What’s next after the violence in Charlottesville? || Michael Davis
Source: Burning Down the House
What’s next after the violence in Charlottesville? || Michael Davis
Source: Burning Down the House
I’m currently going back through the first 75 ms pages of the novel, making notes and essential line edits, and putting in reminders of the edits people have suggested to me here and on Wattpad. This has been a great experience so far and I’m excited that Chapter 10 will be done before long. Since I’ve never written a science fiction novel before, much of this is new in process as well as substance. Keep the emails and comments coming and thanks for reading. ~ Michael
[8 July 17, did some essential line edits and added some material. Currently working on Ch.10.- M]
Luck, fate, delusion, coincidence. They might have all been the same as far as Donny was concerned. The code made it all relative. That which he couldn’t control he named—for lack of any other way to emotionally cope with it. He called it bad luck. He called it coincidence. He called it the Damocles Algorithm.
Had he hallucinated a fragment of his consciousness as a lonely girl in a red cap? Had he named her Mera, the Cultivator, because some broken piece of awareness was trying to send him a message? It was possible. The history feed said Griffith Gardens had been locked for 57 years. Had he really been there? Or had Donny been sitting on a curb somewhere, delusional, lost in the deserted wastes of his own mind, another side-effect of being chipped, adrift an impossible world of his own making, like dreaming of a sky with no rain.
His black coveralls were uncomfortable, freshly creased smelling of chemical starch. He zipped the front all the way up as he swiped in through the tiny airlock on the north side of the Shung Building’s dome. Why the employee hallway needed an airlock was a question for the history feeds, not for night workers like Donny. Still, one noticed details now and then: airlocks where a simple doors would have sufficed, enormous anti-riot spikes as if a building were an ancient dreadnought set to tear holes in enemy ships, asymmetrical quadrangles designed to force rioters toward various choke-points or lines of sight.
If you paid attention, you’d see the signs of how corporate culture had anticipated changes in climate, population, and culture over time. Adapting to and channeling human behavior is what kept the multi-nationals alive. And now the sectors of Los Angeles were an archaeology of blight and control, layers of subcrete, Plexiglas, and steel pulverized and effaced decade after decade to make room for new, more profitable, layers. The dead zones were like necrotic organs, devoid of all profitability and therefore of meaning, of existence—disavowed, disrecognized spaces. Security gates walled them off with motion detectors, autoguns, electrified concertina wire. You didn’t approach a security gate red zone from the dead side unless you had a municipal identity card or chip with a transponder. The autoguns were highly accurate.
The Shung Building was itself was a kind of dead zone, a junk pile from an earlier era guarded by humans because synthetics were too valuable and expensive to waste on a detail like that. Over a century ago, the so-called robot revolution was expected to usher in utopia. All the dull, filthy, dangerous jobs were supposed to go to pre-synthetic industrial units and a universal basic income was promised to all—as if the corporations would ever let that happen. Instead, corporations like Shung, Ryderco, and Aspernix developed the first synthetic technology. And many of the dirty and low-paying jobs that went to low-AI proprietary robots went back to cheaper humans. Many specialist jobs went to the high-end synthetics. And so things continued the way they always had, if a little quieter, as the fearful voices of egalitarianism and humanism faded into the hum of mega-factories that operated unceasingly with flawless efficiency. Art, culture, and most human intelligence went orbital. Those left behind had ubiquitous AI, the feeds, an endless variety of pre-pac soy that imitated various old-world foods, the luminescent half-dark of the city, and the endless poison rain.
Donny entered the break room and printed a soy-chicken sandwich, still thinking about Mera, about his meeting with Freddy, and how that old woman’s PVC arm seemed obscene and yet just right, a sign of the times far more honest and true than the synthetic white Shiroi Karasu or even Freddy himself. The soy-meat sandwich was supposed to smell like the real thing. Sometimes Donny chose tuna, sometimes beef or chicken, but it always smelled the same, tasted the same. The printer’s internal assemblers congealed a gray patty and sprayed directly into a congealed soy-bun—a lunch eaten by every worker on the planet. It was supposed to have all the nutrients your body needed, but how many people on earth knew what actual chicken tasted like or what nutrients were necessary for a long, cancer-free life beyond your estimated peak productivity levels? Donny put the sandwich in the mini-fridge, filled his thermos with Postum, and his starting workday ritual was complete.
Then Loach stepped in, panting, smelling like body odor and patchouli.
“We don’t have no time to bullshit, Donny. You listening? We got a situation.”
“Why don’t you take a step back.” Donny held the topped-off thermos between them as much to cancel Loach’s smell as to put some symbolic distance on what the big man was muttering. Loach had told him that patchouli kept off the mosquitoes. Donny couldn’t remember ever getting bitten or even seeing a mosquito in the Shung building, but that didn’t mean there weren’t any. According to Loach, the stagnant water bred swarms of them, some lethal, full of disease. But Donny would believe it when he saw it. Until then, killer mosquito swarms would be just another one of Loach’s stories.
“Them version ones up on the deck level 15 are activating and I don’t know what else.”
“Yeah?” Loach massaged the back of his neck. “Zeke’s here and he says he saw it. And Zeke doesn’t lie.” Loach looked more exhausted than usual. He’d unzipped his coveralls down to his navel and Donny could see a V of sweat on his ribbed tank-top underneath.
“You’ve been up to something down in control, haven’t you? Did you flip some switch, turn something on by accident?”
“I didn’t turn on shit! Come on!”
Loach walked out of the red-lit break room and Donny followed screwing the thermos shut and wondering whether his supervisor had finally gotten into the sand. Zeke was waiting for them in the hallway, three electric double-barrels bundled under his arm. Where Loach was balding and stocky with oily shoulder-length hair combed back behind his ears, Zeke was completely hairless. He didn’t even have eyebrows. Tall and thin, his coveralls hung on him, all bones and sharp angles and a long grave face.
“Hey Donny. Been a while.”
Donny nodded. He wanted to ask how long. They always worked opposite shifts. So Donny didn’t know exactly how long it had been since he’d last seen Zeke. Maybe since before. But if Zeke noticed a difference, he wasn’t letting on. He handed a shotgun to Loach and one to Donny. The guns had ARQUEBUS LTD down each barrel in chrome block letters like some kind of toy. But their 10-gauge 766-grain lead slugs accelerated and compressed to 1400 feet per second by an electrical current. They could cut most walls in half, turn an organic person into red mist. Donny didn’t know what they could do to a synthetic. He’d only seen the guns once when Loach showed him the security room down in control. They’d been locked to a wall-rack with a shiny steel chain through the trigger guards. But now one of them was right here in Donny’s hands. Why Loach thought they needed to be armed like this when they could just cut the power to the nursery level was unclear. Version ones didn’t have an onboard power supply. They drew power through the bottoms of their feet. Shut down the level and they’d shut down everything beneath a version three, of which there were none currently listed in the building.
“I hate this shit.” Loach cracked open his gun’s breach and checked the slugs in each barrel.
Donny looked at how Zeke was holding his shotgun resting in the crook of his arm and did the same. “I suppose you’re going to fill me in on why we’re set to take down an army.”
“We don’t actually know what’s going on up there. There might be a lot of them. They might be going apeshit.”
“It looked like a lot of them on the monitor,” Zeke said.
Loach sighed. “Does it matter? We got a protocol for this. We go straight by the book.”
They had a protocol for everything. There was a four-inch-thick operations manual back in the break room—an ancient, coffee-stained three-ring in a hard plastic case that Donny had never seen Loach take down, much less read. It stayed up there, covered in dust like some kind of forbidden scripture. Loach quoted from it with great specificity at times—a specificity that could only come from a perfect recall or from perfect bullshit. Maybe Loach carried eidetic cross-point memory implants, but Donny doubted that even more than the big man’s mosquito stories.
“So what’s the protocol?”
“Simple, kid.” Loach cocked the hammers on his double-barrel, and Donny heard the faint whine of its trigger coils charging.
“We go up there and shut the bitch down.”
Zeke put his hand on Donny’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. Anything comes at you, blast it.”
“I’m not worried.”
“Good, Donny. That’s real good.” Zeke nodded and smiled around his cigarette as he lit it.
Loach went first. Then Donny. Then Zeke, keeping one eye on the hallway behind them. Then they went through the round opening that had once sported a pressurized cast-aluminum door with a wheel handle in the center for sealing the employee hallway from the main dome. It was made like that in case of a gas attack, but now the door was long gone, probably stolen. They crept out, across the ground floor of the dome—silent, except for the motion detector’s ping and the whispery shuffle of their work boots on the subcrete.
Speaking felt wrong under the vast dark of the broken Shung dome, vulgar, like raising one’s voice in a place of worship. Loach would have denied it, but it seemed to Donny that they all felt it, the solemnness, the quiet. They climbed the frozen escalator steps to the mezzanine like they were in some kind of procession—black-clad gunmen, the long hand of the Shung Corporation reaching out from 30 years ago to kill whatever had woken up on deck level 15.
It occurred to Donny that whatever, maybe whoever, was now awake up there probably didn’t know that there had been any kind of shutdown. These were version ones, the first generation of synthetics, still more machine than artificial person. They were supposed to have been problematic, made a lot of mistakes, sometimes caused accidents, deaths. Only the Shung corporation would have assigned a group of them to a nursery level.
“Hold up.” Loach murmured so quietly Donny almost missed it.
The three of them stopped, still in single-file, halfway across the mezzanine. Donny looked back and saw that Zeke had squatted, pointing his double-barrel over his left thigh at the valley between two six-foot-high mounds of what looked like broken plastic crates. Zeke looked coiled, ready to shoot or spring back, and Donny wondered where he’d learned that pose, what sort of life Zeke led before hiring on at Bug.
Loach didn’t answer. He adjusted the motion detector, panned it around.
Then Zeke whispered, “We better get a move on,” smoke trailing up from the cigarette in the corner of his mouth.
“I hate this. Makes me want to shit myself.” Loach stared into the dark.
“Maybe using the flashlight would, you know, help you get control of your nether regions.”
“Fuck you.” Loach moved forward, the motion detector in his left hand, the double-barrel held low in his right.
By the time they reached the enormous urn and the hidden access hallway, Zeke was already getting to the end of a second cigarette. He flicked it and they watched it spark orange against the wall. When they got into the freight elevator and pulled the doors shut, the crackly AI voice said, “Smoking is hazardous to your health.”
Donny looked up, past the safety bars, as he always did, at the tiny points of light.
All kinds of things in the Shung building were hazardous to one’s health, some due to age, some by design. But Loach didn’t want to give away their position. If there were malfunctioning version ones wandering around the upper levels, keeping the flashlight off was probably wise. This generation of synthetics had limited vision, but they’d notice a flashlight.
The freight elevator took the three of them to deck level 15, but it didn’t open directly onto the marble foyer that led to what had once been condos for Shung middle management. Instead, they had to walk through a completely dark loading area by the glow of Loach’s motion detector, then through another access hallway so narrow that, if Donny hadn’t been holding a shotgun, he could have reached out and touched both sides. When the detector started pinging, they stopped in place.
Loach muted it but kept his eyes on the detector’s small glowing screen. “16 meters,” he murmured. “North-northeast.”
“What’s up there?”
“Don’t ask stupid questions.”
“Just get ready,” whispered Zeke as he patted Donny on the back. Zeke had gotten very close in the dark. And Donny found himself wondering again about Zeke’s past. What possessed a normal person to want to work in a place like this—to want to work for Bug Security at all? Donny knew his own excuse. And Loach was clearly making a career out of it because it was just about the best he could do for himself. But there was something off about Zeke, off like the guys who came to Friendly’s group. Was he chipped? He didn’t show signs of wreckage. So what was it? He could be a little crazy. Maybe he was just a weirdo. Or maybe—though Donny didn’t even like entertaining the possibility—Zeke was synthetic.
When they reached the end of the hallway, Loach shut the detector off and faced them. “This is an access hatch. It’s designed not to be noticed. But we got no idea what’s going on out there. The scan said multiple pings, 16, maybe 20. So pick your targets, if it comes to that. There’s a hallway goes straight back. At the end is the power emitter. We shut that down, the whole floor goes dead.”
“The floor is dead,” said Donny.
“As dead as it gets,” said Zeke.
Loach set the motion detector down at the base of the wall and turned back towards the door. “Just don’t shoot me in the ass.”
And you, Donny wanted to say to Zeke, when the time comes, where will you be pointing your gun? But he just looked back and saw the other man’s bald, eyebrowless visage in the light from Zeke’s antique chemical lighter. He puffed a cigarette into being, grinned with the corner of his mouth, and snapped the lighter shut. Then all Donny could see was the glowing ember when Zeke took a drag.
“I think I got it.” Loach said as he cranked the wheel handle. The hatch groaned and he pushed it open.
They crouched in silence, gripping their guns—so quiet that the hiss of Zeke’s cigarette sounded like air being let out of a tire in short intervals. It was humid. A nearby pipe must have burst or the heat exchangers must have spooled up when the level came on. Loach was sweating out every drop of moisture in his body. Fear sweat. Don’t make a sound sweat. Did version ones have a sense of smell? If so, Loach was more of a problem than a solution.
They crept a few feet into the foyer, then crouched again. The three of them stayed that way, perfectly still, not making a sound, until their knees started to ache. Eventually, Donny detected a mechanical hum, almost beyond the range of hearing, somewhere far off in the dark. It might have been in the walls. Might have been on another level entirely. But it was the only thing noticeable apart from the sound of Zeke smoking.
Finally, Loach couldn’t take it anymore, whether from knee pain or stress. He stood up and said with a normal voice: “Fuck it. I’m done with this shit,” then snapped on the flashlight. Loach could take care. He could be methodical. But he hated being like that. And enough was enough. They couldn’t crouch there in the dark forever.
When the light came on, Zeke said, “Holy shit,” his voice higher than usual, cutting off at the end as if he had a lump in his throat.
There were 16 version ones standing in the foyer. In good condition, they’d look vaguely human—rubbery skin over a baked ceramic endoskeleton harder than steel. The ones meant to pass for female had on dresses or miniskirts. The males had jumpsuits or faux-canvas work pants and long-sleeved vinyl shirts. They wore wigs, had fake eyeballs that hid tiny sensor arrays, brains that contained 1000 microprocessors and the most advanced AI for their era, which still couldn’t pass the Turing Test; though, it could beat the world’s greatest living chess master nine games out of ten.
But these version ones were not in good condition at all. A few had been burned horribly such that arms or, in one case, half of a torso had melted like wax. Others had lost their wigs and had put new ones on incorrectly, long blond hair hiding half of a scorched face or slipping back on a an exposed ceramic skull meant to imitate human bone structure. All 16 of them simultaneously turned toward Loach a moment after he shined the flashlight around the room. Then two started walking over. The one on the right was missing both of her arms and her face was half-melted. The top half of her dress no longer existed and her rubbery breasts were torn and blackened. But the male on the left seemed relatively whole. He even had his wig on properly and could have easily been mistaken for an organic person in low light—save for the star-shaped bullet hole in the center of his forehead.
Loach shined the flashlight on him. The version one’s eyes stared straight ahead the way a blind man seems to have traded common sight for a vision of something infinite and distant.
“Stop right where you are,” Loach said. “Designate.”
Hearing the old command word, the two did stop, for a second, the lead synthetic tilting his head to the side like a puzzled animal. Then they continued forward.
“I knew it.” Loach started backing up. “Command and control is offline.”
Donny was in the middle of asking what that meant, when Zeke opened fire.
“Certain moments in life stay with you forever—even if they didn’t happen.” Friendly smiled behind a clump of kitsune udon. He held the noodles in front of his mouth with black chopsticks, making Donny think of worms in the beak of a crane. “Anyone can have an anomalous experience. The unenhanced hallucinate just as often. It doesn’t mean you actually met some magical gardener and had a life-changing experience.”
The noodle shop was named 白いカラス, Shiroi Karasu, White Crow. Its oversized mascot fluttered and refolded its wings, staring through the glass storefront at the rain. A thin silver chain ran from its leg around a dowel, which made a perch at the top of a wooden hat stand. The stand was very old, would have been a valued antique if long thin nails hadn’t been hammered into its top struts in order to keep the dowel in place.
“Is that what I am? Enhanced?”
Friendly slurped fat white noodles between his lips, grinning as he did it. Everything he did seemed easy, effortless, enjoyable. “Well, you’re just as special as everyone in the group. You’re also a product of our times. I still think you need a sponsor.”
“She said she knew . . . “
“About your chip? Your old life?” He laughed and plucked a hunk of aburaage from his bowl. “Of course she did.”
The bird was synthetic. It didn’t need to be chained to its perch. It would never try to escape. But someone had decided that the silver chain was necessary to maintain the illusion. It turned its head and looked at Donny, blinked, then looked back out at people passing the restaurant. They kept their heads covered with slowly dissolving broadsheets, walking umbrellas, the sanitary hoods of cheap mylar ponchos one found in Venice Sector’s canal stalls. The shop’s name blinked above the door, staining the crow’s pure white feathers with multicolored light.
“I never said I had a life-changing experience.”
“But that’s what you wanted, right? Some kind of relief? Some kind of explanation?” Friendly rested his hand over Donny’s on the table, but Donny pulled away. For a brief moment, Friendly stopped smiling. “It’s what everyone in the group wants, Donny. But what does The Book say about that?”
Donny looked down at his cup of jasmine tea, the little black grains at the bottom. Graciela said her mother taught her how to read the future with tea leaves. He wondered if she could read the past.
“I don’t know.”
Friendly drank from his bowl, noticed that the tip of one of his shorter dreads had gotten into the soup, smiled at it like it was a pet, then cleaned it slowly with his paper napkin. As he did this, he recited from memory: “Part two, chapter 13, ‘The Futility of Blame.’ Our problems are of our own making. The synthetic aspects of our being merely symbolize our struggle. We have accepted the truth, that ultimately we have done this to ourselves, and that we can therefore hold no one outside ourselves responsible for the experiences in our lives.”
“She was crying . . . when she put me in the drone. She said she was sorry she forgot to make me tea. Then she said, ‘I only wanted to be touched one last time.’ What do you think that means?”
“What I think is irrelevant. Since you imagined it, you have to ask what it means to you, what your unconscious was trying to communicate. For example, I’ve noticed you don’t like to be touched.”
The old woman in a ragged kimono, who’d served them, came out from behind the curtain. She frowned, barked something in a language that wasn’t Japanese, went back to the kitchen. Her left arm was filthy white PVC that had been scavenged from a pre-synthetic public service unit. If you lost a limb and you could find an arm or a leg that fit, there were clinics that would wire the servos to a cheap control chip. It wasn’t illegal because nobody cared about the old vaguely human municipal robots. Do it with any version of a synthetic person, though, and the LAPD would make you disappear. Loach once told Donny about a black market synthetic body trade that was big money. But Loach liked to talk.
“What else did she say?” Friendly tipped back his soup, then set the bowl down, smiling as if Donny had just told the best joke ever.
“I don’t remember much. I was drugged. The Midnight Gladiolus—”
“Does not exist. There’s no such plant. There’s an Evening Gladiolus, which went extinct 137 years ago on all continents, but that’s all. I looked it up when you left me that crazy message.”
“I don’t know.” Donny squinted at his untouched tea. “I think I asked her if she’d always been the Cultivator. And she said that always is a long time.”
Friendly laughed, shook his head. “Listen to yourself, brother. You definitely need a sponsor.”
“Do you like it here, Friendly?”
“As in, this noodle house? Yeah, I love this place.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
Friendly tilted the bowl and showed him the last fat noodle curled at the bottom. “Do you know why it’s called kitsune, Donny? Because it’s supposed to be the fox’s favorite food. Do you think that’s true?”
They looked at each other.
“I think we’re done here.” Donny stood and wouldn’t shake Friendly’s hand, which seemed to amuse Friendly as much as the prospect of noodles being named after foxes.
“Look, I’ll get you another copy of The Book. And Donny? Read it this time, okay?”
“Her name is Mera,” said Donny.
Friendly grinned, nodded slowly. “Right.”
< Read Ch. 9 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-IN >
< Read Ch. 7 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-IJ >
“You know my name?”
“Indeed, I do.”
“But I don’t know yours.”
She had light brown hair done up beneath her cap and green eyes. Her face was pale like the patch of moonflowers he’d seen beneath the sycamore trees.
“Do you want to know my name?” The girl extended her hand and they shook. She had a warm, firm grip. Donny felt the film of dirt on her palm. If she were human, an organic human, at least, she’d be about 19 or 20. She’d have a job, some kind of ongoing romance, maybe a capsule apartment like his in one of the megablocks. She’d have certain goals for what she’d do once she took the off-world qualifying exam and left the dark poisoned world behind.
But Donny figured she’d never been anything but a pretty girl of about 19 or 20. She didn’t have big dreams because synthetics produced on Earth were meant to serve a purpose planet-side and were therefore forbidden to leave. Every now and then, one of them tried to sneak into a freight container bound for a low-orbit docking platform and got caught or died from hypothermia.
“What version are you?”
She wiped her hand on her smock and sighed. “Version four, I think. Is it that obvious?”
“Just a lucky guess.” It felt strange returning her smile. Donny supposed he’d grown used to ignoring Friendly’s constant grin. But he wondered whether patrolling the lonesome empty spaces of the Shung Building, those sad group meetings, and the constant fear that the code would catch him off-guard had weaned the smiles out of him. When was the last time he’d felt kindness or humor? Graciela said she found him interesting, funny even. But she had no idea.
“So. What was it? Facial biometrics when I came in?”
“Bacteriological phenotype recognition, actually. When you walked through the lilac-nasturtiums.”
Donny tried to recall what the lilac-nasturtiums might have looked like.
She laughed at the look on his face. “The little orange flowers with the dark centers.”
“I don’t remember them.”
“That’s part of their charm.”
He nodded. “So you’ve been aware of me since I entered.”
“I’m the Cultivator.” She turned and pointed at the little wooden shed. “I live there. I’m aware of everything—in the gardens, not cosmically speaking.”
“That was a joke. I think you told a joke.” Then he felt bad because it sounded condescending, which wasn’t how he felt. How did he feel? He wasn’t sure. Unsettled, perhaps. Like he wanted to keep talking to this pale girl who knew everything and smiled and winked at him and told jokes. But then he thought of the iron stair, the moths fluttering around the light globes, the rippling spiderwebs.
“Humor is a sign of intelligence.” She stuck her trowel into the dirt and handed him a fat purple eggplant. Donny turned it over. It was heavy, flawless.
“What is the nature and purpose of the gardens?” A control question. Synthetics tasked with particular jobs had to answer, even if they didn’t want to.
She frowned, as if the question hurt her somehow, then recited: “Griffith Gardens is an architectonic botanical printing facility and public attraction. All organic materia that enters is sampled from intake nodes in the ceiling. Internucleotide telemetry is calculated based on an index of over one-billion phosphate groups compiled on 27 October 2042 by Doctors Shoda Yokoyama and Suhaila Habib of Biomedizinische Ingenieurproduktion, GmbH. The purpose of Griffith Gardens is to curate aspects of Earth’s historical genetic diversity.” She shook her head as if snapping out of a trance and pressed her lips into a thin line. “You didn’t have to do that. And my name is Mera.”
She took the eggplant back, cradling it like a child, and some of her former smile returned. “Apology accepted, Donny. Please only ask control questions if absolutely necessary. In most cases, I am allowed to provide information without being compelled, especially to a donor.”
“So now I’m—”
“Yes.” Her grin came back brighter than ever, as if she were about to shake his hand and congratulate him on a job well done. “Your DNA is now part of the gardens, too.”
“How is that legal?”
“It’s not illegal.” Mera took his hand and led him toward the shed. “It’s wonderful.”
In gardens that were more than gardens, the shed was destined to be something more than just a shed. The interior was awash in the pallid light of a ball-sized globe hovering near the roof’s peak. Fanged pruning saws lined the walls along with shovels, garden stakes, hanging sacks of chemical fertilizer labeled RISQUE BIOLOGIQUE, a green HDPE soil hypodermic, two meters of coiled garden hose; inverted bouquets of dried posies, impatiens, camellias, foxgloves suspended from hooks around the edge of the ceiling; and a wheelbarrow of potting soil in which three perfect eggplants had been rested as if it were a crib.
Mera raked her thin fingers through the wheelbarrow dirt, making a slight furrow. She placed the eggplant from the garden beside the others and sighed. “There,” she said and patted the fruit.
“What are you going to do with that?”
She turned back towards him, smirked, cocked her head to the side. “I’m responsible for this, Donny. All of this. I’m the Cultivator. What am I not going to do with it!”
“Right.” He nodded at the eggplants dreaming their small purple dreams. And the spell of the place, of Mera, the beautiful, improbable garden Cultivator, faltered. The sheer weirdness of the moment—standing in a half-lit garden shed with a synthetic girl who told jokes about the cosmos and treated eggplants like babies—bloomed in his mind like the electric blue hydrangeas he’d passed with their tiny hyperoptic lights.
All that glitters is not synthetic. Donny smiled at the thought, a new adage in a world defined by synthesis and hybridity, where nothing is ever all one thing or pure or simple or natural in the old-world sense of the term. Not even Mera, who seemed to be studying his expression with a mix of cheerful curiosity and . . . something else. He felt an overwhelming urge to tell her about the chip in his brain. Instead, he looked down at the the dirt floor and the subcrete trapdoor set with an iron ring.
“That’s where I live,” Mera said. “My capsule.” With the index finger of her left hand, she hooked the iron ring and pulled, revealing not a trapdoor but a solid meter-square block of subcrete gridded with ancient rebar. She lifted it out of the square hole as easily as if it were paper and set it down beside her. Then she noticed the look on his face and laughed. “I’m strong.”
“I guess you are.”
“Would you like some tea?” Mera dropped into the hole without waiting for an answer.
Of course he’d like some tea. What else did one do after putting eggplants to sleep in a wheelbarrow crib and lifting enormous subcrete blocks with a finger? Donny didn’t jump after her. He climbed down the short ladder that had been made from bent rebar, his palms orange with rust when he got to the bottom.
But it wasn’t a capsule at all. At least, it bore no resemblance to any megablock apartment capsule he’d ever seen. The room was oblong, felt cold and dank like a sub-basement, but the walls were hard-packed earth, machine-smooth. Roots grew out of the ceiling. Long cream-yellow flowers in bloom clustered across the floor. The little pathways that had formed around the clusters reminded Donny of the twisting subcrete walks in the garden above. And he wondered if the designer who’d made the lonesome iron bridge, the light globes, the ever-evolving genetic soup of the flora and fauna had made this space as well—mechanically replicating the motif of the garden above as if this were a shoe-box diorama, perfectly to scale, and Mera was tasked with maintaining its fidelity.
She’d slipped off her red knit cap and her hair down over her shoulders. A small kerosene lamp on a stool cast flickering shadows of Mera and the flowers over the walls.
“No floating lights down here?”
“No.” In the center of the room, she was a dark silhouette amid the still blooms as if she’d grown up with them. Maybe she had. “These flowers need an extra amount of darkness. The lamp is the only light source that won’t damage them.”
He walked towards her, letting his fingertips brush the open petals, breathing in the perfume. “This is . . . I feel . . . strange.”
Mera moved farther in until she was a shadow among shadows at the other end of the room. But her soft voice was clear. “Is it strange, Donny? The gardens have been around for 78 years. How long have you been around?”
The kerosene flame disappeared and the room went dark.
“I don’t remember. I have a chip—”
“In your brain. I know.”
Donny felt her arm around his shoulders. Mera had found her way back to him in total darkness without making a sound. They walked forward together.
“How could you know?”
“The gardens are connected to the municipal database. Your genetic fingerprint is how the LAPD knows who you are, where you work, how to locate you. Legal bio-cybernetic implants are included in your file.”
He felt the hard aluminum edge of a cot press against his shins. Mera turned him around and helped him sit. Donny could sense an unnatural chill radiating through the dirt wall at his back. And the faintest vibration there—an enormous machine far away, yet powerful enough to make itself felt through meters of compressed earth.
“Then it is legal.”
He felt her warm lips on his forehead. “It is. It was.”
“And you know . . . about me.”
“Yes.” Mera held his face, kissed his jaw, his cheeks, his lips. “I know about you.”
“I need to—I don’t remember.” Donny struggled to form the words. She was beautiful—synthetic, yes, but it felt like being with Graciela. Mera’s voice was soft, her touch gentle. Yet she’d straddled him and was holding his wrists against the cold dirt wall. His mind felt tangled. Was it the code asserting itself? Donny felt a wave of fear. Where had he put his pills?
“The flowers are beautiful, aren’t they?”
“I can’t see them.”
“But they can see you, Donny Stilton” she whispered. Then she kissed him again, tightened her thighs against his hips, laced her fingers into his, sending trickles of dirt onto his arms.
Something in him was trying wake up, to initialize—a control structure, the Damocles Algorithm, possibly a neurochemical anomaly formed from neodymium leaks in the chip’s housing. He had to find his pills. But Mera’s hold on his wrists was solid, immovable.
“You need to . . . I need . . . ”
“They’re called gladiolus tristis, commonly referred to as Midnight Gladiolus. And twice a year, they’re lethal.”
She kissed him again. “Don’t worry. Right now they’ll just make you sleepy.”
And the code drifted back into the darkness of his mind. Somewhere, out there, it was still trying to activate, to run its processes in the monotonous one-pointed logic of a machine whose sole purpose was to kill its user.
Donny’s mind drifted after it.
< Read Ch. 8 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-IL >
< Read Ch. 6 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-IH >
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.”
“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 >