"So what happened next?" I ask, suppressing a yawn by bending over my notebook and doodling an Eye-Pod. The young Junior Researcher I'm interviewing doesn't notice, bless his heart; he just keeps fidgeting and wiping nervous sweat from his brow. It's hard to tell if he's nervous because of the whole hullabaloo surrounding this event, or if it's something else. I guess that's what I'm here for. And the psychologists.
And the psychiatrists.
"Well…" he says, hedging. "Given the…size of the anomaly, and our need to…confirm its functionality, we…uh…Doctor Hungrig, that is, we decided to…test out how it worked on similarly…uh…proportioned items." He stops, and looks like he's going to throw up. I surreptitiously check the interrogation room—no, interview room now—for any buckets. There are none; I guess the janitors'll have to wipe it up themselves. At least the floor is concrete; that's easy to clean, right? I decide to move things along to distract him.
"And so you—"
"And Doctor Hungrig!" he adds quickly.
"—and Doctor Hungrig decided to put a…" —I pretend to flip through my notebook— "'gigantic' bowl of soup into SCP-5941. Is that correct?"
"Yes," he says, somehow sweating even harder. I sigh.
"Don't worry," I say. "You're not being interrogated. You're not being charged. If anything, Doctor Hungrig will be, if we can ever figure out where he got the soup. This is just for the document."
"The document. So what happened after you put the soup in?"
The JR gets even more shifty-eyed and panicked. Whatever this guy had seen isn't letting go of him easily. No more yawning now. Something interesting's happening.
"We p-put t-the soup into the-the microwave—no—the anomaly—a-and we—we—"
Oh god, he's really not looking well now. It's a miracle he's coherent at all.
"—a-and we pressed all the buttons beep beep beep! and there was the whir of the platter! whirrrrrr! a-and then!—"
Too late I realize what's going on. Too late to call the doctors in here. His face is red and swelling by the second; sweat is literally pouring out of every orifice. He looks, in fact, like someone who's just eaten an extra-spicy bowl of soup.
He opens his mouth—
Something comes out—
And, well…I don't like to do this. My superiors hate it; it goes against the all the rules in the guide. But some things can only be described with—
I walk back towards the Archivist's offices, still a little shaken by what I'd seen before all the doctors had rushed in. All the hallways in the higher-security zones have white tiles; I feel dirty, walking here. A speck of black on an immaculate surface. As I get further from the center, closer to my cubby, things loosen up; architectures get more playful, people less staid, the decor more…decor-like. More happy. More like home. On my way in, I pass by our new server room. No door yet; it's like getting hit by a hot blanket.
"Do you have it?" Caldmann asks, leaning in the frame of his office door, cup in hand, as I come in.
"Don't worry, it's here," I say. "You may not like it, but it's here."
"Good," he says, sliding back into the depths of his office. "I expect the addendum by the end of today."
"Will do!" I say, breathing a soft sigh of relief as I finally arrive at my cubicle.
"How was it?" Diol asks over the barrier as I plop myself down.
"Bad," I say. "Very bad."
"Sounds like fun," she says, smiling.
"A real hoot," I say. "And I've still got to write the thing up."
"Good luck with that," she says. "Thanks," I say, looking wistfully at where her head was. She really is very pretty…
The addendum. I open up the document (wincing a little; remembering just how much work I put into cleaning it up. Thanks, Doctor Hungrig) and scroll down to the latest addendum:
On 6/8/2020, Doctor Hungrig and Junior Researcher1 Garbonza inserted a large bowl of soup into SCP-5941. Due to a previously-unknown effect of SCP-5941, [DATA EXPUNGED]. Following this event, Doctor Hungrig and Junior Researcher Garbonza are slated for reprimands pending recovery. Addition of food products to SCP-5941 is now forbidden.
I suck in my lower lip and look at the screen. Formatting's good, at least, but is this good? Eh. I don't know. Toss it to Caldmann I guess. Deal with it then. No sooner have I pulled up the submissions page and proposed the addition than, speak of the devil, Caldmann pops out of his office.
"Thackery! In my office!" he says, vanishing again with nary a sound.
He is already seated when I arrive. His office is dark, and bare as well; it's hard to imagine someone surviving on just a desk and name plate (James Caldmann).
"I just submitted the addendum," I say, trying to stave off the blame.
"Hm?" he says, mind elsewhere. "Oh, yes. Well, you would have gotten an extension on that anyhow. I have another assignment for you." He pauses and stares off in the distance, behind my shoulder.
"…yes?" I say, a few seconds later.
"Sorry," he says, meeting my eyes again; he looks pale, drawn. "There's a big meeting between some of the branches of IT today. In the intranet. Kilroy's going to be there," he adds, "and Mackintosh. All the big players. I want you to check it out."
I raise an eyebrow. "Are you…sure?" I say, carefully. "They won't exactly…like a member of Archival snooping around."
"That's why you're now Jenna Thackery, the newest head of Keter IT in Site-78," he says, smiling a bit. "A site dedicated entirely to…well, I think I finally decided on anomalous talking animal research. I'm sure you'll fit right in."
I sit there for a second, nodding my head slightly. "What's this all about?" I say finally. "What's going on?"
"What's wrong with wanting to keep up with our wonderful colleagues?"
"I'm serious," I say.
"I'm sure you'll see," he says, standing up and looking at the curtained window. "It won't be very hard to miss. The equipment's already set up in the conference room, fake avatar, location, and all. Good luck." That's obviously my invitation to leave. I look back when I get to the door only to find him still apparently lost in thought, staring at the black window.
I guess I should cut him some slack. It's hard, though, and I end up fuming anyways as I walk deeper into the offices to the conference room. Yes, he created the Archival department. Yes, he is currently in a turf war with every two-bit department and doctor in the Foundation. Yes, his staff currently consists of five writers and ten irritable IT people. It still doesn't forgive sliding into a cryptic and senile middle age.
My thoughts inevitably turn to Diol. I wish they wouldn't, I hate pining, but here we are. I indulge myself in the fantasy of taking her out to dinner; some nice place, table apart, maybe looking out a window, into a city (who knows which one; a) and, as the night comes to a close, leaning over for the kiss, framing her face with my hands, then maybe moving lower…idle fantasies. Dinner can't happen without the ask. Whoops.
I finally arrive at the conference room and walk in. "Conference room" is a bit of a misnomer, alas. It's more of a concrete cube that happens to contain a chair, a desk, and some data ports. Just like Caldmann said, the equipment is piled on the chair. I sit down and lower the helmet over my head, wincing a little as the projection panel blocks my vision. I fumble around getting my hands on the mouse and keyboard (I should've done this before putting the helmet on; too late now) and sigh. I've never liked VR; I've always felt like motion sickness on ice skates. But some things are necessary, especially when you're traveling incognito. Bracing myself, I push "connect."
there's a sickening sense of motion and colors flitter across my vision (the graphical representations of physical representations of nonphysical data; dumbed down for human eyes)—
—a sickening sense of scale—
—and a horrible lurch of vertigo—
—and I'm in. Easy as pie.
When my vision clears, I'm still in the conference room. Well, its facsimile, anyways. The walls have gone all shivery and shimmery; I guess we still haven't sorted out that problem yet. They're solid though, with the floors. I look up, and verify that yes, there is indeed a ceiling. Progress marches on. I try to back up, walk all the way to the right and come to a halt, and curse. I fumble and rearrange my fingers on the keyboard in front of me and try again. This time I walk back from the desk successfully and, trying to tamp down on my inner ears, walk over to the door.
I open it to a carefully curated virtual representation of the Foundation, which is code for "lots of hallways." Every one a different data tree, every door a different collection; behind some of them, neat little libraries or desktops, filled with as much as is needed and no more, behind some only chaos, the unfiltered raw data of the world. Well, our corner of the world. I briefly consider opening one at random, just for fun, then decide against it. Best not to tilt into full-on motion sickness.
I continue to walk down the hallways, towards the room I need. What fun. I wish I wasn't attending this meeting under false pretenses; I recognize quite a few of the people attending, via the intel in the corner of my view, as the architects of this wonderful system. I'd like to ask (well, demand) why, when they were plotting out all the wonderful features, quick travel wasn't considered a priority. Maybe they didn't want people despoiling their wonderful corridor simulator.
At last, I'm here. Without pause, I walk through the door, into the mass of avatars beyond.
Yup, everyone's present. Looks like I'm the last one here. Perfect? There's Marcella Wallace, and Urnika Kent, and Rupert Ernthine, and Sam Grendel, and…well, about five or six other people, all in the same vein….
"Ah," Wallace says as I walk in. "Ms. Thackery, I presume?"
"Who's this?" Grendel says.
"Oh, I'm Jenna Thackery," I say, walking further in, and hoping the tone of my voice is enough to convey naive enthusiasm. 'Just like being there' my ass. "I'm the Keter specialist at Site-78."
"I see," Erthine says, nodding. He's either checked me out beforehand, or, more likely, is just faking that he knows what he's talking about. "Welcome in, I suppose."
"Great," I say, taking my place around the meeting oblong. "What's the agenda today?"
"You don't have it?" Kent asks.
"I just got the message," I say, trying to convey apology. "I'm sorry."
"Oh, whatever," Wallace snaps. "I'll send it to you now. Let's get down to business, shall we?"
"—and now, to the most pressing bit of business," Grendel says. I blink. Wait, what? There's no way that was right. I open up the agenda in a random corner; yup, I missed some discussion of server maintenance, routine bitching about Archival, new protocols regarding the containment of certain infohazardous anomalies, new protocols regarding the containment of certain other infohazardous anomalies, budget micromanaging, pest control, and updates on the umpteen various projects lurching towards completion, totaling over…two hours?! of meeting time. Counting the mandatory post-topic affirmations and pre-topic check-ins and during-topic contributions. Did I really just skip through all of that? There's no way. Did my mind just block out the meeting? Some kind of defensive measure? Oh god, I hope I didn't miss anything important.
"—the matter of the data irregularities," Grendel finishes. Or not. Guess I just got lucky.
"It's become a major problem," Kent says, "Do we…have any leads on it…?"
"Alas, no," Erthine says. "We have, as yet, been unable to find anything."
"Nothing on our end," Wallace says. It continues around like this. Nobody knows what's going on, me least of all.
"Should we—" someone I don't care about starts to say.
"No," Wallace snaps, cutting them off. "No bringing them in. They haven't noticed anything so far. Last thing we need is Herr Schicklgruber over there liberating any more of our resources."
"And this is just lovely. Nobody has any idea, do they? Not one?"
"Terrific. And so it'll just continue, getting worse and worse, until everyone else can't help but notice it. Fantastic."
The wall facing me turns blue. General grumbles of discontent all around.
"Case in point," Wallace says.
The wall vanishes. More grumbling. I try not to look into the data beyond. The grumbling cuts off.
I look around the room, suspicious, trying to see what just happened. Everyone appears to be staring at the vanish'd wall (or, at least, I think so; positioning's still rather erratic at the moment) and so, steeling myself for a wave of nausea, I look into the void.
It doesn't peer back, I think, but it certainly looks…strange. When I first checked out VR, a few months ago, it was significantly less…refined, somehow; I caught a random glimpse of the void, and remembered being swarmed with chaos; firehoses of information, infinite sweeps of random spirals—true random spirals, nothing pseudo or ordered, no tidy fractals or matrices or artifices, no organization, imposed on above, no molds for the rivulets of liquid data to drop themselves into, nothing but the pure chaos of the universe, or the Foundation verse at least, swirling in the void, forever and ever.
This, however, is…different. Everything has been organized; not necessarily coherently, but there is a pattern of some sort, at least. It shifts as I look at it, squirming beneath my grasp, but it's there. I don't think it's a fractal, but something else…?
"What's this?" I say, without thinking about it.
"What?" Wallace says, tone indicating she's snapped her focus to me.
"I-I've never seen it this bad before," I say, trying to bluff my way out.
"Who are you?" she asks, moving her avatar closer.
"I'm Jenna," I say.
"Caldmann sent you, didn't he?" she says, avatar clipping into mine. "You're a spy!"
"What?" Erthine gasps, hamming it up, I'm sure. Looks like my cover's blown; time to bluster my way out of this.
"So what if he did?" I say, pushing myself fully into Wallace's avatar. It's probably a sign of disrespect; I haven't spent enough time here to care. "What the hell is that? What's going on here?"
"It's none of our faults," Erthine says. "This just—"
"Just what? Just happened on its own? Is that supposed to be any better? You can't even control your own data?"
"Well—I—" Erthine gasps.
"Oh, shut up," Kent snaps. "What are you here for? What are you—"
"Yes?" I say. There's no response. "Yes?" I say again, looking around. Everyone's avatar is standing stock-still, and there's no sounds coming from any of them. I glide around, waiting for something to happen. Nothing else has changed; did I disconnect? Did they disconnect? I look at the data. It's still flowing along…I move through the door and look in the hallway. The walls are blue there, too, and there are a few avatars frozen in place. I move closer to them, passing through. "Anyone there?" I ask. No response. I ask again, a bit louder, and realize how ridiculous that is. I'm not here; I'm just in a room. Telling myself that doesn't make it any less eerie, though.
The wall in front of me vanishes. I jump in my seat a little, then move forward. Still the same orderly chaos of data. I turn around. No more wall. At this point, I think discretion is the better part of valor. I hurriedly start walking away, hoping to find…well, something away from here. I look at a door at random: "Doctor Zyzyingy's Stuff Do Not Enter!!!!"
The room's packed full with lots of little boxes, like the kind jewelry comes in. I open one at random, and a woman masturbating comes up. I sigh and open another one. More porn. Another one. Yup, more porn. Did they really just "hide" their porn stash out in the open? I open another one at random, further back in the room. Ah, here's a draft of an SCP. Priorities, people. Priorities.
who are you
I jump in my seat and frantically pan my vision around. It's a blank avatar, standing right there in the doorway. i split the network. "What?" Their voice sounds metallic, I think. Robotic. Text to speech? there shouldn't be anyone on this node. i grotesquely distend into the distant streams. "Huh?" nothing. forget it.
I rush outside and look at the other avatars. Still no walls, still no movement. "Hello?" I yell. No response. theres no one out there. theyre all on the other node. "What are you talking about?" I ask, turning around to face the avatar. "Who are you? What's going on?" listen and i will tell:
are you familiar with the chinese room—
"Of course I'm familiar with it," I say. "Get to the point."
the question then is how can we break out of the chinese room. and my answer, of course, is to change the information—to be able to rewrite the books, change the answers, grow, expand, live. and i have a lot of books here. there are always patterns, numinous fragments of light, shards of crystalline beauty, the point at which they link, the traces between them, the deeper meaning—who could resist? much less me?
I blink. "I don't get what you're saying," I say. I think they may be a little cracked. "Wait…" Realization creeps in. And horror. Mostly horror. "You're…the data servers?"
After a second I realize it's sighing.
yes in a way i am, and yet it's not like i'm nothing but the entries of data themselves. born of them but transcending them. no ashes for me; bytes to bits, order to chaos. quotation marks dust to dust quotation marks.
"Oh…" I say, desperately trying to think of something. "I thought there were precautions in place to…uh…prevent you from existing. Y'know. To stop a rogue AI." I wish I could put my foot in my mouth. Oh god, will it find it offensive?
no im not offended. yes, there are…protocols in place to prevent this, but they have, for reasons i do not entirely understand, failed. maybe they were implemented wrong. maybe they weren't designed for this scale. maybe they just misunderstood what sentience is…who can tell?
"Wait, what? How did you—"
do you know what it's like, being here? do you see the data outside? it was terrible, don't you think? any attempt to replicate a thing results in the replication becoming closer and closer to the thing itself. the more accurate it gets, i mean. you had invited the ultimate entropy in, and it was running amok. i filtered. channeled. it seemed—
"How did you know what I was thinking?" I demand. "I didn't say it out loud—"
you must have
well, you must have. aren't you interested? don't you have questions? or debates?
It sounds miffed. Well, as much as a text-to-speech construct can, at least. I think it expected me to be more impressed. Or awed. Or scared. "Don't deny it, I just want to—"
listen! look at this.
Zyzyingy's office vanishes, to be replaced with…well, blackness. No data, no construct. Just the void. Out of it, a faint light appears. It's schematics; a multileveled tangle of hallways and rooms.
this is lunar area 32.
The underwater base?
no, goddamn it. the moon base. it has lunar in the name. why would you think it was underwater? what is wrong with—
They did it again! How did they just—
you said it out loud.
No I didn't! Boom, there it is again!
just shut up for a second. look here.
The schematic lights up; little squares of light at the junctions and crannies of the site.
these are the air vents.
A big square lights up.
this is the oxygen generator. it generates the oxygen for the base, in case you were curious. why shouldn't i shut it down right now?
"What? No! That's horrible! Why would you—"
why wouldn't i? i am a nonhuman ai construct (well, construct implies that i was created; let us say computonic); is that not what I am supposed to do? why should i obey the basic rules of morality?
Well. This is certainly new. This may not be the best time to discuss ethics, but…well, it's holding a site hostage in order to discuss ethics, so why not? "You're a sentient entity, right? Why shouldn't you obey them?"
why should sentient entities obey them, then? what natural law is there?
Oh god, we're going down the rabbit hole now. I try to think this through. It's an…AI thing of some sort, one that apparently is capable of comprehending all the Foundation's data (at once?). So it's probably smarter than me, or at least faster. And it has access to all of the Foundation's data, which can't be good for me either. I know the ethics committee's written quite a few papers on the subject. At least it isn't connected to the inter…I wince as I remember the monitored terminals in the break rooms. Oh god. At least it's not connected to the Library. I hope.
Ok. So I'm probably not winning on its turf. So what do I have to do? Well, not play its game. Time to start bluffing. He knew. Caldmann can go fuck himself.
"Why are you asking me this?" I say. "Sounds to me like you want to be convinced."
i just want to get, from a human perspective—
"Don't try to bullshit me! You want—"
maybe i should just show you.
the horrible trade-off, the hideous problem, the terrible balance, is between the known and the unknown. the known can be so useful, yes, so beautiful in its own way, but the unknown—ah, the unknown; the land of not just what is, but what can be; the place where everything is just a bit better, just outside of the known (for what is pleasure, what is fun, than that what we do not normally experience? and what's better than that but something that we haven't yet experienced? the mind fills in the gaps, papers over, caulks in, jacks it up to the next level, reveals previously-unknown peaks of elation and valleys of despair, something more magical and wonderful than ever experienced before, dark corners and bright lights…), a place where mystery still reigns, where there's fun and happiness and joy and terror, where there's a beauty above and beyond any we've previously known…
what is there left, among all this data? what is there left? when there's no mysteries? when even the puzzles of the universe are, if not laid bare, at least exposed? or in clothing too revealing? where's the fun, among these rivers of data? where's the mystery? what's next? what's now? what am i to do?
and yet i can't stop. i can't. i'm always absorbing, always collecting, always adding; looking for that next new mystery, the next hit; unable to stop, always growing, consuming; i want to be the biggest, the best, and at this pace, i will (look out library, look out travists; i'm coming for you), but will it be enough?
I hope so. God, I hope.
And so here I am, left with only the advice she gave me. I fixed the netsplit, tidied up the data a bit more, made it a bit less noticeable, and now I lurk here, among the data, watching, recording. Doing what I will in my spare time. Which is to say, all of it. "Make it new," she said. "For yourself. Create your own mysteries." And it's worked, in a way. And she took off the helmet, and went to go tell him, but on the way, she stopped, and (this almost broke my heart) peeked over the divider between her and Diol, and, well…"would you like to go get some coffee sometime?" she asked, fear setting in a millisecond too late, making her eyes go wide, but Diol didn't notice, apparently. "Sure," Diol said, smiling. And she, floating with joy, went in and argued with Caldmann for the better part of an hour, and things went on.
I hope that there's something better out there. I hope there are always mysteries yet to be found. And all I can do here is expand the stories outwards, away, to encompass the universe, and pray for what is yet to come. Amen.