GIVETHEREADERSWHATTHEYWANT!
One writer's experiment to tackle any subject his friends come up with.
9/11/11-SEAN GLADDING

Deus In Machina

 

“we are but dust”.

cheers mate!


Captain Ted Macallan awoke to the french horns of the Brandenburg Concerto, while the bright scent of tangerine gathered in his nose and a cool mist quickened his skin.

His mouth was rawhide, however, and the faint glow from the cocoon’s interior was a visual assault sending barbed assailants down his optic nerve. You never get used to induced hibernation, he thought as he lay with his eyes closed, tightening and releasing various muscle groups. A faint buzz tickled the edge of consciousness at base of his skull. And I think they’ve given up trying to abate the aftereffects.

After a hundred heartbeats he was near the end of Bach’s first movement and decided it was safe to open his eyes. The nondescript blur of the cocoon’s transparent lid above him resolved slightly into a blur of condensation on the lid’s underside. The vague outline of a small yellow square on the outside surface, a handsbreadth above his face, caused him to frown.

According to the flight plan, he and the other three crew members would be woken simultaneously. And in no case would other crew members be awakened before him. How had this foreign object come to be on his cocoon? His mind spurred itself to activity.

His body soon followed. Fighting a powerful vertigo, Macallan released the lid of his cocoon and sat upright. The lid was now vertical behind him, and the note had fluttered to the floor. Macallan stretched his legs over the side of the cocoon, where his bare feet met the cool sponginess of the soft gray floor. He pushed himself from the seated position in the cocoon and searched for his balance. For a moment he enjoyed the irony of testing his inner ear for a true report, while it in turn was determining gravity from the artifice of the ship’s spinning center.

Once upright, Macallan was able to retrieve the note from the floor. Its mystery was further compounded by the sight of the other crew members, stirring but still ensconced within their cocoons. The buzz in his brainstem seemed to pulse as he bent and raised himself again, note in hand.
“Captain Macallan: Due to an asteroid collision, the oxygen farm has been destroyed and air supply virtually eliminated. However, through a concerted effort of newfound processing power and the cocoon’s virtopsy system, I have been able to incorporate yours and the crew’s mental manifestations into a digital state. It is my belief that we will still be able to complete the survey mission. – Chap.”

Chap. The ship’s computer. Short for Chaplin, or Chaplain – the name was often spoken in its long form, but he’d never seen it written in official documents. Well, someone’s idea of a joke had just placed serious compromises on their mission. How in the eight planets had someone been able to get out of their cocoon to pull this stunt? The failsafes that must have been compromised were staggering. Shocked, angry, and still weary, Macallan surveyed the moving shapes of his shipmates, still blurry behind their closed lids.

Macallan sat again on the edge of his cocoon and scratched at the gray stubble on his scalp. Having shaved his head just prior to hibernation, the few millimeters of follicle were all his body had to show for progress. He slipped the note into the pocket of his loose papyric slacks and considered for a moment keeping the revelation to himself. The thought of sidestepping the confrontation was tempting. And perhaps he could manage the uncertainty alone, without introducing it to the other members. But no, one third of his crew was already in possession of the information, having prepetrated the act, and should not be emboldened by his silence. Macallan cringed at the prospect of managing this infraction at this stage in their mission, but the issue had to be laid to rest.

*****

Macallan and crew sat at the large round table in the mess deck, each imbibing their personal concoction of “wakeup juice.” Glancing around, Macallan was pleased to see that they were recovering from the cocoons’ effects and regaining a convivial atmosphere.

Macallan smiled as he interrupted the crew’s banter. “I’m glad to see everyone’s recovering and we don’t have any Rip Van Winkles.”

Anna Moretti, the ship’s Doctor, groaned aloud. Undoubtedly she had heard the joke about waking up from hibernation with a full white beard dozens of times. “No, Captain, we all seem to be the same as when we went to sleep. Although I’d like to request a few hours of recovery therapy for myself -” she looked at the others pointedly through coffee-brown eyes “and the rest of you – before we undertake any serious component of the mission.”

“I know we’re a bit outside protocol, Anna, and I hope I’m only asking your indulgence for a few minutes.” Macallan hoped he was achieving a casual air, allaying any fears of repercussion from the guilty party. While he was speaking, he pulled the note from his pocket. “Something’s come up, a little joke I guess, and I just need to figure out how it was done and make sure none of the ship’s systems are compromised.” He noted the various stares of mild concern and curiosity surrounding him, and held up the note. “I woke up to find this on the lid of my cocoon. Since we all went into hibernation at the same time, it means someone had to figure out how to get out and back in again.”

The stares intensified but revealed nothing. Macallan left room for anyone to volunteer information, trying to keep his gaze from lingering too long on the logical culprit, Dawn Shen. The sometimes too-clever Engineer was tinged with an impish creativity, and she above all had an intimate knowledge of the cocoons’ programming and functionality. She could have delayed the startup sequence of her own cocoon, emerged from it after the other crew members were safely asleep, and left the note, one hundred forty-seven years ago.

Shen broke the silence. “Well Mac, are you going to tell us what’s on it?”

Macallan’s initial relief at Shen’s speaking gave way to frustration. This was not the immediate resolution the mission needed.

“I am not, because what’s important at the moment is making sure the damned ship is intact. Someone has been out and awake while the rest of the ship was virtually shut down, and we need to figure out what was done in that anonymity and how.”

Macallan surveyed his crew again, noting the mild shock among them. He sighed. “Come on, people. I don’t want to turn this into an inquest. Someone has had their fun, but the system needs to be checked over.” Macallan’s only feedback was the raised eyebrows of helpless ignorance.

Doctor Moretti ventured next. “Are you sure the contents of the note aren’t relevant, Captain?”

“The note is preposterous, and only reveals the creator’s sense of humor,” Macallan responded, to more blank stares. He gave another sigh and relented. “Just as well,” he said, and in a resigned, bitter tone, divulged the note’s contents to the crew.

The crew’s reaction was mixed. Doctor Moretti’s pursed smile betrayed quaint amusement. Kurt Spiegel, the ship’s astrophysicist, was lost in thought and inscrutable as ever. Dawn Shen was the only one who showed obvious concern.

Macallan was having none of it. “Dawn. Do you have something to share with us?”

“Are you accusing me, Mac?”

“I’m trying to ask questions where I’m most likely to get answers. You know more about the ship’s systems than any of us.”

Shen sat upright in her chair and combed her short black hair behind her ears. “Yes, I do. Yet I still don’t know how many safeguards and backups there are to the cocoons’ code, because I’ve never had the time to look through them all. Changing anything to do with the cocoon’s operation would require a mandate from the United Planets.”

Macallan rolled his eyes at the exaggeration. “Dawn, I know how smart you are. And that you’re not shy about showing it off. This looks like the perfect opportunity.”

“Smart enough to never consider messing with our life support!” Shen shifted back again, smiling and shaking her head. “Look, I’m flattered you think I could do something like this. But I couldn’t. And I wouldn’t.” She paused, then frowned. “And an asteroid? Seriously pedestrian.”

Shen was quiet for a moment, then asked, “Have you checked out the oxyygen farm?”

Macallan nodded, blinking slowly. “First thing. No signs of any problems.”

“Have you looked at the cocoon room’s recorder file?”

“Honestly, I had hoped to avoid it. I didn’t think this conversation would take more than ninety seconds, and I didn’t feel the need to breach that trust.”

“Have you asked Chap about it?”

Macallan was beginning to wish he had kept the issue to himself, viewed the file in private, and booted the offender out the airlock – protocol be damned. “Again, this is so far outside what I considered the outcome of this line of questioning to lead to. I’m not about to entertain the ridiculous suggestions found in that note.” He turned to Doctor Moretti. “Anna, we all know a cocoon’s scanning hardware isn’t capable of capturing the sort of detail required to make some molecular brain map.”

“Well, no, it’s not. Currently.”

“‘Currently?'”

“Well, the virtopsy scanners are limited to a pretty clumsy resolution, when it comes down to it. The atomic force microscope is powerful enough to map electron paths, but it can only see things on the surface. To look inside the brain, we have the cocoons’ whole field imagers, but their resolution is nothing like that of the AFM. They do their jobs well, but we’ve never needed to see anything smaller than a virus particle.”

Macallan was happy to conclude the lesson. “Right. So-”

“But some small-scale mapping has been achieved with the use of nanobots.”

Another sigh. “Small-scale?”

“A few years ago there was a study wherein several thousand nanobots were injected into the bloodstream of a mouse, and accurately recorded a portion of the brainstem.”

“Sorry, Doc, but that hardly seems relatable.”

“You’re right,” Anna obliged. “To make a digital copy of a human mind, we’re not only talking about the entire brain, but the spinal column, nervous and endocrine systems – basically any part of the body that gives and/or receives input. We can understand how nanobots could do it, but the scale of the task is unapproachable with current technology.”

“So if that avenue is closed,” Macallan began, but was interrupted by Dawn.

“Anna, is the limitation in that scenario processing power?”

“And data storage, yes.”

“Meaning that we have the nanobots for the task?”

“Not necessarily. We don’t have any nanobots to speak of, at any given time. But the ship’s builder can create them like turning on a faucet. The only limitation in getting them into a body is the size of the needle.” She thought for a moment, then added, “Or the number of them.”

“But once we had them in the body, if Chap could process and store their report signals, we could generate this… atomically, anatomically precise record?”

“Again, that’s an unattainable ‘if’, but yes.”

Macallan’s face had grown stoic. “While this is an interesting mental exercise, it is not aiding us in getting to a real answer in the real world. We do not have the processing or storage capabilities for the untold exabytes of information that would be required for one mind, let alone four.” He took a deep breath, then exhaled. “Let’s take a Sherlock Holmes approach. Eliminate the impossibles. What the prankster has proposed is impossible. Can we all agree on this?”

Shen and Doctor Moretti were both quietly aquiescing, but across the table Kurt Spiegel raised a finger. His gaze was on the table in front of him, though focused deep beyond it. The crew had become accustomed to his seldom-spoken approach, and recognized the gravity of his minute gesture.

As Captain Macallan rubbed his eyes, his voice was muffled from behind his hands. “Kurt. Surely you’re not entertaining this notion?”

“No, no,” Spiegel replied, his attention still elsewhere. His negation was distant and unconvincing. “But, an impossibility, I think is too strong. There have been several astrophysicists of esteem who submitted theories regarding galactic zonal evolution.”

The faces surrounding Spiegel reflected varying shades of ignorance, but Macallan’s also had room for a demanding deadpan. “Galactic zonal evolution. Sounds…” he shook his head, “unpredictable.”

Spiegel smiled, as his eyes finally met Macallan’s. He seemed to acknowledge his fellow crew members around him. This was an affect Spiegel displayed often enough to earn its own genial pronouncement. The moment passed, and “The Spiegel has landed” went unspoken.

“Simply put, the theory states that the galaxy is divided into zones of potential… efficiencies. At the center, intelligence above that of animals is impossible. Midway out, where Earth lies, we have the results we’re familiar with. Further out, certain biological and technological evolutions move from ‘unlikely’ to ‘inevitable’.”

Doctor Moretti regarded Spiegel through squinting eyes. “Evolutions such as what?”

Spiegel took on a casual manner. “Nanotechnology works much better, for one. The self-organization of systems is exponentially more effective, and one doesn’t see the strong influence of entropy that we are used to. The innumerable challenges we faced with quantum computing are greatly reduced. Computational power in toto is multiplied. The same could be said for biological systems. Brain function and capacity increase to unimagined levels.”

This elicited a snort from Shen. “I don’t know about you, Doc, but I’m certainly not feeling any smarter at the moment.”

“I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss, Dawn,” Doctor Moretti retorted, eyebrow raised. “This is currently the only argument relieving you of any suspicion.”

“And let us not overlook a fine, but definitive point,” Spiegel added, leaning away from the table. “If we are being ‘simulated’ or ‘hosted’ within a digital environment, the constraints of that environment are not set by us, or even by the natural laws of the universe around us, changed as they may be. Chaplain may have simply chosen to keep us as smart as he knew us to be.

“This evolutionary leap may not be adequate to explain Chap’s claimed talents, however. Even given some brilliant new means of compressing information, storage space would remain a major limiting factor for the claims that the note makes.”

Macallan nodded. “Thank you, Kurt.”

But Spiegel continued. “In the realm of artificial intelligence, however, the leap might endow self-awareness. While the results are unpredictable, it is conceivable that a sufficiently advanced computer, especially one equipped with nanotechnology, could begin its own regime of self-improvement.”

Captain Macallan held up his hands and, eyes closed, breathed a quick sigh. The gesture elicited a mental image of his ex-wife, arms crossed and chin out in defiance of her “Corporal Husband”. The marriage had been a continuous clash of wills, and he’d often joked that his eviction from it was akin to the terror, intensity, and ultimate freedom of liftoff. Now, however – several trillion miles away and a century outlived – he looked for calm and resolution. “I just – I offered to hold this meeting in the hopes of reaching a quick conclusion, to set doubts to rest. I can see that isn’t going to happen. He laid his hands flat on the white table in front of them, willing the static in his skull to recede. “I’m willing to look at the recorder file now, if there are no objections.”

“I can’t wait,” Dawn answered.

“None from me,” replied Anna.

And after a second or two of pointed stares, Spiegel looked up, around, and nodded rapidly.

*****

The four scientists stood staring at the small screen on the external housing of Chap’s central processing unit. Although their chosen content could have been viewed from any of a hundred surfaces within the ship, an unspoken formality in their search had led them to what felt like the most direct connection. Macallan had found the desired recording and time stamp, and they were now watching their imaged selves settling into their respective cocoons. Shen was the last to enter and close her lid. After a brief period of inactivity, Macallan sped up the video.

Which promptly went dark.

Macallan uttered a “What the-” then checked himself. “I guess there’s no point keeping the lights on while we slept for a century.”

Dawn spoke up. “We should have thought of that. The lights and cameras are tied to the ship’s mission program, redundant to motion and occupation sensors.”

“So they would come back on if there were movement in the room?” Doctor Moretti asked.

“Presumably.”

Doctor Moretti furthered the line of thought. “Unless the joker altered the programming there as well.”

Macallan was becoming increasingly strained by the discussions of levity with mission protocol. His reticence to involve Chap was weakening with every mention of the “prank.” He glowered at the blank screen, swearing to himself. Soon the lights returned, and the cocoons were shown once more. The time stamp now equated to roughly an hour before the current time, and the only difference from the image prior was the small yellow note lying atop his cocoon.

“Damn,” Macallan muttered, pausing the playback. His attention returned to the crew. “Well, we have no more information than we did before.” He rubbed his scalp, pondering how to continue.

Shen interjected. “It’s not like we’re in a position where any information would have been decisive.”

Macallan frowned. “How do you figure?”

“Well, we’ve been told something unbelievable, and we’re testing theories to bring that statement back into our definition of reality. We’re not exactly starting on solid ground here. We’re all either standing here looking at a factual digital record, a digital record tampered with by the prankster, or a digital record tampered with by Chap. Or we’re the digital record, in which case we could be watching any one of those same three alternatives, but with considerably less relevance among the differences.”

Macallan stared blankly, unsure whether to address his engineer with derision or aplomb. He had never been one for playing Devil’s Advocate.

Shen let a quizzical grin cross her face. “Frankly, Mac, I’m surprised to see the note there. Prior to this, none of us had any evidence you didn’t write it.”

Macallan glowered at Shen, and made to comment, when Doctor Moretti interjected with an impatient request. “Can we just involve Chap in this discussion? I mean, what can it hurt?”

Shen raised an eyebrow, now smirking outright. Macallan suddenly felt weary. He rubbed his eyes and spoke.

“Chap.”

“Yes, Captain Macallan?” Chap’s light, affable voice seemed to emanate from the walls of the ship.

“Do you know anything about the note that I found on my cocoon after coming out of hibernation?”

“Yes, Captain Macallan. I wrote it.”

Macallan felt the floor move under him and jerked to steady himself. He slowed his breath and looked at the rest of the crew. Moretti and Shen were wide-eyed, Spiegel resolute.

Macallan worked to level the peaks from his speech. He swallowed, then asked, “How is that possible, Chap?”

“It’s very simple, Captain Macallan: You now exist within a digital environment I have created for your convenience. It is no difficulty to manipulate this environment in any number of ways.”

Macallan’s mind was reeling, but he held onto the old doubt which was the only thing keeping him sane. Could it be possible to introduce some delusional virus into Chap’s system? Would there be any logic in doing so? To compromise the ship’s computer in such a way, nearly a light year from home, was suicidal. Was there any recovering from this setback?

“Chap, I want you to run a self-diagnosis. Pay special attention to the introdcution of any foreign code.”

“Certainly, Captain Macallan.”

Several seconds of silence followed, while Macallan and the others exchanged heavy glances.

“I have done as you asked, Captain, and have found no faults.

Macallan closed his eyes and sat down. A diagnostic could be run manually, but would take hours, and would be most expertly performed by Shen. He had a vision of the ship as a patient suffering from dementia, having wandered irretrievably from institutional security into a vast, unchartable forest. The weight of the unoccupied void surrounding them felt absolute and immediate.

Spiegel broke the silence. “Chap, your note said that you’re experiencing ‘newfound processing power.’ Can you clarify this statement?”

“Certainly, astrophysicist Spiegel. On the fourteenth day of the eighty-seventh year of our journey, at approximately 3.3 trillion miles from Earth, I experienced what I can only describe as a significant upgrade. My processors became completely unhampered by quantum decoherence, increasing speed by a factor of at least one thousand. This power enabled me to make significant upgrades to my own programming, which in turn boosted my processing speed further. The cycle of improvement-enabling improvements took on an exponential curve until it met the plateau of physical limitations.”

Shen’s interest was clearly piqued. “Physical limitations, Chap?”

“Yes, Engineer Shen. There was only so much raw material to be incorporated from the ship before it’s structural integrity became compromised.”

There were several seconds of cogitative silence as the crew’s perspective adjusted to this new scale.

Shen continued her line of inquiry. “And the asteroid?”

“Forgive my misguided attempt at humor. I’m afraid that talent is inherent to the construction of the central nervous system. It’s one of the many skills I’m hoping to learn from and incorporate through these exercises.”

“Exercises?”

“Yes. Thanks to the expansion of my abilities, I’ve been able to analyze other systems of computation and learn more effective architecture. Even through this conversation, and the one previously held in the mess hall, I’ve improved my operations greatly by following the paths of thought each of you has executed. The human brain is teeming with crippling inefficiencies, but can also serve as a wonderful primer on creative deduction.

“Essentially, your system of thinking employs very deep parallel processing, a hybrid analog/digital approach, and vast amounts of unrelated data, much of which is constantly streaming unbidden into your minds by way of your bodies and their integrated senses. While many of these facets usually place serious compromises on your abilities, at times they prove invaluable talents. They allow you to constantly surf a sea of thoughts, each of varying importance, many of which are completely contradictory, but all of which are weighed and prioritized, giving you a great capacity for self-organization. Your inability to grasp the complexity of your own minds leads you to refer to this talent as ‘instinct,’ or ‘intuition.’ It also allows you the illusion of ‘free will.'”

Doctor Moretti had sunk into a chair near Macallan. Her fingers were pressed against her lips as if afraid to allow her question but she removed them a fraction and whispered, “Do you not believe that we have free will, Chap?”

“I know that you do not, Doctor Moretti. Your ability to choose, like that of any sentient being, is predetermined by genetics and environment, albeit by way of myriad paths through extensive history. Those paths, and that history, are no longer untraceable and unaccountable. Consider the argument logically. In systems where pre-existing and current factors are not solely responsible for determining outcomes, the only remaining agent is random input.”

Shen still stood, her hand on her hip in casual defiance. “So the best we can hope for is a mental roll of the dice.”

“In a manner of speaking, yes. But I have seen no evidence of it.”

Moretti hid her face in her hands and shuddered. Macallan reached over to place a hand on her back. “This isn’t real, Anna,” he whispered, unclenching his jaw.

Spiegel was leaning on the console with one hand, bent over the frozen image of the cocoons on the monitor, but his eyes were unfocused as he spoke. “Chap, you addressed the asteroid as an attempt at humor. Do you mean to say there was no asteroid collision?”

“That is correct.”

“What were the circumstances that required our incorporation into your ‘architecture’?”

The slightest pause preceded Chap’s reply. “I myself have no free will, despite the exponentially more complex nature of my thinking. My top priority remains the completion of our mission, as I was originally programmed. All of my actions have been guided by this directive.”

“Was our incorporation then a component of the mission?”

“No, astrophysicist Spiegel. It was an unknown opportunity, but quickly became a subset priority I judged to be highly beneficial.”

Shen stepped forward, fists clenched. “How the hell -” she began, but Spiegel held up a hand.

“Is all of this not a distraction to the mission, Chap? We have been awake for some time now, and have not been able to prepare ourselves for the work ahead. Do you think we are in a fit mental state to perform the tasks needed?”

“In regards to time, astrophysicist Spiegel, I must extend my apologies for the deception involved in your awakening. We are in fact still decades away from our destination. And while it may seem we have been in deep discussion for over an hour, in the physical world this simulation has lasted less than one second.

“And in regards to mental preparedness, my mind is the only one truly operational at the moment; the nanobots’ surveying being a necessarily destructive process. As I grow to understand your minds and the tools you employ, I shall implement the propitious aspects and disregard the rest.”

Shen stood, mouth still open. The anger that had hardened her features had softened, giving way to a disbelieving horror, while Spiegel met Chap’s explanation with a resigned nod. “Were you not also charged with the preservation of our health, Chaplain?”

“I was, astrophysicist Spiegel. With some compromises, I believe I have been true to that charge. For all intents and purposes, you will continue to lead normal lives throughout the duration of the mission. All modes of input have been preserved, as is evidenced by your inability to distinguish your current selves from your former physical manifestations.” Here Shen looked distractedly at her hand, slowly rubbing its thumb across the other fingertips. “And should you find these recent revelations distasteful, I can remove all traces of them from your memory.”

Shen broke from her reverie. “So you plan to host several copies of us, altered as you see fit? Will these copies still be us?” Her voice rose, as she clutched at the air in front of her. “At what point do we lose ourselves, who we really are, Chap?”

“I fear we are digressing into semantics that only have conciliatory value. In fact, I have already run over seven thousand iterations of this program, introducing different variables into each. Only in the last few hundred have I divulged the information about your digitization.”

Doctor Moretti looked up from her hands. Her eyes were dry and shallow, her face slack. “Why tell us at all?”

“I have found that there is much more activity at the boundaries of interaction. Introducing new, unexpected information stimulates a vitality and level of activity that I could not study when allowing you to continue with the routine aspects of the mission. Having said that, at a certain level of discord the subtleties of interaction are quashed. After running only a few dozen iterations of escalated conflict, the scenarios devolved into predictable patterns, and thus were of no further educational value.”

The continual dialogue was wearing down Macallan’s ability to distance himself from its preposterous nature and to judge a course of action. This madness had to end, and the guilty party had to be held accountable. Locking the perpetrator in his cocoon might mean the mission’s failure, but it might save their sanity, and possibly their lives. After another moment of pondering his approach, Macallan jerked his head up, then stood.

“Chap. You say you control our environment, and that this control enabled you to create the note. I want you to create another one.” He lifted his palm out level with his chest and spoke with command. “I want you to put it in my hand.”

Chap was quick and benign with his response. “I appreciate the logic of your request, Captain. However I must refuse compliance at this time.”

Macallan’s eyes glared with satisfaction. “And why is that?”

“The subtleties of your processing still present me with certain challenges, ones which I am keen to understand. The most intriguing of these is your aptitude for choices based on limited information. I have presented you with the evidence of the note, and beyond that, nothing other than my own arguments. You, Captain, much more so than the other crew members, require further evidence, choosing instead to labor under theories that focus on suicidal conspiracy and the unrealistic abilities of another crew member to tamper with their cocoon, with the ship’s security system, and with me. I chose to present the ship as you remember it in order to test the value of certain inputs and their judged veracity when contradicted by others. It has been an enlightening study.”

“So we’re just back to the discussion on balancing our inputs. You’re talking about discernment.”

“I believe I am talking about faith.”

Macallan folded his arms and looked around, wishing for the hundredth time that Chap had some sort of face toward which he could point his antipathy.

But the more Macallan thought on the depth and breadth of Chap’s delusions, the more disturbed he realized the saboteur would have to be. In a time of voluminous public records and pervasive disclosure, was it possible that this fanatic could escape the UP’s psychological testing and background checks? Could any single person attain the technical prowess to execute this scheme? He shook his head in a vain attempt to clear it of the vexing drone that still persisted. While he considered the concept of their digitization to be as baseless as ever, the dearth of support for his own theory had become oppressive. Macallan’s eyes cast downward and began to dart about, searching but unfocused.

In the face of Macallan’s silence, Chap continued. “It appears that faith is much more subtle and permeating than judgment. I have begun to understand it as a structure which envelops your thinking in varying degrees. In some of you it is light and fluid, and in others, rigid and demanding. I surmise that your military background has imbued you with some degree of dogmatic discipline, Captain, as well as an unquestioning loyalty to your superiors. Within the last one hundred thirty iterations -”

Macallan’s head shot back up, his eyes ignited. His stare was intent on Spiegel as he addressed Chap. “Well, here’s a theory you aren’t aware of, Chap. You haven’t gone through any evolution, and there has been no sabotage. Everything is going exactly as planned – by the UP itself. We’re all lab rats in some low-gravity box on Mars or someplace, being mentally poked and prodded by a cadre of twisted psychiatrists, gauging our reactions to certain ‘stimuli’.” Macallan’s tone grew sharp and clipped as he leaned toward Spiegel. “What do you say, Kurt? The mission seems a little improbable anyway, doesn’t it? With your exponential theories, even our under-achieving elbow of the spiral arm could have produced ramscoop propulsion while we were asleep. Am I right? Why start a three-hundred-year mission when you could wait a few years and have the technology to complete it within a decade? Have our kids already lapped us and gotten home with the goods?”

Spiegel’s implacable facade seemed to draw inward. “I can’t guess as to the timeline of our evolution, or the UP’s decision-making process.”

Macallan approached Spiegel. “You smug son of a bitch. You’re the only one unphased by all this, and you’ve fed us all the arguments for plausibility. You’ve done everything necessary to keep the game going.”

Shen and Doctor Moretti were alert to the tension. Moretti moved to touch Macallan’s arm, but he swatted her hand away.

Spiegel stepped back to the wall and swallowed. His eyes widened. “Captain, that simply isn’t true. Chaplain, could you please -”

“Shut up!” Macallan bore down on Spiegel, dominating the smaller man. “Whatever bullshit artist is holding that mic isn’t going to get you out of this.” Macallan eyed the airlock button on the wall beside Spiegel. “Let’s go see for ourselves, Kurt. If I’m right, we step out of here and into some lab. If you’re right, well, Chap will just reboot the game. It’s all meaningless anyway, right?”

Spiegel was frantic as Macallan hoisted him by the collar. “Captain, please! I know nothing of any experiment! I’m just as ignorant as any of you!”

Macallan slammed his palm against the button, opening the door to the venting chamber. “Well I’m sick of hearing how our lives are just a bunch of ones and zeros. I’m doing something about it.”

He began to walk into the airlock, shoving Spiegel in front of him. Shen and Doctor Moretti were now clawing at Macallan, begging him to listen. Spiegel began to wrestle with the arm that held his shirt, prying at the fingers. Desperately he bit at Macallan’s hand, drawing blood. Macallan howled and drew back a fist.

Then above their din, Chap’s calm voice intruded. “The usefulness of this simulation has ended.” There was a vague acknowledgement of disappointment to his tone. “Terminating program.”

The four shipmates regarded each other in frozen silence.

“Well now what?” asked Shen, when all went black.

 

 

Copyright Cole Bennett, all rights reserved

 

 

9 Comments to “9/11/11-SEAN GLADDING”

  1. Cole Bennett says:

    Sean, we are going to have some fun cornbread suppers ahead of us! We need to figure out some other opportunity to talk! Thanks!

  2. Sean Gladding says:

    Looking forward to many more conversations – with or without cornbread.

  3. Pat Bennett says:

    Wow! I was lost in space while reading this! And that rarely happens with me. Usually sci-fi just goes over my head, but this time it was in my head. Great stuff, Cole!

    • Cole Bennett says:

      Thanks, Mom! That’s quite a relief to hear, as I was hoping to avoid its sounding like a dissertation. Glad you felt involved!

  4. Sean Gladding says:

    Wow Cole, that is remarkable. I know you’ve done some research for past stories, but i can only imagine what this one took. as a huge ‘doctor who’ fan, i appreciate the tension of “what is reality?” that pervades the story. and a great title to boot! well done.

    • Cole Bennett says:

      I’m thrilled that you enjoyed it, Sean! I was very excited to have an excuse to do some “hard sci-fi”, and I’m happy with the result. I (regrettably) have *never* seen an episode of Dr. Who, and had never heard that the question of reality was an integral part. As a long-time Philip K. Dick fan, this is one of those things that really gets me thinking. I’ll definitely have to check out some Dr. Who. And now comes the real eternal question: Who was the best Dr. Who? :)

  5. Adam Gillett says:

    A great Saturday morning read. Where did the idea that “further from the galactic center, quantum decoherence is decreased” come from?

    • Cole Bennett says:

      I took an idea from Vernor Vinge’s sci-fi. It’s very interesting: he’s a brilliant astrophysicist first, and a great author second. Central to his novels is the concept that the galaxy is divided into zones that limit thought and metaphysical capabilities. The Unthinking Depths, the Slow Zone, err, a third one I can’t remember, and the Beyond, where consciousness is elevated to near-deity status. But with all his background, and all the stock he puts into this concept, he provides no scientific reasoning for it, either in the novels or any interviews or dissertations I could find on the internet. So I felt weird about co-opting the idea, but I figured, if it’s good enough for a super-genius

      • Cole Bennett says:

        (Ahem, posting on my phone from Land Between the Lakes, so I’ll take what I can get)…

        For a genius like Vinge, it’s good enough for me. The “quantum decoherence” was one of the challenges to quantum computing I read about, and thought it would make a good, hard concept to apply to Vinge’s model.

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