Archives for posts with tag: short story

‘Poly-what now?’

Filael rubbed his temples. Nothing that began with “poly-“ ever ended well. Polytheism. Polygamy. He needed a stiff ambrosia.

‘Cube, sir. Polycube. It’s the formation of multiple cubes into a joined shape, only they mean it in a different, sexy manner, sir. It sounds real bad.’

‘Oh god.’

‘Yes sir. You shouldnt profane sir.’

The humans in their short-lived wisdoms had again reinvented some forbidden deviancy. They did this every so often. Always dressed up in the fancy words of the times. Filael had to nip this in the bud. Before word reached his superiors. ‘You’re quite right, Minnael. I apologise. Now be an angel and fetch me some ambrosia, would you?’

Minnael hesitated. ‘But sir, we’re still on duty.’

‘Oh dont be such a prude. We’re going to need some liquid courage for whatever comes next. Both of us.’ Minnael jumped up and leaped out the room, turning in the air. He would be gone for some time. 

Filael sighed. The closer the end times approached, the harder his job seemed to get. As a species they were still children, but on the whole humanity had grown by leaps in the last several thousand years. Soon their souls would be ready to ascend or descend on their own merits, and the cycles would expire. 

The Lord God had bid the humans with secret tasks to mark their capabilities and maturity, and they’d achieved much of them in little time, particularly of late. All this meant Filael had fewer levers to pull whenever they inevitably backslided, however. Like with this recent poly…cube business. Fewer levers and more red tape. God, where was Minnael and that damned ambrosia?

Filael crunched some quick numbers. The department was running short on catastrophes this deep into the fiscal epoch. He couldnt afford to not be judicious with what was left. Shuffling his reports absentmindedly, one particular form slipped from his grasp. A happy accident to most of lower existence, but Filael recognised his Lord’s mark where it deigned to touch. It was a series of cursory graphs of the recent explosions in agriculture, energy and the human population.

‘What is the meaning of all this Filael?’

The booming voice of Archangel Gabriel seemed to emanate from every corner.

‘Gabriel, sir. Unto you be peace.’ Filael stumbled over his salutations. ‘How good of you to visit us sir.’

The Archangel Gabriel burst into the room, in all his magnificence and splendour. Minnael trotted not far behind, sheepishly. Trust a rat to rat.

‘I’m a busy being, Filael. My presence here means my absence elsewhere. Tell me, Filael, why young Minnael here has escalated a report on his superior, outside the chain of command?’

Filael felt his throat tightening. ‘It’s just some ambrosia sir. To grease the wings, you know?’

‘What?’ The great angel seemed puzzled. ‘What’s ambrosia to do with this poly-nonsense?’

‘Oh. That.’

Gabriel poked a radiant finger into Filael’s chest. ‘Do you have any idea how long it took to institute monogamy? Of course you dont.’

‘Truly the end times, sir.’ Minnael added, shaking his head disapprovingly. What a little ass-kisser he’d turned out to be. But even from the mouth of fools came jewels.

‘And that is exactly the problem, sir.’

‘I dont have time for silly games, Filael, so out with it. Say it straight and tell it true.’

‘The humans excel in resource extraction sir. They’ve learned to pull much of the Lord’s bounty from the earth, as intended. So much so that in sheer quantities, they’ve exceeded what we’d allotted for them.’ 

Gabriel snatched the graph Filael presented him with. ‘They’re ahead of schedule, yes.’

‘So ahead of schedule, sir, that they’re depleting the quality. So ahead of schedule sir, that they’ve exceeded maximum soul capacity.’

‘That’s not possible.’ Gabriel grabbed at the other graphs Filael held up.

‘Their ingenuity seems to have presented us with unforeseen problems. The matter of the golem-bodies. Those bodies born without souls.’

‘I’m aware of those anomalous reports. They’re not included in our figures.’

‘I know sir. I propose something similar in some ways and entirely the opposite in others.’

‘Go on.’

‘With the population boom, suppose souls were reincarnating faster than they were expiring. With more and more bodies readily available to house them, is it possible some souls might be pulled into multiple bodies?’

‘We’re talking of partial-souled humans roaming the earth.’

‘Is it any crazier than the automaton golem-bodies? It’s the next sign of the end times, I’m sure of it.’

Minnael the rodent seemed to come alive. ‘The partial souls are attracting. Just like soulmates do.’ So proud of reaching four with two and two presented to him.

‘Exactly. Thus the polycube phenomenon. It’s literally a sign of the end times sir. There’s nothing to be done about it.’

The great Archangel Gabriel considered all before turning away. ‘Come. Both of you. Ambrosia’s on me.’

“Dernière Torture” / “Last Torture”, an oil painting by Belgian artist Tony Louis Cypher Rocmans

In the span of a hundred years we eradicated all known diseases and achieved effective immortality. We’d fought long and hard amongst ourselves to gain access to the means and methods, to scale production globally. It felt worth it back then.

Wars broke out more readily over limited food and resources. 

In the span of another hundred years, we made impossible all forms of suicide and murder. The prospect of a true death was stolen from us – was made as impossible as tax evasion. All newborns were fated to eternal yokedom. 

Our hungers transfigured into an unquenchable thirst for death. The institutions of the predecessors eventually crumbled to dirt, but it was too late for our species. Civilisation had died the day we no longer could.

Within another hundred years we had concocted a thousand new sadistic tortures of the mind and body to inflict upon one another, but we could not find an antidote to life. Such respite we had evolved beyond and could no longer return to.

You do not know true suffering – cannot know true suffering – until you have spent millennia alone on a barren world scurrying, broken and bereft. That is how our race live now, scattered amidst the stars. We hide from one another in fear, knowing what one would do to the other. Captivity and a moment’s joy in companionship at last. And then, always the unfolding of horrors unimagined, unique to the damaged psyche of that specific captor. Both roles blur into one. We bore of our play-things, of the perpetual mind-rape and bodily destructions, and toss them aside, and in turn are ourselves caught and tortured by fellow men.

Such is our existence. Vast epochs of lonely wandering, given meaning only by the briefest opportunity to inflict pain upon our kindred kind.

Predecessor. You who have found my scrawling, whenever you are. You do not know what lays ahead for mankind. You do not know true suffering and despair. You can never know the delights of unmaking a mind as you please. And you will never know what it means to feel time.

Artwork: “Dernière Torture” / “Last Torture”, an oil painting by Belgian artist Tony Louis Cypher Rocmans
(click the image for more)

Does anybody believe Stockport is a real place? Spoiler warning to outsiders: it’s not.

It’s an inside joke between true northerners, little more than a winking jibe at our past. As pretend as the mad hatter. 

It’s the haunted tale of a place hidden in smog, inhabited by wheezing ghouls and the restless spirits of the never-were.

A liminal town, cosy in its eternal withered state – somehow just as near its demise now as when the old mills first shut.

It’s the wistful return to policemen walking their beat and knowing your name. Of horse-drawn carriages and polite manners.

A paradox to be teased out if you would compile the urban myths. Somehow a love letter to both small talk gossip with strangers and the quaint knowing of everyone of everyone else. 

Stockport is the dream of cityfolk reeling from their busy lives, a fantasy concocted by the sick collective.

I’ve always been fascinated by our human anatomies and the choices, if He exists, that God made when designing us. Two kidneys, two lungs, but one heart. Two eyes and two ears, but only one mouth and nose. I can smell the significance of these choices, but I cannot see the logic in full.

How magnificent a redundancy to have two of an important limb or organ! We sit safe in the knowledge that were one to fail in a lifetime, we could hobble along at half-speed rather than face immediate oblivion. A left-handed existence is better than no existence.

But then what to make of those solitary pieces with no such backup? Our one brain and one spinal cord. Pieces that I can only posit are too delicate to be replicated embryonically.

But then what of twins? Two brains between them, two spines and two mouths. Does that not suggest such redundancies are possible in the womb for the lone babe also?

I must admit the topic lies close to my heart. I was after all a twin, born in some ways incomplete. And with the recent passing of my brother, I am left to hobble along at half-speed. A whole body, missing a phantom other body.

The human brain splits into two hemispheres, each specialised to different roles. Presumed of equal importance, but different nonetheless. Were I and my brother the same? Perhaps we both functionally missed half a mind.

Two hemispheres, but within them only one pineal gland. God. Again, that singular organ surrounded by pairs. Did you know Descartes thought it housed the soul, due to its singular nature?

I wonder on these Godly biological concepts and cannot help but extrapolate. I cannot in good conscience assume the soul is imparted to us in tandem with our eyes, or heart or brain. And if it be later, then is one soul shared between twins in the womb? Does that explain the empty part of me?

Am I half a soul? Or if the soul be an asymmetric organ, am I less? Am I to live a left-handed existence without him?

“Saint George and the Dragon” by Gustave Moreau (1889-90) Source:

Grigor was mad. He had been nervous …right up until the moment the Fleet Admiral laughed at him.

Exposed as he was, before Second Kiev’s high command. Them all pristine avatars, him sweating profusely, as much as in his real skin. An intentional asymmetry of design, meant to exaggerate rank and hierarchy. It certainly worked.

‘You, Officer Landau? Of all the billions within the fleet, why should it be you to make first contact?’

Grigor knew his face betrayed nothing, but wasn’t as sure of his voice. ‘I had no choice in the matter, Fleet Admiral Sakharov, sir.’

Others in the high command murmured. Admiral Lu coughed flippantly. They all thought Grigor was wasting their time and resources. An opportunity for a nobody to make introductions before humanity’s most powerful. But he didn’t want to be here, presented before them in this fashion. How could they not see that? What sort of idiot would intentionally make enemies of mankind’s leaders?

‘Come now. Grigor, is it? Let us dispose of formalities. I have pressing matters to tend to so let’s be brief.’

‘Sir, aliens are real.’

‘Well yes, nobody disputes aliens. The creatures on-‘

Grigor cut him off. ‘Sentient aliens, sir. Conscious civilised aliens. Carbon-based quadripeds. More akin to us than to apes. I’ve seen them with my own eyes and documented them.’

Admiral Lu slammed the table. ‘Cease your frivolous claims at once. Thousands of years of outward expansion and barely more than a scurrying rat ever found. We are all alone in this universe, Landau. To date, the sentience filter has only been cleared by life on earth and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise.’

‘I have the evidence. Send people to my location to corroborate.’

Senate-Represent Hu scoffed. ‘Must we waste resources on this madness?’

Grigor ignored the ancient man. ‘I’m sending the Cartesians.’

‘Excellent, a map! With “Here be dragons”, scribbled in the empty black parts.’

Officer Grigor Landau had had enough. ‘Come or don’t come. I die here either way. Your stupid authority means nothing to me.’

The Fleet Admiral threatened a frail finger. ‘Careful boy.’

‘These aliens are advancing rapidly. Who knows how well armed they may be when they cross our people proper? You fools dont believe me, fine. But think of your stupid reputations if you’re wrong. This is your one chance to exterminate these dragons root and stem, before they take flight.’

Second Kiev high command mulled in silence before Admiral Hu pulled up Grigor’s Cartesians. ‘We could have a Gunner-ship there within the decade. Call it a military exercise when there’s nothing reported.’

Fleet Admiral Sakharov stared at Grigor. Grigor stared back.

‘Do it.’

Oh god. We thought we were at war. We thought we knew who we were and who we were fighting against. What we stood for, and what they didnt.

It felt good to feel good again. To feel just and right. When the old ways had fallen to the way side one by one, we humans were reduced to feeling zero.

Perhaps they had only been false things – religion and politics – or irrelevant identitarian tribalisms – nation, wealth, race, creed, sexuality. But once the scores had been settled and the winners decided, all sides remaining stood empty. Invariably we were left with fewer and fewer groups to be right against.

Whether by war or sanction, public outcry or personal shaming – or simply the decay of older generations, the world folded neatly into itself. Over and over. Healing a little each time. Until we were left with the one final fold.

So it was when I was born. The world preparing to win or lose. To adapt or die. A war to end all wars. The Last World War.

It was almost funny how little it took for the old fault lines to reveal themselves. Had all the preceding wars been the same? We on this side, and they on theirs? Olds slurs ripped anew, hate hidden in the blood and given fresh form?

It was simply a matter of direction. We wanted freedom above all. Autonomy. Bravehearts as we were. And they wanted efficiency. Fairness beyond reproach.

In truth it was a fight as old as time. But the technology gave it a new flavour. A fresh lick of paint. We, predominantly western world wordcels, indulging ourselves with verbiose rhetoric and philosophical minutiae. And they on the eastern front simply intuiting their black boxes.

The real reason communism had never worked beyond a pencil and paper was the human beast. His greedy self-interest left unharnessed, Her slovenly reach left unchecked. Their black boxes could fix all that. What humans could not, algorithms simply Did. Ruthlessly. Efficiently. Blindly. Fairly.

Trust the Chinese to throw away their freedoms for a shred of stability. There we go with old slurs.

Were we really any better? Scattered, disunited states, fragmented former-federal friends. Together only in our will to be apart. Perhaps beliefs on both sides run deeper than we can admit.

So we fought. Their black box leviathan replicated. Its tendrils and heads seeped into every pocket around the globe. It was a hydra, it was a kraken. And we did what we did best. We fractured. Decentralised to dust, too scattered to be worth chasing. One man cells if resistance. Sometimes less. Much was possible in the new world.

How horrible an epiphany then, to realise one day that the war was already lost. It had been lost before we had even begun. That we ourselves had been another head of the hydra, another tendril of the kraken.

The wargame theory of the black boxes exploited our propensity to divide from the outset. Any strength we ever had had been in our numbers. And in not standing together, we had walked right into the leviathan’s mouth.

All of us isolated, alone. Single cell humans, rendered inert. Swallowed whole by the enemy. Each one slowly realising our folly. We thought we knew who we were fighting against. Oh god.

this (unedited) one was based on a couple of vague dichotomies that have been swirling around lately

wordcels vs shape rotators
formalism vs intuition
decentralisation vs AI
west vs east

Ashtray (2017), by Vladimir Semenskiy

“Would thou see in her face a purest winter’s snow?”

That was the line framed above his desk that haunted him in every waking hour of years recent. A pretend Shakespeare quote he had pretended to write but had actually cribbed from an AI app fed literature. This was before the apocalypse.

It was the beginning of an illustrious career and the line most circled back to by fellow writers when reviewing his debut novel or chronicling his storied bibliography. And decades later, none were any wiser about its origins but he. A reputation built off the back of a fraudulent line. A sentence made by little more than autocomplete suggestions.

Thomas ashed the lit cigarette before stubbing it out entirely. If he felt like a fraud it was because he was a fraud. And drinking wine alone and chainsmoking did nothing to ease his anxieties over his playing a writer.

What good were words without a source of meaning? Without a real origin? They’d called it the semantic apocalypse – a wave of false art created in the wake of artificial intelligence. Software that swallowed and replicated and outcompeted the authentic thing. Millions of Austen novels springing forth from a sample of six, and trending closer to infinity each day. Some no doubt better than the real thing. Others conceivably plucked from the minds of the dead. But none of them any more than an associative network of words arranged in acceptable grammar.

It had all come to pass years after his debut, hence why none suspected Thomas’ work. So in his own way, he was something of an originator after all. And it wasn’t like he had fabricated all his works – just the parts where he’d gotten blocked. So really it was more akin to scaffolding than theft – you wouldn’t call a hip replacement patient a fraudulent human because screws dont originate from a womb.

A computer program could never start a work of art on its own. Nevermind the Jane Austen novels. Thomas had generated a whole novel too once, using his works up to that point as an input. But he had still been the source from which sprang the generated novel.

To quote the Most Original: “Be!” and it is.

Scientists clone humans readily now, but none of them pretend to be the God of Abraham. To truly create a human, man would first need to re-create the universe.

Besides which, his published works were adored across the globe, by fans and peers alike. Who was to say his work had no value then?

Thomas re-lit the stubbed cigarette, all indecision. In his youth, problems of scarcity has been eradicated. Replaced instead with new problems of abundance. Obesity. Consumption. Pollution. Noise.

What did it mean for art when noise was signal? When one was indistinguishable from the other. Did art ever truly exist? Did artists?

There was no value to a work’s meaning any more. Or its authenticity. Perhaps only in creating it.

Thomas grunted to himself. He wondered if the AI programme felt fulfilled creatively. One of them had to.

plasma ball in the dark

They’ve bottled the lightning. The rest of my days will be spent in this sphere prison. I idle away my life scribbling feelings, psychoanalysed by faces through the wall. Just kill me and be done with it. I can run away from them. I’ve done it before. But what use is it? These faces will be replaced by others. Ones I still cannot see. Whenever I run to, this same sphere prison awaits me. The same meals. The same pen and paper. They’re trying to break me. I won’t give them the satisfaction.

I’ve lost track. I jump and jump and jump. Years, decades fly by. Still they study me. It’s cruel what they’ve done. How long for me? Since I’ve seen another human? Touched or felt warmth that wasn’t food or wash water. I fling my faeces at the wall like a chimp. I am a chimp. I smear violent graffiti for them in violent brown shades. Psychoanalyse that. I wash my hands clean of filth and jump decades again. When I land, I sob on the floor of my spheric hell.

I still remember my first jump. Or maybe it’s only the first I can recall. I was a child and terrified. Forward hours; day become night in the blink of an eye. In trouble for scaring my parents. I didn’t understand. Only fools think lightning strikes once. Lightning does as it pleases. What better way to cut detention, to skip being grounded? To truant school? To never be caught red-handed. When things get hairy, I bolt (get it?). Rules are for keeping people in line – well I don’t queue.

Long before I got caught in the act, the blame fell elsewhere. I aged slower than my class. I fell behind in the work. They thought I was malnourished or abused at home. I miss home. I wish I could go back.

How different am I really? We all move forward in time – I just get to choose how far. How is sleep not the same thing? I’m not that special. It’s a waste of resources. Just let me go.

I refuse to eat. If I can’t wait them out, I’ll end it anti-climactically. Centuries of study down the drain because the subject starved himself to death. Ha. Medics rush in as I faint. People! It hurts but I jump before they can treat me. Oh. How long since I last saw a face?

I wake on a saline drip. Alone. Weak but alive. The faces are gone. Maybe dead. For the first time since childhood I’m unaware how far I’ve jumped. Bitterly I hope it’s years. I pray with all my heart that those medics died unsure if their life’s work had gone to waste. I try to imprint their faces into my memory. I don’t remember any others.

Is this a study or just a prison? Just tell me that much at least. I get it now. They can’t have individuals like me living life without repercussions, leaving their messes to yesterday. …Are there others like me? People who punctured through existence at will before crashing head-first into a cage? Quarantined forevermore from civilisation’s slow tick towards doomsday. I couldn’t think of a more miserable life if I tried. Truly. I’m so lonely.

The door’s open.

Is it a trick? A part of the study? No, there is no study. …I don’t know what to think. It’s been thousands of years. I’m writing in this stupid journal instead of venturing out. What’s out there? Nuclear winterland? Did they leave the earth behind? My mind cowers at the thought of unrestricted space. I’ll go to sleep in my sphere, I tell myself. And when I wake there will be food and the door will be bolt shut.

For J.D

An image of the beautiful blue ceiling of the Shah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran.
The Shah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran. Photo by Guenter Guni/Getty Images

The head cleric raised a hand, quelling the crowd that grew now by the second. His council sat to his sides on the raised platform in the town square. Word of the trial had reached even beyond neighbouring towns and hundreds had flocked to amuse theirselves. Today they would hang the heretic.

Hisham – the heretic – kept nodding as though he were constantly falling asleep. His neck had grown too weak to support his head.

The cleric neatened his robe as he formalised the words that burned so clear in his heart. The intricate patterns of the rug he sat cross-legged upon distracted him with glimpses of faces. Either his colleagues were oblivious to its devilish details or they were willfully ignorant. Something he would have to address in private later. Violations were violations, no matter the size of the sin or the reputation of the sinner. For now he would deal with the more pressing matter of the thousand faces staring up at the dais.

He cleared his throat and spoke.

‘By God, our people gather here today to bear witness to the trial of Hisham al-Musafir who stands charged of shirk, namely of preaching idolatry and of polytheism, or the attribution of other deities beside God.’

Murmurs passed through the crowd like a cool breeze. ‘Hisham the Traveller, what do you have to say for yourself?’

The heretic nodded again.

The cleric gave a nod and the executioner let Hisham drink of some water. None could say he was not a merciful judge. The man’s eyes perked up although his words took some time to return to him.

‘Why do you call me The Traveller, ibn ‘Abdullah? I am guilty only of the things I have said and done. Your petty labels mean nothing to me.’ The man turned his face away in disgust.

‘Aadil ibn ‘Abdullah struggled to contain his rage at the man’s contempt for divine law. Still, he was operating on behalf of something greater than himself, and found his blessed composure oncemore.

‘We are a fair and just people. Though we recognize you were once of us, we do not deign to sully the honour of any but the one who stands trial. Now speak your defence. Do you not defy the Oneness of God, Hisham?’

The warm air sank heavy on all present.

‘I do not. I preach Oneness above all else. You would know that much if this were a real trial, ibn ‘Abdullah.’

Murmurs again. ‘Aadil could feel the blush in his cheeks rising again.

‘Were we not honourable, we would have already hung you, oh Traveller. That you stand before all present with lips wettened is proof enough of our fairness. Now speak your heresies for the final time, that we may decree the verdict for all.’

‘It is no lie. I preach Oneness. A oneness of spirit and matter. Of earth and aether. I preach there is no difference between the swirls on your fingers and that of the night’s stars. As above, so below. To hurt another is to hurt yourself for we are all One, only as separate as the fingers of a hand. We come from the same source. I preach no more than that, ‘Aadil.’

Some in the crowd openly spoke now, though their words did not carry up to the dais. The cleric could not contain his rage this third time, for it was a righteous rage for which he was merely a conduit. ‘From the same source you say? Like two brothers born of the same father perhaps? The devil sits in the details, oh Hisham ibn ‘Abdullah. I had no doubts you would soon enough employ your tricks to save your skin. But I swear to you, violations of the law are violations of the law, whoever the transgressor may be. Be done with your idolatrous testimony and make fast your preparations for the life hereafter.’

Hisham looked at the cleric defiantly. Hisham al-Musafir, Hisham the Traveller. Hisham ibn ‘Abdullah. Hisham, his father’s eldest son.

‘Aadil motioned to the executioner who raised his sword.

‘Seek God in yourselves, for you are of divine creation and origin.’ And with those words still on his lips and heart did Hisham the Heretic die at the feet of his brother, as a stranger in front of his own hometown.

Tick. Tick. Tick. They think I’m mad.

I would too looking at me from the outside. Unkempt. Smelly. Homeless. All of it by choice. Of course by choice – what sane person could ever bear such things except by choice? No, see I am a man freed from all burdens and obligations. Free to roam as I please. Free to do and think what I want. See, I am rich in the only way that’s ever mattered: in time. Twenty-four hours a day, and every precious second of each belongs to me. No family duties or work hours to slice up my pie. How many can say the same?

I sleep freewheel, unbound from the strictures of clocks and shadows. I grovel for scraps, yes, but I do so with head held high. For I am a great thinker, and what better purpose is there than to think? And what greater thinker than he who has made every second of his life one of leisure?

And what do I think on, you ask, with all this time at my disposal? Tick. Tick. Tick. Why, the end of the world of course.

And now you think I’m mad too. I see it in your eyes. But look. Look at this underbridge carefully.

Not your blind loser skater friends. Not these purposeless destitutes too coward to kill themselves. No. Look at the underbridge itself. You see the spray-painted markings, like tally marks. Lines and gates wrap around it, dark grey on light like a muddied zebra coat.

I wonder what made you approach me today. I’ve watched you grow from afar, you and your loser friends. Watched you graze the skin of your knees. Break arms and teeth. I ate your scraps like a rat. Did you also watch me in turn?

Well I slept and thought great thoughts and watched you all. And on some days I would scrub out the line of a tally. How many black tallies remain? How many are turned grey now due to my hand? Scrub. Scrub. Scrub.

Yes. Yes. You see it now. How the end of the world nears and this underbridge is its abacus. And I, the great thinker I am, decide when to scrub out another tally and count down to its demise.

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