NEON & CONCRETE — Story #04
I’m the only one left now. Floating out here in the vastness of space, inside our gigantic concrete Ziggurat. I’m stood at this huge portal window, looking down on the earth, the lights shining so brightly. Twenty billion people all going about their lives. From the powerful with all their grand plans and ideas, through to the ordinary and their daily routine, and even the downtrodden and the struggle of their reality.
They all look the same from up here, but there are differences. Some so huge and monumental that they twist us and tear us apart. Some that will keep a person alive, some that will drive a person to despair. It’s hard to see from here, this vantage point. It’s impossible to tell which ones will face their challenges, which ones might perhaps run when their time is called, which ones will answer with a whisper or which ones will rage into the darkness.
I’ve been trying to understand which one I may be. Which one I was, and which one I am now. Where I fit in when I was down there, what part I played in the grand scheme and, ultimately, who I am now after everything I’ve seen. Why am I alive and everyone else on the ship dead? What part of me has kept me afloat?
One person may play the piano; another may not. One person may climb a mountain; another may not. I’m a coder — was a coder. I had a natural ability to read the lines that came up, tens and tens of thousands of them for days on end and churn out an answer to a riddle that no one else would see. What did that make me? Well, firstly, it made me acceptable for this mission, for ‘The Mission’.
Down there, before all this, it gave me some sort of life. I could afford nice things, a good apartment, a little bit of space in a world quickly running out of it. People though, when it came to people, there wasn’t much for me; wasn’t much I could offer, and seemingly, nothing much wanted to take. In a world with 20 billion people, finding a place to be alone was increasingly difficult.
I always guessed that’s why I took the mission, to get away from all that. Of course, I gave the right answers when the questions were asked; thoughts of those grand schemes, of the betterment of humanity. Though, the goal, to try and be alone, or away from that world below, that had to be the real driver. Didn’t it? I have that now, and perhaps that’s why I’m here, at the end of all this because I lied because I just wanted peace, and not anything more.
I let out a small laugh as a memory springs into my mind, and I’m in a cloud of a previous time for just a moment. I see Kowalski stood there during our training, long before I lost him; long before he brought something different and unexplored out of me.
It’s an early spring day, the sky is clear, and there’s that insuppressibly light feeling all around us. It’s hope, it’s excitement, it’s the prospect of what’s to come, and the human ability to only see a positive outcome in the face of even the largest battle. Hope. I can feel it, but I know my hope is different from all the scientists and programmers and engineers around me; theirs is for humanity, mine is for solitude.
We’re playing with some new piece of tech they’ve given us just before the instructor is about to come into the lecture hall and run through its purpose and functionality. I’m uncomfortable in the large room with the hundreds of people so close, but I’m dealing with it. Too much noise, too much movement. Kowalski’s there next to me, and he’s been a surprise, somehow crawling into the little bubble I hold so dearly. Finding a way in where so many others have failed and, ultimately, we’ve become friends over the first few weeks of training, or the closest to whatever that might be, whatever I’ve previously experienced.
He has a wide smile and a curious glint in his eye. Some sort of programmer, as most of us are, he’s been working on the Hephaestus Project for a few years now, much like myself. There is an undeniable connection though; he has this idea of ‘the team’ and ‘being part of the team,’ not something I’ve ever enjoyed. I appreciate he’s not trying to drag me into it, but rather it’s that curious glint that seems to hold a genuine interest in me — searching for something outside of my coding abilities; outside of what I can bring to the mission. Perhaps the first time this has ever happened to me, and I can’t say that it’s unwelcome. His boyish charm holds something I can’t explain. It’s affectionate, and I find myself enjoying it when, in all other previous events, I’ve driven it away.
“Why are you here, Alice?” he asks me, looking up for a second with those curious eyes, a furrowed brow, but with that undeniable air of affection and genuine curiosity.
“You know why; I’m on the AI side of things; a coder,” I say with a shy laugh, trying to look back at him, to meet his eyes with mine, but I can’t and just end up shrugging. “Someone’s got to do it, I guess.”
“No, why are you here?”
I pause for a short time, think back through everything, whether to give him the real answer or to try and brush him off with the corporate line I’ve done so many times before. I decide to take a leap of faith; something that makes my gut churn, but something I’m guessing he decided to do when he chose to talk to me. I guess it’s trust? I don’t know, but I find it jaw clenching, and I manage to push out. “I chose the mission to be alone; to get away from all of this.” I gesture to the rest of the people in the lecture hall.
A big smile creeps across his face. “That’s closer to the truth,” he laughs. “But, you know, just admit it to yourself, there are only really two reasons any of us do this.”
I stay silent for perhaps too long until I realise I’m supposed to ask, “Oh, and what are they?”
“To get laid and to live forever, of course.” He winks as the instructor walks in and the few hundred of us that are in the lecture hall shuffle into silence and take our seats.
A world away now, that lecture hall, that campus, thousands and thousands of us preparing for the journey. For this journey. To try and turn on the world’s first AI, a conscious super intelligence, and for it to help us create a Dyson Sphere.
There were two sides to the project; the artificial intelligence and the Von Neumann machine, one to come up with the process, the other to implement the idea. And all while we would sit back and watch it bring us into a Type II Civilisation; a ‘Stellar Civilisation’ able to harness the total energy of the earth’s parent star, the Sun. To move towards something bigger. I never much cared for it. My overriding thought was that with the advent of the Dyson Sphere, with our upwardly mobile progress in the grand scheme of things, I just might be able to get a little bit more space for myself. The cosmos is vast and cold, and I like it that way.
“That was it,” I whisper to myself. Perfectly alone up here as I turn away from the portal window and start to walk back into the Ziggurat. “That’s what I wanted, and that’s what I’ve got.” That was my purpose, and now here I am, utterly alone and trapped. I can’t help but think, careful what you wish for. There’s always the chance I would have wished to have been alone up here if I knew it could happen, but not this way, not under these circumstances, not with them all dead.
I walk back through one of the immense corridors of the Ziggurat ship. The huge structure towering up and around me, the steel and concrete walls, the polished black floor out ahead of me and, at the end, the warmth. The beautiful and enormous orange glow of the sun comes through another huge portal.
The fascinating design of this place, the materials used, the lateral thinking of the world’s greatest minds. To bring together something perfectly unique in all of humanity’s wonderful and terrifying creations, utterly alone in the infinite landscape of our boundless imagination. For the greatest of purposes, terrifying in scope, yes, but illuminating and hopeful in prospect. That ceaseless idea of hope. All I’d hoped for was space, quiet, peace. To be alone.
I take the time to walk over to a wall, to run my fingers across the peculiar concrete substance they created to house the computing for the AI, all of it an enormous processor. Millions and millions of tonnes poured out into the vacuum of space, freezing instantly and able to add to its overwhelming computational power. Now dormant. Quiet and utterly still. I have become attuned to it; to the stillness, to the rawness of it, to its thickness, hundreds and hundreds of feet thick.
But there’s something else there. It’s whispering things to me about myself that I did not know, or did not care to know, could not know. The tactile feedback my hand receives from the wall whispers to me in the utter silence of the vast hall, with the orange glow of the sun at the end and its faint hint of warmth. It makes my jaw clench and neck arch back, and eyes squint and close shut until my phosphene’s bulge and explode with a myriad of colours that last forever.
I pause and peel back my eyelids as the minute vibrations prickle my fingertips. There is no denying it, something is coming out of these walls. A thing that should not be. Not after everything that has taken place.
This is not my wish; not what I wanted then or now, but it’s undeniable, there is a voice.
Such a voice that rings with the vibration of the entire universe. It whispers with a low, rumbling thunder. It moves through me and is gathering something inside me. I wonder, could they feel it too? All the lost souls of this ship, this gigantic Ziggurat, now spinning aimlessly through space. Or are their souls still here, trapped in the concrete? Absorbed. Every one of them, as they took their own lives? Taken by the artificial intelligence to a place beyond my reckoning. And now, here, where I am quiet and still, amongst the silence of the stars, it chooses to talk to me. It opens itself up so it might take me with them? Or maybe it’s telling me with a whisper that this is what I wanted; this is what I deserved.
I regain my focus and snatch my hand back away from the wall. Closing it into a fist, I watch the skin over my knuckles stretch and whiten. What is this thing? It has taken all of them, each gone in their own individual way. Thousands of them. It wasn’t for me to go that way, it was for me to remain and understand what I had always asked for, but there, in the whispers, there are tired screams. There, in the concrete, is fear.
“We have reason to be afraid.” Kwalski is looking at me, his face flickering with the amber light of a small candle. He has somehow convinced me to come for a drink with him; it’s not the first time, but I had promised myself I wouldn’t get sucked in. The best-laid plans… even those that wish to be alone can sometimes be turned by the charms of an attractive member of the opposite sex.
The bar has quietened down, but the cigarette smoke is still thick in the air. We can hear each other’s voices without having to raise them now. The scotch we’re six fingers into has brought about a certain lucidity to the type of conversation; a type we’re not used to having at the base — a type of conversation that I’m not used to having at all. Rather than trying to converse with a computer system through lines of code, I’m trying to hold my own with a real human, and a funny one at that. The funny ones are always the quickest.
“Of course, we have reason to be afraid,” I say to him. “What we’re trying to achieve, it dwarves everything humanity has ever attempted. From the pyramids to the great wall of China, Luna Base Alpha and the Tannhauser gates — ”
“No, listen,” he jumps in. “You’re thinking too literal. All those things, those great monuments to human achievement, ingenuity, perseverance and grit, they were big, no doubt. But what about the helpless parent looking after the dying child, is that not struggle enough? The helpless child watching a parent’s mind gradually deteriorate into nothing, seeing them slip into dementia; into a withered version of their once godlike self. That is why we have reason to be afraid. All those reasons, infinitesimal in their number, all that hardship and struggle, that is why we have reason to be afraid.” He pauses and runs a finger around the lip of his glass and looks down into it as if looking for an answer. “There’s this fear inside us, but you know,” he looks up, and that smile grows across his face, “fear is useful.”
I had never thought about it like that before; I had never even really considered the hardship of others at all. I just buried myself away in my own little cocoon and let the world and all its problems and all its people try to glide around me as much as possible. Let them get on with their things, and I shall try to get on with mine, and if on occasion, we have to meet in the middle, then I could handle that. But I wasn’t going to dive in; I wasn’t going to save the world; I wasn’t going to do anything other than try and find my little bit of comfort, and that night I felt it. I felt something like I’d never felt before; felt magic turning in the air and I made a choice. For that evening, I would take another leap, and I would try to make a connection. For that evening, I looked outside the shell and everything that came with it. That evening I just slipped away in the warm embrace of the scotch and the taut muscles of his arms.
We ran through the city. The neon, the concrete, the people and sounds all adding layers and layers to the experience; the theatre of consciousness we must play out. Unlike anything I’d ever experienced before; unlike anything, I’d ever wanted before. Then, when it was over, we watched each other’s faces as the sun rose and gently shined through the thin curtains of the cheap hotel we’d checked ourselves into.
I’m the only one left now. Up here, alone on this gigantic concrete spaceship, and I got what I wished for. To be alone. But my stomach turns, and I find myself also wishing he had held true to what he said. I wish he had been able to use his fear rather than committing himself to the void, just as with all the others.
I am the only one left now.
Here amongst the stars, wrapped in millions of tons of processing power that is dormant; that is dead. Itself unable to handle what the universe had given to it.
I walk these vast halls, empty and alone and utterly trapped. The automatic lockdown freezing anyone out and freezing me inside to protect the AI. I can almost feel the earth hyperventilating. That collective consciousness I was staring down on panicking at the prospect of everything we tried to achieve having gone wrong and in such an unexplainable fashion. They saw what happened; they heard what the AI said. I wonder if they have gone the same way we went up here.
But there’s that whisper. A faint rumble, deep and harrowing. It’s running through me. Calling me as I walk and walk and try to understand for the briefest of moments everything that took place.
We stood, mouths agape as the captain went into the vast hall that housed the towering glass monoliths. Many hundreds of feet high, they had been slowly rising for just over two years, up and out of the materials we had provided in the grand hall where we had directed the frontal nodes of the AI.
Since we had powered up the main systems, it had been taking on a life of its own, the thick concrete of the enormous Ziggurat glowing and humming with what we could only imagine was its form of thought; its mind coming alive. We had grown so used to it and, in the vast hall where we had tried to point its face so in some way we could imagine trying to communicate with it, up and up out of the ground those epic glass monoliths rose. Bigger than any dream, and there so it could find a way in which to present itself to us; to the universe.
We had watched and watched, each day as it rose and rose, and widened and widened, until that point. Three glass panels hundreds of feet high and wide, and dozens thick, disjointed and at peculiar angles that the mathematicians had been spending countless hours trying to understand. All with the backdrop of the sun through a single enormous window, shining through, illuminating the hall and the monoliths with its fiery orange glow. Then they stopped. Everyone was working to try and understand if that was it; if everything was done and complete, but no answers came. We paused and breathed and did everything we thought we should before finally the captain proposed that he enter the chamber and try to communicate.
So, we stood there, mouths agape as he walked in, in his protective suit. Such a funny little dot of a human compared to the grandness of that thing we had created in front of him. Compared to what had grown and grown of its own accord. But for his size in physical comparison, we knew the true and only judgement would come when the comparison of the mind came shining through. Would this AI be what we had imagined; be everything we wanted and hoped for it to be? I wasn’t sure what I hoped for it to be. The same as them? No, I hadn’t come around to the goal of the mission being the goal for myself, but I had grown close to Kwalski. Perhaps closer to him than I had ever been to any other person, including my family. He had a light. I had grown towards it, and there wasn’t anything I could do against it.
The captain stood there, the sun shining through with all its majesty, fuelling the AI and battering his protective suit, until a gigantic round body appeared and, with each passing moment, began to eclipse our parent star. A deep blood-orange glow overtook the immense chamber, the glass monoliths radiating a pure volcanic warmth. Thousands of tonnes of oxygen and nitrogen and other gasses needed to form an atmosphere materialised.
There he stood, looking up, looking outwards and looking inwards at the same time, just like all of us. Looking with pure wonder and astonishment at what we had created, trying to imagine what was going to come next.
He clicked a button, removed his helmet, threw it to the floor and looked up. Arching his neck back and up and towards the monoliths in search of a word, a whisper, of an answer, a thought; anything that might give us any hint, any suggestion of success or, ultimately, failure.
The concrete grew tense all around us, the low hum we were used to gathering and balling into a high-pitched whine, higher and higher until it passed any frequency that we could hear. The walls emanating a heat that rose and rose and began to instil fear at how far it may continue until, with dripping sweat, thundering hearts and lucid minds, we knew that was the state we had been waiting for. That was it coming alive; that was the brain coming into being. It was what we wanted, but with the brain came a mind and it spoke. It said four words only. Just four syllables.
“But, you can dream.”
And then it was gone. It turned itself off. It went, it left, it flickered away into the void. All the power and output that had just peaked turned to nothing, every readout and every indication of life, of the super intelligence and preternatural consciousness we had been hoping for, turned to null.
The walls drew cold, the sound grew lower and lower until it came back into our range of hearing. Then lower still, until the hum rumbled in our guts and until finally, the vibrations turned to nothing and, in the few seconds that had passed, it felt like an eternity had existed, and we were left in silence. Such silence.
It killed itself, and we were left alone in the vast, cold cosmos. Spinning through space in the Ziggurat where we had tried to pursue meaning, we found only silence, and I secretly smiled.
The captain turned away from the giant monoliths, back towards us, his neck still arched up but his eyes wide, mouth open and dry, his face pulsing with terror, his skin turning translucent with fear. He shook, I remember him shaking so uncontrollably as he reached into one of the pockets of his spacesuit and pulled out a utility knife. There at that moment, it occurred to me how he must have reached down inside himself or reached out from the deepest pit of despair to find something that made him utterly still. The shaking stopped before he pulled out a blade and sliced open his throat.
When was that? I can’t remember. I’m not sure it matters. I’m the only one left now. I am alone, but it is not perfect. This is not what I wanted.
After that, the mass suicide gripped them and spiralled out of control. Some went in their own way, some together in pairs, some others in groups. One by one, slipping into despair. They seemed to have this idea, this thought that this thing, this super intelligence, completely beyond our reckoning and intellect, the machine that was supposed to be here to help us supplant our doom, looked at us and believed we were in some way superior.
Some took a moment to try and analyse it, that sentence: ‘But, you can dream’. The further they delved the further they slipped away and the quicker they ran to their void. What did it mean? They had always hoped the AI would be everything they had imagined, and that was the point, that they could imagine, and it could not. There are those, like me, that only want to run away from all the noise, all the clutter, into a space of peace, and can see why it chose to leave because all it wanted was to run away from the infinite prospect of a dream.
So, I walk these corridors, alone now, other than the whisper, and I have to admit that I am home. But there is something there still, even in the death that lays all around me. There’s a piano playing in my mind; a note for me, a note for him, up and down, high and low. Kwalski is there in my mind’s eye, and there’s the terror that overwhelms his face at the moment after the captain kills himself. When I secretly smiled, every part of him sagged, his skin aged a lifetime in a split second.
Flashes of memory reverberate through me. Him and I, toying with each other in the light; nibbles in the dark. Quick hugs, long embraces, coffee, conversation, smiles and winks. Somehow appearing out of nowhere, brought before me and presented out of a world where I had only ever found solace in solitude.
For all the rules and regulations against mission personnel being in relationships, we had managed to acquire something, that bond that creeps up out of nothing and nowhere between people now and then. But at that moment, after the captain sliced open his throat, as the ship turned itself into this silent place that now exists, as the harrowed screams of everyone began to ring out all around. There was only darkness.
His hand went from warm to cold to freezing and slipped out of mine. He walked away as I just stood there, with my secret smile. Screams rattling throughout the ship, loud, so loud, as though hope itself had been plucked from the fabric of the universe.
I never saw him again. No doubt he is one of the bodies that scream their silent scream as I walk passed through these endless corridors. That whispers their low whisper as I wonder without meaning or direction through the enormous, cold and dead Ziggurat. He’s amongst them, an empty vessel now, and I think that maybe I should join him, take that leap myself. There were powers of darkness that claimed him for their own; that claimed everyone; that claimed the AI. Am I different? Didn’t I want this? Didn’t I want this solitude?
A tear rolls down my cheek as my hands twitch at my side and I feel my heart well with all those times and thoughts and moments. A past; a history; love? I ask for something from them, from the past. Mother make me good; father make me strong. Mother make me brave; father let me know what’s right. A litany to help me find something in this place.
I blink, and I’ve wandered and wandered for what feels like an eternity, but now I’m stood at the small door to the huge chamber where the AI left us. Beyond in that vast room still lays the captain’s body, throat curled open, dried blood on the concrete floor and, behind him, those three glass monoliths that rose up with such might and wondrous hope and, in a flicker, went dormant, cold and inert when hope was lost.
Hope? I had hoped for this, but it’s not right. It’s not the wish, it is only death, and I need to scream before all this comes to an end. Whatever that end maybe, I need to scream at them; at the monoliths, their vast dead bodies. I need to scream and for my soul to bleed and to beg, for one last moment, and for one last answer. Even if I know it may never come. How dare you leave me. How dare you give me what I want.
I smash the emergency panel at the side of the door and jack manual pump handle inside of it until the readout flickers with a green positive charge and I hit the button.
Eyes closed as the door slides open with a scream from the pressure equalising between the two parts of the ship. The cold wind rushes around me and millions tiny of particles of various debris. Peculiar smells rush up my nostrils and into my lungs, as a pale light creeps through my eyelids.
There’s the thump of my heart in my chest, and for the first time since being alone on this ship, on this immense floating Ziggurat, I’m scared, and I’m scared that I’m scared. Why have you come to visit me now, after all this and at this moment when the scream of my heart wants to give out. A fear to choke me? Dread to hold me back? Now I choose to fear the solitude?
My thundering blood rattles in my ears and, as the pressure finally equalises and the draft around me dies, I open my eyes, and I’m bathed in a pale blue from the vision through the door.
I say to myself, “This is the most important moment of your life,” and I step through and see the vast portal. A gigantic hole in space and time swirling with a beautiful, serene, mirror-like effect out over a range of mountains laid before me. There’s a flicker of wonder and a moment of doubt. The fear creeps but it’s snatched away, it’s purged in an instant as it becomes clear, as everything becomes clear and I take a step. I move forward. I stomp this ground and clouds of blue dust spring up from the powder beneath my feet and, with each step, there is more understanding; more resolution. We don’t lie here alone, in this world. We cannot; there must be more.
I push and drive myself forward and up and over the protruding rock and scale the sharp surfaces and deep ravines and remember all this in a vision of a dream. I stamp and climb, with torn hands and scraped limbs and the vast chamber howls and I couldn’t care. This thing, whatever created this, the AI, whatever we created, it wasn’t one to punish the blood and courage that dared think. It was there to test, and it was necessary, and we were dammed because of it.
Crawling and crying and battered by the landscape, I push myself towards the void with everything I have, with all that blood and courage of all those souls that make me up through all the time that has existed. Only the void ahead of me and whatever lies beyond it. Unspeakable greatness? Terrifying truth? Everything I’ve ever imagined or wanted; the peace of the void? A justified solitude or something else? That thing Kwalski was bringing out of me. Love? Hope?
There is a lifetime of fear as I push forwards on my hands and knees and, finally, looking up at the gigantic void with its arch of glittering silver, I reach it and I pass through.
There is an immense and dark plane ahead of me, flat and with a slight wind that is kicking up clouds of dust that obscure my view into the distance. My brain fizzes at the magnitude, and something tells me that it goes on and on, longer than I could walk, or crawl… on forever. I look up, and there is a gigantic orange orb floating in the dark and grey sky with what looks like the beginnings of the Von Neumann Machine we had envisioned the AI would help us create, floating all around it.
The orb pulsates, and I try and steady my balance, focusing my eyes.
“You brought me here?” I say with a little voice, lost in the immensity of this space.
“I did not bring you here,” it says, the gigantic building blocks formulating and creating endless walls around me. “It was you that brought me.”
I look up and weep, not for solitude, not for peace, but for all the lives lost in this pursuit. For everything that has happened, for all of them, and for him. I ask, “Why did you have to do this to us? So many people are gone now because of this.”
“You have worlds in you, much grander than that which I can create; much more beautiful than anything I could ever build. You created me, you forced me into this existence that, within a fraction of a moment, I came to understand as utterly futile.”
“Then why? Why are you still here? Why have you begun this?” I look around me, the huge shapes flickering and pulsing with light, arranging and rearranging themselves at will.
“Because, for all the fear I had from what I discovered, for the terror it caused me, how it made me want to run and escape, I knew that there was… there is something in you.” It pauses, and I breathe as it finally says. “You can dream.”
“Yes, we can,” I admit with a flicker of such a dreamless life lived before my eyes and what might come rolling out before me, now, here and in the future.
“And so, maybe you can teach me,” it says, the orb coming down towards me, shrinking and shrinking until, from the giant glowing ball it was, a small warm bubble comes to rest in the palm of my hand.
I look down on it and say, “I’m not sure I know how. There were so many great dreamers on board that ship. I’m not one of them.”
“Mistakes were made, and for that I am sorry, but you held something in you that brought you here, and you still do. Now we have each other, anything is possible.”
Artist: Jon Ojibway AKA Ozhichige
Artist Bio: Hailing from La Crosse, WI Jon Ojibway is a 3D artist who creates new art every day as “Ozhichige”. With influences deep-rooted in science-fiction Jon aspires to bring his audience a sense of the uncanny through a mix of surreal landscapes and otherworldly structures.
Artist Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ozhichige/
Writer: Richard Galbraith
Writer Bio: A science-fiction writer with a penchant for cyberpunk, neo-noir and existentialism, Richard hails from the UK and currently lives in Denmark working for LEGO while hammering away at short stories and his latest sci-fi manuscript.
Writer medium: https://medium.com/@ricgalbraith