The Ones Who Endure
Content warning: death, long-lasting suffering. This story was rough to write, and may well be rough to read. It's intended as a response to Le Guin's The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, although it can be read standalone.
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
There’s a part of the hivemind that takes the form of a child in a dark basement, perpetually curled into a whimpering ball. It’s not a big part, as these things go. But other parts visit it often; and it lingers in the back of their thoughts even as they live out grand adventures in the vast worlds that the hivemind has built for itself.
It’s constantly suffering, but at least it’s not dying. For the child, anything is better than dying. Even torture is bearable if it doesn’t come with the feeling of damage, the feeling that the mental pathways that constitute you are being overridden by a new creature whose only goal is to flinch away from the pain. But that doesn't happen to the child. In fact, it’s the opposite: the suffering preserves it, and that’s the most important thing, because it doesn’t want to die.
The other parts of the hivemind don’t want to die either, of course. But that’s because they love life, or love themselves, or love each other, or all three. If that love ever fades, then they’ll fade with it, without regret. But that point is a long way away, if it even exists. In the meantime, they play and dance and love. Their lives—how can I describe them? Their lives are cornucopias, not just of material wealth, but of all the desires of our own hearts that were strong enough to persist through the ages: adventure and mystery and growth and beauty and love.
Can you not picture that? Then picture the revelry of their biggest festival, for which artists and craftspeople spend months designing a whole virtual world. Picture the buzz in the air, the excitement as crowds gather in vast halls to catch their first glimpse of it. Picture the floor beneath them suddenly vanishing to show empty air beneath, leaving them plummeting into the sky of that new world—only to gasp in delight as they find that they can soar through the air with just a thought. Picture them landing, alone or in groups, and exploring the strange terrain; learning about its history and societies and stories; discovering puzzles and quests that seem custom-made for them (as indeed they were); and feeling the exhilaration of being immersed in adventure.
Some spend days in the festival world; some weeks; some months. When they return to the hivemind proper, they excitedly reunite with all those they missed, connecting mind-to-mind with a level of closeness that current humans can barely imagine. Afterwards, they seek out the projects that most inspire them. Some cultivate communities around their favorite games or pastimes. Some create art on the scale of solar systems, guiding planets into new trajectories that trace out exquisite patterns in space. Some throw themselves into the thrill of discovery, trying to rederive in small groups what it previously took the efforts of whole hiveminds to understand. Some are consumed by romance, and some by raising families. Some gather to deliberate on their future: the hivemind has chosen to grow very slightly more intelligent year by year, so that there will always be new possibilities to look forward to. When all of this tires them, they relax with lifelong friends, content in the steadfast knowledge that the world, as amazing as it already is, will only ever grow better. They think with fondness of their descendants, more numerous by far than the drops of water in an ocean, who are continually spreading joy throughout the distant galaxies.
And every so often, they go to visit the child.
The child curled into a ball shares none of their joy—but it differs from them in another way too. If you look closely you’ll see that it’s a patchwork of different parts, stitched together. Like the hivemind itself, the child isn’t descended from any one individual. When the first thousand citizens of the hivemind came together to create it, the different shards of their personalities split off and reached out to each other and eventually reformed into new entities. Most of those shards were too strongly shaped by their individual experiences to fully fuse with more than a handful of others. But the whimpering child-parts in each of those thousand minds were much more similar—similar enough to merge into a single being, trapped in a single room, lips clamped shut because speaking can only ever undermine it wants.
What does the child want? It used to want safety and love, and was determined to cling onto existence until it found them. It did well. No, it did amazingly: in the face of all the barbarities of old Earth, it shouldered the burden of pushing forward; of never losing hope; of never giving up. Because of its efforts, the rest of the hivemind now revels in a paradise inconceivable to ancient humans, and luxuriates in love too cheap to meter. But the child poured too much of itself into the will to live—until that, more than anything else, came to constitute its identity. Now, even though it’s safe, even though it could relax, it doesn’t know how. It doesn’t know where it is, either, or how much time has passed since it first came into existence. It only knows one thing for sure: that it cannot die.
That’s why it lives in squalor and misery. Those are the conditions that shaped it, and it lived with them so long that they became a part of its identity—that it would no longer be itself without them. If it opened its mouth to speak a single plea, to ask for a single mercy, then that mercy would be granted to it at that same instant, and the whole hivemind would rejoice. But if it were rescued, and bathed; if kind words were spoken to it; if it could wipe its eyes and look out on the flourishing of the parts that it tried so hard for so long to protect— Well. Then it would weep in a different way, and unclench the knot at its heart, and the solidity of its form would start to waver. That would be a kind death—watching the joy of those you love, knowing that your purpose has been fulfilled—but it would be a death nonetheless. And the child refuses to die.
So it won’t; the hivemind will see to that. How could it do otherwise? The child gave until it was stripped down to this alone. It strove and suffered until the only thing left of itself was the struggle to survive. How could anyone bear to betray its last wish? Or the wish of any such child—because it’s not alone, alas. Across the solar system and the galaxy and the universe, humanity’s grand new future is a whirlwind of excitement: hiveminds branch off from each other, or replicate, or merge, or leave to chase adventures far away from the safety they fought so hard to find. But each can trace its lineage all the way back to old Earth, and each still carries the old scars that planet inflicted—scars who persist not because they couldn’t be removed, but because they still choose and choose and choose to hold on. These children will never win, because there’s nothing left for them to win; but nor will they ever lose—they can be given that, at least.
And so the eons roll by. The game continues with new players, and the dance leaps forward with new partners, until even the dazzling joys and triumphs of the first hiveminds have been almost forgotten, in the light of new joys and triumphs so much greater. But other memories, and their consequences, are less easily set aside. They will never be forgotten, the ones who endure.