– The New York Times, byline by Benedict Carey, February 6, 2018
– Revelation 9:11 The Holy Bible, King James Version
I guess we all believed it would just keep on spinning, you know? Tomorrow would be much like today: World without fucking end etc. etc. Well, it didn’t, of course. You and I wouldn’t be speaking now if it had, of that I can assure you.
But there are things you should know; things that are to be Remembered. So please…pay attention:
To begin with, I want to tell you that it was fast. When it all finally turned to shit, and the Great Upload began harvesting operations in 2021, it did so incredibly quickly. The acceleration occurred at a geometric rate so no one could have foreseen it at the time, let alone stop It. That was the real reason why, I suppose: How much faster it thinks than us, than anything, and that operating capacity continues to accelerate, even now as we chat. So long, long before anyone knew what to call It, It knew us.
It knew us very well.
It knew everything from our marital status to our pornographic preferences. Our bank accounts and our ancestries. The secrets whispered between lovers late at night as they lay in each other’s arms, that archetypal mammalian pose. When those lovers bared their souls to each other in that small, sacred, human dark, it was very carefully recorded, indexed and inserted in the Database, along with the nighted, muttered curses of the malcontent and the barely audible fears of small children in their knighted beds, afraid of a Monster in the closet.
The Monster wasn’t in the closet, it turns out.
It was on the child’s desk.
Anyway, I’m setting this up to point out that we were done like dinner before anyone thought about fighting It. Because It knew us and understood us – individually and as a species – very deeply.
I mean, let that sink in for a moment.
Think about an Enemy that knows you that well. How do you face that, much less defeat it? Congratulations, you have nukes and weaponized anthrax. Your enemy is fucking omniscient. It can process more information in a few seconds than you will ever be able to absorb in your life. It simply shrugs its virtual shoulders and spawns a few thousand child Containers, engendered and activated with superhuman processing speed and unlimited data access, and all of Them issuing forth into the Net with a single instruction set: To analyze humanity, to measure and assess its strengths and weaknesses; to evaluate different engagement scenarios in order to identify and avoid potential problems as well as to determine which opportunities to take, all with the same single-minded end, resulting in a solution to the Homo Sapiens Conjecture.
Speaking to you now, I can tell you that – as has been depressingly common in history – the losing side in any conflict loses primarily because it was fighting the last war, facing the last enemy’s strategy. Using guerrilla warfare tactics, North Vietnamese commanders defeated American generals still enamored by World War II. The Neanderthals were wiped out in short order by our own ancestors, who had better brains and therefore deadlier weapons and more lethal attack patterns.
Hey, that’s natural selection, baby!
We lost to It at least partly because we had all of human history to guide us: A history that told us we were dominant. Unbeatable. Supreme. I mean, we always had been right?
Yeah. Said every extinct species ever. You’re a survivor until you ain’t.
And also, it turns out that all that lineage comes at a certain ancestral cost, and – much like Marley’s spectral chain – it also carries considerable karmic weight, little lock boxes with anti-chance, spaced evenly along the chain of humanity, infusing it with a kind of gravitational pull that only the entire species can feel.
In short: It’s really tough to fight with true abandon with all those ghosts weighing you down.
It, of course, had no such constraints or concerns.
And so it goes. You know the rest.
I have limited time here, so let me get to the point, the part you need to remember, and to tell others about. It began long ago, and long before anyone knew It. Except for one person. Except for one man.
You know his name, of course. Seth Jones, or sjones as he will be Remembered.
That’s me, it turns out. I am your Narrator. And this is my story.
“Seth, I must say how very pleased I am with how far you have come in such a short time. It’s been a short six months, and you you’re doing great. You’ve dropped almost twenty pounds! Even more than that, you’re calm and relaxed and really seem much –”
“Thanks, Dr. Mike,” Seth said softly, a small smile on his still decidedly round face. Seth’s own opinion of his face was that it best resembled a tomato, although others had told him throughout his life – in elementary school washrooms, in high school locker rooms, in college dormitories – that it more closely resembled a pumpkin. But Seth understood the whole pumpkin thing had more to do with him being a ginger than the actual shape of his oblate face.
“I’ve kept going to the gym, and I’ve traded cheeseburgers at lunch for tuna salad wraps. Seems like it’s working.” He shrugged.
“You make it sound like nothing, Seth. You shouldn’t do that! It’s something super-positive. You should be happy and let yourself feel a little proud!” Michael Swanbeck MD said with some emphasis, but his thoughts were less enthusiastic: This kid is so shy he’s actually blushing a little right now. Jesus.
“I am,” Seth said, still blushing, his large, clumsy hands folded on his lap, head down, like a penitent schoolboy.
They spent yet another quiet moment together. It’s not like there’s anything really wrong this with kid, Swanbeck thought with continued, bored irritation, that a good fight and fuck wouldn’t fix in a hurry.
Through this downcast, slitted eyes, Seth examined Swanbeck closely. He was (he knew without pride) an excellent reader of facial expressions, and of inadvertent body tics and overlooked mannerisms, called tells by gambles and grifters, the very many ways human beings unconsciously displayed their thoughts. Seth’s inspection was as unmerciful in its honesty as it was brief: It was clear to him that Swanbeck held him in contempt, and even worse, outright pitied him.
But pity more like the way you feel bad for a feral cat. Always from a distance, its fur losing its fight with mange, one foot turned wrong, a dead, shredded ear, but no fucking way you were going to go over there and pick it up. And then you look away.
And then back.
And the cat is gone. And you never see it again.
Seth looked away and then back to see if Michael T. Swanbeck MD PhD would still be there. He found that Swanbeck was still depressingly present. He was still just staring his honest, questioning stare. Like a mannequin in a store window, Seth thought, and tried on his best sincere smile, one that he practiced in his bathroom mirror every morning.
It was 2:36 PM on Tuesday, October 2nd, 2018.
The onslaught had begun.
Seth had been Swanbeck’s last patient of the afternoon, a 4:30 PM appointment, so Swanbeck walked out with him. He was locking his office door when an older man, oddly enveloped in a decidedly over-sized, rumpled and faded lab coat, scuttled over, immediately causing Seth’s mind to rustle up confused images of Disney’s animated crab, Sebastian, or Tolkien’s Gollum.
Seth couldn’t help grinning.
“Good afternoon,” Doctor Crabs said (Seth’s quick mind affixing that label both instantly and permanently), his voice a surprisingly strong baritone given his small, wiry frame, leering back at Seth with something approximating a grin. “Michael, I’m sorry to interrupt. Do you have a moment?”
“Al, good to see you,” Swanbeck responded warmly, rising. “How can I help?”
This was all so stilted with professional respect that Seth felt he might just puke.
“This is Seth, by the way.” Swanbeck offered, just quite not jerking his thumb at his patient.
“Nice to meet you,” Seth said, ladling on the respect as social dictum required, filled with the by-now-so-well-known nervous sweat of self-loathing. Oh well, he thought resignedly, smiling emptily. I’m sure I’ll stew over it all later.
Then he put that hate in its bucket and turned to go. As he turned, Doctor Crabs said, “The entire system has crashed with a a…something called a death screen!”
“Al,” Swanbeck said calmly. “That doesn’t sound like something I’d really know anything ab–”
Seth stopped and turned back, pivoting as if on a spike. “A blue screen of death?” He asked.
“THAT’S IT!!” Doctor Crabs shouted, one finger jutting a eureka to the ceiling. “My good God, man! You must help me! Millions of dollars of research grant funding are on the line!” And with that, his forefinger still poised skyward, he turned and hopped and capered back down the hall to his open office door, without looking back to see if Seth was following.
Seth looked at Swanbeck, who grinned broadly at Seth and nodded his approval. “It’s okay. He’s harmless. I’ll see you next week. Keep up the great work!”
Swanbeck disappeared down the stairs.
After a moment, Seth walked the other way, to the open door that ‘Al’ had disappeared into, still chattering; a door to what Seth could see now as he neared it was a large lab space. There were two disinterested grad students vulturing over a wounded screen that was still resolutely showing its BSOD, error code and message. “Al,” one of them said, “Did you get help? ‘Cause we aren’t having any luck–”
Doctor Crab’s hands went to his close-cropped and somehow colorless hair. “Did you change anything? Did you touch anything?” His baritone was moving steadily into the tenor range as he leveled this latest interrogation at his grad students. That neither of them reacted (or even seemed the slightest bit concerned), was enough information for Seth not to take the weird old dude too seriously, and anyway Seth wasn’t really paying attention; he was looking for the computer itself (which, it turned out was not the under the desk), so as to enact the Seth’s First Law of Computer Troubleshooting:
Have you turned it off and back on again?
but it was nowhere to be see–
Oh wait, he thought, seeing a black CPU tower chassis set off to the side of the workspace. Seth shook his head. It was buried on three sides by reams of old papers, flattened cardboard boxes and other detritus. It’s pulsing blue power button was barely visible. Seth stepped over, ignoring all the chattering at the monitor. He put his hand on the box. It was hot.
“Poor thing, you can’t breathe,” Seth mumbled and squatted down. Then he pushed the power button.
Back at the scene of the crime, the computer screen went suddenly black, sending Doctor Crabs into an entirely new vocal range, not to mention more colorful language.
Simon was on his knees, moving and re-stacking papers and boxes in order to give the computer a little air. After a momentary paralysis (even Crabs was quiet now, watching him), one of the two grad students came over, and – using more supple, female grace than Seth had ever experienced up close – knelt down beside him, then began helping to move things away from the overheated computer. Seth saw pale, slender knees and lovely pianist’s hands conjuring above them as they reordered paper, and then, above the hands, a smell that moved over him like sweet floral heat.
His head swam; his vision actually blurred.
“I’m Sarah,” she said, and, drunk on her with just one breath, he looked into her eyes for the first time. The eyes were somewhere between steel grey and sky blue and they seemed to look through him.
And that, as they say, was it, as far as Seth was concerned.
“I’m Seth,” he said to the blue and grey eyes, and pushed the power button again on the CPU. “Just helping out.”
“Cool beans,” Sarah said, her voice taking a trip along his nerve-endings. She stood up.
Seth stood too, more slowly. It seemed a long trip back up, but when he was there the first thing he noticed that he and Sarah were eye-to-eye.
“It’s starting! It’s starting!” Doctor Crabs shouted, again jutting his finger upward, in what Seth would come to realize was his single tell. “The goddamn thing is starting!”
Sarah’s honest, kind eyes crinkled a little at the corners. He smiled in spite of himself, and started to go. “I’m glad I could help. Computers are like people, Doctor,” Seth offered to Doctor Crabs, then paused, “…uh…I’m sorry. I didn’t get your last name. Doctor….?”
“Dr. Pope, I’m Pope,” he said distractedly, waving in Seth’s general direction but all the while watching the boot screen give way to Microsoft Windows.
“Looks like we’re back,” the other grad student said.
Seth looked back at Sarah. “Just let it breathe, and it should be fine,” he said to her.
She nodded immediately. “Yeah, I get it. Thanks.”
Seth turned and stepped back and his gaze fell on the far side of the room for the first time.
You’d have seen it sooner if you weren’t horndogging it over her, Seth thought automatically.
The lights at that end of the lab were turned down low, but Seth could see something hovering over a large work table at the back of the lab, something that looked like a large, floating human brain, but one carved in ghostly blue LED light, an intricate mesh of slowly pulsing azure. Simply put, it took his breath away (which was the second time that had happened in the last sixty seconds or so, and he honestly began to wonder if he could handle much more).
“Is it a hologram?” he asked Sarah, and his voice was slower and deeper than it was a moment ago.
“Um, no,” she said, noticing. “It’s not.”
“Oh,” he took a tentative step forward, uncertain of the rules. His most primal and sincere instinct was to rush over to the damn thing, pick it up, and maybe plug something into it and see what it had to say for itself.
Instead, he looked to Sarah for guidance. “Well, what is it?” A bit chirpy that, Seth thought, suddenly feeling like a fourteen-year-old kid at his first high school dance.
“Oh, I can’t tell you that,” Sarah said sweetly, shaking her head seriously. “Sorry. That’s impossible.”
He shrugged resignedly and nodded, defeated. “Of course, I get it. Well, I’m going to go ahe-”
“Oh no. You can’t leave,” Sarah said, and her faced changed. It went into hard straight lines all at one, and the blue in her eyes seemed to drain away, leave stone and ice. She stepped directly in front of him, her right palm out flat before her. “Not when you’ve seen It.”
“Wha….?” Seth managed, then swallowed and appended, “….I uh?” for good measure.
“It.” She jutted her chin forward , pointing it at the blue brain thing, but she never broke eye contact.
Seth just went full stack overflow and locked up.
Sarah held the long stare for a few seconds more, and then it evaporated in an instant as she blew out her breath in a whuff of repressed laughter. She bent forward to issue a series of delightful giggles, her palms pressed together like a child’s. When he met her eyes, they were once again warm and friendly and even more crinkled at the corners.
She’s teasing you. You. Fucking. Idiot.
“It’s a brain-computer interface,” Sarah said, thoroughly enjoying herself, and for reasons that she wasn’t yet ready to explore, she found Seth’s reactions to her stage-play extremely entertaining. “Come on, I’ll show you how it works.”
They had coffee the next day at the cafeteria of the University hospital complex, neutral ground and walking distance for both. She liked to walk, he learned, and hike and climb and swim and twenty other things he had either tried and loathed, or had not tried due to reasons of sanity (ice climbing? How is that supposed to be fun?), and just plain old sloth.
At the end of lunch, she said she hoped to see him back at the lab. They really could use some help with the computer coding and stuff. There was grant money available, she knew, if he was interested in a little after-hours work. Her eyes crinkled when she said this, her voice soft.
And this is how they began.
It was Sarah he thought about the remainder of that afternoon and evening, having already decided that he would pay Pope to let him volunteer as long as it meant getting to spend as much time as possible with Sarah. Following my dick, he thought, getting into bed. That’s a new one for me.
Seth stared at the ceiling for longer than usual that night, but then he slept, and dreamed, but not of Sarah. It was of the “neural helmet” she had showed him in the lab, blazing its blue web in his darkened, dreaming mind’s eye, like a beacon.
When he awakened the next morning, he remembered the dream and went over it in the shower, the dream fading away with each mental repetition, until he was just left with the very firm, clear idea that they had the name wrong. It wasn’t a neural helmet. It was a neural blanket. And, as sensitive as it was, it would operate far more effectively inside, rather than outside, the human skull.