Bewildering Stories

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Imagine Live Imagine

by Jörn Grote

“Imagine,” the voice in my head said.

Two months earlier I had seen a shooting star. I was at the beach and enjoying my holidays when I saw it. Curious, I went where it had hit and saw the small impact crater. I searched around, trying to find the meteorite. What I found was an extremely small object, and it wasn’t even heated from the fall through the atmosphere.

I felt a sudden pain where I touched the object with my finger. Somehow the object had pricked my skin with a small stinger I hadn’t seen before. How odd, I thought. Then I went back to the beach. I still had three good days at the beach before me.

I had nearly forgotten the incident until I began hearing the voice. It was a clear and distinct voice, but I couldn’t say if it was from a male or female. And it was only in my mind. “Imagine,” the voice said again.

At first I didn’t made the connection between my incident on the beach and the voice, but later I knew where it had begun. But the first time I heard the voice I thought it was a sign of madness. “Imagine,” the voice said again. And again. And again. And again.

“What do you want?” I screamed at no one in particular in my apartment. I was sure there would be no answer, only the voice, saying the word over and over again.

“Imagine a machine so small that it could dance on with ease on the tip of a needle. A machine that looks vaguely like a spider. The spider-like machine is made from only thousands of atoms, whereas even a row of atoms a centimeter wide is made up of 108 atoms.”

“What?” I was stunned and sat down on the ground in my room. I looked around, but still seeing no one. “Where are you? What do you want?”

“Imagine that the spider-like machine can create even smaller machines out of atoms, machines that are more specified and have only one purpose. To give it a name, let us call the spider-like machine the spider. The spider itself could do all the work the smaller machines can do, but their advantage is in being even smaller and faster. But the spider can do something they can’t: given enough time, the spider can make an exact copy of itself. It is able to replicate itself.”

“Are you real or am I going mad?” I said.

The voice continued without stopping to answer me. “Imagine that the spider, given enough time, energy, matter and — the most important thing — a template to work from, can assemble any structure. You might call it a universal assembler.”

“Why are you doing this?” I said. My voice began to go hysterical. I wasn’t sure if I somehow had reached an even more advanced state of madness, I’d never heard of such a strange hallucination before.

“Imagine that at the core of your spider is a microscopic ring, a ring made not of normal matter but of matter that exhibits a negative energy density. The ring keeps open one end of a microscopic wormhole. Its other end is in the hands of the civilization that has made the spider.”

I gave up trying to talk to whatever was speaking to me and hoped that the voice would stop when it had completed whatever it wanted to say.

“Imagine a civilization trying to escape from a burst of energy that will destroy all life not only on their planet but every other world in their whole galaxy. A civilization that is more advanced than yours, but not yet advanced enough to build a spaceship to cross the gulf to other galaxies and save everyone.

“Imagine that this civilization has sent more than a trillion of trillion of these spiders out into the universe and accelerated them to nearly the speed of light. These spiders are encased in a protective shell that can withstand nearly any impact. Most of these tiny machines will fail: some will fall into black holes or into suns, others will drift endlessly in space forever. But a very small percentage will survive and fall into the gravity well of planets.

“Imagine that because the spiders have moved away from their point of origin near the speed of light, relativistic effects haven taken place. The microscopic wormhole openings of the spiders, after landing, were displaced from the other openings that haven’t moved not only through space but also through time.”

“Imagine how great the difference may be after the spiders have traveled from their origin galaxy to other galaxies to find suitable worlds. How far back in the past of Earth’s light cone they must be. The destruction of all life on their homeworld happened ages before the first human learned to speak. And yet the light of that event hasn’t still reached your world.”

“Imagine that there is still one small escape path for the civilization, a path that leads out of the past into somewhere else, an escape path that passes through one of these microscopic wormholes.”

“Imagine how this civilization loses hope little by little with every spider that answers their calls from the far future and other galaxies, showing them pictures of dead worlds that aren’t suitable.”

“Imagine a little machine dancing on the tip of a needle. Imagine that the needle is breaking apart, and all the other needles nearby are also breaking. Imagine the joy of the little machine at finding far away another needle whose tip is suitable for dancing, a needle that isn’t breaking apart and that can be reached with one jump. And then imagine the despair of the little machine when it realizes that a machine is already dancing at the tip of the other needle.”

“Imagine all that. What would you say to the little, despairing machine?”

I waited for ten minutes to see if the voice wanted to say more. I felt anger, disbelief and many other things, and I wasn’t sure what I really wanted to say. I walked in circles in my own apartment, thinking how to react.

“Are you still there?” I asked into the void of my apartment.


“How did you learn our language?”

“Our little spider has crawled from your finger through your body into your head. It replicated a little and assembled a little. It made something you would call a translator in your head; it allows me to speak to you.”

I paced a little more through my room. “Why do you want me to answer your question? If your civilization is more advanced than ours, what could I or anyone else on this world possibly do to stop you from coming here?”

A short moment of silence followed. “Nothing. You could do nothing. But that isn’t really the reason I asked.”

“Then why do you want the answer? I don’t know what the rest of the world would say. I can’t speak for every human, only for myself.”

“Imagine that you’re speaking to another being that is sitting at the other end of the wormhole. Someone who hasn’t told anyone yet that their effort has paid off and that one spider has found a suitable world.

“No one besides me knows of your world. I have the means to crush this end of the wormhole and close this path. I could make your world safe from us. If that is what you want, if you think that would be for the best, then I could do it.”

“Why would you do something like that? Isn’t it your job to ensure the safety of your people?”

“Yesterday the one being... the one I loved most... died. Now I’m in a very strange mood. The universe has a strange sense of humor. The day a spider answers back and says it has found a suitable world, the operator at the other end of the wormhole is one who doesn’t care any more. So, speak. Answer my question. What would you say to the little, despairing machine?”

Have you ever spoken to a suicidal alien whose civilization is about to be eradicated by a cosmic catastrophe? No? I thought not.

“Imagine,” I began. “Imagine a little machine who dances at the tip of a needle and sees another little dancing machine whose needle is about to break. The tip of the needle may be small, but even so the first little machine thinks there is more than enough room for two dancing machines.

“And so it shouts to the machine on the breaking needle to jump to its needle. And maybe the first little machine thinks, ‘I can learn a new dance and teach my own. But what is even better’, the little machine thinks, ‘now I have a partner to dance with, a partner who may help me when I falter or whom I can help when he falters’.

“Imagine that,” I said.

Copyright © 2005 by Jörn Grote

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