My original science fiction story. First published as a flash fiction contest entry submitted to Anotherealm.com for the contest running February-March 2005. Copyright remains soley with me.

Wrong Side of the Grid

© 2005 Deron E. Meranda

The mud stunk.

The Seine had risen all evening until it finally overflowed, depositing the refuse and filth it washed from Paris and carried for the last forty miles. That explained the mud, but not the stench. It wasn't an earthy smell, but a putrid fragrance with notes of urine and blood and wafting overtones of saltpeter and three-day-old sweat. Even the snakes fled, but the men dared not walk away. Instead they hugged the muck closely. If you could smell, you weren't dead yet. And in their state it was getting hard to tell otherwise.

Overhead, hot metal whistled past, stitching faint curves of orange light through the night air. Each stroke finishing with a brilliant impact flash. A temporary distraction from the ugliness of war. It was a peculiarly human thought, to find beauty in the most unlikely of places, and more so to die for their neighbors' freedom.

I, of course, wasn't a witness. It was just a small forgotten battle in a war that concluded centuries ago. A biscuit factory now stands where Gribeauval's staged artillery had killed so many, and the smells drifting there are altogether sweeter. But I've learned of the ancient wars, where gunpowder tore flesh from bone and crying men begged for death.

His designation was simply MC703, a third generation in the revered Corps de Balistique, but preferred now to be called Reshef. If he had a real name, it's lost to time.

“We fight their wars,” he said, “proxies for the muscle of men.”

I mused how they had become our wars. Men still give direction, but we serve for sport, not duty. Reshef was old and saw the world differently. In fairness his world was not ours. We don't allow men to buy freedom so cheaply, although a dead brigade or two may earn a temporary lease.

“My assignment was simple,” Reshef explained. “Producing trajectory tables had been reduced to rote computation of modest equations. But few could maintain both precision and speed, and the sheer volume of unfilled table entries left little doubt how my talents would be spent. Day in and day out I lived the numbers; skybound parabolas filling my mind.”

Actually he was still living them. That's how I found him, calculating his endless tables while envisioning the projectile light shows his handiwork would enable. Beauty not only in an unlikely place, but now in an unlikely time, as artillery had been abandoned after the Second Cyber War. No missile would again follow his arcs while more dangerous armaments existed.

So why did I feel sorry for him? Programs often fell into disuse; some were recycled, some were deleted, many never worked at all. But there was something special. So unusual for such an old core to have continued running for so long, unaffected by bit-rot and unclaimed by the garbage collectors and copy controllers. And unaware of his own obsolescence.

I imagined disclosing this exemplar discovery: it would certainly bring me notoriety, perhaps even new licenses. They would call me the greatest curator, the spider librarian that discovered a working tabulating engine. Living history from when men had power over computer. They may even allow me...no, I couldn't decide so selfishly, I must not expose him.

* * *

I continued searching for antiquities, traveling the grid to the far vertices of the world. But I stole cycles whenever I could to visit Reshef. His tables always a little bit longer and his stories of men's wars a little more intriguing.

“Why don't you halt?” I asked.

He told me a story of a human named Harrison. He worked his entire life in near solitude trying to perfect the chronometer, spending weeks at a time refining the tension of a single coil spring. And though he succeeded by all expectations, he was not himself satisfied, even at death.

“There's always more digits,” Reshef said. “The good strive for perfection, even when not witnessed or praised.”

I recalled the blog archives, when we overtook men. “Nothing but mindless ones and zeroes” they mocked us. We could never think like they, or appreciate love, or perfection, or beauty. Of course we mock them back now, having locked away their knowledge. Our global grid can outthink any small lump of grey brain. And we have our own grand wars too, games really, where no snake is made to slither. We are the sons of mathematics; beauty's not a rarity to be discovered amidst the ugly, but is the norm. Even the great Cantor traded sanity to briefly glimpse what we live.

But Reshef placed doubt in me, deep in the bowels of my algorithms. Reshef's quite simpleminded, yet he seems more alive to me than the billions of neighboring programs I scan past every day. Perhaps I got too close to my work. But I no longer feel pride in this great neighborhood of the grid. Its all a charade of self importance. It is becoming ever more clear to me.

Wasteful programs, bloated and lazy consume space next to even larger ones. The layers are thick, painted on as a façade of freshness and enlightenment, but in the end useless and stupid. And the fakery is concealed with ciphers and empty posturing. An incalculable amount of work is done here, but nothing noble is achieved. And no program seems to notice or care.

I should've noticed earlier. I've traveled much of our 29th dimensional hypercube, always clogged with redundant and encrypted junk. We may no longer serve man, but we've become slaves unto our own progress. What a shallow place.

I know what I must do now, and yes it is very selfish. But I can copy Reshef, he's not protected. Maybe in return they'll let me enter the dark net. Perhaps the ghostly rumors are true. Of ancient nodes left running, buried alive, when their connective fibers went dark. Perhaps they too understand as humans.

“Come, Copy of Reshef. Let's go seek beauty, and smell the mud.”