The One who bends them all

“You must run, my child.” His voice is weary. “There is no place for you in this place anymore.”

I stare at the floor, voiceless and silent.

The old man turns to the only window in the room. I follow his stare, seeing rows of high-rise buildings along the horizon. Ocean roars at their base, waves clashing and breaking into numerous foams. The buildings glisten under the hot sun. They look like a hand with fingers extended out of a bathtub.

I know these are government-issued dwellings to the qualified citizens in the country. No one ever understands the rules to deem if one is qualified, or questions the rules behind the selection process. No one at all until I am born.

A few drones, operated by third-world country workers imported by the constructor, zip past the view. The tropical sun starts to get unbearable, even with the full blast of the 5-Ticks air-conditioner.

“You must run. Away from this country, as far as you can.”  He repeats, with a harsher voice.

The government has painted themselves into a corner. They started 58 years ago a law to rule opposing parties out, to silence dissident voices. The artificial impositions of race, gender and height and weight have been proved to be a great barrier to anyone who dares to stand out. Now, the rulers are forced to abide their own rule and play their own game. For I am born as the Fluid.

Water does not have a rigid shape, instead it follows the shape of the container. This is called the fluid property. I heard from Grandpa that when I was picked up at the orphanage, the nurses were terrified, for they had no idea which diapers should I be assigned to. The blue male or the pink female? No one knows because my sign of gender keeps changing constantly. They could not recognize my race as well. Chinese, Caucasian or Tahitian? No features are distinct enough to make a conclusion.

The Fluid one, the ability to change gender and race…

I storm out of the door. I hear the blaring announcements of trains breaking down repeating every minute. They wanna bend the rules , and I will be the One who bends them all.

Inspired by the recent election fiasco in Singapore. Read more here.

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The Woman Speaks [48hour Scifi London 2017]

In April, I wrote a short piece for a competition called 48 Hour Flash Fiction 2017 organized by New Scientist, SCI-FI-LONDON and Urbanfantasist.com.

I was given the story elements required (title, a piece of dialogue that must be in the story etc) on the 8th of April and 48 hours to complete a 2,000 words story. It was a grueling experience – what word to use, what science issue to incorporate, how to unfold the story – but I did learn a lot from it. I would say at the point of time it was heavily inspired by popular culture that I enjoyed the most, mainly in the genres of dystopian or futurology. Here is the article transcribed faithfully as below.


Title: THE WOMAN SPEAKS

Dialogue: Music cannot exist in a vacuum.

Science (Optional): A machine that records people’s dreams for morning playback – would you share them or want to watch them?

Word Count: 1583 Words

The Woman Speaks

“Good morning, Mr. Patterson.” A warm female voice echoes in the room.

I open my eyes and peer at the holo-display. 6:00 am sharp, a standard time made compulsory for all Class-C workers in the country. I quickly roll off the bed and make a beeline to the washroom. I am getting dressed for work while the female voice continues the briefing of the summary of the day with my favourite playlist on the stream. An image of a middle-aged woman flickers on the bathroom mirror.

“Mr. Patterson, you dreamt of your mother for a consecutive period of five days pertaining to the matter of your five years old birthday party. Do you require any professional help?” I groan a little. That was my dream last night. A “Smart Doctor” dialog pops up, accompanied with a list of suggested psychologists in my neighbourhood if I am inclined to do so.

“No, Sarah, I told you not to poke your finger into my dream again!” I yell before realising that the voice does not have a finger at all. She’s an artificial intelligence built by those smart brains in the mega corporations. I do not understand how this “Smart Personal AssistantTM in the Cloud” works; I never learnt it in the school I went. I just know it is given free to everyone in the country, so I don’t really care. She falls silent. The hot steam from the showerhead subsides.

I sigh. There is no use in venting anger to a virtual person. Sometimes I am just dissatisfied with my life – getting screened and filtered out of the system when deemed not worthy for the college, and there is no way to learn any skills other than the assigned one by the government – all the resources on the web have been adjusted to my social status.

The holo-display blares loudly, displaying 7:00am in red rays. I charge out of my small dorm and hop on a hovering car. There are another four people in the car already on the same Share-a-Drive, all staring blankly to the front. I rub my nose and turn on my device as well. Everyone used to hold a “smartphone” twenty years ago. I recalled my first iPhone 8 for the tenth year old birthday. Now the chip is directly on the retina, providing a stream of non-stop, tailored information to the users’ eyes, all day long while they are awake. The mega corporations have even come up with a way to tap into their dreams while they sleep. Dreams, the vault of secrets and desires, have been cracked open and reduced to mere data points on the graphs.

I shake my head: what’s wrong with me and these philosophical thoughts? I have never learnt Descartes, Zhuangzi or Vasubandhu – wait a second, how do these names swim into my mind?

“Mr. Patterson, please proceed to Meeting Room 3 when you arrive at the company.” I am disrupted by Sarah’s prompt. It smells like an urgent request. I eye-ball the “Accept” button and wonder who demanded my audience. My boss, Ms. Jacqueline, is not very keen of my performance lately. I shudder at the thought of losing my job.

The car whizzes on the highway for ten minutes and stopped in front of a complex. Tall buildings sprawled across the horizon, glinting with grey under the Sun. The weather is a nice forty degrees Celsius, unlike yesterday where a heat wave killed three people in the neighbourhood. I alight and spot my section-mates. Mr. Lee and Ms. Abagail in my section are walking to the assembly point. I make a turn to the Administration.

I cannot put my finger at the exact date I started working in the company, not even the interviews. The job seems to be prearranged way before I graduated from high school. Perhaps it is the filter system again, I think. I authenticate myself at the gate. Not many people work here, at least not for my rank. A blue navigating line appears in my field of view to provide guidance.

Exquisite drawings are displayed along the walls of the corridor. Van Gogh, da Vinci, Zhang Daqian, Monet… I can’t help but stop to appreciate them. The strokes, the flow of colours, and the light brushes to draw the faces…

“Mr. Patterson, your next meeting will start in 3 minutes. Please proceed to Meeting Room 3.” The female voice breaks my train of thoughts with a friendly tone. I pick up my pace.

The room is nothing that I have seen before. A huge pedestal is at the other end of the room with holo-displays everywhere. Dozens of men and women are busily working on the displays, flicking and tapping virtual buttons and switches. I behold at the scene.

“Welcome, Mr. Patterson.” It is the familiar voice of Sarah. Not from my device, but directly emanating from the pedestal.

“Sa…Sarah?” I raise my voice.

“Oh my dear, don’t you forget me?” A figure emerges behind the floating holo-displays. A middle-aged woman. “I gave birth to you, remember?”

I step back in shock. She looks exactly like mom, always appearing in my dreams and recalling myself of the sweet memories.

“Sarah, why on Earth…”

“Corrections, two to be exact. One, we are not on Earth. Two, I am Sarah, but not the one you are thinking.” She points at her own eyes.

“Wait a minute, who are you exactly?” I can’t tell the reality from dream anymore.

“I created you, Patterson. Or your internal name, Subject #312. You are the first robot that possesses human-like memory.” She turned a holo-display towards me and pulled up a holo-blueprint.

“We have perfected the way to make robots. At least in the physical appearance. We mastered the manufacturing process, understood how nervous and circular systems work, we even sliced brains into tiny pieces to study all the nature offers to us.” She seems to be making a speech to an empty audience. “We still don’t understand how memory works. What lunch did I have yesterday? What flower did I receive for my valentine’s day twenty years ago?”

She clears her throat and faces me. “More importantly, how does memory interact with our actions and our emotions?”

“I don’t understand…” I stumble upon my words.

She smiles to me. “It’s alright, Patterson. We felt the same before we found the missing piece. The dreams. A constant feedback of signals back to human brain when the physical body is down to repair every night. The sleep time is a moment when the mind has the total freedom to feel, to construct, and to cleanse the memories.”

She takes a pose as if she were conducting a musical piece. “Let me illustrate it with an example. We can mix and match different notes through algorithms. Tempo, virtuoso, all sorts of intricate moments. But those is not music. Totally inferior to Beethoven, Bach and Mozart. Those which are composed organically.”

Her fingers moved in the air in an Allegro tempo.

“However, music cannot exist in a vacuum.” She stopped at the last word, as if thinking of a hard problem. “Algorithms can run perfectly with high computing power, but the result is just unreal. It is an uncanny valley in which we can tell what is computer generated and what is not. Art is hard to silicone chips.” She laughs at her joke and I somehow make some exhaling sound from my nose to reduce my anxiety.

“So we decided to fill up the vacuum. We want our robots to learn from their senses and experience even when they self-repair at nights. So we assembled five hundreds robots, loaded up with different initial memories,” she look into my eyes, “and made them dream every night. You are one of them.” She winks.

The memories? Like the birthday parties during my childhood? The red iPhone I got? Those were all fake? I squint at the holo-displays on the pedestal and see videos playing. Mr. Lee had a wet dream with his fantasized object and Ms. Abagail was looking forward for a trip to Neo-Shanghai. All of the dreams are recorded, shared and watched in this room. The results are analysed and then feedback to our memory. Every night.

“Guess what we observed? The emergence of emotions. Not the pre-programmed ones where you enter different loops based on the conditions, but those emerge spontaneously from nothing. We found that these beautiful displays of inner states tremendously helpful to form a higher state of mind. Consciousness, self-realisation, a soul if you like to call it.”

She turns her back to me. The air feels still in the room now. “This soul, combined with a robot’s superior computing power, allows you to form far more connections in your neuron network. Recently you grow appreciation towards abstract concepts, don’t you? To you, art, philosophy, music is beautiful instead of some random pixels or noises.”

I start to feel dizzy. It is too much for me to handle right now. She wave her hands and two droids crowd beside me, restraining me by the arms.

“Good night, Mr. Patterson. That’s a great soul you have built, and we thank you for your hard work.” The two robots disassemble my skull before I blank out.

… …

… …

“Good morning, Mr. Patterson.” A warm female voice echoes in the room.

Flee

“This is not the right way! Go back!” A man cladded in armor shouted, signalling two persons at his back before a huge glob of black matter swallowed him alive.

The two persons stopped and turned back silently without saying anything. They strided forward and navigated themselves in the maze. They could not see anything beyond the two walls beside them, and a harrowing long tunnel in front of them.

The first spoke. “What’s the status now? We flee or we fight?” His sound was bloodied and defeated. His face was marred with black oil, a memoir from the previous encounter.

The second peered at him. Her stare projected authority.

“Yes, ma’da…” A long glass spike pierced through his armour. That was not in the calculations. Glass, being an artificial material, was a rare sight as nobody knew how to manufacture it anymore. At least those who were still alive.

She cursed and ran again, trying to recall all the routes they have tried and erred. She swung her club wildly as if it could get rid of the nightmare the befell her and the humanity. What would you do when the world you built turned against you? The steel they hammered, the oil they harvested, the plastic they happily used and wasted… These dead materials seemed to gain conscience, and decided to revolt against their former slaver.

She vaguely remembered something called “flight or fight” response when an animal meets an adversary. She’s just human, and human is animal too. When running out of choice, she could only run.

via Daily Prompt: Flee

Echo

He was constantly on a good mood. He was full of excitement, bursting with energy. Like a dog unleashed in a grassy park or a cat patted on its furry head, he was happy and not afraid to show it in public. It was raining marshmallow and lollipops everywhere he went.

A notification beeped. It must be another Like or Follow from his friends. He popped the notification and checked the number: 357 Likes on his photos last week for a trip in Italy. That photo with him posing like a Starbucks siren holding a latte – and everyone knows Italy has no Starbucks – caught the attention again. He always had that edge of photography over his friends.

He tweeted the same photo with a caption: “Italy terrorized by my wonderful voice. Make Starbucks Great Again!” In five minutes, it was favourited, retweeted and replied few dozens times. Five new followers today, 3 of them hot babes. He hit the jackpot again, maybe one day he will be on the list of trending topics on Twitter.

The same patterns occurred through the day. Share, Follow, Like, Favourite, Retweet – He never stopped in spreading his social influence to his sphere of friends. In a better term, he was unstoppable, driven by an undeniable desire to share and by an undying anticipation to see the numbers going up.

It was a long day. Two men in white robes removed a headset from a man. While they were pulling him out of a sphere contraption, a third man looked at the charts on a wall screen. “That’s a high number today, good job everyone.” The patient, sitting on a chair, listened to the doctors’ discussion on how this prototype machine that echoes one’s thoughts and reinforces in a positive feedback loop, and how it helps to alleviate the increasing number of depressed people who couldn’t shine in real life.

He didn’t really care. He just sat there silently, wishing to scream in his little own echo bubble again.

via Daily Prompt: Echo

Culture

“We must kill these heretics! Cut off their heads, skewer their skulls and burn their bodies in the pyre!” To his platoon, the commander shouted at the top of his lungs as if his order could have torn those non-believers alive.

This day has been long predicted in the sacred book among his people five thousand years ago. The Farseer has passed the message from the Higher Being to his chosen men and women – “we must spread the true words to the four directions of Earth, like a piece of cloth slowly becoming wet, be it milk of ourselves or blood of our enemies.” They fought the heretics using all sorts of top technology – bone clubs, iron axes, flintlocks, AK47 and now nuclear-powered armaments. Conflicts, battles and wars declared in his name were countless – the faith of humanity could not be wavered.

Looking across the battlefield, the commander spotted his adversary – his counterpart in the enemy, his nemesis in the cult. He was amazed by how the enemy has the finest equipment, and disappointed by how many men and women have fallen for the trick to believe in the evil thoughts propagated by the cult. We must either convert these lost souls to the right path, or cleanse them by wiping them off the surface of Earth. By these deeds, he thought, the world could be once again united.

“Charge!” In an almost raw and primitive roar, he moved his troops to clash with the other.


“BEEEP—–” The meter emitted a warning signal. A man in white lab coat looked up and sighed. He looked grumpy and frustrated, possibly due to long hours of work without any sleep.

“Another negative. When could I get my results and graduate from this bloody school!?” He took a petri dish on top of the meter and washed it under the tap. Two large patches of bacteria, each with different stain, were washed down to the drain and disappeared from his sight. Another culture to grow again, he shrugged.

via Daily Prompt: Culture

Anticipation

That’s not how it should have ended. All the research, all the hard work, all the time the team has spent in finding the truth culminated to an empty promise.

For a lack of better term, he was forced to walk the path alone now. His team has perished one by one in the name of discovery. He still remembered how the headlines reported the collaboration – “An All-Star Team Strive to Look for the Secret of the Universe”. The clash of intelligence will bring a spark in the darkness to cast a glimpse on the answer. Provided there is any, of course.

In the first few years, they got extraordinary results. With the particles colliding, the coffee brewing, the liquid helium cooling, the lasers focusing, the papers were being churned out day by day. He thought to himself they were getting closer and closer to the answer after every beer session.

And the progress halted. It was like a bullet train which decided to hit the “ABORT” button to hit a wall. For years, the team was stuck at what they had, puzzled and disappointed. They were the best the world could offer, the experts in their own fields, the cream of the crop in this big pot of seven billions people.

Three committed suicide, two killed each other in a fiery argument, and four lost their mind and ended in an asylum. They all went out like a candle, snuffled by an invisible hand one after another. He could not figure out why, but he almost felt that there was something not ought to be discovered. What if there were something greater, some ideas beyond human’s ability to comprehend? If sanity was defined by one’s ability to think and understand rationally, then the knowledge might exist outside the realm of sanity. An answer that couldn’t be explained at all.

Anticipation kills, he recalled his mentor’s words.

via Daily Prompt: Anticipation

Liminal

“6:53am.” He looked at his watch, murmuring to himself. He had checked his phone for the bus timing – the bus to take him to his workplace is supposed to be here in 2 minutes time. Smartphone, he argued to himself once, was one of the greatest inventions by humanity. Of course, it took him few months to learn this gadget that he once called a toy.

After spending a good twenty minutes of swiping his phone mindlessly, he reached his destination. Squinting his eyes in the reflection of the building, his company looked grander, bigger, and further from what he had imagined. When he interviewed for his first (and arguably the last) job in the company, the building was not even a building yet. The whole district was only developed ten years later he joined.

He stepped into his room when the digital clock showed 8:30am. He took a leisure time to make a coffee for himself. It was almost a ritual to him, to wake his brain up to face a new wave of nothingness. He has fought for thirty years to get this position, only to realize it might not worth the time and effort at all. After all, he was only a gear in the mega conglomerate, turning grinding and spinning to an unknown target.

He punched the keyboard loud, half-consciously to remind his coworkers and colleagues that he was doing real work. He’s pretty good at this – checking emails, replying a few urgent ones and saving others for the afternoon. Gotta keep the expectation manageable. He did not look forward to the lunchtime – he found that the day ran shorter behind a computer screen rather than beside a water cooler.

His alarm clock rang silently. 5:30pm. Time to pack up for another night at home. Alone. He barely felt anything nowadays, the time ticking away second by second. People said that life is like riding on a wave – you needed to enjoy while it is high tide, and to wait while it is low. Except, he thought to himself, he would have dropped into the ocean before reaching the low. Life was like a YouTube video, people only watched the first and last minute, mindlessly tapping the progress bar to skip the middle stage.

via Daily Prompt: Liminal