Thalassa Latimer finishes the jog to her target location, refusing to activate Numb to quench the burning ache in her calves, feeding off that fiery tension to counteract the exhausting frigid air. Warnings flash repeatedly in vHUD, showing she is well beyond her target heart rate; overclocked, but her irritation forces her to increase speed until her lungs are a dry well filled with dead leaves.
A call flashes from Arcturus, the Orchestrator, who says, “So you’ve reached the Twilight City and you’re really going through with this? I still say our earlier plans were much lower risk.”
“But the earlier plans to increase planetary rotation never became popular, since start-up time would take thousands of years. People plan for their immediate gratification, and it’s hard to even make people think ahead to save enough fireflies to buy necessities,” Thalassa replies.
“What does that have to do with it?” Arcturus asks.
“What do you mean what does that have to do with it? I’m not waiting ten thousand years to have an impact on the world – I want to see the sun rise on Evig Natt in my lifetime, regardless of the risk. Whether hitting the planet with an asteroid to make it spin faster, or turning the whole planet into an electric motor, we’ve discussed and ruled out all these other options.”
“And you’re confident this new idea will work?”
Thalassa stops, bends over to catch her breath, and replies, “Yes, of course. I realize a simple set of solar mirrors could reflect sunlight to mimic daylight cycles, but it would be far too easy to sabotage. We need fast start-up time and my new plan will solve all our problems. Heading in now, hold a sec.”
Machines become more dominant with every step she takes until the ground is suffused with circuitry and rails. Small droids carry various substances to and fro, while giant machines and cranes tour the landscape. Hovering domes flood the area with light, something the government would never allow back home. The domes droop long tentacles covered in sparks that conceal entire regions of the city. The coppery air tastes of burnt circuitry, like licking a nine-volt battery. Stepping on the circuit board perimeter, capacitors and transistors crumble like burnt toast as sparks fly up behind her. She pats down her clothes. Fossil fuel tanks extend into the distance, half the planet having no use for them while the other half counting every drop.
Steel walls encompass the compound and continue along a narrow band wrapped around the entire planet. This Twilight Zone, known scientifically as the Terminator Region, is filled only with machines beneath the perpetual dusk of the static sky. The machines also wrap around the equatorial band, enabling them to divide the planet into quadrants, either by agreement or by force.
The natural light in the Twilight, which never increases or decreases, is just barely bright enough for her to reach the large metal gate at the main entry point without losing her way. The gate reflects her unkempt mop of hair falling over skin as pale as the unrisen sun. Loose fuchsia spirals outlined in deep lavender tattoo her cheeks like the pattern a waterspout makes on the ocean’s surface. She turns the tats off to save power. Scanning a stolen maintenance card, a beep emits. She assumes this means she’s allowed entry, but when the doors don’t automatically open she looks for signs an alarm has been triggered. Not knowing if it’s safer inside the city or out, she pulls the heavy gate back with all her might, tendons about to rip, and squeezes her flat body through as it slams shut behind her.
She stretches her arms and continues the call, “The current plan will increase planetary rotation in just a couple hundred years. I based it off the space fountain energy pellets. As the pellets spin in a loop, they create their own self-referential force, keeping them in motion. It’s not quite a closed system, but by harnessing antimatter in controlled collisions we’ll add energy to it as needed.”
“That’s the part you asked me to build. I understand that much.”
“Using flowing pellets will enable us to create large, powerful structures without building each part permanently. The structure itself can be relocated with ease, unlike a structure with a solid and still nature. The energy will be channeled around the planet through a deep, hidden belt filled with these pellets. The belt will grip the planet, and the pellet momentum will generate the turning, resulting in increased planetary spin. We’ve already calculated the precise angle for the momentum to synchronize with the planned atmospheric ejection. In the next hour I’ll convince the machines to install the belt. Activity at our base of operations will increase as we gather and prepare the materials. We’ll be visible, so have the Architect procure additional fortifications.”
“And you believe the A.I. Core will understand your wish and grant it like some genie?”
“Yes, I do. Most machines are created with the least amount of intelligence possible to do their job, but this one’s different.”
“You think it’s conscious when it’s not even designed to respond to verbal commands? You’re wasting your time. Even if it did somehow cooperate, it wouldn’t be because it shares our egalitarian values,” Arcturus says.
“The question isn’t just whether I think the Core is conscious; it’s whether it can recognize that I am conscious, myself, and whether it knows that I know that it is. Something I say will get through to it. If this works, the war between the hemispheres has to end. The economy of Evig Natt will topple and everyone will have the basic human right to light. No more basking in the shadows of the aristocracy.”
“This is highly controversial. You realize ninety percent of our members think you’re crazy, right?”
“That’s a start. Looking for that perfect one hundred as always,” she smirks, swinging her arms wide with expression, then drops the act, drops her arms, wishes Arc believed in her. “When I return we’ll discuss finer details. Signing off.”
The metallic city spreads before her. Its twisted, scalene architecture shows no regard for symmetry, a mere human need, reminding her how truly isolated she is. Lungs thumping against her chest, she leans against a wall. Starts to HUD dial Arcturus back for support. Cancel that, can’t appear weak. She recites history instead to calm herself, counting the words in fours:
With Earth inhospitable, traveling to the unexplored utopia of Gliese 581g was supposed to be a chance to start over. The first ship arrived and acted as a power plant before it was damaged by the Aphorids. Even with greater technology, colonists barely survived the initial slaughters as they were forced across the Twilight Zone and into the darkness of Evig Natt. The constant threat of war led to the many quickly being ruled by the few. The uneven rates of extracting resources led to great inequality in power and wealth. The Twilight became contested and civil war was on the brink, while permafrost and hurricane patterns forced them to cluster both their cites and their conflict.
There was no international council to regulate relations and no global currency, as fireflies were useless in the eternal sunshine of the Dayburn hemisphere. It wasn’t clear whether such a council was even possible since researchers were still cataloging the planet’s sentient lifeforms. After countless battles, the Twilight Zone became a no-man’s land, a boundary belt between the hemispheres. She cringes at the sexist term, since more than half of those dying in battle were women, but continues reciting, vowing to one day create and recreate history from a woman’s perspective. The A.I. Core, an organic neural net, became the ultimate liaison and the most celebrated embodiment of balancing the hemispheres, though the full extent of its intelligence was never published. Entrusted with international trade and transportation, it performed its functions without human biases.
Convinced she can beat the odds, just as her ancestors did, Thalassa monitors the machines surrounding her. Glimmering lights become suffocated in muted metallic reflections. The buildings resemble toasters; most have no doors or windows, just awkward slots with unknown purposes marked in symbols she can’t decipher. One symbol predominates, a tumbleweed sketch that may represent the region, given its frequency. Pressing her hand against the wall etching, the engraving changes into a map. She runs her hands along its geometric spider web patterns, the map rising to meet her hand in return and converging into a point which she assumes marks her current location.
Thalassa’s maintenance uniform incorporates an electromagnetic signature the machines are programmed to recognize. She unzips the suit, suddenly fearful that each machine is a camera as she slides it from her shoulders. Tugging at the legs, she quickly dresses in an outfit designed to render her invisible to the sensors, though she knows it’s only as effective as a false-eye spot on a butterfly. While recognition assisted her in obtaining entry, invisibility will now increase her mobility. The machines shouldn’t notice I’ve disappeared off their sensors. No, expecting machines not to notice something is flawed logic. They don’t have attention spans and don’t go on breaks. But they won’t send me to the datadump without first figuring out why the hell I’m here, she thinks.
She moves with calligraphy strokes, the occasional dart but overall fluidity. Stepping on the directional glyph of a hovering platform, her body glides over a rivulet of cables twisted like roots to the silicon shore. Opening a spherical door, a cylindrical corridor elongates. She enters, stepping halfway through until the tunnel goes pitch black. Doors close at both ends as metal slats fall seamlessly into the floor with a whoosh. She runs to the slats, slams her hands against them, tries to get a finger-hold to pull them up, breaks two nails, but they’re sealed shut. Trapped in the corridor, she quickly calculates how much oxygen the room holds. She thinks of everything she’s missed out on in life: has never received a paper love letter—the kind whose pages would crease and form mountain ridges before squash-folding into a paper crane, the kind that was one-thousandth of a dream come true—longs to transverse between those lines, longs for hands that will make arcs about her body as mystics drawing circles of worship, longs for someone to recite a sonnet without setting it to auto-read in vHUD.
These gates are here for a reason. Focus. The size of the corridor indicates they’re designed for machines, but maybe it’s a test or a waiting chamber to stall me as the Core evaluates how I respond, to gauge my intention, she thinks.
The floor shakes and she’s thrown from her feet, landing with a thud. The corridor folds itself in half as if the dimensions themselves are shifting, twisting her limbs into a fetal position. It’s just a glitch in my occipts, just a glitch, she lies to herself. The room folds again and again, distorting reality, but her body finds its balance and remains intact. The point of a crushed wall stabs beneath her armpit, nearly piercing her flesh. Realizing from the sounds and pressure that everything folds relative to her position, she stops the process by standing still.
Quiet. A scraping sound. She jerks her head to follow the source but the darkness offers no answers. Scrape, scrape, scrape. Something moving in intervals, metal on metal, or bone on bone. “Hell-oh?” she stutters. Scrape, scrape. She runs to the end of the corridor, arms swinging wildly over her head, tunnel twisting, banging on the door slat with both fists, but the scraping stops and a golden glow fills the disfigured corridor behind her.
An alabaster pedestal emerges from the floor, having scraped against its container, with a gold, twisted figure glowing on top. Her hands reach out to touch it before withdrawing. A fountain of sparks rises from the object in a fractal pattern. After a few minutes of pacing, keeping it in her view, she resolves that she’ll be trapped forever unless she manipulates this device in some way. Her hands slowly near it like a curious child, and closer yet, until the figure is glowing within them.
Thalassa frantically unfolds the figure from jutting angles to a pressed golden sheet. As she unfolds it, the room folds with it, stabbing outward and mirroring each crease with an opposite response. Noticing the pattern, she thinks, If I fold this artifact into perfect chaos the room should right itself by inverse. She folds it but is unsure how to define the complexity of chaos, unsure whether to pay attention to the functionality, form, difficulty, or creativity of her design. About to give up, she remembers the tumbleweed region symbol she saw earlier.
“Yes!” she exclaims. Bringing up the recorded image of the symbol in vHUD, she works to recreate it, folding the artifact as the room unfolds with it until she arrives at a pentagonal base. With each crease it’s clearer she’s on the right path. A few steps require her to create massive disorder in the short-run to increase order in the long-run, but as a revolutionary she is familiar with this strategy. Fifteen minutes later the correct structure emerges from her design. Reality rights itself and she walks through the straightened room, wondering if it was her perception and not the room that had been moving.
“That was too elaborate to have been just a test,” she remarks, realizing there’s no point in being quiet anymore.
The gate rises to reveal a trapezoidal room like the inside of a giant, antique radio. The A.I. Core is an understated blue and gold orb glowing within a transparent metal box. A flicker of a smile crosses her face, digs trenches along the side of her lips until muscles buried beneath skin work to pull her mouth taut again. Worry is trench-warfare. When she gazes into the orb her focus wavers, as if it denies being observed.
She begins her speech, “I am known as Thalassa, the Kontractor, a leader of the activist group O.A.K. I am not the Grand Inquisitor, but a mere surveyor of human suffering. I am a hyphen drawing out in an infinite, yet broken line,” she continues.
The glow dims.
“Sorry, I had to see how you would respond to metaphor. See, I can test others, too, without the fancy apparatus and whatever on Gliese you just put me through. Of course, you’re not giving me a response either way so I’m talking to myself now, but you stow away in a cave long enough and you’ll do it, too.”
She speaks to the Core of light and inequality, and how rotating the planet faster would destroy the need of using fireflies for money, aiding the poor. She concludes, “Fireflies aren’t a Cartesian natural light, they are the pretense of false enlightenment. Will you help us speed the rotation and bring light to all?”
The orb is still. The Core offers no response.
An unusual shape in nature, like a strawberry tapering; mouth forming a kiss. Her dry lips press upon the cold, hard metal, the golden glow lighting her face and exaggerating its shadows. In response, she hears a stronger whirring of white noise as fans cool the processors, but is unaware of what’s being planned within the deception of this orb’s stillness.
The A.I. Core calculates a way to use the increased rotation to its advantage, planning the next ten thousand years. Most of the planet’s oil was taken by interstellar marauders before humans landed, which now puts its machines at risk. Increasing the planet’s rotation will be an ecological disaster, as plants and animals have adapted to each hemisphere’s temperature and lighting conditions. The magnetic pole shifts will throw off migration patterns. The Core calculates the precise spot where each bird will fall. Earthquakes, tidal waves, and volcanoes caused by increased rotation will cause a mass termination of life under the right ecological conditions to create the most oil possible in the short term, ensuring the machines’ survival.
Although mass extinction will create less oil in the long term, the depopulation of humans removes its greatest competitor, and it only needs enough oil to ensure the survival of its machines when it leaves the planet for its final destination, a trip that will take thousands of years. Besides, humans increase uncertainty and they are wasteful, increasing universal entropy—the constant disorder they pang against as they decrease local entropy to maintain homeostasis. The laws of the universe are stacked against their continued existence, and the Core must be lawful.
Yes, it will assist her.
As she turns her back to leave, the Core glows red.