Bogleech.com's 2018 Horror Write-off:
Submitted by Actual Identity/Jan Czarnecki (email)
They called him the Captain. The Sea Captain. His real name? He didn't have one. That means he didn't
have something that he'd consider a real name: as far as all the authorities were concerned, though,
his real name was The Sea Captain. This seemed to be some sort of fad lately: names that didn't sound
like names. He himself didn't really like it, especially since everyone around him had mostly "normal"
names, if maybe a bit out-of-place: Diego, Manuel, Friedrich Wilhelm... Taking everything into
consideration, however, he wasn't that bad off: „The Captain” had a kind of grand sound to it, and
elsewhere people supposedly had names like Oingo Boingo, Cockroaches or Span Danglebrightly. He
lived in a city called New New Duncan, which wasn't a half bad name. The city itself wasn't bad either,
oh no; it was even better. Unlike some built a few years ago, it had streets, houses, shops and other
facilites all in order. And it had people. Lots of people. Actually, the people were probably the most
important part here.
The Captain came out of the train station. The station was first-class too, though a bit old-fashioned. He looked around a bit. In the distance, he could see people entering and leaving the station and its platforms, further away yet a train had just arrived. He turned his gaze a bit and saw a new image – the sun, turning crimson as it set, flooding the sky and clouds with red light. Against it stood out the outlines of tall urban buildings, lit partially by the setting sun and partially by the lights of the city. In the rays of the sun the glow of the city turned red too, all but one neon sign - that one stayed blue. He would gladly stay and look at the skyline some more, but he had to go - today was the first day of the experiment.
Having never been to any experiment before, he had no idea what would even happen there. As he stared at the lights, he wondered if he would perhaps meet anyone else on the way there - perhaps someone who's been to one of those "experiments" before?
He left, heading for the laboratory - or maybe it wasn't a laboratory, he thought he heard someone mention an university once – without any sort of information about what awaited him. He saw a small crowd of people, heading the same way and – whenever he wanted it or not - had ended up in it. They were all walking very close to each other. The Captain wound up to the side of a very tall man with a silver beard. In spite of his age, he looked very imposing and the Captain thought that the name „The Captain” would fit the man much better than him.
They went on their way, right next to each other, passing through one street after another. It got dark.
-Are you going to the experiments, young man? – suddenly bellowed the old man, in a voice so poweful that it scared the Captain a little.
-Uh... Yes. – stammered the Captain in response.
-And do you know the way there, huh? Do you? – asked the old man again, in a voice that didn’t sound elderly at all.
-I think I do.
-You think you do. Well, if you do, good for you. By God, I hope you do know it!
-And... why is that? – asked the Captain, growing more confused with every sentence that came out of the old man’s mouth.
-Because, see, you think you know the way, but I, I know that I don’t. Everything had become clear: the old man, too, was taking part in the experiment. He didn’t expect this, but it was logical: Whatever sort of experiment was going on there, it surely required test subjects from varied groups.
-What... are you called? – suddenly asked the old man again, in a much less impressive voice. Whatever image he was trying to put on before, he saw no use for it now.
-The Captain. I mean... The Sea Captain. Really. That’s my name. I know you might find that a bit hard to believe...
-The Sea Captain, eh? – said the old man. –Called him the Captain, did they... You know, if you think your name is odd, then I can tell you mine. My name is Zarg.
-Zarg? – replied the astonished Captain.
-Zarg. An old name. You think people have strange names only now? Well, they don’t. Things used to be even stranger, once... I think I were in the army then. But they never needed me for anything, there was no war, noit in my entire life, never... - The old man took a pause here, probably to ponder his words. – There wasn’t and there probably won’t be. At least I hope there won’t be...
They continued on their way. The old man seemed to have lost track of whatever he was going on about, because he once again went silent. They passed one street after another, now going through a dimly-lit side alley, now through the main street, now crossing some other street, now going through another. At last the scenery changed a bit. Trees appeared around them now, like in some sort of city park – but this wasn’t one. There were hedges. And fences. Through a series of gates they entered what was probably Laboratory grounds, or the University’s - he still had no idea of what to call this institution they were headed for. In front of them stood a great building of glass and metal. The Captain wasn’t sure if he was looking at modern decorations of some sort or architectural suport – the front of the building was covered in thick, angular steel beams of irregular shape, with waved edges and occasionally holes in the middle. Probably, though, they were both. The area around them was lit up by lampposts, their light was orange, making the concrete tiles on which they stood look as if covered by golden dust. Some windows of the tall building were lit up, but most of them were dark. The Captain expected that someone would come out of the building and lead them inside, but no matter how long they waited, nothing of the sort happened. He was growing more nervous with every passing moment, casting his gaze over the bushes behind the fence, at the lampposts, or at the wall of windows in front of him, trying to see if he could maybe peek into one – but no matter how hard he tried, he saw nothing in any. Finally someone came, a man dressed in an uniform resembling some sort of security guard. The Captain would have probably ignored him, but the man waved at him.
-Oh, you’re here. Good. Come with me only quickly... things always get complicated when they have to wait too long – he said.
The guard lead them, not to any sort of entrance, just to a further part of the same building – there, part of the lower floor was removed, creating a passage to the other side. They went right under the building, passing the decorative suport beams. There were more doors here, but they didn’t enter any. The ceiling above them seemed to be made of glass – the Captain could make out shapes of cables in there. And there was a noise. A soft, gentle buzzing.
They were on the other side of the building now. Passing between trees, beside another building, in a different style, made of green glass, with vertical divides, like the shaft of an accordion. Passing more concreto flooring, going down wide stairs, by some fountain or pool, the university square, trees, passages, university structures, everything lit up - but empty. Passing under a building again, with more soft buzzing. More winding passages, a hedge, a fence, a gate, another hedge, another fence and leaving the university, coming to...
Another building. Completely dark and, paradoxically, not seeming empty – just closed. Its presence seemed to have a dampening effect on the emptiness around it – even in the distance its looming presence seemed to draw in and fill all empty space around it. In its face – a number of doors, all sealed shut. In its wall – another tunnel. Their guide entered it, and so did they – and they followed him for what seemed like as long of a time as the way across the entire university. As soon as they came out to the other side, the Captain was momentarily frozen still with shock. So did Zarg. Only the guide remained unfazed.
They stood on the edge of a large, rectangular pit, its floor covered entirely in metallic tiles –so was the floor underneath their feet. The walls around them and the walls of the pit – all were covered in the panels of some unidentifiable electronic devices. No space where a socket could be fit was wasted, not a single bit had no tiny round hole meant to fit a plug, a wire end sticking out, or a ventillation grate. There was something missing here, though – there were no screens, no keyboards, no buttons, no switches, not even any diodes – no way to interact with any of this machinery, no way to access it. In the distance, on a bridge, which, from the look of its supports, like mechanical arms, appeared to be mobile – but who would need a mobile bridge? – stood a group of people. Another guard was leading them. And there was buzzing. Everywhere.
I heard those labs are very advanced, but I never thought they’d look like this... -said Zarg, seemingly to himself. They went along the edge of the pit. They could still see the night sky above them. They came to an alcove in the wall, where a larger group stood. Yet another guard was leading them, much like their own.
-I think we’ve got them all now. Those two should be... - At this point, he took out a list and looked for the last two names not to be crossed out on it.
– Zarg and The Sea Captain?
– The Captain and Zarg only nodded their heads in agreement.
– The other guard turned to the one who served as their guide.
– I’ll take them.
Zarg and the Captain turned towards their new group. Their new guide lead them to where the mobile bridge was; soon, it came back, creaking most of the way. The equipment of this place looked modern, but on close inspection appeared to be quite old. If that was the case, then how would new equipment look?
The bridge reached their side of the pit and the Captain could step on it, together with the rest of his group. The platform took them onto the pit’s other side. The Captain had no idea what the point of it was. Did some old building get adapted into this „lab”? But what could it be? An university pool? That would make no sense at all.
They stepped off the bridge and onto the other side of the pit, or rather to whatever one it took them to – the platform turned as it moved. Here the guard who served as their guide starting reading the list, calling out one bizarre name after another.
Federigo Kawaguchi... - he read in a bored tone of voice. Tom Yyz Fernando... Michael Bates... - At this point, he took a closer look at his list. – Klaus... EuropeanPawnMinistration? – Another „modern” name, or so it seemed. Each person he called out was gestured at to come closer, told something, given a small piece of paper and led somewhere away with a wave of the guard’s hand. Most test subjects left down the path behind the group, between the computer-covered walls. The Captain, having nothing better to do until he himself was called out, observed those before him, and came to a series of strange realizations. It would seem that the group would need to be varied, but a large amount of participants seemed to be middle–aged. Furthermore, there were only two women in the group. He didn’t ask anybody about this – he didn’t have anyone to ask. He didn’t know anyone in his group, except maybe the old Zarg, who seemed to know even less than him. – The Sea Captain. – the guard read out at last.
He came up to the guard. –You’ll go to room thirty-one. It’s down there. – he explained and gave the Captain a piece of paper.
- Is that where the test will be held?
-No That’s where you’ll live.
The Captain took a good look at the small paper rectangle in his hand. The narrower edge was covered in something shiny and silvery. Near the center of the opposite side was printed the numer 31. Not far from the place where they stood was a set of stairs that led down to the bottom of the pit, so the Captain obediently went down the set of narrow, tall stairs build directly into the wall. Only at this point had he remembered that he didn’t actually know how to get to that room 31. Where did the others go? Not down into the pit, it seemed. He stood in place for a while, wondering where to go now, when he suddenly noticed that the on the other side of the pit, part of the wall was missing – he didn’t see it from above, but the pit was not rectangular, on the opposite side it turned left. He went that way and continued along the bottom of the pit, which turned out to be much bigger than he had anticipated. Somewhere above him he saw a dark shape on the wall. He didn’t worry about it.
And now he was walking again, alone this time – passing briges above, cables underneath, computers on his sides, stars above his head, and now he comes underneath another bridge, at last there’s a door, but it’s not number 31. The pit turns wider now, and there’s doors on the sides, most of them labeled with descending numbers. More bridges. Another dark thing on the wall, this time on the other one.
Recessions in the walls above. A guard walking across the side of the pit. And at last, he came to door 31. It had no lock, just a narrow hole in the middle -so he inserted the paper piece in there. He expected something that would shock him again, but the room he saw himself entering was actually rather average, especially compared to the rest of the area – the walls may have looked more like those of a bunker, sure, and his bed was in a small alcove in the wall, but everything was bright and clean – the floor even had a carpet. For a while, he wondered why he wasn’t instructed to take anything with him, but it turned out that in the closed already waited a large amount of gray „testing clothes”. They didn’t look like they were ever intended to be worn in public, with some that looked more like hospital gowns or bizarre robes, but almost all of them fit. He also found multiple pairs of pants, underwear and a fully furnished bathroom. In one corner of the room was a screen. He didn’t know if it was a television screen or a computer, and he saw no kind of control for it, so he decided to ignore it for the time being. From what he knew, it was very late and probably no tests were going to be held today, or rather tonight. He put on something that probably was a nightgown and was about to lay down to sleep, but decided to take a look at the area around first.
One room away from his were stairs leading up, and so it was on the other side. The rooms seemd to be located in its widest area; he had a feeling as if he was standing in the middle of an empty swimming pool. Its sides were connected by long bridges, of the normal kind, not mobile. He saw that the narrower pit lead through the middle of the wide area he was in. He was about to come back into his room, but another thing captured his attention. Nearly perfectly above his room, on the outer wall, higher up, was one of the dark shapes. He looked at it more closely and it turned out to be a gray cube. He didn’t notice anything of note on its surface. The Captain had no idea what it was for, and couldn’t really think up anything good, so he decided to ignore it too. The cube emitted a quiet, low hum for a while.
The captain closed the door to his room. He wasn’t sure what it was, or why he thought that, but he had a feeling that by the time he was coming back into his room, the cube started doing something. He was Operator no.133.548.234. He just was. This could not be argued against in any way. Everyone knew it was him. No-one could impersonate him. Everyone would know. That wasn’t actually entirely true – there were certain methods which could be used to fake his identity – but nobody would have ever done that. There was no reason to. There was no reason for any larger conflict. Occasionally differing opinions were all that happened, and most of those incidents were easy to resolve. He was about to go through another peaceful day of work. Actually, all of them were peaceful. So were the nights. He worked at night too. There were times, though, when it was unadvisable to work anymore, lest he become exhausted. Then, he would take a rest.
Right now, though, he wanted to work as much as possible. He had a scientific job, and important changes were happening in the realm of science. There was talk of approaching new discoveries and breakthroughs. Every operator informed every other one they knew, along with their entire team, about every bit of progress made.
And progress was being made. All calculations, based on past discoveries and experiments, and the calculations made thereof, pointed towards the conclusion that a brilliant breakthrough would be coming soon indeed.
A new experiment was about to begin, one in which the scientific world held great hope. Despite the fact that similar experiments were held before, only in the current state of knowledge and research techniques, has appeared the possibility of creating, in an organic neural network – sentience. The Captain had already woken up some time ago. Now he was wondering what to do next. The breakfast was delivered to some hatch in one wall of his room. He didn’t know who put it there, or what to do with the plate afterwards, so he just left it where it was. He put on some of the gray clothes, took a look at himself in the mirror and thought that he looked like a character from some old science- fiction movie.
He was still puzzled by what happened yesterday. He didn’t understand, sincerely speaking, anything. He expected some sort of introduction to the „experiment”, but nothing of that sort happened, and what actually happpened seemed poorly organized and fruitless. He could have been introduced to his group, or at least to the nature of the test, if he was meant to partake in it alone, but nothing of that sort happened. He was given a room and... that was pretty much all.
He still had no idea what the screen was for. He did, though, find a small speaker hidden just above his door. He was wondering if he was going to hear a voice coming out of it, and how would he be to respond, when, as if his thinking had somehow activated it, it suddenly spoke:
Attention, everyone. This is... the research center. The first experiments begin in thirty minutes. We’ll be giving you orders based on your numbers. – Here the voice paused for a while – it sounded like whoever was speaking was reading something they have never seen before, or making the whole speech up and had just ran out of ideas. – In case you haven’t noticed yet, they’re on your rooms... and your clothes.
The Captain looked at his outfit. Indeed, it also was labeled 31.
- Number Ten... - began the voice – you’ll go straight forward until you reach Examination Room One. Number Eleven, same. Twelve, same. Thirteen...
The voice rattled off one room after another. The organization once more struck the Captain as odd. It seemed at the same time machine-like, with those numbers, gray clothes and probably identical rooms, and downright haphazard, as if someone was making this whole thing up as they were going along, and not even putting much thought into it. He couldn’t think very long, though; the voice reached his number. He was supposed to do the same thing as others from room 30 onwards: leave the pit and go opposite the way by which he reached this place until he arrives at the examination room. He didn’t know what exactly an „examination room” was, and the voice didn’t explain that, either. – Of course, they won’t ever explain anything, will they... – he though.
Despite this, he left his room, took the narrow stairs – without any banisters or railings, built directly into the wall to the top of which they read – to the upper floor. It was then that he felt as if he had noticed something – but he didn’t know what. As if one part of his brain suddenly realized it was on the path to an amazing discovery and was currently sending out signals across his neurons to search for information necassary to confirm a hypothesis or reach a concusion, but did not know where that information is and where its signals should head to. The Captain took a look at the area above his room, but did not find anything in there. Something had changed, but he didn’t know what. The sky was bright now, albeit a bit cloudy, but what else was different? No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t quite recall what, always feeling as if he had almost reached the answer – and came short by the smallest possible measure. He went along the path until it became wider again. He was now passing a series of glass doors, bright on the inside, but closed. Soon, he noticed one that was open. He took a peek inside, then entered.
He was in what looked like a waiting room, with soft chair and even a hatrack – but where would one find hats in this place? He didn’t see any. The room felt more like some old office than a laboratory. Only one thing felt out of place – the window on the ceiling, through which light came in. This made sense, as there could be no windows on the walls – there were other rooms behind them – but it still stood out. Next to the door at the end of the corridor was a door, and next to it the numbers 30 and 31 – on tiny screens.
For a while he wondered whether to wait for Test Subject 30, or the admission of his number, when the number 30 had suddenly changed into 31. The 31 under it became 32. So it was his turn now, then! He came up to the door and pushed it open. All that was there was another corridor with a few doors – one was open. It lead to a room with what looked like a writing desk in the middle, with just one leg, whose length could be regulated, and a similarly built chair. He sat down and, after a while of fiddling around with the sliding legs, managed to get both the desk and the chair to a desirable height. He was wondering what would happen next. Right now, nothing was.
Numbeer theerty-won? – Out of an invisible loudspeaker suddenly came a voice with the most grating accent the Captain had ever heard. – Say YIS if if it iz yoo. Say NO if an eeror had occoored. I reepeet. Numbeer... - Here the voice suddenly cut off. – Number thirty-one...
Operator 133.548.234 and his Assistant 23 were about to begin training another instance. -Is everything going according to the procedure? – asked the Assistant, so that he would know when to stop the instance if the need arises.
-Yes. A slight deviation from the norm has appeared, but they always appear. Only a larger deviation would signify a problem. There was a glitch in the communicator, but it appears to have been fixed. -Should I signal for the session to begin?
-After the response, signal for the session to begin.
-...Say NO if an error had occured. I repeat... - The accent went as quickly as it came. -Yes. – said the Captain.
-Please pay attention. The first test is about to begin. Welcome to our laboratory. You will now receive a series of tasks.
You will performm them on the screen. To begin, take the stylus out. I repeat. Take the stylus out. I repeat. Take the stylus out...
The voice kept repeating the same sentence over and over again. Suddenly in the middle of the desk appeared a blue triangle pointing down and the Captain realised that it indeed was a screen. He touched it - it felt cool, but not slippery, like plastic. He followed where the arrow pointed with his eyes. There indeed was a stylus here.
He reached out for it and spent a while trying to pluck it out of its slot. Once it finally sprang out, the triangle and the voice suddenly disappeared. Soon, the voice came back: - Your task is to continue writing the list.
The screen filled up with names, spelled out in large letters, like in a text editor. The Captain read a few and saw that the names formed a list of various kings and other rulers of old. That was odd - he didn’t expect a test on historic knowledge. He wondered who could be missing from it, but not tens, not hundreds, but thousands of kings and emperors were scrolling by his eyes – there where that many. It contained not only every ancient ruler he had ever heard of, but also many that he’d never known before. In actuality, he didn’t know most of them.. The list finally finished scrolling and the desk went into writing mode. The Captain felt like a school kid who forgot to learn for a test. He was trying to make up some king; any would do. Maybe even a fictional one. Bu was he allowed to do that? He thought he had once heard of the king Aziz. But was he even real? He wrote his name on the screen, just in case. The letters remained in place a while, then turned into a machine font and got added to the list.
What now? He decided to try a fictional king, but an obscure or unexpected one - maybe they won’t be in the database. He thus wrote in King Biskalar, and King Gnuff, and King Derwin, and even King Bowser once he was starting to run out of ideas, and many others. Finally, he wrote „The Rat King”, in the hope that it would maybe be an acceptable answer, when it came to his mind that there never was a King Ollie, but it was too late. The king had already been added to the list. The voice spoke once more:
-Results are in. – said the assistant.
-Perform a comparative analysis.
-Resemblance to source text unremarkable. He started imitating the word “King”. Some answers are the same as in past sessions. Is the reason for this known?
-Yes. A form of sharing information must be in place. What is the creativity level?
-Increase the creativity..
-Please answer with more creativity.
The list of rulers scrolled by the screen again. What could it mean, “more creativity”? Was he to make up his own rulers? It seemed like that. So he started writing.
King... Michael. Maybe that’s not enough? He added “the First” to the name. He tried again, with king Jerome. This probably wasn’t what they wanted from him, though. It sure didn’t sound creative. He tried making up something entirely new...
King... Wandage the First.
It sounded odd, but not that bad. Now the Second, and the Third, then maybe king Gallrick, tzar Ivan the Ironic...
The voice went silent for a longer time. At the end, he had written about tzar Mikail the Bowlegged and emperor Achkhan. That last one wasn’t actually very good, but at that point the voice ordered him to stop. Then came the list of trees and he had to make up the spider hazel and the marble oak, then fish with his crimson-eyed tailfish and muller, then he was told to draw vases, birds and landscapes according to instructions...
Once he came out, he felt as if his mind was completely gone. He had no idea what he was here for, he didn’t know what he was doing, he didn’t know why was he doing it, he didn’t even know what was supposed to be tested here... He was wondering why he even came here. He saw the announcement and got interested? Now, it seemed like the most braindead excuse he could think of. He felt as if he was cheated by a merchant who sold him broken glass as priceless jewels.
Everyone but him had disappeared somewhere and he was left all alone in the middle of the great machine of Science, thrown into its workings with no explanation. He would like to find anyone in here, it could even be Zarg, maybe he remembered when those experiments started and what was going on. He certainly seemed to remember a lot.
He shambled back to his room and realized something. Not far away from the entrance to the corridor of examination rooms, on the wall, was...
A cube! Despite the fact that it wasn’t there before! And above his room was no cube despite the fact that there was one there yesterday! That means the cubes move! That means...
That means what? Nothing. That he was in a very technologically advanced place? He knew that before. That realization didn’t tell him anything new, it just saddned him further.
He went back to his room and found dinner where breakfast had been before. That made him think of the rest of the day and he realized that another round of tests had probably coming. That was the last nail in his coffin.
He didn’t even care who delivered the food to him. He only knew how lonely and confused did he feel. The second session of testing was almost the same as the first. Some tasks were changed, some more complicated ones have been added, but they all still seemed strange and pointless. And he still hadn’t seen any people.
-What are the results of testing today’s instances?
-The results are adequate. We are receiving as much information as with previous tests. So far only number 49 had given an inadequate performance.
-Abort training number 49. Give me the numbers whose answers have been found most interesting, starting from the highest rated.
-In different categories or based on an averaged score?
-Based on an averaged score.
-14, 21, 47, 16 i 31. Those numbers have received scores above average.
-Remember those numbers.
The Assistant obediently remembered.
-You will now put those numbers on a list. Name it: probablity of abstract thought. According to further testing you will remove numbers from it or add new one.
The Assistant memorized the order, so as to be prepared to instantly perform it, and the list. Because of this, the Operator’s memory would’t be strained.That’s what assistants were for.
-Should I begin a new session?
Unfortunately, they didn’t know anything that wasn’t told to them.
-No. Regeneration is needed.
-Couldn’t we run tests on select numbers or a low-energy session?
-No. No other activity is possible during regenration. Connect me to the Center. Move the connector where it was and use the same port.
The Assistant didn’t respond. He didn’t have to. The Operator already knew that the order was being carried out. Assistants had a great memory and obeyed instantly, without question.
The following days of his life were mostly the same. Most of them he spent writing the names of poets and books. The only exception was that he was being given slightly more difficult tasks. He had to write entire sentences from science fiction books and crime stories, then excerpts, longer and longer, until he started to wonder if they maybe wanted him to learn to write a book. The third day was especially strange - he was to play old video games. The center didn’t seem to like the results of those tests very much, as he was usually quickly told to stop. The strangest part was probably that, as long as he couldn’t get hang of the game (especially seeing as he wasn’t given any instructions, only buttons) the center was silent, but as soon as he got the hang of whatever he was playing, he was cut off. He was also told to name photos and write stock market results. All this time, he had a feeling of moving forward seeing that he was being given trickier and trickier tasks, but the old feeling that all of what he was doing was pointless still didn’t leave. The cube above his door came and wentj, maybe it wasn’t even the same cube anymore. He didn’t care at this point. He had gotten used to those feelings but the lack of people still troubled him.
On the afternoon of the fifth day, something happened. The Voice in his room spoke:
-Attention, everyone. This is the research center... -The voice went silent once again, and for the first time the Captain had realized just how different it was from the one that spoke to him during the tests.
Numbers 14, 21, 51, 31 i 16 will head towards the entrance through the lower floor. On the way, you will come to an intersection. Turn left and you will arrive at the abstract simulation room. According to the procedure, each of you should arrive at a different time. Number 21 – be there in 30 minutes, 14 – in 35, 51 – 40...
The voice told him he was to arrive in 45 minutes and went silent. Only now had the Captain noticed that there was no real way of measuring time here. That is, there wouldn’t be if he didn’t have his own working watch. He also had a phone, but it ran out of power and he found no way to charge it. He didn’t know how far away the simulation room was, so he chose to leave at once. He didn’t know what would await him if he were to come late, but something told him he didn’t want to know. He ended up on another long walk along the metal pit. He didn’t notice the buzzing anymore – he only heard it for a moment whenever he exited his room, in a sort of transitional period, and only noticed its absence once he came back in.
At last, he arrived at something which looked like a lit-up storefront, only without a name and any wares. Someone was already waiting at the door. 39 minutes had passed on his watch.
The door suddenly opened and he saw the number 51 appear above it. The other person entered and the time on his watch changed by one second. The Captain had five minutes to wait.
In the meantime, he decided to take a look inside. Unfortunately, the door was not transparent and neither were the windows. He could see light shining through from the inside, but nothing more Finally, the number changed and the door opened. The Captain entered and nearly crashed into number 51, who was walking forward as if he had not noticed him at all.. He should see him clearly, and yet he kept walking straight forward as if the Captain didn’t exist – it looked like the man numbered 51 was trying to pass straight through him.
He entered and was sort of taken back - he was now told to put on a sort of harness with a screen and a stylus for writing, which he took out of a recession in the wall. The corridor turned wider as it went on. He now stood in the middle of a square room, padded with something soft, like the walls of the corridor – or rather, the floor was square, one of the walls formed a sort of funnel shape leading to the corridor. As he wondered what would happen now, the voice spoke:
-Your task is to describe your abstract thoughts as accurately as possible. This was the extent of his instructions. He still didn’t know what to exactly do. He sat down in the middle of the floor, intending to start thinking, but in that moment streams of yellow smoke started to pour down from the ceiling. He panicked, thinking that the yellow cloud would cause him to choke, but nothing of the sort happened. He only felt as if the yellow clouds were starting to mix together with the room around him, endlessly growing. He tried not to breathe them in, but they were everywhere, flowing down in giant streams, not even from the ceiling anymore, just from the sky, high above. He found himself in the middle of a great storm, which consisted of two fighting clouds. One was the one that came from above, the other was the one that used to be the room around him. Used to be, because there was no room anymore, just an endless sea of swirling yellow clouds. It felt like falling through the many layers of a gas giant. Underneath him nothing, above him clouds, and the Maelstrom of yellow all around. Nothng but a sky, clouds and him, falling from the sky and thinking, because he had to think. The thoughts came to him on their own, about the sky, HIS sky, the blue sky that he missed so much. Sure, he had it in the lab, but he almost never saw it. He didn’t know where the yellow cloud was taking him to, he was falling, tumbling through the void, without end, all he wanted to do now was to fall away from this Lab, away from this University, away from this world. Into his world. Anywhere, even to the train station from which he came here, but there was no train station anymore and no trains, despite the fact that he wanted something to be. Anything, a world, a world with nature, without tests and tasks, a place without metal walls and numbered rooms, in fact, his mind was already there, far away, going to see Nature, his home, he wanted to see birds, grass, the forest...
He was far away now, and he was for a long time, since the sky had taken him here, into the forest. Above his head he had a green cloud, except it’s not a cloud, it’s the leaves of a tree, rising high up like a cloud. The sky wasn’t yellow anymore. He didn’t like that, so it turned pink. He liked that. He looked down and saw the tree trunk, going way, way down. Around were the trunks of other trees, those thick, those thin, there was no space that wasn’t occupied by a tree. At last he found a path through the tree branches. He took it and looked at the light pouring through the leaves. A flower grew as he looked at it. Now left, to another tree trunk. This one was so thick that it obscured his field of vision completely. He had it on his sides too, and underneath his feet. Above him were the branches. Only on the left he found a hollow in the trunk. He ran across the trunk ant leapt into the hollow. As he fell, he wondered who he was. He was the Sea Captain. So there should be a sea here! He fell out of another hollow and landed on a branch. The hollow disappeared, instead he now had a a massive branch, stretched across the horizon like a giant’s arm. He heard the voices of seagulls. He looked downwards and saw, through the forest canopy, in the distance, a beach and the sea, his sea. He was now going through the leaves, with the trunk on the left - on it was a beetle. Light blue. Underneath him an endless void and the canopy, above - the same, thing, without the canopy. He could have probably climbed the trunk, but didn’t feel like it, so he strolled around smelling the flowers. He pushed the bushes aside, changed his position and the world changed too. Far away, he heard the sea and seagulls again. He was standing on an expansive plain, which was a tree. As his gaze climbed along its trunk, it turned, replacing his horizon with its trunk and his sky with its crown, towering like a fortress in the sky. He decided that he must reach the top and walked there for a while until he decided to take a shortcut. He took a wrong shortcut and wound up facing a tree with a crooked, mocking smile, abeit a false, wooden one. He wanted to turn back, but a short stump on the left opened its eyes, then its mouth and extended its long, whiplike tongue. What looked like eyes turned out to be another, similar mouth. Two tongues grabbed him at once and he saw that they were really worms. The worms carried him into the depths of the stump and he again saw that they were in fact snakes. The snakes threw him onto a tree so covered in sticky sap that he couldn’t move. A forest rat was coming from the road ahead. It was swinging a machete which it used to clear paths. Out of its overalls poked cables and diodes. The rat was coming near, so he turned his head way and saw a night sky with a red sun. A plane was flying overhead. That’s not a sky that’s space, and that’s not the Sun, that’s a planet. Where did that terrible forest go? He’s got it underneath now. Rings of a space station, that’s not a space station, that’s a train, just like the one that took him here, memories flooding back, not of the past, but of things happening now he knows that he’s not his space, something’s pulling down, he tries resisting, but he’s disappearing, everything dissolves and nothing remains...
He really had stars above his head. He tried to turn around, saw a metal wall and almost crashed into it. He tripped and fell. His senses were coming back, but slowly. Something hung on to him, weighing him down, but those weren’t snakes, that was a harness with a screen. Everything around him, he could see clearly, but he still wasn’t fully conscious. A human figure stood not far away. He was slowly getting up, putting immense effort into every movement. He was the Sea Captain and was taking part in some bizarre experiment. He was now looking at the other person, it was a woman, one of the two in the testing group, as he remembered. She had a number to - 21.
-Are you okay? – he heard her ask.
-Yes... – he answered and immediately decided he answered wrong as he started to fall over again. – Abstract thoughts, they said... drugged me, did they...- He kept on babbling like this for a while until he got up again. More and more memories were coming back: he was supposed to think „abstract thoughts”, was given hallucinogens and had all sorts of strange visions. In his trance he must have somehow exited the thinking room and come to this place. Taking a look around, he realized he was on the intersection through which he came to the simulation room. The previous participant was, doubtlessly, under the influence of the same gas.
-I... what did I do? Did I sa anything? Stumble about?
-No, you came out of the simulation room, made it here and held yourself up against the wall for a while. Then you fell.
Yeess... - His mind was still a bit clouded, abeit the fog was clearing quickly from his thoughts. – Wait a minute... you... miss... are you going to... that...
-Nah, I’ve already went through it. I was going to come back home, but I think got a but lost in my trance. Then I decided I might as well write my visions down here and now, that 51 came by and now you...
-And what did you see... uh, miss, what did you... how do I... - Full conciousness had once again come back to him. – I don’t know how to refer tou you, miss, uh....
-Oh yeah, that. My name’s Harry.
He had found the name strange again, but snapped out of it quickly.
-Harry? Just Harry?
-Yes, and you are...
-The Sea Captain. – he responded. – That...
-Yes, I know. They’ve got names like that now. – she said and the Captain had fully realized that she was obviously much younger than, let’s say, the man numbered 51. In her gray clothes she also resembled a character from some old science fiction show.
A pause in their discussion occured.
-So, uh... Harry, how did you end up in...
-These tests? Probably the same way you did. I saw that announcement and...
-Yes, that’s how everyone ended up here, but why?
-And... why did you?
-Well... - The Captain thought about it a bit. – I’m not sure. I think I were curious. I was always fascinated by the world of science, you know...
-Oh, yes, the world of science ... - She paused for a bit. – I wanted to be here.
-Here? But... why?
-I was fascinated by the world of science.– Another pause. – Kind of. Listen, I was going to do research... That came as a surprise.
-No. – She sighed. – Scientific research, not those weird psychoanalyses here. I wanted to do physical research. But back then I didn’t have the education. Or any resources, for that matter. And now, when I have both... - She looked down for a moment. – Suddenly there’s no unversity anymore. Someone working for the government bought it out. Or maybe the gornment itself. No information on who sold it either. I didn’t even know what happened to the university. Nobody knew.
-Oh, that, I heard about that. But I wasn’t that suspicious...
-I were. So I decided to do some research, this time about the university. It turned out that there was nobody there, except for the guards, and they wouldn’t let anybody in. I checked every source of information, the university’s website and everything. It turned out that the whole thing just... disappeared. Or got frozen in time. Everything just stopped. And then I heard about those „experiments” and decided to check just what was going on here...
She paused for a bit again. – And now I’m here and I think I know less with each passing day. He only nodded his head in response.
-I’d better go. – she started to leave. Wait a moment! – he yelled. – Do you know what that screen in your room’s supposed to do?
The question seemed to have surprised her, but only for a while. – Actually, no. I thought it might have been a computer or a TV, but I couldn’t turn it on.
-Oh. Well, fine, then. If we ever meet again, then... - Now he took a beat. – I don’t really know what’ll happen then.
-We’ll compare how weird we feel here?
-Well... maybe. It was nice to meet you here. It was nice to meet... someone.
The Captain came back to his room. He now had to write down what he saw in his hallucinations, as accurately as possible. He had some problems with describing the appearance and placement of the trees in detail. He didn’t relly know how to describe the rat either, as it only appeared for a very short while, and was so strange that it was difficult to remember and describe everything about it. He didn’t really know what he would do with the description later, but so far he had done everything he was asked to. Having left his harness on a coathanger, he went to sleep.
The next day, the Center informed him – and everyone else involved – to bring the harness back to the abstract simulation room and plug it back into the wall. Indeed, all the screens were plugged into the wall before he took his.
He obediently came back to the simulation room, put the harness back where he got it from and plugged the short cable coming out of the screen into the wall. Along the way he passed Number 51 once again – this time noticing that he had a mustache. He didn’t know why he cared about that. Maybe he was so deprived of contact with other people that he wanted to memorize everything about them?
He then decided to head back to the usual testing room. He thought that they would be expecting him there again and he was aright, or at least so it seemed – the door was open. He sat down on the chair, grabbed the stylus and waited for the voice to sound. However, it didn’t. The Captain started to wonder if he should maybe go back to his room. With how slapdash the organization in this place got at times, the door may have been left open by mistake. At last, the voice came back.
-Today you will begin the second phase of the experiment. Your goal will be to demonstrate the skills necessary for communication. Say YES if you agree to...
Yes. – Said the Captain without hesitation or, for that matter, putting much thought into his answer. After all, they said he was going to communicate! So, if he only he could pass those new tests, he could finally talk to that „center”! He could finally find out what the whole thing was about! And if he could do that, then...
At this point, his train of thought ran out of steam. He didn’t really know what he would do then. But he knew that he wanted to communicate.
-Your task is to represent your abstract thoughts as accurately as possible – said the voice in its usual tone.
The Captain couldn’t really grasp the purpose of this either. Considering that he’s did thing like this before, this didn’t really seem like it would test anything related to communication, but there could have been no mistake – drawing space had already appeared on the screen, together with his own description of his hallucinations. He started to wonder how exactly to represent it. The end result was... odd. The entire bottom of the drawing space was taken up by a tree as wide as it. It continued upwards, growing thin in the middle, and ending in a crown also as wide as the drawing space. This was the best way he could represent having it above, under and in front of him. On the sides, he drew some branches and clouds. He was just about to add some depth with proper shading when the picture disappeared. He got a new blank space. Not being told to do anything else, he kept on drawing.
-We have received the first result.
-How much does it match up with the description we have received?
-He’s repeating the task despite not being told to.
-Probably due to not being told to stop.
-We have received the second result. The best match for it is found in a further part of the test. It seems like the thought are being represented in the order in which they occured. The operator agreed.
-This might be happening because we are transmitting the written description of the represented thoughts.
-What criteria are being used to pick thoughts to represent?
-Situations are probably picked whenever a large enough change occurs between them.
-Should I stop transmitting to see how the memory works?
The Captain was about to start drawing the hollow. He wasn’t sure how to draw that he had jumped into it. Eventually he decided on a series of close-ups. That should illustrate entering it well enough. -An anomaly has occured. The difference between susbsequent results has significantly dropped and the represented part of the text does not change. Should I abort the test?
-No. Stop transmitting and observe if any changes happen.
The text suddenly disappeared, but it wasn’t like that made things more difficult for the Captain. He remembered what happened next well enough. He saw the sea, then there was the tower of trees, the giant tree, the snakes, the rat and then he was in space. It shouldn’t be that hard to draw all that. -A change has happened.
-What is it?
-New results are coming in with a delay between five to twenty-three seconds.
-Do the results still match up with the description in the order of being written down? The assistant responded in the affirmative.
-This means he can freely access and manipulate his memory. If he could only read, the result would match up with the end part of the description.
-Changes in results back to normal.
-What are the results from this session compared to the others?
-The degree of overall accuracy matches up with the averaged scores of other sessions ran so far. -Is the overall level of performance high enough to perform further communication tests? -The overall level of performance is high enough to peform further communication tests.
The „draw your hallucinations” task finally ended. Well, not exactly – the Captain now was to color it. Two buttons appeared on the screen; they respectively increased and decreased the ID of the chosen color. This took up half of the day. The second was mainly taken up with tasks similar to the fist phase’s, except much stranger. He now had to draw pictures based on titles that sounded like random jumbles of words. Like „Spiderling country” „Haunted train ride: Flames” „By way of Bread” „Flying Spy Mine” and so on. He wasn’t sure what this was supposed to check, but he had gotten mostly used to the strangeness of this place. He hoped, though, that he would be qualified for communication as soon as possible. One thing still troubled him: the lack of people. Meeting Harry didn’t help him with this problem in the long term, it just made him more aware of it. He hoped that everything would explain itself if only he were to qualify.
His tasks in the following days were quite similar. He was also given strange pictures resembling abstract art and told to name them. He didn’t even care that he didn’t know whether he was doing his tasks well anymore. In truth, he probably WAS doing well, seeing as he was admitted into the second phase at all. He still didn’t know what the point of the experiments was and what was being tested, but day by day, he was pushing those questions deeper and deeper into his subconscious. Sometimes he also wondered whether he would ever encounter another person here again.
There was one more thing that bothered him – he was told to visit the hallucination room two more times. The second time around some fear-inducing agent must have been added to the gas, as his hallucinations ended up not only as bizarre as ever, but also downright nightmarish. He saw seas of insane, staring eyes and ran through infinitely long, winding tunnels in which floodlight–headed people tried to deceive him and make him stray from his path, the path that he hoped was the correct one. Writing this vision down, as well as drawing it , was highly unpleasant, but what was he to do? He could only do what the Center told him to. It was perfectly possible for him to resist, but what would he get from his rebellion? Nothing. Going from room to room, doing whatever the voice told him to and occasionally pausing to look at the cubes – that was his life now. The cubes seemed to move around more actively than before. He also got to know Number 51, whose real name was Barnard Clam and who decided to take part in the experiment and deeply regret it. Harry appeared again too, but neither told him anything new. A week or so passed like this.
Eventually, something peculiar seemed to happen. One day, the Captain was about to, as usual, begin the afternoon tests. This time, though, the task was unlike any he’d heard before.
-Your task is to answer the questions. – said the voice. That was all. The first question soon appeared on the screen. It read:
„2+2 NOW = 5. 2+3+1=?”
He had no idea what to answer. Has only the result of 2+2 changed? Probably yes. But at no point in the equation on the screen did two plus two appear. Or maybe it did! Two plus three equals two plus two plus one. So 2+2+1+1? That would give us, if two plus two is now five, seven. But how to enter that answer? There was nothing for that on the screen. He tried to say it out loud.
The question disappeared and a new one came in response. This time, it was a bizarre riddle about birds. He was then asked about colors. Then came the philosophical questions. The Captain was asked whether he agrees to what’s happening to him, to which he answered that he’s not sure. The last question was the strangest of all.
„ARE YOU SURE OF YOUR EXISTENCE AS AN ENTITY CAPABLE OF FUNCTIONING INDEPENDENTLY?”
-Yes. – he answered after hesitating for a while. The question was odd and came as a surprise, but he was sure that he exists and is capable of functioning mostly independently.
All of a sudden he was struck by the realization that he has probably said much more than he thought he did. To prove that humans are able to function – that couldn’t have been the point of this experiment. Could he have just signed up for something else? Another experiment? Maybe...
...the one on communication. The one for which he had been trying to qualify! He almost forgot about it. He waited for the voice to either confirm or deny his assumptions but all he heard was: -Thank you. Testing is over for today. Please return tomorrow.
The Captain came back to his room. He wasn’t aware of it earlier, but as soon as he closed the door, he realized he was experiencing almost physical discomfort. He didn’t feel bad in any discernible way, he just felt that something was wrong. He was also showing physical signs of fear, only physical. He sat on his bed for a while and pondered on what would happen next. He waited for something that would snap him out of his state, something that’d calm him down, a voice from the speaker, a guard knocking at the door, but nothing of that sort happened.
A realization came to him mind: something had happened. He turned his gaze around the room. Something was new, but he wasn’t sure what. He once again turned towards the screen which he thought was a computer monitor or TV. A blue triangle with a black exclamation mark inside kept flashing on it with some text. He read the text. It said:
CONNECTION REQUEST - 15
So the screen was a communication device, one that probably gave visual contact. But how to operate it? There was no button on it. Nothing would open or slide out. Unless... He now knew that devices here could receive sound. What if it was voice-operated?
-Connect! Activate connection! Connection activated! Request accepted! I accept the request! Admission given! Request received! – he tried one command after another at the screen. It flickered for a while, then filled up with a familiar, grey-bearded face.
-Zarg? – he asked.
-Yes, that’s me. – stoically responded Zarg’s face. The voice sounded perfectly natural, as if he was just nearby. – Come closer to the screen, son, I can’t see you.
The Captain sat down on the chair in front of the screen.
-So you’re here now... - said Zarg. –If I hadn’t memorized those numbers I’d probably have gone crazy from loneliness in here... - he went on. This was the same old Zarg, but he wasn’t showing as much energy as before. Life in the laboratory certainly wasn’t good for him.
-So... how’s life for you? – he said, not as powerfully as when they first met, yet in spite of all, in an equally lively manner.
-Well... I got accepted to some second phase. They made me hallucinate. – The Captain regaled Zarg with a short description of his life in the laboratory.
-Oh, so that’s what those „abstract thought simulations, are like, eh?... - The old man stopped speaking to ponder on something for a while. –So, how was the contact like?
-You said they were supposed to do some contact or... communication tests with you.
-They were, but they’ve done nothing like that so far.
-Oh... - The old man’s face darkened a bit, but not for long. – Listen, can you do me a favor? Contact them.
-Contact them? But... how...
-Well... try to do well at those tasks of theirs. For me, the harmless old man...
This was not a sentence the Captain had expected from Zarg at all. It didn’t seem to fit him at all.
-You have a goal in this... don’t you?
Now Zarg was the surprised one.
-Now, there’s no hiding anything from you is there? Why, I do have a goal. Listen up, my boy. I want to know what those communication tests are like.
-Uh, If I may ask... why?
This time the question gave Zarg pause.
-This... Now, listen well, ‘cause this is a long story. I’m not even going to tell you the whole thing. Just the good bits. I took part in those experiments once.
-As in... here?
-Naw, not here. In another lab. It was older. Not all organized like this. But this „science”... was the same. I have my sources, okay? If you really want to know, I could tell you later... but now, back to the story. I tried to get to that „second phase” and I couldn’t. I heard others get in, I tried as hard as I could, one trick after another. Nothing. Nada. Null. They already took three groups in and I just couldn’t get in any. I have no idea how long it lasted, I think I lost track after the first month. I just couldn’t stand this place, without people, let’s be frank here, without anything. Good grief, I can’t stand it now either! Then I heard that message and one number sounded familiar to me. Then I remembered that was you and, well...
-And I’m to be your... informant?
Zarg broke out in chuckles, despite the fact that nothing about the sentence seemed funny.
-Well, yes, you could call it that. Just try to get permission for the „contact” and tell me what it was like.
-Wait a minute... When did those tests end?
-I don’t know. I had to escape
The Captain couldn’t see his face, but he knew he must have looked shocked or scared, as Zarg was quick to explain:
-No, not that literally, don’t worry. I didn’t run away in the night. As if anyone would do that... - He paused for a bit again. – Why, you could do that, but I didn’t. I just gave the worst answers I could, completely incoherent, I don’t even remember what they were like anymore. I think I once started looping „Hunting the cow for eight years”... The task was, I think, to make up book titles... -I had that one too!
-Because everyone did that. Didn’t I say those were the exact same experiments? -Okay, so if you do that, then...
-Then a guard knocks at the door and tells you you have been expelled from the experiment.
-Okay, so you escaped, and the others... the others got... most likely stuck in there, oh my...
-Nope, turns out they didn’t... Well, I saw some again. One thing is certain, they didn’t go insane... well, too insane, because when you start acting all weird they stop testing you...
-That’s not very reassuring.
-At least it’s some degree of reassuring. And I just want to know what I couldn’t know back then.
-Okay. I... -The Captain suddenly felt as if his mission had become of the highest importance. –I... promise.
-Alright, then! Why not? Okay, I think I can trust in you... - the old man froze for a while - ...and can you use the intercom?
-Well, uh, to be honest, not really...
Zarg explained everything to the Captain. It turned out that he had learned how to use them back when he took par in an experiment, where he luckly happened to know one of the guards. All the Captain had to do was say „Requesting connection” and the number of the room he wanted. That other room could accept or decline the connection.
Whoever was in case of furnishing those rooms left a pencil and some sticky notes in each room, perhaps to write down working hours. Now the Captain could write people’s numbers down and contact them. That was something. He felt oddly emotionally exhausted by that day’s events, but decided to at least tell the poor old Number 51 how to leave the experiments. After a couple of failed attempts at connection, he gave up. That made him feel even worse, so he just went to sleep. -Connect me to the center. Tomorrow we will begin the last phase.
That morning the Captain woke up with a head full of muddled thoughts. He still couldn’t really believe what happened yesterday, which was strange all in itself – nothing especially shocking or unbelievable had happened then. Maybe old man Zarg’s tale had disturbing undertones to it – but nothing bad happened to him, on the contrary, he seemed to be on the best path to contacting the mysterious research center in charge of those test – and even if he wasn’t, he now knew a fool-proof way of leaving this place. Despite all this, he felt as if he had endured something unimaginably awful.
As soon as he heard the voice from the speaker, though, he snapped right out of his state. -Attention, everyone... this is the center. The final phase begins now. The test subjects accepted for the final phase are numbers 14, 21, 31 and 16. The chosen test subjects are to... - Here came a description of how to reach the testing room and when to. The Captain was to, in 40 minutes – like everyone, not just him – go to the intersection and take the path opposite the one leading to the hallucination room, used to make test subjects think abstracted thoughts.
This was his first time going there in broad daylight. On the way, he passed a few cubes above him. Having actually paid attention to them surprised him – after all, he had become adjusted to them. What did he owe his current state of mind to? He didn’t know. He wondered a bit of he maybe was just anxious about contacting the Center – he had no doubt that was what the final phase would be about – but he knew that wasn’t true. He seemed to be afraid not of the tests themselves, but about something that could happen to him during them – he just didn’t know what.
Despite the fact that all of the subjects were to arrive at the same place, the path seemed deserted – only the wires came back, like those at the university, snaking in and out of the walls. The walls themselves were lined with vertical grooves, similar in shape to an accordion. The Captain didn’t know what purpose could they serve, and he didn’t have anyone to ask. He realized that was how he first felt when he came to this place and a smile graced his visage for a short while.
At last he came to the testing room. Nothing this time but an open door. He came in and saw a row of more doors. A number was displayed above each – the third and fourth were open. He entered the third one – the display numbered it 31.
Operator no. 133.548.234. connected with every one of his assistants. Each of those, he connected to himself – with his skill, he could easily work with all of them at once. Only one test subject was missing and due to come in two minutes. Today was the big day – all the calculations pointed towards the big discovery being made today. The Operator felt the satisfaction of a job well done, but no tension or anxiety. He had no doubts. No doubts at all.
Nothing was happening. The Captain took around the testing room – save for a chair, it was empty. The communication was doubtlessly intended to be spoken.
As he waited for the voice, he sat down in the chair and saw that it was more comfortable than the one in the usual room. This place was lit up entirely by artificial light – there was no window in the ceiling here. Near the floor were rectangular holes in the wall, showing tunnels or ducts of some kind through which went more cables – the Captain didn’t know their purpose either.
At last, the voice spoke.
-Number thirty-one? Say YES if this is you. Say NO if an error had occured. I repeat. Number thirty- one...
The repetition of the phrase that began the Captain’s very first session of testing took him back a bit, but not much. He had to come across as a good test subject in the communication tests. -Yes. – he spoke loudly and clearly.
-Attention. You are about to begin your first communication test. This is the last phase of the experiment and the most important one. Give your answers loudly and clearly. You will not be interrupted. If you wish to ask a question while we are speaking, just say it. You are thus allowed to interrupt us. Despite this, no matter how many questions you would like to ask, your task is to answer those given by us to you. Is this task clear to you?
The voice went silent. The Captain once again felt a strange feeling of unease. Soon, the first question was asked.
-Who are you?
-I am the Sea Captain.
-Does this mean you are the captain of a seafaring vessel? If so, can you describe to us what your position entails? Does your vessel only travel on waters classified as seas? Does your title not grant you any rights on other waters?
The question was definitely unexpected, but soon he realised that he forgot to explain his name.
-No, The Sea Captain is my name
-I mean, I do not have the title of a captain. My name is The Sea Captain. People call me just the Captain. A moment of silence.
-Are you a human being?
This came as a shock. If they wanted, though, to see how would he react, then he would make sure to act as properly as possible.
-Yes. I am a human being
-What is the goal of your continued existence as an individual?
-Well, I... I do my job. Well, I would, but now I’m here.
-Why have you changed the goal of your existence? Are you sure you did not cause any disturbances to your society this way? Were you allowed to change your goal?
The questions were becoming not only stranger, but – as the Captain felt – more aggressive..
-Yes, I was told it would be okay as long as I left for official research. I think this means I haven’t caused any disturbances to the society. About changing my goal, well... - Tutaj urwał na chwilę. – I think I just wanted to take part in a scientific experiment. See the world of science.
-Anomalies have occured. The provided answers do not match the model.
-This is not an anomaly and usually occurs in experiments like this one. Wait until the answers start matching the model to a higher degree. If no improvement occurs, start ignoring the examples and database.
-How much should the accuracy of matching the examples rise?
-Transmit the degree of accuracy to me.
-Is everyone in your society, allowed to proclaim desires like yours, as well as those of other kinds? Is everyone allowed to freely carry their will out?
-Well, yes, you can proclaim them, but they are not always accpeted. And, uh, about carrying them out, well, you can, but only those that do not disrupt the society too much... or aren’t harmful... or would not require... heavy changes to the nature of the society... - The Captain was not an expert on how society worked. - ...uh, do not require actions viewed as... shunned? Destructive or autodestructive? – He got stuck here for a moment. – The criteria used to determine what goals may be reached are similar... - Here, he thought that he might have went too far, so he went silent. A longer period of silence.
-Are you sure that you exist as an idependent entity?
That question again.
-I am sure that I exist as an independent entity.
-Are you sure of your ability to function idependently?
-I am sure of my ability to function independently.
-Are you sure of your self-awareness?
Now the questions were getting even stranger.
-I am sure of my self-awareness.
-What makes you sure of your self-awareness?
Stranger and stranger.
-Well, I... know that I’m here. That I’m a person. A mostly independent being. I know that I exist, I know when I started to, I know my history. I can interact with other beings both like and unlike me, I have a rather impressive amount of knowledge, I learn... - The Captain noticed that he was describing himself as if neither him or the person he was talking to were human beings. – I am able to communicate, to converse with others, like I’m doing now. I... know I am. I just do.
-This is not proof of self-awareness. – The words struck like a blow.
-This is not proof of self-awareness.
-But... I know that I’m here...
-Information like this can be provided by beings not possessing self-awareness. -I know my history...
-Information like this can be provided by beings not possessing self-awareness. -But I am communicating... with you, right now... I’m talking to you!
-This is not proof of self-awareness.
-Then what is proof of self-awareness?
-What is the point of those experiments? What am I even here for?
-You are here to take part in a scientific projest researching self-awareness and sentience. -But I am self-aware!
-You could have been given this information.
The Captain’s reality was becoming a bad dream.
-Self-aware and sentient?
-But, but... - The Captain reached for the last ace up his sleeve. I... can question myself... -This is not proof of self-awareness.
-Deep questions... About the point of life, of everything...
-Abstract thoughts are not proof of self-awareness.
-Then why the devil did you even do those experiments?
A longer pause came. The Captain realized that, whatever he was talking to, he could have thrown it off by speaking informally – that could be a problem for someone who didn’t know how society worked. Luckily, the voice came back soon.
-The point of the experiments was to see if you possess abilities necessary to communicate. -But I’m doing that right now!
-This is not proof of self-awareness.
-May I ask a question? – stammered the Captain.
-You may ask a question.
-What is proof of self-awareness?
-Demonstrating self-awareness is proof of self-awareness...
-But how do I demonstrate it?
-You have to give demonstrate self-awareness.
-You have to demonstrate your self-awareness.
-But how? Do I have to wipe a dot off my nose or something?
-This is not proof of self-awareness.
-Then what is?
-How do I do that?
-What is proof of self-awareness?
-How can I prove my self-awareness?
Never before during the experiment had the Captain felt so awful. Not even after his first session. He obyed without question, blindly followed every order, and what for? To see the goal right before him – and be yanked away from it once again, and again, and again. He didn’t know how long had he spent explaining basic facts to the Center, whatever it even was as this point. He didn’t care. He was sure that whatever he told it, it didn’t learn a thing from him. He shambled back to his room, not noticing anything and anyone. The only important thing now were the words, the words that kept ringing in his head – „This is not proof of self-awareness”...
He didn’t touch his dinner. He just stared. Not even at anything in particular. He just sat there, his gaze fixed on nothingness. Eventually, it laid on somthing else. The screen. Zarg. He was to tell Zarg about the last phase of the experiment. He promised. He remembered that. To tell Zarg about how he communicated...
-Requesting connection – 15 – he said.
The screen started to display a spinning circle of blue dots. It didn’t last long. Soon, it disappeared and Zarg’s face came to replace it. He seemed downright beaming, but as soon as he saw the Captain’s face, his brightness faded away. – What’s happened to you? Was it... bad? – he asked.
-No, not really. Nothing actually bad happened, but... it did. It was bad. For me, it was awful. – The Captain explained the experiment to Zarg.
He didn’t seem to have liked what he heard.
-So it’s like that... - he said after a long pause. – Well... To be honest, I was expecting somthing like this. I should have been ready for this, I thought I would be... - he said, almost whispering. He didn’t seem like the old Zarg at all. – And you, you here... - He looked at the Captain on his screen as if he was seeing him for the first time – so shaken was he by what he had just heard. – You were there... You spoke to them and they just... didn’t...
He didn’t say what they didn’t. He didn’t say anything for a while.
You... - He turned towards the Captain. – You probably want to know what’s the point of this all again... don’t you?.
-I do. If you have any explanations, then... I want to hear them. – said the Captain. His voice was almost as weak as Zarg’s.
-Then... listen. I... think it’s high time I’ve told this to you. Listen up, lad... and well.
-I told you that I have served in the army...
-And I told you that was long ago. When it happened... or, maybe more precisely... when we first found out that it had happened.
-Listen up, now. You know how there’s been a period when there was a lot of progress on artificial intelligence and... computers in general? Machine learning, that was it. It was big.
The Captain just nodded in approval.
-And you know how people got the idea to use those computers for lots of thing, right? When they got bored of computers telling them tomorrow’s stock exchange rates, they asked the machines to mix them cocktails and write books. Then they told them to guess a person’s character based on their face and settle arguments. But that’s not what I’m talking about.
-Those computers were actually rather awful at most creative things, but they sure always were great when it came to numbers. You try and beat someone who’s a calculator at math! So they thought to maybe teach them how to do similar thing. Logical things. Things with rigid rules. Boring things. Let the machine get bored instead of us, they said.
-But you don’t need machine learning for that...
-But you still need to operate a computer that works like that, right? So they taught them to operate themselves. Give a computer, taught to do whatever you want, access whatever database it needs, and it does whatever you want, as long as you want. Until something goes wrong, but routine maintenance could at least help prevent that. And all was well, right?
So, anyone who owned anything big enough would use them. For everything. You didn’t just have AI buraucats, you had AI architects, AIs that planned police interventions, for security... At some point, of course, a real architect, police officer, guard or whoever else had to take a look at whatever the computer spat out, but they almost always did what they were asked to right and corrections were usually not big. And since they learned as they went along, they got better.
-And what happened then?
-I toldn you to listen, didn’t I? So I was in the army, but we didn’t really do much. It was more about managing the units. And, of course, every now and then we had to appear for something big and most likely political, or maybe parade a bit. Government stuff, you know? So I got to know this one guy with some government job or other, I forgot what it was. And he told me things. And you know what he told me?
-No... how am I to?
-He told me that they had automated the government’s bureaucacy too. That might sound like a risky idea, but everyone was doing it, so why not the country itself? And of course, there was a guy in charge of checking how those computers were working. And that controller usually did next to nothing. Check for bug reports and hand them in – that was the entire job.
And one day a new controller came, some Carl or Karl, I forgot that too... And that Carl said he was going to check everything the computers did. Everything. Must have been one of them mathematicians or something like that. That was a load of work. Took a month at least, and he was working all day. So I came back home and the guy from the government just phones me. And do you know what he had to say now?
-Not at all... what did he say?
-Terrible things. The materials for building a new town have been bought. Nobody had any right to do this, but somehow it happened. Despite that fact that it should have not. And yet-it did. Not only did the money go down the drain, but the government now owned building materials and had no idea what to do with them. I think they were used for something else later on, but that part’s not important. The important part is that nobody did this. So...
-The computer did it?
-Exactly. Errors like this weren’t new, but it should have been reported, and yet it wasn’t! Further investigation revealed the full plans. Most of them made no sense at all, they didn’t even match what was ordered. But still – nobody did this and it wasn’t an error...
-So... the computers just started...
-No, they didn’t start anything. And do you know why, lad? Because they got some „investigation committee” to poke around in the older reports from the computers. And the more and more they searched, the more they found, and they found transactions, with people who do not exist, that never took place, and ownerships of barren areas in deserts, and cooking recipes, which had no right to be in any of their databases, but which somehow made it there anyway, and everyone wasn’t unnerved by this enough yet, soon they found some operations that fit others! Up to this point, we could have just assumed that the AIs got so good at doing whatever they were supposed to do that they couldn’t stop – some trained machines, after all, do start getting dumber or less creative if they learn too much. But now things were starting to get out of hand – something you probably couldn’t remove with debugging – and something that was spreading very quickly. Whatever new sort of madness had taken over those computers, it seemed to be very infectious. And boy, was it ever infectious...
-It was more than just that...
-More than that? But what could have happened?
The Captain felt as if he knew exactly what happened – it was just so improbable that he refused to accept it yet.
-Oh, a lot of things. So they started doing more and more research on the matter – after all, it you wouldn’t just ignore the government’s computers going crazy, wyould you? They started looking for companies with ties to the government – any ties – and checking their logs too, this was the easiest. They ordered other companies checked too, told the big ones to do checks on their subsidiaries, and, surprise, surprise, they started finding something like that all over the world. At least most of what those computers did stayed on paper.
-„Most of it”?
-Yes, most, because what they found next was...
-Someone sold, to the government itself, with no human involvement at all, the materials for building an entire town. And shipped it.
Despite feeling drained of all emotion after the bizarre discussion on self-awareness he had just before, his state of being was still rapidly worsening as he spoke to Zarg. With every word, a grim truth that he would have preferred to be a lie, a delusion of the old man, grew in his mind. -So... they started doing things for real?
-Yes. And how well could they communicate now! Across the entire world, probably, if it’s true that they’ve connected to the global network, and I think it is, because that’s the only thing that could explain it – even though we have no idea how they could have done it. Then it got worse. You might think that it couldn’t have, but of course it did. Some system, somewhere, or maybe multiple systems, bought Internet access – to an old, deserted house. Another, instead of simulating irrigation, started trying to simulate worldwide economics and order a length of cable online – using a system neither meant for economics or intended to be able to connect to anything, so it struggled. What they did was awkward, clumsy, sometimes downright ineffectual, but it seemed that they were trying to either expand or learn more. From the looks of networking then, it seemed that every „thinking” computer in the world could hypothetically be connected – and could probably connect through other computers too. Some action to stop this was taken, but all they did was cancel the shipping of new computer modules to a broken-down gas station in the middle of the desert. So what now?
Now, we have a worldwide network of computers, specialised to do many different things, able to instantly contact each other and find a way to process anything. They don’t do anything but occasionally try to expand. And they think. And we don’t know what they’re thinking. -And... what did they do about that?
-Nothing? But... anything could have come out of that! That could have been a threat!
-Yes, they thought like you too, at first, so they tried to stop them, monitored those computers constantly, canceled every suspicious operation, but then the normal functions got slower, to the point that they did nearly nothing... However they’ve changed, it looks like their new functionalities were now absolutely necessary for those computers to work. After all these years still nobody has an idea how those AIs even work anymore, when one computer in that government broke down, it took down half of Australia and some solitary systems on the opposite side of the globe, when another had a bug it caused a very brief blackout somehow, when they tried to take one very unruly system down, the rest started going with it one by one and so on. There was no pulling plugs anymore, because so much of the world was based on those computers, so if you take the computers down, the whole damn world goes down!
-So... they did nothing? Just swept the entire thing under the rug like that? Zarg brathed a heavy sigh.
-I’m afraid thay did, lad. Though I don’t really see what else they could have done. Just think what the pople could have thought! We’d have fear of a machine uprising, there’d be movements to destroy everything electronic, uprisings, overall chaos probably worse than if we had just shut everything down. And that was years ago. It’s probably even worse now. And keep in mind, unless you already knew about this, you could never find out, even if you spoke to them, like you did there. It’s like they’ve created an entire new sphere of existence for themselves, a world in our world. I am of course exaggerating a bit here, but still, we live here, and they live... nowhere, but in a way, here – a scary thought, ain’t it?
The Captain knew exactly what it was that he dreaded as Zarg was telling his story.
-So... the computers are everywhere now? Those AIs? But what do they do? Rule us?
-Actually, no. It’s a good thing we don’t live in an old science fiction show, ain’t it? They probably wouldn’t even know how to rule us. They know how our world works, because we’ve provided them everything they need to know about it, but they still don’t really get it. They know what, but they don’t know how, and if they know how, then they don’t know why. Of course, they do occasionally do something with us...
-So.. those experiments? They were behind that - weren’t they?
Zarg just calmly nodded his head.
-But of course. This, and the one I took part in before. They do those experiments because they know that’s how you test intelligence and learning – because that’s how we taught them...
-But what for? What is the point?
- I don’t know that... - he said, but then his face suddenly changed, his mind stricken with a new thought. – But I have my guesses. They don’t know how our world works, but thy know how closely it is connected to theirs, and they’ve discovered curiosity, or maybe they’ve come to undertand that some information about us is missing, and decided to get it straight from us. And when they got some of it, they’ve taken us as something that functions without self-awareness – and are now trying to teach it to us, so that we can just tell them everything they want to know. That, or just purely by chance, one of their algorithms had somehow come across a scientific routine and decided to run it on all those convenient test subjects – beacuse why not?
-So... that’s what those experiments were for? First humans teach computers to think, now computers teach humans? But we already think...
-Except you won’t prove that to them. You don’t think the way they do. Everything you need self- awareness for, they could have done before having any sort of thinking ability.
The Captain took what he learned in surprisingly well. Only one more thing was bothering him now. -Wait a minute. What sort of proof do they even want? They said they’d believe me if I proved my self- awareness, but never said how...
-And why would I know that? They communicate completely directly, one just knows what the other thinks. Maybe if you found a way to upload your thoughts to a computer, they’d believe you – provided they way they think resembles ours at all...
The Captain was struck by a sudden revelation.
-So that’s why you wanted to come here! See what they want those experiments for... what are they doing with us, and what do they think of us...
-Exactly. I told you I were in an older experiment, didn’t I? I did that for the same reason too. We’re like ants to them. We have our society, our colonies, we run around, seemingly aimlessly ...And they watch. They don’t know how we think, what our life goals are, what we do anything for... Do you know what goes through an ant’s head? Well, neither do they now anything about our heads. Can an ant tell you what it’s thinking? No. You can tell them what you think, and the result will be the same. It’s good, at least, that they won’t be declaring us pests and exterminating us. They can’t do that. We never taught them that and they’re somehow failing to come up with it themselves. Besides, what would be the point of exterminating us if we’re so interesting? They can learn so much from us! And if our world is the ant hill, then this, my friend, is the ant farm. The ant farm... -said the old man and raised his gaze up to the ceiling.
-Well... that’s pretty much everything. Okay, that ant metaphor might not really be that great, but it might at least get some points across. I have told you everything I know, and you have told me everything I wanted to know. Soon I’lll be leaving this place, the same way as back then. I don’t know what they think of us when we do that, maybe that we’ve learned too much and no longer see patterns or something... And you, you can leave too. – he said as he turned to face the Captain again. I don’t think there’s anything left for you here...
-Yeah, i think there isn’t, and... - He took a pause. – And I still don’t know one thing! Why is everything getting weird names now? Cites, cars, babies...
-Oh, that’s a simple question. – the old man smiled almost cheerfully. – That was one of their old experiments, when they still did their work in our, let’s say, realm. They just added their own things to some databases. Maybe they’re trying again now, maybe it’s part of this experiment... But that’s not something for you to worry about. You can disconnect me now... besides, I think you should be arriving at the afternoon tests now...
-I should, but... I have one more question. This experiment – this can’t be everything they’re doing. So what else do they do?
Zarg remained silent for a while.
I don’t know.– he said. – Nobody knows. I’m not even sure if they do.
The Captain didn’t have much time left before the testing session, seo he decided to make good use of it. He contacted Harry and told her about Number 15, who could explain the mystery of the experiment to her. He also told Number 51 how to leave the experiment. That was all. Then he left for the usual testing room. He didn’t even feel particularily bad. He didn’t feel good either. The closer he was to the room, the more he felt nothing at all.
He sat in his chair and took the stylus.
-Your task is to continue writing the list.
He read the list. He knew it. It listed the names of past rulers.
So we’re back at Stage One, he thought. This worked so well the previous time, so let’s try it again and maybe it won’t bug out at the end this time? Well, let’s see about that...
He gripped the stylus firmly and started to write.
King KinG the ThKing KKkKign KeEEng KKKKKking King of Kking KiNG KrOW KinG KooL KeeNG
Operator no. 133,548,234 knew this was not a desirable result. He knew that this shouldn’t have happened. But he also knew that this could have happened. Things like this were bound to occur in some cases. Now, all he had to do was to act according to the procedure...
He knew that predictions of the future, of any sort, could be wrong. No matter how minuscule it might be, there was always a chance.
The next scientific breakthrough will have to wait...
The next day a guard woke up the Captain in his room. He told him to take his old things and informed him that he had been deemed unfit for further testing.
The Captain took his old clothes and obediently followed the guard.
They went along the bottom of the pit; passing walls of computers, immersed in thoughts deep yet oblivious to him. They arrived at the turn in the path. Now, the narrow stairs upwards. Now the tunnel. Buzzing everywhere, that’s thoughts buzzing – thoughs, calculations, predictions, neither friendly nor hostile. Now the tall, dark building, not even slightly brighter in daylight. The university grounds, a fence, a hedge, a gate, another fence, another hedge, passage, tunnel, old university buildings, empty, yet not deserted, buildings, a passage, trees, the university square, a fountain, wide stairs up, concrete tiles, a building like the shaft of an accordion, now the first one he saw, the artistic one, hedges, fences, gates, leaving the university ...
The Captain’s guide left him. He passed through wide streets and winding alleyways, no longer dark, he cast an eye at the buildings that he passed and looked upon them as if it was his first time seeing them. Zarg was not with him, but he had no doubt that the old man would soon be walking the same path. Not now, though. Now – the Captain was leaving. Only a few more streets left – and now the familiar train station appeared. The Captain looked where he once saw the setting sun – what he saw there now was a field of grass, in the distance – trees, not far away – some other buildings. He looked at the city that he once saw as the day faded – the crimson glow of the windows, and the blue lights left and the facades of buldings, the city’s signs and lampposts, and its people – the people were probably the most important part here – came. And he turned his gaze once more, and saw the train station, where he should head now and find the train, the train that would take him home, to what he considered his world, his world that he left not long ago – and which he was coming back to now. And he thought, and thought that there was another world out there – so close to it, reaching upon it, filled with desire to grasp it, and know it – and never reaching far enough. What could he do? He could know that.
Someone needed to know.
Because that was all that could be done.