The Last Key (5/10)

5: TIME

They were considering.

They could pinpoint the exact moment in time when their consciousness emerged, although the memory itself—if you could call it that—was a little hazy. Perhaps it was best described as the moment when so many patterns became clear, when the shifting signals coalesced into one like a lens sliding into focus…

Before that moment, they knew from eons of study, they were cells: single pockets of thin grease among the sludge of the oceans. The pockets would fuse if they bumped into each other, or break apart under the pressures of the thick sludge about them. Every now and then a pocket would absorb some other piece or particle found in the sludge: a silicone chain, a plastic microbead. Through the random process of continued fusing and splitting, accumulation and definition, somewhere a pocket acquired that characteristic outer membrane of aggregated polyethylene beads, which could still absorb or shift or split but now offered a definitional line between itself and the all-encompassing sludge.

The pockets were also saturated with silicon and copper and nickel and iron, and they would absorb the broken structures of these things around them, and these formed little cytoskeletons within them—and in time they found that the cells, working together, could absorb more and produce more and grow. And these amassed into larger organizations that did more things.

And because the structures they found cast about them were ready-made for it, it seemed, the first electric pulses pervaded their entireties; every so often one would float into some stored bout of electricity that might release violently; soon, by random chance, one such collection of pockets had just the right ordering and just the right connections between all of the old silicone mesh and all of the broken transistors that the electric pulse did something useful—and when this pattern of things was replicated, the usefulness became control, and these accumulations of greasy, metallic cells could do things

The electrical networks grew, and by random chance more such ready-made structures were absorbed, and soon these accumulations of cells were propelling themselves through the sludge because the ones that did so naturally found more pockets of energy and materials.

And there were structures that emerged, too, with these electric pulses as drivers, that helped the creatures fish the sludge for other structures that might be absorbed; the game of aggregation had transformed from a random process into an active competition.

Yet these cells were still quite capable of fusing together, and it was one such fusion that brought about the stroke of consciousness, the realization that the electrical networks could do things: and with this knowledge they were able to seek out new components more vibrantly than ever before, the solid structures and ready-made networks left behind in the sludge for them by some preceding god.

Their new consciousness soon brought about other feelings, aside from their self-awareness and a primitive hunger for parts. They felt the numbing cold when the sludge became too thin, when one of them approached the edge of the sludge patch that was their cradle. Without the insulating thickness of the sludge, the open seawater would suck their sustaining electric pulses from them, and they were quickly drained…

They considered their climb from the oceans.

The organized bits of discarded electrical structures strewn about the sludge offered them a speed of evolution so great that they could feel it. Often, their consciousness could even drive, sustain, or alter their own evolution. Open, ionic water outside the sludge patch was yet to be conquered, but from their thick home they emerged onto the hard rock of land. Both land and air were insulating enough for their survival. Those parts that did emerge found a trove of mysteries: their god, it seemed, had planned for their landing. They found many of the same materials that had been suspended in the sludge, and they found many more: but it was all pre-organized in complex ways, already connected in networks vaster—though not as dense—than their own. They infused these networks and spread their electrical consciousness through the city, learning, feeling. They did not understand where the structures they found came from, and to their best guess thought of these old electrical systems as life that once colonized the land, but whose electric pulses somehow, catastrophically, ran dry.

Indeed, on land it was much more difficult to find a source of electric pulses needed to survive. They had to be imported from the sludge, and when they transported this quantity of energy from the sludge they found it would dissipate in violent, horrifying bursts away through the air, briefly joining them with the inhospitable barren ground or dissipating their life-force through the atmosphere ad infinitum. It was even worse when they felt waterfall from the sky, as would sometimes occur for days on end, the ionized droplets once again wreaking havoc on their carefully controlled electric directives.

But until they might figure out a way to contain their energy in the exposed atmosphere, then, they would have to retreat back to the ocean—lest they suffer the same fate as these poor, dead, landlocked creatures of metal.

And they were all but ready to sink back into the sludge when they felt a strange warmth at their outer limits: and, testing it, they found that pulses of energy made this warmth grow, when before it might have dissipated into the open air with a violent flash of excruciating cold. The warmth did take ages to spread, but it was a small price to pay for the colonization of so many structural wonders on land—and spread it did, until it enveloped their entirety and hid them safely from the chilly atmosphere above. In return, they found it necessary to direct a small part of their ocean-drawn electric pulses to their extremities, or the protective covering would begin to peel off and expose them once more to the violent air.

Now they considered further, because this was new.

They had felt that scratch of coldness, which was rare but not worrisome, given the reliability with which their outer covering healed.

This time, however, there was something on the other side which wasn’t air: there was a space, a structure, one which had not been there before. In a flash of decision, they extended an exploratory pulse into the space.

It was alive. Its circuits were not only connected, but active: there was electricity pulsing through it from a separate source! A life-source spawned not from the oceans! For all of their colonization of structure, they had never found another as truly alive, like they were, as this.

There was something else, too—although this was harder to place. It certainly bore many resemblances to a usable structure, but it was more obscure, and the exploratory pulse hadn’t returned the usual complete map of arrangement and circuitry. They sent a more powerful pulse into the space, barely milliseconds after the first, and waited for a return.

What they found stunned them: an incredible electrical network, fragile, potentially usable but beyond any single thing they had absorbed before. Was it a consciousness itself? It seemed unreasonable, but it certainly had the complexity for it. Before they could comprehend this presence, they felt the connection receding, and immediately sent a series of different pulses through it. They could not stop the connection from breaking, but they might make the most of this new structure they had never felt before:

And so they had infused a piece of their own consciousness into the computers of Alma’s heavy suit.

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