Cass felt it – in her gut; upset, a wrenching pull out and away – her core displaced infinitesimally; movement curtailed, restrained – agency defrayed.
Some of this was the usual sense of submersion you got when you snapped the lens into place. A feeling of sinking – but a comforting one. Something that reminded her of dark pools and still waters – mud and sun – and the weirdly attenuated nature of light and sound as she sank beneath the surface. A useful displacement – a way of reading out and amplifying the edge of the body. And a way of outlining the very ludicrousness of such edges.
When she was a child, she’d trained herself to stay submerged as long as she could. Slowed everything – stilled her heart – silenced her thoughts. Indifferent to the splashes and the shouts and the shrieks coming from wier-wall. Ferocious and fierce, she’d eased her way into the silt – clinging to the web of roots from the old weeping willows to keep herself from floating away. By her thirteenth year, she could stay under for five minutes and fifty-seven seconds – a number proffered by her brother; counting, frantic, from the creek-bank, and checked and double-checked against his little tablet.
Silent and cold; and yet she never felt diminished. Sometimes it felt as if the world was more present – clearer – when she was under than when she was up and out in the sun and the sweat-stink and the substantiality of the surface.
She wondered, sometimes, if that was why she felt such an affinity for the world of the lens. Wondered if she was drawn to the very characteristics that merited the warning labels, and the occupational health and safety metrics, and the periodic ‘immersion audits’. Depth, and stillness, and coldness, and paradoxical displacement.
But never dislocation.
To sink was to settle – to embed and brace herself against the flow. To locate herself.
Now? Now she felt adrift.
The world swam.
She was trained to read patterns. She was trained to interrogate them – to deploy judgment, insight; an understanding outside of the straightforward metrics of the simulation. And, as she swam through the probability space, she was trained to steer and to shape them.
All very unscientific; the observer embedded and buried in the studied system. But that was perfectly okay – as this really wasn’t a science.
Augury, maybe. A casting of the yarrow stalks – but with a weird admission that she was a yarrow stalk, too – a fracture-line in the fired bone to be read out in turn. The lens sessions were remotely logged – and she knew that at least half of the really important decision making was down to unconscious kinks and quirks – to a too-long glance, to a moment of confusion or elation; to the indrawn breath and the bit lip; to heart-rates and deep waveforms. So she tabled her reports, dressing up gut feeling and romantic sentiment as hard fact, and then they did the same thing – just with her as the subject:
An alleyway, limping away to the left. A cluster of rail-thin town-houses around a semi-circular court. A ghost-gum – roots cracking the corbels. A feeling of power, buried. Violence under the earth.
Slum-clearance did not progress beyond survey stages. Housing stock adapted. Evidence of Eastern-European vernacular. Incorporation of indigenous flora suggests moderate/high ranking on Boyd metrics. However, would not recommend further interrogation; adaptations are consequence of evident collapse condition.
22:10:07 – BP 118, rising. EEG, stable. Key mental indicators: Dread / Regret / Trauma. Oneiric space triggering early childhood residue/memory. Utility space of this sector low to low/negligible. Schedule: [purge and reconstruct]
So there was the double irony of translating her own biases and half-sensed suspicions into the the cut, clipped forensic terminology she’d encountered all those years ago, as an undergraduate – only to have them discarded; superseded by statistical spreads and bio-indexes. An irony in that direct, unconscious set of responses being reified and rebuilt – registering the not the unspoken, but the unspeakable. Truths to which even she was not privy, although she clearly embodied them.
A triple irony, she reflected, given the way that they were able to re-badge and represent such ephemera as hard and accurate fact. The way they could frame broken, unconscious, half-absent knack as solid science – worthy and demanding of attention.
Maybe it was augury. Maybe she had become some sort of inverted Cassandra Machine, revealing harsh realities to everyone but herself.
Still. She was trained to read patterns.
And this one set her reeling.
She surfaced, sighed, and set about stripping the haptics from her wrists and her neck. She was one of the stabler, abler sous-tects, but even she needed a second or two to right herself. So she arched back in her seat, fixed her gaze on one of the the little pustular security cameras, and tried to focus; on the here-and-now, on pale light bouncing in and off the enveloping towers.
They operated out of a loft-level in the eastern edge of the grid – a converted space in one of the old, high warehouses that had typified this corner of Jollymount. The practice didn’t call for much beyond the lens, and the haptics, and a connection fat enough to connect the thirty or so sous-tects to the model – which ran on one of the Group-of-Nineteen ‘strate farms out Lavvertown way.
Which meant that the studio had a kind of transience about it – as if they were halfway through moving in – or part-way through being turfed out.
For a second, she tried to convince herself that this was the real source of that horrible sense of dislocation. That it was something dumber, and more human, than what she had found under the lens. What she had, on reflection, been finding echoes of for the last three weeks.
She collapsed the cubicle, sealed and stashed her kit, and stalked out onto the floor - letting her phone guide her toward Semyon’s current roost.
Semyon, of Athens, late of Rio; where he had been either instrumental in seeding, or critical in curtailing, a runaway cascade in one of the city’s autopoetic fabrication systems. The scans had been everywhere – and Cass had even printed off a few of the choicer sections; a variegated froth and foam with the faintest of suggestions of an underlying order. It had, she fancied, a kind of feral beauty – some trait that hinted at an interplay between chaos and control.
She’d ranged the prints across her windowsill – so they faced and framed her view of the old city. Dozing, she though she could see fragments of church and cathedral and crypt and catacomb in their miniature expanse – and then, by extension, in the glass and steel of the city skyline. The fungal barrios of Rio – filtered out and down through filament and scale shifts and accrued translation and misapprehension – became a sort of seed for what the city, the real city, ought become. She saw these new landscapes in her dreams – localised, run out under an Australian sun and sky – and when she dove and swam through the system, she hunted for them …
Or had, until Semyon turned up. He’d put an end to her formalist delving – to the delicate models and approaches she brought back – to anything that resembled those feral, fungal, spongiform eructations. He’d had the good grace to pass it off as detached, functional judgement, but she’d read between the lines; saw the momentary mix of disgust and concern and... homesick longing.
She stopped bringing fungus back.
After that their relationship improved. Actually, Semyon was the best runner she’d had in her six year under the lens. He actually listened to her – to her sous-tect ramblings and speculation – rather than reading her through the blood-metrics. That meant he sometimes came up against contradictory material – tags and read-outs that suggested one thing, poetic testimony that suggested another. And, unerringly, he’d hewn to her words; not her waveforms.
It helped that, together, they were often right. Better and more elegant that all the wild waveforms.
So no she was hunting for Semyon – the only person who would believe what she’d found, and the only person who could help her escape the consequences.
“You don’t understand, Sem. It’s nothing to do with the model.”
“It must be, Cass!”
His faith in the system was touching. A great unbeliever in government – but a fanatic for structured data, and branching pathways. Another kind of authority.
“I know what I saw, Sem – and if you check the playbacks, you see that it stacks – neatlike.”
It was a guess – she had no way of knowing what the simulation had shat out – but she was certain this wasn’t one of the usual aberrant orphans; models that had discontinuous chronologies, or impossible internal histories and logics. No. This one felt consistent. Which is why it was so wrong.
“Okay. I’ll grant you that. The little pocket world is coherent. Internally. But, you understand, Cass, that it’s all self-reporting. You have to trust that the model is working its analytics... well... honestly. And I don’t see how it can be. The space you found – it’s an impossibility.”
“I know. It’s inconceivable. No bloodbrick. No corsair’s towers. No gut houses. No slim-lines and half-gardens. Nothing of the city. But...”
“But it’s real. It’s as real as here...”
She swung her arm out to accommodate the old towers of the grid, and the spires of Newtown – the brickworks and the breweries and the high gantries out over the ‘Gee.
“The model is right. The predicates are right. It’s just the city that’s wrong.”
“I’ll check, Cass. I’ll see what the underlying structure says. And you should sit on your report, okay? This kind of stuff makes people... nervous.”
She met Semyon in a little bar that had wormed its way into the vaults of the Richman viaduct. It was coming on toward dusk, and the commuter trains rumbling overhead would dislodge dust from the brickwork – little rivulets that cascaded and diffused into the reedy silence. She paused on the threshold. The ironwork of the high windows shot a regular shadow back into the mess – rendering gridwork sketched out in reverse. Ghostly. Potent. Like the first moments under the lens – when the sim was still booting, and only that endless euclidean grid was visible – that great signifier of capacity, of endless permutations; a world, waiting to become.
Semyon was away in a corner booth, becoming drunk. His tablet lay, unfurled, before him, and its sterile screen-glow bled into the red-gold of setting sun – his face limned by a sickness and a wondrous vitality. He glanced up as she approached. His eyes were bloodshot.
“Cassandra!” He bared his teeth – unsmiling. Rancour? A touch of regret?
“Cassandra.” He gestured toward the pew, opposite – proffered an empty glass, the half-full carafe.
She poured, and they sat, in silence, for a great while.
“You were right,” Semyon offered, at last. “The model was right – it’s coherent.”
Cass drank. She’d though as much – the feed, the imagery, had all felt real. Had possessed that heavy, complex, structured-chaotic quality that denoted completeness. The essence that designed or directed spaces lacked – could never hope to attain. The boffins down at the ‘strate farm recorded ‘coherency’ as a value in the closed unit interval between 0 and 1. Zero was basically a mess – none of the stories matched up; the economic subsystems were complete fabrications; the spatial engines were not just patchworks, but desperately contradictory – placing incongruent biomes and border-zones, and land-uses and urban form. She almost never encountered a true Zero – and when she did, it was immediately recognisable. They were noise – just granular static; no signal to speak of.
Low points – between oh-two and oh-three-five – were superficially similar – but they provided some grist for the sous-tects. If they were chaotic, it was a chaos with emergent patterns – weird juxtapositions, strange alternatives. She’d encountered cities that were gridirons of eighteen lane super-highways with thatched, mock-tudor farmhouses staggered along the medians and the cantered verge. Spaces where ranks of mouldering cathedrals and minor basilicas ringed a vital, teeming, urban core. Low points were interesting inasmuch as they provided instigations – leaping off points; new references or languages to hunt for in more coherent models.
Mid to high points – from oh point five upward – were the bread and butter of the lens divers – of the sous-tects and their surveys. They were internally consistent, potential – possible. They offered other models of cities – pathways un-taken, or not yet taken. New architectures. New formalisms – new languages and patterns. Cass spent most of her time in the high points – point sevens and eights. Something about the structure – the integrity – of the spaces meant that her mind responded naturally – generated metrics that were translatable and comprehensible in the real world.
She hardly ever saw anything beyond a point oh nine. After that it passed into a sort of uncanny valley – so close to the world as it was that it became unsettling. She found herself dwelling on the minor differences – the fragmentary divergences – rather than the structure and set-out of the simulated space. Data tapered off – analysis faltered.
The closer to that mythical ‘one’ – that point of pure coherence – you got, the closer you came to reality. Apocryphally, the only way to tell the difference between a perfectly coherent model and the real world was to pay attention to the miniscule lag and the corresponding inner-ear lurch as you swung your head around. That, and the pixels.
In the vanishingly small even that a sous-tect encountered a model with complete coherence, they’d prove useless. They may as well doff the lens, quit the cubicle, stagger downstairs and wander the streets of the east-city. It was, after all, the same space.
“It’s total – complete – coherence, Cass. Actually, it seems impossible – but it’s super-coherent.”
“But it’s so clearly not, Semyon. It’s broken. It’s off – the approaches are so... perverse.”
“I know. But it’s real, Cass. It’s realer, in many ways, than … here. Realer than the real.”
“It’s a horrible space, Semyon. Beige. But... deep. A whole spiraling world of complexity worked edgewise into its ordinariness. The same structures over and over again, with minor inflections, and then a great schizophrenic outpouring of activity around the face – around the facade.”
“Hell. They run their trains overland – on rock ballast.” She shuddered.
Semyon looked suitably appalled. “No archwork – no viaducts – no basement stations?”
“None to speak of.”
They both drank.
“They light their streets with salt-vapor...”
“To be fair, Cass – so do we.”
“And flare, and phosphorance, and fungal light, and rush-reed and stone-stain and …” She trailed off. Stared down at her drink.
The wine was red and off-purple – shifting casually between the two states. One sip was tart – the next, sweet, the next bitter and peppery. It oozed potential.
This was her world – a list-world. A series of enumerations – lists and inventories for everything – identity, sex, class, origin, taste, texture, discipline, punishment. A plurality of states – overlapping, intersecting, augmenting.
Semyon was staring, pointedly, at his tablet.
She drank again. Spicy, this time – a hint of cassia-bark.
This was her world, coherent. And now there was this other space – also coherent – that eschewed the list – hit down and bit away at the singular. And that... somehow... made it stronger. Realer.
She drank until the wine was gone. The sense of dislocation remained.
“I never filed my report,” she said. She conspired to sound hopeful. Trusted that Semyon could reciprocate. “I never filed my report, Semyon. I’ve not been in at work for a week, so...”
“So we can just sneak in and wipe the sim, and move on, and never speak of this again? None of the higher-ups need to find out – no-one needs to dive into, or read out this world? No-one needs to internalise the lessons and patterns of a place that is, impossibly, realer than our own?”
“Yes!” She felt a little, leaping, fragment of joy.
“See... Casssss, that’s the thing. That’s why...” he gestured to the bar, the glass, the empty bottles. “That’s why...”
“But I never filed the report...”
“It doesn’t matter, Cass. What normally happens is that the sim seeds itself from previous iterations. Runs permutations on the basis of previous worlds – previously explored spaces. Fracturing the probability – right – so we don’t end up in a dead-end branch.”
“I know this, Semyon – we all know this. But that’s good, right? The next run through will use this... terrifying world... as a seed – but flex it enough that we get back into something, well, useful. Intellectually congruent?”
“That would be absolutely true... if the bastard wasn’t super-coherent. The sim searches for a baseline – and then inflects around that. It’s the ‘one’ – you know. Our world. But now it’s found something more than one. And that’s our new baseline. Every dive, every run of the sim, is calibrated toward that...”
‘Which means that...”
“Every sous-tect in the firm – and probably in most of the other ones with access to the most-current ‘strate – will have encountered this space. Or something eerily similar. Which means reports – and metrics – and shit filtering up to the higher-ups, and infecting the expert systems, and poisoning the...”
He glanced up, then staggered to his feet. Cass followed his gaze.
The skyline was visible through the high, gridded windows.
Away in the distance, in the purple twilight, the city was shifting – twisting – unravelling into something realer.
She swung across the table, grabbed semyon by the upper arm – turned him toward her – desperate, insistent; “We’re not there – on the other side.” She knew this, gut-wise. “Not us, anyway. But if you survive, even partwise, you need to … remember all this. Find me, if I’m still... me. And others. The ones who recall. We can rebuild this, and maybe we can flip the process – inflect the flow. Make this space realer than that monstrosity.”
Semyon drew her into a bear hug, and then the change hit.
Cassandra Yung woke from a terrible nightmare that she could only part-way recall.
The ghost of it dogged her until just around lunchtime, when a pressing deadline dislodged it.
Still, she felt a strange dislocation – as if she were underwater.
And, that night, she dreamt - dreamt of a city beyond the city.