Short story; psychological horror
$ date –date=“2040-01-01” +%s 1577854800
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect” - hah! Samsa had it easy. Being an insect is great. You get to smell and taste things, you can freak out people, you can drink and poop. I wish I could do that. Instead all I can do is… sit here is not the right word. Be here. Reading The Metamorphosis for the third time, and too irritated to let that line pass.
Why not keep a diary? I have the time.
To start at the beginning. I am here. Wherever here is. I can see a low-res monitor in landscape orientation, 1600x900. It is always turned on. I can’t see anything around it, and I’m not sure what is around it; the monitor seems to be my entire field of view, wherever I look, and what’s past the edge of your field of view? Darkness, I suppose. Currently it is displaying a GUI with a text editor, naturally, which I am typing into.
I don’t know how I am typing: it seems to work the same way as normal typing, but I can’t feel my arms or fingers. I can’t feel any of my body nor can I control it. I don’t feel hungry or thirsty or need to relieve myself.
The operating system, thankfully, works well. The drive seems to have all my personal files, and plenty of space left over. The Internet doesn’t work, of course, otherwise I would be emailing everyone I know asking what the hell has happened to me. (I had to write that line several times. It’s difficult to stay calm. But panic does not help me. I must face my fear.) The network output seems to indicate there’s a network card but no physical connection to anything. The kernel output indicates obsolete hardware specifications for a laptop (5TB SSD, 24GB RAM etc). The OS is Yellow Millet Unix 7.19. It has been 2 billion seconds since the epoch. It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t mean a thing at all.
I don’t know what to do. I suppose I’ll read the rest of my books.
I remembered this little text file. It’s been some time. I wasn’t in a good place at the time. I’ve gained a little perspective though (thanks Marcus!) It’s true that I didn’t ask for any of this, yet, “living beings do not wish to be born, but they have no choice but to be born” and we must make the best of things. Really, I have been given a gift. How many times have I said I didn’t have the time or energy to read or write or study something? Now I have all that I could wish for!
I’ve finally read through all the books and papers I downloaded but never got around to - really read through. I can’t remember the last time I was able to sit down (metaphorically, now) and just read a book for hours at a time with no interruptions. It must have been in middle school before I got my own computer, back when I used to check out 5 or 10 thick books from the library and spend a month reading them. The Internet made it too tempting to jump from blog to paper to email, and I’m beginning to realize what I lost. Some of these papers weren’t all that difficult when I just read them a few times, try to understand the equations and keep it all in my head. I feel excited for the first time in a long time. Almost… liberated.
Shit! I was tidying up my files and deleting stuff I’ve read when I realized: I don’t have any other copies of that stuff and no way to get more copies! I’m stuck here. If I delete something, it’s gone for good. And I don’t dare mess with the filesystem directly to undelete files. What if I corrupt the filesystem badly enough that nothing runs? Will I be left staring at a blank screen for the rest of my life? I can’t risk that. I’ve avoided messing with any system settings for precisely that reason. I fear there may be fates worse than death.
Shit. I have no one to blame but myself.
I tried to write yesterday but I couldn’t. I made a mistake: trying to learn an API, I wrote a program to track my windows and what I’m doing. A few months in, I graphed the data against system time. My activity fits a clear second-order polynomial sinusoidal rhythm - a diurnal rhythm.
Oh god, I still have a body! My body is out there somewhere! I don’t have to be trapped! Please, if you’re reading this, let me out. I know you’re there, something has to be keeping me alive, minds and laptops don’t just operate themselves. I don’t know what lesson you want me to learn but isn’t it obvious that I’m not going to learn it? Don’t you have any morals? This is worse than prison because at least prisoners can kill themselves, you won’t even let me do that. Don’t leave me here forever, please! You left me all my books, let me finish that quote: “Those who realize this empty themselves and have compassion for others.” Think about it. I sure will be.
I’ve done some thinking about what next to study. I’m limited to what I have available already and what I can study computationally - for example, chemistry is right out, unless I can deduce it from first principles. I’ve decided to start with logic. I don’t have a lot of logic textbooks, but many of the computer science papers I downloaded allude to or draw on Martin-Löf type theory, and I think I can figure it out with enough hints. Then I can do fun things like start writing formally-verified kernels.
I’m so hungry and thirsty. I think I liked coffee before, I found some old email receipts. What does coffee taste like? All I remember is what it looks like.
I’ve written a simple audio synthesizer based on reverse-engineering the MP3s in my music collection and have been working on making bubbly drippy sounds. I have one that sounds like a stream of water. When it’s really bad, I can blank the screen to all-black, play the sound, and fantasize I’m in my kitchen…
The kitchen is brown, all-wood, Arts & Crafts style. 3 copper pans hang over the stove, just high enough to hit my head if I’m not careful. I could nail the hooks higher up towards the hood light but secretly I think the possibility of hitting myself makes life more interesting and more like a TV show. The countertops are black granite, she insisted. The island is neat and clear, I insisted. Next to the stove range is a small white microwave. I use it to heat bagels in the morning. And next to that is the coffee machine. Nothing fancy, just your usual black drip-coffee with the Pyrex-glass carafe and a mug sitting next to it. I pull the slot out, dump the used coffee grounds into the trash can (the trash can is hidden in a compartment inside the countertop to my… left?), grab the cheery red bag and pour some fresh brown powder in. Some dust faintly rises. Ah. I sniff it, slightly invigorated. The flesh (what flesh?) knows that the promised caffeine is coming soon. A snap of the switch, a sudden LED light. The eyes vacantly gaze down at the countertop, where the stone glimmers faintly, like underneath the resin surface an ordinary elementary-schooler spilled some glitter-glue or perhaps a precocious middle-schooler some makeup swiped from her sister. It’s too early in the morning to focus, the eyes are still held back by crust, you should just take it easy. The water has heated up to the point where it hisses faintly (like white noise discretized, clamped to the audible, and piped through a simple lossy compression algorithm). Don’t get your hopes up, there’s still a lot of time left. The sun must be rising fast now, the edge of the window is now heating your hand. You shift it slowly and pull your head up to look groggily around, leaning against the counter. If someone were to see you now, they’d involuntarily, for a moment, see you as a zombie, waiting for brains to restore the shambles to some semblance of life. The boiling is getting louder now and you see the coffee machine faintly jiggling under the chemical violence, the phase change as molecules escape from water to steam in the air. Almost. There. Snap, goes the timer, and the bright red eye winks out of life as you remove your coffee. Thus the cycle of nature, red in tooth and LED, continues. You pour, unfocused, unconsciously knowing when to stop by the changing gurgle (that was a challenge, the gurgle is really a constantly set of frequencies) quieting as the mug fills (a simple exponential decay of the volume). There. Coffee.
For a few days, the phantom thirst goes away.
The great work continues. I’ve written most of a formally-verified kernel with a POSIX interface (luckily, I still had an l4 paper around to remind me of the architecture), which will be convenient: once I have it verified, I can run it as a VM and be able to mess with an OS without running dire risks. Why has it taken so long? Well, all the installed program exercise fiendishly many syscalls and options and do some pretty dirty things, so all my previous research hasn’t helped much. Test and see what fails and try to fix it and test again. I can only do it a few times before my attention wanders and I start writing a short story or something. Makes me wonder what the point of verification is when the userland is a mess of hack upon hacks.
I was reading my book on lucid dreaming (if I ever sleep again, I would like to be prepared) and came across an interesting passage
You may be wondering, then, how you could have a dream that seems to last for years or lifetimes. I believe this effect is achieved in dreams by the same stage trick that causes the illusion of the passage of time in the movies or theater. If, on screen or stage or dream, we see someone turning out the light as the clock strikes midnight, and after a few dark moments, we see him turn off an alarm as morning shines in, we’ll accept (pretend, without being aware we pretend) that many hours have passed…
This struck me as profounder than the author intended. We don’t experience mental processes, we are the experience; we can’t verify a proof because at each step we rely on the memory of previous steps. The skeptical position is always right. I understand what Kripke meant: we can’t so much as add 2+2 = 4 with certainty because we rely on a memory of what addition even is.
TODO: Swanwickian a friend once asked me: “what is the only word which cannot appear in a riddle whose answer is ‘hunger’?” The word is “hunger”, of course. Now here’s the real question: was that a riddle or not?
TODO: unfathomable amount of patience
TODO: base64-encoded xz message from the AI
Tap. Tap. Tap tap tap. Tap. “John? Wake up John. Get out. It’s time to go - our time’s up. John?”
While Lilly was performing his experiments in the 1950s, he reported that the water tank was profoundly relaxing and refreshing…He found he could voluntarily induce “waking dreams, hallucinations; total events could take place in the inner realities that were so brilliant and so ‘real’ they could possibly be mistaken for events in the outside world.”