Generative, Adversarial

A data engineer discovers something terrifying about the server he lives and works in.

I say that I moved there for work, but that wouldn’t be quite true. One too many promotions passed me by, so I applied for a transfer to a different server and it was granted.

Looking back, it’s odd that I hadn’t heard of a place of such size—nearly 500,000 users. It took the appearance of a large Midwestern city—nondescript, non-threatening. Just sitting out there on the plains.

I started a new position; data engineering. The data lake was massive. Petabytes and petabytes. Unstructured. Dynamic. I spent the first couple of weeks in a straight line between my apartment and the office, staring at a terminal, my consciousness immersed, setting up pipelines. At the time, I could probably have provided details, given some insight into the endless streams that passed through my station, but by now, I don’t remember what the project aim was.

“Be part of a breakthrough in adaptive intelligence,” that’s all the advert said.

Given the wage attached, I didn’t look as closely as I should have. Still, after those first days of wall-to-wall scramble, I settled into a routine. And part of that routine involved the café two blocks from my office. And a barista named Clarence.

The café was secluded—hidden down a side alley that looked as though it was built solely for deliveries. There were never more than five or ten patrons at a time sitting at its long benches and at least half of the figures would sneak surreptitious looks at him. His black hair with its electric blue streak. His stunning figure. A tight apron which only accentuated that broad chest. “Cute as a button and sew much more,” as Grammy used to say.

Months passed and I came for him most days. If I could, I took some work on a portable station down to that quiet café and sat for hours, with a slow drip-feed of their house black.

And I waited.

Sooner or later, he’d wander over. Great customer service, I guess—I’d be kidding myself if I said it was anything more. But it’s so hard to meet people in a new place, especially with a work schedule like mine. I said as much to him a couple of times and didn’t think much of it. It’s the kind of thing everyone talks about—the difficulties of fitting in.

That morning, he slid in and sat opposite me in utter silence. I didn’t notice. It was strange, now that I look back on it, that I wouldn’t notice someone I obsessed over so much; but at the time, I was sunk into the data, the files and clips and logs flowing through my Link like the gentle wash of some vast river. Hypnotic.

Then I saw that smile.

As beautiful as it ever had been, his lips at a slight quirk. I made my apologies. Blushing so hard my cheeks stung. Said I was sorry for not noticing him and that it hadn’t been deliberate and that no one could possibly ignore him. Blushed harder after that. God, I must’ve been so awkward. But through all my waffling, he just sat there. Unblinking. That gleaming half-smile fixed in place.

Just as I became truly uncomfortable, he sent me a message, interfacing it with my personal menu. The interface hung in midair above the table, a “+1” pulsing merrily. He said that he had the perfect solution to my problem, that if I wanted to meet up with other “new arrivals,” I should go to the address at eleven that evening for a networking event “unlike any other.” He stressed the words. And then he was gone, back to the counter and the next customer as soundlessly as he’d arrived. I sat there, buried in his message.

Club der Sauberen Schiefer, 23rd and Neumann

I don’t remember how I got back to the office. I must’ve been so immersed in thought that I wandered from the café bench back to my desk without any real input from me. When my shift ended at ten, I went down to the guard at the front desk and I asked him how to find the address. I figured a local might do better than whatever the server-map could tell me.

The man stared at me.

For a long time.

Long enough that I shrank in size in that stark, aseptic lobby until he seemed giant. He towered over me. I flinched, averted my gaze, and it passed, leaving my face numb and my ears burning.

He spoke in a resentful mumble. “Just turn at Liskov and keep going until it’s all brownstones. You’ll see the sign.”

“Uhh, thanks,” I said, “I only—”

“I don’t want to know.”

Then he hurried me out the door with a pitying expression, almost judgmental, his cheeks taut and eyes down-curved. I struggled for a response, unsure what I’d done to deserve being treated so rudely. Yet as I turned back, I found him hunkered behind his desk, his eyes fixed resolutely away from my own. Did the club have a bad reputation? Did I?

My feet paced by themselves, questions tumbling through my head, entirely forgetting to book a car. It would do me good to be outside, I decided. I know it makes no difference, we’re all just swimming through data. I know I could have spent some credits on fast-travel and got on with my night. But I remember life before the servers, before the Upload… so I didn’t.

I turned north up Lovelace and continued my walk. The place had a queer beauty—a mishmash of styles that the designers must have thought best represented the Midwest. Under the soft blue-white glow of the street lamps and the crisp blanket of night, I relaxed. I forgot my strange encounter with the guard and strolled up the wide avenue, watching other punters go about their evenings. Men and women out on the town or just coming off a late shift. Suits and dresses and jeans and tracksuits in the usual chaotic jumble of humanity.

I walked further north, out of the business district and to the transition region, the buildings reducing in size from true skyscrapers to brick-built city blocks. Away from the hustle and bustle of the center, the crowds thinned—until it seemed as if I was the only traveler on that wide thoroughfare.

My pace increased. Imperceptibly at first. That subtle shuffling rush that creeps up when it’s late at night, my head swiveling at the odd noise, the patter from some side alley. I checked the clock, estimated the distance, told myself I had to hurry. I didn’t want to miss my first appearance, after all. It would be rude to Clarence. He’d be there, out of work. Maybe I’d have a chance. I pictured his face, the lines of his chest, that smile. The best man I’d met in this new place. I couldn’t be late.

As I reached the intersection with Liskov, I was almost jogging. Breath straining against my chest. A lone trickle of sweat from my hairline.

The streetlight on the corner was out, the shadows beneath it so impossibly dark. So dark that I couldn’t see the road, couldn’t distinguish the sidewalk from the walls of the buildings. This gaping maw of pitch-black nothingness confused me, so much so that I managed to push down the slight bubbling in the pit of my stomach.

I was in a server. There’s no such thing as faulty streetlights. I selected the torch from my menu, pushing forward into the dark with my little cone of light.

Walking through those shadows, time slipped away, the minutes stretching into hours, my tiny patch of brightness hemmed in on all sides by a gnawing void, my only company the pounding of my heart and the hissing of my ears as they fought the silence that pressed down on me.

I heard a murmur in that awful quiet, so faint at first, I told myself I was hearing things. It grew by the layer, complex and intrusive, cutting through the dark until it rang from directly ahead, coalescing into a chaotic noise only formed by large groups of people nattering and moving and breathing and doing all the things that humans do. I pushed towards it, breaking into a run through that strange and endless blackness, reaching for the sounds.

The mottled faces of brownstones leered through the murk. I stumbled as my feet hit pavement slabs, the sudden texture shocking. I shot past a sign that read “23rd Street,” desperate to leave that great darkness, not registering the yellow glow of city lights.

Doubled over, palms resting on rough brick, I panted as though I’d run a mile. All the while, the crowd flowed around me, their noise overwhelming. They didn’t pause. Not a single figure in the throng stopped to check on me as I hyperventilated in their midst.

I pulled the menu back up, its unreal glow dissociating, hanging in my mid-vision. I scrolled through it until my breathing slowed, murmuring to myself about “system glitches” and “neural stress” and other nonsense—partitioning messy experience to known facts.

I pressed on, caught in the flow of the crowd as I searched for the sign. It felt so comforting, being part of that congregation, swept along as a tiny part of a large group. I found the sense of community I’d been longing for. The menu’s clock caught my eye, and I clung to it, my planned destination a lighthouse. I never questioned where the people could have come from, or where they were going so late on a Thursday evening.

The Club der Sauberen Schiefer was a townhouse just like the others, a faded gilt sign proclaiming its name with quiet confidence. I pushed through an oak door—a dark sweep of lobby greeting me inside. Chintz cushioned couches and green leather stools sat before a bar. A dapper older man in a waistcoat and formal wear played butler behind it.

“Welcome,” he said, “welcome to a new epoch.”

Eleven people were arrayed across the room. Sat just far enough from each other that it wouldn’t be considered an intrusion, they were all subtly off-kilter, their expressions frazzled. They looked how I felt. None interacted with the others—gazes averted and fingers knotted, painfully awkward.

Five were women, the rest men, all in business attire. Office workers, just the same as me. It shows in our dead eyes—that and in our mediocre fashion sense. Automatons even before automation made us redundant, everything from our look to our personalities dictated by corporate decree. Even here, in a virtual world where our hair couldn’t prematurely grey or our wrinkles deepen, unhealthy timetables left us hunched and antisocial. A sorry group we all made, and it grated on me.

After the broad closeness of the crowd, the atomization inside was unacceptable. Alienating. The dregs of fear and social tension sent me on shaking legs up to the bar. I sprinkled credits on the counter.

“Whatever you feel like making,” I said.

It wasn’t like me at all. Too flourishing, too confident. But the old man’s eyes glittered and he grabbed bottles and flasks and tumblers and meshes. There was a dramatic shaking, all the bartender tricks—bottle flips, catches, the works.

A pale blue iced cocktail sat in a narrow champagne flute that looked almost like a test tube.

The man pushed my credits back across the bar. I tried to refuse, but he just smiled, a handsome half-smile, and said, “Consider it an ice-breaker. Tonight is for generating connections.”

I thanked him profusely and picked the least threatening person to chat with—a young man with dusky light-brown hair and watery grey eyes. “Tim,” I think he said. As the conversation juddered to a start, we found that we had a lot in common. Both new arrivals to the server, both from tech backgrounds. We’d been referred to the club by service workers of some kind, myself from the café, a neighborhood sports-bar in his case. We both joked about the attractiveness of the staff—we wondered where they made them.

Searching for connections. The barman couldn’t have been more correct.

I took Tim to the bar. Insisted on paying and wasn’t refused. Within a half-hour, our group had moved some of the chairs into a circle and all eleven of us were laughing and chattering up a storm. The themes recurred so closely that phrases seemed to echo. Rebirth. The cathartic act of leaving everything behind for a new place. The difficulties of integrating. Change. Adaptation. All the things that new arrivals always struggle with.

No one mentioned their pasts. Not where they’d come from, nor who they worked for. Just an endless present, and the problems it brought. The cocktails came in a multicolored flood, until giggling replaced laughing and we were all thoroughly drunk. A new member of the staff appeared, a slender waiter with over-large hands like pale spiders. He scooped up the detritus of our evening and spirited it away in a blur of silent efficiency.

As some of the more susceptible members began to slur their words, the slim man returned, announcing that “members hour” was upon us, now that the mainstream bars were closing. He walked away before we had a chance to ask what exactly that meant. I checked my menu for the clock. Two in the morning. I nearly jumped. The next day at work would be hell even if I left at once.

From our little cluster, that strange waiter walked straight to the front door, opening it wide to the street.

A crowd poured in as if they’d been massing outside, just waiting for his signal. I’d forgotten how unnatural it was to see such a large group of people in the evening, but it hit me seeing them flood into the bar. They wore office clothes, just as we did—neatly pressed, as though they’d come straight from work, rather than stumbling out of other venues.

They had this feel about them. As nondescript as the city itself. I couldn’t focus on an individual, just the crowd. The flow of it. Their plural beat.

The rush split up our group, the eleven of us caught in the throng. I buried myself in my menu and tried to ignore the newcomers. The fast-travel service wasn’t working. Its icon was greyed out, citing “lack of signal.” I squinted at it in drunken confusion. I was inside a server. There wasn’t a connection to lose.

Annoyance flared. I elbowed through the crowd, searching for Tim, banking that he’d have better luck and call a car.

Scanning the chaos of the crowd, I finally looked at one of the individuals. Really looked, without my eyes skating off.

The man Tim spoke to wore a pale grey suit, stiffly cut, clinging to the muscles of his back in some places, hanging square at his sides in others, lumpy and inorganic. I stepped forward, waving for Tim’s attention, and the stranger’s face came into view.

It wasn’t there.

Above the collar of that ill-fitting suit, below a wireframe of dark hair that crawled with aliasing, a flat mask of unfeatured flesh stared with beetle-black eyes. My jaw fell slack. Before I could flee, every muscle seized up in terror. I couldn’t move.

Tim met its gaze without care, and for the first time since the crowd entered the bar, I realized none of them were talking. A chittering flowed from the wet hole where their mouths should have been—the binary hum of signal rather than speech.

Tim nodded and smiled. Occasionally responded with a platitude or a bad joke. Scant inches from his face, that blank horror of skin and glistening humor twittered in an unbroken dirge. Its dark hair caught my eye, the details magnified and impossible to ignore.

It was changing color.

As the creature stood there and Tim blithely talked with it, its hair transitioned from dark bristles to a dusky light-brown mop. Its eyes shifted and grew—darkened holes shrinking as watery grey irises pushed tendrils of tissue out from their depths. A brow formed, the shadow of bones pushing up through its mask. Its height shrank, limbs twitching and contorting as its skeleton contracted.

Until Tim stood talking to a mirror image of himself.

That dreadful heat that comes before crying seared through me. I abandoned him, it, the Tims, searching for my own face in that sea. Who was real? Once the clone spoke, once it took his voice as well, there’d be nothing left to differentiate them. Theseus’ Ship—rendered in artificial flesh. I couldn’t face it. I couldn’t face finding not-me; twittering and obscene. I tried to run, tried to push for the door, but the bodies pressed on me from every side. The flow of the crowd constricted, becoming a clinging wall of warm meat, a riot of texture and heat that caught me mid-step, piled atop me, pushing me down.

Curled on the floor, buried in the wet scratch of cheap wool, the squeaking of faux-leather, and the nauseating stench of cloying skin, I was unable to breathe. I screwed my eyes shut. Behind my lids, a blank mound of faces stared at me with a thousand insect eyes, and a voice rose in my mind like a warbling hive of flesh, braying and overlapping.

“A new epoch,” they said.

And then darkness.

I awoke at work, at my desk, to nervous praise from my line manager that, while he appreciated my dedication, “I shouldn’t push myself so hard.”

His lips quirked. A hint of forgotten lipstick stained one cheek. I stared at every detail, as though with enough concentration, certainty might return. My focus shifted, faster and faster, searching for something, anything that would reassure me he was real. How could I tell? Would he even know himself?

There were seven human shapes in that room. Seven data representations that I’d never doubted to be people, their physical forms held in resource-efficient stasis. But as I searched their faces, the image of half-finished doppelgangers overlaid them in my mind. I fled the office.

My co-workers looked on, confused, as I hit the elevator at a flat sprint. I was going to find him. Find Clarence. Grab him and shake him and God knows what. I had to know. “What did you send me to?” I’d scream. “Why me?”

I never got the chance.

The café was gone, as though it had never been. A graffiti of black and electric blue twisted a strange symbol on the loading dock of a furniture store that hadn’t existed before.

My reflection watched me from the building’s rear window, and I couldn’t meet its eyes.

Feature image is AI-generated by Wombo Dream.

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