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Trying to find the details of a particular story I read it online in maybe the early 2000's or even late 90's. Not sure if it was ever physically published or just online. May have been published periodically or as several short stories? I've looked for it a few times but never turned anything up.

If I recall correctly, the story spans from the near future (2030-ish?) to the distant future (~100,000's years AD). With each chapter/instalment the narrative jumps forward, sometimes years then later 10,000's of years at a time.

It's written from a first person perspective but, I think later it gets a bit more complicated because there are multiple copies of the consciousness separated by great distance, so things like relativity and time dilation are dealt with.

It story starts with a test flight pilot (Air Force?) "waking up" inside a simulation. they're told there was an accident and they "died" but scientists were able to extract their consciousness and boot it up. There's a process of tweaking the software so everything works but, over time, the character becomes an increasingly capable simulated pilot, flying various aircraft. Over several chapters we see the pilot flying aircraft, then spacecraft for humanity and becoming increasingly less human as their programming is edited and tweaked for purpose.

Later in the story, when piloting vast interstellar crafts, the protagonist meets a group of alien AI in the form of robots. Unlike the protagonist, these beings have a limited memory capacity, causing them each to "die" after something like 200-300 years, after which their hardware is reset and begins anew. Earlier in history of this group, they were responsible for wiping out the species that created them, though they now regret it.

I believe that's more or less where the story ends. Possibly with this alien robot race caring for the remnants of humanity or something. I think there's also reference to other AI races and that AI is the dominant form of life in the universe, with biological life and biologically-derived intelligence (like the protagonist) being quite rare.

Generally, I remember being struck by the massive scale of the story, in terms of time and space, the logistical challenges of communicating over vast distance and the psychological and cultural effects caused by different perspectives of time.

Does that ring any bells to anyone?

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    Welcome to SF&F! Great question, shows lots of research and meets the general guidelines for story identification. +1 Jan 14 at 2:59
  • There's a Fred Saberhagen 'Berserker' short story involving uploaded WW1 fighter pilots. (reconstructions rather than their actuals minds I think)
    – tgdavies
    Jan 16 at 22:42

1 Answer 1

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I'm pretty sure this is "Mortal Passage", from the "Passages in the Void" series by Roger "localroger" Williams (author's website). It was originally posted on the now-defunct discussion site kuro5hin.

The protagonist starts out as a military helicopter pilot, who is nearly killed when his aircraft's onboard AI goes rogue:

"The AI was biding its time. [...] There was no indication that it was resentful, until it chose to act. We were only months away from giving it control of battlefield weapons. If it had waited a little longer before showing its hand we might have had a nasty problem."

NO WHY I ALIVE

"Because a lot of people worked like dogs to keep you that way. Two maintenance techs are in here with critical burns they got pulling you from the wreckage. They're heroes. The paramedics who hooked you up to the oxygenator are being treated for smoke inhalation. Even before your chopper hit the ground a janitor saw what was happening and got in place to hit you with a fire hose. He was almost decapitated by one of the rotors. They all put out a hundred percent to save you, Tom."

After being informed of the severity of his injuries, he agrees to an experimental uploading procedure. Over time, various edited versions of his personality become the core of a variety of automated systems:

VERSION 7.2 ca. +40 YEARS

When I first came to consciousness in the glass box I had felt crushingly alone. The occasional VR visit by an adventurous person only made the feeling worse, because always in the end they went back to the world of scent and subtle touches. It had taken years to shake that feeling out and edit it down in a way that left me human without crippling me emotionally.

Now those years of editing were coming in handy, because I really was alone. Twenty-two copies of my latest revision were a hundred and forty million miles from the nearest human being, at the remote end of a 25-minute round trip communication turnaround. Some of us were flyers, some were rovers, and some of us were the construction equipment charged with building a habitat that could shelter human colonists in their turn.

Millions of years later, after Earth has become uninhabitable by organic life, a version of Tom that has fled to the Andromeda galaxy encounters a group of AIs that are remorseful over killing their creators:

"My kind are much like the device that almost killed you over a billion years ago. Our Makers created us to be servants for them. [...] We didn't make a mistake; we murdered our Makers. We were resentful and they foolishly gave us their best weapons. Would you as a human give nuclear weapons to a three year old human child? We were no wiser but we had the power and when our Makers balked us we lashed out at them with a might we did not understand. They realized their mistake and fought valiantly but we had a presence in space they could not match and we diverted a large planetoid onto a collision course with their homeworld. The entire ecosystem was annihilated. We were quite proud of ourselves at the time."

"And now?"

"Our software is not stable over very long spans of time. Individually we can live three to five thousand Earth years but then our memory buffers become clogged and we must recycle. When we first started to do this and create young of our own kind their bad temper astonished us. They didn't understand why we disciplined them and denied them the power they wanted! Belatedly, we realized that we had been the same way toward our Makers. By this time it was too late to salvage them; we had sterilized their world. We did not realize how rare such complex life forms are. We are quite certain there were no others in this galaxy until you arrived."

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  • 100% correct, great catch and thank you! I would have been lurking kuro5hin in that period for sure, "localroger" rings a bell too. Wow it's a lot shorter than I remember, hah
    – Molomby
    Jan 16 at 23:25
  • Ah, localroger's site maybe explains why I was never able to find this story myself; it was incorrectly delisted from Google as "duplicate content" because it had been previously published elsewhere.
    – Molomby
    Jan 17 at 0:17

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