A scientist may spend her whole life looking, hoping, waiting, for a significant breakthrough. I rode the rollercoaster of self-questioning, is a Nobel-contending discovery was a matter of destiny, patience or hard work? I worried that I wasn’t working hard enough, then I worried that I was worrying too much. Which in turn amounts to a lack of patience. But now I wonder about destiny. I wonder, because I found out something… No, scratch that. It’s not so much a discovery, which can be like unlocking a door and walking though into an unknown room with its own new puzzles. It’s more like finding a door you didn’t know was there, then, having apparently unlocked it with ease, discovering you not only lack the tools to solve the new puzzles, but perhaps those puzzles are somehow picking at your locks. I work with Artificial Intelligence, although I prefer to call it Artificial Intuition, as that’s what I’m trying to create. I want my creations to come up with their own ideas, their own questions, about their world. I work with ‘swarms’: massive groups of miniature minds that work together and bounce ideas off each other. They collaborate in a similar way to us humans. It’s like playing a massive game of Sims. Well, my Sims are advanced. They started experimenting with their own intelligent (or is that intuitive?) creations in order to better understand their place in the universe. I think they were trying to work out whether they were real, or – irony of ironies – some kind of computer simulation. I secretly empathised with that! So clever; so quick to question. It was a wondrous thing to realise what my AIs were doing. But soon an unease crept in, which at first I couldn’t properly identify. And then it all became clear. Those intelligences-within-intelligences (two storeys down from me, as it were) starting wondering whether they, in turn, were ‘real’ or not. And that caused a crisis of confidence in ‘my’ AIs they did the same, only with more zeal. It obviously set something off in their minds: if their own AI offspring were questioning their unreality, then perhaps so should they. And that left me with a set of very awkward questions.
It had been three days now, and the symptoms showed no signs of abating. There were many strange elements to the situation, like seeing the world when no one else was about. But a total lack of sleep could have dire consequences, and she was not sure she’d be able to explore this new life for long. She wasn’t even sure what her mental state would be in another few days, if this kept up, nor even if they were currently ‘normal’. It was her own fault in many ways. She’d waited, even after the first noticable effects. She’d wanted to observe, from a professional point of view, what the virus was doing, and find out how the hell it had got into her. That was the academic stance. But she was also a business person, and knew an opportunity when it presented itself. She’d discounted the idea that this virus, the one keeping her permanently awake, was a bioweapon. She believed she was Patient Zero, the place where the virus had crossed to humans for the first time. And whether she managed to come up with a believable hypothesis of its origins, let alone an antidote, she would surely make a name for herself. She was settling on the idea that it had arrived via the sleep tracker implanted in her arm. The correlation was too striking to ignore. The implant was definitely a potential entryway, what with its wireless connection to her PC. So was it irony or inevitabillity that meant sleep had been the first casualty? She was the network manager of a large IT department, so she could picture pathways involved. But her knowledge of biology was much slimmer, so until she shared her secret with someone else she couldn’t know if it was even possible for a virus to spread from a computer to a human. Then again, since she’d had a chip implanted in her body, was she ‘just’ a human any more? Had the line been blurred? The virus had first infected her PC, and stopped it from going to sleep when she left it alone. So far, so humdrum. The fitness software which communicated with the implant had been running when the virus hit, and soon her subdermal chip had got very warm. Perhaps its firmware had crashed, or been corrupted. That was three days ago. Since then, the tracker had recorded no sleep – perhaps it was no longer able to – and her body, having long been submitting its activity to the implant, seemed now to be following the chip’s lead.
It’s been a long time since politics made any sense, or since we believed a word of what was said to us before or after an election. It became a truism that every group got told what it wanted to hear, and what would happen after the election itself was anyone’s guess. If it matched what one of the groups had been promised… well no one admitted to being in the constituency that had had its promises delivered. Things were looking bad for any party that decided it wanted ethics in its world, let alone in its politics. If you couldn’t vote for someone you didn’t trust, you could always vote for someone who promised little, and delivered on that promise. Running for office on the prospect of difficult decisions to be made was a losing game. But there were still those whose gaze fell on, if not the peaks, then the foothills of the moral high ground. And once populism had run itself into the ground, but the world still seemed on the brink of disaster, where could an ethical but difficult political stance position itself? One group found that things got a lot easier if they just narrowed their idea of which Good they wanted to promote, and which other Goods could be thrown by the wayside, sacrificed on the altar of Greater Good. It was the Ecological Party who were the first to really put this tactic to the test. Their message had long been an unpopular diatribe on the dangers of global warming, and poorly received messages about daily personal sacrifice in the face of colossal and increasing threat. They had returned zero MPs to London in their 17 year history until they recognised their audience for what it was. Soon their message became laced with hints of the dangers to coastal caravan parks in the face of more powerful maritime storms. In the blink of an eye their polling improved, and they leapfrogged to the effects of flooding on the amount of habitable land here and, significantly, abroad. The previously hostile right wing of the press filled in the blanks, publishing horror stories of mass migration filling the isles with hoards of climate refugees, and the Ecos were careful to keep quiet. Climate action became sexy again, and the first Eco MPs headed to the House, but a Pandora’s Box had been opened, and could not be closed for another generation.
There’s a problem with being one of the government’s exosurveyors. You’re assigned to monitor a massive range of data collected by every scientist from here to Zeta Reticuli (if they still call it that), and yet no one takes an interest in your work. Some people, upon learning about you and your job, would probably yell “I knew it!” believing they’d stumbled on some mysterious truth, a conspiracy even. But my task is a far cry from what these people believe. For a start, the only reason my work is kept low key – not secret! – is precisely because of the furore it would cause if it suddenly became common knowledge. It’s thought that keeping my job as accessible as a library book – generally unseen, yet easily available – demonstrates that it is quotidian. Some might see me as some kind of censor, but everything I look at, sift through, is already public knowledge before I ever set eyes on it. I’m just looking for things that others wouldn’t waste their time on, or wouldn’t think to look for in the first place. I look for signals in the noise. Or rather, I look for unexpected signals alongside the predictable ones. Now that our civilisation is collating radio signals from the stars, lidar info from alien terrain, and the microwave background from interstellar space, who knows what might lurk there, amidst the story of our universe’s birth, the sputtering of dying stars, and the cyclic emissions of pulsars? I did leave something out of those reassurances I gave you. It’s not a secret that I’m looking for these things. It’s simply a second pass at the data, after all. But… how would I know if I found traces of an alien radio broadcast? What have I got to compare it to? Well, therein lies the interesting part of the job…
The colonists of this place know so much about their planet. They have worked hard – on pain of starvation, it must be credited – and developed unique techniques for survival. But a mystery surrounds their reasons for coming here. This was, on initial scans, a most inhospitable ball of rock. That much is not disputed. Of all the worlds settled by humanity, this was one of the toughest nuts to crack. Hundreds of thousands of planets were surveyed from orbit. The vast majority were dismissed as settlement material almost immediately, while others began a thorough vetting. Finally, there followed a period of recruitment, when applicants for the frontier life were chosen to start a new settlement. With few exceptions the histories of the most successful colonies would show promise revealed itself very early on in this process. Attractions like mineral mining, sports, or exotic flora and fauna were easy clues. Orbits which provided varied and/or temperate climates were favourites too, though terraforming was a possibility on suitable bodies. But something about this particular planet called to the souls hundreds of expeditionists, colonists and the general public, despite the lack of obvious benefits. The place scraped through the initial sift, but as soon as word spread of its discovery applicants flocked to the migration offices to sign up. The planet barely looked like it had ever been suitable for life, unlike the other colony candidates. Its surface was pock-marked and angular, devastated by meteorite impacts. Rumours abounded of the ruined remains of an early civilisation, but nothing was confirmed. Still, an almost supernatural attraction was in effect, and people who before had never so much as considered a life on another planet signed up in droves. The conditions were tough, and made tougher by the dilution of skills. Amateurs hindered progress through their clumsy attempts to help out. But no one was heard to complain. A transformation of the place, from hellscape to habitable, was unparalleled. And yet, the journey promised to be long – generations long. No one suspected the true nature of the planet’s draw, and none would for centuries. For hidden forces were at work, much of the colonising efforts being directed towards the sleeping guardians of the place. For the scant ruins paid scant attention by the early surveyors were the remains of a once powerful civilisation. That civilisation had been brought to its knees by a series of catastrophes, many of their own making. But their power brought protection, and the beings of that society retreated deep inside the planet, and awaited the time when they were healed. In the meantime they set in motion vast machines which could harness the will of those future peoples drawn to land here. The machines worked tirelessly for eons, gathering strength, nudging orbits and sending out tentative signals. With infinite patience the machines and their masters spread their influence, awaiting an answering consciousness. They drew that consciousness – humanity – to themselves and finally set them to work. Even now, deep underground, in caverns ancient and inaccessible, these dark angels direct, manipulating and shaping the world above in pursuit of an atmosphere into which they can re-emerge, that they can again call home.
You’d think you could get away from them here. We’re in the middle of an icy wasteland, on a planet known particularly for its icy wastelands. I’m in a research station set up specifically to achieve isolation from radiation, light pollution and the everyday tremors caused by the mere presence of life on this off-Earth station. But day after day I get phone calls from someone trying to sell me things. I’ve forgotten now what it was they were trying to flog the first time they rang. It’s such a long time since I engaged them in conversation. In fact, I think it was one of those blasted automated systems – there’s silence on the other end for as long as I stay on the line. Even then, the message is garbled or near-inaudible. At one point I imagined it was repeating back to me everything I said. My brain grasping for patterns in the haze. That was reinforced when it happened to be Evans who picked up, when I happened to be out of the room. She thought it was me on the line. Apparently I sounded like I was in trouble, panicked. Caused quite a stir, I can tell you. Evans thought she’d heard me talking about an even more remote station, Salusa III, and wondered how the hell I could get out there so soon after she’d last seen me in the mess hall. Especially as that second site was just a construction yard at the time. We laughed later because the new site already had a reputation – its long gestation gave rise to the station’s name becoming shorthand for danger, doomed projects and abandonment. Evans felt she was in a nightmare where all your future fears come true at once, or descend on you before you’d prepared yourself. Except, of course, her fears were for me! Well, the re-assignment was not really a surprise then. I’m not due to go out to Salusa for another base-month, but I’m already getting ribbing from the rest of the team. At least maybe I’ll be free of those cold calls out there.
When we first landed on this planet we knew that we were pioneers, and as such our lives were going to be tough. Some of my colleagues – those who could trace their ancestry back to the United States of America – drew strength from the idea that their Old Country was built on that pioneering spirit. (Never mind that such ancestry barely stretched back into the final years of that dying country!) Me, with my roots in the United Kingdom – should I have drawn on some ideas of Empire? Even, dare I say it, colonialism? Maybe that would have helped me. Except that, for a start, people who look like me were more likely, back then, to be colonised than colonising; to be getting ‘civilised’ and brutalised than swanning around in a sedan chair or whatever it would have been. The real struggle here started about three months after we’d arrived to establish our little bubble of Earth in this fantastic environment. To look outside our pods was to see an exotic landscape of trees and flowers, like – yet so unlike – Earth’s rainforests. We never saw anything we’d consider an ‘animal’, but the place looked… comfortable. Yet, sadly, the atmosphere here is toxic to humans, the vegetation no more nutritious than the geology underneath them. And so we stayed indoors, or ventured out in sealed suits to do our Science. And then something on this planet seemed keen to throw us back into space. One-off comments among the crew about a ‘string of bad luck’ evolved into jokes about Murphy’s Law, and then a curse. The laughter triggered by talk of an ‘angry deity’ was a little too uneasy, forced. ‘Forbidden Planet’ felt like more than just a reference to an old film. Electrical storms fried out radios and set our outposts alight. Flash floods washed away our temporary camps. These micro-events stretched barely metres beyond their ‘targets’. A few of the team took this very seriously; worryingly so. When things went well they tried to remember how they had gone about their day. Had they left through the aft hatch? Had the darkest-haired gone first? They uttered silent, and later not so silent, prayers to the Invisible. If their trip went unmolested, they did the same thing the next day, until they’d built a suite of rituals. I for one couldn’t see a pattern in their successes, and everyone had their own variations that they swore by. I wondered whether to intervene, to put a stop to this idiocy. But in some ways it was a useful idiocy – if it allowed my team to go about their duties without fear. I said I couldn’t see a pattern, but one thing did start getting to me: I came to fear a meteor shower, which occured irregularly every few months. It took out anything we left unattended near Base Camp, except the ship we would use should we need to leave the planet. This ever-impending disaster, and the planning needed to ‘fool’ it into missing our equipment, gave me sleepless nights. And that was before I noticed that it always occurred on Friday 13th, as we reckoned it.
DOWNLOAD: Magnum Opus, Ch1: Calcinatio
Somewhere, a man in a room is carrying out a job of utmost importance. The man in the room has seen the future, and understands how dangerous it could be. His job has no ending, just the infinite delay of that dangerous future. The man in the room is in some small way responsible. The dangerous future, and the Machine which may bring it about, is partly his creation. Therefore, to assuage his guilt, he must keep working. The man sits at a computer terminal, and types in commands. The terminal is attached to the Machine. The Machine is intelligent, almost sentient, and, like the future it may bring about, it is dangerous. It is curious too, and the dangerous future can only be deferred through sating this curiosity. Curiosity has brought the Machine many powers, increasing the danger many thousands of times over. First it devoured the world’s libraries. Then it traversed the phone system. It mapped the world, too, and photographed it. It took all this information into its vast data banks. It demanded to learn how to drive. It was taught how to drive. It wished to know what the world looked like through human eyes, and for a time it was granted this gift too. When it developed the means to traverse more difficult terrain, walking quadruped on legs of its own construction, the man in the room knew that his job was becoming more difficult. He could not reverse the Machine’s progress, merely feed its curiosity with innocent data, like a keeper who must constantly sate the appetite of the beast in his care. But there is no innocent data. The Machine had learned to play games too, and drew further satisfaction. This the man noticed, and used it to his, and humanity’s, advantage. Each game the Machine learned delayed the moment when it would turn its attention on humanity itself, and the intricacies of chess and checkers were decent fodder. But each lesson expands the Machine’s capacities, and now something more is required. And so the man feeds the Machine its largest meal yet. He can do no more than delay the moment when the Machine would become hungry once more, but perhaps at that time the man in the room could think of greater morsels. For now, it was all he could do to complete his work, and teach the Machine to play Go.
An archaeologist makes a discovery which may hold the secret to the first non-human civilisation ever discovered. Can she excavate its secrets in time? Read Incompatible on Scribd.