ORIGINAL FICTION: "Question and Answer (Part 2)" by Jonathan Andrew Sheen

Jonathan Andrew Sheen
Jonathan Andrew Sheen's picture

The main casing for the suit's computer-memory center was just below the oblong shoulder pack that ran the small army of cameras and antennae with which the suit -- and thus, Pieter -- looked at so much the outside world. It was removed along with a half-dozen screws and three safety interlocks.

The base's electronics-repair shop was a study in dull greys and grease: grey tools neatly aligned in grey holders on the grey walls above the grey workbenches. Grease shone grudgingly from the chains of the larger winches and suspension equipment under the harsh light of several naked, high-power bulbs.

One earth-moving -- or, rather, Nereid-moving -- machine slumped decaying in a corner, damaged beyond repair when a short-circuiting fuel sensor had thrown a stray spark into the control mainframe, inducing the computer equivalent of an epileptic fit. The control mainframe had sent conflicting commands to every motor, light, heating element and sensor aboard, and the tractor had torn itself apart.
Pieter stood by the main computer-repair bench, the suit standing before him like a pagan idol, an image ruined by the computer casing, standing open like a refrigerator door, spilling out a diagonal shaft of yellow light as Pieter worked at the circuitry within.
It was probably the most cheerful sight on the moon.

Pieter had thought and planned carefully before taking action. The board he was removing to replace with his macroboard was the control-and-memory system for the audio-video laserdeck. It might have been possible to damage main suit systems by abusing this port, but Pieter could not figure out how, and, in the end, it seemed worth the risk.
The macroboard was too large to fit into its predecessor's slot, but Pieter had known that from the beginning: it sat in a clamp-stand on the nearby workbench, a long ribbon of cable looping from its edge connector to the centronics-standard socket inside the suit casing. Pieter checked and rechecked the wiring connections, making sure there was no way to send some catastrophic data signal from the macroboard to the main suit system. As far as he could tell, there was none.
He stood, leaned over the open helmet collar, and spoke a command into the voice-control mic: "Computer, report memory space: port 13/B. Execute."

"Working," said the suit's baritone voice. Seconds ticked by. "Working."

Pieter blinked. Usually, this program was almost instantaneous. Was something wrong? Had his board somehow caused the main computer to lock itself into a loop? That wasn't as bad as it could be, but...
"Memory status, port 13/B, auxiliary equipment. Size: One million, five hundred sixty-four thousand, three hundred twelve terabytes. Files: None. Space: One million, five hundred sixty-four thousand, three hundred twelve terabytes."

Pieter's eyes bugged out. He'd used a kind of a randomizing system in programming memory pathways into the crystal sheet; he'd known that the resultant memory board would be roomy... but no idea how much so.
"Jesus Christ," he murmured.
"Command not understood."
"Disregard," snapped Pieter. "Run full diagnostic of memory circuit, port 13/B."
"Working," said the suit's baritone voice. "Working... Working..."
Pieter stepped back away from the suit, went to the workbench, began straitening out his tools. At this rate, he figured, it would take about fifteen minutes to run a check on the whole macroboard: longer -- much longer -- than it took for the whole suit.

At that, he was being optimistic.

It was twenty minutes later that suit interrupted its chant, and said "Diagnostic scan complete: all systems, all circuits, all sectors operating nominally."

Pieter grinned. Over a million terabytes in this one board alone! And it worked!

Slowly. With that amount of memory -- roughly equal to that of the station's recreational database -- the accessing of any information was bound to be slow and cumbersome: TI's logic and memory-management boards were good, but they'd never been designed to deal with that much memory.

Of course, with a little redesigning, he could make a memory-management/logic macroboard -- with context-recognition capabilities, of course -- by roughly the same means he'd used to create the memory board that hummed on the table. Something like that, now... That would be able to handle the extra memory with ease...

It took him a lot less time to design and build the logic/management macroboard. While building the original, he had "Saved" his motions, and thus the suit's, with an in-built motion-control program designed under license from Dykstra Systems, Inc. (an ILM company); the suit would now be able to build memory boards without his help. It only took a very small amount of redesigning and reprogramming to set the suit to the task of creating a logic/memory-management board.

Pieter watched its swift, steady, certain motions for a few minutes, then smiled, and nodded, and wandered off to take a nap, never realizing the two mistakes he had made.

________________________________________

The first was a little one, as mistakes go, understandable under the circumstances. But what happened thereafter followed after this one mistake as a natural consequence, and so it should be noted for the record that it was not what Pieter had intended.

In reprogramming memory into logic/management -- especially with context-recognition capabilities -- he had wanted to keep at least a rough eye on how efficiently the new board would manage the memory of the old, so he created the new circuitry in an overlay file, intending later to erase those portions of the memory board that the new circuits would overlap.

And then forgot to erase them. A decade and a half before, this would have caused any computer in the solar system to lock up and flag its programmer; but the context-recognition system that had made Drucilla Nagas a multi-millionaire allowed the suit computer, recieving instructions to create memory boards and memory-management/logic boards, to compare the two for incompatabilities, and finding none -- due to the unique structure of Kapek Crystals -- do both: create macro-memory boards with their own management/logic systems, both disparate functions able to operate simultaneously without loss of efficiency.
The second mistake? He forgot to toggle off the default "Repeat Motion" subroutine: While he slept, Pieter's spacesuit built 63 Memory/Logic boards. They say Tollhouse cookies, rubber cement and the microwave oven were invented by accident, too.

________________________________________

"Oh, crap," moaned Pieter, as the suit placed macroboard number sixty-three atop the neat stack behind itself, and reached into the Class-B bin for another crystal to seperate. He ran to the voice pickup. "Interrupt! Abort program!"
The suit froze. "Are you sure you want to abort?"
"Oh, f'r cryin' out loud!" Pieter muttered. Then, quickly, "Disregard! Repeat prompt."
"Are you sure you want to abort?"
"Yes."
"Do you wish to save program in memory?"
Pieter nodded for no sane reason. "Yes."
There was a momentary pause, a whir, and a couple of lights flashed in the suit's computer casing.
"Saved."

Pieter nodded again, for no better reason, and settled down to the work of testing one of the memory-management/logic boards. It took him about five minutes to realize that the board was not responding exactly as expected. He tried another of the boards, then two or three more, chosen from at random from the pile, with the same results. It took him four hours after that to realise what he was holding in his hand.
He set up a different test routine, ran a board status check. It was most of an hour later that the computer said:
"Board Status: port 13/B:
"Logic Functions: One million, five thousand, one hundred and three. Assigned: None. Total availlable logic functions: One million, five thousand, one hundred and three.
"Memory: One million, five thousand, one hundred and three terabytes. Files: None. Space: One million, five thousand, one hundred and three terabytes.
"Context-recognition system operational."
Pieter stared at the crystal sheet in the frame on his workbench and shook his head slowly. It was perhaps eight-by-ten inches, about as thick as a credit card. It was a computer thirty or forty times more powerfull than the one that ran the entire base. And he had sixty-two more of them on the desk in front of him.

He copied the suit's main system into the new macroboard's permanent memory... then laughed. The dent that had made in the board's memory was almost unnoticable. He did a full dump, putting the entire suit memory into the board, and ran the rest of his test procedures from it. It took him less than ninety minutes to test the remaining sixty-two boards: two were inoperative.

Sixty-one macroboards, with more than a million logic functions and terabytes a piece... And, unless he was very much mistaken, the effective total computer would be calculated geometrically, as each logic function made every other logic function subordinate to it for a span of time so short that human sensibilities would consider it instantaneous.

Pieter sat for a long, long time, wondering what to do with it all, and, for the first time in months, he wasn't bored.

________________________________________

He started with a commercial program from the base's recreational database, a program called SpeakEasy. It was a programmed-response conversation routine, very small, very simplistic, intended as a beginner's learning tool.
"Hello," it would say. "What's your name?"
"Pieter," Pieter would reply, or "Dope," or "Butt-Breath."
"Hello, Pieter," it would reply. Or, "Hello, Dope," or "Hello, Butt-Breath. Would you like to talk?"

It wasn't really much of a program. Its responses were predictable, its syntax weak, its vocabulay small. After about a day with it in the rec room, he'd grown bored, and moved on. But it had... possibilities.
As a learning tool, the writers had designed it to be expandable, open-ended, growing with a user's capabilities. One could tag other programs and data sources onto it fairly easily.

Even so, there wasn't a lot one could do with it before it became too slow, cumbersome and unwieldy to use. But that was in a standard mainframe, not a macro-monstrosity like this! Pieter loaded in the Encyclopedia Brittanica, The Oxford English Dictionary, the Complete Works of Shakespeare. Then, realizing how much space he had, and how little a dent he'd made in it, he dumped in the entire recreational and reference literature bank from the station library. It took up five of the sixty-one macroboards in the extension he'd built onto the suit computer. (In fact, there was very little still functioning that Texas Instruments could lay claim to.)

________________________________________

"Hello, suit," said Pieter, perhaps four days later.
"Hello, Pieter," said the suit. SpeakEasy was running again. "Would you like to talk?"
"Yes, please."
"Would you like to continue our last conversation, or would you prefer to start a new one?"
Pieter laughed, pulled a cola from the drinks dispenser. He examined the bottle carefully, hoping to discover some dirt. Fixing the bottle-washer could kill most of an afternoon. The bottle, however, was uncooperatively spotless. "Which would you prefer?"
The suit's shoulder-cameras turned to follow him as he moved from the dispenser to the couch. It considered for a veritable eternity, all of three microseconds, decided it didn't understand Pieter's response. "Would you like to continue our last conversation, or would you prefer to start a new one?"
Pieter laughed again. Something or other had put him into a mood for Monty Python. "I'd like to have an argument, please."
Another imperceptible pause. "Would you like to continue our last conversation, or would you prefer to start a new one?"
Pieter made a sour face. "I'd like to exit SpeakEasy."
"Are you sure you want to exit SpeakEasy?"
"Yes."
"Do you wish to save this conversation?"
"We haven't had one yet!" Pieter snapped.
"Do you wish to save this conversation?" the suit repeated.
"No!" Pieter reached out, manually disengaged the voice-recocgnition. He shook his head disgustedly. The conversations SpeakEasy was capable of having weren't worth the work of actually getting into them.
There ought to be a way to keep the program running all the time, without interfering with the main functions of the suit computer...

________________________________________

"Of course," said Pieter to the suit, a week or so later, "She said it was an accident..."
He trailed off as he leaned into the access hatch of the fourteenth ring of the linear accelerator. The stars wheeled slowly, imperceptibly overhead, cold and impersonal. One was much brighter than the others, almost showing a disk: Sol. A perfectly straight line of metal rings, each over a hundred feet tall, stretched away behind him toward the edge of the base, away from him to the horizon. A bucket of refined metals and Kapek crystals was due to be launched in about six hours, and he wanted to make at least a brief visual inspection of the auxiliary tell-tales of a random sampling of the rings. It was, he supposed, pointless, but it got him out of the house for awhile.
"Jung," the suit replied, "Said there's no such thing as a mistake. All is deliberately planned by the subconscious."
"Well, that's what I said," said Pieter.

________________________________________

Pieter sat back in the machine shop, watching the suit clean his tools. The routine had taken up a contemptibly small chunk of memory.
"...now, Jackson," he continued, "Jackson figured I'd just go to sleep, and forget the whole thing. That was his mistake."
"Jung," the suit replied, "Said there's no such thing as a mistake. All is deliberately planned by the subconscious."
Pieter shook his head, annoyed. The suit waited for his next gambit.
A programmed command, he thought, to cause a pre-fab answer to play. This isn't a conversation; I might as well be playing a tape.
But tapes could be entertaining, and so could this, if he could just make it more complex. Maybe if he made the program clone itself every time they encountered a new subject, so that an entire SpeakEasy program could manage each topic...

________________________________________

He ended up with tiers of SpeakEasies, divided and subdivided by subject, cross-referencing by key words and subjects.
Soon, SpeakEasy had cloned itself perhaps a hundred times -- as had the clones, and their clones, and their clones.

Then there was Punster. Punster was a program Pieter had programmed into the recreational databank more than a year before, in a failed attempt to keep himself occupied. It was based on a cross-referencing analysis into which he had dumped every genuinely funny pun he could find -- or think of. The idea was to find every element they had in common; he knew for certain of one: they all made him laugh.

Pieter thought that maybe with enough data to cross-reference, Punster would find the other common traits that added up to that one, at which point, the program would know what "Funny" was. Was there a simple, logical answer that could be applied to every funny situation?

Pieter doubted it, but it had been fun writing the program. Once written, he discovered that it would take up too much computer time and power to run on the equipment available to him. Then.

The macrosystem in his suit was another story entirely. He added it on to the multi-tiered SpeakEasy program as a subroutine.
Then there were little gesturing routines, syntax-variance subroutines to keep it from repeating itself word-for-word too often, randomizing routines to cause the suit to occasionally change the subject, or search irrelevant memory areas for information...

Soon, He found that the data programs amassed in the suit system were more complicated, more massively annotated and cross-connected than the Library of Congress Database; the whole program matrix had reached a level of complexity the human mind couldn't begin to approach.
Things began to happen unexpectedly.

Pieter was just outside the base, using the suit's gravity compensators to help him work out. The gravity compensation system was actually quite simple: a gimbal-mounted scale read the weight of a small but known mass of mercury, and transmitted that data to the computer, which then gauged the local gravity, and instructed the motors to either assist or resist the suit operator's motions enough to make the effort expended equivalent to that required at a pre-selected gravity level. The default value was one G, but Pieter preferred to run his fitness regimin at one-point-five. It worked him hard enough, but left him enough breath to carry on a conversation.

He was discussing Quantum Physics as a philosophical statement with the suit, propounding the potentially dubious theory that the universe is, in fact, only as we perceive it, and that until it is perceived no object or event actually exists in its final "true" form.

"Ah," said the suit. "You refer to the paradox known as Schrodinger's Cat: A cat, left alone in a sealed room, unobserved, for one hour, with some hazard that has an exactly equal probability of killing it or leaving it untouched --" The suit paused almost imperceptibly. "Obviously a dog man, our Dr. Schrodinger."
Pieter laughed, surprised. Just how complex had the Punster program grown, to come up with that one?
"Very good," he said approvingly.
"Thank you. As I was saying, Schrodinger proposed the paradox of closing a cat into a sealed room with an even chance of surviving an hour, then asked, what does the room contain in the microsecond before the researcher opens the door at the end of the hour, and observes the results of his experiment?

"The common-sense answer is that the room contains either a live cat or a dead one. Schrodinger, however, proposed a different one: he said that the room contains a complex mathematical probability wave-form packet, representing both a live cat and a dead one, equally. What the room contains, according to Schrodinger, is neither a dead cat, nor a live one... And yet is both."
Pieter nodded. He was already familiar with the paradox -- it was an old favorite, in fact, and the one that had first led him down the philosophical road he'd been walking with the suit. But he'd wanted to hear how the suit told it, and been twice pleased by the results: not only did it state the paradox with a clear concision that was almost chilling, but it had found that joke! The program was cross-referencing from quantum physics into humor without losing the train of the sentence! It was wonderful.
"But, surely," the suit continued, "that can only be treated as a model of events on a subatomic scale. Although a small but vocal group of scientists has always existed that claim it to be a literal representation of reality, that remains, and surely shall always remain, a nonstandard interpretation."
"But," said Pieter, "don't you see? The subatomic world isn't some distant alternate universe -- it's us! Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle states that you can not observe subatomic events without intimately affecting them! And you and I and this little world, and the big one we orbit, and the solar system and galaxy and universe they're nested in -- they're none of them anything more than aggregates of uncounted jillions of subatomic events!"

The suit was quiet for a moment. Then: "In his novel, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, Douglas Adams had Ford Prefect tell Arthur Dent, 'Listen, bud, if I had one Altairian dollar for every time I heard one bit of the Universe look at another bit of the Universe and say "That's terrible" I wouldn't be sitting here like a lemon looking for a gin.' It is an interesting perspective."

Pieter froze, and stared out through the helmet visor at nothing. What an extraordinary leap! But, it made sense, he had to admit. He shook his head slowly. The shoulder cameras remained still. A smile, wide and wondering, spread itself slowly across his face.
What a hell of a program! he thought.

TO BE CONCLUDED...
-------------------
Copyright 2011, Jonathan Andrew Sheen

Tags: