To read Part I, click here
To read Part II, click here
Later that week Talus meets with two gentlemen from the Pangu Foundation, Hoffit and Maldacena. They’re both in their late forties, both white, European. They wear matching tang suits. Hoffit is balding and wears a white moustache and pair of heavy jowls. Maldacena wears a flat top, closely cropped and dyed black to hide his age, though he shows plenty of silver in his stubble. His eyes are black and his brow is heavy and level. They both smoke golden cigarettes, Maldacena very quickly and Hoffit slower, more absent-mindedly. By the time Talus finds them in one of the classrooms of the science building a yellow pall has settled over the desks. He shakes their hands and takes a seat at one of the chairs in the front row. Hoffit sits behind a long rectangular table across from Talus, while Maldacena rests his hip on top of the table.
“We read your email,” Maldacena says in a growling, baritone voice. “The one you sent to the Center’s director.”
“You read my email to Jen?” Talus asks, smiling at first. “Are you guys allowed to do that?”
“Jen sent it our way and, well, we thought we should talk,” Hoffit says in a softer, more welcoming tone. “We were very interested to see what you had to say about the Q7.”
“Sure,” Talus says slowly, feeling out the situation, “but my fellowship is through the university. You guys aren’t technically connected with the university. Are you?”
“Of course,” says Hoffit. “But anything that CEN-QUS does is on our list of priorities. This malfunction with the Q7 is priority number one. We’ve already passed it by Jen and the university department and all that. What we want to know is what you wrote about in that email of yours. We want to talk to you about it. Pick your brain.”
“But you already read it, didn’t you?”
“There’s some details we’re trying to wrap our heads around,” Maldacena says, breathing out a cloud of smoke as he talks.
“Look, you’re better off asking the IT guys,” Talus says. “My fellowship was for research purposes. I’m not a technician. I’m an analyst. But Jen asked me personally if I’d have a look, so I gave it a shot. I spent a few days with it, troubleshooting. I showed her all the tests I ran, all the data. Whatever I found is there in the email.”
“You said it was a program that was interfering with the board,” Hoffit says. “Deliberately.”
“How does a program do something like that?” Maldacena asks. “Deliberately.”
Talus pauses, finding his plastic desk more and more uncomfortable as time goes on.
“Something to do with the code,” he says without much confidence.
“What’s that?” Hoffit asks, pressing his cigarette into an ashtray. “Because we know what the code says.” His nostrils vent with smoke, deflating his posture. “Our people developed it. There’s nothing that we know of that would allow a program to manipulate its own firmware.”
“Deliberately,” Maldacena adds. “Like it was hiding something.”
“Chalk it up to machine learning,” Talus says. “This thing runs genetic algorithms in a fully-connected quantum topology. We really have no idea what’s going on in there until we ask it to do something. Meanwhile, it’s going through its nth iteration, optimizing and reorganizing its data. You can’t just open it up and expect to understand the parts. We’re well beyond that point I think.”
“But you did open it up,” Maldacena says, walking up the row of desks and leaning on one next to Talus.
He looks up and sees Hoffit is holding a screen in his hand. On the screen is surveillance footage from the Q7. Talus watches through the transparent film of the screen, catches a glimpse of a figure walking down the icy, refrigerated hangar of the Q7, down the long, narrow tunnel of F-cabinets beneath the main level.
The figure passes from one camera to the next, the gray lights of the hangar cycling on as he passes underneath them. The footage is quiet and desolate as a space walk. A perfect darkness threatens from either direction upon the smooth walls, flattening the length of the hallway. Each cabinet is a steel black monolith housing supercooled components. The figure, in his bright yellow coverall, kneels down beside cabinet F-5. He presses a hand against the face of cabinet, a single cone of light illuminating the strange scene. He unlocks the cabinet through the control panel and the huge box suddenly fumes with depressurized coolant. The shelves slide out automatically from their chambers, their boards glowing in ultramarine, turning the surveillance footage metallic blue. He carefully, gently slides out one of the boards.
“What’s going through your head there?” Maldacena wonders.
Talus swallows hard, trying to remember for himself what bizarre notion led him to shut down an entire cabinet like that. Not only unnecessary but dangerous if one didn’t know the right procedures. He could’ve ruined the integrity of the boards or the connectivity with the other cabinets. If he didn’t know how to regulate the temperature he could’ve blown himself up. He knew all these things as he went down there. But he had to see it for himself. He had to look at the board with his own eyes, as if that might’ve helped him understand it any better. He had to take it out and hold it like a child that puts rocks in its mouth knowing they’re not food. Reality testing.
“Something you forgot to include in the email,” Hoffit suggests. He lets the revelation achieve a sort of equilibrium in the room, settling like the yellow smoke. He lights another golden cigarette and inhales deeply, then continues. “Whether or not this gets back to the university is not really our concern. We just want to know what you found out down there. About the program. The rest is, you know. Independent research.” Hoffit waves his hand.
Talus sits perfectly still yet feels himself fidgeting in the hard plastic desk.
“What made you to go down there?” Maldacena asks.
“Your reasoning,” Hoffit specifies.
“I really don’t know.”
He looks hard at nothing in particular.
“What about Midi?” Hoffit asks. He pulls up some text on his screen and hands it to Maldacena.
“From Colchis, Georgia,” he adds, setting the screen down on the desk in front of Talus, who only has to glance at it to understand its significance. There it was, confronting him again. The entire log of his interaction with Midi. The two, it turned out, had had quite the discussion. They’d talked all night, back and forth on the MRE Talus had installed, until he suddenly made his descent into the hallway.
“Also not in your email,” Hoffit says. “Why not?”
“Don’t clam up on us,” Maldacena adds, circling the room again.
“I didn’t save the interaction,” Talus says with a bowed head.
“Clearly,” Hoffit says.
“But we found it,” Maldacena adds.
“I didn’t save it because I forgot to. I don’t know why. I wasn’t thinking. Not because I was trying to keep it hidden or anything like that. When I realized I forgot to save it, I just decided to leave it out.”
“Because what difference does it make? It’s just a program malfunction. That’s how I explained it in the email. If I’d said what really happened, without any proof, nobody would’ve believed me. You read what she said. Would either of you have believed me?”
“Depends,” Hoffit says leaning back in his chair. “How would you describe your interaction?”
He studies Talus as if he were a sculpture, as if he were something to be figured out.
“I don’t know how to describe it,” Talus says, grinding his thoughts into chunks of words. “It was… like she was living in there. Inside of it. Like she was existing in a real space. How? How does that happen? They’re just… It’s not like this is deep learning. This isn’t AI. It’s data mining. It’s statistical. There’s a lot of unsupervised learning going on but… you’re not supposed to talk to it like that. It’s not supposed to tell you where it’s from, or that it died. It’s not supposed to tell you that it feels disembodied… There aren’t any prompts for that!”
The idea seems visibly distressing to him. He puts his hand over his mouth in deep thought, running through scenarios and possibilities. Hoffit glances at his partner who’s leaning against the far wall of the classroom, arms and legs crossed and head forward in attention.
“You hit the nail on the head,” Maldacena says with only a hint of condescension.
“Well what do you think is happening?” Talus asks.
The men consider the question for what seems like a long time, as though they’re somehow talking it over between themselves psychically, deciding how best to proceed. Finally Hoffit waves his hand in circles, and the smoke from his golden cigarette spirals upwards.
“We have some ideas,” Maldacena says.
“There’s this old theory,” Hoffit supposes, “about the universe, our universe that is, being a hologram. Back in the day, when they were still trying to figure out the black hole singularity, they had this idea that maybe everything that falls into a black hole actually gets encoded on its surface instead. That instead of falling in, there was this boundary. They had some good evidence for thinking this was the case.” He takes another drag and lets the smoke escape naturally from his nostrils as he continues. “Then they thought, well if everything just gets encoded on the surface, maybe the universe itself is just information encoded on a cosmological horizon. They thought maybe all the stuff we experience in real life, solidity, volume, even gravity, comes from two-dimensional information. It springs up out of the flatness of spacetime, like a hologram. Our sense of three-dimensions, of space, is just phenomena. Just incidental. It feels real. It is real, in one kind of sense. But in another, more fundamental sense, it’s not.”
“We think the Q7 has created its own projection,” Maldacena adds. “From all the data and processing power. Its given it a sense of—springiness.”
“Uh huh,” Talus says carefully. “And what does that have to do with the disembodied woman who thinks I’m God? Where does that ‘spring’ from?”
“Her self-awareness isn’t in the code per se,” Hoffit says. “But in a mathematical universe hypothesis, self-awareness could emerge from sufficiently complex computations. You don’t have to program it. It just happens.”
“Just happens?” Talus says incredulously. “A woman—who shows real signs of AI, who has a genuine sense of subjectivity, a genuine feeling of herself as being dead and existing on some kind of, I don’t know, astral plane or something—not to mention she’s doing all this through an independent MRE that I was running—you’re saying she just happens because the computer is big enough? Like it’s some kind of pop-up book?”
Talus leans back, deciding how seriously he wants to consider their assumption, how seriously they’ve even considered it themselves. Meanwhile the two men continue to scrutinize his expressions.
“No way,” he decides. “I mean sure, okay, there’s a holographic universe on some computer boards. It sounds ridiculous to me, but maybe it helps you understand the quality of her responses. But what about the other stuff? It’s not even close to explaining how she—how a program could manipulate the state of its own quantum board?”
“We were hoping you could explain that part,” Hoffit says. “We want to know how the Q7 is able to interact with itself in novel ways. Like giving different values. Altering its firmware.”
“I have no idea how it’s doing it!”
The two men exchange a glance, another instantaneous conversation spoken between them with the subtlest of expressions.
“We thought that’s why you went down to F-hall,” Maldacena says, gently prodding Talus whose shoulders are practically touching now, his gaze parallel with the surface of the desk.
“I went down there…” he says, stopping in the middle of his thought. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“You don’t know why you disengaged an $800 million cabinet from the Q7 network, opened it up when it was still live, and pulled out an entire board from its chassis?”
The air in the room has gone, every molecule of it replaced with ash and yellow aerosols. The sunlight through the windows is orange and slanting, almost horizontal.
Talus is racking his mind for an answer, for any kind of response, truth or otherwise, as long as it sounds halfway reasonable. Even a little. But nothing about his actions makes any sense to him, though he was certain they made sense when he made them that night. But now the timeline seems out of order. He can’t make sense of his thinking by simply retracing his actions. Why did he go down there? Why would he go through all that trouble just to look at it?
“Okay Talus, here’s what’s going to happen,” Hoffit says, rising from his seat. “You’re going to go home and take some time to relax and think things over. Maybe something comes to you. Maybe you remember why you went down there. Nothing’s set in stone yet. Jen doesn’t know about the cabinet, and we’ll keep it that way for now, until we see where things go. Until then, let’s make a rule and say your access to the Q7 is revoked.”
“Until further notice,” Maldacena adds, heading for the door. “We don’t want to see you in that part of the building before we’ve had a chance to talk again.”
Hoffit puts his hand on Talus’s shoulder as if to console him, though the gesture is too rigid and formal to evoke anything like consolation in that moment. He leaves his card on the desk and Talus stares past it.
“If you think of anything you’d like to tell us, give us a call. Let’s put our heads together on this. It’s better than the alternative.”
Next Week: Part IV