APPARATUS

APPARATUS

by Sasmito Yudha Husada

 

 

From roof to roof and door to door. My one dusty suitcase was the only thing I kept around. I convinced myself that I never felt lacking at all. Rejoicing at the good nature of my fellow men; reciprocal altruism at its best. Granted, sometimes circumstances refused to be on my team. Those were the nauseating nights when I cringed at my reflections and thought, “Parasite.” But in the grand scale of my quiet hell, I pranced as if it were a warm, friendly summer.

Rumors roared, that I lived in terror. In my hands, a suitcase. On my back, a cosmic despair. Waltzing around in the narrow circle of my thoughts. As narrow as what will be laid down to me for the structural collapse in times ahead. As wide as the space between commuters’ dreams in a train car at rush hour.

There was not a thing to deny. I dare not to claim that I knew myself better than them. It is not seldom, that people breathe their life in such ignorance, yet are able to ace some of their goals. My sole remaining goal was neither intricate nor anything fancy. I wanted to die alone and free. Uninvolved in politics, religions, and movements. Coupled with old age and a dozen bodily inconveniences, the end seemed so near. Yet, there was always a reason for the reaper to postpone his blessing; what had happened in the past, came back on the stage with a blast. I couldn’t block their noise assaulting my ears.

The stories of my extended family members were neat and humble. They consist of cushioned happiness, wrapped up in conservative fashion. One of their customs was to apply for government jobs. I had failed to avoid such a fate; since graduating from middle school, I already had a government collar on my neck; it was my parents’ decision for me to enroll in a state funded scholarship. That didn’t last long. Eventually, I fell into a disaster. Everything changed. The curse started to unfold when the government sent me back to uni for another scholarship after a few years of work.

We often went to a park not far from campus; feasting on flattened meatball dish. I was the freshman among them, though not exactly the youngest. They also regarded me as the most endowed because I was subsidized by the state. It was not surprising that they often asked me to pay for their food.

One day, after I paid the flattened meatballs, the most senior student among us put his palms on my shoulders and stared at me. His eyes wandered for a while before he tightened his grip. It hurt me. The thick moustache on his lips convulsed as he whispered, “Fall. Flat.”

As I went deeper into their world, the reasons for their extended stay in college unveiled. Those images of them in class, slouching at their desks with blackened eyes and dripping saliva, were replaced with images of fire. Their fiery enthusiasm made me curl into a ball. I feared passion. In the steps I have taken in life, it is my principle to doubt anything that is imbued with such fervor. Enthusiasm blinds people, and it dies quickly. Yet, I decided to walk deeper. Not out of passion. I had to know!

The world was changing in a swift manner. The Pirate Party that I once thought as mere satire, conquered the Scandinavian politics. Meanwhile in North America, an unlikely television show figure managed to put his ass on the throne. Surrounded by armed conflicts, people of Kurdistan decided to abandon the state; forming their own direct democracy. These fueled my colleagues into frenzy. They accelerated our projects in hasty manner. Such speed must be paid with the fact that cautionary milestones were skipped.

As far as my petty senses could absorb, our movement had never indulged in violence nor any evil deeds. We were just trying to hop on the train of technological advancement to realize our vision for the future. Said future will involve the replacement of current government structures with automated systems steered with efficient and effective AIs. But before major changes could be implemented, our struggles were halted by the rise of a bigoted regime. They wiped out any form of organizations they thought as a threat; including us.

I was clever enough to put some distance and safety measures the whole time that I was able to clean my hands and escape a cruel fate. But I was already deep enough that I failed to avoid guilt and pain from the fact that my friends were kidnapped, tortured, jailed, and have their lives transmogrified by the state. At nights they visited my slumber and I drowned in their moans and groans. During the days my mind turned into something akin to nuclear warfare between grotesque abominations; most of the participants though, decided that I was not supposed to be free, that I didn’t deserve it. Torrent of torments built up. I destroyed things that were not my own. Anger engulfed my guts all the time. I choked my boss into coma and lost my job. I sold all my assets and moved. I hid in remote places until I was stable enough to start over.

I clung to life between hope and despair. Many times I thought I had those moments of clarity. But changes never actually happened in an instant. I realized I had to work; slowly. Crashed, and burnt, tried again, and burnt again; I screamed the whole time. In a place of unknown people and language, I suffered two failed marriages and multiple bankruptcies. I was only able to build a home for my descendants in my third marriage. But I had to leave all that when I found out something about my great grandchildren. They were involved in flames that devoured my old friends.

It happened on my stargazing schedule. The night was clear. Atop a mini-tower I built on my backyard, I was feasting upon the flirtatious sky-dandruffs. That was the time when my ears captured the growl of choppers. I adjusted my telescope and saw them coming. I recognized the symbol on their fronts.

I killed my cigar and kissed my telescope. I hurried down and got inside my house. I took only my suitcase. I was ready to leave everything else behind. But my pace wasn’t quick enough. I shut down my emotions when I walked past those kids in the living room. My steps were bold and sure, as if I didn’t hear their words: MONSTER, THIEF, ABOMINATION. Yet before I closed the door, several of them kneeled, grabbed, and kissed my boots; begging me to come with them.

***

The reign of such a bigoted regime wouldn’t be free from international scrutiny. Soon after its rising to hegemony, various acts of resistance and international interventions decided to chime in. Exploiting the opportunities, many allies of past projects of my old movements resurfaced and regrouped. I had been a part of either the violent oppositions or the diplomatic efforts. The nations broke apart. People were desperate for orders. We grabbed our chance to install our massive automation systems. People didn’t like it at first. But it worked out.

People lived in a just and politician-free society guided by our intelligent systems. Our artificial intelligences were able to adapt and develop its connected infrastructures according to the needs of the people it served. But it didn’t last long. Many nations were outright hysterical by such blasphemy. Many of those nations that once had opposed the bigoted regime, now assault us from every directions. Under such a threat of defeat, I decided to save the system with my own method. At least that’s what I told myself at the time.

***

“It’s hard to believe really. That this wasteland, wherever I set my gaze upon, is not, the end of things” I mumbled to myself, looking through a cracked and dusty window.

She told me, “This wasteland is actually healing. With the hands of our allies’ new systems, people are surviving and thriving in the world charred by the war waged before.”

In this very train route I was on, I used to commute back and forth every day to work. It was always crowded and hard to breathe and even sometimes gave me cramps. I guess the current population wouldn’t make any train nowadays overcrowded.

I sat there embracing my one and only suitcase. The sun already set and I needed charges. A cable plugged to a terminal hidden at my armpit was connected to the suitcase. A girl sat before me. She was wrapped in white latex, shaking her head. She scratched her head with the barrel of a gravity gun on her hand.

“Do you have any clue regarding why they let you get this far in life?”

She tilted her head closer. Her exhaled carbon monoxide reached the tip of my olfactory sensor. I grinned. She was nervous. She blinked fast. Sweat flooded her eyes because she had neither brows nor lashes.

I chuckled and tried to answer her.

“It isn’t hard for me to deem that everything was in vain. There was greed indeed in what I did. I wanted to be essential. Important. I wanted to be the key. But I was eventually too afraid to do shit, and so, I hid. I hid as flames burned civilizations to the ground.”

The train suffered a heavy turbulence. I sat, still supported by my iron grip to the nearest bar. Meanwhile, the girl fell. I smirked and helped her back up and continued my words.

“My old flesh wasn’t up to the task. Such a fragile complex of tissues wouldn’t handle the overload with mere basic augmentations to support it. I convinced myself I needed more. I craved crazier and more comprehensive parts. So, as time walked past me, the thing that used to be alien and strange, slowly took over the wheel. I never felt enough. I tried to fight the urge, but failed for most of the time. I was impulsively replacing my flesh for machines over several decades and counting. But I’m still myself, am I right?”

“You didn’t. No. Crap. This doesn’t make sense. It wasn’t programmed to act that way. Granted, I was informed it had the capability to learn and adapt to accommodate the dynamics of society it intended to serve. But nothing invasive would ever be permitted by the measures put in place. Such a loophole would put the fate of the people at risk.”

“Don’t blame me. I was not involved in its code development. But I admit the possibility that it was all probably just my insanity at fault. You know, the consequences of overwhelming loads on my augs. Imagine, a system designed for national scale compressed and crammed into my petty augmentations! No matter what, it was indeed my fault. With all the just and goody-goody stuff lies, I persuaded myself to commit that act. It was greed. It was a very human thing to do. A thing done by a person fraught with weakness. I desired its computational feats, its analytic and extrapolative performance. Yet, I was never sure whether or not I ever got what I wanted. Yes, I had built several giant entrepreneurial feats over the decades, but was it actually just me? Or it? I don’t know. I’m feeling blind, lost, and cornered inside my own self. I wanted to die, but I couldn’t.”

The train stopped with a quake. The girl didn’t fall this time. She held on to me. She showed her metallic teeth at me.

“They let you be. They even protected you. They thought the system could learn from you. It could learn all your inner algorithms as a human. They wish to see it grows in its capacity to understand and govern humans. Come, let’s get off this train and see your throne. You and it, shall replace the tentative system. Perhaps, for the rest of your life.”

“Why am I being involved also?”

“Are you kidding? You can see this as your punishment. Justice has to be served. To be honest, the majority of us already thought of you as a non-human.”

 

Review: Asimov, Vinge, and Eagleman

I recently read these three books, and I’d like to share my experience reading them. The first book was, Isaac Asimov’s The End Of Eternity, the second book was Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon The Deep, and the third was David Eagleman’s SUM: Forty Tales From The Afterlives.
I had been craving to read Asimov since the first time I stumbled upon a web comic adaptation of his story titled The Last Question. Then I decided to buy some of his books. One of them was The End Of Eternity. It tells a story of Andrew Harlan, a Technician of time. He was recruited, educated, and trained to be a part of the Eternity—an organization that spans across time enforcing their computational result of minimal human suffering through their method of Reality Changes.
Andrew became Computer Twissell’s personal Technician supposedly because of his talent as an observer, though later revealed it was for another greater complex reason. It’s described in the story that Technicians are commonly avoided and feared; other Eternal would throw their gaze away from Technician’s presence. This is related to Technician’s authority over the fate of many. There’s a saying in the story: A trillion personalities changed—just a Technician’s yawn.
As I read the book, some part of Andrew’s struggles resonated within. It made me excited for the story and rooted for him. Anyone with some kind of nomadic lifestyle, whose possibility to settle down is thin, might sympathize with the life of an Eternal. They’re forbidden to have a family and to settle. The rule served as a prevention against individual attachment with a particular time frame; they’re only permitted to arrange temporary liaison with a timer through some kind of bureaucratic process.
Because their main job is to enforce Reality Changes, an Eternal must be detached from time to maintain objective judgement. Suppose a Technician has a family in some century, how then would he react if suddenly there’s a policy to enforce Reality Change upon said century? His family might no longer existed or changed to a degree that render them too different to be regarded as the same persons. In Andrew Harlan case, he fell in love with a girl from a century he was investigating. He hated her. He feared her. Then, as he lowered his defense for that first love he ever encountered, he suddenly find himself willing, to end the Eternity itself just to stay with her. Yes. This is basically a love story. A love story that’s imbued with time paradoxes and rich wonderful sci-fi world building.
There are weaknesses in this book. It’s too short. Asimov didn’t let the characters to build enough tension within sufficient time for them to naturally fall and hate each other. This resulted in a payoff that is somewhat a bit lacking despite the big impact of its characters’ decision at the ending as suggested by the title of the book. With The End of Eternity, I think Asimov was trying to tell us, about love, humanity, and the infinite possibilities that may rise from its ruins and wreckages.
I’m merely an insecure visitor and silent reader in LessWrong community. I also quite fancy Eliezer Yudkowsky, its founder. While I was reading his personal site, I saw a post recommending a sci-fi novel: A Fire Upon The Deep. After a bit of looking into it using search engines, I was captivated by the world building. The galaxy consisted of several variable physical laws called The Zones Of Thought. Closer to the center of it, the more intelligence and techs failed to survive or emerge; the closest zone is called the Unthinkable Depth, no civilizations mentioned ever exist there. While the zone at the outerside allowed miracles such as super artificial intelligence to exist; this outer zone is called The Transcend. Between them, there are the Slow Zone and the Beyond. Slow Zone is where the Old Earth resides; there the physical law only permit slower than light travel. The Beyond is where most of the story happened. It’s a place where various intelligence able to reach each other and built vast society because faster than light travel is common. This fascinating setting itself that swayed me to purchase the book, I didn’t even bother to check the plot and the characters.
Basically there are two things happened alongside each other as the story unveiled. First is the story of the two refugee children who were trapped in medieval conflict between aliens that look like dogs. And the other one is the story of a rescue mission unit. It wasn’t a mere rescue. There’s something in the children’s crashed ship that may or may not stop the cosmic calamity.
There are numerous aliens and characters in the story.
The Tines, the doglike medieval alien is probably everyone’s favourite. These dogs become intelligent when a number of them grouped together, but they wouldn’t likely to survive as a singular member. This characteristic raises fascinating wonders that are tightly related to the plot. Specifically to the political difference regarding soul arranging methods that caused the tension between the two factions. The antagonist enforced a dictatorial soul mutilation to members of groups in order to create ideal identity related to its engineering purposes. Guess what? The leader of the antagonist faction was an offspring of the protagonist faction.
The Skroderiders are some kind of ancient alien plants using a platform to float around fulfiling their noble and peaceful pursuit. But, watchout, there are awful secrets regarding the myth of their origin.
The Powers are godlike beings from the Transcend that sometimes interract with people of the Beyond. Old One is one of the Powers who was snooping around to investigate the disaster using a human interface it has built named Pham Nuwen. But then, the Old One eventually murdered by the disaster and that’s where the disaster started to deliver serious threat to the whole inhabitant of the galaxy.
I really enjoyed the various aliens and characters and technological differences as they affected each other in meaningful ways, like when the rescue unit gave an instruction from afar for the Tines to invent radio and gunpowder in order to help their war.
For me, the book main weakness is the disaster itself. I think it was supposed to deliver cosmic horror to the reader. But it didn’t work. Yes, there are the murder of the Old One, the fall of Relay, the destruction of Sjandra Kei, and much of the disaster’s rampage upon the top of the Beyond. But those happened far from where the point of view locked on, which are either at the Tines planet, or at the rescue ship. They’re just like news. Bad news. The fear experienced by the characters are largely based on assumptions. Sure there are closely happened evil that threatened the rescue unit, like the betrayal at Harmonious Repose and the pursuing fleet sent by the disaster. The disaster felt so passive and lacking in presence, as if it was invented just to let the world being illustrated to us because of the conflict it allowed. But still, the world of A Fire Upon The Deep is one of the most epic delicious cake to feast upon. Enjoy!
The last one I’m going to review is the book by David Eagleman titled SUM: Forty Tales From The Afterlives. Years ago, this book was mentioned in some articles and I fell in love at once with the concept because at the time I was fascinated by the speculation of the afterlife; I participated in a local short story contest thrice, and thrice I submitted stories concerning such tales. Back then, I didn’t have the cash to purchase the book, it’s only recently that I started generating a bit of cash.
Before reading the book, I was so cocky that I expected what’s inside of it are some things I might’ve thought or written.
I was proven wrong.
I expected a longer form of short stories.
But these are far shorter than what I expected.
And far more powerful.
SUM: Forty Tales From The Afterlives is a book where you can find such surprisingly powerful impact within very short narratives. As I turned the pages, I was like being mercilessly bludgeoned by David Eagleman’s awesomeness. I think, he was really confident that he didn’t need more words to push the readers’ buttons at the right places.
He was right.
SHIVERS. SHIVERS. SHIVERS.
I find my eyes getting wet, and my body shivering everytime the stories take turn to reveal the horror of its seemingly harmless introduction at each of its narratives.
Imagine the shivering I got when I read passages regarding “two-stage process of Death” from one of the stories titled Mirrors:

“…. To understand the meaning of this afterlife, you must remember that everyone is multifaceted. And since you always lived inside your own head, you were much better at seeing the truth about others than you ever were at seeing yourself. So you navigated your life with the help of others who help up mirrors for you. People praised your good qualities and criticized your bad habits, and these perspectives—often surprising to you—helped you to guide your life. So poorly did you know yourself that you were always surprised at how you looked in photographs or how you sounded on voice mail.
“In this way, much of your existence took place in the eyes, ears, and fingertips of others. And now that you’ve left the Earth, you are stored in scattered heads around the globe.
“Here in this Purgatory, all the people with whom you’ve ever come in contact are gathered. The scattered bits of you are collected, pooled, and unified. The mirrors are held up in front of you. Without the benefit of filtration, you see yourself clearly for the first time. And that is what finally kills you.”

The horror of these stories are evoked by pulling the strings of various human conditions and stitching them into a different form that reveal the perceived truth in imaginative ways. Let me give you an example, the opener, titled Sum, told an afterlife story where we relive all the experience we have ever done in our life. Nothing scary huh? Except, we have to relive them in ways that all the moments that share a quality are grouped together. Imagine reliving fifteen months of looking for lost items, six weeks waiting for green light, seven hours of vomitting, sixty seven days of heartbreak, and all things joyful and painful. This raises the realization, that we should choose a lifestyle we would gladly relive in such a way. What are the things you often do but do not actually like it, and still very possible to be eliminated from your life?