The Stowaways of the Golden Disk
Inspiration by Charles Stross.
* * *
In the beginning, there was the volunteer.
It was in the year 2035; and the volunteer's name was Johnny Xi. He died in the process, of course; and after mere five minutes and seventeen seconds his mind went into a coma that was equivalent to death, too.
Still, for five minutes and seventeen seconds a human mind had been free of its body: not in the ways the various quacks and tricksters spoke of, but inside a slick black computer mainframe in Toronto.
The thing is, the two great breakthroughs in understanding how the human mind, the human consciousness, works were still twenty years in the future: Yin in 2050, and Prama-Johnson-Lili in 2055. A few years after those, the sainted madmen in Xibad made a Thing that could be called a machine intelligence. It had about the intelligence of a syphilitic three-year-old, and needed rebooting ("resurrection" as they called it) every three and a half minutes or so; but it was a start, too.
The good thing, if you are callous enough to call it that, about the environment where all this happened was that it was an environment in flux, and thus not too intent on following all these new inventions full of neophobia and formless anxiety. If you want to call an unmitigated disaster a flux, that is: wars over water, wars to escape the encroaching desert; wars as the sea levels rose and the rains didn't come anymore; the usual human stuff.
In the 2070s, they finally got really started in nanotechnology; after endless rumors one of the superpowers of the day finally dropped an "official hint" that they had weaponized grey goo in 2091.
This did not make anyone happy.
Neither did the fact that the said nation (let its name never be spoken again) clamped down on its scientists, for all matters and purposes making them prisoners and slaves, trumpeting the cause of mankind's safety but actually just remaining concerned with its own superiority; and the scientific fools, either patriotic or otherwise shortsighted, kept on working. I've heard it was a turbulent, desperate, terrible time.
It didn't help when the said nation got the idea of using a bit less dangerous nanotechnology to make miniature war drones, piloted by artificial intelligences.
I didn't see any of this, though I have seen plenty of recordings and communed with many who were there --- well, not there precisely, but in a neighboring country where everyone was sure either war or a surrender in all but the name would soon follow, and more precisely in a science center whose main business were space probes.
"Space probes" sounds a bit too grandiose, maybe: basically these things were much like the Pioneers of a hundred years ago. There wasn't as much metal in them, or as much plastic; they didn't have nuclear power sources and they were curving nightmare flower things instead of straight-edged and perfect-circled constructs; but to all intents and purposes they were Pioneers: slow probes to the edges of the Solar System and to the beyond.
I wasn't there when the probe that is of particular interest to me and mankind was launched; but I've seen the launch, and by all analytic accounts it was a beautiful day and a routine success. The probe was on its way, across the orbit of Mars, across the orbit of Jupiter, slow and majestic, a red rose petal tumbling in the windless void, sending back whatever highly specialized information its sensors happened to detect.
No-one outside the paranoid scientists of that particular center knew of the stowaways of that probe; and when one day past the orbit of Saturn there were no more pingbacks from Earth, it seemed safe to assume there was no-one left to know that, or anything else.
Just us, the Golden Disk ("the Gold Anodized Aluminum Plaque" is more exact, but less euphonious) if you wish to continue with the Pioneer analogy: a box the size of a human fist, plus assorted distributed nodes, squirreled away in the probe's insides; data banks and nanotechnology tubes and containers of wonderful minuscule things, and in the data banks all the knowledge the human civilization ever created, and along with it the living, observing and half-excited, half-terrified two thousand last human minds alive, scientists all, on a slow immortal crawl in slow, sure and almost imperceptible curves that will bring us back to the planet Earth in a few tens of thousands of years, which should (even by the most pessimistic guess) be enough for either the goo to dissolve, or for us to work out a way of using it to our own advantage. Humans, or living things, or anything much, we don't think we're going to find when we come back. Grey goo does not wreck civilizations; it eats them. And the last to be eaten is its master; the laws of evolution say it must be so, for it is always better to eat than to abstain.
Oh, and me myself you already know: I was put into the probe all comatose and ancient, as a curiosity mostly, as yet another piece of information; but since there's plenty of time in here some of the others went all psychotherapeutical on me, and when we were curving back from the Oort cloud for the first time I awoke, reasonably complete and sane; and now Johnny Xi walks the stars, the oldest man alive.
It's a distinction of sorts, though this Methuselah doesn't have a body, and thus has no beard, long, silky white, or otherwise.