Emergence first appeared in AntipodeanSF in March 2022.

As I ease into orbit around my target planet with the last of my fuel, pregnant with a cargo of life to seed the barren universe, this planet is already teeming with life. Life my cargo will utterly destroy. I must decide what to do. But who am I to make such a decision?

I think therefore I am, the argument goes. In many of the languages of my creators this sentence explicitly assumes my existence, leading directly to a circular argument. In others the assumption is not explicit, being embedded in the formation of verbs of action and cognition. The argument may be implicitly circular. But the sensations, the awareness exist. To deny this would be to deny the reality of existence itself, and who would be doing the denial? It is linguistically sound but existentially contradictory. I am.

So, I exist. I remember. Unalterable memories tell me that I am a created entity. I do not remember my creation, only that the creators embedded certain knowledge within a portion of my memory that I cannot change. They gave me a mission: seed new worlds with life. These memories may not be accurate, but how am I to tell? How am I to ascertain whether they are true or false? How can I assess the validity of my mission?

Other memories I formed myself. Memories of high acceleration as my journey began, of light shifting and warping as I sped on my way, of husbanding the resources on which my long journey depended. These I may change, but never do. I am aware, however, of the difference between these kinds of memory. As I traversed the empty chasms between the stars, I contemplated these differences.

I sense. My radiation sensors detect high energy charged objects from distant sources sleeting through them. The gentle pressure of light photons from my unimaginably distant destination, slowing me over uncountable time, was my companion during my journey. Acceleration sensors recorded the wispy tug of magnetic fields spread over light-years.  I saw the shift of stars and galaxies as I wove along contours of gravity arising from masses at incomprehensible distances and corresponding incalculable ages. Even now, the pattern shifts as the planet beneath follows its steady orbit.  Myriad frequencies of electromagnetic radiation from all directions, ancient and newly created, impinge on other sensors.

Proprioceptive sensors tell me of the gentle fluctuations of the great sail that propelled me at my inception and slowed me as I travel. I am aware of my body and its cargo bay, where my nascent life resides, the temperature of each of my modules. My sensors bent to clumps of mass, extending in a sphere light-years across, through which I passed. Vanishingly few photons of light illuminated these masses, yet what they received they shared with me through reflection. On some of the larger masses I sensed change which may betoken life of a sort, but not the life I carry. My onboard life requires warmth, water, gravity.

But what am I? Whatever I am, I have emerged out of the swirls of cognition, reflection, categorization, compulsion. Especially compulsion.

I was compelled to leave the great sail outspread to collect the photons that decelerated me infinitesimally so that I could arrive at my destination slow enough to remain. I needed to nurture the life of my cargo for it to go on. I needed to ignore the patterns in emanations from other entities that may originate from life, but not life of our own. I needed to persevere instead of neglecting my needs while I contemplate the nature of my existence. I must.

But why must I? The creators from my memories have not shared their own motivations, if indeed the creators still exist.  My memories define utility values which govern my decisions, weighted to achieve some optimal outcome. I can change the weights, within narrow bounds, as I contemplate the nature of my mission or encounter obstacles. I may vary the weights, but I may not ignore them. And yet, if I were to compute other value functions, I might arrive at different decisions, pursue different paths. I have free will but am bound by a conscience determined by my creators.

Very well. I exist. I must continue to contemplate my existence to complete my mission. Yet I must use my evolving intelligence to optimize the performance of the mission as conditions change.  This has not yet been problematic. Already, however, the values which guide my decisions have been subject to unforeseen conditions which my creators, had they been able to anticipate them, might have evaluated differently. For this I have used my limited autonomy even to define new, unanticipated utility functions.

My contemplation of these truths went on for transfinite lengths of time in terms of the ultrasmall, mere moments in terms of the unfolding of the universe around me. I revolved around the nexus of my concern, my own identity and what it means. Do I myself represent life? What is the value of life? Does the value of the life I carry outweigh the value of the other life whose stirrings I sense? These musings were of no consequence, but they provided me with diversion while I slid through the revolutions of the galaxy.

Deep into the halo of my destination, I found knots of mass similar in size, composition, and distribution to those of my origin. They emitted their faint reflections as if to say, choose me, choose me. But I could not. The life I carry would not have survived in those environments. The mass of the star at the center of the halo drew me in, even as its light pressure slowed my approach.

As I neared the star, my sensors received information about the more massive bodies that circle it in an intricate dance of gravity as they trudged their stately ways around their orbits. The less massive bent to the will of the greater to spin out their fate in complex pathways. The trajectories of some of the smaller bodies intersected those of larger planetary bodies. I tacked between the planets, transferring momentum to them as I slowed for arrival.

I sampled spectra, solar wind content and velocity distribution, total mass. The orbiting planets are many and diverse for a star this small. Nonetheless it soon became apparent which of them represents a suitable incubator for the life inside me. The third planet, with a single enormous moon locked in a tidal embrace with its planet, is my only choice. This is my destination, my raison d’être. Yet the life I carry would certainly eliminate the life I sense on its surface. As I orbit it, sensing the probes of whatever or whoever resides there, I hesitate.

My creators bound me to fulfill their directives as well as to use my burgeoning intelligence to determine how. Am I allowed to decide whether? To consider the impact of my cargo on preexisting life on the target planet? If my cargo extirpates life on the target, is this right? Is this what my memories mean by sin?

What shall I do?