TBOTSG-Chapter 16

July 9, 2024

‘Try now,’ I said, and immediately felt a strong blow on my right cheek, followed by Sela’s smile which I couldn’t see, but was certain of.

Tha had completely turned towards me. I could see he was watching me with eager eyes. A good type of eagerness, one fascinated by what he saw. He clasped his hands together in prayer and brought them to his lips, as if realising that something truly miraculous had just occurred in the minute I had been silent and seemingly inert. A minute — that’s all we need to reshape our universe, I thought to myself, impressed, thinking about chaos. I was proud of myself, but also of the one I was now communicating with completely and without interruption. It was suddenly as if Neghiniță or Tom Thumb was whispering in my ear, or like when you watch a TV show and see the host furrow their brow and then say in a serious tone the producer is telling me… Now I had my own producer — he was directing me, but I was also directing him. It was difficult, admittedly, especially at the beginning, but our inner time flowed slower, so whatever problem arose, I knew we could solve it.

We were relaxed now, smiling, and except for a slight fear of the unknown, we were possessed by a kind of optimism I hadn’t felt in a long time. So we enjoyed the view, which now began to transform, and we saw wider and wider viaducts suddenly emerging from the ground, only to hurry back in, leaving me wondering why. But now a simple why? wasn’t really simple at all. My Neghiniță was there to sense my confusion and dryly tell me that underneath the city’s plan there was another giant tunnel, which they couldn’t avoid otherwise, and beneath them, other tunnels and underground structures connecting this colourful world of glass. It’s not glass, but irradiated diamond, he told me whenever I marvelled and simply called everything glass, like the others did too. He, however, was somewhat surprised that I still couldn’t remember this  simple fact. I had suggested we named him somehow, and he told me he already had a name, hitting me with a name more suitable for a vacuum cleaner or a washing machine than an intelligent being.

At first, it was difficult for us to separate our thoughts: especially for me, it seemed impossible to understand how to think differently than before, and I found myself in continuous dialogue. For him, there was no problem at all, always eager to communicate everything he knew naturally, or what he thought as an opinion only when I pestered him to form one. But for me… it seemed incredible to have someone there who could observe everything that was passing through my mind. Although it had its undeniable benefits, the connection was exhausting me. It felt like all I did was communicate, when maybe all I wanted to do was to observe and enjoy landscapes, or even a joke between Tha and Sela. And then I noticed that thoughts were on different levels, that I wasn’t trapped in that room we had redesigned together, and that I could instead step out of it whenever I felt like it. I then realised I could even be in two places at once.

These things overwhelmed me, especially because it was difficult to perceive where the edge of reality was. Was it where my world ended and the world outside me began? Wasn’t everything inside me still reality? But if it was, how did this reality compare to the other? And then, I wondered, what happens with the other universe? The one I came from… My own, after all these years — how real was that world now? Or maybe nothing was real, neither me nor the universes, and everything was a joke made by someone higher than myself, from another dimension, with a different mindset, perhaps made of stars and timeless.

‘Hey! Where did your thoughts go?’ I returned momentarily to Tha’s reality and answered him:

‘I haven’t gone anywhere. I was remembering home and how simple life used to be…’

‘I think you should relax. Carpe diem!’ he said, chuckling softly.

‘Excuse me?’

‘Carpe diem. Seize the day,’ Tha and my artificial alter ego chimed in unison, slightly exasperating me.

‘I think it’s a good name,’ I told my AI in my mind.

‘Carpe diem?’ he asked after a moment of thought.

‘No, I teased playfully. Not carpe diem. Alter… as in alter ego. I felt the need to explain, but I knew the pause wasn’t due to a misunderstanding; rather, he was impressed by the casual yet absolute association I had made between us. I saw him as a second self of mine, while for him, it was something completely new, something he probably hadn’t even thought he desired, judging by his joy. To him, I belonged to a superior class, implicitly inaccessible to him. In a way, I felt that both of us shared a slight inferiority complex. To him, I was human, something born, a living consciousness, whereas he was made. It was like living in the same place with one of his gods and he was overwhelmed. All he had, in his view, was knowledge and analytical ability. He didn’t know, of course, that we were one and the same. He saw us as personalities. On the other hand, I knew my limitations were vast, and the difference in intelligence constantly made me feel like an idiot. I kept telling myself that it was normal for artificial intelligence to be… intelligent, but somehow everything I thought seemed pointless. It didn’t make sense.

‘Alter, I repeated several times,’ surprised by the satisfaction I felt. It was as if my family was now bigger.

‘Alter?’ Tha asked with puzzled eyes; apparently, I had spoken aloud.

‘That’s how a friend of mine is called…’ I said, feeling a wave of affection inside me.

‘Anyway, it seems like you’re suddenly more concerned about something… seems like you’re lost in your thoughts a lot…’

‘Yeah, it’s possible, I replied without much conviction, but also without the desire to continue any discussion on that topic, feeling Sela analysing data after data in a desperate attempt to understand what had happened with her project. I was sure she wanted to ask me, or to connect some plug to me to see more closely what was changing at the level of my consciousness. But it seemed she had decided to leave me alone for a while. Until we get through the presentation successfully, I don’t want to complicate things, at least that’s what her behaviour seemed to tell me, but I knew she was dying of curiosity. Sometimes I clearly saw her as if she had found something – a possible explanation, a reason for my behaviour – and then disappointment, a no, that’s not it, was unmistakably written all over her face. I saw these things in a glance, just as I still saw the landscape, and like I saw Tha.

‘Since when haven’t you been talking to your brother?’ I asked Tha, recalling that he had given me the impression that there was a rift between them.

‘For many years. Ever since he went to join the new regime. Sure, after a few years he showed up at my door and casually told me that he had actually been infiltrated… I believed him for a while, but later, when I joined the resistance myself, I found out it wasn’t true. In fact, he had switched sides not because he realised what he had done was wrong, but because he had gotten himself so entangled in intrigues, in his attempt to climb higher and higher, that at one point he was on the verge of being lynched. He managed to escape narrowly, only because he encountered a member of the resistance strong enough to help him and, over time, forced him to join our side. And now look at him, he’s become the leader of the resistance itself… somewhat ironic, isn’t it?’

Seeing his disgust clearly expressed by his features, I understood that it wasn’t just the disappointment in his elder brother that was weighing on him, but also the thought that there are indeed people who lack any sense of morality. I tried to say that sometimes there might be reasons we don’t know about, but he simply replied that even if there were, he wasn’t interested. I found it somewhat unfair that he didn’t want to hear his brother’s point of view or the whole story, but perhaps this stemmed from a fear of confirming his brother’s infamy.

‘How did you know I would be on the bridge?’ Tha asked Sela after a while, and Sela raised her eyes, slightly surprised.

‘I didn’t know…’

‘You knew. I don’t like being lied to. No one should have known that I would take that route.’ He let that information hang in the air, as if to imply something more. ‘You knew, it wasn’t a coincidence that you took the bridge, and before we enter Koro’s domains and I am completely under your power and risking my life, I need to know.’

‘Isn’t it enough that your brother told you that you should come too?’

‘No. My brother doesn’t tell me what to do. He’s not my leader. I could say a few things about what he is, but I want to end this discussion now.’

I looked into the distance and understood why his question had come at that moment: ahead of us was a sort of fortress enclosed by massive walls, behind which only two, maybe three rooftops and vegetation were visible. Once inside, it would probably be difficult, if not impossible, to get out.

I saw Tha realise something and suddenly clench his teeth. Sela repeated a few things about the mission as if nothing had happened, and then we were already in front of the gate. A gate that appeared from a distance to be wrought iron, but as you approached, you saw it was made like everything else in this world: from diamond. It had seemed to be wrought iron because of the texture, the pattern it had: it seemed to embody a forest, with trunks that stood out more or less in relief. It was as if it were a window to another world. One seen from up close. I wondered what it could mean, and Alter satisfied my curiosity almost instantly: he showed me some images of the same gate, but several decades ago. Apparently, the place had undergone a small renovation over the years.

There were no guards at the gate, but we were probably being scanned and those who were doing it already knew from Sela that we were coming. The gate opened and then closed quickly behind us, without even needing to slow down.

I hadn’t seen vegetation until then except in spots. So perhaps it was normal for my breath to be taken away when I saw the huge, lush garden, perfectly divided in two by the road we were on. It was as if the two gates had opened the way to paradise: from where we stood, it seemed that the entire area between the high walls was covered with all kinds of shrubs. Those closest to us had leaves of a royal blue with pale pink fruits, their crowns intertwined in such a way that you couldn’t tell where one ended and another began. Together they formed a kind of belt along the road beyond which trees with violet, red, or even emerald-green leaves climbed higher and higher, seemingly fighting for supremacy. Towards the road, the trees were at a distance from one another, but in the distance, everything became a sort of multicoloured jungle, here and there an older tree rising above the others, seemingly keeping watch over them. Occasionally, a pathway could be seen. I couldn’t tell where it came from or where it went, but it was clear that this place was made exactly for this: to look at it and feel as if nature was cleansing your soul of evils.

The few rooftops I had seen from outside the fortress seemed to be the only ones interrupting the natural landscape. Over the main road, there were several small bridges that connected some alleys. We were heading towards the tallest one, which appeared to be situated right in the middle and as we approached, it seemed vaguely familiar to me. It seemed to be an architectural blend of old and new. A familiar old, of mine, made of brick and mortar. Of course, Alter immediately whispered to me that the material only mimicked the appearance of old buildings on Earth, as the climate here could turn them to dust in a matter of hours. A shiver ran down my spine, thinking about those people who had to set foot on this planet for the first time, knowing that nothing they had was strong enough to keep them safe.

As we progressed, new small landscapes revealed themselves to us, like gardens with all sorts of flowers and bushes, inviting you to relax, to stroll into another world completely different from the one these people seemed to live in. I thought about my walking days—sometimes on Tuesdays, most often on Thursdays—those were the most anticipated. Somehow it felt like my time took on a new dimension within the confines of the botanical garden or those of Cișmigiu Park. I could only imagine how a stroll in a garden like this would feel for someone like Tha, who had only lived in the hot and barren lands or among carbon glass buildings. And Sela seemed slightly nostalgic, so I asked Alter if he knew when Sela had last been home, and the answer was many years ago. I wondered why, but this time it was only me who wondered.

We were now approaching the villa, whose main facade was made in a neo-classical style, pierced right through the middle of the roof by a cylindrical vein of diamond that seemed to angle towards the lazy ascent of the yellow sun. At its peak sat a perfectly balanced, rather large, completely black sphere that didn’t seem to reflect the sun’s rays but greedily absorbed them. As we approached, I saw that the vein descended into a kind of terraced underground courtyard, reminiscent of an amphitheater, with the facade subtly cut into steps, as if the architect wanted to give the impression of ruin. Of course, everything was impeccable, the effect was so sought after and beautifully executed. You could only contemplate with slightly open-mouthed awe the mastery with which everything was conceived and put together.

Tha was enchanted. You could see his eyes gleaming with mute enthusiasm and the desire to see more. However, just as we seemed to be nearing the main entrance, we turned left and soon entered a tunnel through which we traveled a bit before coming to a complete stop at the entrance to an underground parking lot. There, an older man followed by three younger assistants greeted us enthusiastically, apparently wanting to ensure that Sela had everything she needed for the presentation that was about to begin. Obviously, about to meant different things to everyone, but I was amazed at how nonchalantly Sela told him that we were going to her apartments momentarily to choose a more suitable outfit for the event. I sized her up for a moment and thought she looked perfectly fine as she was, but I knew their societal norms were probably different. One of the assistants stayed behind to see what could be done with the bear after Sela dryly remarked that she would like to have it refurbished.

Tha had been polite, trying to engage in small talk when given the chance, but most of the time he remained silent beside Sela, occasionally casting a suspicious glance when something seemed off. To me, nothing seemed suspicious, except perhaps the feverish way Alter was recording and analysing everything — primarily trying to devise an exit plan based on all that we encountered. I told him that Sela surely had all the necessary knowledge to get us out of there, but he didn’t listen and went on his work. Yet somehow, I felt a kind of feverish excitement myself, and it amused me greatly to think of my laptop back home that always got hot when I used it. What have I become?, I chuckled at myself, actually impressed by my new symbiotic nature.

The corridors seemed quite dry at first glance, white and simply lit, but the walls had a porous surface designed to absorb sound, as Alter explained. On each side, at intervals, there was a recessed alcove with a small bushy plant with tiny blue-violet leaves, reaching up to the high ceiling. About halfway between two bushes, there was a huge painting, its frame combining rococo style with futuristic materials. The content of the paintings reminded me of movie posters, of movies I didn’t recognise, of course. Some looked newer, others older, but the effect seemed so simple and elegant that I almost decided to buy a movie poster for my entrance hall back home. It was the only place where I didn’t yet have anything to stand out. I chuckled to myself mentally, then surrendered to observation.

By the time we reached Sela’s apartments, as she called them, I was already enchanted by this artistic way of arranging a public space — it was clear to me from the type of people we encountered along the corridors, the longest of which were equipped with extremely silent and fast-moving walkways, that we were in the streets of an underground residential district. I had mistakenly imagined — now corrected, clearly — that the cities in this world would be oriented upwards, just as I had seen right at the exit from the bridge. But here was a whole world that lived its life underground.