Riddles from Dystopia: My Story

When I was very young I struck a bargain with God in the cereal aisle.

Where I grew up, the grocery store was the closest thing we had to a theme park. It was the biggest building I’d ever set foot in, a daedal maze of cookies and fruit snacks and plastic toys and strange, tentacular vegetables. Stolid ship captains and mischievous elves and anthropomorphized bumblebees hid in cardboard boxes and clung to cellophane wrappers, and sometimes my mother would push me around in the shopping cart and make roller-coaster noises.

But it was the other customers in the grocery store that most fascinated me. There were ordinary kids like me, and they held hands with ordinary mothers like mine. There were beautiful people, too: pretty women in tennis skirts and sharply dressed bachelors stopping in for a six-pack on their way home from the office. Then there were the ugly people. The freaks. The disfigured war veterans, the battered housewives, the wheezy fat men, the shriveled old crones tethered to oxygen tanks. They were characters conjured from Walt Disney’s delirium, the side effect of too much cough medicine. They belonged in a circus, not the grocery store. And they horrified me – not aesthetically, like monsters or comic-book villains or the broccoli in the produce section — but because they represented an oppressive statistical possibility: that I might grow up to be just like them.

So I’d roam the cereal aisle with its grinning cartoons and I’d pray to God that he’d let me live a common life. I made him an offer: Don’t cripple me, and in return I won’t ask for beauty or greatness or fame. Just let me be normal. Please, God, just let me stay normal.

I believed in things like fair gods and normal lives, then. I also believed that the apples in my mother’s cart were raised in bucolic orchards somewhere beyond the turbid sprawl of the city, rather than in a windowless laboratory downtown, and that the globs of ground beef in the deli were once parts of gentle, grass-chewing beasts that went moo.   

As I said, I was very young.

Still, I wonder. I wonder whether I might have become a remarkable person, if only I hadn’t uttered that prayer all those years ago. Not a remembered person, not a studied person — there will be no one left to discuss us, before long — but rich, or powerful, or at the very least interesting. Anything better than normal.

Instead, I became a Splitweb scholar.

Which means that for the last twenty years I have passed from one community to the next in this hardscrabble world, shuttling between our few remaining metropolises or wandering off to ghost towns and ruins, salvaging what remains of mankind’s recorded past from the fragile, local networks we call shards and, more rarely, from printed books and codices preserved in abandoned libraries. I am, in other words, the worst kind of antiquarian, a collector of expired memories and discarded histories. I am neither rich nor powerful, and if last month you had asked me to tell you a story, I’d have replied that after two decades spent rummaging through our meager, disjointed cyberspace, I’d found nothing worth talking about.

But you asked me today. And though it may not be equal to the tales you’ve told — nor, Farmer, to the one you have yet to tell — I daresay that my story is worth hearing.

Like your stories, mine ends here, in this impossible chapel six levels underground. It begins underground as well, in the empty tomb of a girl that never lived, in a town with no name that our ancestors left to molder.

How I came to this town is another story altogether, and I won’t tax your patience by nesting a second, longer story within my first. Suffice it to say that about a month ago, while working on a shard in Silicon City, I uncovered a network diagram that identified an endpoint by the following four numbers:

34.232013, (82.894452)
4102444800 – 4561020854

It isn’t uncommon for a Splitweb scholar to come across network nodes with which he is not familiar. This continent is littered with defunct data banks and guttered server farms, many of which appear in old documents like the one I’d found in Silicon City. Most of them were early victims of the Scourge, infected before some failed Markovian algorithm could quarantine them from the Internet. Dead ends.

But the format of this one piqued my interest. I had come across server names, site codes, IP addresses, circuit IDs, even street addresses, but nothing like this. Stranger still, the other endpoints on the same diagram had boring, conventional labels: Silicon City HQ, Old Town Data Center, Central City Branch, and so on. This node alone was numbered rather than named.

I should have moved on. There are as many enigmas and errata in the Splitweb as there are in our wounded astronomy, and most of them are no more meaningful than a shooting star or a desert planet. To spend more than a few moments on any one of them is a betrayal of what little time remains for our species. But I have already told you that I am hopelessly normal, divinely motivated to fixate on minutia, and my mind cleaved to those four numbers for hours, turning them over, making an inventory of their parts, carefully disassembling them, rebuilding them, learning nothing, starting over again.

It was only a day later, after I had shifted my attention to a cache of satellite images archived from a pre-Third navigation application, that I remembered where I’d seen numbers like the first two before.

On maps.

Or, rather, in the code used to render maps on computers. They were a form of latitude and longitude popular in the twenty-first century, a decimal-based adaptation of an older, clumsier notation full of bubbles and tick marks that cartographers and seafarers had favored for centuries.

If you were to search for these coordinates on a modern map, as I did, you would find them in the empty space at the eastern limits of the Sprawl, a hundred miles from the nearest polis, beyond the reach of road and rail. But if you were logged onto the Silicon City shard, which hosts some of the world’s richest chronicles of our yesteryear, you might think to look for the same location on a much older map. And in that case you would discover that at these coordinates, in 2070 A.D., there was a cemetery, and that this cemetery was located in a small town called Elberton which, even in 2070, people were beginning to forget.

And that, I’d wager, is where you would stop. For to proceed any farther would require a thousand-mile trek across the country, a seemingly endless series of transfers between trains, buses, charters, and rentals, until the roads deteriorate into dirt and gravel, too fractured and overgrown for cars, and the only way forward is a three-day hike in blistering heat. All on a whim. A hunch. And without the faintest inkling of what the endpoint’s remaining two numbers might have meant.

The journey to the-place-once-called-Elberton was an exercise in masochism that most people take pains to avoid, but for which I always seem to be volunteering. The kind of thing you might pay for, Scia.

Nevertheless I arrived there three days later. Three days later, and ten minutes after the sun had set. On a moonless night. Leagues from the nearest functioning light bulb. I felt like an ant lost in a bowl of licorice, crawling through sheets of black.

All of my instincts told me to seek shelter, to grope my way through the ruined city for an empty storefront or a derelict warehouse, to bunker down within, to meet whatever challenge or disappointment lay in wait at the cemetery after a full night’s rest, aided by the morning’s light.

But I kept moving.

I wish I could tell you that it was some noble, capital-lettered principle that compelled me: courage, a sense of duty, a thirst for lost knowledge. I wish I could tell you that I disregarded my instincts because I judged them for what they were: whimpers of the prey from which we evolved, the vestiges of fear in a species that has conquered all of its predators.

In truth, I thought I heard noises coming from the buildings up ahead. Heavy breathing. Faint whispering. Scratching. And I didn’t like that they stopped when I drew near.

So I kept moving.

All I had to guide me was a hand-drawn map that I’d copied from the terminal back in Silicon City, with a few rough distances and some vague directions scrawled hastily in the margin, and no light by which to read it.

It took me hours to find the cemetery, and the elation I enjoyed upon locating it evaporated the moment I turned on my flashlight.

What I beheld was a fitting tribute to our war-mongering ancestors: a small chaos of toppled steles and crumbling tombs, submerged in clay and strangled by overgrowth. There was no fence to contain its discord, no signpost to celebrate its founders. No pastoral church overlooked it, nor did any lantern-wielding, hunchbacked undertaker wander its premises warding off grave robbers. The only difference between it and any other deserted field was that the corpses in this one were marked by gravestones.

I don’t know what I’d been hoping to find. A blazing bush, a red flag, a giant X. More than anything else I’d dreamed of discovering a new shard, or at least some sign of one: a wiring closet, a room full of servers, an omniscient robot.

But where my flashlight shined, I found only dates and epitaphs.

Defeated, I hoisted myself onto the nearest sarcophagus, switched off my light, and tried to curb my mounting despair. I told myself that I should enjoy my escape from city life, here in this untrammeled hinterland. That the wild, creeping shadowscape stretching in every direction was a window into our distant past, and our near future — that this was what the world was like, before our species defiled it. What it was always meant to be.

Yet I heard no music in the cicadas’ screams. I recognized no harmony in the owls’ dirges.

It was, ironically, my dolorous meditations atop that sarcophagus that led me to the solution to the second half of the puzzle I’d discovered in Silicon City. I had been contemplating time itself — how much had passed, how little remained, other such clichés — when I began to think of the people interred beneath me, and how short and brutish their lives had been. There were children buried there, infants whose tombstones bore a single year, whose tenure on this planet was so brief that it required no dash.

And that’s when it occurred to me that there had been a dash in the network diagram that had led me to that cemetery.

The first pair of numbers had been latitude and longitude, formatted according to a common twenty-first century convention. The second pair of numbers were dates, formatted as Unix timestamps, separated by a dash.

Unix timestamps were large integers that counted the seconds elapsed since January 1, 1970. They were date-time combinations that had been disabused of their Gregorian roots, severed from the Roman pantheon to which their predecessors were devoted. Integers could be fed to computers, converted to bytes and bits, added and subtracted in assembly language. Calculating the difference between Janus and Mars was not so straightforward.

I began dividing. I squeezed seconds into minutes, and from those I extracted days. When these had condensed to years, I added 1970 and admired my answer: January 1, 2100 – July 14, 2114.

Peal of thunder, roar of river: so loud were my heart and my blood that they squelched the threnodies of the cicadas. Leaping from my perch, I flicked on my flashlight and waved it at one gravestone after another, searching for the name of a fourteen-year-old who had failed to consummate her negotiations with God.

And then I stopped, paralyzed by a sudden idea. It was a far cry from clairvoyance, but it was something less mundane than suspicion. Another hunch, let’s call it. I turned around, walked back the way I’d came, and aimed my flashlight at the sarcophagus on which I’d been sitting.

Arcy Christian
January 1, 2100-July 14, 2114

If my pounding heart had silenced birds and insects, the booming laughter I loosed next must have sent them fleeing. The graveyard was a quiet place when I stood before the sarcophagus, bracing myself against its ponderous marble lid. I set my heels and heaved, levering my broomstick stature against two centuries of inertia. Nothing, at first. On my second try I felt something shift. On my third attempt stone ground against stone, and after a few moments of wheezing exertion I had managed to move the slab far enough to frame a window into Arcy Christian’s catacomb.

She wasn’t there. No skeleton lying in peaceful repose. No polished urn nestled among satin cushions.

There was only a spiral staircase, descending into shadows.

I suppose it was something like the one we followed here, into this strange, inside-out place at the far limit of the known world, where we have convinced ourselves to tell each other stories and tipple Claude’s whiskey — it is whiskey, isn’t it Claude? — as though we were safely ensconced in some dive bar back in Upper Reach.

A toast to staircases, then. With each merry clink of our glasses, they carry us a step closer to madness.

But I digress. Let us return to Elberton.

Testing each tread before setting my full weight upon it, I climbed down the coil and into the void. I remember thinking to myself, after clearing twenty stairs, that I must surely be approaching the bottom. I told myself the same thing at forty, and again at 100.

There were 196 stairs under that grave. When I stepped off the last one, I looked up to find the aperture through which I’d entered so far overhead that it appeared no larger than a keyhole at the end of a dark hallway. I shuddered at the thought of some unknowing passerby closing the sepulcher’s lid, sealing me forever in someone else’s tomb, and I felt nauseous. I took a deep breath, but the antique air that filled my lungs only intensified my panic. I keeled over to retch, and the flashlight slipped from my hand.

When it hit the ground it flickered, and for a few seconds the room filled with sputtering shadows and rakish angles and an afterglow like ball lightning. My pupils expanded and contracted desperately, but they found nothing intelligible in the swirling Rorschach. I very nearly fainted then, convinced that my only light had made some Faustian deal with the dark, that I had been double-crossed, that its failing bulb would never recover.

But a moment later it did. Which is more than I can say for myself.

It spilled out over the floor, illuminating a gold plaque stamped into the concrete at the foot of the staircase. Yes, friends — a gold plaque. The same as the one we found stamped into the blacktop at Orchard, and the one that looms over us now. But back in Elberton the sight was unfamiliar, and I fastened my eyes to the poem engraved on its surface:

Two queer coordinates led

To this curious place.

But weirdest yet is Route 14,

Which winds through neither time nor space.

Those words meant nothing to me, then. Not like they do now. Still, there was an alien gravity about them, an importance that was as undeniable as it was indescribable, and though I did not transcribe or photograph them, I remember each letter as though I’d etched it onto that gold plaque myself.

I rose from my haunches and swung the flashlight in a wide arc, revealing the crypt one section at a time, until my mind had assembled a panorama.

The space was enormous, bigger than any grocery store, and it was filled with computer servers. There must have been two dozen aisles of them, and each aisle extended so far into the underground that my flashlight could not locate its end. Though the machines they contained were all powered down and caked in dust, none of them bore the fluorescent orange cross that system admins and cybersecurity specialists have used for the last century to mark the presence of the Scourge. I was, in other words, standing in a previously undiscovered member-state of the Splitweb. A shard. And not just any shard, but a virgin shard: uninfected, unexplored.

It had been more than fifty years since the last such shard was discovered.

There was an office chair tucked under a desk nearby, and on the desk rested a cathode-ray monitor and an old buckling-spring keyboard. When I sat down the chair squealed so violently that I wondered if the cicadas had returned. I cleared the cobwebs from the glass screen and contemplated my next move.

Powering the terminal was my first order of business. I had brought along a battery kit for just such an eventuality, and was about to remove it from my backpack when another thought crossed my mind. My third and final hunch.

It cost me half an hour and far too much of the life remaining in my flashlight, but eventually I found the breaker panel I’d been looking for. I pried it open, discovered that the master switch had been tripped, closed my eyes, and flipped it.

The whole room hummed to life. Server fans stuttered then howled, kicking plumes of dust into the stale air. LEDs blinked and glared. Light poured from tubes fixed to the ceiling. The terminal uttered a sequence of monotone beeps, the closest thing to a yawn that it could muster, and its screen emitted a faint glow. A moment later, it displayed a single prompt in the kind of low-res green lettering you’d expect to find in a Fortran CLI or a high-end microwave:

>> [2047-01-30] moved to s:lastResort

I entered command after command, scouring the system for a populated directory or a deleted file or a forgotten cookie or an overlooked log. But the shard, though it possessed enough disk space to host half the data in Silicon City, contained nothing more than a primitive operating system and that single line of text.

There was enough there, though. Enough in that one line to know that God had terminated our pact.

No person who sees what we have seen can hope to live a normal life. No god would dare follow us where we are going next. And yet the path we are on now is not our own; mine was charted for me that night, in the viridescent glow of that monitor deep beneath the Sprawl, and it is as ineluctable and unyielding as yours, Andrea. Or yours, Clara. We could no more have avoided meeting each other in that lunatic diner at the end of the world than our planet can hope to cancel its collision course with the sun.

January 30, 2047 was at least a year before the Scourge infected its first computer, two years before it crashed its first nation, three years before it fragmented the Internet. Which meant that Arcy Christian’s grave was never actually part of the Splitweb. It belonged to something older, something bigger, something unbroken. And yet its contents had been evacuated to a new kind of asylum, to an amputated, airgapped network whose designers knew, before anyone else, that such a thing would be necessary. They had called it Last Resort, though it could only have been the first of its kind.

The original shard. The first step backwards in mankind’s long, preemptive retreat. I knew then — as I believe now — that it contains the source code responsible for our demise: the defective fail-safe in the AI that generated the Scourge, the rounding error in the doomsday algorithm that triggered the Chasm, the root cause of our whole irredeemable condition.

By the time I switched off the terminal I was exhausted, and Arcy Christian wasn’t using her resting place. I slept under the desk, on the poured concrete, my backpack for a pillow, and I dreamed about my future, about the steps I would have to take to find Last Resort. There were 196 of them to begin with, and beyond those, somewhere far away, there was a road called Route 14 of which I knew nothing, save for what I’d read in a queer poem on a strange plaque in a curious place.

I found it. I followed it. I am following it still.


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