Marque of Caine – Snippet 36

Marque of Caine – Snippet 36

Chapter Twenty-Four

April, 2124

Rooaioo’q, BD +66 582

Alnduul approached Riordan, hands outstretched. “We simply terminated the simulation. There is no problem–“

“No problem?” Riordan stalked toward the Dornaani, who stopped, retreated a step. “This whole simulation is a problem! An atrocity! Where–how the hell did you–?”

Thlunroolt’s voice was loud. “Calm yourself, human. I can–“

“You can shut the fuck up, you smug bastard,” Caine shouted, then closed with Alnduul. “Downing let you bury Nolan in space. Because you said you revered him.” Caine felt his hands balling up, didn’t care. “This . . . this is reverence?”

Alnduul stood his ground. Thlunroolt was reaching for something under the table.

Without looking at the old Dornaani, Riordan snapped: “If you put your hand on a weapon, you’d better be ready to use it.”

“You are over-wrought,” Thlunroolt said quietly, withdrawing his hand. “You are not thinking clearly.”

“I’m thinking clearly enough to tell you this: I’m done nodding at your evasions and half-truths and I’m done smiling through your condescension. But you are right about one thing: as a human, I’m extremely–excessively–proactive. So if you want to be on the receiving end of that, just keep pushing me.”

“I deserve that remonstrance,” Thlunroolt said quietly. “But threatening and harming us will achieve nothing. Except that it will end Elena Corcoran’s only foreseeable hope of going home.”

“Screw that,” Caine bluffed. “Assuming I can find her and wake her up, what do I tell her? That you’re building an electronic freak show with her Dad as the prime attraction? If I haven’t turned this place into a crater, she’d come do it herself.”

Alnduul swallowed. “Caine. I am sorry. There was no other way to expose you to the simulacrum.”

Riordan leaned forward sharply. “You know, I’m also done accepting that same, bullshit excuse. Of course there was another way: you could have warned me. Or didn’t that occur to any of you superbeings?”

Alnduul folded his hands. “Informing participants in advance of a simulacrum’s first exposure to them is catastrophically counter-productive. Every time.”

Riordan wanted to stay angry, wanted to have someone to blame, but Alnduul’s statement and tone were too earnest, even miserable, to ignore. “Explain that.”

“The first activation of a simulacrum has to be with someone that it recognizes and who recognizes them in return. However, the participant must not expect the encounter. It is their surprise which compels the simulacrum to begin reintegrating its memories in order to sustain and clarify the interaction. And, in the process, it initiates the creation of new memories.

“On the other hand, if participants are informed about their ‘meeting’ with the simulacrum beforehand, they invariably treat it like a fragile patient that must not be disturbed, alarmed, or challenged. And for every minute that a freshly awakened simulacrum is coddled, it is at an increasing risk of deconstructing itself.”

Riordan frowned. “So this is why you mentioned the observer-effect.”

Thlunroolt opened his hands widely. “Precisely. If the participant behaves in a normative fashion, the simulacrum is too busy reacting to the surprise and new stimuli to detect the initial gaps in its own data template, which will fill in soon enough. Conversely, if the simulacrum is protected from strong external stimuli and challenges, that allows it to turn inward, where it quickly discovers those gaps. That initiates a self-assessment cascade that destroys the nascent homeostatic matrix.”

“Which is, in plain English . . .?”

Alnduul glanced at Thlunroolt before he replied. “It is the interactive and self-learning core of the simulacrum’s pseudo-consciousness.”

“Pseudo-consciousness”? Either that’s psychobabble or this is a lot more sophisticated, and troubling, than I thought. “If you want me to remain calm, you’re going to give me a one sentence answer–in plain language–to each of the following questions. What is this simulacrum, really? How did you make it? And what is its purpose?”

Alnduul’s inner nictating lids fluttered before he answered. “This simulacrum is a partial artificial mind. It was made by accessing Nolan Corcoran’s own memories and cognitive template. And its purpose–my purpose–is to make amends for causing his death.”

Wait: what? “You didn’t have anything to do with Nolan’s death. He was killed by a Ktoran agent. Probably Tlerek Srin Shethkador.” Although I sure wish we knew how he did it.

Alnduul’s fingers drooped. “The Ktoran assassination was merely an indirect symptom of a greater disease: our–my–inaction. You have seen and lamented it yourself, Caine Riordan: how late we Custodians were in intervening during the invasion of Earth, and how little we were allowed to do. Even Nolan Corcoran’s photographs of the mass-driver mooring points on the Doomsday Rock were dismissed as ‘inconclusive.'”

“Had we contacted Earth when we should have, and had we protected your species as was our Custodial duty, the Ktor would never have had a reason to silence Corcoran. Our arrival would have made obvious all that he was forced to conceal and which they hoped to silence, or at least derail, with his death.”

Riordan felt his anger being eroded by Alnduul’s bitter self-recriminations, of the obvious pain he felt over losing Corcoran: a man he had never even met. But still, this damn simulacrum— “You still haven’t explained how you created such an accurate imitation of Nolan, right down to the way he talks and acts in private.”

“There was no need to create an ‘imitation,’ Caine Riordan. We have a complete recording of all Nolan Corcoran’s significant behaviors, habits of thought, memories, and knowledge.”

Riordan wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly. “A recording . . . from where?”

“From the organism we insinuated into his chest after the coronary damage he sustained while intercepting the Doomsday Rock. As I told you after Convocation.”

Riordan lowered himself back into the chair. “So, for over thirty years, you were–what? Recording all Nolan’s thoughts?”

Alnduul glanced away. “Yes.”

Riordan looked from one Dornaani to the other. “Jesus. What are we to you, lab rats? Don’t you have any respect for our privacy, either individually or as a planet?”

“As a planet?” Thlunroolt echoed uncertainly.

“Don’t insult my intelligence by playing dumb. Unless you can magically teleport a foreign organism into a human body, you had to have an agent of your own on Earth to do it. Probably did it when the surgeons put in Nolan’s coronary support pack at Johns Hopkins. One of the team, probably a senior nurse responsible for closing the incision, slipped it in. Which–let me guess–didn’t require surgery to attach. The organism did that all by itself, didn’t it?”

“Once it is awakened, the biot is self-directed,” Alnduul admitted. He looked up. “I assure you that we have never done such a thing to anyone on Earth before.”

“Then why did you do it to Nolan?”

Thlunroolt turned away from Alnduul: a movement that suggested this was an old point of contention.

Alnduul folded his hands. “I chose to add the cognition tap to the organism because I feared for Nolan’s life. Three years after his return from the intercept of the Doomsday Rock, it was clear that he was becoming pivotal in your world’s move to readiness. That made it increasingly likely that he would become a target of Ktoran agents.”

Riordan sighed, rested an elbow on the table. “So, you wanted to preserve him. Just in case.”

This time it was Alnduul who stepped closer. “I wanted to honor him.”

Riordan looked up; had there been a buzzing quaver in Alnduul’s voice?

“You do not fully understand us yet, Caine Riordan. Since we Dornaani do not inherit families and parents, we find our primary affiliations through personal affinities. Nolan Corcoran was a–a profound inspiration to me. And with every step of subtle strategic brilliance he took, he also came closer to the end which finally claimed him. I could not sit by and watch that happen.”

Riordan frowned. “I didn’t know that you could conceive of that kind of, well, connection to a human. Particularly one you never met.”

“It is not typical,” Thlunroolt observed sardonically.

Riordan kept his focus on Alnduul. “So, why did you have to terminate the simulation?”

Alnduul held up two fingers of either hand. “The Corcoran template is more fragile than the ones we typically work with.”

 “Typically work with?” If this is the only time they’ve done this to someone on Earth, then who are their usual subjects? “What makes it so fragile?”

“The final update from the organism was interrupted, abruptly, by Nolan’s demise.”

“That would make a lot more sense to me if I understood how this ‘cognitive tap’ actually works.”

Alnduul’s inner lid nictated. “It uses a non-invasive transceiver, much like the one used for virtuality, to record sensory impressions, cognitive activity, and emotions. With those, we build a map of the subject’s mental attributes and functions.”

Riordan leaned back, unsure of whether to be amazed or horrified.

Alnduul raised a temporizing finger. “If the subject’s demise is sudden, the organism will autonomously attempt a rapid relay, but these are often incomplete, compromised. This was the case with Nolan Corcoran. In addition to losing most of the weeks leading up to the Parthenon Dialogues, there was considerable corruption to many memories that he did not consider significant.”

“Can you give me an example?”

“Yes. You mentioned ‘his detractors.’ Although he remembered that such persons existed, he could not recall any individually. That was what forced us to terminate the simulation.”

“But how would Nolan remember the concept of having detractors without remembering their identities?”

Alnduul rippled the spread fingers of one hand as if it was a sea-fan. “The ability to discriminate data into prioritized hierarchies is one of the few mental traits shared by every species of the Accord. Indeed, most memories you have ‘forgotten’ are simply stored in a deep archive. However, the cognitive tap only records those which pass through the subject’s mind. Data that leave faint impressions are neither strongly imprinted nor later refreshed by recall. In Nolan’s case, many details pertaining to these lower priority memories were lost.”

Riordan forced himself not to be distracted by the horrific possibilities of such a technology. “So if these memories are so minor, why was it necessary to stop the simulation?”

Alnduul’s inner eyelids cycled slowly: affirmation. “If the pseudo-consciousness’ expanding interactive matrix encounters a blank space where it expects to find memories, it can collapse. One or two such events are within its tolerance limits. However, repeated failures trigger a cascade of random self-checking, such as you would perform if you woke up with complete amnesia. If, at that early stage, the simulacrum discovers that it is not a complete and conscious entity, its matrix collapses.”

“So, my remark about detractors unwittingly pulled on a loose thread in the tapestry of its self-awareness, and you feared it might unravel.”

“Yes. Now I must ask you a question, Caine Riordan.”

“You mean, will I continue?”

“Yes.”

Riordan sighed. “So, if you get this simulacrum to work, do you intend to make it available to the Collective or other Dornaani?”

Alnduul’s gills popped in sharp negation. “Absolutely not. That is why we are doing the work here. Our only intent is to preserve as much of Nolan Corcoran as we can.”

“And if I refuse to continue?”

“We have no other participants who the simulacrum would recognize, and so could not complete it. And if a matrix does not become a fully functioning simulacrum, then, if we were . . . audited, it could be erased by representatives of the Collective.”

“But if it’s completed?”

“Then it becomes a protected creation. Akin to an artifact.”

“But to what purpose?”

Alnduul trailed three languid fingers in the space between them. “Your headstones, your mausoleums, your many urns of cremated remains: they, too, have no use and are nonetheless preserved. Yet this is beyond all those examples. For a simulacrum does not just honor a person who has passed; it saves some aspect of them from oblivion.”

Riordan thought of Elena, of Trevor, of Nolan’s widow Patrice, even of Connor: what would they want him to do? Authorize a memorial that bordered on quasi-sentience? Condone the use of an illegal copy of Nolan’s mostly-intact consciousness? Riordan clasped his hands where they hung between his knees, fought to still the spinning compass of contending loyalties, impulses, ethics.

And suddenly, there was clarity. It really doesn’t matter what I think, because I don’t have the right to decide. All I can do is make sure that he is preserved for now, so that, one day, his loved ones can make that choice themselves. Which I guess means–

“Okay. I’ll finish the job.”

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