Continued from Chapter 21, here.
Back inside the control room, Orville had again managed to pull away from the blaring alarms of the electronic panels behind him.
“You succeeded,” I echoed his last words back to him. “What do you mean? You created a neural network?”
Orville, eyes flashing, gestured behind him at the banks of electronic panels, lights blinking on and off. “Does this look like nothing happened?”
“It looks like a bloody disaster happened!” Jaspers butted forward, eyes burning with anger. “You lot are bloody shouting about some sort of damn disaster about to happen, as if you haven’t stepped out-fuckin-side! Do you have any idea what’s going on in the bigger world?”
Orville stood taller than the burly SAS Brit by nearly a foot of height, but Jaspers probably edged him out on weight. The two approached, eyes locked and lips drawn back in nearly identical snarls. I almost felt tempted to let the pair of them duke it out, but something about the urgency of the scientists behind Orville told me that we might not have that kind of time.
“You two can arm-wrestle over this later,” I snapped, moving in between the pair of them. I put one hand out to touch Jaspers and defuse him, even as my eyes stared down Orville. “Now, where’s Nathaniel?”
That, clearly, wasn’t what Orville had been expecting me to ask.
He took a step backward, breath whooshing out of him as if I’d literally socked him in the chest. “Nathaniel?” he echoed, his voice filled with shocked disbelief – and another emotion, beneath the disbelief, that I couldn’t quite make out. Sadness? Fear?
I nodded. “Nathaniel Hobbson. Isn’t he the head of this project?”
Orville just stared back at me, his mouth still slightly ajar – and then, suddenly, he gestured towards another set of doors leading off to another direction, one we hadn’t explored yet.
“There’s a break room over there,” he said softly, the fight vanished from his stance. “We’ve been getting sleep in shifts, there, since… well, since the activation. We can talk in there.” He turned, running his eyes over the men behind him. “Dawkins, you’re in charge.”
We followed after the gaunt scientist, as the other men turned to the luckless Dawkins and asked for orders.
Sure enough, we found a break room on the other side of the door Orville indicated. It looked like it had once been used for eating lunches, although most of the tables and chairs had been shoved against the walls and stacked, out of the way. Someone had, at one point, smashed open the glass of a vending machine and ransacked its contents. A couple men lay curled up uncomfortably on piles of blankets and clothing on the floor; they apparently either weren’t asleep or weren’t deeply asleep, as they both sat up when Orville entered.
“Keep an eye on it,” he commanded them as he entered, jerking his thumb over his shoulder at the control room. They both nodded, climbing to their feet with an effort.
Once the break room was empty except for Orville and the four of us, the man dropped down heavily into a chair. He dropped his head into his hands, propping his elbows on his knees as he slumped.
“It all went wrong,” he said, the words almost indistinct thanks to the muffling from his hands pressed against his face.
“What did?” Sergei asked, looking mystified, but I squatted down on the balls of my feet to put my head at the same level as Orville.
“Start from the beginning,” I suggested, trying to keep my tone relaxed and open.
He took a deep breath. “Neural networks,” he said, lifting his head slightly. “They’ve always been a theoretical concept, because no one’s been willing to invest the huge amount of infrastructure to create a fully functioning one – not one of the half-hearted attempts like Facebook had, a real one with true intelligence – because they couldn’t find a problem where they needed that level of computational strength for the solution.”
Sergei and Henry both exchanged skeptical glances over Orville’s head, but the complicated scientific language seemed to give the man strength. “Nathan…” Orville said, pausing to take a steadying breath. “He was the one who saw the combination. No one ever thought of putting neural networks together with subatomic equations and manipulations before.”
“Why not?” I asked. I didn’t really follow his words, but he almost sounded like he was waiting for that question.
Indeed, Orville nodded as if approving a student’s words. “Neural networks are generally used for solving very ‘big’ problems, with huge amounts of data,” he answered. “Quantum interactions have a lot of math and data, it’s true, but they also have a lot of uncertainty, which can be very difficult for computers to handle. Nathan was the one who had the brilliant idea of building a neural network with included uncertainty, so that it could handle the difficult quantum equations in real time.”
“And you created it,” I guessed.
He nodded, and a glint of pride reflected briefly from his eyes. “Nathan created it. He was the only one who understood all the math. He modeled it after himself, used his own brain, his neurons, as the design base. We pitched it to the military, explained its potential.”
“And what potential, pray tell, is that?” interjected Henry.
Orville gestured in the air. “Anything. The application of quantum principles to the real world, framed through a neural network… it could reach out and make any change necessary. It could send us to the stars. It could unlock the secrets of the universe.”
“It could make three billion people disappear to nothing,” Sergei added.
Orville swallowed. “We didn’t know. We think there might have been some sort of projected interference pattern…”
“Hold on,” I cut in. “What’s going on in that control room? Why are all the scientists almost panicking?”
The gaunt man shifted his deep-sunken eyes back to me. “Because it’s still in there,” he hissed. “We can’t shut it down! And if it breaks free again, manages to stretch that interference pattern, whatever it did… you don’t understand, you oaf. You military numbskull. Things like physical distance don’t have any relevance in the quantum field! It could undo the entire galaxy, rewrite it all into nothingness!” He was up on his feet now, shouting at me, eyes wide and spittle flying from his lips.
“So pull the bloody plug!” snapped Jaspers, unimpressed.
“Pull the plug!?” Orville echoed, almost screaming. “You idiot! You think we didn’t try that! It turned itself back on, it supplies its own power from quantum interactions! We can’t stop it – we’re doing all we can to just contain it! Maybe if you blow it apart to atoms, it might be enough – but anything else and we’re all dead! Dead! Dead-”
Orville’s mouth snapped shut. Like a tree, the man toppled forward, his eyes rolling back in his head. I stepped aside and watched him hit the floor.
“Loud man,” Sergei remarked, lowering the butt of his knife.
To be continued…
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