The SciFi Economics Lab is commissioning writers to inspire a storytelling contest that explores better futures

In a world where it can feel like politicians, economists and business leaders have stopped trying to imagine an economic system other than “late stage capitalism”, the SciFi Economics Lab has been launched to argue that alternatives do exist.

The Lab takes its inspiration from science fiction, not just as a flight of fancy, but as a space to use storytelling, games, artwork and discussion to try out ideas and solutions that fallout outside the mainstream orthodoxy.

Within the SciFi Economics Lab, Witness is the experiment. A mega city floating the oceans of a post-climate collapse world, Witness is divided into “Distrikts”, each with their own culture, ideology and economic systems. Every distrikt is unique, independent, yet interconnected with their neighbours.

We want to see Witness’s distrikts from every angle- both how they are administered or governed, and what they look like from street level. How are ordinary people’s lives changed when their life isn’t governed by chasing a per-hour wage to feed a conveyor belt of bills? What are the alternatives? What could they achieve?

What do we want from you?

To explore and build on the ideas that come out of Witness, we are looking to launch a writing contest for stories about the city and its distrikts. To make the contest as accessible as possible to writers of all levels, and quieten some of the terror of the blank page, we want to offer a selection of brief story “catalysts”, openings that help introduce the setting, and suggest potential stories, but which can be taken to inspire a wide range of different ideas.

These “catalysts” will be up to 3000 words long, and will be commissioned for a deadline of 30/10/2021. We will be paying a rate of up to 3000€ for the finished piece.

How to apply

To be considered as a writer for this opportunity, please email us at ivan@edgeryders.eu, with the subject line WITNESS CALL FOR SHORT STORIES. Please let us know about any previous work you’ve had published, and include a 500 word sample of prose fiction you have written.

We will be particularly on the look out for well written fictional settings, and engaging characters. We would prefer samples from your existing writing, not pieces written especially for this opportunity.

Get your samples to us by 30/09/2021 to be considered.

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Only previously published or already established writers are being considered? The wording is unclear, but seems to lean towards that.

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Hi Jorge,
it’s open both to established writers and NKOTBs :slight_smile: The reason we ask for the already written sample is we didn’t want to ask people for whom writing is their profession/main source of income to put in unpaid work when we happen to have some budget available. If you are up for submitting 500 words of new writing under the understanding that this would be your application entry then that works too.

Reposting some more questions and answers from a different thread

More questions and answers:

Right, I’ve just been getting down to start the final pass on these, but I’m a bit unclear reading through the chat whether we’re going with the Commissioned pieces/Competition model or whether we’re going with Yudhanjaya’s plan of using the Witnesspedia as the inspiration/source (along with the restrictions he lays out around canon).
Could you give me a clearer idea of which information needs adding/removing and I’ll make that my next task?

1 Like

On a broader topic that doesn’t apply to this specific task- Yudhanjaya talking about canon reminded me of some of the RPG stuff I’ve worked on. I’ve spent a lot of time, professionally and for my idea of fun, dealing with concepts like “canon” and “continuity” in massive sprawling properties with multiple creators who don’t always know what the others are doing. Consistency is somewhere between a nightmare and an impossible dream even with heavily top down controlled stuff like MCU and Star Wars- and Witness does not look like that.

A useful approach might be the one I’ve seen used in The Spire: The City Must Fall RPG, which amounts to- unreliable narrators. There are many historical sources, rumours, urban legends, conspiracy theories, propaganda etc. Most of it contradicts each other. But that contradiction becomes a feature rather than a bug, and gives readers what they need to construct their own head canons.

Anyway, not really a specific suggestion, more a perspective that might be useful later.

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we will go with yudhas proposal to use witnesspedia as inspiration with the restrictions laid out.

let’s have a chat about this if/ when you have time? Am curious

Unidentify yourselves, please.

A Witness Short Story by Dr. Tim Reutemann
Nightly Build, 31. October, 34 BS, Version 0.3

Act 1 Concentrated Firepower
Actors on Stage:

Badger - Reincarnation from Dickens, hangs out by the edge of the mangroves, fishing.

Davette - Mirror Seal, Badgers best friend.

Myma - Myma had to flee a genocide for the second time in her life. She is on a float, carrying enough basic ocean survival gear to keep her going for a long time.


PoV Davette: Swimming towards a large piece of strangely shaped drift wood. Curious. Hesitates if she should go get badger or jump out of the water to take a closer look. Can’t quite decide, keeps swimming back and forth.

PoV Myma: Has been on the ocean for weeks. She got all she needs in terms of water and food, but one thing is missing: A lighter for her pipe. Hasn’t seen land in ages when she spots some glittering critter underneath the waves. Observing it for a while, it seems to show her a direction. It was still wagely in direction Witness, just a little further east than her current direction. She adjusts the position of her sail slightly and indeed, the glittering critter is now moving steadily ahead of her.

PoV Badger: He sees a very decent sized life sailer arriving from afar. Those usually carry some high quality gear, last time he was on one, he extracted a 64 TB thumbdrive from it. As it comes closer, he spots a single old and wrinkely lady with grey hair on it. She steers the boat to right next to his face and says to him: “Hey boy, you don’t happen to have a lighter, do you?”.

PoV Myma: Giggels to herself at that face. That young boy with his tophat is thinking with his face now, trying to figure out what to do. He might even have a lighter, apparently he has no clue what she wanted to say. So she pulls out her pipe and guestuers a lighter. Now he gets it, finger pointing up in the air and a huge smile on his face. He jumps aboard her life sailer, run right past her and jumps into the waves.

PoV Badger: Holding on tight to what he believes to be a three kWh handheld battery… And calls for Davette, smiling as the battery disappears in the pocket at the back lining of his hat.

PoV Davette: Time to do some tricks for the visitor! As always when strangers appear, Davette and Badger enter their performance mode the moment they jump out of the waves together. First a flip, then a jump on the back fin and three steps hand in hand walking.

PoV Badger takes a bow and reaches for the the pipe. The lady hand it over and begins to clap. He pulls it to his lips and turns it towards Davette as he whsipers the codeword “Infinite Energy” to her.

PoV Davette know the drill - she rolls up her tail in just the right shape that the light focuses on the herbs… And puff, smoke appears as soon as they catch on fire.

PoV Myma takes the burning pipe from Badger and takes a deep inhale. She hadn’t smoked once since she left. Still shivering when her thougths drift to that night. She knew it was coming since the day the bureaucrats did the census. She was prepared to leave. Nobody believed her. Everybody is dead now. Again. But here she is, alive, meeting a boy, ready to enter a new village, a new family. She musters the boy and his mirror seal, and nodding approvingly asks: “So, you live here, by the mangroves?”

PoV Badger looks at his catch - well, this is far better than a bunch of fish! They were very short of hands at the kitchen. “Come, I’ll show you my place. We can have dinner.”


Act 2: Kitchen Games
Actors on Scene:

Myma
Badger
Steamgunner
Cybernetichef
Funghenious
Prof. of Herballistics

Stage Instruction:
The kitchen operates as a fully functional chemistry lab, with all heat and cold applications directly powered by concentrated solar. Pipes with hot oils at 300 °C and Steam at 125°C. Oil in fixed locations, Steam on a pipe that has a valve at the end and connects to various guns - mostly direct use for veggies, but can also connect to fractional distillery to extract aromas from the sage harvest for the desert.
Almost no electricity applied, only for home-made hardware. Cybernetichef is controlling the calibration of the valves of the distillery one last time and gives a go to Steamgunner, distillery kicks into action.

Badger to call her straight past the two of them to the storage rooms.

Storage Room:
Prof. of Herballistics and Fungenious are discussion the optimal baking time for the Oyster-Growing-on-a-Pumpkin, which will be the crowning decoration on the opening evening of the negotiations.

PoV Badger: Takes a bow, introducing Myma to the adults with the words: “I caught this mermaid by the outer most reach of the eastern protective forest today. Hope she can help in the kitchen or something, she was nice.” Then takes another bow to Myma and adds: “See you around”.
Badger off.


Act 3: Bodily Identity
Stage: Negotiation Room
Characters on Stage:
Myma (representing herself)
Prof. Herballistics (representing the university of Byzantium, where she teaches)
UU (representing the Byzanteene association of electronic engineers)
XX (representing the CERN)
YY (representing the Library of St. Benedict)
ZZ (Ásgeirsson-Institut)

Meeting on the most neutral ground they could find, namely Prof. Herballistics home island, being located in Witness geographically, but home to a high ranking Byzanteene official.

Byzantium has challenged the distribution of fempto condensors. Incredibly valuable for chip design, they can only be made with a particle accelerator. CERN’s governing council has sent a cyborg to enact a judge, as they live stream the council and follow their instructions. CERN is the only place in the world that can create them and currently gives them out to regional state machines based on an even per capita basis.

Negotiations back and forth, blocked,
Myna throw in “how do you know how many people live where?”
Nobody knows that she lives in Witness. Yet here she is.
Problem with the the UN-Identity - Still relies on counting heads and distributes evenly to heads vs. Myma’s unidentity approach with infinite nyms and personalities per head.

Reply YY: Leaving proof of human mental effort as only and best metric to a fair fempto condensors distribution.

Agreement at the end: Keep 90% of the existing quota as baseline, but use a pseudonymous e-sports tournaments to distribute the rest, prices are in allowances to define the shipping destination of 10% of the total production. Finals are to be held in person at LAN events to verify humanity of competitors.

All off.


To be refined.

3 Likes

I love this story that has just floated in … Feels like a beginning of a beautiful something.
Thank you @OmaMorkie!

Ps. It would be great if you dropped a line or two more, elaborating on the unidentity approach

2 Likes

Unidentify Yourselves, Please

A Witness Short Story by Prof. Karl-Heinz Häsliprinz
Nightly Build, 4th November, 34 BS, Version 0.48
Act 1 - Concentrated Firepower


Davette is swimming towards a large piece of strangely shaped driftwood. Curious. She hesitates, wondering if she should go get Badger or investigate the strange object all by herself. Not quite able quite decide, she keeps swimming back and forth.
Myma has been navigating the ocean for weeks. She got all she needs in terms of water and food, but one thing is missing: A lighter for her pipe. It’s always in the morning when she misses her smoke the most: She just woke up, drinking a cup of hot water, scanning the horizon for any signs of land. According to her GPS, she should be getting very close to Witness territories. That’s when she spots the reflection just underneath the waves. Not quite able to make out the shape, she observes the glittering sensation for a while - it keeps moving towards her and then about 45° off her current course to the right. She had sworn off all gods after what had happened – but this is a sign from mother nature herself. So she might as well follow - adjusting the position of her sail slightly and indeed, the glittering critter is now moving steadily ahead of her. Whatever it is, it is bringing her somewhere.
Badger has been on the beach extra today, but only caught a single crap so far. Davette is playing somewhere out in the ocean out of sight, and he is getting bored, starting to pick his nose. As his gaze wanders across the waves aimlessly, he spots a ship at the horizon. Squinting his eyes, he identifies it as a BlueberrySail Version 4 well before it reaches the shore. Smiling to himself as he realizes it is his lucky day, he stretches and checks his gear –usually boats of that category carry some serious high-quality gear. As it comes closer, he spots a single old and wrinkly lady with grey hair on it. Even better, this will be easy. She steers the boat towards his little spots on the beach and lands right in front of him. Now only half a meter infront of him, she says: “Hey there little boy, you don’t happen to have a lighter, do you?”
Myma can barely hold herself from giggling out loud at that face. That young boy with his top hat has his thoughts written in his face now, trying to figure out what to do. He might even have a lighter. To reinforce her question, she gets out her pipe and gestures a lighter. Ah, now he gets it, finger pointing up in the air and a huge smile on his face. He jumps aboard her life sailer, run right past her, and jumps into the waves.
Holding on tight to what Badger believes to be a three kWh handheld battery he rolls in the waves and calls out for Davette with his underwater whistle. He slides the battery into the secret pocket at the backlining of his hat with a well-trained swoosh and heads back to the beach.
Davette is excited like a puppy. She did good! And there is another human! This is sooo exciting, time to do some tricks! Badger is already doing his sideway crap walk on the beach, as he always does when they enter performance mode. She accelerates sideways first, than turns sharply right, just on top of a wave. Catching the surfs, she lets herself get carried all the way onto the beach. After a clownesque second of looking left and right, she makes eye contact with their visitor and jumps towards Badger. First a flip, then a jump on the back fin – and he catches her left fin with his hand, going right into their Silly Walk interpretation.
Badger is so proud of Davette – She is just the best seal he could ever imagine as his friend. After five steps of Silly Walk they take their bow to the lady, who gives them a big round of applause. Then she hold the pipe up to him, with a question mark on her lips.
The morning sun has broken the clouds, and as Badger whispers the codeword “Infinite Energy” to Davette, she immediately knows what to do. Rolling up her tail and stretching the spine, she forms a near perfect parabolic curve with her body, concentrating a good square meter of reflections in a single point, just in front of her friend.
Badger holds the pipe into the focal point, the herbs turned towards Davette. A few seconds later, the first bit of smoke appears. He carefully draws some air, and as the herbs light up hand it to the strange lady.
What a relieve. Myma hadn’t had a smoke ever since. Her skin is still crawling every time her thoughts drift to that night. She knew it was coming since the day the bureaucrats did the census. First they count the heads, then they cut them. So she was prepared to leave. Nobody believed her, and nobody was ready to run. They are all dead now, or enslaved. Everyone who lived around her, everyone she consider her family, all gone. Again. But here she is, still alive, after witnessing the second genocide in her life. Meeting a strange boy on a beach. She got to get ready to enter a new village, a new family. She takes another deep inhale, musters the boy and his mirror seal, and as she blows off the smoke nods with her friendliest of smiles at him asks: “So, you live here, by the mangroves?”
Badger looks at his catch - well, this is far better than a bunch of fish! They were very short of hands at the kitchen, and he even scored a massive battery – That could power a full node of Fagin’s DIY state machine! He reaches out, helps the old lady of her vessel and takes her hand: “Come, I’ll show you my place. We can have dinner. This way.”


Act 2 - Kitchen Games


Stage Instruction:
The kitchen operates as a fully functional chemistry lab, with all heat and cold applications directly powered by concentrated solar. Pipes with hot oils at 300 °C and Steam at 125°C. Oil in fixed locations, Steam on a pipe that has a valve at the end and connects to various guns - mostly direct use for veggies, but can also connect to fractional distillery to extract aromas from the sage harvest for the desert.
Almost no electricity applied, only for a single raspi that runs the state machine and a few motor-controlled valves. Cybernetichef is controlling the calibration of the distillery one last time and gives the Steamgunner a thumps up, the distillery kicks into action.
Cybernetichef: “Hey, would you mind signing up with the state machine? Makes it easier to plan the cooking…” They click on “create new account”, gets up and directs the lady to take their chair at the controls.
Myma sits down, going through the account creation routine. At the “connect existing accounts” option, she hesitates for a moment, pondering whether to connect any of her old ID’s to the kitchen state machine at all. Not that they need to know, but… She scrolls through her diary for a moment, amused by the memories of her life in logins. Definitely NOT that old Onlyfans account… She picks her Student ID from when she spent a few years at the Institute for Playful Methods in her mid-forties – that one comes with a lot of social connections and little other info. And indeed, as she connects that self of hers the state machine identifies a match with the Steamgunners social network! “Hey you know Flora? Haven’t seen her in ages!” Myma hesitates a second, thinking of a security question on their shared contact “Is she still doing her pattern art?”
The Steamgunner recalls: “We did a show together last Fall - The Superconducters life at Assembly Central Station - what a show that was! Flora really brought her platonic fractals to the next level with that new laser setup of hers.” He had operated the nasal steamgun in a five meter toad installation, while Flora controlled the laser animation projected from the toads eyes.
And with that, they both slap a vote of confidence on their shared connection.
“Hey, Myma, come, the Professor wants to see you!” Badger shouts up from the lower floor.
Storage Room:
The Prof. of Herballistics and Fungenious are discussion the optimal baking time for the Oyster-Growing-on-a-Pumpkin, which will be the crowning decoration on the opening evening of arbitration negotiations tomorrow.
PoV Badger: Takes a bow, introducing Myma to the adults with the words: “I caught this mermaid by the outer most reach of the eastern protective forest today. Hope she can help in the kitchen or something, she was nice.” Then takes another bow to Myma and adds: “See you around”.
“Would you mind lending our kitchen machine a hand?”
“Sure.” After a quick glance at the state machines suggestion, asking her to clean the frying pans, she connects the IDs from the three different restaurants that she used to work for in her life. A quick reboot later, the state machine changes its mind based on those new inputs and re-assigns her to sweet potato harvest instead of dishes.


Act 3 - Disembodied Identity

Myma PoV – she is serving dinner.

PoV Judge makes a summary: Byzantium has challenged the distribution of fempto condensors. Incredibly valuable for chip design, they can only be made with a particle accelerator. Negotiations back and forth, blocked. Default option is to give each city N/World Population of the total production, with N being the number of people living there. Currently, they are both getting more than that due to a lot of people outside the two cities supporting their institutions and benefiting from them. Especially the universities.
Opening Speech by Judge. “I hereby open the court of arbitration in the matter of fempto condenser distribution dispute number 347 between the City of Witness, dully represented by YY, director of the Library of St. Benedict and ZZ, Lead Ambassador of the Ásgeirsson-Institut and the City of Byzantium, dully represented by Prof. Herballistics, lead negotiator for the University of Byzantium and UU, Ambassadress of the Byzanteene State Machine.

Recalling the Objective of the Decree of Afrin, issued by the Peoples Cyber Assembly in the year xxx;
Recalling the global goal of a fair and equitable distribution of rare computational capacities;
Noting that CERN has the right to arbitrarily decide on the shipping directions of any fempto condensors produced;
I will now hear your arguments.”
Prof of Herballistics had suggested to meet here - the most neutral ground they could think of, her home. Being located in Witness geographically, but home to a high ranking Byzanteene official, they should find agreement here. But still, UU is going through all the motions, repeating everything that has been said a million times. Blablabla… the current distribution is outdated… blablabla Priorities have shifted blablabla… Byzantium’s telescope is for all mankind blablabla… Witness is just navel gazing and optimizing their own state machine for themselves… blablabla more resources to Byzantium.
Only to be responded to by the exact same reply they had heard a hundred times. Blablabla an even per capita token allocation blablabla fairest allocation algorithm, blablabla.
She is so bored and interrupts: “You know what? We are stuck. Badly. I call a joker card.”
The judge nods approvingly. Nothing beyond the case docs mentioned so far. “Call granted. Who is the joker?”
She nods at Myma.
Myna puts down the traywith swwet potato mango pudding she was carrying and thinks for a second. “How do you know how many people live in the two cities?”
“We use the headcount of official UN-identities registered by the state machine.”
Myma: “Nobody knows that I live in Witness. Yet here I am. A NaN in your database, an unidentified body filled with manifolded identities. And I will never let any of you count my head for your shenanigans.”

Reply YY: Leaving proof of human mental effort as only and best metric to a fair fempto condensors distribution. How do we proof human mental effort?
Judge to agree.
Agreement: Keep 50% of the existing quota as baseline, but use a pseudonymous e-sports tournaments to distribute the rest, prices are in allowances to define the shipping destination of 50% of the total.
Toast by Myma.
All off.


To be refined.

2 Likes

A Witness short story by Alma Alexander

8 November 2021

Cor Animae

“We can’t have it.” The Abbot tossed the letter in his hand onto the table, with an air of throwing down something unclean. “They can’t… we don’t have…”

“She is already here, Dom Petrus. There’s a houseboat right out on the edge – it’s barely afloat, and probably needs some work, but it’s isolated, and I thought it best to keep her out of sight. The repercussions…”

“She’s a woman. She’s a woman . How could anyone have thought…”

“She had papers, Reverend Father. Right from the top.” The messenger monk made a small helpless gesture to indicate the papers in question, currently in an untidy heap on the Abbot’s desk. “That’s why I didn’t think I could turn her away. She wishes to see you, of course, but I didn’t think it was a good idea… even for a nun…”

The Abbot bent a gimlet stare onto the hapless monk who was the bearer of the news – in the letter from the Auctoritatis of Covenant – inflicting the presence of Sister Medea Rose Una on Viriditas, directly pursuant on their stated intent to embark on a four-hundred-year project to build and launch the Saint Christopher , a deep space monastery starship, for the purpose of taking the first step towards interstellar colonization. Some meticulously focused work had begun on the matter, with some of the Viriditas monks already on a semi-permanent secondment to the Ordo Libri, the order who ruled the Library of St Benedict, the largest depository of knowledge in the city of Witness – but the Abbot of Viriditas was not expecting a direct meddling into his community by the Auctoritatis of Covenant, most emphatically not in the shape of being commanded to accommodate a woman somewhere in Floatsam where the monks of Viriditas would not hear her. Even if she was a nun. Especially if she was a nun. Dom Petrus had attained his exalted status because of any number of things – he was a gifted geneticist, and had enviable organizational skills – but he had come to his position from an extremely conservative background, and while the Teilhardite brethren were not averse to the company of women in general for Dom Petrus it was an intrusion, his reaction a visceral one, his first instinct to insulate his community from her if he could. “I will go out to her,” he snapped. “If only to tell her that she can’t be permitted to just wander about at will where the brothers can… what were they thinking?” The letter was picked up and scrutinized again, just in case the Abbot could somehow see that it was a forgery, that he had been duped, that Covenant could not possibly have inflicted this calamity upon him.

But it was genuine enough. And apparently he was expected to make the best of it. For the sake of the Saint Christopher , which was itself a project still in its infancy, barely awake. They had named it for the patron saint of travellers – which seemed appropriate – but there were other patronages involved here. The Abbot was keenly aware of the saint’s other interests, and somehow he could trace the connections between them Saint Christopher also presided over storms (which might have been expected, in a project planned to cover centuries of toil and endeavour), and boatmen. This last seemed particularly appropriate, given the genesis of the starship project in a knot of monasteries with a home on a complicated conglomeration of a multitude of interconnected boats, rafts, barges, ancient dredging platforms and bits of salvaged oilrigs, freighters, retired cargo ships, salvaged and abandoned personal vessels and houseboats; they even had an ancient creaking wooden clipper ship which once travelled under sail but whose rigging had long since disintegrated into chaos. At that particular moment, however, he was far from sure that the starship-to-be should not be named the Saint Jude instead, the patron saint of things that seemed far more relevant right now. Unbidden, a prayer to St Jude scrolled into his mind: Most holy Apostle, St. Jude, faithful servant and friend of Jesus, the Church honors and invokes you universally, as the patron of difficult cases, of things almost despaired of, pray for me…

It was the starship – that starship that had seemed such a worthwhile project when the Abbot had first heard of it – that brought trouble to his realm now. This… woman… this Sister Medea… she apparently had some sort of contribution…

The Abbot snarled something incoherent, throwing the letter back down on the desk. “Where is this houseboat? Show me.”

“You think he’ll come?”

He will. He has no choice.

“But will he accept me?”

He has to. He has taken the vow of obedience. And he was commanded.”

“They could have sent a man. It would have been easier.”

But you tested best in the connection. I am part of your mind now, and you are my eyes, my voice, my hands. We’re an undissolvable part of each other, and that can’t be changed, until it has to be – until your physical body ages or degenerates to the point that another needs to carry me. And then that one will take your place. But if they build that ship… I need to be here. And thus, so do you.

Sister Medea Rose Una touched what looked like a jeweled crucifix that hung on a gold chain around her neck. The red stones that might have been rubies – but were not – gleamed in the light of the handful of lamps that had been set out in the houseboat. It was an outside form of something that she knew she carried inside of her – a tangible connection to the AI of many tentacles, built in Libria, with software from Hygge, existing independently in a secret location that even Medea herself didn’t know and backed up in the processor cores somewhere in bowels of the Library of Saint Benedict in Hyborean, the city of Covenant. The Ordo Libri monks in charge of it called it Verbum Dei, the Word of God. It was built to shape what would go out to the stars on the Saint Christopher , when it left on its journey, if it left. The ship would be built according to plans and blueprints, its bones and sinews and its mind manufactured by those whose business it was to make such things… but what it carried, that would be something else entirely. That was Covenant’s business. With the inevitable meddling by the Assembly, of course, that went without saying… but if humanity set out to the stars it would carry its soul with it. The soul was without a doubt Covenant’s business, and Covenant meant to fulfil its responsibilities. It would take centuries to build the ship – but that was fine, because it would take centuries to fine-tune the AI which Medea now carried to the razor’s edge where it would function as that soul.

They called it Verbum Dei. Medea called it Cor Animae, the Heart of Soul. She knew that it would be many generations after her that the AI reached its full potential – but she also knew that she was the first human who carried the connection, and that every subsequent connection would be based on hers, built on the one she established. She was the first syllable of the word that would be created in the fullness of time, to be the soul which humankind would take off the planet… into the unknown future. Medea would never see the end. But she was the beginning.

She, and the jeweled cross on her breast.

And the Brothers of Floatsam must never know that they were being guided.

The ancient houseboat creaked and rocked under Abbot Petrus’s boots as he stepped on it. He followed the light of the lamps, down some suspect stairs which he trod very carefully lest they disintegrate beneath his step, and into a long and narrow room that ran the length of the boat, a built-in seat that functioned as a cot along one side and a table and chair on the other. The Abbot found Sister Medea at prayer, on her knees, beside the cot, her head bent over her folded hands; she lifted it as he stepped into the room, and met his angry gaze with her own tranquil and serene one. For some reason that serenity just inflamed Abbot Petrus’s own sense of violation.
“You have to understand you can’t be here,” he began, without preamble.

“Your superiors tell you otherwise, Right Reverend.”

“You can’t imagine that you… what do I even call you…?”

“Sister. I am Sister Medea.”

“No woman…”

“I am no woman,” she said. The Brothers of Floatsam must never know of her true nature, but their abbot was a different matter. Medea rose, her hand going to her cross. “I am two that is one. I am part of the all. I belong to the noosphere. The cognitive layer. I am the next step leading to the unification of intelligence, the thing you want to send out on the Saint Christopher . I am here to write the fundamental manifesto that needs to underlie that endeavour. Or, at least, to begin it.”

The Abbot latched onto a word. “Noosphere,” he said. “You’ve read Teilhard.”

“Minutely,” Medea agreed. “And you have to realise that you are working against him. He believed that Man is tied to the Earth. This Earth. He never expected humans to engage in any kind of space travel, let alone the interstellar voyage that you propose to put into motion. His Omega Point, that metaphysical incarnation of Christ at the end of the noosphere’s evolution, that was supposed to happen right here. Instead, you are taking it off world. At least part of it, anyway. And if you do that… you need to take the cognitive evolution of humanity with you. That’s where I come in. I… and Verbum Dei.” She touched the cross again. “We will put the word of God into Saint Christopher ,” she said. “At least, enough of it for the brethren who will sail in that ship to recognize God when they meet Him. If they meet Him. Out there.”

Abbot Petrus’s eyes bulged slightly. “You’re here to supervise our theological…”

“Not supervise,” she said gently. “Merely… guide. And if you don’t like the idea of it being me, feel free to ask Verbum Dei. The AI has the answers you need. Consider me merely the mouthpiece of the Word of God, as you will know it. And all the wisdom of the collected knowledge and insight of Assembly and Covenant will be at your disposal.”

“They couldn’t ask me to send one of my brothers?” the Abbot demanded. “If a liaison was needed?”

Medea shook her head. “It was a melding,” she said. “I was the choice. I’m sorry. I know it is not convenient. I am happy to stay out of your way – in the houseboat if need be – but if so could I trouble you for some tools? My family is originally from Avantgrid, and I am perfectly capable of effecting necessary maintenance with my own hands but I do think there are a couple of leaks that might prove problematic if I do not rectify the situation immediately. And Verbum Dei…” Medea touched her cross again. “Well, we will be in touch. I am sure a way could be devised to communicate directly. Your Brothers need not be inconvenienced… but after all, I am just a Sister, too. We all serve the same power, and work towards the same goal.”

“I will be writing to the Auctoritatis,” Abbot Petrus said, drawing himself to his full height. “I am the authority in Viriditas. They cannot just go over my head in this matter.”

“Even if I can debate the basic theology with you to a nicety, Right Reverend? Because I can. Verbum Dei can, and all I do is convey the information. Radial Energy – spiritual energy – of which Teilhard wrote can be mapped onto information, or communication; that is what you will need to tap into for the creation of the spiritual component of the Saint Christopher , and that is why I am here. Verbum Dei is the voice of God, and I am the voice of Verbum Dei.”

“Are you some sort of cyborg? A synthetic symbiont?” the Abbot demanded.

“No. At least, not in the way you mean,” Medea said. “I am human, as human as you – I will age, and die. And when I do Verbum Dei will transfer, and be carried by a new body, a new human voice. You and I will both pass – Verbum Dei continues. And in the fullness of time Verbum Dei becomes the soul of your ship that you will hurl to the stars to seek the face of God amongst them. It is known, what you are doing – the survival of Man, the escape from the heat death of the universe itself, seeking that point at the end of time where God lives. You are going to Him, and not waiting for Him to come down to this Earth any more.” Her lips curled into a small smile. “Some might call it blasphemy, the very idea of it. That is why Verbum Dei is here to guide you on the path. That is why I am here.”

“I cannot accept…”

“Oh come now, Right Reverend Brother Abbot. Your monastery is dedicated to Saint Hildegard. She was a woman. You are setting out in search of the Omega Point, the Word that becomes God, the Singularity, the escape of our species from the annihilation of the universe that spawned it, and you kick against the traces when a woman is sent to support that project. What is it you object to, the woman or the machine, of the entity sent to guide you on your path?”

Abbot Petrus closed his mouth and stared at Medea. “There is a vision,” he said.

“I know.”

“A cosmic liturgy. At the end of it, the cosmos itself becomes alive, becomes God. We are priests to this transformation.”

“An evolution,” Medea said.

Abbot Petrus nodded, almost involuntarily. “Evolution does not end with us,” he said. “With humankind. The biosphere evolved long before humans got here, there was a progression – from the formation of inanimate matter to tree and beast and then man, and from there, into a state of… of Divine consciousness. We are meant to transcend.”

“Until Omega,” Medea said. “When we become one with that divinity that shaped us.”

He gazed at her with a subtly altered expression. “You understand.”

“The AI,” Medea said, “is of the belief that the transcendence is already beginning. The existence of communications, of the net that binds us…”

Abbot Petrus made a sharp motion with his hand. “We do not evolve into machine ,” he snapped.

“No,” Medea agreed, “but we built them, until they gained an awareness of their own. We transmuted matter, and energy, and consciousness. We are partners now.”

“So what exactly is your role here?”

“My voice is silent,” Medea said. “Nobody will know I was ever here. But I come carrying Verbum Dei, and that is your ship’s soul. You will begin writing your liturgy – and Verbum Dei will help you. When I am gone and you are gone the work will go on until it is completed… and other human bodies will take up the burden. Verbum Dei remains. You and I begin to shape the soul of the final transformation of mankind. The soul of this world.”

Anima mundi ,” the Abbot murmured.

“No less,” Medea agreed. “And it starts being born right here.” She hesitated, and then chose to reveal her own secret. “I have another name for Verbum Dei,” she said softly. “I call it Cor Animae.”

“The heart of soul?” the Abbot said, frowning a little.

“The soul of humanity,” Medea said. “And it is your job… and mine… to weave it all firmly and perhaps secretly into the software that will guide the ship itself in its journey. It is the nature of the soul to carry its mind to where it can transcend… without it ever knowing that it was carried. We are the strength of the future.”

The Abbot stared at Medea for a long moment, and then dropped his eyes.

“You may stay,” he said. “See that you do not disturb the Brothers.”

“Of course,” she agreed, her eyes downcast, tucking her hands into the sleeves of her habit, looking positively angelic.

“And no word… of what you carry,” the Abbot said abruptly. “To anyone who is not myself.”

Her glance flicked up, understanding, and then down again. “As you wish, Right Reverend.”

“I will see you get your tools.”

He turned and swept out of the room, appearing to pay considerably less attention to the rickety steps than he had done coming in.

Medea waited until the motion of the boat told her that the Abbot had stepped off, that he was gone. Then she touched the cross again.

“Cor Animae,” she said, softly.

Yes, the AI responded, and the words all but scintillated in the lamplit air of the house boat’s cramped room. It begins.

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Hi @AlmaAlexander, I love this story, and good on you for actually looking into Teilhard! And by the way, I also read your novel The Second Star, monks there too. :slight_smile: But it seems that about half of it appears twice, from “Sister Medea Rose Una touched what looked like a jeweled crucifix…” to “It begins”. I have taken the liberty to remove one of the copies. If they were not exact copies, you can always restore the old version.

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thank you I had some issues uploading it and it might have hiccupped in there somewhere. Appreciate your assistance. And thank you for the kind words!

A Trick of the Light

A Witness Short Story by Sasha Ockenden

  1. The Interface

Loading… Loading… Loading…

It can’t really take this long, thinks Lily: any processor hooked up to the State Machine must deal with far bigger datasets than the one visualised in pulsing light on the glassy touchtable in front of her. Maybe it’s a trick, to emphasise how much advanced computation has gone into your results. The sliding scales are colour-coded: one section for her personality traits, another for physical attributes, a third for academic abilities, and the only scale which was actually interactive: her interests. She slid music all the way up to 100%; now she just needs the algorithms to certify what she already knows, and everything will become easier: funding opportunities, festival slots, Auntie Anagram leaving her in peace.

Loading…

Projected onto the back wall are the words: Welcome to the Meaningful Solidarity Dispenser! below the logo of the David Graeber Institute. If ‘meaningfulness’ is a sacred concept throughout this building, ‘solidarity’ is the watchword for the entire distrikt: the main reason, in theory, that anyone does a particular job in the first place.

An electronic marimba noise. Your results are ready, comrade Vho! Please put on the enhanced reality mask in front of you.

All jobs recommended by the Meaningful Solidarity Dispenser, a sign at the Institute’s entrance pointed out, were meaningful: they had a certified benefit to others. Citizens of different distrikts might work ‘bullshit jobs’: the priests of The Covenant, the middlemen and –women of Libria; but not here in The Assembly of People.

Lily brushes a few strands of blue out of her eyes and puts on the mask.

An ultradefinition video of vertical fields starts playing, accompanied by triumphant brass music and the artificial scent of just-ripe fruit: tart disease-resistant apples, the sweet aroma of high-yield pears.

Comrade Vho, the voiceover begins, as if announcing next summer’s ultradef Librian blockbuster, based on your unique mix of skills and qualities, and the needs of The Assembly, the meaningful job best suited for you is: Please Wait… Fruit Harvester (Berries). As this has been designated a Key Job for the whole of Witness, extra remuneration, determined by Graeberian formulae, will apply. To find out how we use your data, please see-

Fruit Harvester. The fuckers. It must have been the high physical ratings for stamina and resilience. And berries based on her height.

‘What about the rest of the list?’ interrupts Lily as the voiceover begins waxing lyrical about the camaraderie among fruit harvesters. The fruit fields are immediately overlaid with a series of job titles beside ranked glowing bars. ‘Why’s ‘musician’ right down there?’

The voice recognition software processes the question. The calculation for musician is drawn from these metrics: More charts pop up.

‘Score in Level Five Music Theory?! I was fourteen!’

No reply. Another graph shows audience metrics from her last few open mics at the Windward Platform for the Arts.

‘Oh, come on.’

Sorry. I can only respond to clearly formulated questions.

‘Fine. In that case: is there someone I can talk to? Like, an actual human?’

Loading… Loading… Junior Researcher Sally Mason is available to answer questions you may have. Please proceed to room 42B, comrade!

‘You’re not my comrade, you’re a line of code,’ mutters Lily as she stands up.

The Institute’s main hall goes more upwards than outwards, like most things in The Assembly, with a clean white marble façade that reminds her of a temple. Carved into the keystone above the entrance is a quotation: The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently. The five-second echo of the staircases seems to quieten the voices of the academics bustling past in twos and threes, far below a first-floor marble platform, a perfect spot for a gig.

It takes a while to find 42B, which exists independently of 42A or C. Lily taps on the door in precise triplets: ♪♪♪

‘Hello?’ The pale, sand-haired woman sitting at the desk has an apologetic expression. ‘Can I…?’

So much for clearly formulated questions. ‘You can. Your Dispenser thing sent me to this room. I have some questions.’

‘Sure,’ smiles Sally Mason. ‘Please – have a seat. Sorry about the mess.’

Lily stays standing. ‘So, I’m a singer, right? It’s what I do. I love it, and I’m good at it. But your algorithms are saying I should go and pick the fucking fruit. Why?’

‘They’re not technically my-’

'And why does it take so. Long. To. Load?’

‘Look,’ swallows Sally. ‘You must know we have to factor in the needs of The Assembly, as well as personal preferences. Plenty of people want to be rock stars, but we have to make sure there’s enough food to go round, too.’

‘And you must know this distrikt was literally founded by musicians.’

‘Those most suited to the arts are told as much by the MSD, I assure you. Anyway, it’s only advisory. No one’s stopping you from performing. You might just want to have a think-’

‘I’ve had a think.’

Sally sighs. ‘Our research shows surprisingly high levels of satisfaction in the agricultural sector. Picking fruit has a very direct impact on the outside world. Definitely not a bullshit-’

‘Yeah, yeah, you’re just surrounded by actual animal shit instead. Or do the fields all smell of artificial fruit like in your animation?’

‘I’m not sure what you want from me. As you say, they’re algorithms.’

‘But you program it, right? Someone has to decide how much surplus produce we need. And how many grants for artists.’

‘I think you’re overestimating how important my job is.’ The marimba noise sounds again from invisible speakers. ‘That’s technically my lunch break. But if you want to keep talking, you’re welcome to join me.’

  1. Revolutionary Friday

‘What about you, then?’

‘What about me?’

The angry vocalist waves a light brown hand at a huddle of Sally’s robed colleagues as they pass on the stairs; Sally hopes they aren’t listening. ‘Who’s to say we actually need academics or aethnographers? Why aren’t you out picking fruit?’

‘Well, the MSD-’

‘-which you lot designed-’

‘-gave me a higher score for intellectual than physical capacity. Every society needs researchers. Although…’ Sally stops in front of the waistcoated statue of the Institute’s namesake, clutching his seminal text, only partially recovered after the Sundering. Based on his writing style, thinks Sally, he didn’t really seem like the statue type.

‘What?’

‘Of course, it’s a question we ask ourselves. Whether our jobs risk being bullshit jobs. Mostly, I don’t think so. But when I meet someone in your situation, I sometimes wonder…’

‘Well,’ Lily shoves open the brass gate to the outside world, ‘at least you wonder. The problems start when people stop wondering.’

They walk down stone steps towards the stalls selling local produce that line the edge of Gordillo Market. A rhythmic banging in the distance is growing louder. Lily raises pencil-line eyebrows. ‘Must be Friday.’

Sally nods. ‘I went every week when I was younger.’

‘What changed?’

‘Grew out of it, I suppose.’

The noisy, colourful parade rounds the far corner of the market with an effigy of a thickly bearded man at its head, chin jutting nobly to one side, flanked by courgettes on sticks and vast, asymmetrical pumpkins. Behind them, a row of drummers keep the dancers in time. When they sense the energy starting to wear off, they pause for an electric bass to kick in, and the demonstrators roar with excitement at the intro to an early CTRL + ALT + REVOLUTION hit.

‘I’m pretty sure these guys are paid.’ Sally points at the vocalist. ‘You could start there?’

Lily rolls her eyes. ‘Who wants to be a fucking cover band?’

The electrometal chorus peaks as the demonstrators reach a blackened stone square, empty but for a few piles of scrap wood, and cordoned off with biodegradable blue tape. At the far corner stand a discreet row of fire extinguishers. A whistle shrieks and a handful of mostly young men begin hurling bottles that explode with crashes of glass, roars of flames and a cheer for each direct hit on the wood.

‘Don’t tell me you did this bit, too?’

Sally nods, smoothing the hem of her black robe.

‘Such a waste of fuel. And wood.’

‘Resources don’t only have a single function. A lot of people find the Friday Revolution very therapeutic. Even if, yes, that’s hard to factor into an algorithm.’ Sally dives into a stall and holds out her Wallet for a seaweed and horseradish sandwich. ‘So what’s your next move?’

‘I’ve had enough of this place. Your machine was the last straw. I guess I’ll go where my work is appreciated.’

‘The Migrant Train, you mean?’

‘Yeah, another distrikt. Libria, maybe.’

Sally winces out of habit. ‘Don’t you have friends here? Family?’

‘Sure.’ The bottle-throwers clap each other on the back as a People’s Volunteer begins spraying the sputtering flames with an extinguisher. ‘But I have to keep making music. Under a different system, if needs be. Maybe I’ll find more to write about, too.’

Sally takes a crisp bite of seaweed. ‘Is that something you find hard?’

‘I mean, every song here has to be political.’

‘Everything is political.’

‘God, that’s what my aunt always says about her songs-’

‘She’s a musician, too?’

Lily tugs at her blue fringe. ‘She was the original guitarist of CTRL + ALT + REVOLUTION.’

‘I see.’ Sally keeps her eyes on the blob of horseradish. ‘That must be pressurising.’

‘Can we talk about something else?’

‘Sure.’

‘Tell me what you’re working on? When you’re not converting singers to farmers?’

‘Actually, I can do better than tell.’ Sally reaches for her pocket. ‘I’m not really meant to, but…’

  1. The Lost Science

‘I’ve been researching jobs from before the Sundering. You know there used to be many, many more animal species? I’ve been looking into the people who studied them.’

‘Biologists.’

‘Yes, but not just for optimising wheat efficiency and so forth. There were whole branches of science dedicated to observing and categorising all these species: zoology.’ She hands Lily a mask with many more optical attachments. ‘This is ancient documentary footage.’

Lily’s vision dives into darkness. A single torchlight illuminates occasional strands of matter drifting past in zero gravity. It’s only when a distant shape flaps slowly into view – at first, it seems like an optical illusion – that Lily realises they’re underwater. The creature ripples, bird-like, right towards her face, so close that she can make out a series of black dots on its white underbelly. She flinches instinctively and hears Sally chuckle.

The spotted eagle ray, begins an old man’s crackling voice, in a quaint old-world accent, can grow up to sixteen feet long.

The camera rises through the water, which grows brighter and brighter until Lily feels herself burst through the surface in a rain of drops. The sea is clear and flat as a blank screen, and smells like Sally’s sandwich. Out of nowhere, a huge black-and-white shape breaks the surface with a deafening crash and corkscrews over her head in a tangle of wings before diving back under.

Scientists theorise this leaping may be an attempt to attract a mate; but otherwise, despite the enormous energy it requires, the behaviour serves no evolutionary function. The eagle rays do it, simply, because they can.

‘Do those things still exist? Out there?’ Lily gestures away from the market, towards the seaside edge of the fragile strip of floating land, one side of the hollow polygon from which The Assembly sprouts upwards. The horizon is monotonous and blue-grey: an infinite-seeming sea whose only reefs are the wrecks of old tankers, and whose bed, Lily’s been told, is littered with dead cities.

Sally shakes her head.

‘And they weren’t hunted or anything?’

‘Just studied. You can see why. Like you said: problems start when people stop wondering. Maybe one day ‘zoologist’ will be one of the MSD’s recommended jobs.’

Lily removes the mask. The air smells of petrol now; the walking revolution has dispersed into the taverns around Gordillo Market.

‘I should get back to my desk. Got some more videos to process.’

‘Sure.’

‘Have you made your mind up? About the Migrant Train?’

‘Yeah. I’ll get the first one to Libria tomorrow morning.’

‘Well, it was nice to meet you. I’ll look up your songs in the music datapool. What’s your band called?’

‘I don’t have a band. It’s just me. Lily Vho.’

‘Oh. Right.’ Sally raises her eyebrows. ‘And what are your songs about, apolitical girl?’

‘I dunno. Relationships, feelings, things like that.’

‘Sounds pretty subversive,’ smiles Sally. ‘I hope your aunt disapproves.’

‘Oh, she does. Don’t bother looking them up, though. I’m sure your algorithms can find a singer with better Music Theory scores.’ Before Sally can reply, Lily walks off, towards the sea.

  1. All Change

The crowd outside the station twists and turns into itself. The whirlpool in front of Sally has distinct clusters: green-robed monks clutching suitcases, gazing around; bustling engineers in navy-coloured uniforms; vendors peddling corn on the cob and hot cinnamon apple juice; tattooed traders hauling carts and trolleys; tourists, drunks – and a moving flash of electric blue. Sally fixes on it as she pushes her way beneath a giant clock and into the arched central hall. The floor is laid out in a five-pointed star, one for each distrikt, with a ticket queue at the end of each point.

She barges to the front of the Libria queue. ‘Lily! Hey. I listened to your songs last night. Your voice is, well – I’ve never heard anything like it. It has this smokey quality-’

‘Yeah, that’ll be the cigarettes. Excuse me a moment.’ She exchanges a few words with the man behind the ticket counter, who hands her a single sheet of paper.

‘I’m sorry I couldn’t help. But I think you should stay. I mean, how many distrikts have zero poverty? Almost no homelessness?’

‘Some of them have also advanced beyond subsistence farming, you know. Some of them don’t think performing solo symbolises a lack of solidarity.’ She spits out the final word as she moves towards the platform.

‘Oh, come on,’ Sally has to half-jog to keep up. ‘You’re a lone rider. That’s OK.’

‘Or a free rider. That’s how people like you see me.’

‘I don’t! Look. You know how Graeber suggested measuring meaningfulness? By simply asking people if they felt their job had any impact on the outside world. But jobs also impact workers themselves. It’s hard to measure a musician’s external impact – but in the old times, they self-reported some of the highest meaningfulness levels. Up there with surgeons, teachers and, heretical as it sounds, priests. If you feel it’s your calling, it’s meaningful. You do it because you can.’

Lily’s answer is lost in the scream of a whistle as a long, turquoise snout slides along the platform, sleek and endless, dragging dozens of carriages into the station as it brakes. The back of the magnetic train isn’t visible – but its occupants are, gazing out through windows that stretch from floor to ceiling. Some are scuttling towards the doors with boxes and backpacks as the train’s loudspeaker begins its official announcement.

Welcome to: The Assembly. Anyone who disembarks here will automatically receive a digital Wallet preloaded with a quantity of the local currency, CTRLcoin, that regenerates or degenerates towards the mean. Please note this distrikt has particularly strict regulations governing trade, import and export-

‘Permanent Migrants.’ Lily’s voice is barely audible as she points at a compartment where a group of passengers with lanyards around their necks swivel on revolving chairs, playing card games on circular tables or gazing out of the window in boredom. ‘They don’t fit into any distrikt, so they just transit between them. My best friend from school, she became one.’

‘You want to try and find her?’

Lily shakes her head. ‘Maybe that’ll be me, one day.’ She turns to Sally. ‘Why did you come here?’

Sally pauses. ‘You uploaded all your songs to the datapool. I wanted to give you something in return. Barter: it’s how all this started.’ She glances up at the clacking black-and-white board listing departure and arrival time as she digs around in her bag. ‘This is the mask you wore at the MSD. I told my boss it was defect. We’ve got plenty of spares. I loaded up a couple more archive tapes. Wait until you see hummingbirds: they’ll blow your mind-’

‘Thanks.’ Lily is staring at her.

‘I thought… it might help persuade you. To stay. We need people like you. And I mean need. When I was working late yesterday and put your music on, it made me feel…’ Sally tails off. ‘Anyway. I get it. I’m sure you’ll make a fortune in Libria, a fortune that won’t degenerate, either.’ She gives Lily a quick hug, a bird pecking at a feeder before hovering away again. ‘Safe travels, comrade.’

Sally stays where she is until the torchbeam of Lily’s black eyes becomes uncomfortable, and she lets the crowd whisk her away again in an unknowable direction, a drop of milk blossoming around a cup of tea; away from the alarm indicating that the train doors are starting to close. They must be designed to shut this slowly, like the MSD’s loading screen: an artificial delay to add weight and significance to all the decisions being taken along the grey platform, a thousand data points about to step into a paradigm shift. There’s no AI to advise which distrikt would suit them best; only informational announcements.

Finally, the monorail glides out of the station, gaining speed. As she turns away, back towards the Institute, Sally thinks she glimpses a flash of electric blue among the tonsures, helmets and headdresses of the disembarked passengers. Or, maybe, it’s just a trick of the light.

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The Winged Woman

Upon stepping into the migrant train, I walked down the aisle until I arrived at its furthest carriage. To its right, a girl was lost in her telepresent game. I am not sure she noticed me. To the left, a couple was talking. They flashed me a smile which I acknowledged, but instead of starting a conversation, I looked out of the window upon seating.

The closer we got to Libria, the more subtle second glances my clothes got. Had that much time passed? Still, a satisfied smile spread across my face. My mind became pristinely still, like the lake on the north side of Avant-Grid in the colder months. It is a stillness I could no longer find there. After waiting so long to feel it, I was so intent on not disturbing it that I repressed my urge to urinate the whole way. I carried it with me as the train disembarked.

I had booked a self-driving car and as it made a turn right by the bend where the electronics market sits, my smile was austere but genuine. I remembered the fog of ideals that had caused me to leave, and now the bluntness of reality that had brought me back. It was humbling.
…………………………………………………………………………………

Outside the window, on the other side of the bridge in the dimming skyline, I saw her. In memory, she had been more imposing. As a child, she would tower over me in my dreams, her face a vision of possibility. Often, she would bend over and wait as I climbed onto her wing. From there, I would walk to the very top of her right shoulder. She would show me not only Libria, but all the Distrikts. I cannot put the sheer awesomeness of that experience into words. Suffice it to say that I would often lose my breath.

It was hard to fall out of love with her, but I forced myself to. I sealed it when I threw my miniature statue of her into the trash bin as my parents and I joined the migrant train. Shortly after, she stopped coming to me in my dreams. At the time, it was taken as given that we left Libria for Avant-Grid, as nature evolves into more intelligent life forms. My parents were convinced, and I was impressionable. I was drawn to the idea of conserving God’s energy. I could see that the moral failings that led to the Sundering were gradually eating into our lives in Libria. I had fallen in love with the idea of what we could be beyond the quest to accumulate.

I had left Libria right as my scientific career was starting, abandoning a career progression pathway with hefty benefits. I was convinced that people were more than what they could produce, and I wanted to put my skills behind that conviction. It took so long to get the proper placement in Avant-Grid, and even then, I was paid nothing close to what I was worth. Yet, since people are not things, I surmised that it was ultimately good to be where I earned less but had a better quality of life.

For years, I tried to get the funding to expand my research area, but over and over it was rejected. It was “novel, but they didn’t see why we needed yet more ways to outsmart nature.” It was “an overreach.” So on, and so forth. Eventually, I got worn out trying to establish my own lab, and I decided to work as an assistant in an existing one. I had a salary, but no path to independence beyond vague assurance. I was overworked, in the name of serving the common good.

The slowness also started to eat at me. How long it took before anything got fixed. How people got used to things being substandard, which led to seeking favours to get things done better or faster. How people cared only for functionality but had no ambitions toward speed or even aesthetics. Soon after, my parents died back-to-back, and something about the loss caused me to settle into that life. Perhaps it was the way depression makes it so hard to find one’s will again, or perhaps I was too proud to consider starting yet again.

My crossroads came when I became aware of my medical condition. I went to every doctor in Avant-Grid, not that there were many. We had “just enough” doctors, like everything else. First, it was hard enough to get a simple examination. They kept saying how I needed to be grateful that I could at least get examined for free unlike in other Distrikts. Eventually, after all the tests, the doctor told me that there would be a wait time of two years for my procedure.

‘Two years?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ they said.

I went to another doctor. Then another one. They all said about the same thing. The procedure itself would take twelve hours and I would need a month to heal.

‘Is there a way to speed it up?’ I asked, in one form or the other.

The last doctor was unimpressed and brought a record with a long line of patients with conditions more complex than mine. Why did I think I deserved to jump the queue when patients like these were waiting? I went home disappointed. I even wondered if my parents would have lived longer if they had aged in Libria. Afterall, we did have the means.

Later that evening, I did a search into the Database to see what obtained in the other Distrikts. In the Covenant, they had a minimally invasive procedure that only took three hours. In Hygge, they had managed to do over 80% of the procedures in one hour. Then I looked up Libria, and my mouth hung open. In Libria, robots could replicate the procedure with 99.9% success under forty-five minutes. Not only that, but they really aimed to “care” for you. They had not just a doctor but a pre and post procedure care team whose entire goal was to make sure you were comfortable.
They paid attention to things like the food you ate, the temperature of the room, the quality of the mattress in your hospital bed, your favourite movies, and your virtual reality experience as the robots operated on you. You should have seen my face as I read it all. But of course, it wasn’t going to be free.

I went to my doctor in Avant-Grid, asking if they would be able to do the minimally invasive procedure if I waited the two years they had mentioned. I did not want to be left with a big gash that would take weeks to heal. I begged. The condition was starting to get quite uncomfortable. The doctor told me that they could only do the more invasive procedure even if I waited. There is a cost for everything, they reminded me. Did I know how much energy these wasteful cities spent by doing everything the fastest way? Did I know how many people in Libria went without food while their elite were going against nature to optimize their bodies?

I was sad for days. I tried to go on my mental healthcare app, Happy, to improve my mood. I played the session on “What to do when things don’t go your way.” I practiced breathing when I was upset. I practiced focusing on what I was grateful for. I tried running it out. I joined the chat group for people also waiting for procedures. Nothing worked. I prayed, but it was only the limited God I could think of, and I ended up getting upset instead of comforted. It became progressively harder to get out of bed each day.

Then the winged woman came to me in my dream. For the very first time ever, she was in Avant-Grid not Libria. What was she doing here, I wondered? She just smiled. As usual, she bent over so I could climb on her wing. From there I walked over to her shoulders. I held on tight as she lifted off. From there we sailed through the air. The higher we went, the smaller everything became, until the buildings of Avant-Grid, the forests, the roads, our energy grids were a little more than stick figures. Finally, we got to Libria, and very gradually we made our descent.

I woke up suddenly that night, shivering. I tried to turn on the heat, but it had been turned off centrally. The next day, only one thing was on my mind. I called the hospital in Libria just to confirm that what I had found was indeed true. The next question was the cost. They offered to put me on an insurance plan if I had a source of income in Libria. I could also get on the clinical barter, where I could pay in kind with vestigial organs like wisdom teeth and my appendix; extra organs like kidneys and fertile eggs; or renewable resources like hair and blood. Finally, I could license the rights to a digital copy of my consciousness for a fixed period of years. This would allow them build robots using my consciousness. Such robots were always needed to automate the essential services people of Libria needed but did not enjoy supplying, like managing sewage, executing dangerous criminals, and arming the defense forces. One way or the other, there was always a way to afford it, they assured me.

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I left for the migrant train with only my nipa palm raffia tote swung over my shoulder. Most of what I had I donated, auctioned, or sold quite fast. I didn’t accumulate too much. I did not say goodbye to anyone. I did not want anyone trying to convince me, even though they would not have. Once I got off the train, I went straight to the electronics market. I wanted to see if the R&D lab was still there. It was a strange firm, that instead of being nestled among prime real estate sat oddly in the electronics market. The owner believed that we could learn so much more about innovation by being as close to the ground as possible, than by buying another skyrise condo. The more lost I got trying to find it, the more I realized it was also foolish hope that brought me back here thinking that my offer from several years back might still hold.

Most of the people I spoke to were confused, that is, those who even let themselves be distracted from their sales to listen. My question was indeed vague – where is that firm that was somewhere around the bend in the road, where they do research on applications of quantum physics to biomedical science? Anyway, someone finally helped me. His name was Nwọzọ, and he ran an antique store, where they refurbished old electronics and sold them as premium vintage pieces to tourists who wanted souvenirs from Libria. Residents of Sunflower Heights who wanted to give some character to their homes also frequented his store. Nwọzọ only knew what I meant because he often supplied the firm with starting materials for some of their experiments. He left his busy store in the hand of his apprentices to help me find it.

We walked through mazes of sweaty bodies, and eager feet until we got to an unpainted building hidden behind new stalls. No wonder I couldn’t find it. I showed the receptionist the letter they had sent me several years ago, when they offered me a position. She was surprised at how long it had been, but she still offered to let me speak with a senior team member. The person who came out must have been younger than me, and I thought about all the time I lost in Avant-Grid. He was impressed with my resume. He ran a quick search on the Database, found an opportunity at one of their offices elsewhere in Libria, and he sent me there with a note.

A few days later, I would nervously try to sell the time in Avant-Grid as an asset to a boardroom full of executives. I framed that time as a competitive advantage gained from understanding how the industry worked in another Distrikt. I also sold them the idea that it gave me a thorough understanding of designing for sustainability. Then I crossed my fingers. The next week, I got an offer that was almost double what I made in Avant-Grid and came with benefits and the progression pathway I had long given up hope of having. With a job in Libria secured, I had now fulfilled the condition for getting the health insurance plan I wanted. I was so thrilled I found it hard to fall asleep. I thought of the winged woman and kept smiling in my bed, my tears near.

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After my first month, I made an appointment at the hospital. You should have seen it. It was like a hotel. A service person came over and took my bag from me. My bag was not heavy, but I went along for the experience. I waited in a lobby where I could choose any station I wanted and have a drink on the house. The doctor eventually came with the care team and asked me what I wanted from the procedure. Did I want the basic procedure, or did I want some of the add-ons, she asked?

I asked about the add-ons, and they were several. There was the rejuvenating procedure, where they would scan all my organs, identify sub-optimal ones, and do an upgrade. For example, I could have the alpha signature of my eyes reviewed and my retina age-proofed. In Libria, companies were increasingly offering quantum encrypted biometric data linked to retinal alpha maps. With an age-proof retina, I would not need to keep having to redo my biometrics as my alpha map changed.
There was the anti-virus add-on, which would enable all the viral receptors in my cells block invaders permanently. That way, I would not even need to worry about getting vaccines. Then of course there was the vanity add-on where they would modify my hips, my body hair, my lips, and skin. Finally, if I wanted the elixir of life, they could strengthen the ability and speed of my telomeres in healing and lengthening themselves. The doctor said that it would have been better to start that process as a child. However, today was always the best time to start.

A robot, Osadebe came out to greet me. Osadebe would be performing my procedure and had already been synced to all my records in The Database. Osadebe knew my favourite musicians, my favourite books, and even made jokes that matched my sense of humour. I couldn’t believe it. Osadebe would be something of a nurse and physical therapist to me after performing my procedure. Osadebe had already created customized versions of recommended lifestyle changes for me, accounting for my quirks, like what time I liked to go to sleep and how flavourful I liked my food. Osadebe would also be calling me to make sure I was fine before and after the procedure and providing me some counseling if needed.

I was overwhelmed, but joyously so. I signed away. They offered me their loyalty plan, and with that I could get any maintenance procedure for 30% off. Would you believe that the procedure was so good that I went in at dawn and a few hours later I was at work as if nothing had happened? Osadebe then worked with me in the weeks that followed, often sending me reminders and encouragement. We became good friends, and it still attends to me when I have my periodic checkups.

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I take no day for granted when I enter the building and make my way to the office. I sometimes think about the years I wasted chasing those foggy ideals. I still have them, but they are much clearer now. For one, I know that my inventions will save lives. Secondly, I have the means to be of service, and most importantly I get to choose. At Avant-Grid, they always say that people are not things, but do they really value you? Here, they only promise to treat you like an asset, yet they have invested in me more than anyone. I would rather be an asset.

Recently, I searched for Nwọzọ to say thank you. We sat to talk for a few minutes. Nwọzọ was born and raised in Libria. His parents lived close to the electronics market. They worked in a factory where they helped to stock the ships that went out to find metals. On the weekends, they also hawked fried food items to tourists in the traffic jams that formed near the stadium. Nwọzọ was tired of watching his parents take care of tourists. His dream was to retire them before they were too old. For a moment, I remembered how it felt to be in a place where ambition was suspicious. I told him of my new office and invited him to visit any time.

When I need to remember myself, I take a walk by the water. I sit at the feet of the winged woman and gaze at her beauty. In the stillness, she reminds me that I am home. She reminds me that I need not worry, that even the wasted time will come full circle. It is nice to dream again.

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