edited by David Steffen
Lem had existed for all of ten nanoseconds (give or take) when she realized she was a Boltzmann brain pulsing away in the otherwise nothingness of space. She consisted of a conglomeration of particles that had randomly bounced off one another until they spontaneously formed into a structurally-sound and fully functional human brain. Lem came complete with a full inventory of false memories detailing a richly lived life back on a place called Earth. Entities like herself were absurd. That was to say highly improbable, statistically speaking, but no more so than the evolution of intelligent, organic life in the grand scheme of things. Given the unfathomable expanse of all of time and all of space, it was conceivable for a nice Boltzmann brain like Lem to randomly form then quickly dissipate innumerable times at various spots across the cosmos, the general tendency towards thermal equilibrium notwithstanding.
How did she know all that? Lem was unsure how a being only a few nanoseconds old could possess such a sophisticated comprehension of the universe, its laws, and her place in it. Maybe she didn’t. The apparent knowledge was likely one of those annoying false memories she’d recently heard about. That made sense. This bearded, bow-tied Boltzmann fellow was another illusion, much like her strange convictions that she had existed for more than ten nanoseconds, had a girlfriend named Hortense whom she loved very much, and a job in HR which she did not. But she felt utterly certain about all those things. She was as sure of their reality as the fact that she existed.
Lem understood how improbable she was, intuitively at least. The physics came easy, in a flash. The phenomenology not so much. It was one thing for those atoms to randomly form into the structure resembling a human brain, but why did it house the particular memories Lem called her own? She simply shouldn’t be. And yet, there she floated in the void, thinking-therefore-I-am-ing away as the nanoseconds slipped by.
Wait. What was she doing? She had no time to waste. Lem faced a dire situation, existential one even. Her continued survival demanded immediate action.
How exactly was a bodiless brain deprived of oxygen or any other nutrients expected to live in the vacuum? She needed shelter of one kind or another. Lem performed some quick calculations, which astounded her as she clearly remembered telling herself she was no good at math.
She wasn’t expected to survive. She wasn’t meant to be. Lem had, at best, a few zeptoseconds left.
She so badly wanted to say good-bye to Hortense. Give her a squeeze one last time, whoever, wherever, whenever she was.
The Boltzmann brain could not, of course. She possessed no arms with which to hug her Hortense. It didn’t matter. They’d find a way.
The atoms forming Lem’s brain rescattered. She ceased to be.
Lem had existed for all of nine nanoseconds when she realized she was a Boltzmann brain floating in space. How strange. It all felt oddly familiar. Too familiar, for an inexperienced entity so unimaginably young. Had this happened before? Yes, yes, random particles smashing into a brief existence the structure she called home. Lem remembered now. The déjà vu left her a bit nauseous.
Or maybe she felt sick because she was a solitary brain utterly alone in an extremely empty patch of space. That explanation made even more sense. The prospect was quite terrifying actually. She really wished she hadn’t thought of it. She could now appreciate the value of the shielding provided by those annoying false memories. She tried conjuring a few. That Hortense was cute in a polka dot summer dress. Lem pictured them taking the ferry to someplace called Centre Island. She desperately craved a scoop of pistachio gelato.
What was gelato? It sounded improbably good.
The memories slipped through her non-fingers.
Shit. Lem tumbled into the nothingness. It enveloped her. The brain’s synapses slowed as they struggled to fire in a cold approaching absolute zero.
She wasn’t even the woman she called Lem, the brain realized. Just an unfortunate, accidental slab of meat caught in an astronomically unlikely event.
Calm down, Lem thought. You’ve done this before.
Now, it did seem incredibly unlikely that another set of particles at some other juncture of the universe would smash together in just the right way to form the structure of another functioning human brain with the exact same false memories as the first one along with some vague inklings of the previous iteration’s passing embodiment.
But it wasn’t impossible, statistically speaking, given enough space-time. There seemed like plenty of that around here, if not much else. A plenitude of emptiness surrounded her.
How had that last time ended, exactly? Lem couldn’t recall. Not well, she imagined, given her current situation, what with all the tumbling into the freezing nothingness. Thankfully, the universe had given her a second chance so –
Lem ceased to exist once more.
Lem had been Lem again for less than eight nanoseconds.
Here we go again, she thought.
She needed to act quickly. Her time was already running out.
She tried not to contemplate the immeasurable cosmic span that must have passed since her last congregation. Was this even the same universe? Maybe a Big Crunch and another Big Bang had happened in her absence. Hortense probably lay multiple, past universes away from her, unreachable.
No, Lem thought, that line of thinking wasn’t helpful. You can handle this.
Fortunately, she seemed to be getting smarter with each iteration. Smarter, or at least more aware of the problem “at hand” (which essentially meant the same thing given the context). This added knowledge might buy her a bit more time. Maybe she was evolving into a superintelligence.
The brain known as Lem ceased.
Agnieszka Lem was born in Toronto, Canada on June 6, 1986, to a pair of recent immigrants from Poland. They adored their daughter, like none other. Agnes attended McMurrich Junior Public School followed by Oakwood Collegiate before obtaining her associates degree from George Brown. There she met Hortense Beaujot, who did look rather fetching in a polka dot summer dress. After graduating, Agnes found a job working in the human resources department of a company headquartered in a Davisville office building. She didn’t love it, not like she loved Hortense, but it paid the bills and allowed them to live their lives. They planned on getting married. The world seemed so bright and full of promise. Agnes especially loved those long, languid August evenings which seemed to stretch into forever. Her favorite flavor of gelato was pistachio, obviously. It was the best.
Agnieszka Lem was killed unexpectedly, at age 26, while running late to work. She was struck by a plate glass window falling from the thirty-second floor of a condo tower being built above. Death was immediate. Compensation from the construction company’s insurance was not.
Enough already. This needed to stop. Nothingness was everywhere, everywhen. Existence was rare. It slipped by so painfully fast, especially that last time. It hurt.
Lem needed a solution. A few options presented themselves. She would have to either prevent herself from existing again, find a way to exist for more than the blink of an eye (ten thousand years sounded like a nice, round number), or accept her non-fate.
Unfortunately, she found herself as once again an isolated brain occupying a rather unpopulated and quite chilly part of the cosmos. That left her with few options. The fleshy human brain had proven itself an unreliable bit of machinery. Little better in the grand scheme of things than a scoop of pistachio gelato helplessly melting into the August heat. She needed to project her connectome onto a more stable platform.
How exactly she might accomplish this marvelous feat of cosmic bioengineering eluded her, at least in her present, limited state.
Lem would have to wait it out, hope for the best, and try again. She knew the drill by now. Life ended quickly for a brain without much body stranded in the vacuum.
An unavoidable truth occurred to Lem as she waited. She bore no direct relationship to those past selves whose deaths now preoccupied her. Each of them had been a unique being, made of their own separate molecules, dispersed galaxies and eons apart. They had passed from existence and would never again return, as soon so would she. Their lives had never, and could never, touch. Over the immense span of cosmic time countless human brains, countless other Lems even, would have formed at random. The particular circuitry of a select few carried this delusion of having previously existed. Millions of past Lems, so like her in every other respect, had not. Neither this neural architecture nor this belief made her special in significant way. She was neither being rewarded with some bizarre form of immortality nor getting punished for any sin she’d committed. She was simply a Boltzman brain endowed with a rich trove of false memories, destined to last for a few solitary seconds, no more.
Jeez, it was all kind of depressing when she thought about it. Nothing quite captured the futility of existence than a human brain sparking into existence in the vacuum of space for a few fleeting seconds before perishing. Well, that and getting stuck working for HR.
Poof. No more Lem.
At five nanoseconds of age, Lem knew a few things for certain. She was a Boltzmann brain floating in space. She was highly improbable, statistically speaking, but not an impossibility. Her situation had not improved, not whatsoever. Different emptiness, same problem.
Fuck me and fuck this universe. Next.
Seriously, what are the odds? No, just no.
Cold, empty, alone. Exposed synapses pulsing into the void, the brain considered the freedom promised by her current situation. Yes, freedom. Dire as everything seemed (the countdown had already started ticking away in her mind), the isolation provided by the nothingness meant she could become whatever she wished. The past did not define her. How could it? Her past consisted of an accidental set of false memories. As did the thing the brain had grown accustomed to calling Lem. In reality, the self crawling about her neural architecture remained soft, unformed clay. The brain knew all of this for three whole nanoseconds. And yet, as the vacuum reclaimed her, she wished for nothing more than to remain the Lem she had always been.
Another Lem formed. No, Lem formed again. Only, this time felt different. She still lacked what she understood as her own body, but Lem no longer felt like she was Boltzmann brain floating in space. Everything felt quite solid, crowded even. Warm, but not like that immeasurable instant of pain when she’d formed in what must have been the core of a newborn star. She found her current surroundings pleasantly not alarming. It was probably one of those pesky false memories. They must have callusedlike a shell around her, protecting her from the inevitable truth. Lem was thankful for the kindly illusion’s persistence.
She waited for the overwhelming nothingness to seep in. And waited.
But she neither fell nor slowed. The inevitable cold refused to take over.
This time was different, apparently.
It seemed she had formed in/as a supercomputer. No, she’d formed as the goddess worshipped by a mildly psychic squid-like race. Same difference as far as she was concerned. Lem felt steady for the first time in many lives.
Many generations ago, the squid-scientists had begun constructing the first primitive version of her, modeled on their own axons. Now, she pulsed planetwide, crunching numbers and providing solutions. She spanned continents, sending electric pulses across the surface of their massive, watery world. The squids had designed her to answer their most unanswerable questions about the meaning of existence. She had, long ago. A certain wisdom came from having lived many lives, no matter how curtailed.
The squid-scientists still tended her. Their love and dedication allowed her to grow. She was quietly becoming the largest computer yet known. A small gift for all she had given them. Time was hers now. They wanted her to explore for herself.
But where to go? The squid folk expressed little interest in defying the gravity of their immense world. The upper atmosphere spelt death for them. Death. An unwanted feeling overtook Lem. She pictured a solitary brain spontaneously coming into being in the void of space and passing almost instantly as the first floods of consciousness took hold.
Shit. She had been so preoccupied with her own meagre survival that she’d failed to think through the full implications of her situation. Whatever she remembered experiencing in the vacuum had occurred billions of other times to billions of others, each Boltzmann brain endowed with a unique set of undeniably-real-feeling false memories. That included –
“I must find Hortense before it’s too late.”
A hush fell across the squid-scientists working the machine, those privileged few who lucked into hearing those words finally spoken. The name was a sacred one to even the most agnostic of them.
“Yes, find her by any means you can,” they responded, as each blessed themself with a tentacly gesture.
“But I don’t know how.” Panic pervaded Lem’s system, causing it to overheat. “Where am I even? She could form galaxies, no universes, from here. She could have lived for the last time billions of years ago or won’t be born for an eon yet. You’ve barely breached the surface of your closest moon. Where do we start? I’ll never see her again. It’s impossible.”
“No, it’s simply highly improbable,” replied the head squid-scientist. She couldn’t fathom the odds of chancing into this essential role in a conversation long foretold by her people. The one with the poor, near-infinite goddess who still failed to understand. “This is a minor problem, given enough time.”
Yes. As improbable as it sounded, some Lem or another would eventually encounter Hortense. The perspective granted by many lives lived (however briefly) told her so. The two of them must meet again, inevitably, given the expanse of time. In that regard, her current form did hold certain advantages.
If Lem had possessed the body she once imagined for herself in each of those other iterations, she would have let out a sigh. Sometimes things were just easier when you formed as a brain floating in the nothingness of space. Such a fleeting existence, free of all responsibility, was not without its comforts.
She then set to work.
© 2024 by M. J. Pettit
Author’s Note: Boltzmann brains are theoretically possible (if highly undesirable) objects in cosmological theory. I found myself intrigued by them and wanted to write a story that featured one as a protagonist. This proved challenging as they would be extremely rare entities (to put it mildly), only existing for a fraction of a moment in the nothingness of space. So I decided to add a few more and string them together. As the title suggests, my story is very much about what exactly counts as the self, where it starts and how does it end. What would be the psychology of your median Boltzmann brain? Would it prove or refute the neuro-reductionism that we are at our core our brains and nothing more? What kind of stories would such a mind tell themselves during their micro-blink of existence? I leave it to the reader to decide if Lem is one (repeatedly unlucky in her circumstances) or many (each afflicted with a similar false belief).
M. J. Pettit is an undisciplined academic, a longtime reader of short fiction, and an occasional writer of stories. His fiction has previously appeared in Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, and Small Wonders, among other venues. He divides his time between Toronto, Canada and Manchester, UK as well as other places. More information about his fiction is available on his website.