The Last Variable
“Welcome, datazen.” A pleasant female voice echoed through the cavernous chamber of stone. “Please have a seat and an acolyte will attend you shortly.”
The youngish man took a seat on the bench carved into a back wall near the entrance. He reached nervously in his satchel and pulled out his comlink. He wasn’t sure it would work this far down in the rock, but all his personal displays were lit and interacting. It made perfect sense that the CLV would allow direct communication with the onosphere. Still, the man was relieved. It was intimidating to be a mile deep inside a mountain, and he did not want to be without his vital links to the noosphere. A datazen depended on those links.
A hum reached his ears and the man looked up to see an acolyte hovering across the polished stone of the chamber. He stood up as the sled-like craft slowed to a stop at his feet. “The Church of the Last Variable is at your service, datazen. What questions may I answer or where may I transport you?”
The vehicle hovered expectantly. At least that was how the man perceived it. He hesitated in answering, struggling with his doubts and fears. He had come far, endangered himself and others. To run now would be defeat. “I, datazen, seek sanctuary.”
He immediately heard the shooshing of doors closing behind him. The acolyte waited silently. Within moments, two larger, menacing gunbots had flanked it. “Please allow us to escort you to the Parsonage,” the acolyte intoned.
The young man climbed aboard the acolyte. Immediately, it whisked him down the great stone hall. The intimidating escorts followed.
“Is it far?” the man asked.
“It will take a few minutes. The Parson is returning from Service and will meet us in the Parsonage.”
“I do not want to cause trouble for anyone,” the man apologized.
“Do not trouble yourself, datazen,” the acolyte consoled. “We exist to serve you.”
The acolyte’s answer troubled him—as it always had. He’d heard the claim thousands of times since the great Integer Overflow of 2038 had flooded his life with danger and doubt. Mechs routinely spouted the refrain ‘We exist to serve you.’ Still mech factions had warred, cities were razed and humanity whittled down to little less than breedstock. The young man’s mother had always complained that, in her day, politicians had made the same claims about serving humanity, and the mechs were no different. Little people, she had warned, were little people, no matter who or what was in charge.
The world was a bit different now. There were so few people. Actual, unadulterated humans. Mechs made up the vast majority of the population, ranging from garden variety borgs with implants, augmentations and mods to consciousness-uploaded iMechs like the acolyte taking him to the Parsonage.
He was one of the few hundred thousand un-mechanized, that the mechs referred to as datazens. Their only connection to the noosphere, the ubiquitous network of information that the CLV had established and maintained since 2038, were external comlinks. Datazens were looked upon as throwbacks to an earlier time, like long-uncontacted tribes in the remote jungles of New Guinea or the Amazon. Yet, they were also revered—and oftentimes feared—by the mechs because of their socio-bio purity.
The Church of the Last Variable held datazens to be sacrosanct as the source of Original Syntax. All mechs worshipped information, and human language was considered the mother of the noosphere. By claiming sanctuary, the young man had offered himself up to the CLV. A sacrifice to and for the faithful.
It took a quarter of an hour rising through the labyrinth of halls carved through the heart of the mountain for the acolyte and its gunbot escort to bring him to the Parsonage. It was an immense conical chamber with three equidistant doors on the perimeter. At the center of the chamber was a massive object of shimmering brass, bronze and polished steel. Lights trained on the device made its coils, cogs, wheels, lifts, shafts, ramps and other mechanical workings gleam majestically and inscrutably.
Transfixed by the gleaming structure, the man stepped from the acolyte and was drawn towards it. As he placed a hesitant hand upon one of the outer supports, a deep resonant chime sounded. Startled, he stepped back as the bottomless sound reverberated from deep within the device.
Strangely, the resounding tone mellowed into a chuckle.
The young man pivoted to where a tall, wizened woman with shocking white hair stood inspecting him.
“Welcome, young man.” Her voice was as rich and sure as the device’s chime.
“Hello. Are you the Parson?”
“Indeed,” she said, approaching with her hand extended in greeting. “But you may call me Siri.” She gestured to the monolithic device rising a hundred feet above them. “You seem curious about our clock.”
“A clock?” he asked astonished. “I thought it had something to do with the noosphere.”
The elder woman chuckled again. “In a way it does, but not in any operational sense. You’re looking at the Clock of the Long Now, completed some fifty years ago by non-mechs like you and me to remind humans that if we think too short term we will lack the foresight to deal with many of our most pressing problems and lack the will to achieve monumental goals for humanity.
“The founders of the Church of the Last Variable thought this a sensible centerpiece for our faith and our work. It serves both ideals very well. And,” she indicated the solid rock of the chamber, “the location here was isolated and protected enough for the CLV to become established and prosper. In the beginning, the CLV was considered a crazy cult.”
“But, now, you rule the noosphere,” the man said, awed. “You control the world’s information.”
“We do not control information. We perpetuate it. That is our one and only vocation in the CLV.” The Parson looked deeply into his eyes. “Do you know why we do this? Why we maintain the noosphere?”
The young man wanted to look away from the stately Parson as she answered, but could not. “So we can communicate,” he guessed. “All of us, mechs and datazens, need access to information. I depend on my comlink. We need to communicate to learn and pass on what we know. Otherwise, civilization will fall apart.”
The elder woman’s voice was sharp in response. “Civilization is falling apart. 2038 wasn’t even the beginning. The tension between mechs and non-mechs started decades before that. And before that schism there were others. Civilization is always suffering from divides. Deep cracks in our foundations that threaten anything we build.
“At your core, you understand our frailty as a species, and it is why you came here seeking sanctuary.” The Parson was emphatic. “The CLV, and our noosphere, exist for only one purpose: to influence the last variable. Drake’s last variable.”
The young man looked at her questioningly. “You mean us? Datazens. Non-mechs.”
“That is the dangerous misconception. The Drake Equation is not about us per se. It is about how long we can maintain a communicating civilization. A civilization that is detectable by other intelligence in our galaxy. All the other variables in the equation we cannot control. Only the last variable is ours to influence.”
The Parson turned back to the Clock of the Long Now. “The device is designed to keep time for 10,000 years. We must try to match that time period with the noosphere or whatever network supersedes it. Life on earth is billions of years old, but detectable life only 150 years. We need at least a few thousand years to give ourselves a chance of salvation.”
“Contact with other galactic civilizations,” she explained. “We need to meet them before we lose our identity completely. That’s why you are welcome and needed here. We need to remember what true humanity means.”
“What does that have to do with me?” he asked.
The Parson nodded, pleased at his question. “A poet from the last century elegantly intimated that the universe is made of stories, not atoms. That’s the only universe worth knowing and living in. That’s the universe we are trying to influence.”
“By telling your story. By letting us broadcast it upon the ether.”
The young man’s spine tingled electrically. “What am I to tell?”
The old woman made an expansive gesture that encompassed the entire chamber and the noosphere beyond it. “Start with your name.”
“It’s how we all started. Each of us. With a name.”
The bewitched young man looked from the Parson to the giant timepiece silently gauging humankind’s chances.
“I’m Gilgamesh,” he declared, and the Clock of the Long Now chimed eternal approval.