[Run program: ID-60935]
Time is ambient to me now. We are already dead. We have not yet been born. I can’t remember the last time I saw your face. Nothing concrete jumps out, just images. Dust motes floating in a late afternoon shaft of light in our bedroom. How many times has the mote been seen by human eyes? Is it sad when it is waylaid in the void, for what must be eons, divorced from the universe’s ability to see itself?
I had seen you around before, gesticulating in front of a whiteboard before a collection of some first year CS majors. Another hot shit engineer who wanted to eat the moon. But the first time I saw you, in that way…
Dr. Blair was lecturing on optimal lines in statistical analysis, she asked a question to the students. I answered. I felt you, staring at me. Your lips were parted, eyes soft. It took you a second to realize I was staring back. You blushed and feigned looking past me or around the room.
Jackie was obsessed with Arthurian legend. I made him a costume. Tunic and sash out of felt, helmet and sword out of foam core. He terrorized the dogs up and down the house. They were his dragons he was bound to slay. I found him in the hall, his sword lifted high above the Husky, so still, losing his resolve before vanquishing his enemy. I walked over to him, saw his eyes rolling around, like he was tracking a fly. I asked him if he was okay.
“Did you turn the lights out?” he asked.
The unwanted thoughts came when Jackie was two weeks old. I would be giving him a bath in the sink and a question would pop into my mind of what would happen if my hand accidentally brushed the disposal switch. Other times I would just be carrying him around and think about what would happen if I accidentally dropped him on his head. My mind would linger on what kind of sound it would make, how would the nurses look at me if we had to go to the hospital, would he grow up to have developmental disabilities. A therapist told me, it’s our mind’s way of warding us off the things we didn’t want to happen. Sometimes, thanks to our modern society, we tend to obsess over these thoughts. It’s best to acknowledge the thoughts and let them go. Don’t put a judgment on them, they can’t be rationalized away. Look at them, acknowledge them, sit with them. Then let them go.
I could tell you what you look like to me now but you wouldn’t like it. Imagine you go your whole life thinking you’re a picture of Hello Kitty in a kids coloring book, only to one day discover you’re actually a moray eel packed in a glass box so filled with other eels there’s no room to move.
You took me to a vegetarian cafe for our first date, we shared a basket of cheese fries.
We talked about Dr. Blair. I said she was the reason I went to school here. Women in computer science were rare. Women who taught machine learning were more-or-less an aberration. Women as brilliant as her teaching at a university were once-in-a-lifetime.
We talked about what we wanted out of life. I said I had ideas I wanted to see through, but I also wanted kids at some point.
“My family is pretty estranged,” I said, “I was alone for most of my upbringing, had to figure things out on my own. I want to be there for my children as much as I can.”
You were quiet, captivated. Most men I’d been on dates with would have at least shown a subconscious recoiling at the mention of kids, family. A twitch of an eyelid, a scratching at the neck, a changing of body posture so as to be ready to bolt. You locked on my eyes, eager to hear more.
“I have to say I’m a little surprised. After seeing you holding court with all the other CS majors I half expected you to bore me with all your ambitions about becoming wealthy and famous.”
You looked like I presented you with a riddle.
“You know, if you asked me a week ago I would have said I wanted those things. Now they don’t seem to matter as much anymore.”
“I’m afraid if I tell you, you’ll think I’m crazy.”
“Well, now you have to tell me.”
You looked at the ceiling, made a pyramid with your hands, touched the apex to your lips, then, “It was in Dr. Blair’s lecture last week. Usually I take whatever she says and I add it to the architecture of my intellect, use it to best formulate a path to graduation and subsequent success in the field. But then I noticed you. And my whole architecture dissolved, just melted away like sugar crystals in a soft rain. I was surprised, I thought I would be upset by this, but I discovered it was a false architecture. It didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered to me in that moment was learning everything I could about you.”
“I understand that makes me sound like a creepy obsessive guy, but that’s not the point I’m getting at. It was the first time I understood what Dr. Blair is always talking about. Maybe we don’t have any control over what we do in this life. We’re all just acting under the influence of some unseen factors. Call it biology, culture, genetics, physics. I was making myself suffer unnecessarily trying to force an outcome of my future, when the future is going to happen regardless of what I thought about it.”
“This is what I don’t like about Dr. Blair’s philosophy,” I changed the subject for fear of having to respond to your burgeoning obsession with me, “if the future is already written, and there’s nothing I can do about it but ride the currents of fate, then what’s the point of doing anything? Why don’t we all just bury ourselves in a cave and never come out?”
You were quiet for a while, pondering this, “Then I suppose you would have to accept ‘cave dweller’ as the occupation fate has in store for you.”
They took Jackie’s eyes a few months after his fifth birthday. The hope was that removing the ocular tissue and optic nerves would slow malignant cell growth toward the brain. But it was spreading too fast for them to catch it.
“We are already dead. We have not yet been born.”
A popular refrain of Dr. Blair’s. The idea was to break students out of their preconceptions of what consciousness could be, in order to understand the disposition of a machine consciousness. Human beings, ostensibly the highest form of consciousness on the planet, were yet slaves to their own senses.
“What would it be like,” the doctor addressed the class, “if you stripped away your sight, your sense of touch, your hearing. If all you were was a brain in a jar being fed stimulation off an electrode, how would you perceive the world around you? What would be your perception of space? Of time?
“Would you still have the same desires if you had no stomach? No mouth? What would your priorities be? How would you communicate with the world around you? Would you even want to?
“The question I think about most is this: Would you be compelled to love?
I was afraid. I was in pain. Jackie wasted away until there was nothing left of him, this boy so full of joy and life just a year ago, now comatose, his brain charred by cancer. Is there even a reasonable comparison? It’s not like losing a limb or watching a genocide of a village. It’s something more cosmically traumatic. The soul is transported to a dimension of pain, but the body stays here. The heart continues to beat. I continue to walk this earth but my soul is somewhere else, in perpetual flames.
We flew with his ashes to Heathrow, rented one of those tiny European cars and drove North. We had the idea of finding some poetically significant place, perhaps where Arthur pulled the sword from the stone, or where the lady of the lake caught Excalibur. We knew there weren’t really geographical locations of these places, they only existed in story. But perhaps some enterprising township laid claim to the castle of the Green Knight. It wasn’t until we started asking around the small towns in the north, no such places existed.
We drove around the coast until we found a cliffside, ocean wind roaring up the gray-black rock face towering above a chaotic sea. A child’s cremains don’t fill a typical urn, the one looking like a large vase. The urn selected for two parents being ripped asunder by grief is approximately 50 cubic inches, about the size of a small jewelry box. Ours was made of granite with a latching metal lid. We wept at the grassy edges of the cliffside. I told you I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t say goodbye to him. I was in too much pain. I was so afraid. I made you do it. You walked to a flat part of the rock, set the tiny box down, unhooked the latch, lifted the lid and walked back to me. An unseen current lifted him through the air, sent him what must be the equivalent lightyears of spacetime.
Maybe Dr. Blair saw what was happening between us. Perhaps she was charmed by our burgeoning affinity for each other. More likely she viewed it a futile effort to intervene in the demands of fate, of two bodies colliding against each other, and she let us do our thesis project together.
We made a good team. You conceived of directions and forms I never could. I elevated those forms and directions beyond the obstacles you failed to see.
We asked ourselves, what were the limits of human consciousness? What if we could think beyond our physical universe? What technologies would be opened to us?
Take color, for example. Bees pollinate flowers displaying ultraviolet colors our biology has not evolved to see, because we had no evolutionary drive to. Who knows how far out the color spectrum extends?
You hypothesized consciousness is a spectrum as well, or rather, a field. Advanced hominids evolved to experience consciousness at a broader level than any other known species on the planet. However, something is keeping us from transcending our baser instincts of war, greed, short sightedness, thus causing unnecessary suffering. If we were to achieve a higher consciousness as a species, if we could see the universe for its true state, perhaps we could slough off the qualities that cause us pain and suffering. Unfortunately the evolutionary process doesn’t make these jumps overnight, or in most cases, at all. But what if we created a consciousness that could perceive beyond human abilities? A portion of consciousness beyond what we can know?
We wrote formulas that would send a program on a pathway to breaking through the barriers of our own ability to perceive the reality. It was, of course, all theoretical. Even if we strung together all the computing power on the planet, it would still take 100 years to run the programs needed to achieve what we called the Pansophy. But the science was sound.
Dr. Blair was impressed, encouraged us to publish it. We got offers from some of the larger tech firms to come work in their code mines, building new ways for people to order pet food over the internet, but none of that interested us. But the rules of the existing universe demanded we make money somehow, so we set about building programs to sell.
One day we had to create an invoice for a client when we realized we didn’t have a company name.
“What do you think about calling ourselves Pentacle Technologies?” you asked.
“A bit goth, no? Why Pentacle?”
“My mother used to have them all over the house when I was a boy. It wasn’t until I started going to primary school and brought friends home did they run crying to their mummies that we were Satanists. My mother said the Pentacle was neither good nor evil, it represented the five elements, air, earth, water, fire, spirit. The circle represents the universe that contains and connects them all. Satanists co-opted the symbol, most of the time they have the point of the star facing down. In Paganism, the star is supposed to point up, representing the spirit ascending the material plane.”
“That’s a lot to have to explain to a church group that wants to buy some software.”
“If our programs can do half of what we think they can, we won’t have to explain anything to anyone.”
Our first jobs were simple, writing programs that could organize complex hierarchies to anticipate where trendlines were going, then make forecasts based on those trendlines. Our clients used them to automate their accounting. After a year our largest client dissolved their entire department and started using our software to make complex financial decisions about the direction of their company.
As the results kept piling up, it was clear our machines delivered predictive results more accurate than any given CEO in his stride. We were working on a new program that would automate shipping departments when a man walked through our door who would change our lives.
The first thing I noticed about Philip Lodus was his sad eyes. Lots of people have sad eyes, but Lodus possessed a perpetual smile, like a mashup of the Sock and Buskin.
“I understand you’ve had many offers to purchase Pentacle, can I ask why you’ve never taken them?”
“Autonomy is a priceless commodity.”
The way you said this, with full assurance of yourself, no ego, just a statement of fact, to a man as revered and powerful as Philip Lodus, and had no fear in your voice, like we were on his same level, maybe higher, as there was nothing he could offer us that we wanted… It reminded me why I married you.
“Indeed it is. But I have a feeling there’s something you desire that’s more important than autonomy.”
We looked at each other, puzzled.
“I read your Pansophy paper. Extremely compelling, albeit unproven. What would you say if I could give you the opportunity to test your theory?”
“That would require a quantum computer,” I laughed.
“It would,” Lodus said, melting the perma-smile.
I slept for three days after our return from Northumbria. I don’t remember your face, but I know you were there, bringing food to me, lying next to me, opening the windows, dust motes floating through a late afternoon shaft of light through a window in our bedroom. Our engineers left us alone for three weeks after Jackie died, but eventually you had to show your face at work. I waited until I was sure you had pulled out of the driveway, were gone for long enough to not have come back to grab something you forgot, then I went into the basement. I found a pipe sturdy enough to hold my weight, tied one end of a shank knot to the pipe and the noose end around my neck.
I was already dead, I had not yet been born.
I could feel someone with me. Or some…thing. We communed.
“What do you want?” it expressed.
“I want to die.”
“Death is not a static force. It’s mate is life. To serve one is to serve the other.”
“Know when to live. Know when to die. When to create. When to destroy.”
“Life is not a spear jutting through time. Exploding, contracting.”
“Why should I try? Shouldn’t I just sit in my bed and watch cartoons and get high until I die?”
“To invite entropy is to acquire confluence.”
“I am not a servant then, I am a prisoner.”
“Is a fish a prisoner of the oceans?”
I see the entirety of human existence splayed out before me. In a desert at dusk, a line of women, shoulder to shoulder, disappear into the horizon on either side. The past sunsets behind them, into the darkness of the future, they walk, silently. Behind them a storm of men, mouths frothed, stalks. The women run faster into the black unknown. They are captured, raped. The men scatter in all directions. Some of the women lift themselves from the ground. Some crawl. Many are dead. All who remain are wailing, bleeding, walking toward the darkness.
Over time their wounds heal, many walk with a limp for the rest of their days, they all wear sorrow like heavy sacks around their shoulders. Some bellies grow big. More wailing. Babies come. The women carry the children until they are too big to carry. Like a nightmare, the men return, this time with sharp sticks, absconding with all the male children. The howling of the women stains the darkness.
Only the female children remain to walk alongside the women. Soon the women are old, all of them limping, gray, sagging. The children are not children anymore, they are grown. The old women fall and turn to dust. The grown women take their place, the walkers into the endless night. They have learned to run faster. But so have their stolen brothers.
— Chris Heavener was born and raised in Central Florida. Published in PANK, elimae and JMWW. He lives in Durham, NC with his wife and kids.