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The Man You Could’ve Been comes for us all on our deathbed.

More fearsome than the reaper and made more terrifying by the abyss or hell that often follows them both. The Man You Could’ve Been is the greatest horror our conscious minds can imagine and he is real. He is the stick by which your deeds fall short on God’s measure. He is the once attainable that slipped further and further, first from our grasp, and then, our sight. There is no overtaking him or closing the gap. Only a lifetime’s fall from grace.

When the veil lifts from our eyes and our mouths are closed to this world, The Man You Could’ve Been climbs out of the mirror whence he watched you idle and succumb. He is happier than you, even in the dying light. He is rich in material wealth and spirit. He is purer of soul. He is much greater loved and envied by his peers and angels alike. He is luckier, and blessed all the more for being so.

No man has stood unbroken before The Man He Could’ve Been, nor shall any. Not prophet or king or humble beggar. The Man You Could’ve Been is of divine heavenly spirit – what else could perfection be made of? He is the Ideal. And when you die it is he who ascends on your behalf. For as much as he stands as evidence of your failures, you stand as proof of the hurdles he has overcome.

And the Man You Are weeps at your squandered life and the eternity of hell or the void that is left to you.

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?

Pocket mirror in Narcissus’ hand
the ever-gazed, most-loved love
Isn’t beauty’s fairness a virtue to consume?

Ruinous mirror whose shattered shards 
reflect a thousand monstrous eyes
Is facade or truth not worth devouring you?

Unventured hero of stillborn soul
lost beyond your surface deep
Is it worthiness that lurks beneath?

Mirror, mirror for lonesome heart
steamed by breath, still cold to touch
Is your company but an artifice?

Standing amid the stream, I am awash with time

knowing each part only the once

before life goes its way beyond me

But beached as I am, well within my mind’s eye

where waves crash over me again and again

I relive the moments lost to me in the stream

What can be said of mathematics
that heavenly theoretic, pure of human taint
a moon we look upon from afar
distant and distorted, can only touch its reflection

And below that rippling surface, another world rages under
Mammon’s poison, scarce lizard impulses

We fleshy mortals sandwiched between the Platonic and Plutonic
yearning for a taste of the divine, a kiss
must sip at muddy waters, must wrestle what lies beneath

“Saint George and the Dragon” by Gustave Moreau (1889-90) Source: http://www.nationalgalleryimages.co.uk/

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

‘To new beginnings’, mutters the wormlord as he burrows backwards
Janus, more generously the God of gateways,
squeezes his rear against the walls of the tunnel
Excreted slime eases the laboured movements

He carves new grooves into the tunnel face
Makes new tunnels that cut fresh paths into time
Reaches back to forge new histories for himself

‘In this one I’ll not be a worm’
Janus endures his sufferances twice for every failure
once forward and then back
before he carves again new grooves

Write, re-write, re-write, write
Even Janus, the God of gateways,
cannot change his fate as a worm.

Artwork of Leto II, the God Emperor from Frank Herbert's scifi novel series Dune. Art created by Berkan Ozkan.
Art by BerkanOzkan
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.

The acrylic painting "Joy" by Canadian artist Stella Jurgen
‘Joy’ by Stella Jurgen (acrylic painting)

When you have your life in its entirety before you,
your complete body of work – how to go about experiencing it?
Pre-existence tech is such a trip these days

Previous versions were only available for linear consumption,
moving from birth to death like a worm – sequential existence, how outdated a concept
With v2.0 our aim was to achieve something less passive

We call it the sampler model:
drop in to key moments for a variety of appetisers
before selecting how to program the remainder as the main meal

Some clear their veggies first, others their carbs
Some like their foods segregated – why not the same choice with the seconds of your life?
Rip through the pain first if you so wish
or alternate pain and joy to better tolerate the bad times

v2.0: How you choose to feast on your life is finally up to you

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