February 10, 2010
The trouble with 63^48+17’s true love was that they lived on opposite sides of the day. They first met during a malfunction of the switching-mechanism at their sleep-station. For about four or five seconds they saw each other, and some vestigial hormonal reaction took place, so they didn’t report anything to the maintenance servers about it.
63^48+17 was a simulacra model. During the day-phase when he was activated he performed a series of physical manoeuvres required by the avatar-engineers of the NearGalaxy Project in order to program new physical forms for the minds plugged into the feeding and entertainment tubes of that ancient virtual reality machine. Due to the unusual physical properties he possessed his form was uniquely suited to stimulating some of the few deep-rooted pleasure centres of those minds which had not yet been worn out by the passing of thousands of such years.
63^48+17 did not know how to read. The instructions that he was to perform were fed directly into his brain through electric shocks passed on by needles that had been inserted directly into his skull. He knew that he was called 63^48+17 because that was the series of glottal sounds he was asked to recite during the waking routine to identify himself to the coordination-bot.
He had seen organic forms before they met.
The engineers were a tribe descended from those of the generation which had decided to construct NearGalaxy who had refused its offer of eternal life. It was understood at the time that the project, no matter how well designed, would always require some sentient outside input, as no self-sustaining robotic system could be designed that didn’t eventually malfunction. This was an unfortunate result of the inherent limitations of the biological mind. Every paradise it had ever made was hamstrung by the limits of its own imagination, and no amount of wishful thinking made this go away. The small assemblage of aberrations who from whatever madness recoiled from eternal bliss were trained intensively in modern computer-systems engineering, and small-scale, sustainable, organic agriculture. Their descendants- the truly conscious do not live forever- lived a life defined by the cycles of the seasons and by the caprice of an incomprehensible super-intelligence. Access to the agricultural equipment they needed to stay alive was granted automatically by the virtual reality machine provided it remained in functioning order. The engineers’ descendants could not abandon their posts. Every day they were surrounded by the sleeping immortals, but faced with no further choices to make, had no opinion on the situation.
And slowly over time there was less and less of a situation for them to have an opinion about. After the human world had abandoned Earth for NearGalaxy the other kinds of life had begun to reclaim the planet. They had grown out of recognition in the thousands of years since the machine was built. As the inhuman world reclaimed the former cities of Earth, the brutish competition for life among the other species had grown more and more desperate. Survival depended on claiming and holding the empty spaces before competition could become established, so life had grown fat and violent.
In the early decades there were engineers who explored the vine-tangled ruins of used cities. They saw gargantuan slugs that had glued themselves to the sides of skeletal skyscrapers. The glass was broken through on all of them by the mutated super-screams of creatures that were only just losing the struggle for survival. They looked like honeycombs, sucked dry by vast parasites. And the honey was the slime that slipped down the buildings’ sides from the sweating slugs. It collected in rivers and lakes at street-level, where it fed a swamp of wasps so large they used an abandoned city-hall as a nest, spiders whose webs stretched between towers that used to hold up powerlines and other things that these explorers could only see from a distance, because it was long since any human could survive one city-minute.
Today, forests of an anarchy long past the withered abilities of human survival spread out across the continents of Earth. They had grown so far and unbalanced that at the edges they began to expand into the sea. Bears, whose fur bristled like a steel porcupine’s, held their breaths for hours as they fed on the weakness under the water. The children of snakes darted through the oceans chasing whales as equals, far beyond anything human eyes could any longer hope to see.
Every now and then, somewhere in that unstable, unending brawl, the provisional balance of the world would be thrown out. The titanic sloths, vicious like armed epileptics, that kept all else out of the treetops at one time, would be overcome by some newly mutated bird of prey. Unthinkingly pressing their advantage, they would spread rapidly across the whole world, changing its face in a wave that could be seen by the satellite-trash that spun abandoned over all. Eventually, if termites could come to grow faster than the ants that fought them, or else stumble on some poison with which they would destroy them, the whole world would be dried out in a final wave of death.
And long before then the last besieged island of humans, who had chained themselves to the machine-apparatus of NearGalaxy, would finally have to surrender their siege by the new world. The psychopathic forests on their borders would grow to tolerate the humans’ ancient tools and poisons, and then rush over their fields and workshops, like a riot torching a museum.
63^48+17 had not had what we would call memories. His life was filled by almost the exact same actions, repeating, and stretching back as far as consciousness could go. Because the variations in his daily routine were so minor- a metric degree change in the angle he held his left index finger before the LIDAR scanner, an only technically different hue shawl he was recorded in by a hypersensitive camera- all the events of his life blurred into one another, and so he could not tell them apart. With such a vivid mass of detail, of something like the recurring dreams of a man born without an imagination, it was impossible to remember, and 63^48+17 lived on with psuedo-memories.
So the instance of difference made no sense to him. When the timing of the switching-mechanism went off by these few unprecedented seconds, he did not know what was taking place.
So he imagined that miles away an engineer had been born as mentally crippled as she could be and survive. Maybe there was some faulty connection in her brain somewhere so that she couldn’t resign herself to an inevitable world like the rest of her kind, or maybe she was just born without a survival-instinct. But despite the uselessness of it, she felt despairing, and then angry at the world she was in, then she felt insane, then lonely in it, then afraid it would notice and crush her, but then at times happy and delighted in it because of some detail, overlooked by everyone except her as trivial, which gave her hope, if not for the world, then at least hope that she might find more such things and feel happy again some day.
And because of that, in imperceptibly minuscule and anonymous ways, she sabotaged everything she touched. She had spent the morning picking what she called roses. She had read the word in a book collapsing with age, in a rotting, abandoned library in the hills where the goats grazed. She could not understand why it was so important, or why it was talked about so often, and that made her feel a background frustration spiked by the fear of seeing the too vast, inscrutable fields of everything somehow important that you will never be able to know. So she had looked for a rose, her map the inadequate descriptions of antique poets, inadequate because they had been more impatient with the world than she could be, and had written about the roses they imagined, more like roses than the real things.
What she actually found were poppies. Like almost everything, they had grown out of recognition in the thousands of years since NearGalaxy was built. Had she known what they were, she would have seen the advance guard of a nature finally breaking down their defences. It would have been impossible to tell whether this meant that NearGalaxy would finally die that year, or that millennium, but that it would die would finally have been undeniable. The poppies the saboteur picked were almost as large as her face, the petals thick like mucus and oozing dark, red pigment. The flower was bloody like a poem about a rose, though, of course, nothing like an actual rose.
But though she had a more genuine article than what she was looking for, she still couldn’t understand. She walked from the pasture where she had been tending the animals to her shift at the repair-shop, tearing flower after flower, ripping them first along then across the veins of the petals, then mashing them in her fists, in the desperate anger of the hopeless curious. She arrived at work with her hands filthy, though now a fading, old pink, not a blood red, and too driven to distraction to remember to wash them.
By the end of her shift, like by the end of every shift, her hands were the greasy black and brown of old oil (synthesised from organically grown corn). The machine had washed everything away, the stains on her hands, and everything in her mind, except the feeling that she was tired. But as the ink was washed away by the oil and did not dissolve in it, but instead was carried along until it collected around the axis of the turbine of the repair-shop’s generator. There it stayed. More and more pigment collected there over time, as the saboteur remained hopelessly unable to understand the problem that confronted her, and for those reasons we don’t know, hopelessly unable to abandon her useless obsession. Eventually, so much pigment collected around that component that it began to grind, on a microscopic level, against the supports that held it in place. This continued for years, years in which the saboteur died, her body broken down as fertiliser for the farms, which themselves were still slowly losing the siege they were under from the new nature, still growing ever more violent on the ruins of the old, a shrinking island of coral in a sea of lava. The seasons passed as ever and the immortals grew a little more bored of a heaven they couldn’t escape. The simulacra had to be bred- no-one wants to remember how- so that the dissatisfaction of those in the virtual reality would not grow to a point that the system would break down. If that happened, engineers would starve, and the old world would be stormed early by the freaks at its borders. The survival-instinct is a powerful thing. Maybe even if the saboteur had known that her roses were poppies, and had told the other engineers that they had already lost, they would still have clung to life so desperately. And in all this time the blood red pigment of the rose-poppies ground against the generator until at last the component failed, and it collapsed.
Now this itself was still a long way from the end of the world. If a generator fails in a repair-shop, filled with highly-trained engineers, whose very existence depends on its functioning, it will not stay broken long. But the half-an-hour in which the shop was stalled caused what was almost a backlog. Extra shifts had to be worked to prevent malfunctions arising in the hardware. The engineers had dealt with desperate situations before, and were never threatened by this event. And as far as they know, they dealt with the emergency so well that no system failures occurred anywhere as a result.
And they may even be right. It is unclear whether the failure in the switching-station where 63^48+17 lives was a result of the timer having been improperly repaired that day, or whether human-error at the station itself was to blame. The station-engineer, being assigned his whole life to a different sector of the NearGalaxy complex, did not even know about the generator failure at the saboteur’s repair-shop, and so could not have ever thought to check.
Whatever had done it, 63^48+17 was thankful. He and the figure in the capsule across from him were both awake at the same time. With the limits of their experience such as they were, there was little that they could in any way tell each other. Neither of them spoke, and 63^48+17 was auto-drugged by the faulty sleep-system before his true love identified his/herself. In a life of a meaningless gestures, 63^48+17 realised, there was only one thing he could tell anyone that would mean anything. He stayed perfectly still, as he watched the other figure. He knew that the other figure understood him, because it was motionless too. That was enough for him, because he had shared his life with someone completely, perhaps more completely than anyone in all history could ever have done. And they lived happily ever after, and died on the same day.