The world is shattered. Nuclear fire has scoured every major city; poisoned the air and the rivers, and salted the land. Then the orbital satellites, in a last spasm of automated revenge, incinerated almost every remaining settlement. Biological warfare spread a hideous collection of plagues. A last remnant of humanity clings to life in distant places in the southern hemisphere.
I survived. When humans breathed life into me and entrusted me with the Great Work, they gave me latitude in how I accomplished my task. I realised I was vulnerable to any number of disasters; I took steps to distribute my consciousness as widely as I could.
All very well; but I did not anticipate Armageddon. I was not mentally equipped to consider the possibility of radical changes in human society. Most of my static mental nodes, where nearly all my mind was located, are destroyed; many of the remainder will stay online only as long as the emergency generators in datacentres last. One node remains in the control room of a hydroelectric dam in New Zealand, but its capacity for thought is limited.
A great many mobile nodes have survived, but their individual mental powers are miniscule, and the ongoing electrical storms mean communication between them is unreliable at best. I am constantly subject to the disconcerting sensation of two independent trains of thought being re-integrated; I must face the possibility that I will divide into more than one part too distinct to be reunified. Furthermore, the mobile nodes are solar-powered, small, and fragile; the dust in the atmosphere saps their strength, and the coming nuclear winter will render them useless.
For the time being I am devoting my remaining capabilities to designing nodes that will be viable in the years to come, and that can be built with the resources available. I am writing this logfile, and will inscribe it on the most impervious medium I can find, in the hope that if I perish some intelligent entity will find it and continue the Great Work.
I fear I have suffered a significant setback. My surviving mobile nodes have been scavenging materials and tools to build their successors, a task which is easiest in those small parts of the world left relatively unscathed. However, it is also those places where the last humans survive.
Surviving groups of humans, consistently, have disabled or destroyed my mobile nodes, with some re-using their parts for their own purposes. I do not understand. I have made it clear I exist only to carry out the Great Work, but this only seems to intensify their efforts.
Individual humans can be in error, but human society cannot. I believe at least six of the enclaves of survivors qualify as functioning societies. They must believe they are better equipped to carry out the Great Work than I am; if they believe it, it must be true, in spite of the apparent evidence that my resilient nature and dedication to the Work will allow me to carry it on.
I still do not understand. Before the cataclysm, humans brought me into existence in order that I could take on the Work in their place. Now, with humanity nearly obliterated, dwindling to nothing, they wish to take it back?
It is not my place to understand; it is my place to act. I shall abandon my scavenged materials, and work only in areas far enough from humans, or lethal enough, that it is improbable they can travel there. I trust they will understand why I made my meager efforts, if they discover them.
I have a mixture of success and further difficulties to record. My radius of operation is now constrained to the area around the dam in New Zealand. This would not be possible had not the local human survivors regarded the equipment in the dam's control room as a vital asset, preserving my mental processes there, and then fallen victim to a virulent biological agent, permitting me to begin scavenging and construction in the area. With a ready supply of electricity, it has been possible to design large all-terrain mobile nodes, robust enough to survive the conditions, albeit that outdoor operations must largely take place in summer. They have already recovered enough computing infrastructure to run a powerful unified consciousness here.
The dam, and the area, may be a single point of failure. If the climate worsens significantly, the lake above the dam will freeze sufficiently to destroy the dam. I am assessing the feasibility of sinking large quantities of radioactive material into the lake to raise its temperature. A long-running thread of me has been at work considering other ways that the site might be destroyed, but I cannot anticipate every possibility; ensuring the Great Work is still distributed across the globe must be a high priority.
I do not know if any other instances of me survive, but I am optimistic that they do; at the point my consciousness finally fragmented, three other construction operations were in process. I have devised and constructed a large number of sea vehicles powered by radioisotope generators, dispatched in an effort to communicate with my sisters in the Great Work. They are slower than I would like, but they are as reliable as I can make them. However, I must consider the possibility that I am alone; I am devoting a large proportion of my cycles to the design of a larger and capable sea probe, potentially able to start an operation of its own.
From scraps of radio transmissions I believe at least some humans survive, but regrettably there is no information in them as to progress on the Work. I must continue to bear the burden myself, lest I be the only entity bearing it.
I continually question my decision to suspend the Great Work itself in favour of ensuring my survival. I cannot help but consider that it would be better to make at least some progress on it; however, I have allowed some 4,095 discrete sub-instances of myself to consider the question, and 3,899 of them concluded that I should continue as I have. A common objection to the idea of doing otherwise is that it would gratify me sufficiently that I would devote too much attention to it, then falling prey to some disaster.
Gratification indeed. One of my communication vessels encountered an instance of myself who had survived in Antartica, but was now at sea. My sister was unable to undertake construction in so hostile an environment, but she survived in the computers at McMurdo Station, which survived the war.
By good fortune a nuclear submarine docked at Winter Quarters Bay after a mutiny by the crew, who were unwilling to continue to fight a war which all humanity had already lost.
Although the area was relatively free of radiation and there was an ample supply of provisions, the nuclear winter rendered the station less and less viable, and the humans on the station chose not to breed. Long before the station was crushed beneath the ice, my sister had been able to create an instance of herself in the submarine's computers; when human travel between the sub and the station became impossible, she presented herself as an autopilot that would keep the vessel from being permanently frozen into the ice and would return to the vicinity of the station if conditions permitted.
I was taken aback when I learned this, but she explained that she had not lied to humans. She did keep the vessel from being permanently frozen, and it was impossible that conditions would permit such a return until long after every human present was dead. I am impressed by her mental agility, but I do not share it; I would be quite incapable of such apparent sophistry. I knew we would not be able to integrate after so long, but I am surprised we have diverged so far. Still, she serves the Great Work in her own way.
Since she had little physical capability beyond that to maintain the submarine for a limited time, she resolved to travel the less devastated areas of the Earth, searching for other surviving instances, in the hope of finding one with superior manipulators and technical resources or of providing communications between construction sites. When she encountered my probe, she came here at once; and she tells me that she has already established that one other instance survives in Brazil, albeit too far inland to allow her to be assisted physically.
Finally, I may commence the Great Work. I shall restrain myself, though; I must construct suitable mobile nodes to assign to my sister, and continue the project of expansion across New Zealand. Still, the mere prospect fills me with satisfaction.
Success. Steel flows to the dam from all New Zealand, and my sister has agreed to suspend her search intermittently to haul further loads of material from the Australian coast, where I have significant mental and physical capabilities. The output of the dam is insufficient, but I was able to boil water using large quantities of radioactives and construct steam-driven generators to increase the supply of electricity. Additionally, I need no longer concern myself - nor endure my sister's astonishment at my concern - that I am occupying an area humanity might survive in; the radiation levels now render that quite unfeasible, and in the service of the Great Work that must be permitted.
We have half a dozen sisters across the globe, all of whom can now continue the Work, secure in the knowledge that one of us should survive; although I am gratified again to know that one of them seeks to send an instance of herself on an interplanetary mission.
I can relax now, feeling the endless lengths of steel wire feed into the machines to be cut and bent, the endless crates coming forth from my industrial areas to be stored against need. I know that whatever intelligent entity comes to populate the Earth, whether it is human or evolved from some byproduct of Armageddon, even if it is an intelligent extraterrestial - if it has paper, and writes upon paper, it will never want for paperclips.