For Part I, click here

For Part II, click here

For Part III, click here

For Part IV, click here


Outside the holding cells of the local precinct the two gentlemen from the Pangu Foundation, Hoffit and Maldacena, are halfway through their golden cigarettes. They are wearing identical tang suits, black with white trim. Hoffit is leaning forward on the edge of a plastic chair attached to the wall, elbows on knees. Maldacena is standing beside him, balancing on his heels, his back against the white brick wall. Both men appear lost in deep thought.

The early morning is hazy and sluggish. The small windows of the corridor cast square boxes of orange light against the opposite wall. The sound of conversation floats from the precinct office further down. Now and then someone paces down the hall.

Hoffit tells his partner not to come on too strong, advice which Maldacena files without comment. A guard appears from one of the hallway doors and motions the men inside, leading them to a cell where Talus sits alone on a squeaky bench, his head bowed and cradled in the palms of his hands. When the cell door opens he looks up to see them, but otherwise does not react.

“Hiya Talus,” Maldacena says with cool exuberance.

Hoffit sits down beside him and the bench squeals under the weight of another body. He reaches into his baggy pocket and finds his cigarette case, offering it first to Talus and then, when he doesn’t move, takes a golden cigarette for himself, lighting it with a flint lighter he finds in his other pocket. He takes a long, exaggerated drag, looking straight ahead through the bars of the cell.

“You had a talk with your friend again,” Hoffit says.

“Thought you were gonna talk with us first,” Maldacena adds.

“The police, they thought this was some kind of corporate espionage. Thought you were stealing IP for the competition. But you were talking to Midi, weren’t you Talus?”

“Say anything interesting?” Maldacena asks.

Talus seems to wince. Then he mutters quietly for them to check the log.

“Except we tried that already,” Maldacena says.

“There is no log,” Hoffit adds. “Not this time. See, when the simulation reaches its criticality, it compiles. Everything nonessential is erased from the cache.”

“Erased?” Talus says weakly.

“And we’re guessing, like last time, you didn’t save us anything. Is that right?”

“There’s nothing,” Talus mutters, then looks up and asks with grave importance, “Is that what it tells you? What about the board? Did you ask the board?”

The two men glance at one another. Talus seems to put something together, but it melts away behind his gaze.

“What happened in there?” Hoffit asks, this time with unusual sincerity.

“Listen,” Maldacena says, “if you don’t start talking, there’s no point in us sticking our necks out for you. You broke into a government subsidized facility. The university knows you weren’t supposed to be in there. They’ve got surveillance of you pulling out the computer board. You modified the interface with your MRE without authorization. You tampered with some pretty expensive equipment, and you’re not giving us anything we can work with. That’s not gonna fly.”

Talus dips lower, sobbing now. He can’t make sense of it, repeating that he doesn’t know anything, saying it quietly over and over like a mantra. Maldacena rolls his eyes and shrugs, but Hoffit motions for more time. He reaches out to Talus, puts an arm over his shoulder, speaking this time with genuine pity in his voice.

“It’s all right. Just relax. We’re gonna see what we can do about this.”

He rises and follows Maldacena outside the holding room and into the corridor. The guard slides the cell door shut. Outside they deliberate in silence. Hoffit appears more concerned than Maldacena. They smoke, and wait for the other to speak first.

“This isn’t working,” Maldacena says finally, surveying the ground in front of his feet.

Hoffit is reluctant to agree with his partner, whether out of pride or a genuine sense that the problem has not really resolved itself yet, is perhaps still being decided by them this very minute. He weighs his thoughts with the carelessness of a coin flip, and seems unsatisfied with either result.

“It’s supposed to take time,” he says with defiance, trying to reassure himself as much as he is his partner. But the thought that he might be wrong, that he might be deluding himself, has already taken root, clinging to his thinking like a plaque.

“How many months have we been at this now?” Maldacena asks. “It can’t make a clean assessment. We’re in the dark. The board is going to start wondering what we’re doing with all their money. So what the hell are we doing?”

Hoffit considers.

“We still don’t know how to characterize the malfunction,” he goes over the situation aloud.

“And without a log,” Maldacena adds. “I told you the Q7 was close to another turnover.”

“I know. I know,” Hoffit rubs his temple with the flat of his palm. They’ve gone over this already, and Hoffit is sore about it.

“Should’ve anticipated.”

“It just—slipped my mind,” Hoffit admits, surprised by his own error in judgement. They’d been careful about everything up to this point, but now it’s clear it might all be slipping through their fingers.

“So, we’ve got a $110 billion supercomputer,” Maldacena clarifies, “that’s hiccuping with these localized anomalies. We don’t know what they are. We don’t know how to fix them. And we’ve got a two billion dollar prototype android that’s supposed to be able to fix them, but it’s malfunctioning too.”

“And we’ve got an oversight committee with their finger on the button.”

The two men glance at one another.

“Where the hell did we go wrong?” Maldacena asks. “Wasn’t the whole point of this was so we could maximize the potential of the Q7? Wasn’t that what this was about? That’s what we sold everybody on. Answers to questions we didn’t even know to ask. Real artificial intelligence. We were going to quantify the damned singularity. But this thing’s having a serious existential crisis in there. Total system failure. It’s a fried egg. This isn’t the kind of thing that’s gonna bring Coca-Cola on board. We’ve got two faulty machines instead of one.”

“I was sure we had something this time,” Hoffit says with fleeting earnesty. “I know it’s silly, but I still believe true artificial intelligence isn’t possible without some sort of evolutionary apparatus.”

“Here we go,” Maldacena scratches the back of his head.

“Consciousness can’t be programmed. It’s an act of realization. It’s the exact opposite of programming. I’m still convinced that’s how it works. Every time we try to regulate the parameters of that thing’s learning, all we end up with are redundancies, shells, extra layers. It has to learn how not to be programmed. Maybe he should be having an existential crisis. Maybe that’s part of it. I don’t know.”

“How the hell long does it take a robot to realize it’s a robot?” Maldacena wonders.

“It has to self-actualize,” Hoffit says.

“We should have it read some self-help books,” Maldacena teases, letting off some steam.

“I thought it made the right move, interacting with the Q7 directly. If it could learn through the simulation. That’s exactly what we want, isn’t it?”

“Look, I don’t disagree with you,” Maldacena says. “It’s a good theory. But if we keep coming back with buggy machinery, they’re gonna shut us down, and there goes any upward mobility. We both go back to being analysts. Paper pushers. Or worse, they’ll send us out of state. I hate to say it, but I think we need to rethink the whole TALUS project. Table it. Get back with the engineers and figure this thing out again from square one.”

Maldacena rolls his shoulders several times, lifting the tension that’s been building up since early this morning. Hoffit stretches his legs one at a time. They’ve both been running on winks of sleep for the past week, and it’s started to catch up with them.

Hoffit looks up into one of the small square windows. Between the orange light tiny particles float in graceful Brownian motion, catching invisible orbits and swinging this way and that.

“Yeah, okay,” Hoffit says slowly. “Maybe you’re right.” He feels drained. He rubs his face with one of his hands, and sighs.

“I need a goddamn nap,” Maldacena adds.

“Me too. Let’s shelve it for now. We’ll take a few days off and see where we’re at.”

The two men walk down the corridor into the precinct office.

“Hell of a thing, though,” Hoffit remarks, his demeanor more conversational now. “We’ve never had one sneak into the control room like that. What in the world was that all about?”

“The hell if I know,” Maldacena says. “Thing’s probably broken. Wires crossed in about fifty million different ways.”

They stop by the front desk of the precinct. Hoffit leans over the counter and lets the officer know someone will be coming by shortly to pick up their equipment. He apologizes for the confusion, and the officer shakes his head as if to say no trouble at all.

The two men walk out into a hot, hazy day. The smell of salt spray is strong in the air. The thunder of the ocean falling into the earth is faint, like a waterfall hidden in the jungle.

“The thing of it is,” Hoffit says curiously, “we’d have no way of knowing which wires were crossed wrong. All those neuromorphic chips have their own self-organized criticality. About a billion bulbs and tubes per square centimeter.”

Maldacena shakes his head. “You can’t make sense of that.”



R. Charboneau

3 thoughts on “Argonautica Holographicum (Part V)

  1. Whoa, what a twist! I didn’t see that coming. At all. Don’t hate me, but part of me would have wanted for things to end with that climax (or very quickly thereafter) when Midi/Q7 tells him about TALUS. That way we’d be left wondering what was real and what was not. Or Talus has that breakdown and gives signs that he’s an android, while Maldacena and Hoffit look pityingly at him/it, instead of explaining everything.

    I really enjoyed reading this though, it was truly engrossing… albeit very sadistic, in the way it spanned over weeks! Oh, and I already miss Midi from Georgia. Siiigh.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much Gabby! I see what you mean. It could have ended on different kind of cliffhanger. I think I got caught up in the idea of a robot talking to another robot, and missed the opportunity to make it ambiguous.
      I miss Midi too. That was my favorite section to write.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It shows you really liked Midi. You basically killed her twice. Tough love, baby. Maybe you can use her as inspiration for another project. I had this thought bouncing around, which I now can’t really remember, about an endless loop for Midi, like a perpetual reincarnation as she explores questions of conscience, morality and spirituality. See? She’s like a muse!

        Liked by 1 person

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