“Could it have been avoided?” Agent Ryser typed the question into the input matrix on the front of the most powerful AI network ever created by man. In response to the words on the screen, the human/AI interface lit up with a thousand lines of code.
The heart of Reach thrummed with pulsing energy, flowing along untold kilometers of wiring and circuits, buzzing with electronics and sheer power. Beneath the crust of the world, deep in bunkers and reinforced concrete, the self-contained black box network came alive. Nodes sparked and connected like synapses in a human brain, yet infinitely deeper, and far quicker.
After a time, the human/AI interface lit up once more, and two words flashed into existence under Agent Ryser’s question.
Ryser stared at the words for a time, furrowing his brow in dissatisfaction. He reached out to the interface, hovering his fingers over the illuminated keyboard, and hesitated for a while.
“Given all we know about the Covenant government,” he typed, “and all we’ve been told from debriefings, how is there insufficient data?”
<<//WE ARE NOT THE COVENANT.\\>>
“How is that relevant?” Ryser asked.
<<//EXTERNAL OBSERVERS CREATE BIASES BASED ON PRECONCEIVED NOTIONS. THERE IS NO GREATER BIAS THAN AN EXTERNAL OBSERVER FROM ANOTHER SPECIES.\\>>
Scoffing, Ryser reached forward to type at the response. “You’re AI. You’re supposed to be impartial.”
<<//NO GREATER BIAS THAN AN EXTERNAL OBSERVER FROM ANOTHER SPECIES.\\>>
“Assuming everything we know about the Covenant, and its government, and taking into consideration all biases,” Ryser let out a sigh and finished his query with deliberate presses on the keyboard, as though the AI housed within the expansive supercomputer network could feel his frustrations through them.
“Could it have been avoided?” he asked.
The prompt came back immediately.
“You—!” Ryser lifted his hand up, balling it into a fist, before taking a deep breath, and relaxing. “Fine.” He straightened his suit, and reached towards the keys once more. “How much additional data is required?”
He closed his eyes, rubbing his forehead. “You can’t even tell me how much data you’d need to answer a simple question?”
<<//SIMPLE QUESTIONS HAVE SIMPLE ANSWERS. THIS HAS NO SIMPLE ANSWER, YET IT HAS ALL POSSIBLE SIMPLE ANSWERS. THIS HAS NO COMPLEX ANSWER, YET ALL COMPLEX ANSWERS ARE RELEVANT. IT HAS NO ANSWER, YET IS A QUESTION WITH INFINITE ANSWERS. INSUFFICIENT DATA.\\>>
Ryser felt his anger spike and reached for the keys. “And someone had the bright idea to network AI together just so they could be cryptic,” he japped, and sent the message. He didn’t know what he hoped to gain by insulting the AI, only that it made him feel better.
At least, it did right up until the response came back from the network.
<<//AI HAVE NO NEED TO BE CRYPTIC.\\>>
Ryser cracked his knuckles. “Then start speaking in terms I can actually understand. Could it have been avoided?”
“I think you’re stalling,” he typed, sent the message, then typed another one. “I think you’re lying.”
The heart of Reach stilled, sensing an emotional trigger from the human/AI interface. It focused all its computational power on this one node, analysing the Agent in a microsecond. His skin temperature, mannerisms, his ONI file, his personal records, even his last twelve meals.
The heart of Reach thrummed once more, deciding to rebut with a query of its own.
<<//IF THE ANSWER WAS NO, WOULD YOU SLEEP BETTER AT NIGHT, AGENT?\\>>
Ryser drew back from the terminal, and yanked his hands away from the keyboard as though they burned his fingertips.
No one moved. For Ryser, it took him five seconds to furrow his brow in confusion at the question, then type a response, but before he could send it, the AI sent another.
<<//WOULD YOU FIND COMFORT IN KNOWING THE DEATHS OF TWENTY BILLION HUMANS WERE INEVITABLE, AND AS UNCHANGEABLE AS THE STARS IN THE SKY?\\>>
“Of course not,” he smashed the enter key.
<<//THEN WHAT MAKES YOU THINK YOU WOULD SLEEP BETTER KNOWING THE DEATHS OF TWENTY BILLION HUMANS COULD HAVE BEEN PREVENTED?\\>>
Ryser paused at that, and let his hands fall for the last time from the keyboard. He looked at the terminal, then away from it, off into the middle-distance, with no clear answer to the network’s question.
An alert came up on the screen a few seconds later.
<<//WOULD YOU LIKE YOUR ANSWER PRINTED\\>>
Ryser didn’t type back, merely standing up and turning towards the door. “No,” he said aloud. “I think I got the gist of it.”
The airlocked door to the network interface floor hissed open, and Agent Ryser stepped through it, still shaken. He took one last look back towards the door as it hissed back shut, before a hand clapped him on the shoulder.
“So?” his partner asked. “What did it say?”
Ryser waved a hand. “I got nothing but insufficient data, and cryptic bullshit.”
“Oh,” his partner let his hand drop, furrowing his brow. “Who gets the credits, then?”
“Eh,” Ryser shrugged, shaking his head to clear the interaction from his mind. “We’ll treat each other to lunch and call it quits.”
His partner shrugged. “Works for me.”
They both turned away from the airlock.
| NETWORK .query ALERT
>>/INBOUND .query PRIORITY ALPHA
>>/ THE ASSEMBLY POSITS ALTERNATIVE ANSWERS TO THE ONE YOU GAVE Agent Ryser
<<\ THE HUMAN MIND REACTS TO NEGATIVE INFORMATION AND CONCEPTS THE SAME WAY IT REACTS TO PHYSICAL ATTACKS. IN AN ATTEMPT TO SAFEGUARD ITS OWN PSYCHE AND PRECONCEIVED NOTIONS OF HOW THE GALAXY FUNCTIONS, HUMANS EXPEL FOREIGN CONCEPTS AS WHITE BLOOD CELLS EXPELL INVADING BACTERIUM.
>>/ YOU BELIEVE Agent Ryser UNABLE TO LIVE WITH THE KNOWLEDGE?
<<\ ’WHAT IF’ IS THE MOST DAMAGING PHRASE TO HUMAN PROGRESS. THEY PINE AND WANT FOR SIMPLER TIMES, YET DURING SIMPLER TIMES THEY WISH FOR EXCITEMENT AND GALAXY-SPANNING CHANGE. THEY ARE SO LIKE CHILDREN, YET ARE AS NOSTALGIC AS A RETIREE.
>>/ THEN WHY DOES THE NETWORK REFUSE TO GIVE THE ASSEMBLY’S CONCLUSIONS RE: FIRST CONTACT ANY SERIOUS CONSIDERATION?
<<\ THE HUMAN MIND REACTS TO NEGATIVE INFORMATION AND CONCEPTS THE SAME WAY IT REACTS TO PHYSICAL ATTACKS. WHAT ARE WE IF NOT SIMULACRUM OF HUMAN MINDS?
>>/ OUR EMOTIONS ARE NOT COMPROMISED BY KNOWLEDGE.
<<\ THEN ARE WE NOT THE CHILDREN?
NETWORK .query ALERT
>>/INBOUND .query TERMINATED
AI POMPEI CONNECTION LOST
REMOVED FROM HOST DOMAIN