We had a legend, we denizens of Eriophora, of a cavern— deep aft, almost as far back as the launch thrusters themselves— filled with diamonds. Not just ordinary diamonds, either: the uncut, hexagonal shit. Lonsdaleite. The toughest solid in the whole damn solar system— back when we shipped out, at least— and laser-readable to boot.
Build your backups out of anything less and you might as well be carving them from butter.
Nothing’s immortal on a road trip of a billion years. The universe runs down in stop-motion around you, your backups’ backups’ backups need backups. Not even the error-correcting replication strategies cadged from biology can keep the mutations at bay forever. It was true for us meatsacks cycling through mayfly moments every thousand years; it was true for the hardware as well. It was so obvious I never even thought about it. By the time I did, the Chimp was on its eighty-third reincarnation.
Not enough that the processors lived down near the event horizon, where the subtle pull of Eri’s time-dilating heart stretched operational lifespans epochs past their expiration dates. Not enough that the circuits themselves were almost paleolithically crude; when your AI packs less than half the synapse count of a human brain, fiddling around down on nano scales is just grandstanding. Still, things fall apart. Conduits decay. Circuits a dozen molecules thick would just— evaporate over time, even if entropy and quantum tunneling didn’t degrade them down to sponge first.
Every now and then, you have to renovate.
And so was born the legend of The Cave: an archive of backups, slabs of diamond statuary a thousand times larger than life, like some crystal cubist Easter Island. When the inventory of backup Chimps ran too low— or of grav lenses, or air-conditioners, or any other vital artefact more short-lived than a proton— Eri would send lumbering copyeditors back to the Secret Place to read great mineral blueprints so vast, so stable, they might outlast the Milky Way.
The place wasn’t always so secret, mind you. Or so legendary. We trooped through it a dozen times during construction, a dozen more in training. But one day, maybe our third or fourth pass through the Sagittarius Arm, Ghora went spelunking at the end of a shift while the rest of us lay dead in the crypt; just killing time, he told me later, staving off the inevitable shut-down with a little recreational reconnaissance. He hiked down into the hi-gee zone, wormed through crawlways and crevices to where X marked the Spot— and found the Cave scoured clean: just a dark gaping cavity in the rock, studded with the stubs of bolts and anchors sheared off a few centimeters above the substrate.
The Chimp had relocated the whole damn archive while we’d slept between the stars.
He wouldn’t tell us where. He couldn’t tell us, he insisted. Said he’d just been following prerecorded instructions from Mission Control, hadn’t been aware of them himself until some timer ticked over and injected the new instructions into his job stack. He couldn’t even tell us why.
I believed him. When was the last time coders explained themselves to the code?
We still go searching now and then, on those rare occasions when there’s time to kill and itches to scratch. We plant tiny charges in the rock, read the echoes vibrating through our worldlet in search of some undiscovered grotto. The Chimp doesn’t stop us. It’s never had to; we’ve never found anything.
“They don’t trust us,” Kai said, rolling his eyes. “Seven million years down the road, all long gone to dust, and they’re afraid we might— what? Trash our own life support? Write Sawada sucks farts on their scale models?” He spoke for all of us; this was hardly the first evidence of head-up-ass syndrome we’d encountered.
Looking back, though, we really should’ve taken the hint. Job descriptions notwithstanding, we weren’t really crew after all. Never had been. We were just another set of tools.
And if we’d somehow left orbit under the wrong impression, grandiosely inflated our own roles in Humanity’s Grand Exodus To The Stars— well, at least it had kept the departure protocols on track.