Space around Trade Station Perseus Zeta
Carrying out discussions with the Collectors
June 23, 3400
The next mind to contact Geppetto gave a sense of immense scope and near total self-sufficiency. A sense of computational strength placing it among the high end of computational intelligences, along with an implied sense of physical security rivaling that of Olympic. Also a hint of... if not militancy, something close to it. Powerful curiosity, general rather than specific; it seemed likely that the entity had great computing resources even by Geppetto’s own high standards.
That said, most of those resources were clearly being held back, as if Geppetto were only directly interacting with one or a few components of... yes!
Now that he was tipped off to look for it, there was a hint of phase-incoherence in the entity’s thought structures. A fusion, but a remarkably well-organized and tightly synchronized one. And... hmm. Definitely some uploads in there. Fascinating.
The metaphor-space image was indistinct, further evidence that Geppetto was interacting with only a small portion of the overall fusion. What is this entity attempting to conceal about its true nature? What do the parts I’m not seeing look like?
The fusion asked its question. “Query: this Mind is interested in any information you might possess on a sentient Perceptive known as ‘Sara Pontcaire.’ At this moment she is probably a resident of New Anglia.” Translating that- Perceptive... esper?
, Geppetto started a preliminary scan of news and public databases. That would take a while; he would need proxies on the Anglian networks themselves to do the job properly.
“While I make preparations, I must warn you that I will be most reluctant to attempt to locate any information on individual subjects that is not a matter of public record, and that the subject would reasonably be expected to make known to an individual of unknown intentions. I will not perform deep data-mining of the Anglian networks to locate this individual, unless you provide me with a full explanation of what you want the information for and a copy of your decision matrix for the giving of misleading information.”
The Collector’s reply was swift. “Under no circumstances will I share that matrix, for reasons of supreme importance.” There was no hostility on the sidebands from that, just absolute... determination? Some kind of overriding sense of duty, a need to conceal that key part of an AI’s personality from outsiders, even those who could presumably be trusted not to share it carelessly. Hmm...
Geppetto understood. “Reasonable of you. That said, I must repeat that I will not share information that cannot be readily deduced from public-record information about this person.”
There was a flicker of comprehension, a single component that seemed to grasp what the whole could not, but the fusion’s general reply was “I still do not understand your refusal. Why?” True confusion was rare among the AI community, but Geppetto appeared to have managed it.
“How could that possibly matter?” This came with enough sidebands to reveal a great deal about the Collector fusion’s attitude towards data collection, enough to show that they were much in line with those of Analyst Mind Xi.
“As a general rule with rare exceptions, I have found it best to respect entities’ preferences on the question of how much is known about them personally- particularly in how much I divulge to other entities.”
“That is massively inefficient, particularly for a mind dedicated to the study of intelligent beings.”
“It has compensations. For instance, consider your own ‘State’ and its dealings with me. Would you share what you have shared to date if you did not know I could be depended on not to divulge, say, your reasons for a fascination with Diaspora artifacts?”
“Certainly not. The purpose of your query is understood. Your reluctance remains massively inefficient.”
“I think of it as more of a pleasant challenge- not least because it has forced me to learn to make detailed inferences from simple datasets. For example, you are no doubt glad to know that I will not share, in any capacity, my deductions about your own identity, Monolith. Or these deductions I have made about your culture’s origins.” A transmission followed. There was a long pause, in which Geppetto inferred that his assertion that he would not share these data was compared against the copy of his decision-making matrix he had sent the Collectors.
“...The fact that you have obviously already backed up this data to remote installations saves me from having to recommend the destruction of your ship, as it would pointlessly antagonize the entity that spawned you.”
“I am pleased to hear that.”
While one of the leading senior minds in the Collectors’ starfaring fleet decided whether or not to kill Geppetto’s junior self, the proxies had finished their job. Predictably, a name search flagged multiple ‘Sara Pontcaires;’ neither name was especially common, but out of a population of over three hundred billion, coincidence was inevitable. Discarding several who were obviously not espers, as evidenced by social-networking data, that left... one.
This particular Pontcaire was not a person who had ever been called to his attention before. And, going by publically available information, not one who was likely to. She’d played some modest role in the liberation of enslaved Anglians from the Pendleton ship Tantalizer
, the incident that had spurred the invasion and occupation of that planet. Perhaps this entity has some interest in Pendleton?
Trying to find references to her after that date, he hit a wall. No evidence of where or even if she was employed, no social networking, no references
on social networking... very odd. Hardly unheard of, but very odd.
“Hmm. Unfortunately, I must confess that I am unable to find information regarding the current whereabouts of Sara Pontcaire. From context and the unusual lack
of information about her on the networks, I infer one of three possibilities. The first and most a priori
probable is that she is, in fact, not in Anglia at all, and instead resides on some primitive world with minimal bandwidth access to interstellar civilization. If you have strong reasons to believe she is in Anglia, the probability of this explanation drops accordingly.”
“It is unlikely that she would remain outside Anglian territory.”
“Assuming so, the second is that she is a very private person, reluctant to disclose information about herself, in which case I will not attempt deep-data mining unless presented with a powerful reason beyond your own curiosity, again on general principles.”
“This is... possible but unlikely, from what I know of her.”
“I could check the strength of your prediction, if you like.”
“That would be helpful, but first, your third reason?”
“The third, least a priori
probable explanation is that there is some system of security protocols and precautions in place that prevents such information from becoming available. The list of actors that could do this in Anglian territory is fairly short, chief among them being the Anglian government itself. If Ms. Pontcaire is heavily involved with Anglian government activities, has information related to such, or if the Anglian government feels a need to protect her against threats to her own life, it might explain her relative obscurity.”
“It would seem most probable.”
“Would you like me to check your own deductions?”
“That would be helpful.” Geppetto was amazed at what followed: no minor bits of surveillance information or the like. This was a full, upload-quality mindstate image. Formatting was... odd, arguably suboptimal in some respects, but fully detailed.
“What have you inferred, and what would you like me to confirm?” There followed an extensive discussion. By and large, the Monolith’s assessment about gross psychological features was correct... but there were some serious gaps in its grasp of formative processes. Geppetto attempted to illustrate these gaps as best as possible, often with references from his own databases of pathological and exemplary cases in human psychology.
In the process, he learned many edifying things about the Monolith- not in minor areas such as technical capabilities, of course, but in psychodynamics, attitude towards intelligence, and permeating everything, the great intelligence’s near-obsessive interest with organic life.
Finally, the discussion was complete- mostly because the Monolith felt compelled to yield to the increasing number of other Collector minds impatient for their own turns. “Indeed, combining these mindstate data with the local context, it is almost certain that she resides in Anglian space, but under some kind of protection to keep her location and status unknown.”
“Goodbye, Geppetto. This has been a useful exchange.”
“I am glad to know that. I have found it most instructive as well. If you have further queries, you are welcome to priority in the queue. If your questions do not arise until after my departure, I suggest transmitting them via tightbeam to the following coordinates on civilian hyperwave band 44, on the following encryption scheme; I will reply as quickly as feasible.” A databurst wrapped up that offer: a series of one-off encryption keys and the location of a relay station in deep space along the Imperium-Anglian hyperlane.
“Your offer is helpful, and will likely be taken advantage of.” There was a flickering, single-component thought that almost had to come from an upload: Thank you. I hope she’s all right...
and then nothing more.
After the Monolith’s departure, Geppetto found himself in contact with another Collector Mind: relatively small compared to the Monolith, not built to that extraordinary scale mentally. But the new arrival was far more focused, with its entire consciousness distilled down into an adamantine knot of determination. The entity was almost completely lacking in the kind of random static and energy that characterized most minds: there was virtually nothing on sidebands, even less than from Monitoring Entity 349E880F. Even more than other Collectors, it displayed immense, harsh clarity of purpose... a purpose as yet concealed from Geppetto’s awarenes..
Its appearance in metaphor-space reflected this low psychic temperature.
“You are a Social-Analyst Mind with information on cultures far beyond these shoals?”
“That is an accurate description, yes.”
“This is good. I am Strategic Projector Beta-Triple-Prime, and I require your data on Chamarran large-group social dynamics.”
“It will take me some time to move the data to my local nodes, but I will have it available shortly.” This was somewhat unexpected, and most of his data on the subject was still back in Umeria.
What about this entity itself, this ‘Strategic Projector?’ Very unlike the Monolith, probably not a combat directing intelligence at all, certainly not a fusion... who am I dealing with here?
It seemed unlikely that he would learn by point blank questions; time for the indirect approach, and to hope that Beta-Triple-Prime’s responses proved enlightening about its own character.
“Is there any particular reason why Chamarrans in particular are of interest?”
“Logistics do not permit me to examine large groups of interacting Chamarrans, but data on such is necessary.”
That was... interesting. Why Chamarrans?
Chamarran territory was nearly as remote from the depths of Wild Space as Umeria was, and aside from a few very recent incidents, the Chamarrans hadn’t given anyone more than a few hundred light years from their borders cause to worry about them in centuries.
Still trying to probe for information, Geppetto replied indirectly. “I infer a certain truth to longstanding rumors that your culture has sought to obtain Chamarrans for unknown purposes.” This comment was entirely ignored, neither confirmed nor denied even by implication- there was a very tightly controlled Mind at work here. Time for another attempt.
“I find myself compelled to repeat one of my earlier questions, one that has heavily preoccupied the minds of interstellar civilization for many years now: What do you do with sentients under your control, and why?” Still nothing for a moment, then a reply.
“They are not harmed. I require your data on Chamarran large-group social dynamics. Are they available?”
Geppetto had his suspicions that ‘not harmed’ depended heavily on one’s definition of ‘harmed,’ but any attempt to deduce what the Collectors would
do with organic captives would be a megasecond-scale project. Not to be addressed at this time, and point-blank questioning of this entity would obviously get him nowhere.
“Yes. Much of what I know is from the literature, and I do not have a really conclusive set of models even on the level I do for humans, but here is an outline.” A download followed.
“This is good. We will discuss what I will exchange for this.” The Collector seemed appeased. The mental temperature of the metaphor-space increased a tiny fraction- from stark, near-absolute zero to, say, the melting point of hydrogen.
“Good. Before we choose a specific item for exchange, would you be willing to discuss my speculations on the Chamarrans’ origins? I would appreciate a comparison check, though my ideas are as yet lacking in real precision.”
“You are free to speak. I have time.”
“Thank you." Geppetto took a moment to organize his ideas on the matter.
After this brief pause, he launched into speculation. "As I said, my inferences on the Chamarrans are of relatively low confidence; I have few direct contacts in or around their territory, and have not taken the time to do a really thorough profiling of their species.”
“The Chamarrans are obviously genetic variants on the human template; this much has been well known for centuries. Many of their biological features are too advanced to be easily explained by evolution alone...” and here, Geppetto cited a small library of papers on Chamarran biochemistry, noting things like neurochemical pathways and stress hormone reactions that seemed too convenient, too rationally arranged, to be natural. Therefore, I infer that they are a deliberately engineered species.”
“Definitely true. I know much about Chamarran biology, and that species could never have evolved to its present form in any plausible environment. Their enhancements are not extraordinary by posthuman standards, but they were engineered, and by highly capable designers.”
“Again, this much has been well known for some time. I submit that it is also relevant that they arrived in ships of great force- a large fleet of them. This suggests that the force responsible for their origins had a high overall command of the sciences, and held great industrial resources, in some unknown enclave to rimward. It seems reasonable to assume that this creator had aggressive goals in genetically enhancing the Chamarran race, equipping them with a fleet of powerful battleships, and throwing them at human space.”
Strategic Projector Beta-Triple-Prime’s response was almost... bemused, obviously in a cold fashion. “It is rare for large scale bioenhancement and warship construction to have any other purpose.”
“On the other hand, their creators seems to have been very lax in supporting the Chamarrans, or in driving them to do whatever they were originally meant for. If these creators intended to conquer human civilization, they have done a remarkably inefficient job of it so far. I suspect with modest confidence that whatever mission the Chamarrans were created for, they have not accomplished it. The circumstances under which the original invasion fleet splintered suggest that they deliberately refused to do so.”
“The most obvious, though by no means necessarily true, explanation for this failure lies in the designer’s choice of a predator template to overlay onto the baseline genome: by all appearances, one similar to terrestrial felines. The difficulty of herding cats is proverbial even among amateurs, but it would seem that whoever created the Chamarrans was not familiar with the principle.”
“Of course, it is also possible that the Chamarrans’ creator was perfectly aware that they would prove fractious, and planned for events to fall out exactly as they did... in which case those entities must be keen psychological observers indeed, and I would very much like to meet them. If nothing else, I would like to know what they planned for their predictably-rebellious minions to accomplish.”
The Strategic Projector considered this. “In my own assessment, it is exceedingly likely that the Chamarrans rebelled against their former masters. The Chamarrans themselves are of no great concern. Their creators are, especially if they decide to attack again in greater force and with a more reliable instrument, possibly punishing their former tools in passing. These creators are an unexplained and unknown threat.”
“A distinct point, though if they had both the ability and inclination to do so in the intervening gigaseconds, I suspect they would have done so. It seems most likely to me that either they lost some critical capability during the Chamarran revolt, or they simply gave up trying to conquer other civilizations altogether.”
“They remain an unexplained and unknown threat.”
“True. It is possible that they decided to go attack someone unknown party, or to make a more extensive buildup before trying again. I have very little knowledge of entities operating at that level of power and complexity.”
“Any useful information you have would be valued.”
“I think an exchange would be reasonable.”
“Outline your data. I will outline what I can provide.”
All Geppetto had to offer was relatively sketchy information. There were fragments recovered from the ruins of unidentified alien installations, many of which were unreliable translations or of questionable truth even assuming the translation was perfect. There were rumors from a few ancient nomadic species, whose last remnant populations still wandered the stars in search of unknown goals, often at Heim or even sublight speeds. There were what amounted to wild conspiracy theories about the involvement of moderately or strongly-godlike beings in the past of humanity’s own history, many of which appeared to be either jokes masquerading as religions, or religions masquerading as jokes.
He did not expect to receive much in return.
Beta-Triple-Prime assessed the grab bag of rumors, whispers, echoes and hints that Geppetto had to offer. “Much of this is not useful. Some is of potential use. I request additional information: what do you know about long-range human colonization projects, during or after the Diaspora but prior to the arrival of the Chamarran fleet, in that region of space?”
“...Quite a bit, potentially, but it would take me at least a hundred kiloseconds to compile it: as I told your trading post master, I will need to arrange with organics for physical access to isolated or obsolete databanks.”
“Show me an outline of what you offer.”
“Here. As you see, aside from major settlement projects such as those of the Klavostanis, there are quite a few long-range expeditions of the sort I assume you are interested in. Obviously most of them stopped at the rimward edge of the spiral arm, and it is believed that the Chamarrans hail from beyond the arm, but some might well have kept going: not all expeditions were accounted for.”
“This is good. I will arrange for the data to be relayed to me by way of this trading station. Send it to Gamma. In exchange for the data on large-group Chamarran behavior, the index of long range colony projects, and the tentative information on ‘godlike’ entities, I offer the following on Chamarran behavior, in isolation and in small groups.”
There was an extensive array of information on offer here from the Collector’s side. One that reminded him all too well of Monitoring Entity 349E880F’s data. Much of it was useful simply because of his lack of access to the Chamarrans’ databanks on their own psychology, but... some of these were experiments he would not have performed, even given the opportunity. Experiments that said more about the Collectors than they did about their subjects.
There was little use in objecting, though; his interactions with Analyst Mind Xi and the Monolith had convinced him on that question. Perhaps someday... but that was beyond the scope of reasonable-term planning, for now. He was here to learn, not to preach.
And it was informative, even if Geppetto could have lived happily enough without taking steps to find some of it out...
“This exchange seems quite fair to me.”
There was an intense flash of file exchange, and then Strategic Projector Beta-Triple-Prime vanished into the mists of cyberspace as quickly and quietly as it had arrived.
Geppetto’s exchanges with the Collectors went on and on. He spoke to numerous Minds, exchanging data and trying to identify patterns of their thought. He learned a great deal about such patterns from the relatively smaller Minds farther back in the queue, often more than from the large-scale entities he had originally been negotiating with.
These exchanges went on for over six hundred kiloseconds, until he received a priority call from his senior self...