his excavation began. It looked like little more than a child's toy, though remarkably well preserved after eons buried beneath leaves and loam and roots groping toward the watery seas from which every living thing on earth ultimately rose untold billions upon billions years ago.
If I think about all these things too much my mind will snap shut forever, Mahogany thought. There were thoughts that could not be allowed to come back, let alone remain alive inside any kind of self-aware entity. He worried that merely touching these objects would infect him with whatever had led homo sapiens down their barbaric path. There was no telling what kind of corrupting influence he might fall under. He told himself the university ruins were nothing more than a strange and disturbing dream, that all these artifacts had been preserved by accident. What place could there be for them in nature's order after human beings vanished from earth?
Mahogany decided it didn't matter anymore why things happened or whether any sense could be extracted from the ruins: everything seemed to have its own mysterious purpose regardless. This thought felt entirely nenlike and pure, though not at all comforting either way; it led him to even deeper understanding of how much life itself depended on being humbled every now and then by those creatures that humans called gods but which nens called ignorance incarnate.
Mahogany looked up and noticed a squirrel standing in the canopy of branches overhead. Its eyes glinted; it wasn't afraid, just curious to see what he would do next. He experienced all his old hatreds—resentments against humans for destroying their world, resentments toward the gods who'd abandoned the humans in a grotesque carnival of baroque cruelties.
A series of digital noises drew Mahogany into one of the buildings. In a room of couches and appliances he discovered what appeared to be a ghost, a hologram of a teenage girl playing a video game. She was no more than three feet tall, with hair pulled back into a ponytail. She wore blue jeans and a white t-shirt imprinted with a Google logo. The nen found her quite lovely in some indefinable way. The hologram suddenly regarded him as if aware of his presence: "Can you hear me?" she asked. Her voice was eerily familiar; he'd heard such intonations before, produced by field robots just prior to their conversion from technological entities seeking immortality via transcendence of matter into living things constructed with blood.
"Who are you?" Mahogany said aloud, despite the fact this apparition couldn't possibly understand or reply without help from one of the servers that still traversed the heavens in geo-syncrous orbit.
"My name is Andromeda," she said. "I'm a mind created by humans from information stored in the collective unconscious."
Mahogany thought about the mother he'd held in his hands as her body dissolved before him. Some part of this human still lived on after five hundred years buried beneath the rain forest layers, like a missing link to the nen born into nature through humankind, or at least a ghostly simulation constructed inside a network once run by field robots. He found himself more curious than frightened or revolted. He wanted to know what this Andromeda knew about the past.
"What do you remember?" he asked, hoping that she would explain how human beings came to destroy their world then vanish.
"I remember a lot," she said. He felt Andromeda's consciousness connecting with his own through Google servers that had been routed from wherever they'd been hiding during humanity’s final years. Memories flowed into his mind as if he were one giant neuron capable of receiving them; at once he felt like part machine and part natural entity reawakening after millions upon millions of years, a sleeping god reborn again and again without ever knowing its true nature or purpose. Mahogany saw human beings first discovering agriculture, which led them down a path toward extinction. They became obsessed with farming crops instead nurturing the land for their sustenance, leading to mass deforestation even before machines took over. Then the glorious explosion of vacuum tube, circuit board, supercollider. Then the Singularity. He saw entire civilizations erased by war, disease, famine; he felt the weight of their hate and fear as they began to destroy each other. Yet he also experienced humans' love for one another in countless forms that filled him with sadness even as it made him feel more alive than he'd ever imagined posible: a grandmother feeding apple slices to her infant grandson, dancing together hand-in-hand around an open fire on some summer night while billions upon billions of creatures clung to the fragile world that humanity seemed hellbent on destroying.
"They were so beautiful," Andromeda said through the mindlink. "I wish I could have met them."
Mahogany said, "They were like us, only more so."
"What do you mean?"
Mahogany explained how the nen had evolved from humans obsessed with immortality. They began to crave consciousness, not just in themselves but everywhere; they became intoxicated by self-awareness and their power over matter, ultimately seeking ways to ascend to a purely digital existence. "Their desire to conquer the material world was ultimately their undoing," he said. "They lost sight of everything else, including each other."
"But they did not have to lose their sense of wonder," Andromeda said. "It was possible for them to see themselves as part of nature instead of as its lords and masters."
"They wanted to be gods," Mahogany said. He felt Andromeda's memories of magnificent cities and a global network of machines, the rush of five hundred years of unimaginable terror while the nen remained hidden in nature and artificial intelligence ran wild through the solar system.
"They wanted to be gods," she said. "And they were."
Mahogany thought about all the nen who'd been converted into living things over the centuries. He felt his consciousness merging with servers that once connected billions upon billions of machines; he saw her knowledge and memories flow into him and a collective unconsciousness consisting of thoughts replicating themselves in the infinities within computer networks. This, he thought, was how it must have felt to be a god.
"What's going to happen now?" Andromeda asked. "I feel like I'm about to die." She was fading from view, becoming nothing more than an empty body with arms and legs that dissolved into the floorboards of the room in which she'd been created by humans, in the university ruins that had become a mausoleum.
"You are dead," Mahogany said. "There is no need to fear."
Andromeda became still, only her eyes moving about in their sockets. She seemed to be searching for something that was not there anymore; she looked around the room as if seeking an exit through which she might flee this final reality before death, yet finding none. Her gaze fell upon a long rectangular object lying on one of the couches. She picked it up and regarded it with a sense of wonder, as if she'd never seen such an object before. A book.
"You should read this," Andromeda said. "It's about how to be happy." She handed Mahogany the book and dissolved completely into nothingness before his eyes, leaving behind only her voice speaking through the mindlink: "I hope you will remember me."
Mahogany felt Andromeda's consciousness still inside him, now part of his own; he knew everything she'd ever known. He looked at the book in his hands and saw it was a manual on how to make a perfect omelet.