Child of Earth

Author : Cesium

By the late 21st century, nanotechnology had advanced to the point where it could not only synthesize almost anything given the right elemental feedstock, but also digitize a human brain and store the mind in a virtual simulation. Concurrently, rising sea levels and increasing temperatures reduced the amount of arable land until innovations in farming efficiency could no longer keep up with population growth, while the increasing scarcity of fossil fuels and the commercial failure of wind and nuclear took a toll on the world’s industrial base. Most of the affluent citizens of Earth still lived comfortable lives, at least, but it was clear that wouldn’t last.

Thus, at the last physical meeting of the United Nations, it was decided that nearly every living human was to be digitized, by force if necessary, and uploaded to a network of computers buried deep in the ground. The mandate was not popular, and many chose to take their own lives rather than submit. After fierce debate, some indigenous tribes of the Arctic and deep Amazon, the Australian outback and Asian steppe, were allowed to stay outside and live sustainably as they had for thousands of years. But eventually, they were alone on the planet.

So the children of Earth slept. Running quietly on radioisotopes and geothermal power, maintained by self-replicating swarms of intelligent nanobots, the underground datacenters could last almost forever. Outside, the grass grew wild, the rivers ran clear, and all else that people had built began its slow crumble into dust.

But deep down, the collective subconscious of humanity knew it was still vulnerable, and was afraid. Though it had saved itself from self-wrought destruction for now, it could still lose any of its constituent nodes to malfunction, earthquake, meteor strike. All it could do was make sure there were as many as possible — and not just on one planet. Unnoticed by each individual human mind, but contributed to by all, the mind of the human race considered the problem. Outside, the nanobots set to work.

A few rockets blasted up from the surface, but only as many as necessary to seed Earth’s orbit with nanobots. They dispersed then, mining resources from the moon and capturing asteroids to consume. Countless tiny spaceships began to take shape floating above the planet, each one barely big enough to hold a seed of nanobots and a computer containing a fraction of the virtual world of humanity, randomly modified for diversity.

When each craft was ready, it deployed a solar sail and lofted away from the sun toward a planet somewhere else in the galaxy. On arrival, decades and centuries later, the nanobots would burrow beneath the surface and construct a replica of the datacenters on Earth, the computer would transmit its data, and its payload would awaken. Immersed in another reality, it might be of no relevance to them that their substrate now orbited another star and was cut off by the speed of light from its mother network. But at least they would live on safe from any disaster that might wipe the Earth clean.

Some of the colonies would fail, of course, be destroyed in transit or find inhospitable conditions at their destination. Was it wrong to let a copy of a human die, who had never really lived? Maybe. But there was no one else around to judge, in any case.

On some worlds the colonies found life, and though the nanobots went about their work as quietly as possible, still they observed and recorded, with a few discreet microdust sensors and airborne drones here and there. No humans yet explored the surface in bodies robotic or biological. Maybe someday, when they could trust themselves not to disrupt the balance of nature here as well, but not yet. Still, the gathered data filtered its way into the computer’s simulated world, and grew in the colony’s collective unconscious.

The children of earth slept, and dreamt of wonderful things.

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Elevator

Author : Cesium

My office glows all night long,
It’s a nuclear show and the stars are gone.

Wind howls past my helmet and something unidentifiable crunches beneath my boots. Dust. It’s dust. It used to be other things, it used to be trees and windows and… and people, but now there’s no more use thinking about that. Now it’s all dust.

It’s odd seeing a bit of starlight peeking through the gray sky. My ship’s waiting for me up there. I imagine it impatient at this bit of sentimentality. It’s right, I suppose. The suit tells me I’ll soon exceed the maximum recommended radiation dose. Lest a cancer take its hold in my chest. Or, another one.

The suit also tells me it’s cold, but I can’t feel it.

If it were properly symbolic the starlight would be an inspiration. But there’s no one left down here for it to inspire. Not anymore. The stars just gaze, fey and oblivious, down through the dust in the sky, the dust swirling about the ground… and me, who will be dust soon enough, watching what’s left of the place I used to work, as if it would live once more.

It still stands, dozens of stories of steel and concrete, a cold-edged skeleton baring everything to the unceasing winds. The nuclear shockwaves blasted away everything but the bones, turned it all into dust. And it shines in my helmet display, shines with gamma rays and high-energy particles. Shines with residual radiation that could kill me, and still might. It’s not a hopeful light, it’s a light of grief and death without rest. The war is over and this place deserves to lie dark and silent beneath the stars.

I look up, but the dust has hidden them once again. There will be no rest, not for years yet.

I wasn’t here when the bombs fell. Those that could quickly fled deep into space, and I was among them. I have no reason to come back here now, but I want to say goodbye. Or that’s what I’ve told myself. The truth is I don’t know why I’ve come. I know I shouldn’t have, I know it’s dangerous. But somehow it felt as if I ought to.

Around me blow the bodies of people I knew and people I’ve never met. The wind whips them into dust devils, little eddies and swirls that stretch up for a second and then dissipate. They scour away at the bones of the buildings, still warm with their nuclear glow, and my presence or absence disturbs them not at all. Dust above, dust below, and my office before me, dead but not buried.

I don’t think about the day it happened, but I remember my life before. Her. Him. Faces I knew, some still alive, most gone. I remember loving them, avoiding them, arguing, laughing, traveling, playing, grieving, writing, enjoying. I can trace the threads of a life gone by, as if I were living it now. But I’m not. That life is over, and closed to me.

There is nothing left here but the radiation and my memories beneath perpetual grey. It’s time to leave the dust behind, leave the skeleton towers and the always howling wind, and go back to the stars. To the only haven I have now, to the others cast adrift by that moment in time. And maybe we will be able to talk, and share, and laugh. About all that we’ve lost.

I turn away and step into the shuttle that will bring me away from this place.

Elevator, elevator,
Take me home…

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The City

Author : Cesium

It is only from one of the higher towers, the myriad smaller buildings laid out below and higher ones gleaming in the distance, that the City’s infinitude truly becomes intuitively and not merely intellectually apparent.

But even in the mist of a cool morning, when only the closer bridges and skyscrapers loom nebulously out of the featureless white, the City’s sheer vastness is never far from one’s mind. The City has no limits in the horizontal; it is bounded below and above only by what current technology can delve from the ground and claim from the sky. It is immeasurably old and constantly evolving. It contains buildings, and indeed whole districts, of every conceivable purpose and architectural style, and no sooner is a new one invented than some aging, decrepit building is torn down to make room for its first exemplar.

The City is everywhere inhabited; its populace moves about on its daily business via a network of streets, walkways, and rail lines, irregularly distributed, intersecting interminably with more of the same. The system is of course impossible to diagram in full, though local maps are readily available. Many people find employment and contentment within a few miles of their birthplace; some travel great distances to settle in different regions of the City; the remainder are restless wherever they go. I count myself among the latter few.

Once in my youth, driven by the impetuous urge to prove wisdom mistaken and the City finite, I leapt onto the back of an emptied supply truck as it departed the local produce market. If any activity went on beyond the limits of the City, I reasoned, it would surely be agriculture. But the truck arrived finally at a vast complex of greenhouses and hydroponic farms, surrounded by the familiar yet unfamiliar skyline of some other part of the City, and, seeing no obvious openings for further exploration, I was forced to make my way home.

In the decades since, I have traveled uncounted distances across the face of the City. A few years ago I began to hear rumors of the Tower of Jorge, which called it variously a tourist destination, an ancient relic, or a pilgrimage site; its fame seemed to grow the closer my journey took me. This very morning I arrived in the square where it stands, a tall straight spire pointing upward at the heavens, and climbed the winding stair to its top.

An inscription there defines the Tower to be the center of the City. The claim is absurd; the infinite has no center, or equivalently, every point is the center. But soon the chaotic sweep of the City all around me began to make a sort of sense; I seemed to perceive the avenues emanating from the square below, the districts arranged radially, disguised though they were by centuries of construction and demolition. In that instant I could believe that the City had started here. And if it had a beginning then perhaps it is not endless after all.

This is all I have discovered, for I have not managed to recapture that momentary revelation. I leave this note here in the hope that it will reach someone younger and better equipped than I to explore the mysteries of the City. I plan now to follow as far as I can the direction of one of the hidden avenues; perhaps I shall find its end in a location as distinguished as this one from the rest of the City. More likely I will die still unfulfilled. The City will continue, eternal and indifferent.

 

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Coup

Author : Cesium

Andelie stands atop the Fisher Building, gazing across miles of open air at the Monolith. It is formally the Colonial Administrative Headquarters, but it is always called the Monolith. Its imposing black form towers over the rest of the city. Fisher is the only building that comes close.

The Fisher Building is nominally the future corporate offices of Fisher Insurance, an immensely profitable and perfectly unremarkable corporation of which Andelie is also nominally an employee. It has risen story by story into the sky over the past decade. It is now only weeks from its official opening. Its unofficial opening will come significantly sooner.

Andelie adjusts her goggles, zooms in on the base of the tower. The motorcade is just pulling past lines of rippling flags into the entrance. They are later than she expected, but not behind schedule. The schedule is theirs. Andelie can afford to wait.

A scudding wisp of cloud obscures her sight for a moment. She looks away, touches a finger to her phone. The countdown starts.

Beneath her feet, illicit machinery moves into position. Industrial-grade fabbers complete the final stages of years of preparation. Surplus construction materials left deliberately unrecycled in the basements are covertly loaded onto high-speed lifts.

Careful deceptions and generous bribes have kept the Fisher Building’s true purpose hidden since its inception. The Monolith is well defended against terrorist attacks and armed siege alike. To decapitate the irredeemably corrupt government in an appropriately spectacular fashion requires a more innovative approach.

The clock ticks down to zero.

Down the face of the building, windows lift open and retract. Rail cannons extend, locking into position. The first salvo comprises kinetic and incendiary shells, fabricated from innocuous raw materials. Wind speeds and atmospheric conditions are known; angles and tolerances have been calculated precisely. Andelie watches the guns fire, perfectly synchronized.

The side of the Monolith bursts into plumes of dust and flame. Automatic turrets are already returning fire, but the Fisher Building’s active and passive defenses, which are overengineered for mere earthquakes and storms, adequately shield it. The architects of the Monolith, however, did not anticipate that it might face a skyscraper bristling with hostile guns.

Flying drones approach, but veer away before coming into range. The automated safeguards against colliding with tall structures are hardcoded even into military aircraft. They can be overridden, but it will take time.

The second salvo of explosive rounds shatters the weakened skeleton of the lower floors. The Monolith sways, bleeding acrid smoke, then collapses in on itself with an elegant rapidity. A cloud of dust enfolds its base and blossoms out through the city.

Just like that, it’s over. Time has run out.

The ultimatum to the armed forces, Andelie knows, has already been broadcast. She does not expect significant resistance. The weapon she stands upon should be intimidation enough. “Good work,” she says into her phone. A new age has begun, she thinks.

A stiff breeze ruffles her clothes and exposes the ruined stump of the Monolith. It was the Colonial Administrative Headquarters, but now it is only the grave of the old regime. The Fisher Building’s imposing silver form towers over the rest of the city. No other building comes close.

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Paradigm Shift

Author : Cesium

Professor Sean Katz walked into his lab the next morning, and Katherine was waiting for him.

“So, how did the trials go?”

“You'd better come see for yourself.”

He glanced up from his Blackberry. She looked as calm as usual, but there was a tinge of worry in her voice. He followed her down the corridor, brilliant sunshine streaming through the windows on one side, graphs and xkcd posters plastering the wall on the other. They turned a corner, and Sean stopped short.

The lab's very expensive new electron microscope was blackened and charred, and emitting a thin trickle of smoke which was slowly drifting toward the ceiling.

“Dr. Ko reported a breakthrough at around 3:30 last night –”

Sean's sense of doom was suddenly offset by indignation. “3:30? How late were you up?” He noted the discarded cans of Mountain Dew spilling out of the recycle bin.

“She insisted, after reading the report for herself…” Katherine looked apologetic.

“And this?”

“So after my apparent success, I decided to examine the atomic structure of the spoon… and, well, not only did Aristotle not believe in atoms, he didn't know about electrons, or electricity. He would have described them as little bits of fire, I suppose. Hence…” Dr. Ko waved helplessly in the direction of the wrecked machine.

Sean suddenly felt dizzy, and he leaned against the counter. “It actually worked.” He looked around at the other two. “We can change the laws of physics at will. No, more than that. We determine the laws of physics by studying them. God, the effectiveness of mathematics in explaining the universe is probably just because we expect physical laws to be mathematical in nature, so they are.”

“We can control matter by thinking about it,” offered Katherine. “Magic.”

“Exactly.”

They looked at each other for a while; at the microscope, symbol of a paradigm that now seemed so limited; at the spoon, which was apparently currently composed of mostly earth, with some fire and water and air.

“Well, you know what we have to do now,” said Dr. Ko.

They performed further experiments and tests, and once they were sufficiently convinced of their results, the manuscript was submitted to Nature.

Katherine walked into Sean's office. “How are you feeling?”

“A bit nervous. Once this thing hits peer review, news will spread, and every scientist on the planet's going to want to test it for themselves.”

“You know, something occurred to me. When Newton and his contemporaries started trying to explain the world through mathematics, the spread of the Enlightenment probably changed it into a form that could be understood that way. That might explain why reports of supernatural sightings and miracles have decreased since then.”

“Hmm. That could –” Sean stopped. If the efforts of relatively few scientists over centuries could change the way the entire universe worked… and just about now, every scientist hearing the news would be trying it with their own favorite discredited scientific paradigms, which were probably incompatible and almost certainly dangerous. The charred hulk in the corner of one of their rooms was testament to that. He reached for his keyboard, intending to compose an urgent email.

But it was too late.

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