Records as to the details that begin this story are not available, and it is clear they have been made that way on purpose. What knowledge can be gained-- and it is available to precious, precious few-- consists mostly of assumptions. The assumption is that angels exist. The assumption is that they are, in fact, perfect, or a reflection or aspect or agent of some perfect higher being. The assumption is that from time to time, perhaps as their sole function, these angels are sent out on missions, to perform the will of their creator. The most immediate assumption one comes to is that whatever such tasks could conceivably be, it is possible for them to fail.
The one certainty is that at some point, some ship in the employ of the Altran Corporation-- possibly a pathfinder, possibly a minor delivery ship of some sort, possibly an aggressor, possibly merely a communications satellite identifying a piece of space junk coming within a certain radius-- came into contact with an actual, real, unquestionable angel, floating in the dead, frozen vacuum of deep space. The assumption is that the angel had been sent up against something very, very dangerous. The assumption is that the angel had emerged victorious, as something that powerful would certainly have threatened humanity if left unchecked. The certainty is that the angel never made it back.
After the point at which the angel was retrieved, by whatever means this was done, records began to be kept. Engineers at the greatest level of confidence within Altran were secretly summoned to a highly guarded location, to experiment on what had been found. And they did. Extensively. The initial results held no particular meaning. The flesh was in fact definitely alive, and was in fact definitely not any known sort of organism, but could not be induced to heal, react, or do anything interesting. What was left retained the power to hold itself together, but little more, and crumbled under pressure. Volumes of data were produced during this process. By and large, this data was never used.
In the end the only thing that could be induced to any activity whatsoever was the brain, the last thing to be worked on in detail. And there the last remaining spark of autistic half-life in the creature was found. The engineers carefully cut apart the crushed skull and plowed and cajoled their way in at the molecular level with wires and sensors and probes, pushing past layer upon layer of brain matter that all were black and decayed and clearly dead and liquified upon being disturbed, and took exquisite care to preserve perfectly anything that proved an exception. And in the end, when finally a clear outline of what bits were still living had been formed-- a solid and almost warm block at what in a human would have been the reptilian core, a few island-like clumps of living matter scattered throughout, and microscopic chains of neurons that branched off in a number of directions from that center linking it all-- the engineers connected wires everywhere that wires could be connected to and sent out a single universal gentle, quiet electric pulse, an attempt, in their way, to say hello.
And the angel sent a pulse back.
There was to be no communication. Too much of the brain was dead; the angel was already gone. The engineers found they could send information in certain ways and the brain would react, but the reaction was more mechanical than it was thought. Merely stimulus and response.
With time, and through processes too complex to even begin to attempt to explain here, the engineers formed a clear map of all of the angel's mind that was left. Some fragments of problem solving, memory, visualization remained. They could not get it to answer direct questions. What they did discover was that it perhaps had not utterly died, but merely in some way regressed. They discovered they could get it to respond; discovered they could not harness the mechanics directly, but they could interact with it. They could compose a simulacrum of thoughts and get real thoughts back. The thoughts they could use to interact in this way were extremely simple, and the level of interaction was roughly that one might have with a mentally impaired child one is taking care of.
And in a small bit of sweet, strange childlikeness, the most complicated thing they were able to get what remained of the angel's mind to do, after year after year of attempts, was play the old Japanese game of Go. They could form thoughts which coaxed into being in what remained of the angel's imagination a Go board, coaxed into what remained of its understanding the rules. They could form thoughts that described their moves. The angel, with the distant and inexplicable glow that remained at the center of its skull, moved in return. That was all.
The angel remains there still, eyes empty, its half-open smile of unconditional love still uncollapsed, its burnt and blackened in places but otherwise still almost glowing golden hair still trying to escape out in a wizened mane, pushing out the back of the equipment, intertwined with the hundreds or millions of metal pipes and wires, some visible, some not, that quietly encase all that remains of the angel's brain and flow out, back, spiraling off in thousands of different directions to the layer upon layer of machinery that entomb the angel on every side. The outpost in which all this is kept does not have a name, because it is not spoken of. It is too great a secret.
One of the problems with computing, despite paradigm shifts and advancements over time that one supposes must be literally beyond the imagining of those who worked on the art in its early days, is that there are certain problems that never get any easier. These problems, the so-called NP-hard, drive computer scientists batty because they are so universal, so basic, and yet still so inaccessible. They occur essentially every time there is a large system of decisions in which every decision effects the outcome of every other. Perhaps the most basic version of an NP-hard problem is this: You have a series of arbitrary locations connected by a series of arbitrary roads, and each road takes a specific known amount of time to traverse. You want to know what would be the quickest route that visits every location on your list. On a small scale, perhaps a map on a piece of paper, this is something a human mind can figure out with a fair degree of ease. Computer scientists are not interested in small scales. Most of them, especially these days, are interested in only one thing: as the scale becomes larger, how much harder does the problem become?
And the problem with the NP-hard questions is that their complexity increases exponentially; the amount of time it takes to solve such a problem doubles, or more, with each added decision. We can readily handle this doubling up to a point, but then we quickly reach something where our ability to compute appears more and more futile with each added simple step. Since this issue first appeared some very surprising methods of dealing with this kind of problem, and some very surprising and ingenious specialized devices, have been created, but still, at a certain scale, the difficulty of that simple traveling salesman problem-- when applied to the question of, say, how to effectively route all the messages within a galaxy-wide telecommunications network-- becomes daunting. When it comes to something like modeling the gravitational interactions of the particles within a decent-sized quasar, it reaches the point where one begins to use words like "impossibility" and seriously mean it. Advances in technology since the day of the transistor have not helped the problem one bit. All that we have been able to do is take the the point at which the problem becomes unbearable and push it back a relatively infinitesimal amount; past that point there is still nothing that can be done. It is like the old proverb of the man who invented Chess, and when asked by the Emperor what gift he wanted, he asked for one grain of rice for the first square, two grains of rice for the second, four grains of rice for the third; we can fulfill a decent portion of the chessboard easily, but just to fill that last square we could convert every molecule in the universe to silicon and have each crunch numbers until they all break, and still be nowhere near to solving one of a number of problems that scientists would like the answer to today.
Here is the truly maddening thing about the NP-hard problems: if someone, anyone, could find one really ingenious way of solving an NP-hard problem-- any of them-- where the difficulty with scale became more complicated just polynomially, rather than exponentially, then they could all be solved that way. (One of the oldest unanswered questions in computer science is whether such a thing is possible.) That is to say, every class of NP-hard questions corresponds perfectly with every other class of NP-hard questions, in a sort of shadowy, behind-the-mathematics sort of way, and you can mechanically translate between any two relatively easily. Solve one, it happens, and you've solved them all.
This is not an exact description of what happened. It is, however, something very similar. The essence is this: there exist homomorphisms by which any decision can be described perfectly as a scenario in Go.
With the size of civilized space, and the extreme density of the various markets contained therein, running a fair-sized business venture has become a very difficult thing. There are so many things happening on every side, so many things to keep track of, so many different ways to move, and each interacts in so many, tiny, hard to remember ways. It is much like Go, but there is many, many times more information, and many, many times more decisions to make, than could be made even to fit within the 3361 possible configurations of a 19x19 board. It is more than can be kept within the mind of a single human. It is often more than can be coordinated within a single organization without the difficulty of effective communication between the disparate points making everything break down. When you get into the question of running something like one of the corporations the size of Altran, an entity so large, varied and powerful that there are places where it can hardly be described as anything other than a nation-state, efficient decisionmaking begins to seem so complex one can begin to use words like "impossible" and mean it.
But here is the thing: while decisions of these scales are beyond our ability to solve well by any knowledge or art or technology we possess, we do begin to find that we have the technology to, with great effectiveness, describe the context for these decisions down to the minutest detail. We can master the question. We just have no way to move forward into an answer. But while we cannot answer such questions ourselves, we can rephrase them, analyze them shallowly, shuffle observations around on paper. And one of the things we can rephrase them as is Go.
And so there is a mindless, childlike angel at the heart of the galaxy that eternally, joyfully, plays an endless game of Go. The damage to its physical form has made its mind simple, simplified more than we-- not knowing what that mind was capable of when it was at its full abilities-- can imagine. But it remains an angel's mind. Simplified though it is, it is still infinite. It is still perfect. And it plays the perfect game of Go. It is beyond the rules of our universe, beyond the boundaries of finiteness, beyond the NP-complete requirement that some things just get exponentially harder as they get more complicated. And in its mind, still unblemished somehow, is an infinite Go board, in which a number of dancing white stones larger than one can even really imagine are day in and day out besieged by black stones carefully placed into the angel's mind by a truly staggering volume of computer equipment. And through this unimaginable amount of space, day in, day out (a mammoth frothing tangle of white and black in a seemingly infinite glob at the center, an almost countless number of tiny islands of war scattered out throughout infinity, and for each a real or potential quiet chain of go attacks stretching out toward infinity to connect them all) the white stones are always winning. The placers of the black stones do not mind, as this is by their design. Their intent within the game is not to win. The black stones are being placed by a massive computer network whose purpose is known only to precious few, a network that gathers every single decision, every bit of information, every scenario, every question facing the Altran corporation at that moment in time, laboriously converts the entire state of the universe from the perspective of Altran into configurations of stones on the Go board, and laboriously translates the angel's move back into the answer, the move, the best possible strategic decision for that moment in time. These homomorphisms are quite nasty, and abstraction is limited. Describing a set of decisions that varied and that large into something as simple as stone patterns within Go is not simple, and the amount of board space required to describe the system compounds upon itself with each added question that is a part of it. That does not matter. There is room.
The staggering success of the Altran Corporation has been a surprise to very many, and it has been attributed to a number of things. The most common belief is that their success is due to the complex, baffling, and shifting set of unethical or semiethical anticompetitive tactics that they undertake on a constant basis. This is partially right, but the tactics are only a tool. The real reason for Altran's success is simply and literally this: that at each moment, in every way, for its goals, Altran makes literally the best possible decision it could make given the information available to it.
There is one thing that leads me to believe the Altran Corporation's success will not be limitless. It is that despite all the technology, despite its perfect decisions, the ability of Altran to gather an accurate portrait of the information describing its universe, and the ability of Altran to model that information in an accurate way, is still imperfect and human. The knowledge of this fact comprises my one and sole remaining fragment of hope.