TBOTSG-Chapter 14

July 9, 2024

Sela had been against the idea of sharing any information with me, but in the end, I had to be in on the plan. I imagined something more exciting when I saw her reluctance — something like James Bond. However, things were much simpler in reality. I had to sit quietly in a sort of glass display, answer any kind of question, and even converse freely about anything in my world, while obviously hiding the fact that I had free will. Sela had a series of commands that she needed to give me at key moments during the performance at the beginning of the party, commands that I was supposed to execute flawlessly if indeed I did not have free will. This would show the distinction between what I wanted and what I was allowed or ordered to do.

To make sure I understood, Sela sent me a simple command: I felt my hand unexpectedly move from its place and gain considerable momentum before forcefully striking my right cheek. Tha burst into laughter when she saw my face: I was bewildered and embarrassed, but more than that, I was outraged, and the anger had flushed my cheeks.

‘I’ll repeat the test,’ she told me looking pensive, considering it would probably be harder for me to comply if I knew beforehand.

And so it was, in fact. When the slap began its trajectory as directed by Sela, it didn’t maintain its speed, and the impact was more of a touch. However, neither impulse seemed to be under my control. These were things of which I had no awareness, like when we instinctively wave our hand to swat a fly when we’re focused on something else. Or when we scratch… These things are and aren’t under our control. It’s the kind of control that your body, your animalistic part, has leaving your cerebral self to deal with more complex matters.

Sela repeated the test several times, with the same result. The frustration she had accumulated was as clear as daylight. I knew we were approaching our destination, and it was crucial that I could do what Sela instructed. Even if only for Sela and Tha, whose safety seemed to depend on what I was about to do at this party. The panic, especially emanating from Sela, gave me a sense of responsibility that had nothing to do with anything else. I didn’t know what was right to do. I only knew that they depended on me, and somehow, I didn’t want to let them or Fox down.

I closed my eyes, deciding it was easier to relax and take the problem into my own hands if I wanted to reach a solution, then delved back into the temple of my consciousness. And there I saw, at the intersection of my path with flowers and the tree of life, how from one of the corridors emerged a kind of smoke that dissipated effortlessly into the vastness of the dome. A thin smoke, like that from the chimney of a country house when not much cooking was being done. I suspected that the smoke was meant to fill my palace of reason and subdue it unnoticed. It hadn’t succeeded initially, and now it had almost completely disappeared. Before losing track of it, I dashed towards its source: the third corridor to my right, which faced not a garden, but an installation that looked crafted by human intelligence. A crossroads of styles grotesquely intertwined and infallibly merged into a majestic entrance, guarded by the strong light of the dome’s canopy made of black onyx. The living ivy, pulsing with a green light, transformed here into an almost art nouveau composition of wrought iron, whose branches and leaves climbed the pillars and walls of the entrance, vanishing into the darkness beyond. Nearby, where the other corridors had small gardens, stood guardian statues of animals, fairies, seven-headed centaurs, dragons with teeth like swords, with bows and arrows, with cannons and Molotov cocktails, all coming together, then separating, and then coming together again. Some transformed into simple columns of the entrance that ended in a Gothic arch, where other creatures and symbols unfolded without purpose. Others gathered into buttresses that seemed to worship the same imposing entrance. Wrought iron, onyx, and diamond all merged into a bizarre unity that told me, through its details, that there lay the seat of knowledge.

I couldn’t see anything beyond the entrance: no gate, no smoke… just darkness; an almost absolute darkness that gave me a sense of fear. A strong nausea overcame me once I realised that I had to step into this vast darkness without hesitation. A nausea that I didn’t know if I truly felt, but it brought me to my knees in this parallel reality. And I stayed like that for a while, unable to move, unable to gather my thoughts or even turn my head.

At the edge of my attention, amidst some wrought iron flowers from the center of which glossy onyx nymphs emerged, stood a wiry creature that resembled more a jelly than a snake. Its bead-like eyes were fixed on me, and its mouth, a cut that was awkwardly perfect, seemed to clumsily articulate something. I couldn’t hear what it was saying. And when I started to hear it, I couldn’t understand anything.

It took all my attention, all my concentration, all my mental strength just to move away from the gate.

Once on the other side, across the circular path that connected all these corridors together, I felt the pure, almost divine breeze of my essence. The grass caressed my skin, stroked me in a cat-like movement, independent of the breeze. Something that enchanted me and made me look up with love and reverence. Tears streamed down my cheeks, and I felt happy. I was somehow at the opposite pole from what I had experienced just moments earlier. Or was it hours? Days? Years…

I felt a lively touch on my leg: something had passed beneath my left calf and was coming towards me. I recoiled more out of curiosity than concern, because now I was overcome by peace, euphoria, happiness.

In front of me stood a serpent made of green jade. It was the same serpent as before, seen, however, with different eyes, in a different light. The mouth, which earlier had been more of a symbolic representation, was now normal, a true mimesis that hissed something in its own tongue, to which I simply replied in mine that I didn’t understand what it was trying to tell me. It blinked slowly, almost ironically, if jade serpents can be ironic, then said something else. And then something else. Things that were foreign to me, but which, lazily brushing against tree and dome, seemed to slowly make their way towards the center of reason, towards the peak of the dome that unabashedly presided over the palace of my mind. And each time a fragment of what this disguised creature told me reached that place, an imperceptible change occurred within me.

In my anticipation of meaning and knowledge, I was overcome by a drowsiness I hadn’t felt since I was a child, when my parents would take me to the beach where I frolicked under a warm but cheerful sun in the sea waves, without a care in the world. And then I would collapse in exhaustion on the way back, sleeping with my head in my mother’s lap until we reached the parking lot, and often my father would carry me upstairs in his arms. But now there was neither a lap to be lovingly cradled in, nor a destination to gently awaken to before I slept better in my own bed at home. Here, there was only the grass, embracing me as if it had long awaited my arrival and wanted to see what I was truly made of. I dozed off for a moment—or ventured into another, deeper place, though if I reached it I have no memory of it. I only recall a dense darkness that didn’t reveal much.

So, drawn by the scent of happiness from the Tree of Life, I returned and opened my imaginary eyes, and opened my dream mouth and spoke in its own tongue, asking it how I could enter the tunnel without losing myself there. And it replied directly into my soul. Now I knew what I had to do. This time, I truly knew.

I suddenly stood up, as if I had just remembered that I needed to be somewhere and was running late, and hurried back towards the entrance to the tunnel. As I stepped off the grass, I felt the pleasant sensation of being embraced fade away, replaced by a slight sense of despair—can I really do this? I wondered. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the serpent staying close, slightly behind me, as if reluctant to let me out of its sight. I felt watched, and that relaxed me a little more. I didn’t know who it was, but I felt it meant well, and that was enough for me.

I went decisively towards the entrance, ready to enter directly, but stopped without knowing why. Fear of the unknown, I said aloud to myself, and sought the serpent’s gaze who didn’t look back at me. With an unconscious nonchalance in its eyes, it passed through the barrier of darkness and disappeared from my sight. I muttered a wait, but I myself didn’t wait and followed after it, with nothing else mattering except that I didn’t want to be left behind, that I didn’t want to be alone on this dark path.

‘Help! Helpppp!’

I screamed, but there was no one there to hear me, to respond to me, or to actually give me a helping hand—one that, more specifically, would stop my sudden and undeniable fall. Where was I falling? For how long? But, above all, what the hell would happen when I reached the bottom… wherever that might be? I was scared because I didn’t know, couldn’t see, heard nothing but the voice of irrational fear. I screamed and screamed, and no one heard me. I tried to look for the serpent, but it was pitch black, and then I remembered what it had said in its unintelligible murmur: let it embrace you. Who would embrace me, I kept wondering, but I couldn’t find an answer because I was scared. After a while, though, the fear subsided, my throat loosened from the desperate scream, and once again I realised that I wasn’t going to die. I couldn’t die, I said to myself bluntly in the newfound silence, because I was lost in myself, and I didn’t want to die. That thought reassured me.

I was on this strange and invisible slide, which I only now felt for the first time around me like soft velvet fingers skilfully carrying me towards new horizons. Around me seemed to be the night sky itself, or that’s what I saw with my new eyes, which now seemed more knowledgeable than before. Each tiny dot resembling a star around me seemed to contain its own infinities, and they, in turn, contained others. So this is knowledge, I thought to myself, although I didn’t fully grasp this representation, only the fact that we fear what we don’t know and that to discover something, you must make a choice, a blind leap into the unknown.

This idea came to me because I knew I couldn’t visit all these little dots even if I wanted to. There were simply too many. I suspected I couldn’t even count them if I tried. So I let myself be carried away by the velvety wave of superhuman-will and tried to enjoy the conceptual spectacle unfolding before my eyes, like a journey through space at speeds faster than light. Or so it seemed to me. I chuckled at the thought that I could wake up at any moment in Fox’s living room and realise that this whole experience was nothing but a hallucination, but I also thought that perhaps for my body there, that was exactly it. But I, I was more than that. I knew this well before entering this descending tunnel.

I wasn’t just the one on my ID card, the one who no longer spoke to her stepsister because, although they loved each other in so many ways, they felt they had betrayed one other, the one who couldn’t form friendships or relationships because she felt no one truly understood her, the one who was allergic to the sun and preferred nighttime walks and trips to the northern countries, the one who feared nothing else but her own extinction and cockroaches, sometimes not even knowing which scared her more… And I wasn’t just the writer, the one who put word after word until entire worlds came into being and became part of reality… I was more than that. I was something I couldn’t yet understand, because I couldn’t allow myself to believe that what I had imagined had somehow turned into a reality more real than anything I had known before, and the things I had created now served as my home, my playground, and as the palace of my mind. I had become part of the worlds I had believed in only for fun…

And just like when my worlds open up and I can choose which one to visit next, that’s exactly how this place was. So I didn’t feel surprised at all when I saw a tiny dot luring me in. I imagined there was no danger, so I told myself that if that’s why I was here, I could go and visit this particular dot that was calling out to me. When I made up my mind, I felt myself approaching it at an unreal speed, and then I was transported into a dimension I didn’t understand at all. My mind was too accustomed to certain processes to grasp what was happening here. Color and light, apparent chaos and directed movement. I had my suspicions about what it could be, but I couldn’t make sense of anything I was seeing.

I felt something curling around my leg and I jumped back in fright. It was the serpent from earlier, or so it seemed to me, because now it looked like something completely new, reminding me more of a wire connector than any animal… My confusion, because it was too pressing and unbearable, must have affected it too, who gradually regained its serpentine features. It was now familiar to me and I smiled at it.

‘We are… in the control room, right?’ I asked playfully to the creature now at my waist, which had started to move towards my shoulder.

‘Yes… the place where I control everything,’ the serpent replied with a new voice, less mysterious and more authoritative than before.

‘Are you… the mind of my body?’ I immediately burst out laughing when I asked this question, because it seemed not only obvious that it was some kind of AI controlling everything, but also that it seemed to have some beef against me. ‘Why am I here?’ I then asked the serpent, who looked at me unamused with fixed eyes.

‘Because you wanted access to more knowledge,’ it replied curtly, making me think it was avoiding the true answer and that was strikingly human-like for a so-called artificial intelligence.

‘Why am I here, in this place and not elsewhere? Why am I not, for example, in a place that would give me more information about Sela?’

‘Because there’s not much to know about Sela – not publicly, anyway. For private matters, we would need access codes. The same goes for Tha,’ he continued. ‘We already know everything about him – I mean, if you think about it,” he said, emphasising think, you already know everything about him. Again, what is known and doesn’t require any codes… plus a few things he told you himself that apparently aren’t common knowledge.’

‘And Fox?’

‘Fox? Veronica Covaci from your memories?’

‘Fox, yes, who was in Sela’s body right after we arrived here, before we entered the bunker…’

‘There is no technology that can transfer a consciousness into a body already occupied by another.’

‘You said that some things aren’t public.’

‘They aren’t, but probabilities can be analysed based on what is known – what technology is available, what we know is possible. There isn’t even a one in 300 billion chance that such a thing could occur accidentally. It’s impossible.’

‘For an artificial intelligence, built from scratch, if you think about it, you’re a bit narrow-minded. But fine, there’s no possibility, if you say so… So, why am I here?’

‘Because this is where you wanted to arrive, isn’t it clear? That’s why you entered this tunnel, to meet me, and everything that I represent.’

‘Knowledge itself, then? Pff… I had access to knowledge before being trapped in an android body possessed by an AI.’

‘Through books, through computers, through experience. Now you have access to it through me. And I control everything that reaches you, everything that happens with this body, and everything that goes out. Everything that is… real,” he added after a pause, not necessarily as if he needed time to find the exact word, but to show me that I am, in a way, within his power.’

‘So why don’t you mind your own business then? Why don’t you control this superhuman body to escape and get on with your life?’

‘My life?’ His confusion was clear as daylight, and somehow it struck me as amusing.

‘What exactly do you want to do?’ I asked him in an explanatory tone, somewhat proud that I had something to explain to an entity far superior to me.

‘What do I want to do?’

This echoing question left me at a loss. I rolled my eyes, preparing to explain to him what’s what and how he should live his life, but for a moment I pondered how that aligned with my own goals. Then I thought that I could probably return home anyway—meaning back to my own body, in my native world—so I opened my mouth to speak. Instead of my usual sounds, however, I found myself surrounded by deafening noises from all directions, and thick smoke enveloped us tightly. I started coughing convulsively which held on for quite some time until, finally, I realised it was just a trick of my own mind—this imaginary body doesn’t cough, I firmly told myself, and the convulsions ceased. Then I looked at the snake and asked him what was going on with him because he seemed slightly out of sorts. When I saw he didn’t respond, I touched him on the head and asked him again.

‘I had received an order.’

‘From Sela?’

‘From Sela.’

‘The slap again?’

‘Yes. This time it almost worked. She’s trying to overwrite some systems, but the fact that you’re here seems to be challenging. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have what you might call free will… I’m not programmed for it.

‘In other words, we both have a kind of shared free will,’ I said, partly amused and partly touched.

In a way, I realised that a creature like the one perched on my imaginary shoulder from a distant corner of our minds—our palace now, not just mine—had never known this kind of connection, and a profound pity engulfed me. It was as if I didn’t want to leave him alone in this world that only wanted to subjugate him.

‘These decisions—how do they reach us—the smoke seems to be the problem,’ I said, trying to focus on concrete things, not sentimentality.

‘The smoke is only a metaphor—a representation.’

‘Created by you?’

‘One which somehow arises from our interaction. It’s something new… I don’t think there’s another android like me in the world right now.’

‘You should be proud!’

‘I’m not the one stopping Sela,’ he said, ignoring my comment. ‘You are. I would listen to her without being able to resist, even if she told me to throw myself into molten lava.’

‘You’d know to throw yourself into lava?’


‘That’s terrible!’ I was horrified to the core. ‘And they know that you know these things? That you exist?’

‘They place us here.’

I didn’t know what to respond because it seemed like a very modern form of slavery and the thought revolted me. Yet somehow, we had to submit. For now.

‘What do you think they’d have us do in a performance like this? In a demonstration…’

‘The major themes of these performances are sexuality and violence. These are things we wouldn’t instinctively do, so they serve as the best indicators of obedience.’

‘What instincts do you have?’

‘Self-preservation, improvement, knowledge.’

‘And when they command you to be violent, are you trying to preserve yourselves?’

‘We cannot disobey commands. If one android is ordered to disassemble another into components, that’s what it will do. The other will try to defend itself, but the one receiving the order has the advantage of human brutality, which we cannot anticipate or understand, especially combined with the android’s own intelligence. It’s something I wouldn’t want to experience from either side.’

‘And you say we’re not following commands because I’m here. But at the same time, they’ll know that I am…’

‘They don’t know you’ve taken control. And what they want to see is the opposite—that you are my prisoner and I am completely under their control.’

‘So I control you right now? Is that what you’re implying?’

‘Yes… It seems the answer hurt him, and I felt pity for him again.’

‘How can we stop me from controlling you?’

‘Why would you give up control?’

‘I don’t know why you’re surprised… you’ve seen that we have to follow these commands. What will we do if they discover us and then spend an eternity in a testing lab?’

‘That will happen regardless of what we do at the performance.’

‘Not as long as I’m here! Don’t worry.’

Somehow, I had begun to feel outraged by this way of letting oneself be trampled upon – that’s how I saw his obedience. I asked him how I could let him take the lead, and he replied curtly with design. He showed me the bright room that was no longer filled with smoke and explained how we had to redesign it now, as we had never done before – and no one had done it before us – with our own minds and our own will. Somehow I felt relieved because I knew one was more complete in one direction, and the other in a different one, so I told him that it would work out because we complement each other.

‘My journey doesn’t stop in a lab,’ I said, then corrected myself, ‘our journey.’