Somewhere in the depths of the bureau, two researchers lurched through a graveyard shift. Tara flicked through screen after screen, feeding data to a tired brain that did not appreciate the gift. Management kept the room, and the screens, in a state of perpetual dimness, making everything just slightly too taxing for a pair of drowsy eyes. The smell of coffee and ozone covered the whole scene like a blanket. This room never smelled any other way. A few metres away, Carlos rotated slowly on his chair. He had been doing that for ten minutes.
“So, I’ve been thinking.” He said. She gave a nondescript mumble, which he was happy enough to take as dialogue. “You have all these stories, right? Or myths, or whatever. Where humans, or sentient things that are basically humans, are made out of something fantastical.”
“Like dust, or clay, or ants, or bones, or…”
“I get the idea.”
“Right. So then, all through history, there’s this constantly evolving story about how you can ‘make a man’, and what he’d be like, and whether he’d be truly human, and so on. And that’s all still going. People are still reading Frankenstein. The guys over in bio are still arguing about cloning and all that philosophy bullshit. Then you’ve got the exact same conversations with androids, and people are still reading Dick.”
“And then you look at what we’re doing.”
“Sure. What’s your point?”
“Oh, nothing really. Just thinking out loud. I guess, like… truth is stranger than fiction? Plus ca change? Dunno. I think the boredom’s getting to me.”
“It’s been getting to you for the last five hours.”
“Count your blessings. You weren’t around for version one of this. That was one tenth the speed, and ten times the oversight.”
“Congratulations on your suffering.”
Carlos resumed his spinning. She resumed her sifting. Some arbitrarily long, arbitrarily short length of time passed, before something caught her eye.
“Well, this one’s gone to shit.” She sighed, eyes fixed on the monitor.
“Which one? 17e?” He looked worried.
“No. Well, give it an hour. It’s mid-cycle. But 14h right now.”
“You’re kidding. El Dorado?”
“If you say so.”
“How long have B-group been in there?”
“I’ll buzz Mr. Douglas. He was interested in that one. Get them up on the main display.”
The wall-sized array of screens hummed into life, dousing the office in over-bright, electric light. With a few keystrokes, Tara magnified the scene in question. It was in the heart of their palace, the centre of the small but dazzling world that had been built for them. A leader stood, mid-speech, draped in the fullest and most luxuriant regalia that his people knew. The crowd watched in rapt attention, jubilance and anger painting their faces. They were dressed in almost equal opulence, this occasion calling for their culture’s highest grade of luxury (although even the lowest was a gilded extravagance by most standards). Behind the orator, a bare, limp body swung, its lifeless form in grim contrast to the animation of the crowd. Tara turned on the audio, and the fire of rhetoric rushed into their dim little office.
“And so, my friends, I say to you that we must act now, or our downfall is at hand. The brightest days live on only in the memories of our fathers, and the darkest will be all we leave for our sons. These newcomers, these aberrations, they stain and blemish all around them. They do not know the art of our prosperity, and in their crude imitations will topple even the greatest of our works. There was a time, not so long ago, that we were perfect. A time when every man, woman and child was wealthy, resplendent and content. That time is sinking further and further into the deep, and we must have the courage to dive in and grasp it, before it is blackened and drowned. No act is truly ugly when performed in the defence of beauty, and the beauty of our city is absolute. Better to bloody our gold than to let in tarnish in strange hands…”
“Alright, that’s enough. Turn that off.” Carlos rubbed his brow.
“Did you really think that wouldn’t happen?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Probably not. I mean… we gave them so much. It looked like a joke, on paper. Way more of every resource than they could ever need. Then four cycles of B-group and they’re burning themselves down?”
“You wait. There’s trouble brewing in 14i. I’d bet my paycheque that within the next two cycles they’re killing each other over the choice between emeralds and jade.”
“So, a ‘no’ on the whole 14 series?”
“Negative results are still results.”
“You tell that to management. They’re getting shirty.”
“Oh, I’ll them something alright. These things take time. We’ll get there.”
Carlos did not seem convinced. He turned back to his station and began poring over something, presumably the 14h data. He wasn’t seeing the big picture. They would find something that works. But they’d have to wade through a lot of defective scenarios, then defective combinations of defective scenarios. One day, they’d have the good fortune to start on defective combinations of viable scenarios. But that was a way off. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Rome fell. They needed something much more robust.
Still, it was hard not to feel a little disheartened. With nothing to do until Mr. Douglas rolled out of bed and made his way down, she found herself combing absent-mindedly through past failures. There wasn’t much to be gained from this kind of rumination, and she knew it, but it had been a long night. A little guilty displeasure wouldn’t hurt.
In 11d, the people starved. The conflict over a common but miserly source of food had left both groups with nothing to eat. In 15b, the doomsday clock was all but spent. No agreement had been reached – for stopping it, or on its veracity as a doomsday clock. In 18a, the C-group was all dead, and the A- and B-groups were both starting to look like hammers in search of nails. Easy enough to see what was coming. Across the board, they failed. They failed quickly in the harshest scenarios, slowly in the most generous. Given a problem to solve, they refused to solve it. Given a helping hand, they refused to take it. No matter what world she made for them, it was only a question of time until the battle lines were drawn, and then, eventually, the last breath. It was easy, if only for a moment, to feel that the endeavour was hopeless.
But she would press on. This was still the basic stuff. They had reams of reams of future tests, each just waiting for the limits on extremity and complexity to rise. Parameters that were totally implausible in the real world, but that could yet bear fruit. The possibilities were vast beyond consideration, and somewhere in that haystack lay a needle. They would find it, even if it meant taking the whole thing apart, one straw at a time. They had to, after all. There she sat, part of her own much larger, much more intricate scenario. One that, much like all these little simulacra, was well on its way to shit. And, although vast and inscrutable, the universe was what it was. No more, no less. The options available were predetermined, even if they could only command the utter rudiments at present. Through some unseen combination, some undreamt application of those instruments, the course could be averted. That was a matter of faith. Hers were the tools of insight and inquiry, the lenses and the mirrors, and she would operate them dutifully.
Mr. Douglas would arrive soon. He’d grind his teeth, fret, talk politics and funding. The segregationists would have a field day with 14h (surely peace could be achieved by simply keeping A and B apart?). Their opponents would argue that, had the two groups been present from the start, the scenario would have been a roadmap to utopia. The cult of austerity would point to the luxury and abundance of 14h’s culture, a harbinger of moral decay and atrocity – their scenario was too easy, and so it was too difficult. On and on it would go, each voice taking the result as their own, just another weapon for the proselytisers to point at each other. And, in each case, there would be completed trials just waiting to disprove them, all going ignored and unheard over the din of battle. Ultimately, the downfall of 14h’s people didn’t mean anything much. Right now, downfall was the only constant.
That was just a matter of time, or so she’d tell them. And that was just a matter of faith. Management was caught between those who believed in pushing projects, and those who believed in ending them. It was strange. All agreed that they were heading for a fall, one way or another, and yet so many insisted on not trying to change it. Well, maybe that wasn’t her problem. She had her hands full with all those tools of inquiry and insight. That had to be enough, even if it didn’t always feel like it.
On her screen, the flames were rising in 17e. She watched the numbers run down to zero, took a sip of coffee, and started writing the report.