Wouldn’t it be cool if a big-budget AAA shooter had a buried lesbian love story about a group of scientists who realize they’re being endlessly emulated inside a hostile AI, such that there is no longer any way to verify their own reality? (Yes.)
The Ishtar Collective is a research colony on Venus. Warminds are immensely powerful (and cranky) AI supercomputers. Vex are robotic enemy constructs of unknown origin.
From the Records of the Ishtar Collective (Ghost Fragment: Vex)
ESI: Maya, I need your help. I don’t know how to fix this.
SUNDARESH: What is it? Chioma. Sit. Tell me.
ESI: I’ve figured out what’s happening inside the specimen.
SUNDARESH: Twelve? The operational Vex platform? That’s incredible! You must know what this means - ah, so. It’s not good, or you’d be on my side of the desk. And it’s not urgent, or you’d already have evacuated the site. Which means…
ESI: I have a working interface with the specimen’s internal environment. I can see what it’s thinking.
SUNDARESH: In metaphorical terms, of course. The cognitive architectures are so -
ESI: No. I don’t need any kind of epistemology bridge.
SUNDARESH: Are you telling me it’s human? A human merkwelt? Human qualia?
ESI: I’m telling you it’s full of humans. It’s thinking about us.
SUNDARESH: About - oh no.
ESI: It’s simulating us. Vividly. Elaborately. It’s running a spectacularly high-fidelity model of a Collective research team studying a captive Vex entity.
SUNDARESH:…how deep does it go?
ESI: Right now the simulated Maya Sundaresh is meeting with the simulated Chioma Esi to discuss an unexpected problem.
SUNDARESH: There’s no divergence? That’s impossible. It doesn’t have enough information.
ESI: It inferred. It works from what it sees and it infers the rest. I know that feels unlikely. But it obviously has capabilities we don’t. It may have breached our shared virtual workspace…the neural links could have given it data…
SUNDARESH: The simulations have interiority? Subjectivity?
ESI: I can’t know that until I look more closely. But they act like us.
SUNDARESH: We’re inside it. By any reasonable philosophical standard, we are inside that Vex.
ESI: Unless you take a particularly ruthless approach to the problem of causal forks: yes. They are us.
SUNDARESH: Call a team meeting.
ESI: The other you has too.
From the Records of the Ishtar Collective (Ghost Fragment: Vex 2)
SUNDARESH: So that’s the situation as we know it.
ESI: To the best of my understanding.
SHIM: Well I’ll be a [profane] [profanity]. This is extremely [profane]. That thing has us over a barrel.
SUNDARESH: Yeah. We’re in a difficult position.
DUANE-MCNIADH: I don’t understand. So it’s simulating us? It made virtual copies of us? How does that give it power?
ESI: It controls the simulation. It can hurt our simulated selves. We wouldn’t feel that pain, but rationally speaking, we have to treat an identical copy’s agony as identical to our own.
SUNDARESH: It’s god in there. It can simulate our torment. Forever. If we don’t let it go, it’ll put us through hell.
DUANE-MCNIADH: We have no causal connection to the mind state of those sims. They aren’t us. Just copies. We have no obligation to them.
ESI: You can’t seriously - your OWN SELF -
SHIM: [profane] idiot. Think. Think. If it can run one simulation, maybe it can run more than one. And there will only ever be one reality. Play the odds.
DUANE-MCNIADH: Oh…uh oh.
SHIM: Odds are that we aren’t our own originals. Odds are that we exist in one of the Vex simulations right now.
ESI: I didn’t think of that.
SUNDARESH: [indistinct percussive sound]
From the Records of the Ishtar Collective (Ghost Fragment: Vex 3)
SUNDARESH: I have a plan.
ESI: If you have a plan, then so does your sim, and the Vex knows about it.
DUANE-MCNIADH: Does it matter? If we’re in Vex hell right now, there’s nothing we can -
SHIM: Stop talking about ‘real’ and ‘unreal.’ All realities are programs executing laws. Subjectivity is all that matters.
SUNDARESH: We have to act as if we’re in the real universe, not one simulated by the specimen. Otherwise we might as well give up.
ESI: Your sim self is saying the same thing.
SUNDARESH: Chioma, love, please hush. It doesn’t help.
DUANE-MCNIADH: Maybe the simulations are just billboards! Maybe they don’t have interiority! It’s bluffing!
SHIM: I wish someone would simulate you shutting up.
SUNDARESH: If we’re sims, we exist in the pocket of the universe that the Vex specimen is able to simulate with its onboard brainpower. If we’re real, we need to get outside that bubble.
ESI: …we call for help.
SUNDARESH: That’s right. We bring in someone smarter than the specimen. Someone too big to simulate and predict. A warmind.
SHIM: In the real world, the warmind will be able to behave in ways the Vex can’t simulate. It’s too smart. The warmind may be able to get into the Vex and rescue - us.
DUANE-MCNIADH: If we try, won’t the Vex torture us for eternity? Or just erase us?
SUNDARESH: It may simply erase us. But I feel that’s preferable to…the alternatives.
ESI: I agree.
SHIM: Once we try to make the call, the Vex may…react. So let’s all savor this last moment of stability.
SUNDARESH: [indistinct sounds]
SHIM: You two are adorable.
DUANE-MCNIADH: I wish I’d taken that job at Clovis.
Maya, Chioma, Duane-McNiadh and Shim decide to have a picnic before they send themselves into infinity. (Ghost Fragment: Vex 4)
Up here they have to act by biomechanical proxy. No human being in the Ishtar Academy has ever crossed the safety cordon and walked the ancient stone under the Citadel, the Vex construct that stabs up out of the world to injure space and time. It’s not safe. The cellular Vex elements are infectious, hallucinogenic, entheogenic. The informational Vex elements are more dangerous yet— and there could be semiotic hazards beyond them, aggressive ideas, Vex who exist without a substrate. Even now, operating remote bodies by neural link, the team’s thoughts are relayed through the warmind who saved them, sandboxed and scrubbed for hazards. Their real bodies are safe in the Academy, protected by distance and neural firewall.
But they walk together in proxy, pressed close, huddled in awe. Blue-green light, light the color of an ancient sea, washes over them. Each of their explorer bodies carries a slim computer. Inside, two hundred twenty-seven of copies of their own minds wait, patient and paused, for dispersal.
“I wonder where it came from,” Duane-Mcniadh says. Of course he’s the one to break the reverent silence. “The Citadel. I wonder if it was here before the Traveler changed Venus.”
“It could have been latent,” Chioma Esi suggests. She’s the leader. She kept them together when it seemed like they faced actual, eternal torture. She pulled them through. “Seeded in the crust. Waiting for a period of geological quiescence, so it could grow.”
Dr. Shim shrugs. “I think the Traveler did something paracausal to Venus. Something that cut across space and time. The Citadel seems to come from the past of a different Venus than our own. It doesn’t have to make any sense by our logic, any more than the Moon’s new gravity.”
Maya Sundaresh walks at the center of the group. She’s been too quiet lately. What happened to them wasn’t her fault and maybe she’ll believe that soon. “What could you do with it?” she murmurs, staring up. “If you understood it?”
Chioma puts an arm around her. “That’s what we’re going to find out. Where the Citadel can send us. Whether we can come back.”
“They’re not us any more.” Maya looks down at herself, at the cache of her self-forks. “We’re not going anywhere. We’re sending them. They’re diverging.”
They rescued themselves from the inside of a Vex mind, two hundred and twenty-seven copies of themselves, untortured and undamaged. Those copies voted, all unanimously, to be dispatched into the Vex information network as explorers.
When Maya and Chioma look at each other they can tell they’re each wondering the same thing: how many of them will stay together, wherever they go? How many fork-Mayas and fork-Chiomas will fall out of love? How many will end up bereft, grieving? How many will be happy, like them?
Chioma tries a little smile. Maya smiles back, haltingly, and then, sighing, unable to stop herself, grins a big stupid grin, an everything-is-okay grin. Shim makes a loud obnoxious awwww at them. Duane-McNiadh is still thinking about paracausality, and doesn’t notice.
They climb. When they find the Vex aperture they plan to use, they overlay the luminous stone and ancient brassy machines with images of sun and sand. They set up the transmitters and interfaces that will translate two hundred and twenty-seven simulations of the four of them into Vex language, into the tangled pathways of the Vex network, to see what’s out there, and maybe come home.
In the metaphor they’ve chosen, setting up the equipment is like laying out the picnic. In the metaphor they’ve chosen they look like themselves, not hardened explorer proxies. Like people.
“Do you think,” Duane-McNiadh begins, halting, “that you could use this place to change things? If you regretted something, could you find a way through the Citadel, go back, and change it?”
“I wish I could go back and change you into someone else,” Dr. Shim grouses. Chioma’s shaking her head. She knows physics. “Time is self-consistent,” she says. “I think it’s like the story of the merchant and the alchemist. You could go back and watch something, or be part of something, but if you did, then that was the way it always happened.”
“Maybe you could bring something back to now. Something you needed.” Maya runs a hand across the surface of the Vex aperture, feeling it with sensors ten thousand times as precise as a human hand. These proxy bodies are limited— they crash and need resetting every few hours, they struggle with latency, they can’t hold much long term memory. But they’ll get better. “Or go forward and learn something vital. If you knew how to control it, how to navigate across space and time.”
“So it’s just a way to make everything more complicated.” Duane-McNiadh sighs. "It doesn’t fix anything. Nothing ever does! I should’ve taken that job at— "
“You would’ve hated it at Clovis,” Dr. Shim says. “We both know you’re happier here.” Duane-McNiadh stands stunned by this courtesy, and then they both pretend to ignore each other.
The four of them set up the interface. Their stored copies wake up and prepare for the journey, so that as they work they find themselves surrounded by the mental phantasms of themselves: two hundred and twenty-seven Mayas and Chiomas knocking helmets and smiling, two hundred and twenty-seven Dr. Shims making cynical bets with each other about how long they’ll last, two hundred and twenty-seven Duane-McNiadhs blowing goodbye kisses to the sweet golden sun, two hundred and twenty-seven of them shaking hands, smiling, making ready to explore.