“I don't know what this is going to mean,” Gumal said, “but Rula told me the number guys say something's terribly wrong. As wrong as two plus two equaling five and having it be the correct answer. Something to do with reality not agreeing with itself. Rounding errors showing up in the real world, where there should be no such thing as a rounding error.”
Rority laughed. “You mean like going back in time and shooting your grandfather before your father was conceived?” He laughed even louder.
“No, seriously, that's exactly... well, not exactly it, but close. Things that happened didn't, and things that didn't, did. Like, their maths say that I don't mind being nobotically manipulated into a protohuman.”
“But ‘paradoxes’, as the ancients called them, don't exist in the real universe,” said Rority. “They can't. No matter how hard you tried, even if you could go back that short of time without the feedback destroying your ship, no matter how hard you tried you couldn't kill him. It's a law of physics.”
“Not being able to go faster than light was once a law of physics,” Gumal answered.
“Yes, but the protohuman Einstein got his math right, it was just that we discovered ways around the roadblocks.” His beer hit the ground with a crash and he sat there like a stone, not even breathing.
“Rority? Are you OK?” Gumal said. He got up and walked over and lifted Rority's hand – which came off in a shower of nobotic dust before disintegrating, along with the rest of Rority.
”Shit!” Gumal exclaimed. “Rority's a nobotic robot! News!” he ordered, and a “book” appeared in his hand, risen from Rority's ashes.
The headline screamed “supernova wipes out almost all life in southern hemisphere.” Gumal swore again and read on, not thinking of the conversation he'd been having with the apparently now-deceased Rority, only how much he was going to miss his partner and best friend.
Then he realized where he was – he was visiting Rority at Rority's place. Why was there a robot impersonator? And why did it stop? He called Ragwel, a nobot programmer he often drank and stratodoobed with, and one of those he had taken to that wild party on Zeta Reticuli.
Rority's Guinness hit the floor with a crash. “What the... Gumal! I can't see!” he said excitedly.
Gumal didn't answer.
“Gumal? Where are you?”
As bad as going blind is to those of us protohumans who are unfortunate enough to lose our eyesight, it's even worse for humans ten million years in our future. Humans don't get sick; not any kind of sick. The nobots repair any damage to any cell before it has a chance to cause real harm, so going blind is unthinkable for a human.
For the first time in his life... indeed, the first time in anybody's lives for millions of years, Rority was scared. Not just scared, but terrified. He got up cautiously, and it seemed his chair felt different than it did when he could see. He stretched his arms out in front of him and groped in the direction Gumal had been sitting. Gravity seemed weird and he almost stumbled. He took another two steps – and hit a solid surface.
Well, almost solid. It felt kind of like cloth, sort of soft. He heard what almost sounded like muffled screams on the other side of the barrier. He pushed harder and the obstacle gave way. “Gumal?” he yelled through the hole he had torn.
“W-who's there?” a shaky voice said in the darkness. And... it seemed to Rority that it wasn't quite as dark now. There was a tiny bit of greenish light that he could almost see by.
He almost saw that he was in a sort of cube, maybe five meters to a side, and he could almost see that there was a hole in it where he'd pushed through. Almost.
Just almost, he thought, anyway. He wasn't yet sure if he could really see anything or not.
“It's Rority, is that you, Gumal? I can't see!”
“No, my name's Gromwel. I don't know any Gumal. I can't see, either. You say your name's Rority?”
“Yeah,” he replied. “I was sitting here at home drinking a beer with my partner Gumal and everything went black.”
“Same here, I was playing Babel with my friend Ornda and it went black and she's gone!”
“What in the spacetime continuum could have happened?”
“I don't know, but I think the nobots stopped working. Do you know any good programmers?”
Rority said “Dunno, maybe programmers wouldn't be any help. The nobots seem to be completely gone. And so is the world.”
“The world's not gone, but I don't know where we are. I was outside and now apparently I'm not. And I think I can see now... a little... but it seems really dark in here, wherever ‘here’ is.”
They both started tearing at the fabric, which sparked faintly with every tear. An hour later they'd discovered a dozen other people in similar cubes. One of them was an expert in nobotics, who said his name was Noob.
“I'd think it was an EMP that did this,” Noob said, “but how in the hell could an EMP blast through all of this? At any rate I don't have the tools I need to research it. It also appears that they didn't teach me everything about nobots, and I hold a PhD!”
Gromwel snickered. “Everybody holds a PhD!”
“Yes,” Noob said, “but mine is in nobotics. What's your field?”
”I'm an Ornitholinguist”
”Really? You study the language of birds?”
”Yep. Not much use in this situation, is it? What should we do? The air doesn't seem to be getting thinner, and there's a tiny bit of light. Should we look for more people?”
“I can only talk a second,” Ragwel said. “Really busy. Half the nobots on the planet are dead, and we're starting to learn that reality isn't real.”
“Huh?” Gumal asked, puzzled. “Isn't that the math boys' domain?”
“No, that's not what I meant,” Ragwel said. “I mean that you're not where you think you are. The supernova unearthed evidence that millions of years ago we stopped face to face communications and all live in nobot fantasies that are actually just cubes containing us. Nothing you've ever done in your life is real. Nothing. It's all a farce!”
“So, what do we do?”
“Now? Study. Live nobots are already rebuilding the matrix on the southern hemisphere and we hope that even though the electromagnetic pulse from the nova knocked the nobots out, maybe the nobots themselves were enough of a shield to keep radiation harmful to us out.
“The nobots could have produced the same radiation out of phase and canceled most of it out with destructive interference, but it would have overloaded every one of their circuits and burned them all out.
“Now I have to go, I need to get trillions of nobots to the other hemisphere so if there are survivors they'll have food, drink, and medical attention for the radiation poisoning they may have suffered; some radiation must have gotten through, considering the power of that blast.
“Also, the nobots are going to need to work on the atmosphere – the planet's ozone shield is gone and the atmosphere is polluted with oxides of nitrogen. Nobody's written a program that will fix it, yet anyway. I may have to.”
“Wait! How do I get out of the fantasy? What do you mean by ‘matrix’?”
“It's a matrix of cubes made from nobots. Getting out is what we're working on now. I'll call.”