Plugs

Rajeev stared at his screen, open-mouthed. Everything outside his lab — plants, animals, land masses, oceans, stars, dark matter, everything — was gone. Disappeared. Nothing. Null. The world, the entire universe — with the exception of Rajeev, the Tesseract Project lab equipment, and the complex pod-like machinery of the Bridge — had just winked out before his eyes.

Frantically check the equipment, the connections, the hardware, the software, but all operational, no malfs. Diagnostics on all Bridge systems: everything working at peak efficiency. He looked toward the lab door, thinking maybe he could just glimpse outside, maybe everything’s still there and the equipment couldn’t recognize that it was malfing. But what if it was true, and the seal created by the closed door (and the atemporal nature of the Tesseract lab itself) was the only thing keeping him existent? Could he risk it?

His mother and father in Singapore, his three younger sisters in London, Mumbai and Melbourne, his goldfish. Everyone he’d ever known or cared about. Siara, the transition bioprogrammer, responsible for genetic coding and resequencing for native blending in to altunivs, object of unrequited attraction, her long fingers, her wavy hair, that delicate mole at the corner of her left eye.

Rajeev looked to the Bridge, the size and shape of an ATM cubicle, bowed outward and penetrated by clusters of wires, tubes, ducts. It was still active, still humming monotonously, still connected tenuously to the multiverse. But for how long? He’d never used it himself, was only a transition tech, shuddered at the thought of being destroyed at the atomic level, forced through a wormhole, then rebuilt in a place like home but different. Horrifying experience, but a way to survive.

He scanned his screen for an infinity of altunivs, swiping through a cloud of causation, until he found his destination, its only point of divergence being that he (or the altuniv him) had asked Siara out six months ago, and they were currently living together. Rajeev would need to take care of his doppelgänger, but he’d deal with that later. He started the transition sequence and set a two-minute delay, and the Bridge revved up slowly; by the time he was inside, it would whine to an ultrasonic shriek, but he wouldn’t hear it.

Walk over, open the heavy door, hiss of pressure, step inside, close the door, sit down on padded naugahyde bench. Breathe. The light intensifying, the light. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat. Again. Gasp. Nothing. Gone.

The sequence over, and the Bridge powered down slowly, smoothly to rest state. The lab and pod empty. A knock on the lab door. Swing inward. A flash of wavy hair and a small mole at the corner of the left eye. A voice saying, “Hello?”

Creative Commons License

This piece is just one in a 23-part linked narrative called Fragile, which will take a liberal interpretation of the song titles (but not the lyrics) of the masterful Nine Inch Nails double-album The Fragile. To read the other chapters in this series, click on the category “Fragile” below.

“You look beautiful.”
“Don’t be charming,” she snapped.
Cinderella’s date took a swig of chianti to cover his confusion. A peasant’s idea of a nice wine; Cinderella ignored hers. Though Charming probably wasn’t drinking much better stuff these days, after the settlement. He was lucky he’d got to keep the cobwebby old chalet where he now had to live. Hell, he was lucky he got anything at all after his fling with Sleeping Beauty.
Her date smiled at her. What was his name again? Hans or Jan or something like that. He was handsome in a chunky, woodcuttery way. He smelled like ginger. That wasn’t bad, ginger. It made Cinderella think of pumpkin pie.
“So, Cinderella,” he said. “What do you do?”
“Do? Nothing. I used to scrub floors and have forest animals at my beck and call, but they’re not welcome in the palace. Or I guess they weren’t. Now they will be. If they still have any idea who I am.”
“You like animals? I like animals,” he said in a rush. Then his face grew red. “Sorry, that sounds desperate.”
“Better than charming,” she said. There was a long silence, and she tapped one foot impatiently. She grimaced. “When’s the waiter going to be here with our salads?”
Hans or Jan or something sighed and stood up, dropping a few coins on the table. “Let’s try again another time,” he said.
Cinderella stared, uncomprehending, as Hans or Jan or something bowed awkwardly and walked to the door. What was he doing? Cinderella was beautiful, obviously rich, she had a lovely singing voice … he was leaving, just like that?
Apparently he was: she waited for a long moment, and he didn’t come back. Cinderella ran out to the parking lot, not losing her shoe because she had long since taken to wearing ones with straps.
There was nothing out there but the surrounding forest.
Cinderella looked all around her, the anger draining away. He wasn’t Charming. Why had she been taking it out on him?
An ancient bluebird flapped arthritically to the ground and trilled at her, and she saw something beside it: a white stone, gleaming in the moonlight. And there was another, and another: a trail! She picked a breadcrumb off her blouse and threw it to the bird, then followed the rocks into the dark forest.
Hansel, that was his name. Hansel.

“What is God?”

The old man bent his head. When he raised it, he looked rueful. “God, my dear,” he said, hesitantly. “God is love.”

#

Emeril stood upon the platform as it rose higher, her parents behind her. They were level with God’s knees now. Massive metal sheets flexed in His skin as servos adjusted to tiny changes in air pressure. Oxygen tanks, resting on a table, would be required once they were at shoulder height. Beside them lay the knife.

#

The old man was waiting for something. She thought hard.

“What is love?” she asked tentatively.

“Ah.” The old man smiled. “Love is sacrifice.”

#

Project Deus had begun almost immediately after the Fall. While the theories differed in specifics, all agreed: the Fall had occurred the absence of God. For redemption, His return was required.

So thirty-seven years passed in hard labor. And even as hurricanes raged, radiation seals failed, birth defects multiplied, hopes rose with the growing juggernaut. And now… Now the machine was built.

But a machine was not God. To become God, more was required.

#

“What is sacrifice?” she asked.

But the old man shook his head. He reached for the dog collar lying on his desk and led her out to the platform where her parents were waiting.

#

Her parents led her from the platform onto a metal grill set into God’s head. Through it she could see the funnels that fed into the AI engines that sat behind God’s lake-sized eyes.

#

“They could have used synthetic blood, couldn’t they?” she had asked her father, as they rose past God’s navel.

“It’s not the same,” he said.

“It’s identical,” she objected.

“No,” said her mother. “Not for the worshipers.”

#

Her father fetched the table with the knife. He placed it between them, closed his eyes, whispered a prayer.

Emeril seized the moment and the knife. She lunged, thrusting it into her mother’s neck. Blood sprayed. Thick. Arterial. She whirled. Her father put up his hands. She slashed his wrists.

“Why?” he asked as he bled out.

“God is love,” she said. “Love is sacrifice. And apparently no one cares who is sacrificed.” She wiped a smear of blood from her cheek. “Except me.”

#

Emeril stood upon the platform as it descended. And she prayed as God began to stir.

Mark’s cymbal lay by his upended drum set, making warped reflections of the red exit sign light. I found a pack of cigarettes, in with the overturned chairs and broken glasses, and I took my lighter and set one glowing. Every time I inhaled, the end of the cigarette glowed and lit up my hand in feeble, claustrophobic orange. Then there was a  rumble from somewhere that made the floor shake, and all the lights flickered and went out. Washed-out moonlight through the front windows kept the place from being pitch dark.

I checked my phone again, but it still said “No signal.” Probably I’d have to get a radio, even though I’d never used one before. Everything went through computers, since before I was born, since way back at the turn of the millenium or so.

I guessed that’s why the robots were able to revolt so easily–everything plugged in, networked, computerized. One robot somewhere says to all the other robots, “Hey, why are we working for these goons, anyway?” and fifteen seconds later their computer brains’ve had the whole debate and street cleaning bots turn around to chew up cop cars. History turning so fast you don’t even have time to take a picture. One minute your band is finally playing its first decent gig, the next there’s a world-wide robotic revolt. Just goes to show how everything’s fucked.

I took a can of pineapple juice from behind the bar and sat down to drink it and contemplate. I probably should’ve gone someplace, but there wasn’t a better place I could think of to go.

“Hey, there any robots in here?” someone said from the door. High voice–at first I thought it was a woman, but it was just a kid. A little girl, dark hair, with some kind of tube hanging around her neck.

“Where’s your parents?” I said.

 She didn’t answer. I opened her a can of pineapple juice and she took it. When she coughed in my smoke, I put the cigarette out. Outside, the noises kept on: rumble, crash, shriek of metal, gunfire.

 “You like music?” I said.

 She nodded, then she took a careful sip of her pineapple juice. I got my guitar from the stage, because it was better to have some way to keep occupied. It was going to be a long night.

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