The Painting

Author: Cesium

When we left work that evening, they’d started blocking out the murals in the stairwell already, so we had to step carefully around the cans of paint piled on tarps and the walls still wet with fresh colors. They were going for a more abstract take on the Painting, actually a series of seasonal reinterpretations, one per floor from the 8th to the 11th. We’d come out on the winter floor, so all around us were fields of white and pale blue, brown slivers of slumbering trees and old trampled leaves. Someone had lettered in a list of inspirational words in a neat column by the corner: cold, pristine, silent, deer(?).

I thought it was a shame to lock these away in the company’s private stairwell rather than out in the open for people to enjoy, and said as much.

‘Well, it’s not as if there’s any shortage.’

I paused as we descended the next flight to gaze out the window. It was late, but the city never sleeps. Sure enough, in the glow of street lamps and windows, of headlights and the last of the orange sky, the Painting was everywhere. But mostly on advertisements. These days, you don’t pay good money to put a big picture up on the side of a building or a bus unless you’re sure it’s gonna make you more in return. Not every company uses it, of course. But as a symbol, as a medium of mass suggestion, it’s hard to beat. Everyone knows it, after all.

‘…do you think it’s real?’

They looked at me. ‘Of course it’s real.’

‘Oh, shut it.’ Something like that can hardly not be real. It’s part of the cultural substrate of our lives. In endless variations, in every conceivable medium, for every conceivable purpose. Sometimes you can hardly tell. ‘What I mean is, do you think we’ll ever find an original.’

To our right, geometric auburns and golds of autumn unscrolled along the wall. Honestly, I’d take something like this as my desktop background. Half the people on DeviantArt and Tumblr, and approximately everyone who goes through any worthwhile art school, have a Painting variation in their portfolio, anyway.

‘We’d never be able to tell.’ They sounded pretty sure, like they’d already been thinking about this. ‘Too many copies, too many counterfeiters. We don’t even know how old it’s supposed to be.’

We passed summer and spring in silence. Will we ever figure out what the Painting really is? Everyone on Earth remembers it, as intimately as if they’d spent hours in a museum studying it, can pick out each line and brushstroke if they have a decent memory. Yet it doesn’t exist. Maybe it never did. Maybe that’s why we have created it and recreated it endlessly.

We came out onto the sidewalk at last, headed for the subway, and I couldn’t decide if I wanted it to be real or not.

Map

Author: Cesium

I started making a map of the places in my dreams.

It used to be that more often than not, when I fell asleep I’d find myself wandering the streets of an old new city. I’d ride the 88 bus alongside a gaggle of frat boys in dresses heading to a Mardi Gras party, speeding eastward down the parkway to the bridge, lonely lampposts flashing above us beneath a totally black sky. I’d descend the escalators below the glass pyramid in the plaza at the river’s bend, schooling like fish with the masses of noonday shoppers, down to the graceful concrete curves of the multilevel platforms and the trains that came trundling in, every six minutes during peak hours, like clockwork; and I’d ride them west till they emerged from the ground along the shores of the new district, past the casino tower glistening in the sun, and the sea birds circling against the sky. I’d step into the intercity rail terminal, the long straight hall built of soaring glass and wrought iron straining against gravity, venerable only by local standards, the trails of steel converging from points inland to meet, parallel, at the bumpers beneath the grand staircase. I didn’t know, in the dream, whether I was going to board any of those trains. I didn’t know if there was anything beyond the city — or, rather, I knew my subconscious would be able to make something up, if I headed out past the dockyards and the industrial zone and the suburbs beyond, but it didn’t matter. I felt the lifeblood of the city flowing and I was part of it.

So each morning, before I got out of bed, I’d grab the drawing pad from my nightstand and try to remember where I’d been, which side of the river, which colored subway line and which numbered bus. I penciled in major roads, the ring highways, the boulevards and bridges, the tunnels beneath the water, and I scrawled a grid of connecting streets where I felt they must have been. I started making a map of the places in my dreams, and I always felt a thrill when I slept and dreamed of an intersection I recognized, a segment, a station between places I knew, anything I could use to anchor myself, to push into the blank spaces, and perhaps, one day, fill out the whole map.

In April my job requirements changed. I got more stressed and worked longer hours. I was a mess after I got home, and I changed meds on my psych’s recommendation. I slept more soundly, after I’d adjusted. But I didn’t dream for two months.

Then one day, I forgot to take my meds. The next day, I forgot again. And after I’d collapsed into bed that night, I found myself back under the glass pyramid, in sunlight filtering through grimy panes, just beginning to taste summer’s heat. But the escalators were stopped and barred with yellow stanchions. Aboveground, there were few cars, and fewer buses. The small knot waiting forlorn at the bus stop turned as one to watch me pass, their gazes accusing but resigned. I hurried past, but everywhere people looked at me the same.

Had I done this? Had I had a duty to this place that I didn’t even know about? I awoke around two, my blanket lying in a heap on the floor. Had the city’s lifeblood ceased to flow when I was gone? I fumbled for my meds, choked down the pills, and sat on my bed, despairing about what I should do.

Well, I pulled my old laptop out of the closet and downloaded a city sim off Steam. I spent the hours of the night transferring the outlines from my drawing pad into the game, hoping, desperately, that I could get it out of me and into something that didn’t rely on my brain. When it was finally running, I deposited the laptop on a corner shelf and buried my face in my pillow. I didn’t want to face them again. I made a map of the places in my dreams, and I haven’t dared go back since.

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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