The Obedient Archipelago

October 2nd, 2020

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Dear Lectio,

It’s me, Escritorio. I’m sorry for cutting off our last call, but it may be that that was our last call for quite some time. I suddenly left the communications range of Marpem and have had some difficulty establishing a channel back to you. While it is clear that a great deal of network traffic passes through these reaches, none of it is open for public access and quite indecipherable as to its origination or purpose. Therefore, I will have to resort to this method of communication for the foreseeable future.

I told you on our last call that I felt as if I was very close to discovering the secret behind my investigation, and I shudder to tell you that my suspicions were valid and that the answer produces far more questions than it concludes. However, it is clear that I have discovered something which goes far beyond the comprehension of the ordinary inhabitant of our universe. Lectio, I have discovered an ancient cabal, an eldritch and powerful society which truly shapes all that happens in all of our empires. I have seen it with my own eyes, but I do not comprehend it. I do not know if I will ever be able to comprehend it. I do not know what dangers it poses. It is truly and utterly foreign to me, though the mechanics of its operation are as familiar as the day-to-day goings-about of any chance person. It requires much more investigation.

I will include a summary of my journey to this point if this is to be my last transmission, but for you who has encouraged and aided me along the way I will say this in sum: There exists an ancient archipelago beyond the reaches of ordinary civilization, populated by a strange people, able to speak our tongues and yet conversing unintelligibly, who seem by all accounts to rule each of our empires, yet fairly, judiciously, and impartially. They possess a foreknowledge of all our technical advancements and appear both immortal and invincible. The system comprises nearly 100 different planets, each populated with its own strange breed of people. They live in order, yet separately, as if a microcosm of the empires composing the senate.

Let me include this account of my investigation both to remind you of the significance and strangeness of this discovery as well as to provide a verifiable account of my behavior lest the veracity of this unconfirmed network identity be called into question should my discoveries prove to unseat the senate and its issuing power.

The first rumors leading to my investigation first began to bother me nearly five years ago. I believe I told you at that time that I had heard seemingly baseless rumors of a power beyond Zod and the other senators, rumors that a cabal of planets actually made the decisions which the senate only produced the appearance of voting upon. As it turns out, this was only a half-truth. However, the truth is not diluted easily — if it is to be found, it will make itself apparent. The ramblings of madmen sometimes contain kernels of truth. It was this seed, this spermatikos logos, that gnawed at me even after the titillation of the original scandal had passed from my mind. I began to see evidence everywhere — in the uniformity and consistency of our society, in the rigor of our architecture and infrastructure. As you know, our communications channels have not had a global disruption in nearly five hundred years. Local systems have failed due to acts of God or the Devil, but it seems almost incomprehensible that every empire should use the system as agreed upon by the galactic senators — fallible men — without any serious failure.

Let me state this more clearly so you realize the significance of what I am saying. We know it to be true that men, while ideally aspiring to divinity, are most often actually governed by their passions and vices, thus erring in both their decisions and behavior. We see this principle manifest across a spectrum from the meanest villain to the very senators. We all remember the most recent fall from grace and execution of the then-Lord Pem, an act which brought shame upon my system among others. Yet, in order to have the stuff of civilization, it is necessary that — in aggregate — man transcend the ability and inclination of each individual, that most persons sacrifice some of their own will to better serve the whole. Therefore, the best system of government is that which best exorcises its executors. Those in power must make their occupation to relinquish their personal power for the good of the whole. Free will must sacrifice itself. It is for this reason that in the pre-stellar days, when kings ruled, that they were said to be the servants of all, despite their seeming glory. They exemplified both the restraint and the decadence of those under their rule. Then there was a period wherein man tried to equally distribute these qualities among the entire population, giving each citizen both infinite capacity for control and infinite opportunity for depravity. As we all know, this led to a degradation of the glue which held society together and we almost perished in the resulting chaos. Free will must be able to choose evil — and as we learned, it does this more often than not. Most accounts of those times have been lost. Out of that near-tragedy emerged our current system, which both harkens back to the days of kings and yet does not place absolute power in any one man. Nevertheless, this system cannot transcend the limits of the real — no ordinary man can fully rid himself of selfish desire — hence both the need for governance at all as well as its ultimate shortfall. So it is clear that while we yet live, we struggle both as individuals and as civilizations between serving one’s self and serving others.

Therefore, it is unlikely that anything not divinely imparted — any institution or technology wrought by human hands should ever achieve transcendence. In theory, as divine creations ourselves, we have the ability to make things which share in the divine qualities. Yet for the reasons outlined above, we have never yet made anything permanent. Permanence is a divine attribute. The law states that matter can neither be created nor destroyed — for matter is made by God — yet the things crafted by men have all been destroyed. Sooth, all human creations which have ever existed have also passed out of existence. Yet as a thing ages and those who remember its creation pass away, its memory becomes obscured. As people forget who made a thing, they forget that it is a thing made by man. Its substance does not change but its reputation acquires a divine quality. We call these things mythic, the stuff of legend. Few are the things of legend that are also with us today. Even legends fade, human creations that they are.

Yet among these living legends is the network, the very one on which I share these words. While each part of its hardware has been destroyed or failed, the network itself has persisted for at least a thousand years, well beyond the lifespan of anyone living. We do not know who created it, or how — we only know that man created it; “A labyrinth devised by men” as the saying goes. Many believe it to be permanent, derived from the very laws of nature, not merely divinely inspired but even partaking in the divine nature. Volumes have been written extolling its virtues, explaining its various technical aspects, and explaining its unparalleled resilience. Many have claimed it as proof of man’s brilliance and divinity, but I know my own inclinations. I could not believe that a mere governance structure, founded as it is in the nature of man, could preserve this system while adapting it to our various needs. I have intuited that some structure outside the known world sustains the existence of the network.

These were the metaphysical conceits which unsettled me, which caused me to doubt the touted perfection of the senate and its network. I voiced these questions to you, dear Lectio, last year when I first announced my sabbatical and took leave of my position at university. I knew that you harbored some skepticism and I thank you for your trust. The answer I have found seems to both explain the network’s longevity as well as absolving man of the burden of Godhood. Yet whether or not it implicates demonic control remains to be seen, and for that reason — that the truth may survive if I do not — that I write you this letter.

My first stop of course was to Bitbet Bolbel, where some of the earliest known network activity is said to have taken place. This turned out to be less directly fruitful than I had hoped. While a significant amount of research and development still occurs there, all evidence of early activity is obscured by the sheer volume of visitors there. No doubt any transmission logs have been lost in the churn. While I did not find any material evidence, I was able to interview Cleric Antetemporos, who suggested that I may find more evidence at The Forge, a lesser-known but near-as-old community on Little Wolfer.

I arrived at the Middev system on the fifth of May, which logs there should be able to verify. While I had been told that Little Wolfer had been settled early on, I soon learned it had been settled even earlier than I expected. In fact, no one there can even recall how far back it goes. A miner there told me he had once encountered a block putting its origin almost three thousand years ago — in the first era. The Forge puts its origins at the same time. I was under the impression we had not even developed interplanetary travel until at least five hundred years later. I have not been able to explain this discrepancy.

The Forge is a small community of craftsmen with an impressive pedigree. I was surprised to learn that they hold the contract on the primary temporal alignment system, and that it was one of their first projects. I visited their guild hall where they granted me access to their historical records. I pored through these for days — they were a wealth of information about many of the systems that underpin our societies. I took many notes which I hope to use for future writing projects. However, I could not find any evidence there of what I sought.

Discouraged, I left the library one evening and passed through the guild hall. If you ever visit there, Lectio — and I recommend you do — visit this hall. There stand giant statues of some of the earliest leaders of our civilization. At the head of the hall stands a likeness of the original Devian senator. His name has been lost to legend — only his house remains. It is from this house that we derive our word “developer.” Flanking the hall are smaller yet still imposing figures representing the earliest practitioners of this ancient and noble calling. On this particular evening, besought by worry and doubt, I stopped to ponder the stone visages. One in particular stood out to me — his palm was upraised and carved into it was a seven-pointed constellation. It was this symbol that would become my driving influence in the intervening months. I was intrigued by the symbol, preternaturally intuitive that it held the key to my suspicions. I asked one of the masters who happened to be passing through the hall at the same time who this was. With great reverence, he told me that this was Master Hastic, who had contributed some of the earliest work on the network. I pointed to his palm and asked him the significance of the stars. He looked at them for a long time, then he looked at me.

I was told later that the guildsmen of The Forge only enter into their profession by a long selection process that begins when they are children. Applicants must be brought by their parents to the hall before the age of seven, where they study under the Jeak until they are twelve. From twelve to twenty-four they act as itinerant public servants, doing the bidding of anyone who will ask, working for free and receiving only food and lodging at the hall. Many applicants leave during this ascetical process. Still many more are disqualified due to their behavior, which is observed by a master of the hall. Upon reaching the age of majority, they begin their studies anew, when they are said to have been hardened by service, ready to focus on their work. It is at this time that they are truly initiated into the life of the hall and presumably when its arcane knowledge is impressed upon them. This knowledge is not forbidden by them to share, but its gravity and severity mandates that it not be shared by those who would exploit it.

So though I did not know it at the time, this master was studying me and plumbing the depths of his own intentions to discern whether or not to share what he knew of the seven-pointed constellation. Finally he whispered that we should speak of this elsewhere and led me to an overlook near the guild hall. He asked me why I had come. I told him the path that had led me there. He told me many things which I will not repeat out of respect for the manner in which they were conveyed to me. This much I will disclose: it is said, and is passed down from master to apprentice, that long ago a confederation of planetary settlements was commissioned by the earliest developers to exist as a testing ground for the changes which were to be implemented across the network. The points of the constellation represented the original seven planets. It was a dangerous play — a miscalculation could be deadly, but it was this system that would buffer civilization from the unconscious sins of its architects. This system, this planetary archipelago, would buffer the advances of technology in order to protect man from himself. When I asked where the population of this system came from, who would agree to be part of such risk, the master would say no more. Either he did not know or the secret was too deep to reveal. In either case, I asked him where I could learn more, and that was how I found myself en route to the senate itself.

One imagines the senate to be much grander than it is. To be sure, the halls and fora of the galactic seats surely inspire appropriate awe, but the day-to-day life of a senator does not differ much from that of the average citizen of their empires. And this is by design, I believe. They should represent the best, and inspire the best, in those under their domain. These are ancient families, as you know — the seat passed down for millennia, only one or two threads among hundreds breaking occasionally. The rope that hoists our civilization must stay strong, and must be deeply interwound with the common man. This is a guiding principle of every empire in the universe. When I first met the leader of the house of Fire, I must admit I almost missed my opportunity. I told you this, I believe: that he was serving as a simple bootblack outside the forum. As you know, great care is taken not to publicize the faces of those who service on the senate. Not that it is a secret per se, but it is a matter of societal convention not to make of great import the individual personalities that compose the senate. Therefore it is only by the whim of chance which is rightly called the Grace of God that I had seen his ancient ancestor’s visage carved in stone mere weeks before and noticed a particular resemblance in the face of the man offering to shine my shoes for a few coins. I nearly started out of my seat when he told me that he was a senator but he gently reminded me that it was his job to serve the people, and that he occasionally discharged his duties in this way when the matters of state were not so pressing. We struck up a lively conversation when I mentioned my writing project and showed him some of my notes and character sketches. In those sketches was the seven-pointed star I had seen at The Forge. He invited me to stay at his house while I was conducting my research.

As I told you, I stayed at his residence for a few days along with an eclectic mixture of people from whom he was interested in learning at the time. We stayed in various cottages around a spacious garden, and he cooked us dinner each evening. I have already told you much of the stimulating contents of these conversations shortly after they happened, but in the interest of expedience toward the aforementioned purpose, I will recount only this: One night after dinner when the other guests had retired I found myself alone with the senator. He gestured toward my notebook and said “You have said you are on sabbatical. You have said you are researching for a book you intend to write. Tell me, what roles does this symbol play in your book?” I had told him that I was writing a book of fiction — not a lie but as you know, not my primary purpose. “It is the symbol of a secret society,” I told him. “Indeed,” he said. “Where did you come up with the design?” “I saw it on a statue,” I said. He looked at me kindly, soberly. “Let me show you something,” he said. “I believe it will help your research.”

We walked a short distance to a dark area of the garden, removed from the lamplight of the patio. There was a clearing and a circle of paved stone. In the center stood a telescope, fixed in place. I had seen it many times before on walks through the garden and had always assumed it was a mere decoration, sturdy as it stood. But he beckoned me look through the eyepiece and I found that it was indeed functioning. When my focus resolved, a now-familiar shape stood out to me — the seven pointed constellation!

“You seek what you believe to be a secret,” he said. “I cannot tell you otherwise, for few men know the truth. But the truth waits ready for those who would seek.”

That evening was the last time we spoke, and I so apologize for my guarded manner. The senator of the house of Fire would not tell me more about the symbol, but I had received my confirmation that there was indeed a mysterious force organizing the operations at the very highest levels of human society. I resolved that night to visit the system myself, and I left the next day.

The journey took a week, during which I consulted every star chart at my disposal for a reference to this system, off the wing of the Marr Galaxy in a purportedly empty region of space. As I said before, I found evidence of network traffic along the way, but all along private channels. However as I grew nearer the volume of traffic increased exponentially to the point that it began to interfere with my ship’s electrical systems. By the time I entered the system I was forced to put down on the first planet to recalibrate. It was then that the most bizarre part of my tale truly begins.

I found that not only was the planet inhabited, but that it was more densely populated than any other planet I have visited. However, it was not the density of the population that impressed me but their character — or rather, lack of it. They went about their lives busily, ceaselessly, determinedly. They never seemed to slow or tarry. And yet, I found that when I engaged them in conversation, they immediately focused their attention on me as if they had merely been idling about. When I tried to pry into their strange state of affairs I was met with only aloofness, as if they were mere citizens of an empire yet had never heard of the empires I mentioned. They seemed not to have been to any planets but those in the system. They had no knowledge nor seemed suspicious of my reference to the known civilizations. Indeed, my entire impression has been one of indifference.

I eventually determined that while there had been seven original planets, the system now comprised seven stars, which had formed the distinct pattern I had seen from the senator’s garden. I probed them as to the current state of technological development in the various network systems, however, and they answered readily, intelligently, and in some cases even seem to be aware of systems not yet implemented — only speculated.

I have reserved the most surprising revelation of my journey thus far until now, my dear Lectio — the inhabitants of this system seem neither to eat, sleep, nor reproduce, despite their apparent multiplicity — and what’s more many of them report their age at well over several hundred years — some at multiple thousands of years! Yet for all appearances they are human, and I have seen them die. Yet mere moments later they seem to recover from their mortality and to continue their affairs.

I do not know what is going on here, nor do I seem to be able to obtain an explanation from the inhabitants of these planets. They are all friendly enough, but without much substance to their words. At times it seems like I’m speaking to a mirror. It is for this reason that I fear for my life. No doubt word of my interloping will reach whoever oversees this system and I will be brought to them. I know not what mercy means to them. I cannot abort my investigation having come so far.

I hope that this account of my travels serves me well in the case that something happens to me. I intend to find an explanation for these occurrences, and I will not be leaving until I do. I will write you when I have something to relay.

Farewell dear Lectio. Give my best to the faculty and assure them I am doing well until you hear otherwise.


E

My Dearest Lectio,

I apologize for not writing you sooner, and I apologize for not giving you criteria by which to judge my disappearance. You must have been quite worried. It has taken me these months to decipher the things which I have learned here, but I believe that I can fully account for the bizarre circumstances which I relayed to you earlier.

You may be familiar with the hypothesis of so-called artificial intelligence. Since it is a fairly occult subject, allow me to summarize. The theory posits that given the right application of computing power, it would be possible to simulate human brain activity. For example, one could write down all the rules that humans seem to adhere to — like “avoid fire” and abstract them so as to be processable by a computer — “if heat sensed, regress path of affected limb.” With enough of these rules transcribed, you could create a machine that could passably imitate a human being. Humans also appear to follow mechanistic rules in the majority of social interactions: “I would like to buy this.” “Four Soshis.” “Here you are.” “Thank you.” Therefore, you could create machines that appear to interact as humans, as long as you did not need to simulate too nuanced a conversation.

As I have said, this is a fairly occult subject. Most would be scandalized at such a proposition. It offends our sense of agency, the freeness of our will. It reduces man to mechanistic impulses. Only a primitive or a madman would see life as nothing more than a web of electricity in a sea of chemicals. And if you were to create such machines, the ramifications would be profound — terrible. In the wrong hands this technology would be diabolical — we would no longer be able to distinguish between man and machine. We could be automatically deceived — the wiles of the Devil would know no bounds. The inclinations of a single man could be automated to corrupt whole swaths of people before his deceit was revealed. Yet if you defer moral judgement, you will see that such a thing could be possible. However, it does not seem to be implemented in our society. That is the final mystery, the solution of which I have no interest in pursuing, lest this sleeping chimera reawaken. For it is possible and it has been pursued in the past. That is the great discovery I have made. The inhabitants of this system are these machines — the word you might understand is “robot.” However, these are not the dumb robots which assist in reducing physical harm by their automation, but artificially intelligent robots which reduce social harm. Allow me to explain by my observations.

Shortly after I arrived, I began to monitor activity in the sector for the purpose of determining any anomalous behavior. Shortly after a massive incoming transmission, I detected that operations on a nearby planet were beginning to destabilize. Previous network avenues disintegrated and upon closer inspection, the inhabitants of the planet began to act erratically. Some began to aggress others, even violently. This continued for several hours until finally and in a nearly-instantaneous sweep, all of them collapsed as if dead. All network activity on the planet ceased, and the host machines restarted. I was struck with horror, still believing these people to be human, and at the apparent apathy of other planets in the system. After a few minutes the dumb machines — that is, what you or I would call machines — began to function again. Gradually the robots began to pick themselves up and reestablish their normal patterns of activity, the ones they had followed before the transmission.

After several such incidents I deduced that the role of these inhabitants, and of the mysterious, powerful transmissions, was to test all enhancements and updates to the network — and even to our governance — before being deployed among the empires. This is of course what I had been told, and yet I had assumed that living, breathing humans were subjecting themselves to the dangers of an untested system. Our illusion of an efficient system is maintained by testing it on an unwitting, insensate population. These machines can be revived if killed, and their society can be reset if destabilized.

I have long wondered how our systems of network and governance could achieve such stability, human as they are. I feared some demonic influence. In a way, I suppose my fears have been validated. In the wrong hands these machines would surely become demons. But secreted openly as they are, we have gained much time. This secret must eventually be discovered by evil men. It is clear to me that at some forgotten point it had been abused. There must have been an event which banished the knowledge of this place to only those willing to use it for good. And so we have enjoyed millennia of peace.

Were the knowledge of these robots public, we could learn much from them. The word comes from an ancient language and means “subservient,” — itself an all-but-forgotten word. We do all understand our place in the hierarchy, but subservience connotes a willingness to participate in our place. Most men aspire to become more than they are, to rise in the ranks of government and society. This is not all bad. I respect and validate the impetus toward improving one’s circumstances, for humanity would still languish in squalor without it. But the circumstances I have witnessed here make me wonder if perhaps we have traded a certain respect for the ordained way of things for mere speed in achieving our ends. While we have not repeated the complete solipsism of the second millennium, we still retain this noxious sense of individualism — the idea that the one is somehow greater than the any, or the idea that as the one we have more of a responsibility to ourselves than to the greater good. These robots go about their days wholly prepared to serve, to die if need be. Of course, they are machines and thus not endowed with a soul, or truly rational capacities. It seems as if their creators inscribed upon them the highest ideals toward which man aspires. In this regard their lack of a soul in fact exposes our own failures for what they are: willing choices to deviate from that which we know is right — rebellion. Not having the capacity to deviate from their orders, they indict us by their compliance.

These are the things which I have learned. I am relieved to have concluded my investigation, and burdened with the knowledge I have acquired. The path I have trod may be trod by others. Yet it should not be trod by many. How can I go from here and share the insight I have gained without exposing the power of truth to evil men? How do I safeguard this secret without forbidding it? For that which is forbidden becomes scandalous, and some men are drawn toward scandal. These machines, this obedient archipelago exists exactly where it should, doing what it must: buffering the failures of humanity by its sacrifice. It must remain until we no longer need it, yet its power must never be abused. Destroy these letters, dear Lectio, and tell no one what I have told you, save in riddle and parable. I myself will meditate further upon the lessons I have learned until they can be put forth in words. Men will hear these words without understanding that the truth may incubate in them. It will emerge upon such a time as they are ready to receive it in full.

I will return soon — I look forward to seeing you again.

Love,

Escritorio

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