CladeA Post-Self Anthology

Cascade Failure

Joel Kreissman

Gregory — 2302

Gregory observed a herd of white-tailed deer from his perch in the upper branches of an ancient oak tree. They did not sense the anthropomorphic gray fox or his notebook, he’d shaped them so they would ignore him. A fly buzzed past one doe’s head and she flicked an ear at it reflexively, just as coded. Gregory heard a rustling sound off to the northwest and watched the deer’s heads shoot straight up, their ears cocked in the direction of the sound. The wolves were coming, right on schedule.

The herd sprang into action moments before the pack came into view. The wolves loped across the forest floor, dashing after their swift-hooved prey. Maybe the deer would manage to secure a sufficient head start to escape before they tired, or maybe one of the older or weaker members of the herd would fall behind into the wolves' waiting jaws. A week ago the pack had snagged an old buck who’d caught an infection the day before. The wolves had eaten well that night, and their appetites had returned now for another course.

As the animals ran past Gregory noted a fat doe starting to lag behind. She’d feed the pack well if caught. The doe ran after her herd, the wolves began to pace her… and kept on going past.

Gregory sprang lightly from tree to tree, trying to get a better view of the ongoing chase. By the sim’s rules his body was nearly weightless and could cling magnetically to any surface, a compromise from the impersonal “god’s eye view” most similar ecosystem sims had employed. Dashing out along the underside of a branch he hung upside-down, following the hunters and their quarry with his gaze. Why weren’t they going after the doe?

Something about the formation of the pack and the herd seemed oddly familiar. On a whim he pulled up stills he’d taken of the last week’s hunt, and groaned. Not only was the herd moving in exactly the same formation, minus the old buck, but so were the wolves. They were ignoring the new data right in front of them in favor of old data picked up a solid week ago.

With a sigh Gregory closed the sim and quit.

Gregory#Tracker looked up from his book when he received his fork’s memories. He stepped over to his desk and pulled up the notes for his simulated ecosystems. Somehow he needed to fix the priorities on the wolves' learning so their ability to remember the past didn’t overpower their present. While he was tweaking the code he merged another fork, this one had taken an otter form to observe a pod of killer whales, they were still far from the now extinct mammals in terms of intelligence. The shaping of their minds just wasn’t good enough at the moment. Would it ever be?

According to the research papers he’d read, whales had nearly the cognitive capabilities of humans. At the time he’d uploaded, humanity still hadn’t managed to create a general artificial intelligence without completely emulating a human brain. Why couldn’t they have built one by now? He looked over the books lining the walls of his not-so-modest cabin. So many species lost to the still ongoing ecological disaster that was life on Earth now, only remaining through books and videos and paintings and other dead media. He wondered, were there any museums left on Earth that displayed the bones of those species, or had budget cuts closed them down and sold off the bones as dietary supplements?

He glanced back at the book he’d been reading before the forks merged, when he’d uploaded he’d thought that he might finally have time to read all the books he’d wanted to read. When he first forked he’d attempted to read two books at once, but upon merging back he found that the details of the two books had been jumbled together in his head, the two sets of memories were too similar to one another. Since then Gregory had primarily used forking for various tasks related to his sims, while his root instance read and incorporated the memories of the forks.

Another fork merged back in, more problems. He was trying to recreate the natural world before humans had mucked it all up, but it kept falling short. Why couldn’t anyone have tried to upload a whale’s brain instead of a human’s? Or even a dog’s? It was ridiculous.

Gregory sighed, he was getting frustrated with this lack of progress, maybe he should just take a break. See what other people were doing with their immortality. A broadsheet listing what was new in entertainment appeared in his hand.

There was a mind-boggling variety available: movies, novels, games, stage plays, dining, full sensoriums, new media… his curiosity roused he selected that last tab. He had to wonder what qualified as “new media” in this strange world of electronic signals and code. He scrolled through the sub-categories.

The exotic sims tempted him for a moment, but after reading the previews on a couple he moved on to the next category. They were mostly experiments in exotic physics, Escher stairs and inverted planets and the like. He had enough of that in his own work. Next he came to a category titled “deep LARP,” and had to look that up.

Apparently people created long-term forks that lived a full life in a sim meant to recreate a fantasy world, rather than just dropping in occasionally to go on adventures like usual roleplays. According to some rumors, people sometimes got so immersed in the LARP that they forgot their lives before the sim. He didn’t see the appeal, so he moved on.

The next subcategory was “instance art,” apparently artistic forking. It seemed like every individual artist had a different definition of the art. There were plenty of furries, of course, and some who had invented even more exotic forms based on their ideas of what extraterrestrial life might be like. Others played games with their forks, using contests to decide which one of them should quit and leave no memories to be recovered. Then there was this exhibition hosted by one Dear, Also, The Tree That Was Felled. Gregory could not find much information on the content of the exhibition or its host, all he could discern was that the oddly named artist was that they-or rather “it”-was a member of one of the older and more eccentric clades and that it had taken a form resembling a fennec fox.

He looked through a few more options, but his mind kept returning to that strange fennec’s exhibition. After another half-hour’s consideration, and the return of yet another fork, he resolved to go.

When it came time to head out for the exhibition though, he found himself unsure whether to attend “in person” or to send a fork. He had recalled his forks supervising the various sims but there was a nagging doubt in the back of his mind. Perhaps he should go oversee one of the sims himself and send a fork to the exhibition. It wouldn’t be gauche to show up at an instance art event as a fork now would it?

He changed his avatar form to his gray fox morph, then realized that Dear, Also the Tree That Was Felled might have plans for their fork. A human appeared to the fox’s left, the two turned to face each other. “Hello,” the fox said.

“Hello,” replied the human. “Well,” he continued. “At least I get to have some fun tonight. See you tomorrow.” With that, he vanished.

Gregory stared at the void his fork had left behind for half a minute, and then turned back to his desk and started scanning the various sims for one he wanted to continue tweaking. He eventually decided to restart the forest sim, hoping that this time the patch he’d applied would be enough. The oaks gradually materialized around him and the animals bounded into view.

Just as before, the wolves took down the old buck in the first week. While he waited to see if they’d do anything different in the second hunt he forked and sent them to observe other sims. He checked in on the other animals he’d shaped: rabbits and foxes, woodpeckers and owls, mice and weasels; predators paired with prey. So far all was running as intended.

The day of the second hunt arrived, Gregory took his position in the trees and watched the herd. The wolves appeared and he smiled as they beelined for the fat doe, the leader of the pack nipped at the doe’s heels, it looked like the deer was doomed… and then something truly unexpected happened.

Two more wolves popped out of their hiding place in a pile of leaves and pounced on a deer off to the side of the herd and sank their teeth into its throat. The deer threw off the new wolves– no, they were too small and their muzzles too narrow, coyotes! He didn’t recall shaping any coyotes yet! They were still extant!

The wounded deer staggered as it choked on its own blood and the coyotes struck again, tearing into its flanks and dragging it to the ground. As soon as the deer died the wolves abandoned their chase for the ready source of meat. The coyotes sprang back, strips of venison dangling from their mouths, but the wolves ignored them. After watching the wolves eat for a few minutes one of the coyotes cautiously stepped forward and quickly grabbed a mouthful of meat then retreated. The wolves continued to ignore it. Seeing that the wolves didn’t care, both coyotes came forward and ate their fill.

As annoyed as he was by this intrusion Gregory was genuinely impressed by the shaping on the coyotes. His wolves didn’t know what to do with them, but they were able to figure out how to work the wolves' inability to recognize them to their advantage. He had to know who made those coyotes, and why.

Gregory ran around the forest, within the hour he found another species he hadn’t coded yet. An opossum climbing a tree, searching for insects. The extinction of the opossum caused one of the worst trophic cascades of North America as ticks bred out of control, but he hadn’t coded ticks into this artificial ecosystem yet. Hadn’t he?

His eyes widening in dawning horror, he raced back to the deer herd. He found them grazing, ignorant of the shakeup in their ecosystem. As coded they did not react as he brushed their fur with his claws. The first three deer he checked didn’t show any sign of parasites, but the fourth had a few black protrusions sticking out of the back of an ear. Carefully he picked one of the nodules off, as he feared there was a set of jointed legs underneath.

Disgusted, he unraveled the tick, the script underlying the construct’s physical form spooled out before his eyes. He found it disappointingly simple, even less complex than the code he’d written for the deer. With annoyance he deleted the tick with a flick of his finger.

After deleting all the ticks he could find on the herd he went back to searching for new species. It didn’t take long to find a raccoon-it was starting to seem like this mystery automata shaper had a thing for generalist species. He reached out for it, and the raccoon turned its head around and began to hiss in his direction. Surprised, Gregory looked around and behind him, he was still wondering what the raccoon could be reacting to when it bit him.

Screaming in unexpected pain he frantically shook the strange mammal off of him. He managed to fling it into the tree, which it climbed up while he was examining his bleeding hand. It was almost impossible to believe, but there it was, a pair of fangtip holes in either side of his hand, seeping blood. He focused on sealing the wound, and then clearing away the blood. Gradually the blood evaporated, leaving no residue, and the holes were covered over with skin. There was no sign that it had ever happened in the first place but his memory.

He exited the sim.

Gregory found himself back in his cabin and immediately headed for his desk to shut the sim down. He opened the control panel, a large half-transparent display appeared in the air above the desk with tabs for the different sims. He touched the tab for the forest sim, pressed the button to end the sim, and was confronted with a large red warning message. “Sim occupied by 24,471 active instances, are you sure you want to kick?”

He backed out of the close screen and pulled up a census for the sim in question. One entry filled the screen and then another, and a third, fourth, tenth, more and more came in every few seconds as the query did its work. He waited while the screen continued to fill as the count neared the number indicated by the initial warning. Around the time it reached the tens of thousands he received a message from one of his forks.

“Got eaten by a shark,” the message read. “It looked like a great white. Somehow it knew I was there. I don’t plan on sending a memory dump to you, be glad of that.”

Gregory tried to message the fork in question, and received no response, he’d already quit. He checked the census again and found that it now listed 24,475 instances. As he watched the count decreased to 24,474, then 24,473, then it increased to 24,476. Whatever was going on, it was getting out of control! Who were these people? He opened the ID info on one of the instances, which only confused him further.

He sent out a message to all of his forks, meet him in the clearing.

Gregory’s cabin was in the middle of a small evergreen forest, no simulated animals, just plants and the occasional recording of birdsong. As he stepped through the front door it occurred to him that he hadn’t actually been outside his cabin in a few decades. The clearing that had surrounded the cabin was now filled with saplings, some of them already four meters tall and growing a layer of moss. Ivy reached for the cabin walls, but did not climb them; he had had the foresight to ward them against encroaching plant life. He wondered if there was enough space for the forks, and waved his hands to clear a few saplings from the area.

As the meeting time approached they arrived, foxes, jackals, otters, and even a giraffe who’d been surveying a savannah. Every so often the original cleared away another tree to make more room. By the time the meeting arrived there were eight forks in the clearing, Gregory decided to wait to see if more would come before starting. Ten minutes later another gray fox arrived, he continued to wait, a half hour after the appointed time he decided to start.

“Okay,” he asked. “How many of you have encountered anomalies in your sims?” Every individual in the clearing raised a hand. “Unexpected species?” one, the giraffe, lowered a hoof. “Animals that can see you?” no change this time. “Alright, have any of you forked since your initial iteration?”

One of the otters spoke up, “my down-tree instance forked me off when a shark grabbed him. I haven’t seen him since it ate him, did he quit?”

The original Gregory nodded, “no memory dump, just a message. Glad you got away.” He swiveled his head from side to side, taking in a panorama of the freshly renewed clearing. “However, the census I took indicated that there should be another hundred thousand or so of you here.”

Surprised chatter broke out among the assembled instances. Gregory rapped a hand on the cabin door to get their attention before continuing. “After I got bitten by a raccoon in my forest sim I exited and ran a census. The forest had a constantly fluctuating population of some twenty-four thousand and change brain emulations. When I checked the ID numbers I found that every one of them was using our ID, with fork appendices of course.”

Nine jaws hung open in shock. “I ran censuses of the other sims and found that each one of them contained between two and thirty thousand forks. All with my ID,” Gregory sighed. “Yet, I resumed the old God’s Eye view of the sims and couldn’t find a single one of them. It’s perplexing.”

“Oh please,” Gregory swung his head towards the corner of his cabin. His human self walked out around the corner, holding an unlit cigarette and a zippo. The human stuck the cigarette in his mouth. “Don’t tell me you have no idea yet.”

Gregory wracked his brains for where this fork could come from. “You’re the fork who went to the gallery exhibition. I didn’t even realize your memories hadn’t come back.”

The human lit his cigarette and took a drag. He held it between two fingers and exhaled a cloud of smoke before answering. “You really should have sent your own workaholic ass there, maybe you’d understand then.”

“You’re the one who made all the new forks?” Gregory pressed further. The human nodded. “And the invasive species?”

“Indeed I did,” the human fork confirmed, tapping ash and glowing embers from the tip of his cigarette. “Would you like to know how?”

Gregory thought for a minute, he couldn’t believe that a mere fork of himself could learn how to shape smarter constructs than him in mere days. A possibility came to him, but one of the jackals among his other forks spoke up first. “You learned how to shape better automata from someone you met at the exhibition?”

“In a way,” the human confirmed. “In that we are all man-made intelligences. Dear, Also, The Tree That Was Felled is a genius, but it doesn’t really consider practical purposes to its techniques.”

“Wait,” the original Gregory interjected. “I thought Dear, Also, The Tree That Was Felled was an instance artist.”

The human grinned as he took another drag. “Indeed it is.”

One by one, the other Gregorys' eyes widened in realization. “You...the animals, they’re forks?!”

“Yes!” he confirmed. “Every one of the invasive species out-smarting your constructs are forks. Everything more neurologically complex than an arthropod has a pruned version of my mind. Language faculties are limited, which might explain why they haven’t responded to your summons, but they still have a competitive advantage over anything you coded.”

“Why?” the original Gregory inquired. “Why do something so insane?”

“Please,” the human fork tossed aside the stub of his cigarette. “You’ve been putting everything of yourself into these sims ever since you uploaded. I just made it a bit more literal.” With that last cryptic comment, he quit.

Gregory waited for the memories to flood in and explain what had just happened, but none came. As he waited in vain his gaze wandered to a thin column of smoke rising from the ground. The fork’s cigarette butt had landed in a pile of dry pine needles, which were already beginning to smolder. Just before he could raise a hand to snuff it out he felt a new set of memories pushing at his consciousness, he began to integrate them only to find that no, it wasn’t the troublemaking fork, but the otter whose down-tree instance had been eaten by a shark. His thoughts came flooding in, the realization that the shark was another instance of himself. How could he become such a monster, how could he lose himself so completely in his work?

More memories came flooding in, the remaining forks were quitting, he turned to look as they vanished into thin air. Canids, aquatic species, the giraffe, they each simply blinked out of existence one-by-one. Some sent their memories to him, others refrained. He held the deluge of memory at bay, swerving back around to the exterior of the cabin. The fire was growing, before long it would be lapping at the sides of his cabin. He waved a hand and the flames began to shrink, leaving blackened earth behind. But he stopped short of extinguishing the fire altogether. What was the point? he thought.

If the fire burned down his cabin and the forest it was in, he could just make another, identical to the one that had existed before he decided to make that fork. It was just a sim, a construct, no different from the other sims he’d made or the false animals that populated them. Or had populated them. No doubt the fork’s forks were now tearing his fragile artificial ecosystems to shreds.

And why shouldn’t they? They had created them after all, they were theirs to destroy if they wished. Why had he started this project anyways? Wasn’t it to recreate nature, red in tooth and claw? In that respect, the fork had succeeded.

While Gregory thought, the fire had spread to the treeline and was beginning to climb up the trunks. He turned away from the fire and exited the sim, headed for one of the taverns he’d looked up earlier. He could always recreate the sim later, after a few drinks maybe.

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