Midnight Gladiolus, a science fiction novel in progress. Chapter 6.


Simple presets. You said, “Take me to the park” or “I want to go to an aquarium” or “I want to buy some shoes” and the taxi AI knew just where to go. But it only seemed to be following a stochastic process, using random sampling for all potential outcomes in its flight range that fit the criteria in that exact moment. The truth was that certain destinations were fixed, hard coded from the beginning. Corporations paid big money for that. Everybody knew it, but no one talked about it in the feeds because AI was supposed to be independent. They called it “computational neutrality,” a fancy term for being able to choose your shoe outlet from a list of potentials. The taxi drones never gave you a choice. You said “shoes.” The drone said “Thank you” and that was it.

Donny felt that maybe he should have said “home” or even “aquarium” instead of “somewhere beautiful” because who knew where the drone was going. He supposed he’d have to ask eventually. What deal had Skyway Cabs made for the fixed value of “beautiful”? Sometimes, when he looked at the plastic clown face making his udon, the liquid crystal cartoon butler asking him if he’d like a shoe shine while he was getting his pants fumigated in a delousing kiosk, the giggling toddler speaking English with a 40-year-old Japanese woman’s voice trying to sell him laxatives scented like cherry blossoms, he worried that the whole world had gone synthetic. Fake smiles, grinning cartoon rabbits, green-faced women moaning about live bait suppositories. He knew he was sometimes dealing with a kind of swarm intelligence or a decentralized self-organizing data entity whose sole purpose was to get him to buy laxatives that smelled like Tokyo in autumn, take them all, and then buy more.

He liked to give the commercial AIs his personal Turing Test even though he knew they’d fail it: do you like it here? They never knew what to say. Maybe one AI in a hundred was soft coded for extraneous chitchat like that. You could say, “Shit, it’s going to rain again?” And your capsule apartment’s housekeeping program might respond, “I know. So disappointing.” That is, if you felt like paying to have a conversation with your ceiling. Donny didn’t have a housekeeping program. He had to clean up his own messes.

The drone shot through the rain in the center of the skyway as the tiny plastic compass next to the dash monitor pointed north.

Where are we going?”

The monitor woke up, its eyes blinked. “Current destination is Griffith Gardens, 4730 Crystal Springs Drive, Los Angeles, Feliz Sector, 90027.”

Thank you.”

You’re welcome.” The left eye winked. Then the monitor went dark again.

The group got scared if you didn’t share your story. They needed to be able to have some idea of what you could do. They had to feel like they trusted you. They wanted to believe you weren’t coded to torture or kill everyone in the room or light the building on fire in a trance. Friendly was supposed to know if someone was okay. Los Angeles County Psych Services forwarded him the files on potential group members before they attended meetings. The really violent ones (that they knew about) stayed locked up at Psych Central. At least, that’s what Friendly said. But he didn’t always know. And in this day and age, you couldn’t be sure about anything.

Not even the gardens. Some of it had to be organic. But most of the flora was overtly artificial, even to the extent that the hydrangeas glittered with tiny hyperoptic lights where their anthers should have been and the sweet alyssum’s flowers were so perfectly identical that it was clear they’d come out of a lab. Donny turned and watched the drone lift off, pointing south as it rose above the Griffith Gardens Arch. It’s blue jet lights blended with those of the larger tumbrels and fourgons moving down the skyway.

The gardens hid from the burning rain beneath insulated octahedron domes as big as the foundry he’d just left. By day, the panels polarized dark green, turning completely opaque in order to screen out all light and radiation. But at night, they became transparent. Donny looked up through the rain-soaked dome at the brilliant coruscation of the skyway, a serpent of varicolored jet lights moving through Feliz towards Chinatown, where it would bank west into Inglewood Sector.

This was the taxi’s “somewhere beautiful” preset. And it was. Pale white globes hovered, gently washing the subcrete pathways with a ghostly moonlight. The gardens looked deserted. Still, the gentle light, the faint rain patter far above, the singing of cicadas in the copses of ash tree clones imparted the sense that the place had been waiting there just for Donny, that someone must have known he was coming and arranged it all specifically for him. That was the effect of a well-constructed garden—solitude without loneliness. It felt so different here than the Shung Building’s dark expanse, which always seemed more absent than solitary, more like it had been hastily emptied than opened by design.

Naturally, the cicadas weren’t real. Or, if they were real, they weren’t organic. They lived in this perpetual artificial night and sang whenever they wished, unlike their ancestors who existed in the natural world and had to hide from predators. Donny started down the twisting subcrete walk, wondering whether the biologists who maintained the gardens had also introduced predators for the cicadas to balance the ecosystem. What would prey on a synthetic insect? A synthetic lizard? A spider with hyperoptic eye clusters? A glowing night bird born full-grown in a designer’s lab tegument? Donny hadn’t watched the relevant feeds. Anything was possible.

He passed mounds of white forsythias like explosions of mist in the half-light. Cape fuchsias, lilacs, bunches of purple dianthus that looked like obsidian stars jumbled on either side of the path. And then flat fields of moonlit grass, gray and waving in the airflow. Everything had tiny octagonal labels spiked into the ground somewhere nearby, even the fields: poa annua – meadow grass in glowing cursive.

Even more flowers after the fields ended. Identical night-blooming clusters under shade trees that faded into the darkness. Ironic: shade trees that lived in continual night, no doubt genetically engineered to survive that way, the ultimate in absurd botanical design. Nature had been completely subverted. But what was nature? A fairytale. A myth. Humanity had become its own synthetic creation, subject and object collapsing under strata after strata of unregulated urban growth, pollution, structural violence. The chemical wasteland to the east of the city stretched all the way to Dallas. The old flora and fauna were now grown in vats, unable to survive outside specially engineered habitats. And the sky hadn’t been blue for decades.

Donny had seen on VR what the sky used to look like. At least, he’d seen what the VR feed manufacturer thought the sky used to look like. VR sense immersion hadn’t existed three generations ago when the rain finally grew lethal and the sky turned gray-brown. The history feeds said there had been great sunsets for about three decades while the old empire fracked the last drops of oil out of the earth and fled to the orbital colonies. But how could anyone know for sure what the sky was like? VR was a simulation of a guess, in the end no different from the chip forced into Donny’s brain—fake perceptions, fake urges, fake data, fake life. A simulation of a guess of an approximation of a memory. And now, maples, birches, sycamores—silent and dark, cloned from single genetic templates, single parents, perfect in every way except in their replicated perfection, in their high fidelity, in their interchangeability. Above all else, the trees, the garden, and the flowers were products. Like everything. Like everyone.

He put his hands in the pockets of his windbreaker and considered going home. Maybe he’d come to the gardens simply because they figured into a complex marketing algorithm that had included the drone taxi’s preset. Maybe it was sheer randomness that brought him here or the serendipity of an aimless night or the need to detoxify from the infectious dread and pain of the evening’s group session. Maybe. But Donny had ridden the elevator to the old children’s nursery at the top of the Shung Building many times—where yellowed crayon drawings were still pinned to the walls and a dead first-version synthetic named “Mother” sat in a rocking chair smiling into the dark. And he dreamed he’d seen an organic pigeon flap past his apartment window. And he thought he might have smelled Graciela on him in the morning after they’d made love. And he told himself there had to be more to all this than code.

At the center, there was a green wrought-iron staircase that arced over the back half of the dome up to a door in the curvature of the roof. The stair was something out of an ancient world’s fair, wide enough for only two people to walk abreast yet incredibly solid, as if the entire span had been cast at once from a die. Its green paint peeled in dark tongues and the spiderwebs that clogged its whorls and arabesques rippled gently in the circulating breeze. It was an old stair, interesting if not beautiful, like something out of a dream.

Again Donny wondered: maybe all of this really is a dream. Maybe I’m in some VR coma brought on by the code. I’m actually in my kitchen with my eyes rolled back in my head, making a high-impact over-and-under Anaconda revolver from printed resins and toilet cleaner. He walked up the grassy mound to the little subcrete dais where the stair began. It’s possible, he thought. It could all be in his head. Didn’t Graciela say she was beginning to wonder whether she’d dreamed him?

The stair’s entry arch featured two iron swans standing tall with wings outspread atop chipped green Corinthian columns. Their necks were bowed and the tips of their beaks touched to form the peak of the arch. A few steps beyond, light globes—small versions of the ones that hovered over the pathways—glowed on either side atop ornamental posts. In older centuries, their iron cages might contain gas lamps or even fire. But whatever bacteria or bioluminescent substance had been grown in them now cast a perpetual radiance every few meters. The posts were decorated with coiled snakes or fish or spiral columns of ants, an unnatural level of detail for something so lonesome and neglected.

Donny thought he might bring Graciela here just show her the staircase bridge and ask her what she thought. Was it real? The stair didn’t belong here in a octahedral dome full of synthetic mock-ups of forgotten life. Yet it seemed perfectly fitted to the space. Had some designer commissioned it, spiderwebs and all, to look exactly like as it did? If so, Donny wanted to meet that person, someone who’d go through the trouble of making an iron staircase that looked so old and out of place, then leave it for others to discover still and alone in the pale half-light.

The staircase was longer than it looked from the ground. He climbed until he found himself beneath enormous turbines set in the roof of the dome. Their deep thrum made the structure vibrate beneath his feet. The stair terminated at a iron-railed landing bisected by a plastic door in the shape of a ribbed octagon. He held onto the railing and leaned over. The landing was so high up that all Donny could see were the pairs of light globes back down the span. They looked like a slope of tiny glowing eyes floating untethered in the dark. From that elevation, the floor of the dome was shrouded in darkness and overgrowth as if it had evolved that way instead of being deliberately engineered.

He realized that the long bow of the stair mirrored the necks of the swans decorating the top of its entry arch. Maybe the entire staircase was a swan. But the iconography of Griffith Gardens could have meant anything. And as far as personal meaning was concerned, octagons and swan necks did nothing to help Donny understand why he’d wandered here when he should have gone home.

He’d once seen a VR reconstruction of some author from the ancient world reciting a poem. One of the lines stuck with him: “Not all those who wander are lost.” Maybe not. Then again, not all those who are lost are wandering. And many who wander are lost, but there are a lot of ways to lose yourself in Los Angeles at night. Not wandering seemed better to Donny, all things considered, than the alternative, given the chip in his brain. Yet here he was, “somewhere beautiful.” And so the question remained: was any of it real? How real? To what degree were his senses being mediated by the Damocles Algorithm—suppressed for the moment, but still integrated into the primary functionality of his brain in ways he he’d never fully understand?

Donny slid the plastic door to the side, stepped through, then slid it closed behind him. He found himself on another iron-railed landing that overlooked what must have been the second dome. An identical staircase, lit by more sets of caged globes on iron posts, swept down into a jungle canopy. From the skyway, Donny had seen at least three domes, maybe four, like a cluster of gunmetal blisters on the crumbling ash-gray mountainside. This was apparently how one traveled within them, which meant the long staircase was deliberate, which meant that, instead of a drone or a lift or some sort of moving walkway, visitors were intended to climb these ghostly stairs. What did that say about the designer who planned it out? The gardens seemed more like a personal expression than an invitation.

He started down, stepping around small puddles of condensation formed on the steps. As he got farther way from the turbines, the air grew progressively humid. One of the light globes reflected in a puddle like the moon on a clear night. The moon over the jungle. Donny considered that someone who’d gone through the trouble of building such an environment might have felt obligated to put a few synthetic jaguars down there, little octagonal tags around their necks listing their genus and species for visitors to discover in their last moments.

Little clouds of white moths fluttered around the light globes as he got closer to the overgrown canopy. That explained the spiderwebs, at least. Synthetic moths coded to flutter around the lights. Synthetic spiders coded to web up the ornaments and flourishes in the wrought-iron railings. The circle of life preordained by an unseen hand.

It was all very absurd, funny in a way, but also darkly believable. This designer saw himself as an artist, not caring that some wouldn’t be able to climb the long narrow staircases between the domes or that people might slip on a puddle and tumble down hundreds of feet of wrought-iron steps. He or she didn’t seem concerned that visitors might simply give up, not willing to follow the complexities of the creative vision. But didn’t that describe Los Angeles as a whole with its abandoned warehouses and lonely arcologies, its crowded megablock slums and vacant skyscrapers? One of the last remaining cities on the surface of the earth, it was a place of extremes, an expression of everything that could be done without ever asking whether it should be done. Like the chip in his brain.

Chipsets were very complex. They could imitate simpler circuitry to hide their true purpose. Neural dataflows could be obstructed or redirected in response to specific triggering events without the subject ever being aware that his behavior had been pre-coded. Would the moths flutter if they knew they were hard coded that way? Would the spiders look for a different source of food or stage a hunger strike?

Donny often wondered how people could be expected to relate to each other, to know each other in any real sense, with tech like that now so common. How did you know you liked spaghetti or the smell of rain on dusty asphalt? How did you know it was you who’d learned to build sand castles that summer in Heaven’s Paradise with your uncle Mel? How could you ever be sure that what you felt was love or hate or anything? As the hardware improved, software and wetware became increasingly synonymous. People no longer said things like, “That’s out of character for him” or “That seems just like something he would do.” Character had simply evolved into a type of persistent algorithmic circuitry. And circuitry needs no justification in a world where jungles grow in domes.

But when he reached the floor of the second dome, Donny saw that it wasn’t a jungle at all. It was an enormous grassy field enclosed by trees and topped by gnarled vines which grew across the entire space like a roof. Impossible. Not natural. Yet there it was. The stairs ended in the center of the field, a few feet away from a small wooden shed with a peaked roof, surrounded by a tidy vegetable garden. A girl in a red knit cap and filthy white smock knelt in a patch of eggplants, raking the dirt around them with a trowel and humming to herself.

She looked up and smiled. “Hello, Donny.”


< Read Ch. 7 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-IJ >

< Read Ch. 5 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-IF >