City of One
By Damien Krsteski
Clasped around the City like two halves of a coconut. No way in. No way out.
“Does it have to be like this?” Bertrand shouts from the ground at their cirrus-enveloped features.
A curt alligator nod, after a perceptible bit of lag. “Of course. You're a hazard.” The two reptilian heads look down from a hole in the City’s ominous orange sky.
Bertrand has to sway them somehow. He prepares a thought for them: >
He sends it.
Brief lag, then one of the alligators shakes his head. “Verbal communication only.”
Bertrand sighs. “How do we proceed from here on out?”
Pause. “We will investigate, leave no stone unturned. Once our analysis is done, we'll weed out the problem and allow your City to transmit and receive again.”
A desert gust whips at Bertrand's hair. He considers the situation. Under revision of the authorities, with the possibility of a never-ending quarantine unless he cooperates. Trapped, with no way in, no way out.
He closes his eyes, reaches into the City's config to modify the permissions file.
The two alligators receive their automatic notifications. Blood-thirsty grins spread on the snouts in the sky. “We begin at once.”
And their cloudy window into Bertrand's City closes, leaving behind a spotless orange sky.
Crossing into Mathilde's personal space takes courage Bertrand isn't always capable of mustering, but desperate times call for desperate measures. He raps twice on her portal – a wooden gate smack in the middle of no man's land, the place where the City's corrupt memory goes to die.
A yellow line appears, a glimpse into her world, as she opens the door just a tiny bit.
Peeking through it with an eyeball on a stalk. “What do you want?”
“Help,” he says.
The eyeball looks around, sees him alone. She considers, then swings the door open, light pouring out of it into the blank data graveyard. In the doorframe, a shadowy figure, stalks snaking out of her gray head, eyeballs at their tips.
Bertrand steps inside.
The room she welcomes him in is made of light, pure white light, but then Bertrand's sight adapts to it and the shapes of vegetation come into focus. Arrayed in clay pots, with fronds like Mathilde's eyestalks, the purple flowers blink at him.
“Like my garden?”
His eyes search for a place where the gazing flora can't meet them. “It's wonderful.”
Mathilde approaches a particularly lively plant. In a quick motion with her gardening scissors she snips off a thorny branch, leaving it to fall to the ground, the eye at its tip no longer blinking. “What do you need help with?”
He watches the dead branch go from purple to black. “Bureaucrats in orbit are claiming we're a memetic hazard.” He sends: >
“Yikes,” she says. Her eyestalks swirl around her head, looking in all directions as if the bureaucrats could be sneaking behind a plant. Turning to face him, “What kind of hazard?”
“Life-threatening memes. Non-removable by conventional mind cuts.”
Shuddering, not in any overtly discernible way, but Bertrand knows her well enough to recognize it. “Life-threatening? From here?”
“Yeah. They had found traces of one of our citizens in Williamsburg, a new City two hundred and thirty light years away.”
“What happened?” She drops her scissors, folds her arms.
“She had caused quite a scare there. Three people close to her had committed suicide. Just up and terminated themselves, backups and all.”
“Holy crap.” Mathilde gasps, her eyestalks stretching out in an atavistic defensive reaction. The purple flower-monsters around her do the same. Whether they understand, or simply are mimicking her, Bertrand doesn't know.
“Frightening stuff,” he says.
“Do you know who it was?”
He shrugs. “She had left Williamsburg before they figured it all out so she’s in another City by now, or in transit. Could be anyone.”
“How can they be sure of her origin? Those things can be faked, she might be from who knows—”
“There’s no shred of doubt,” he cuts her off, “that she is from here. She had been either very clumsy, or nonchalant, discussing her origin on several occasions with random citizens.”
Contemplating the situation with a frown on her face, tapping her foot. “But there are blockages,” she says, “prevention mechanisms. Citizens don’t just commit suicide like that. It’s so… barbaric.”
He watches her deliberate, mentally crossing his fingers. After a moment of tension she exhales loudly. “Okay,” she says, sending: >
Bertrand smiles. “Thank you,” he says.
A fishing rod swung over her shoulder, bucket of worms hanging from her hand, she walks beside him across the desert, toward his hut.
Tilting her head back, examining the sky. “What is it with you and orange?”
“Strong color,” he says. “Sooths me.”
Baked earth cracks beneath their step. “So,” he says, “this your scanning equipment?” Meaning her fishing rod and bait.
A sidelong glance. “Last time I was your guest your corner of the City was a lagoon. Great piranhas. Very tasty.”
“Sorry,” he says, meaning it.
She shakes her head, as if shaking off a creeping bit of nostalgia, then in one deft motion launches the rod and bucket of worms up in the air. With a pop, they vanish. “So am I,” she says.
In the distance, a thin reddish horizon separates the two shades of orange representing ground and sky. Sometimes, when Bertrand squints, he can't tell which is which.
His hut begins resolving late in the afternoon as it always does, in the middle of the desert, appearing to his visitors only after they've walked long enough to find it. Made out of dark orange baked earth, with a roof of broken branches tied together with brittle rope, the hut looks big enough to be comfortable for one person only, provided that person's stay is brief. Standing before it, Mathilde shoots another of her sidelong glances at him.
“Don't worry,” he says, gesturing toward the straw door. “Much bigger on the inside.”
She crouches to enter, her eyestalks flattening against her back, and once inside, she sees that he's right, that it does seem wider this side of the entrance. They sit down opposite each other on a wooden table. Bertrand gives her City permissions.
“Mmmm,” she says, all eyes snapping shut. “How do you not enjoy this delicious power?”
“Gotten used to it.”
A blissful smile on her face when she opens some of her eyes. She shivers, the eyestalks rattling.
Bertrand bows his head a bit. “Will you please?”
“One second.” She takes a slow, deep breath, savoring the momentary Superuser privileges given to her. Dropping the smile, she says, “All right, Berty, let's see what everyone's been up to.” And she's gone, mind somersaulting through the City's logs, boring in those rotting heaps of memory no one but her can handle, inspecting the software for fishy traffic, for anything out of the ordinary.
Bertrand sees a blank face before him, as if carved out of marble, unmoving, while she works at speeds no citizen can match. He gets up, pours two cups of tea from a copper kettle which holds a never-ending supply of hot water. It's been years since he's had visitors. She is probably the first since he's remodeled the place, made the change from lagoon to desert, hedonistic wonderland to ascetic temple. Blowing at his tea, he sits himself back across the Mathilde-shaped marble sculpture, wondering which part of the City's software she might be diving into now. A rare gift, that is. To take the data plunge without drowning.
Color comes back into the marble. She opens her eyes. Slowly.
“Not a lot of traffic.” She picks up the cup of tea Bertrand placed before her. “In fact, only one person has left the City the past thousand years.”
Taking a sip of her tea. “According to the census all citizens are still here, so someone’s Copy.”
“I presume you checked whose.”
She nods. “I tried. No data. Incognito.”
Bertrand smiles despite himself. “You know what that means?”
Her face is marble-like again. She's dead serious. “Our Patient Zero is a Superuser.”
He finishes his tea in one gulp. “Look on the bright side,” he grins. “This really narrows our search down.”
He reaches out, takes her power away.
Sitting cross-legged on cracked earth, looking up at the sky. “Have you contacted any of the other Superusers?”
That lag again, presumably while they process Bertrand's words for hazardous attachments. “No,” says the alligator on the left, wearing a black turtleneck. “When we first queried the City, your name was on top of the contact list. Alphabetically ordered.”
“Good,” says Bertrand. “There are four of us. I’ll discuss the matter of the Copy with each of the other three individually.”
The one on the right scratches his jaw with a claw. He nods.
“How are things going on your end?” says Bertrand.
A pause, then two grimaces which are meant to be smiles. “We are taking a different approach.” The one on the left. “Not so interested in the who but more in the how.”
Bertrand sighs. “Of course it is.”
A bit of lag, then the alligator on the right says, “How familiar are you with your City's history?”
“Quite a bit, I suppose,” says Bertrand, shrugging, “considering I'm part of the older generations.”
“But not the first, am I right?” Scratching his jaw again.
“No,” says Bertrand. “Not the first.”
A flicker in their window, as if they've cut out a part of the transmission. The two heads look at each other, briefly. “What do you know about the first generation of citizens?”
“Only what they’ve chosen to share.” Bertrand thinks, tries to remember, his mind accessing unused pathways. “The City’s readme contains their notes.”
They nod. “We've seen the readme. Says the first generation founded this City by diverging from a bigger settlement. Took a bit of nanotech and launched it into space, regardless of direction. Do you know more, Bertrand?”
“I don't.” He shakes his head. “Why do you want to know? How's this relevant?”
Flicker. A cut out. “Thank you,” says black turtleneck. “That's all we wanted to know.”
“What did the bastards say?” Mathilde stands next to the kitchen sink, drinking tea.
He sends her a brief thought, summarizing his conversation with the bureaucrats.
“Huh?” She frowns behind the tea cup. “Why the heck they care about our history?”
“Weird, isn’t it?” Bertrand rummages through a closet in the far side of the hut. He pulls out a brown cowhide hip flask, unscrews the lid and takes a sip. He shudders.
“Something to keep us warm. Come on, we're leaving.”
Mathilde sets the empty tea cup in the sink. “Actually, I’d rather get back to—”
“Please,” he says. “Don’t let me face the other Superusers alone.”
“But you’re such a fun bunch.”
He offers her his hand. “Please?”
Arms folded, her dozen eyebrows raised. “Who are we seeing first?”
“I figured we better start with the oldest. The bear.”
“Oh, goodie,” she says, sounding like she'd rather deal with the hazardous memes themselves. Sighing, rolling all her eyes, she accepts his hand.
The orangeness of the hut and the entire personal Bertrand-space dissolves, and for a moment the two of them are in no man's land, between the City's modules, but then a sudden cold snap clutches their bones and they find themselves in the middle of a snow storm.
“For fuck's sake.”
Bertrand extends his flask. She takes a sip.
“Well, we knew he wouldn't make it easy,” he says, tightening the hood of his newly-instantiated parka.
The curtain of snow between the two of them doesn’t prevent Bertrand from seeing her exasperated gray face. He points toward a patch of whiteness in the distance. “There,” he says. “Up the mountain. The bear cave.”
They climb up the steep slope, their boots digging into the layer of ice under the snow, meter by meter, helping each other up, as the wind becomes less forgiving. They take breaks behind frozen jagged cliffs when they can to sip from Bertrand's flask. It helps, though not much, in alleviating the pain in their exposed cheeks.
They endure the razor-sharp wind for several hours, their legs just about to give in, when Mathilde spots a grayish opening in the side of the mountain. She grips Bertrand's shoulder, pointing.
They enter the yawning cave, taking off their fur-lined hoods, finding themselves before a perfectly circular tunnel with no end in sight. The dim light from the entrance fades after several steps, and they rely on hearing, on the echoes of the clanking of their boots, for guidance through the twists and turns. The ground begins to vibrate. A low hum, almost imperceptible. It builds up into a buzz which becomes a roar. With the sound of stone grinding against stone, the bear says, “What do you two want?”
“Hello, Dasein,” says Bertrand, addressing the depth of the cave. “We need to talk.”
That grinding sound again, this time carrying no speech. A groan of frustration.
Bertrand and Mathilde wait in the middle of the mountain tunnel, expecting just about anything, even a strong wind to blow them out of the cave, but nothing happens, there's only silence.
Warm breath on their faces. “Hello,” he says.
Startled, they squint to make him out in the darkness but can't. Only his breathing, deep and slow, can be heard.
“Good morning, Dazzy,” says Mathilde. “It's a tad uncomfortable in the dark, you know I'm not used to it.”
A gruff chuckle. “Of course,” he says, and his silver fur sparkles with light coming from the deep end of the cave. The shape of a great bear standing on his hind legs resolves before them. Dasein yawns. “Now, what is it you two knuckleheads deemed important enough to wake me?”
Bertrand raises his hands in an apologetic gesture. “Bureaucrats are in orbit,” he says. “Quarantining us. Asking about our City’s early history.”
The bear grimaces, as if straining to recall something. “Bureaucrats?” He scratches his back, slowly, and just as he remembers he stops, his eyes widening. “They're here?” Enthusiasm in his voice. “They came?”
Bertrand and Mathilde exchange a brief glance. “You were expecting them?”
“I called for them,” says the bear. “Beamed out a Copy of myself. She must've finally come to their attention.” He laughs.
Mathilde looks at him, mouth agape. “Why the hell would you do that?”
Dasein drops to all four, turns the other way, starts walking toward the light. “Because we desperately need their help, that's why,” he says, suddenly very serious and quite awake.
The two of them follow after him.
“Wait, wait,” says Bertrand, quickening his pace to keep up with the bear. “You are responsible for a memetic hazard. The bureaucrats claim people have been killing themselves. You gotta explain yourself, Dasein.”
The bear stops for a moment. “Killing themselves?”
A frown on the furry face. He mumbles something under his breath.
“You have to talk to your fellow citizens about these things, you have responsibilities, you are one of the oldest—”
Dasein's roar echoes in the cave, escapes out the entrance, and Bertrand imagines avalanches caused by it. “You don't get to tellme about responsibilities here,” he says. “You have no idea the deep shit we're all into. You'd be thanking me by now.”
“Tell us,” says Mathilde, her hand squeezing Bertrand's elbow so he doesn't say anything to anger the bear any further. “What trouble are we into? Why have they cut us off from everyone else?”
But Dasein turns back toward the dimming light of the cave's end, disappears into darkness. It isn't long before a bundle of thoughts explodes their way:
his very own valley, the power of creation at his fingertips, he decides to make friends. The City’s conception software as he's written it is capable of birthing only variations of himself, so as he gives the command the software takes chunks of his own neural mapping and personality, permutates them, generating a dozen new citizens. Among them, a bear, licking the sun's glimmer off his silver fur.>>
Bertrand tries to wrap his mind around the concept, to no avail.
“We're all patchwork,” says Dasein. “Parts of the City creator's mind, rearranged. Giving the illusion of diversity.”
Once they experienced the thoughts he sent, they followed him down the tunnel into a wide room, pressing him for more answers.
“How long have you known?” Bertrand sits on an ottoman made of stone, elbows on knees.
“Some time now.”
Mathilde taps her foot on the flagstone floor. She hisses, “You’re full of shit.”
“Believe whatever you want.”
“If this is all true why didn’t you tell us before? Why broadcast our shitty story to the whole universe?”
Dasein's shoulders constrict – a bear shrug. “It took me years to locate the culprit for all those horrible emotions torturing me, incurable with the most extravagant orgasmic pleasures. When I finally did, when I dug deep and revisited our history, recovered these old fragments buried in me, I put two and two together and realized we were all doomed. We are all variants of the same, after all. Left to fester in our solipsism, at a certain point we become less social, more and more depressed. We are degenerates made from an incestuous thought-pool. So truth be told, my dear half-sister Mathilde, I didn't feel like sharing my pain with another perversion. I wanted to talk to real human beings.”
“How come we don’t remember anything?”
“Who knows how this circus operates?” Dasein shakes his head. “I’m first-gen. Maybe that’s why things have seeped into me that probably shouldn’t have.”
“Where is he now?” says Bertrand, finding his mouth strangely dry.
“I don't know.” Dasein stands up before a reflective surface on the wall, and his fur paints itself in black and white, a drawing of a tuxedo. “Could be anywhere. Doesn't matter. You and her and me, everyone, we're all him, anyhow.”
Bertrand and Mathilde look at each other, then quickly look away.
“Did you know that in all our existence as a City, no one, not a single soul, has journeyed out of its confines?” The bear raises a paw. “We’ve all inherited that self-important bastard’s navel-gazing attitude. A million Cities orbiting a million stars and no one has felt the urge to travel.”
Mathilde crosses her arms. “Until you very wisely decided to take a fun little stroll and spread some death around. Where are you headed now? On another one of your fucking picnics?”
The bear scratches his neck where a bow-tie just painted itself on his fur. “I had no idea it would have such a profound effect,” he says, turning to face her. “I just wanted someone’s attention.” He turns back to his mirror. “Now that I have it, I’m going to speak to the bureaucrats about this whole mess.”
He steps through it.
Ten thousand faces go through a whole range of emotions as Dasein's booming voice spreads across the gigantic amphitheater. Bertrand stands close to the dais, casting quick glances at the crowd behind him, trying to locate Mathilde.
“We have two options,” says Dasein, his voice shaking the poplar trees at the fringes of the amphitheater. “The bureaucrats could intervene, injecting a massive amount of fresh thought-matter into our stale pool. We'll revamp the City's conception mechanisms to take it into account, revamp ourselves to take it into account, and only then will we be allowed to communicate with other Cities again.” He pauses, looking at the throng to emphasize his choice. “Or, we could continue this charade and become hermetically sealed, with no hope of traveling outside our cesspit.”
A wave of noise spreads among the citizens while they link up, synchronizing for questions. The most-voted question is broadcast to all: >
Dasein sighs like wind blowing down from a mountain-top. “You must realize we've endured years and years of corruption because of the original creator.” His stern gaze sweeps the crowd as if searching for the culprit. “Undoing it won’t be easy.”
> the crowd repeats.
“A complete cleansing from the memetic plague,” says Dasein. “Since it's been firmly established into our identities, it might take a long time, and some might be changed beyond recognition, but that's the point, and it is the right thing to do. We must free ourselves.” His paws banging on the stage.
Dasein takes a few steps closer to the stage’s edge. “One hundred percent. The bureaucrats are never wrong.”
No further questions. In the turquoise sky a flock of birds passes, flecking the citizens with brief, fleeting shadows.
“We need a two-thirds majority for the referendum to pass. What is it you want: freedom, or to wallow in misery for eternity?”
Bertrand watches as the citizens vanish one by one, retreating into their personal spaces to think.
He leans on the portal to her space, raps on it gently again. “Please, I want to talk to you.”
The data graveyard looms all around Bertrand, making him uncomfortable. Through her portal, the faint sound of scissors at work.
“Why weren't you at Dasein's speech?” He presses his ear against the cold wood.
Snip. The muffled sound of a branch falling to the ground. “Because it's all fake. A setup.”
“This City. The referendum. Everything.”
“But now the bureaucrats can help.”
Mathilde cackles. “Ha.”
“You don't think they can?”
Snip. Another branch falls.
Ghostly shapes of old data begin to rear their ugly heads in the distance. Bertrand closes his eyes. “Come on, Mathilde. We could really use your help with the campaign.”
The sound of glass breaking. After a moment she says, “Nothing will help you. We are a failed narcissistic experiment, but we are narcissistic nonetheless. Nobody will agree to identity changes. Your plan is doomed.”
“Go away,” she says, and sound no longer passes through the portal.
Preliminary polls show that support for collaboration with the bureaucrats is waning, quickly. Twenty minutes after Dasein's speech a third of the citizens support his plan, another twenty minutes later, a mere quarter.
Bertrand and Dasein flick thought opinions broadcast to the City’s public forums.
Some posts make it seem as if the mere knowledge of the City's history has hastened the arrival of the memetic plague, and people who were normally jovial and optimistic now find themselves in slumps of depression and hopelessness.
Even citizens usually in favor of challenging the status quo appear to be against the Injection, doubting the execution, and the actual worth of the idea.
In their shared HQ-space, staring at the green-on-blue poll pie-charts and the dwindling percentages, Bertrand brings up Mathilde's narcissism argument to Dasein.
The bear shakes his head, sentencing the charts and numbers and opinion posts to the data-graveyards with a motion of the hand. “Give our citizens time,” he says. “They'll come around, just give them time.”
Three hours before the voting. Children laughing, playing in the orchard on a freshly mowed lawn in the last light of day. Bertrand wonders which parts of the original creator’s neural structure he now shares with them.
Sitting in her wicker chair, Renate frowns. “Nobody wants change.”
The bear's fur looks fiery in the golden sunset. “But things are changing whether our citizens want them to or not. Soon, very soon, it'll get worse for everybody.”
Renate massages her brow. “I know, I know, but try to convince the masses, Dasein. You can't.”
“Which is why I need your help. The Mathematics Kingdom would be able to turn the tide if you go public with your thoughts. People respect your opinions, and not just because you’re a Superuser. They like you. You might sway someone.”
She sighs. “This is a delicate matter. Just because they respect me doesn’t mean they’ll listen.”
The sun sets, taking the bear's flaming aura with it.
Just as Renate materializes a bowl of sliced apples to offer her guests, a thought arrives from Mathilde to Bertrand. He experiences it, then stares wide-eyed at Dasein and the mathematician. “Gotta go.”
Out of there and into no man's land, before her portal. It's open this time, but he can't cross it, try as he might an invisible force blocks him. In her garden of light, Mathilde stands very still, looking at the ground, her eyestalks hanging limp like vines.
“Don't do this,” he says. “Please, don't.”
He tries his Superuser powers to break through the blockage. Her space remains impenetrable. “You're just sick. Wait it out. Reason out of it. Please.”
He sends: >
She smiles at the thought. “Don’t you get it, you poor bastard? They couldn’t care less about us.”
“You don’t believe that,” he says, on the verge of tears. “It’s the disease talking.”
Only her mouth moves. “Thousands of citizens, poison to the rest of the races. They can’t kill us, but they can’t let us keep living the same way and remain a hothouse for memetic abominations either. Freeing us, if possible, would be a huge risk. So what do they do? What would you do in their place, Bertrand?”
“They will help us…Please…”
“No, Bertrand. They will lie to us. Tell us we can be fixed, we can be reconnected with everyone else. But we won’t be. We’ll be kept happy, oblivious and quarantined. Just like before.”
Tears roll down his cheeks. “Don’t say that. That’s not true.”
“It’s funny how the only one who somehow managed to escape this madhouse is now inadvertently helping make sure such a thing never happens again.” She shakes her head slightly, closes all her eyes. “Goodbye,” she says, standing frozen, all marble-like, as if preserved in the amber light of her garden, and Bertrand knows that she's gone forever.
“Stop glowering, kiddo, we won.”
Bertrand's lying on a stack of hay in his hut, hands behind his head. “You came to tell me that? Good, now leave me alone.”
Dasein scratches his polar fur, not suitable for the nightmarish heat in Bertrand's private-space.
“I'm sorry for your friend,” says the bear, approaching. “I really am. But things are only going to get better now.”
“Whoop-de-doo.” He straightens up, leaning on his elbows. “Leave me alone.”
A bear paw weighing down on Bertrand's shoulder. “Quit blaming yourself. It's not your fault.”
Bertrand brushes him off.
Dasein clears his throat. “I came here because I need something,” he says. “You remember the bureaucrats' demands, right? I need your SU powers, Bertrand. I already gave up mine.”
Bertrand leans back in the hay, turns away from the bear. Mathilde’s last words go through his mind for the hundredth time. Could she be onto something? Her position seems reasonable enough, despite coming from such a fragile and emotional place. Perhaps he should investigate further, raise the question with the other Superusers, look into the evidence, and remove the shackles, at last freeing himself and the citizens—
“Of course.” Reaching into the City's config to modify his permissions file, relinquishing his powers.
Then again, he thinks, he’s probably catching the disease himself, mistaking delusional plague-induced blabbering for reason.
“Thank you,” says Dasein.
He heads toward the straw door. Just before stepping out he turns and says, “She helped us win, kiddo. People got scared they might be next and went out to vote in droves. She didn't die in vain.”
The planks creak under his weight as he walks down the pier with a fishing rod over his shoulder, a bucket of worms in his hand. Morning sun beating down on the azure sea. Seagulls in the distance, somewhere behind the coconut groves.
Bertrand sits at the edge of the pier, the water's surface tickling his feet. He takes a worm from the bucket, attaches it to the hook. He reels in the fishing line, then flicks the rod over his shoulder toward the endless blue. Ripples in the gilded surface break the symmetry with the sapphire sky.
Grains of white sand twinkle on the beaches. The sea flattens, a still mirror.
The sun swings like a pendulum from one end of the heavens to the other, throwing Bertrand’s shadow across the old pier. He barely moves a muscle the entire day. He catches no fish.
He sits in the evening's pink pastel until the sun's gone, the sky darkens, and the first stars flicker to life like candles.
He tilts his head back toward the night, his feet out of the cold water, and imagines the grand network of Cities up above. He smiles at the million worlds orbiting a million stars, all within reach, all a mere thought away.
Everyone else, a mere thought away.
He gets up, fishing rod over his shoulder, the bucket of worms in his hand, and heads to his hammock to get a good night's sleep under a dome of stars blinking like eyes.
About the Author
Damien Krsteski is an SF author and software developer from Skopje, Macedonia. His stories have appeared in The Colored Lens, Perihelion Science Fiction, Fiction Vortex, Way of the Buffalo podcast, and others. He can be found at http://monochromewish.blogspot.com.
More From This Author
This feature is coming soon!