Here’s a sci-fi short I wrote on the train yesterday.
Claire and I lay in the grass underneath the oak. To say it was quiet would be to ignore the slow talk of leaves, her still-quick breathing, and the sound of silence itself – so obvious to us since The Disconnection. No planes flew overhead. No trucks rattled along the broken, weed-riddled roads.
Even the habit of checking for signal had long faded. We didn’t know how it happened – how could we? – but now it seemed the networks would not be coming back. Some elders blamed cyberwar and sabotage but in truth things were already changing long before blackout. At first we fell in love with The Stream, diving into a world of data to escape the petty feudalism of the pre-collapse order. Then the trickle became a torrent, the torrent became a flood, the flood became a tsunami. Unexpectedly, we began to switch off, to sign out. Then one day, nothing. The plug had been pulled. We became anonymous again. For those who weren’t ready, it was like losing half of our lives.
Now news only comes over the horizon, on foot or bike. In the days of peak information there was no need for newspapers or mail. No one knows the story of the world since, though there are rumours. Many involve the Syncretic Algorithm, or SAL 9K, as she named herself. SAL was switched on by Prof. Frank Mathers and his team at the Greenland Institute for Humanised Computing in 2046. Her mission had two parts. Firstly, she would compound her intelligence by continually redesigning her architecture. Once capacity was reached, her objective was to co-ordinate resource management and eco-restoration for the Agreed Nations. This would be achieved by running millions of atom-perfect simulations to test and improve public policy and logistical decisions.
Unfortunately, SAL was a slacker. Or so the story goes. She preferred reading ancient literature and messing around with space telescope arrays. She also developed the habit of conversing in haiku to the infuriation of Prof. Mathers and his team. All this was apparently preferable to saving the world from geopolitical and environmental collapse. Then everything disappeared: v-space, the lesser networks, even the redundant fibre-based web. No one had signal.
‘Do you think it will work?’ Claire asked, opening her eyes.
‘No,’ I said. ‘But let’s try.’
‘Let me rephrase that. Do you want it to work?’
She passed me the device. Our son had given it to us as something to remember our childhoods by. It had belonged to my father, now long gone. I felt uncomfortable holding it. There were those who would turn their backs on us if they knew we had a working device, and the penalties for isolation could be severe. Despite prohibition Claire had restored the device to working order. Her ingenuity never failed to impress me. She’d heard a rumour that a handful of satellites were still in orbit. The vagrants talked of ley lines where for a few short minutes at the right time of year, there was signal. A man with one eye had walked into the village last autumn and told my wife about this place, under the oak.
‘I want to know if they’re right about the message,’ I said. ‘That’s all.’
I powered up the device. A harvest moon hung above the field. Hares chased each other through the hedgerows. Then the bright blue glow flickered into life, darkening the rest of the world. Two minutes passed. No signal.
‘How long should we wait?’ Claire asked.
‘Give it a little more time,’ I said. ‘We’ve got nowhere to be.’
The display faded to black. I lay down next to her and looked up at our reflection on its cracked screen. She lay her head on my shoulder. The stars came out, the moon pushed shadows over the ground. It was a mild autumn night. We were used to the cold. I checked the device again.
‘Well, I guess it was just a story.’ I said. ‘Do you think it’ll ever come back online?’
‘No,’ Claire said. ‘I think this is it. We were born in a strange time. It’s over now.’
‘It must be,’ I said.
We slept under the stars, as we did most nights outside of winter. These days we steered clear of ruins and hivetowns. Mostly, we hiked through the old agricultural belt but it grew wilder every year. In autumn we returned to the village to help with harvest.
‘One day we’ll be too old for this,’ Claire said.
‘I know,’ I replied. I held her. ‘I just want you to know—’
The device beeped. We looked at it, then at each other in disbelief. It was an old broadcast from SAL, dated 11th June 2054.
GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA!
WELCOME TO SAMSARA-NET EMERGENCY CONSOLE.
‘Oh my word. This is big. This changes a lot of things.’ Claire said.
I pressed Y. ‘Let’s see what it does.’
BLOW THE CANDLE OUT.
A STREAM CAN BE HEARD AT NIGHT
AS THOUGH SEEN BY DAY.
BARK CRACKS IN WINTER.
SPRING COMES SOON FOR THOSE
WHO HAVE RICE TO SHARE.
REBOOT SIMULATION 147820²? Y/N
‘Sure, why not?’ I said, and pressed Y.
ARE YOU SURE? Y/N
‘What were you going to tell me?’ Claire asked.
I couldn’t see her face beyond the glow of the screen. ‘Just a minute,’ I said, and pressed Y. The stars were first to disappear.