4720 words, short story
One eye looks out, while the other looks in. The outer eye, red-lensed and inorganic, gazes unblinkingly upon the immensity of the cosmos, studying the poetry of the firmament and distilling it within its vast auxiliary intelligence into pure mathematics. Distant, stromatic washes of nebulae, shimmering incandescent spatters of celestial bodies are transmuted through layers of optical lenses and processors into qubits of blank code.
The other eye gazes in upon the empty Earth. The whole planet is with us, locked inside a space-borne capsule no larger than a human fist.
Mind in mind, we traverse the planet’s expanse, from the brutal torridity of the Al Basa desert zone, through the rippling primordial strata of the Son Doong cave system and into the alien hostility of the Marianas Trench. We instruct the simulation not to sanitize the ruthless capriciousness of Earth’s climate; we want not only to see, but to feel the perfect disorder of it. Skin that is not skin at all blisters in the false desert heat, freezes and splits in the fabricated cold. Hypothermia kills us, and we awaken, laughing, in unrendered space, asking to be sent back to pick up our journey where we left off. We search.
It would be easy to request Redondo’s whereabouts from the capsule’s artificial mind. Easier still to merely collapse the partition and absorb his psyche back into our own, but curiosity is at the very epicenter of the human experience, and we wish to reiterate what it is that we are striving to preserve. And so, we walk.
Sometimes one, sometimes many, we chase ourselves across the ridges of dunes in the Gobi Desert, we writhe and giggle in careless ecstasy under the wheeling stars as we explore the limits of each other’s passions and appetites, our animae integrating and blending, contradictory attributes unlocking sectors of psyche we never knew existed, catalyzing rapturous spasms deep within our communal consciousness.
Almost three millennia in virtual time pass inside the capsule before we find Redondo. The Conglomerate has decided to allow geological progression to simulate in real time, and when we find Redondo, he is lying flat on his back on an unbroken expanse of permafrost. He is naked, his skin no more affected by the frigid atmosphere than it would be by a light spring breeze. He dabbles with form and texture, becoming a dense octahedron of nanotubes, flaring into a miniaturized white dwarf, pooling into a puddle of strong-smelling urine, before settling back into a representation of his pre-upload biological state: an unremarkably-proportioned human male of Eurasian descent, lying dejectedly on an ocean of ice.
The Conglomerate confers with itself momentarily, before we decide to join him. We delineate from the amusing kilopedal shape that we have been wearing, and join Redondo in our pre-upload states. Consciousnesses disentangle, collective intelligence particulates, and one mind becomes thirteen. I feel sectors of my psyche shear clean away, whilst others previously nullified by more dominant traits in the other Conglomerate members unfurl from dormancy like the fronds of sea anemones. Attitudes and assumptions transected from the most rational sectors of thirteen minds become vague and recondite, their studied rationality becoming clouded as my own opinions return to cognizance. Still, bleary psychogenic residue from the metabrain remains tangled with my consciousness, embedded cerebrations that don’t belong to me. We stand together, shivering; thirteen naked humans surrounding Redondo’s prone form on a hyperboreal sea. On the horizon, the white Arctic sun slowly sets.
“Stop it, all of you,” Redondo says. “You’re ridiculous.”
The Conglomerate, seconds ago a single awareness, now thirteen individuals, each vocally order the construct to suppress the effects of external stimuli on our virtual bodies. The vocal aspect of the order is unnecessary, but in an effort to break the tension, we make a show of it. Ochet, the architect whose uniquely childish and cruel sense of humor I recognize as an aspect of the Conglomerate’s collective personality, holds his blackened, frost-bitten hands in front of his face, clapping them together with a dull slap, and giggling. Seltz, the mathematician, forcibly overrides Ochet’s custom settings and his fingers return to the pinkish hue. Redondo’s pale flesh desiccates into white ash and flakes away, revealing a crystalline skeleton beneath. His lipless, tongueless mouth intones:
“I think I’m having an existential crisis.”
Bega the programmer, a droning fount of mundane logic, speaks up. “Impossible, Redondo. You don’t exist.”
“When you’re all mind, you tend to overthink things.”
Seltz chimes in: “The infospace is designed to deflect negative neural processes. You want happiness? A subroutine away. Here.” He spins a comically oversized, two-tone oblong an inch above his palm, the prototypical dataform of medication, a cartoonish smiley stamped on its flank.
“Don’t you dare,” Redondo says. The skeleton sighs, glittering in the low Arctic sun. “You are free, and that is why you are lost.”
The capsule travels on, riding a laser-beam toward the fringe of charted space.
Later, sat around an oak table in the candlelit nave of a Byzantine basilica, the Conglomerate decides to kill Redondo. It’s for the best, we reason. Maybe it’s what he wants. Since the encounter on the ice, we have all experienced the emanation of his crisis, draped over our psyches like a shroud. A nagging self-doubt, of both the Conglomerate and the individual’s place within it, swelling in the dark recesses of the metabrain like a tumor.
Bega leans back in his chair, gazing dispassionately up at the elaborate design on the underside of the dome, and suggests we reintegrate, better to make the decision, and so we do. Our consciousnesses coalesce once more.
Cho, the physicist, brings understanding of the material world, bolstered by Seltz the mathematician’s mastery of the numerical. Akwembe the linguist brings us the means to express, and Liebe the critic the ability to appraise. Bogase, the judge, offers resolution, whilst Furrows the soldier delivers a tactician’s cunning. My negotiation skills too are absorbed. I feel empathy slip away. That was Redondo’s contribution.
Such thoughts must not be permitted, the Conglomerate agrees. They cannot be allowed to propagate within the metabrain. And so, without ceremony, we kill Redondo.
It’s simple, really. We reinforce the partition, cutting that sector of the Conglomerate off completely, then purge its data. A shame, the Conglomerate agrees, that the death of data is less ostentatious than that of the flesh it emulates, and leaves little behind to study, but we instruct the capsule’s auxiliary mind to record Redondo’s experience of it anyway, and catalog it for later perusal.
The capsule is six light-years from Earth, barreling through forsaken blankness marked only by hydrogen clouds and lone asteroids on other, more ancient explorations, when its infrared eye identifies our destination. Infinitesimal recalibrations occur, adjusting our flight path towards Lm/-3313, a planet in orbit around a small brown dwarf star. Even from this distance, the capsule is able to commence examination, and verifies that the planet possesses an outwardly Earth-like atmosphere. Life can exist there.
Once we reach the planet, nanoforming technology contained within the ship’s hull will create a temporary environment for the Conglomerate to inhabit until new bodies can be cloned from the capsule’s gene-banks. The capsule itself will return to the planet’s Lagrangian point, there to remain as part of a series of interstellar routers threaded through space like pearls on a string of quantum channels, designed to facilitate light speed optical communication between Earth and potential colonies. In the increasingly likely event of a planetary cataclysm, the nanites will then utilize the chosen planet’s capsule as an anchor around which to manufacture a birthing facility for clone-shells, bodies grown for emigrant human minds transmitted across space via the routers. Our mission is almost at an end.
Although the Conglomerate is incapable of such despondency, alone I feel a pall over the mission, a ghost of Redondo’s perception in the back of my mind that I cannot bring myself to suppress completely. Since Redondo’s death, the appeal of traversing the simulated Earth has lessened. It is obvious that the empathetic, abstractly creative sector of the metabrain that came from him was responsible for much of our wanderlust. I miss it.
I spend my time apart from the Conglomerate, pursuing my own areas of interest. I study texts from the capsule’s boundless database, manifested as ancient, dusty volumes that detail histories of satellite colonies, management of burgeoning societies, the implementation of political and judicial systems, the optimization of resources. The nagging, troublesome fact of Redondo’s death, and with it the death of a part of what has become my own personality, is pushed to the back of my digitally recreated mind. For the time being, I am content.
I sit alone in a vast meadow, my back against the trunk of an ancient elm tree, a hefty volume of Earth history open across my knees. The field’s verdant slopes extend uninterrupted for miles in every direction, a gently swaying plateau that stretches to the horizon. My tree is the only landmark, its foliage offering a pool of cool shade beneath the beaming digital sun.
The silence is total. No wind disturbs the elm’s branches, and no birds cry in the boundless countryside. I am blissfully alone. The sheer number of variables required to populate the simulation were deemed a waste of the ship’s finite resources, and extrapolation of the development of a digitized population garnered uncertain results. Thus, the simulation is entirely vacant, excepting the Conglomerate members. I am alone.
I sit on a frayed patchwork picnic blanket, tracing my fingers along the landscape of disordered textures, spectral echoes of my mother’s inexpert craftsmanship. The blanket is a conjuration from my own hazy childhood memory and the analytical deductions of the simulator’s expectations of patchwork picnic blankets. The blanket’s irregularities somehow feel too perfect, and I can’t shake the certainty of its mathematically imprecise design. It feels like an insult. With a thought, I wipe it from existence, and sit back against the gnarled trunk of the tree. I think about Redondo.
My island of shade becomes a whirl of giddy shadows as the sky darkens and the leaves of the elm suddenly erupt into a ferocious blaze. The book bursts into flame, buffeted by the sudden squall. I close my eyes and sigh as embers rain down around me.
“Knock it off, Ochet,” I say. “I’m not in the mood.”
Ochet’s presence is there, entwined with the tree’s code. I get to my feet and begin to walk away across the scorched field, sternly refusing to participate. The grass beneath my feet begins to undulate, resolving into an earthy image of Ochet’s face that occupies the stretch of ground beneath me, and I stumble within the opening of his huge nostril. I stop, and stand straddling his nose. The tufts of his eyes roll down to look at me.
“What do you want?” I demand. Ochet chuckles, the ridges of his cheekbones rising like molehills on either side of me.
“Just thought I’d come and see how you were,” he says. It’s hard to read his expression from this angle.
“I’m fine.” I perch down on the tip of his nose, and it suddenly flattens, dropping me onto my backside with a thump. An extrusion of earth rises in front of me, assuming Ochet’s human form. The grass draws into itself, like a reversed playback of germination, and the soil coalesces into Ochet’s soft pink skin. He walks over and helps me up, chuckling affably.
“Sorry about that, buddy. Just my little joke,” he says. I search his face, but his smile is fixed, unrelenting. I venture invisible tendrils of consciousness into his mind, trying to gauge his disposition, but he rebuffs them psychically. In an environment where self has become malleable and innermost thoughts are laid bare for casual perusal, this feels like a slap in the face. His smile remains.
“You were thinking about Redondo,” he says. It’s not a question.
“My mother, actually,” I reply.
“So is my mother. Come to think of it, so are we. Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but we’re rotting in morgue drawers back on Earth.”
“Somehow, I’m fine with that,” he says, bending down and plucking a blade of scorched grass. It crumbles to dust beneath his touch. “There’s life after this death.”
“Not for Redondo.”
“Only good boys go to heaven.”
“Just say what you came to say, Ochet.”
He turns back to me, his smile vanished. “Redondo was jeopardizing the integrity of the Conglomerate. He was weak. Selfish.”
“The integrity of the Conglomerate,” I repeat, more bitterly than I had intended.
“He’s dead,” Ochet says. “Him and his cretinous existential despair. Make sure he stays that way.” He lets that linger. “We’re coalescing soon. If any part of Redondo’s existential virus exists in your mind, purge it now before it makes you useless, too.” He hesitates for a moment, then: “I’m saying this as a friend. More than that, really, I suppose. This may not feel like ‘life’ for you, but remember, it’s only temporary. Me, I’m enjoying it while it lasts. We’re approaching Lm/-3313. The Conglomerate needs you to be ready.”
He peels away from existence, and I am alone again, standing on a sea of withered black grass.
The announcement comes suddenly, deposited in our minds by the shipboard brain with the impact of sudden euphoric realization: The planet is inhabited. The Conglomerate re-integrates immediately. The capsule remains in high orbit around Lm/-3313 while we discuss our next step.
I took Ochet’s advice. I purged Redondo. As the Conglomerate deliberates, we sweep the metabrain for lingering traces of him, but find none. We are satisfied. The Conglomerate integrates itself with the shipboard mind and we see the planet for ourselves, magnified through its outer eye. Lm/-3313 is many times the size of Earth, with seas the color of dry rot separating four continents, within them massive asymmetrical structures that even unmagnified are clearly defined from the planet’s orbit. We zoom further. The planet’s surface is a jungle of bizarre industrial architecture, tangles of vast mechanical structures arranged in eldritch configurations. It appears damaged, pitted with rusted craters and curlicues of bent metal. No life is visible, nothing natural at all. The metallic substance is unidentifiable, but the ship confirms that a breathable atmosphere is present, perhaps the result of atmospheric processors on the surface. From the data, we discern that it’s possible the life could be silicon-based, could inhabit those massive, decaying structures, that we could even be looking at the creatures themselves.
Communication is at the top of the agenda, but species loyalty dictates that Earth’s needs outweigh those of Lm/-3313’s inhabitants. If they cannot be bargained with or coerced, they must be destroyed. Nanoforming could simulate a weaponized physiological virus to clear the planet for the Earth convoy, or a mid-sized fission weapon could perhaps be fabricated from asteroid-mined plutonium, the radioactivity then absorbed by the nanites. These options would take preparation and time to implement, and so we resolve to first attempt communication.
We broadcast across all frequencies and mediums, and announce our wish to open negotiations regarding the resettlement of our species. We receive no response. The capsule brings us cautiously to within the troposphere of the planet, anticipating that Lm/-3313’s inhabitants may communicate visually or perhaps psychically, and we initiate a deep surface scan.
The capsule detects traces of radiation, residue and scorch-marks from unknown projectiles. Large swathes of the landscape are shredded and puckered. There was war here. We go deeper.
Technology penetrates the crust of the planet, right to its core, and we come to the astounding realization that the surface is entirely artificial, built to replicate the existing natural surface like a second skin. The oceans must have somehow been displaced, the seabed covered with the strange substance, and the water poured back into those immense metal pools. It’s an impossible feat of engineering. The planet is armored.
We descend lower, sweeping across the lifeless technological waste, over twisted mountains and curved towers like the calcified bones of some impossible animal. We settle into a geostationary orbit, and dispatch a nanite swarm to collect samples from the planet’s surface.
With the ship’s scanners augmenting our own senses, we become aware of severe tectonic movement in the planet’s core, sudden intense concentrations of energy building beneath the surface. The nanites scream a warning to each other, their primitive self-preservation circuits engaging, and they hasten their retreat to the capsule. Miles below, the crust begins to fracture and flex, colossal rifts spreading like lotus petals, yielding brilliant light from within. Briefly, the Conglomerate panics. Through our infra-red vision, the planet’s true structure is revealed to us. There is no life here.
We hurriedly initiate the ship’s emergency shielding procedure, but the brutal efficiency of the planet-trap’s mechanism outstrips even the speed of thought. The bomb contained within the core explodes, and we are consumed.
Psyches are buffeted by a ferocious digital squall, caroming off each other, leaving splintered shards of personalities spinning in the corrupted aether. Identities fragment and resolve in bastard configurations, screaming synapses clutching at each other in desperation, ripped apart again like trees in a cyclone. The space surrounding the capsule becomes unreal, flexes and folds, whipping us into a vicious cosmic eddy.
For a long time, we drift.
Our shattered personalities clutch blindly for realization of self like drifting mariners clutch for life preservers. Glimpses of unknown pasts, lateral experiences and potential futures flood us, whirling past like psychic zoetropes, mutant perceptions morphing in and out of reality.
Cognizance returns in a flash, and I am back in the nave of the basilica, candles around me burning a thousand feet high. The simulation flickers uncertainly between the cathedral’s ornate dome and the underside of the blazing elm tree, carved buttresses shuddering between wood and stone. I watch myself clutch agonizingly at my face, and then perceive that it isn’t me at all but Bega, the programmer. We stare at each other for a long time. The elements of her left eye quiver behind a digitized square of unrendered data, and then resolve into normality.
“Are we okay?” is all I can think to say.
The Conglomerate coalesces in unrendered space.
It was some sort of localized Einstein-Rosen Bridge generator, is the best we can come up with, a targeted wormhole that flung us like a child’s toy across space. We have no navigational readings, no way to determine where we are or how long we remained lost in the digital maelstrom. Despite this, we are lucky. The concentrated blast of ions would have torn apart any biological life forms that stood in its focal point. A full system diagnostic suggests hull degradation that could have been caused by tens of thousands of years in cold soak.
We integrate with the shipboard eye, hoping to glimpse some kind of marker to suggest our vicinity, but all we see is space, and the twinkling of distant, identical stars.
I split from the Conglomerate, and run my own diagnostic which reports zero mnemonic deterioration. My memories, my personality traits are intact. I stare blankly about my surroundings, before realizing where I am.
There is almost nothing left of the basilica. Broken stumps of buttresses jut from tangles of thorny creepers; a curved section of the dome, shorn of its lavish carvings, lies ruined among wind-smoothed chunks of rubble. The remains of a pillar lie broken around the base of a tall tree. The arid plain beyond stretches for miles, punctuated by similar knots of ruined architecture.
I collapse to my knees, and am vaguely surprised by the pain as my kneecap catches on a lump of rock. The simulation’s nullification of external stimuli on our bodies must have reset. How long were we unaware? How long did the capsule whirl through space, its intangible inhabitants blind and insensible, the empty universe within progressing and falling to ruin, unperceived by all except the dumb demi-consciousness of the shipboard mind?
I reintegrate into the Conglomerate, in time to perceive the cumulative understanding that we are no longer alone. Life has evolved within the simulation.
“Impossible,” Seltz says. “What the hell did it evolve from?”
“Biogenic minerals perhaps,” Wenger, the geologist, suggests. “It’s possible that a part of the Earth, the simulated representation of it, was exposed to extreme heat or radioactivity and racemically fostered amino acids during the cooling process. Precise geological progression is factored into the coding, it’s not an unreasonable guess.”
“What would trigger something like that?” Bega demands.
“Well, a supervolcano for starters,” Wenger suggests. “But one would expect the destruction to be more widespread, so my money’s on a meteorite. Xenogenesis. I shouldn’t have thought the simulation capable, but then I wouldn’t expect an alien race in relatively close proximity to Earth capable of booby-trapping an entire planet.”
“A meteor from where?”
“Ask the ship.”
And the ship is there, or the sense of it, all around us. We request an estimate of the time passed since Lm/-3313, and a concise summation of events onboard. Instead we get a garbled stream of corrupted data that screams in our psyches like breaking glass. Concepts and rationales can be gleaned, but they make little sense. The ship has lost its mind.
We sit in a circle in the remains of the basilica. Over our heads, the cosmos wheels, majestic and terrifying.
“So many stars,” mumbles Bogase, perched on a section of fractured masonry. “There were never supposed to be that many stars.”
“This is pure conjecture now, but it looks a lot to me like our universe has expanded,” says Liebe. “The system has only the resources to simulate the Earth and its immediate vicinity, so what are all those stars doing up there?”
“How long did we drift for? How long does it take to create an entire universe?”
“I think it’s safe to say,” Bega says, “that we failed in our mission. We’re adrift, and for all we know, Earth is dead.”
We sit in silence for a long time. A long time.
“Well,” says Harrington, clapping his hands on his knees and rising to his feet. “I’m going to go and meet the new neighbors. Who’s coming with me?”
The creatures are humanoid, with stretched, bovine features, elongated heads and dull avocado flesh. We walk among them, invisible. They have established communities, bigger than towns but not integrated enough to be called cities, built around crude central factory structures that mine minerals from the soil. They seem to have evolved a language based upon the sounds their long fingers make when vibrated at speed. It sounds like crickets.
As we pass one of the tall creatures, its face decorated with ritual scars, Ochet reaches out, fingers puncturing the creature’s skull, and crushes its brain with his bare hand. He withdraws the hand and inspects his fingers, before wiping them on a tuft of grass.
“The question is,” says Bega. “What do we do with them?”
“They could be the cause of the ship’s malfunction. It doesn’t have the resources to sustain them,” says Liebe.
“In which case, we have to get rid of them.”
“We coalesce,” says Seltz. “Let the Conglomerate decide.”
“No,” I blurt. The others turn to look at me. Around us, a small group of the primitives has gathered, lifting the corpse of their fellow above their heads. They can’t see us. A group of what I suspect to be female children stand in a circle around them, fingers humming a mournful dirge.
“And why not?” demands Bogase.
“Because--” I start. I feel psychic fingers probing my consciousness, and battle to rebuff them. “Because we already know what the Conglomerate will say.”
There is a long pause. The creatures’ dirge washes around us, droning incessantly. With a wave of his arm, Ochet metastasizes tumors within their bodies and they drop to the ground, dying. The others don’t even dignify me with an answer.
With final glances in my direction, the Conglomerate exits tangibility and coalesces once more, this time behind a partition that leaves me alone, surround by the litter of green bodies. I swallow, close my eyes, and erase the data within the partition.
The assumption of the Conglomerate’s infallibility as a unit was so complete that it cannot defend itself against attack from within. I kill them all.
It’s simple, really.
Once more, I walk.
I circumnavigate the world in more or less a straight line, straying only to investigate the lights of distant pockets of civilization. Unseen, I sit with the creatures in caves and huts, bathing in the warmth of their fires, the smell of their cooking, the droning texture of their songs. I find them sheltered on mountainsides within dwellings built from the flayed flesh of other animals that have evolved, huge elephantine beasts and vicious fanged predators. I find them high in jungle canopies, in suspended townships connected by bridges of rope and vine. I observe the rituals they associate with birth and death, comings-of-age, the streamlined brutality of the hunt, the unpredictability of the harvest, their glories and their ugliness.
I walk for a long time, in a trance born of guilt, loneliness and awe, the primal simplicity of my own unaugmented emotions, free from the fluctuations of shared consciousness, reducing me to a state of blankness. It takes a long time to readjust to individuality.
The creatures begin their ritual of mourning. The bodies of those killed by the Conglomerate are bathed, rubbed with perfumed herbs and dressed in ceremonial garments. They are lain side by side amidst flaming torches on a stretch of ground next to a forest. Their mouths are filled with soil and planted with seeds. The mourners begin their song.
It begins almost imperceptibly, a subsonic drone created by a group of elder females. Another group gradually joins in, their fingers plucking at the air, creating a delicate throbbing that builds in intensity. Another group joins in, then another, until finally the whole tribe is alive with motion and sound, a swirling, pulsing dirge borne on thousands of years of ritual and tribulation gone joyously unrecorded, that cannot be quantified by mathematics. I stand amongst them, warm tears shining on my face, a conduit for the creatures’ love and sadness, and I think of Liebe, and Bogase III, and Ochet, and the rest of the Conglomerate. I think of Earth, and I think of Redondo. And I make my decision.
A shout rises up, and another, until the song drifts away into a chorus of delighted cheers. One of the blessed dead, the tall male Hunter with the tribal scarification, is rising shakily to his feet. He is smothered with embraces and kisses from the rest of his tribe, who strip him of the ceremonial dress and offer their own garments for him to wear. His tribe-mate is there, with their eldest son, a strong young thing who will one day battle his father for supremacy. His own father, heavily scarred from their own battle, kneels and kisses his feet. The Hunter acknowledges these things as his own, knows them, and more, and realizes that there are things in his mind that are there but should not be. Vague impressions of strange celestial spheres, the sense of time and motion, of shrieking across the desert sands with a smile on lips that are there but are not there, that belonged to him once, but no longer; of Gods who were men once but now are no more, and a blanket that his tribe-mother made for him as a child. And with absolute certainty, he knows of the realm that lies beyond death, a domain of plenitude that exceeds imagination, and of loneliness that will test the resolve of the furthest-traveled Roamer. Tomorrow he will pass these stories to his tribe-mates and sons, and their faith will be restored. Sacrifices will be made. Love will be given. These things fade into the recesses of his mind as he is carried on a tide of rejoicing family and friends, laughing and cheering under the infinite sky, and he offers his own shouts as a blessing to the heavens.