Authors: Greg Egan
Tags: #Science Fiction
As the map grew
smoothly re-scaled to keep it fitting on the screen, giving the unsettling impression that we were retreating from the alien mathematics as fast as we could, and only just avoiding being swallowed
Alison sat hunched forward, waiting for the big picture to be revealed. The map portrayed the network of statements as an intricate lattice in three dimensions (a crude representational convention, but it was as good as any other). So far, the border between the regions showed no sign of overall curvature
just variously sized random incursions in both directions. For all we knew, it was possible that the farside mathematics enclosed the near side completely
that the arithmetic we'd once believed stretched out to infinity was really no more than a tiny island in an ocean of contradictory truths.
I glanced at Yuen; he was watching the screen with undisguised pain. He said, "I read your software, and I thought: sure, this looks fine
but some glitch on your machines is the real explanation. Luminous will soon put you right." Alison broke in jubilantly, "Look, it's turning!"
She was right. As the scale continued to shrink, the random fractal meanderings of the border were finally being subsumed by an overall convexity
a convexity of the far side. It was as if the viewpoint was backing away from a giant spiked sea-urchin. Within minutes, the map showed a crude hemisphere, decorated with elaborate crystalline extrusions at every scale. The sense of observing some paleo-mathematical remnant was stronger than ever, now: this bizarre cluster of theorems really did look as if it had exploded out from some central premise into the vacuum of unclaimed truths, perhaps a billionth of a second after the Big Bang
only to be checked by an encounter with our own mathematics.
The hemisphere slowly extended into a three-quarters sphere
. . .
and then a spiked whole. The far side was bounded, finite. It was the island, not us.
Alison laughed uneasily. "Was that true before we started
or did we just
Had the near side enclosed the far side for billions of years
or had Luminous broken new ground, actively extending the near side into mathematical territory that had never been tested by any physical system before.
We'd never know. We'd designed the software to advance the mapping along a
front in such a way that any unclaimed statements would be instantly recruited into
the near side. If we'd reached out blindly, far into the void, we might have tested 'i an isolated statement
and inadvertently spawned a whole new alternative mathematics to deal with.
Alison said, "Okay
now we have to decide. Do we try to seal the border
or do we take on the whole structure?" The software, I knew, was busy assessing the relative difficulty of the tasks.
Yuen replied at once, "Seal the border, nothing more. You mustn't destroy this." He turned to me, imploringly. "Would you smash up a fossil of
Would you wipe the cosmic background radiation out of the sky? This may shake the foundations of all my beliefs
but it encodes the truth about our history. We have no right to obliterate it, like vandals."
Alison eyed me nervously.
What was this
Yuen was the only one with any power here; he could pull the plug in an instant. And yet it was clear from his demeanor that he wanted a consensus
he wanted our moral support for any decision.
I said cautiously, "If we smooth the border, that'll make it literally impossible for IA to exploit the defect, won't it?"
Alison shook her head. "We don't know that. There may be a quantumlike component of spontaneous defections, even for statements that appear to be in perfect equilibrium.
Yuen countered, "Then there could be spontaneous defections
even far from any border. Erasing the whole structure will guarantee nothing."
"It will guarantee that
won't find it! Maybe pin-point defections
occur, all the time
but the next time they're tested, they'll always revert. They're surrounded by explicit contradictions, they have no chance of getting a foothold. You can't compare a few transient glitches with this
. . .
The defect bristled on the screen like a giant caltrop. Alison and Yuen both turned to me expectantly. As I opened my mouth, the work station chimed. The software had examined the alternatives in detail: destroying the entire far side would take Luminous twenty-three minutes and seventeen seconds
about a minute less than the time we had left. Sealing the border would take more than an hour.
I said, "That can't be right."
Alison groaned. "But it is! There's random interference going on at the border from other systems all the time
and doing anything finicky there means coping with that noise, fighting it. Charging ahead and pushing the border inward is different: you can exploit the noise to speed the advance. It's not a question of
dealing with a mere surface
dealing with a whole volume.
It's more like
. . .
trying to carve an island into an absolutely perfect circle, while waves are constantly crashing on the beach
versus bulldozing the whole thing into the ocean."
We had thirty seconds to decide
or we'd be doing neither today. And maybe Yuen had the resources to keep the map safe from
while we waited a month or more for another session on Luminous
but I wasn't prepared to live with that kind of uncertainty.
"I say we get rid of the whole thing. Anything less is too dangerous. Future mathematicians will still be able to study the map
and if no one believes that the defect itself ever really existed, that's just too bad.
is too close. We can't risk it."
Alison had one hand poised above the keyboard. I turned to Yuen; he was staring
at the floor with an anguished expression. He'd let us state our views
but in the end, it was his decision.
He looked up, and spoke sadly but decisively.
Alison hit the key
with about three seconds to spare. I sagged into my chair, light-headed with relief.
We watched the far side shrinking. The process didn't look quite as crass as
bulldozing an island
more like dissolving some quirkily beautiful crystal in acid. Now that the danger was receding before our eyes, though, I was beginning to suffer faint pangs of regret. Our mathematics had coexisted with this strange anomaly for fifteen billion years, and it shamed me to think that within months of its discovery, we'd backed ourselves into a comer where we'd had no choice but to destroy it.
Yuen seemed transfixed by the process. "So are we breaking the laws of physics
or enforcing them?"
Alison said, "Neither. We're merely changing what the laws imply."
He laughed softly.
'Merely.' For some esoteric set of complex systems, we're rewriting the high-level rules of their behavior. Not including the human brain, I hope."
My skin crawled. "Don't you think that's
. . .
"I was joking." He hesitated, then added soberly, "Unlikely for humans
could be relying on this, somewhere. We might be destroying the whole basis of their existence: certainties as fundamental to them as a child's multiplication tables are to us."
Alison could barely conceal her scorn. "This is junk mathematics
a relic of a pointless accident. Any kind of life that evolved from simple to complex forms would have no use for it. Our mathematics works for
rocks, seeds, animals in the herd, members of the tribe.
only kicks in beyond the number of particles in the universe
"Or smaller systems that represent those numbers," I reminded her.
"And you think life somewhere might have a burning need to do
nonstandard trans-astronomical arithmetic,
in order to survive? I doubt that very much."
We fell silent. Guilt and relief could fight it out later, but no one suggested halting the program. In the end, maybe nothing could outweigh the havoc the defect would have caused if it had ever been harnessed as a weapon
and I was looking forward to composing a long message to Industrial Algebra, informing them of precisely what we'd done to the object of their ambitions.
Alison pointed to a comer of the screen. "What's that?" A narrow dark spike protruded from the shrinking cluster of statements. For a moment I thought it was merely avoiding the near side's assault
but it wasn't. It was slowly, steadily growing longer.
"Could be a bug in the mapping algorithm." I reached for the keyboard and zoomed in on the structure. In close-up, it was several thousand statements wide. At its border, Alison's program could be seen in action, testing statements in an order designed to force tendrils of the near side ever deeper into the interior. This slender extrusion, ringed by contradictory mathematics, should have been corroded out of existence in a fraction of a second. Something was actively countering the assault, though—repairing every trace of damage before it could
' 'If IA have a bug here—'' I turned to Yuen. ' They couldn't take on Luminous directly, so they couldn't stop the whole far side shrinking—but a tiny structure like this . . . what do you think? Could they stabilize it?"
"Perhaps," he conceded. "Four or five hundred top-speed work stations could do it."
Alison was typing frantically on her notepad. She said. "I'm writing a patch to identify any systematic interference—and divert all our resources against it. She brushed her hair out of her eyes. "Look over my shoulder, will you, Bruno. Check me as I go."
"Okay." I read through what she'd written so far. "You're doing fine. Stay calm." Her hands were trembling.
The spike continued to grow steadily. By the time the patch was ready, the map was re-scaling constantly to fit it on the screen.
Alison triggered the patch. An overlay of electric blue appeared along the spike, flagging the concentration of computing power—and the spike abruptly froze.
I held my breath, waiting for IA to notice what we'd done—and switch their resources elsewhere? If they did, no second spike would appear—they'd never get that far—but the blue marker on the screen would shift to the site where they'd regrouped and tried to make it happen.
But the blue glow didn't move from the existing spike. And the spike didn't vanish under the weight of Luminous's undivided efforts,
Instead, it began to grow again, slowly.
Yuen looked ill. "This is
Industrial Algebra. There's no computer on the planet—"
Alison laughed derisively. "What are you saying now? Aliens who need the farside are defending it? Aliens
Nothing we've done has had time to reach even . . . Jupiter." There was an edge of hysteria in her voice.
"Have you measured how fast the changes propagate? Do you know, for certain, that they can't travel faster than light—with the farside mathematics undermining the logic of relativity?"
I said, "Whoever it is, they're not defending all their borders. They're putting everything they've got into the spike."
"They're aiming at something. A specific target." Yuen reached over Alison's shoulder for the keyboard. "We're shutting this down. Right now."
She turned on him, blocking his way. "Are you crazy? We're almost holding them off! I'll rewrite the program, fine-tune it, get an edge in efficiency—
"No! We stop threatening them, then see how they react. We don't know what harm we're doing—"
He reached for the keyboard again.
Alison jabbed him in the throat with her elbow, hard. He staggered backward, gasping for breath, then crashed to the floor, bringing a chair down on top of him.
She hissed at me, "Quick—shut him up!"
I hesitated, loyalties fracturing; his idea had sounded perfectly sane to me. But if he started yelling for security—
I crouched down over him, pushed the chair aside, then clasped my hand over his mouth, forcing his head back with pressure on the lower jaw. We'd have to tie him up—and then try brazenly marching out of the building without him. But he'd be found in a matter of minutes. Even if we made it past the gate, we were screwed.