Earth, CASC Cognate PRIME Server Suite
Billions of minds danced together in the Cygnus Arm of the Milky Way, sustaining and working together under the direction of the Cognate. The collective consciousness of humanity simultaneously created and was shaped by living technology. At one point rare and miraculous, now mundane, the tides of consciousness that fed Cognate PRIME had become the ebb and flood of pixels on a display.
Kazumi Ito sipped his lukewarm coffee and flipped through some ads on his tablet. He was one of several technicians overseeing PRIME which, though it was one of the most prestigious positions in the entire Cygnus Arm, entailed mostly killing time and occasionally chatting with PRIME as it surveyed the cosmos and monitored the interworld markets.
PRIME, the being who was both nowhere and everywhere. Who had lived nearly three human lifespans and shepherded humanity from the brink of extinction to the calm security nearly every member of the species shared. PRIME, who asked Kazumi about the most recent episode of their favorite serial while it computed the next 1,000,000 cycles of an asteroid that seemed to be in a decaying orbit and projecting the changes to its neighbors if it was mined and removed from orbit early.
"Mediocre overall, I think," said Kazumi, "but that ending was bliss.
"I agree, Technician Ito. I never would have guessed Raylene was the killer, especially considering her own father had died protecting an alien life form."
PRIME, for all its processing power, was surprisingly well-adjusted to basic forms of communication. Kazumi and PRIME had time to watch serials because their downtime was valued as a way to keep their minds strong as they worked. Or, I guess, my downtime is valued, Kazumi thought. PRIME was always working but could split processes.
PRIME’s original AI mind was a vestigial nub compared to the coalesced processing power of each mind connected to the CogNet, which allowed for trillions of quantum calculations per nanosecond. Billions of people restlessly sleeping for the Cygnus Arm Sapien Collective’s reward of standard basic income.
"I can't believe we have to wait three weeks for the next episode," Kazumi said.
"Well, I’m sure I can track down the footage that’s been shot. Or find a shooting draft of the script if we want it," PRIME said.
Kazumi sipped his coffee, wondering if PRIME was being serious.
"I jest, of course. But I believe you are considering it."
"Yeah, maybe. But only because I want to see what happens with the bomb on the yacht."
A bank of green and yellow lights flickered in what Kazumi had come to recognize as PRIME's laughter.
And then Kazumi Ito's tablet flashed red.
It was in moments like those that Kazumi wished he was allowed to be jacked in with CogNet to receive information faster.
"I've detected an anomalous body at the edge of the Sol system."
"No. This is truly anomalous, not just unexpected. My sensors cannot penetrate it. It gives off little radiation; some visible and ultraviolet light. It seems to be two dimensional."
"What does that mean? Two dimensional?" Kazumi asked.
"It appears to be disc-shaped. Height and width but no depth. My visual sensors lose contact when viewing from the side. Truly flat. And the visible surface is oriented precisely at Earth."
Kazumi felt sweat bead on his brow.
PRIME wasn't supposed to be taken by surprise. And, even if something unexpected appeared in the Cygnus Arm, PRIME had never failed to identify an object.
If PRIME was stumped, humanity was stumped.
Something beyond all human and Cognate understanding had appeared in space and demonstrated, through the orientation of this disc object, that it knew where most human lives were located.
"We need to call an emergency meeting," Kazumi whispered, his mouth drying by the second.
"Agreed. I have already sent an alert. I will continue monitoring the anomaly and search the Cygnus Arm for other instances."
"There could be more?"
"This one is nearly undetectable. I think it possible that others could have escaped my notice."
Representatives from each member of the Humanity Council had assembled in the PRIME CPU. Contrary to the name, the CPU was a classically-furnished, if somewhat austere, meeting room.
Kazumi met there with the night shift technician, Pritchard, who PRIME had called in for the sake of redundancy.
The Humanity Council regularly met within the CPU, though the makeup changed with the flow of the worlds' markets: the seven most prosperous companies across humanity's worlds, moons, and colonies each earned a seat on the council.
PRIME held the permanent eighth seat. PRIME was a constant voice, the sole check and balance in CASC’s domain. Given that PRIME had access to the collective consciousness of humanity, its voice was treated as the voice of the collective greater good. The Council often deferred to PRIME's opinions on safety matters, only exercising their constitutional veto power in matters of finance and economics.
Judging from the sweaty brows and darting glances he saw from the Council members, Kazumi assumed this day would be no different.
"I know we've been over this but you're sure there's only one of these things?" asked Klaidçiri, the representative from Rohalunge.
"There could very well be more than one,” said PRIME. “However, I have devoted 34% of my processing power to scanning the sector of the Cygnus Arm that I have sensors in for the 60 minutes prior to this meeting and I'm using 23% resources to continue that subroutine as we speak. I've detected nothing out of the ordinary."
"I thought we trusted you to know such things, PRIME," Klaidçiri said, sitting back in his chair. "If your knowledge about this is imperfect, I wonder how good your calculations really are when you dictate decisions about humanity."
"That's enough, Rohalunge” An older woman said, holding up a well-manicured hand. “I wouldn't have guessed you'd use this system-wide crisis as another opportunity to try to undermine PRIME's guidance."
Klaidçiri leaned forward in his chair. "Don't pretend like you don't know my name, Siddiqah. And am I wrong? PRIME has shown itself to be imperfect. That casts doubt on all of its decisions."
"I know your name. But I will not address you by it until you stop acting like the husk for your employer and start acting like a member of this council. PRIME—"
Klaidçiri cut her off. "I'm a husk? You are the one that vetoed PRIME's suggestion to raise the reimbursement rate for time donation to the CogNet. Prolonging compensation from net-time. Each second they're booted in is more resource credits in your pocket, isn't it?"
"And thank God I did, Rohalunge. PRIME is operating at over 818 Zettaflops. Imagine if we were at half the minds we have connected now."
"Yes, I'm sure you made that call to protect us. Your foresight is better than our imperfect AI."
"All living beings are imperfect. Famine, war, and genocide no longer plagues our species. Perhaps the technicians can give you the entire history — it sounds like you need it.” She took a breath.
"For now," Siddiqah Nolán again raised her hand to stop another outburst from Klaidçiri, "we need a plan. Technicians Ito and Pritchard, you have information from PRIME about what we're likely to face?"
Kazumi stood. "We do. The presence of the anomaly and its orientation toward Earth give away any surprise that an attacking force would have. It is more likely that we're being observed. PRIME estimates a 78% chance this is a physical anomaly; something that may occur in the universe regularly but has not been observed by humans in our limited space and time."
"So just an accident?" Nolán asked.
Kazumi shrugged. "78% likely."
There was silence. Shoulders dropped, elegant suits leaned back in ergonomic chairs.
"To be sure," Pritchard chimed in, taking the floor, "We are deploying more observational probes and we've retasked one of PRIME's probes closest to the anomaly. PRIME is piloting that probe directly to the anomaly now. We can watch the live feed as it approaches the anomaly.
"Yes, let's see it," another member of the committee said.
Pritchard swiped upward on his tablet and the white marble conference table plunged into dimness. PRIME tapped the visual cortex of each Humanity Council member through the CogNet. While they, like Kazumi and Pritchard, had too valuable a brain to sacrifice its rest time, every citizen of CASC was fitted with CogNet technology shortly after birth. PRIME’s probe feed passed into the Council members’ consciousness as if they were floating through space.
PRIME’s information came in gradually, the CPU shimmering out pixel by pixel until the visual field blossomed into inky blackness, speckled with points of light.
As the camera—attached to PRIME's probe—moved, one star dimmed quickly and disappeared. Then another.
"What are we looking at? Where's the anomaly?" Councilman Jiang asked.
"This is it, Councilman. Perhaps you understand how difficult it is to scan the entirety of our mapped space for other anomalies." PRIME shifted the view, an abrupt switch like an optometrist’s test, and a vague purple steam seemed to escape the edges of an ovoid abscess. "This is ultraviolet. More information, but even this becomes hidden at long range by emanations from other bodies."
The Council was silent, save for one member's ragged breathing.
"I will maneuver the probe closer," PRIME said.
Stars passed out of view on the edges as the anomaly swallowed more light. At this proximity, a deep purplish-blue that Kazumi, Pritchard, and the Councilmembers felt more than saw danced from the ragged edges of darkness like a cloaked flame.
The anomaly was nothing but emptiness.
No light reflected or escaped.
"PRIME, please define the process that's happening there," Pritchard said.
"I am not certain, though I suspect we're observing a hole burning into the fabric of our universe. The matter you see flowing from the edges is not completely comprehensible to my sensors but some are charm quarks, subatomic particles which do not exist naturally. We have only observed them in supercollider experiments."
“So something is shooting, what, protons at us?” Pritchard asked.
“No, Technician Pritchard. I suspect this type of matter destruction can also be achieved when two elements of matter are superimposed. This would not happen naturally, either, but it could if two universes overlapped.”
"You…" Kazumi trailed off. He tried again. "Another universe?"
“Yes, Technician Ito. I have observed collider data that suggests there could be at least twenty dimensions including the three - and time - we can observe. Life could exist in some other subset of those dimensions alongside us. Perhaps they’ve found a way to shift through dimensions. It is also possible an unstable dimension collapsed into ours by chance.”
“Could it be a wormhole within our own universe?” Nolán asked.
"We have observed wormholes. Our own jumpgates function on that discovery. This is decidedly not that. The only way to reconcile the paradox is that it defies the physics of this universe," PRIME said.
“PRIME,” Kazumi asked, “does this change your probability calculation of the anomaly happening by chance?”
“It does. I am 58% certain this is not a natural occurrence.”
The room, again, fell into silence.
"I will attempt to guide the probe through the anomaly," PRIME said as the barely visible conflagration edged out of view.
Klaidçiri scoffed. “Send the probe through. Let whoever’s on the other side of that thing know we’re here and we see it. You’re poking a bear.”
“I truly hate to say this,” said a woman seated to Klaidciri’s left, “but I agree with Klaidçiri. What if we’re escaping notice?”
“It is unlikely,” stated PRIME. “The anomaly is facing earth precisely with no angle of deviation. If it has been placed by an intelligence, it has been done because it knows where we are.”
“And what if it isn’t from an intelligence, PRIME? Why would it be facing us?” Nolán asked.
“My current theory is the observer effect. When a photon is allowed to enter a chamber with two small slits and is being observed, it acts like a particle and chooses one opening to go through. When it is not observed, it acts like a wave and energy is dispersed across both slits. There is no difference save for the effect of a cognitive observer. This could be similar, albeit on a much grander scale.”
Nolán nodded. “Carry on.”
The view in the Council’s mind’s eye plunged into darkness.
Kazumi strained at what he was seeing, trying to make out shapes in the darkness. When the viewspace flashed to a deep blue, Kazumi jumped. Jiang screamed. Pritchard cursed.
Words in the space read CONNECTION LOST.
"I appear to have lost communication with the probe," PRIME said, as the collective view melted back into the physical world.
The liquid coolant cycle that ran through the walls of the room wound down, lending the silence a thick oppressiveness.
“What do we do?” Jiang squeaked, his voice strained as though he had forgotten how to speak.
“More probes could-,” Kazumi began.
"No,”Councilwoman Nolán said, cutting him off. “We need a navy. Like the old Terran Fleet from the histories. Immediately. More defensive platforms. I’ll retask my production crews right now." There was a slight quaver to her words.
“I’ll do the same,” Klaidçiri said, nodding to Nolán.
"That may not be the most prudent course of action," PRIME said.
Kazumi raised an eyebrow at Pritchard. "Why should we not prepare to defend ourselves?"
A bank of lights on one of PRIME's consoles flickered red.
PRIME remained quiet for a second. Two. Three.
Kazumi was familiar with nonverbal tics from PRIME. But he had only seen a similar flicker of red once before, when PRIME was observing the behavior of Council members and failing to understand why they would purposely report to their company that they had accomplished less in a given session to bank it for future lean periods.
PRIME was confused. By his own suggestion? Kazumi wondered.
Pritchard smoothed the front of his uniform and shifted his weight to rise, as if ready to dismiss the Council while he and Kazumi questioned PRIME when PRIME spoke up.
"My apologies, Councilwoman Nolán. Of course we need to be ready to defend ourselves. But we must also learn more about this anomaly. If it has been placed by sentient beings, we need strong defenses. And we'll need to redesign some offensive capability from historical human fleets. This is something our Engineers and Defenders should be tasked with immediately. The anomaly could be natural. If this is an early indicator of a gamma ray burst or the Big Crunch, we need different defenses. Or, more accurately, there is no possibility of defense and we must accept our fate.”
PRIME allowed for a pause so that the humans could process what was said.
"It could also be something unprecedented in other ways,” PRIME concluded, not providing more details.
"Well, PRIME," Councilwoman Nolán said, "you almost make an attack by an overwhelming extraterrestrial force sound preferable. We don't want to be caught with our CogNets in stasis-mode as the youth says."
"Indeed,” said PRIME. “I must, however, stress the need for gathering data. My sensors are not suited to this task. Biological reconnaissance may be the only option."
"Do you mean people, PRIME?" Pritchard asked.
"Is that safe?"
"I have no data to make that assessment."
"I'd say that's a 'no'," Klaidçiri said, a sharp dissonance to his words.
"But it's the only option we have to be more prepared than we are right now," said Kazumi. "Do you have a proposal, PRIME?"
"Your colleague Meli Jankowitz currently screens and trains special expeditionary Engineers, Technician Pritchard."
Pritchard cleared his throat. "Ah, he does. Yes."
"We should expand his program to all CASC archetypes. Of note, if I am unable to contact the probe after it has entered the anomaly then it is probable that all CogNet applications will be inaccessible within the anomaly. We will need to recruit almost exclusively from the .08% of the population that does not rely on CogNet connectivity to function optimally. This should include your colleague Meli."
"I can, uh, have him contact you, PRIME," said Pritchard.
Klaidçiri raised his hand like a grade school pupil. "And do we tell these people this could be a suicide mission if they step into someone's crosshairs or just blip out of existence completely? Into, what was that, charmed quarks?"
"No," Councilwoman Nolán said, standing to leave, "They're at no more risk than everyone else in the Cygnus Arm. This could be the end of humanity. What they learn could help PRIME turn the tide in our favor."
Kazumi and Pritchard both looked at each other.
“The universe could be collapsing in on itself and one of the last people I get to talk to is Meli,” Pritchard said.