The Argus was, to date, the greatest piece of engineering in human history. That was a long, long history, full of fantastic and improbable feats of science, each more wondrous than the last. Each stretching the film of scepticism closer and closer to its breaking point, ripping holes that ushered in age after age of creative and intellectual passion. Still, even the giddiest march of progress will one day meet its crowning moment, and consequently its end. Whispers in high society (which, by this point, was all of society) were making that claim about the Argus.
It was an achievement so outlandish that it naturally invited such pessimism – learned, cramped minds could scarcely conceive a more impressive technology (that retained some degree of plausibility), and so reached the conclusion that no more would be forthcoming. This naysaying began in the same places it always began. In cohorts of the supremely old, people whose fear of death had proved more enduring than their love of life, and who now sat all but idle through bitter, cynical, grossly prolonged years. Some of these people had been living since as far back as the 40th Renaissance, and they were all but spent. Little more than databases with the ability to express disapproval. Most were not quite so old, but few retained any meaningful vitality. And so they clustered together, and declared to one another that whatever had most recently been done was pointless, and that there was nothing left to do. Those declarations were always proven wrong, and almost never left the circles in which they started. This time, however, they had leaked out. There was a numbing sense blanketing the whole culture. A sense, however small, that they had all been outdone, and all that remained was to observe the emptiness of defeat. It was a spectacularly busy emptiness, with an incalculable number of things to see, but that was all that it would be – seeing. Some of the flightier critics had already declared that anybody not involved with the Argus was now as good as useless, doomed only to consume the wonders it had to show them and never again to create their own. That was particularly hurtful, since the group behind it were widely known to be talentless malcontents. For their part, its creators disagreed, having already declared their project to mark the beginning of the 48th Renaissance (the chroniclers in charge of that designation would not be so quick). Then there were the claims of fraudulence. Certainly, the scientific possibilities of the time lent themselves just as well to trickery as to genuine progress, and the tight lips that surrounded the Argus did little to preach its legitimacy. In still other corners, people were beginning to consider the old taboos, those areas of endeavour deemed too dangerous or immoral to undertake. For now, these thoughts were contained safely within the brains of their conductors. But the fact of their existence represented a ripple in a pond that had been still for some time.
The source of all this discomfort lay somewhere out in space – at least, a tiny part of it did. The Argus was an inestimably complex structure, with a size to match. But that vastness was totally irrelevant. All but a doorway, a foothold, was contained within a pocket of space created for that express purpose. As its impresario billed it, it was the first object to have stepped outside of the universe. From that nebulous vantage point, its instruments could perceive an arbitrarily large number of other universes (albeit only those with a sufficient structural similarity to this one), presumably running the gamut from utterly dull to utterly wondrous. Critics had suggested that taking only a handful of sand from an infinite shore would prove infinitely unsatisfying. The response had been that any number is infinitely preferable to zero. Others had asked how the creator knew not only that a multiverse of this nature existed, but that this device (of decidedly monoversal construction) would be able to interact with it in any way. To this, they offered only the explanation of a lucky guess. That was not considered particularly satisfactory. And so these myriad threads of debate and discontent continued to unwind.
There was, however, one person on whom all of this was lost. Somebody who had not been subjected to none of this quiet uproar. Alone in their control centre, swallowed entirely by their apparatus, the operator of the Argus was at work. The discourse of the time was a whole universe away, and communication between the Argus and its birthplace had yet to be established. The machine could look backward into its own universe or outwards into others, but not both at once. This operator had become the ultimate recluse, a lone observer hidden within a planet-sized hermitage, gifted with infinite data and their own spacetime in which to peruse it (indeed, no real answer had been given to the question of time and its relativity as it applied to this endeavour). They were willing to believe that this was a happy state of affairs. In a world of constant relation, they had been granted the one exemption. The world had not been kind. It was good, briefly, to be apart from it.
The machine’s sensory organs flicked through the endless catalogue of worlds available to it. They were looking for complex life. It was the natural choice for the maiden voyage. There was no sense in being systematic, given the infinity of stimuli available. Besides, that philosophy belonged to the past – progress in this epoch was a matter of bangs, not whimpers. The search was for the most striking phenomenon, not the most elucidating. Intelligent life would be a fine showpiece, even if the only possible interactions were voyeuristic.
The Argus was quick to flex its muscles. Its systems were not especially fast (understandably, given what was asked of them), but they were expert. It took about half an hour before the first match was found. With the operator’s consent, a reconstruction found its way down the wires and into their brain.
This universe was tiny. It was much smaller than a planet, smaller than a continent, smaller even than some buildings. The operator’s first instinct was one of doubt. Either the system was glitching, or there was some algorithm buried in its process that had cut down a whole cosmos into one point of interest, or the whole thing was a fabrication. They pushed this doubt aside in the interests of professionalism. For now, it would be best simply to trust the machine. So, they accepted what they saw. A minute world of graphite and diamond, whose spires and caverns played host to solid clumps of unspecified, barely mobile biomass. This diorama played host to all of two sentient beings. They were startlingly humanoid (again, the operator supressed a note of scepticism). The scenario seemed rather poetic – a world of only two people, a culture dictated entirely by a single dyad. The operator was immensely glad not to have to share this with Earth, at least not yet. The moment they sent news back, the Argus would become host to a travelling circus of artists, poets, sociologists, anthropologists, and (worst of all) linguists, to say nothing of the physical sciences. The world from which they were currently so pleasantly extricated would come flooding back. This seemed intolerable. They resolved to spend some with this place and its two inhabitants before doing anything else. It was only right that the Argus’ first discovery be given the fullest patience and scrutiny.
So, the operator sank deep into their role as observer. They marvelled at the familiar yet alien forms of this world, where light and matter abided by known laws, but presented through unknown filters. They pondered the limitless other possibilities of limitless other places, although soon shied away from the thought. Mostly, though, they fixated on the two. Time ran unnoticed as they became immersed in this bipartite society, drinking in their routines, their quirks both human and inhuman, their rituals of conflict and reconciliation, of calm and festivity, of courtship, mating, eating, crafting…
The operator scarcely noticed as the veneer of curiosity peeled away. Indeed, it was not long before the eyes of the beholder came to coloured more by envy (and its close complement, bitterness) than by any more intellectual sentiment. How fortunate these two were, to have such a small and harmonious existence. They had a peaceful world that provided for them, they had one another, and that was the sum of it. How wretched was the vastness of Earth, where such simple pleasures were so readily denied by tricks of zeitgeist and politics, by star-crossed dynamics of personal temperament and cultural preference. Ruminating on the perceived injustices of their own past, the operator indulged in a wistful self-insertion. For a while, if only vicariously, they were able to partake in the idyll they perceived before them.
It left a sour taste. The operator cursed the misfortune of their place and time. For all the wonders of the age, the basics of happiness had yet to be guaranteed. Indeed, they had yet even to be identified in a convincing manner. The 47th Renaissance was, by the official chronicle, the acme of human accomplishment. An era of such genius and wisdom as to erase all misgivings, all yearnings for the past, all fears for the future. And yet the operator, relatively young for the standards of the time, could not help but feel their better place in history had already passed. Would it not have suited them more to have been forced into exile with the Luddites of the 44th, to have seceded with the Hedonists of the 40th, even to have fought in the noble wars of the 35th? Whatever the chroniclers had to say, the past was a taunting expanse of greener pastures, all unreachable. That was the danger of history, and hindsight. It was a predator whose nose was particularly tuned to the scent of those feeling left behind, and one that such stragglers had great difficulty escaping. It was, however, a threat native to the human mind. The Argus was an invasive species, an unstoppable devourer against which there was little to no natural defence. Its greener pastures belonged to the present. No need to reach through the fog of time and memory, no need to speculate or to imagine. Here was an anglerfish with infinite lures, each as captivating as the last. The operator swam deeper and deeper.
The Argus reached out into the unending reality beyond, its vast inquisitive powers tuned not for the edification of its master, but for their bittersweet satisfaction.
Back on Earth, the great minds of the time watched with morbid relief as their fears were punted some distance into the future. A freak surge of energy had destroyed the Argus’ anchor in real space, leaving it severed, adrift in its own puddle of existence. It was gone before it could prove itself, before it could exert any significant upheaval. Consigned by unanimous decree into a small and rather disparaging footnote. The agitation it had provoked was written off as a cautionary tale on the dangers of wild claims. This version of history proved highly successful. It became fashionable in the following decades to construct “New Arguses”, machines designed to provide an entertaining facsimile of something scientifically impossible. These effigies were enjoyed, then ceremonially obliterated, all in raucous humour. Quietly, the multiverse was added to the list of ‘taboos’. Just as quietly, the mind behind the Argus disappeared into the shadows, perhaps in disgrace, in defeat, or perhaps simply in wait.
For their part, the operator never noticed.