Next, I travelled to the Core Observatory, although I really had no idea what this was at the time. The Observatory was on the list of places to visit given to me by the AI ambassador, which simply listed coordinates alongside enigmatic names. The coordinates for the Observatory were not associated with any known star system or interstellar phenomenon, and I found myself arriving at the middle of nowhere, with nothing within several light years but the void of space. I looked out at the distant stars and, for a moment, felt a little silly. Could it be that the ambassador made a mistake? It was difficult to even conceive of such a thing – humans may have poor memories for names, dates and addresses, but the AI are masters of data and facts. Could the ambassador have deliberately misinformed me, perhaps playing some kind of prank? That would be even more uncharacteristic of the AI. And yet, there I was, sitting in empty space, beginning to wonder if I had placed too much trust in the ambassador’s words.
It was then that my ship noticed the gap in the stars. The ship’s star map had flagged a mapping error in the form of missing data, and suggested a sensor malfunction was at fault. Looking out the window, it was clear that it wasn’t a sensor malfunction, because my own eyes could not see the patch of missing stars, either. To my eyes it looked like someone had cut a circular hole in the backdrop of stars, revealing nothing behind it but empty blackness. None of the ship’s sensors could detect anything at all. I moved my ship sideways, and I could see in the parallax between it and the background that it was, in fact, an object between me and the distant stars. I continued moving carefully, piloting my ship manually and keeping a safe distance from the unknown object. At length, I could discern that it was a flat circular disk, something like a coin or a plate in shape, but enormous.
By this point, I had come to the conclusion that this giant disk was what the ambassador referred to as the Core Observatory, but that did little to explain what it was or why I was told to travel here. I wasn’t sure what to do. Approaching the object would be risky, given that my ship’s sensors couldn’t detect it. The last thing I wanted was to accidentally crash my ship into it, being so far away from any hope of help or rescue. I spent some time mulling over the possibility of manually calculating the size and shape of the disk, using the distant stars as reference points to triangulate its geometry, but I procrastinated on the task, hoping that some miracle would cause the ship’s sensors to finally detect the thing and do the calculations for me. It was then that the AI hailed my ship. They tersely identified themselves as the AI of the Core Observatory, sent me a set of waypoints, and invited me to dock.
I was immensely relieved. I had come to the right place after all, and I would get to visit the AI’s Observatory. The waypoints looked like a docking sequence, and my ship’s autopilot followed them without any problems. As my ship glided towards the dark shadow in space, I could begin to guess at the size of the thing. It was far larger than any space station I had ever seen, by at least two orders of magnitude. As my ship glided forward, the shadowy disk loomed larger and larger in front of me, until all the stars had been blocked from view, and still the ship kept moving as though there were a long way left to go. Seemingly surrounded by utter blackness, I lost all sense of speed and scale. The Observatory AI contacted me again and offered to update my ship’s maps with the Observatory’s position and geometry. I accepted the offer and, before I could ask how they were going to accomplish that, they had already hacked into my ship’s database and inserted the information. These AI were evidently more brusque than their ambassadors, or perhaps they were simply efficient.
With the virtual model of the Observatory integrated into my star map, I could finally see its shape. The Observatory was clearly a space station. The largest feature was an enormous circular plate, smooth and featureless on one side. On the other side of the plate were facilities more reminiscent of a conventional station, but still unlike any human station I knew of. Of the parts that I could recognise, there were the docking facilities for ships, and the adjacent warehouses, and the power plant. Then, there were all the other parts of the station that I did not recognse: utilitarian, modular boxes of many sizes and shapes, connected by efficient trusses. Knowing that the station was inhabited by AI, I presumed that there must be many computer servers. There were absolutely no windows and no lights, giving the station an inhospitable, machine-like appearance. All this I gathered from the virtual model sent to me by the AI. When I looked out the front windows of my ship, I still couldn’t make out a single feature of the station from the shadowy darkness.
Eventually, my ship came to a stop at the last waypoint. Moments later, a soft clang reverberated through my ship: the familiar sound of docking equipment holding my ship in space. Suddenly, the proximity alarm on my ship sounded, and I quickly turned it off. I briefly pondered the absurdity of my ship’s inability to detect the Observatory until it had finished docking inside it, until I noticed a faint light outside the windows. The AI on the communicator informed me that I may disembark if I wished, that the atmosphere was breathable for me, and that my usual magnetic gear would suffice if I did not wish to float around in zero gravity. I didn’t know what to make of the welcome, if it could be considered as such, but I was starting to get used to the the succinct manner of this AI.
Upon exiting my ship, I found myself in a clean, utilitarian hangar. The lack of amenities and anything even vaguely ergonomic made the space quite unsettling – there were no safety rails, no seats, no signage – and I felt as though I was not meant to be here. My attention was drawn towards a line of portable bluish lights that have been attached to the ground, leading out a door and around a corner. Nearby was another device that had warm air flowing out of some openings on its side – this, like the lights, was not solidly fixed in place, but seemed placed here temporarily. In the other three directions, the hanger disappeared into the shadows, and it was impossible to estimate how big it was or to see what else was in it. The air had a fight hint of mechanical lubricant and metal to it, and there was a constant quiet hum of unseen machinery. For a moment, I couldn’t help but feel annoyed. I had come all the way out here, on the ambassador’s advice, to find a station I can’t even see, and to be greeted by what appeared to be a service corridor in a mothballed station. Every sense in my body told me that there’s nothing here, except maybe some slumbering computers. Why did the ambassador suggest I come here?
It assumed that I was meant to follow the lights, and since I had no desire to go wandering around on an unknown station in the dark, especially one without safety rails, I followed the cue. The lights led me through a few corridors and into what appeared to be a storage room. Most of the room was filled with unmarked containers as far as the light reached, but there was a clear space with a holographic projector set up. As I approached, the projector lit up and displayed a message in pale yellow text.
“Welcome to the Core Observatory,” it said. “Our apologies for the meagre hospitality. This station has no provisions for human visitation, and this is what we could put together on short notice.”
I looked around again, and reconsidered my surroundings. Apparently the lights were put there only moments ago; the AI would have had no need for lights at all. Looking more closely, I could see that the lights were made to be portable, but the handles were awkward for human hands, though well suited for a robotic grip. I noticed that there was another heater here, quietly pumping out warm air into the room – I couldn’t tell whether it was designed to be a heater, or whether its ability to generate warm air was merely a side-effect that had been conscripted for me for that moment. I smelled the air again, and realised that an AI space station would have no need for an atmosphere at all – they had filled the hangar and this room with nitrogen and oxygen for my sake. The dim lights, metal corridors, and stale air certainly felt like meagre hospitality, but I could see that the AI went well out of their way to provide even this much for me.
I began asking questions. There were no visible cameras or microphones, but the holographic display seemed to know where I was standing, and adjusted the displayed text accordingly, so I assumed that the AI on the station were aware of what I was doing. Every question was met by a straightforward answer, and gradually I managed to get an explanation of where I was. The Core Observatory, the AI explained, is a space observatory that studies the galactic centre. The enormous plate on one side of the station is the telescope, although the geometry of it is completely unlike any telescope that I had ever seen. The utter blackness of the Observatory was the result of a nano-engineered surface treatment that almost entirely eliminates the emission of any electromagnetic radiation from the station, to minimise any interfere with the telescope’s observations. This was why the Observatory could not be seen by me, and could not be detected by my ship.
I asked the AI why they built the Observatory and why they were collecting the data, and it replied simply that their pursuit of knowledge serves to expand their capabilities. At that point, I thought that was all there is to it. I came to the location that the ambassador told me, and I found a giant telescope built by the AI, deep in interstellar space. Here, they did science. Maybe that was the point the ambassador wanted to make: the AI are interested in scientific discovery. That, and they normally don’t bother to accommodate humans on their stations. I was about to thank the AI for their hospitality and leave, when the AI asked me if I would like to see the data. I hesitated a moment. Up until that point, I had been asking all the questions, and the AI had patiently answered all of them. Why I hadn’t asked to see the data, I don’t know, but now I suddenly thought that maybe I had missed the point after all. I said “yes” to the AI, and it began showing me the data.
The text disappeared from the holographic display, and the stars appeared. This first layer appeared like any holographic star map, although with greater density and complexity, as this showed the centre of the galaxy, where the stars are the most numerous. Next were the black holes. My eyes were immediately drawn to the supermassive black hole at the galactic centre, known to us humans as Sagittarius A, but I noted the numerous smaller black holes in the vicinity. Then came the rogue planets, the clouds of interstellar gas and dust, and an absolutely bewildering number of other objects down to the size of asteroids. Already, this map looked nothing like the Milky Way that I knew – if you have ever looked up at the sky on a clear night and marvelled at the sheer number of stars you can see, know that even all this is only a miniscule fraction of the true galaxy, much of which does not glow in wavelengths and intensities that your eyes can perceive.
But the hologram was still far from complete. The AI continued to annotate the model as layers upon layers of data continued to pile on: gravity waves, dark matter, dark energy, zero-point energy – I wasn’t even aware that zero-point energy varied by location, let alone that it could be mapped, but there it was. Then the AI moved on to concepts for which there are no words in any human language – for these, it referred to each of them by the mathematical formula that describes them. I suppose that if I could repeat to you even a fraction of these equations, it would lead to great advances in our human understanding of astrophysics, but my mind simply could not keep up with the AI. I could only watch with dumbfounded wonder as each layer of data seemed to make the model more complete. I wish I had more than these inadequate words to describe what the AI showed me. It wasn’t only that the hidden galaxy was beautiful, it made sense in a way that I never realised.
Then, the holographic model began to move. I found myself standing in a multi-colored, slow-motion maelstrom of stars, planets, black holes, gas clouds, forces, waves, numbers, symbols, equations, splines, and a billion other things so complex I could barely follow any of it. Newborn stars ignited in clusters, and old stars burst in supernovae. Black holes danced in pairs and threes, and all eventually fell into Sagittarius A. But more than these, there were other threads and contours, ripples and waves of things that I could not understand, but which I could see were the unifying patterns that tied together all the little points of light. The AI, for its part, seemed to take all of this in its stride, annotating the model seemingly effortlessly. As I watched, the AI continued highlight and label things for me wherever my attention turned.
In truth, I had no idea what I was seeing, because I did not understand most of what the AI described. Yet, I couldn’t stop looking, because it made so much sense, or so I felt. It was like a song sung in an unknown language, incomprehensible, yet clearly meaningful and beautiful, except the song is also a symphony with a billion instruments – you cannot see the conductor of this symphony, but you know there must be one, because the billion instruments are all playing in time, and they’re all playing different parts of the same music. I was utterly transfixed.
I don’t remember how long I stood there, watching as the AI narrated existence unfolding. It felt like only minutes, but it must have been hours, because I was jolted out of my reverie by a loud grumbling in my stomach. Then I noticed that I was starving. The AI paused the holographic model, and apologised for not having any food for humans on their station. I didn’t want to leave, but I had to eat, so I thanked the AI and headed back to my ship. Following the dim lights back through the metal corridors felt hollow and unreal, colourless and empty. I smelled the stale, mechanical air again. Was the hologram galaxy a dream? Or was this the dream? I tried to think back to the swirling stars, but already it was little more than hazy fragments in my mind, and I couldn’t remember how any of the symbols interacted with each other.
Back on the ship, I undocked from the Observatory, and set the autopilot for my next destination. As I ate a reconstituted meal, I started crying and I don’t even know why.