Bob Martin was a junior researcher in Epistomological Eschatology which meant he spent a lot of time theorising about the end of the world and how it might be brought about, and didn't get invited to very many parties (it wasn't completely his fault, but he couldn't look at a creamy dip left out of the fridge without being moved to remark how easy it would be to poison the entire street with it). When MSPARKER was brought online, he was granted security credentials because his boss, who was entitled to them, didn't want any extra work but was unwilling to give up access to anything potentially important. One of Bob's Learning Objectives for his year-end review was now to interact with MSPARKER and establish what, if anything, it could contribute to EE.
"MSPARKER," he said, wondering if the speech recognition was better than the version he had on his mobile. He'd turned that off after it had renamed everyone in his address book as an animal, especially since he couldn't figure out what he might have said that could have caused that. "MSPARKER, tell me about Eternity."
"Eternity is one room with two people and a ham," said MSPARKER promptly. Bob wrote that down, his handwriting beautifully calligraphic and astonishingly hard to read from any distance, and then read it back to himself.
"MSPARKER," he said, careful to always ensure that the machine knew it was being addressed. He suspected that his phone had taken to eavesdropping on him to try and get one step ahead. "MSPARKER, what kind of ham?"
"Boiled," said the machine, it's voice tinny but slightly female, and slightly upper-class. Bob wrote that down as well, and pondered it for a few minutes, wondering what was so significant about this ham that eternity could be invoked simply by spending time with it in a room. Ah, there was a thought.
"MSPARKER, which people?"
"A man and a woman, whose relationship papers over the cracks with a mutual appreciation of food. A match gourmet'd in heaven."
"MSPARKER, what is if it were two women?"
"That would be the definition of determination: two women in pursuit of a ham."
There was a knock on the door, a subtle indication that his time with the quipping machine was nearly up.
"MSPARKER, how many ways are there to end the world?" He knew he wasn't supposed to ask this question, but the machine was making him edgy. He wasn't at all sure he wanted to come back.
"How long have you got?" asked the machine.
"What kind of results did you get then, Bob?" Bob's boss, Malcolm, was poking at a lump of gravy-hidden meat on a plastic plate. The cafeteria around them was half-empty and they were sat away from any other occupied table, everyone else trying to get close to the ceiling-mounted television and watch the news.
"Eternity is a room with a man, a woman and a boiled ham," said Bob, who was happy to discuss this thought. He spent a week working with it, and had several ideas now about what it might mean. He was not at all willing to talk about the last question he'd asked, or the fact that a manila envelope containing 5,116 ways to end the world had been delivered to his door late last night.
"Does that help us with the eschatology at all?" Malcolm poked the meat again, wondering if it had just squealed.
"Yes, I think so. It's going to depend to some extent on the actual people as to how long it takes, but I think the ham is fundamental. We might be nearing a breakthrough on food-related ennui and the possibility of designing a farmer's market that actually causes people to commit suicide."
Malcolm had skewered the meat and was watching to see if it wriggled now, but he looked up anyway and met Bob's gaze. "Do we want that?"
"The war will only be won by subtle action," said Bob. "You know this, I know this. How much more subtle can we get?"
"We don't want to immanentize the eschaton though," said Malcolm. "You haven't forgotten the risks for that, have you?"
Bob shook his head. He hadn't. He wished someone had programmed MSPARKER to be aware of that though.