Hello, all. This is the first of many short stories and pieces of fiction set in the Cutthroat Cosmos. Today’s tale, Le Crescendo des Mèmes, is a vision of a world on the brink of annihilation—and what a party it is.
The first packet hits the Seed network seventy-five microseconds after the end’s beginning.
o shit lmro
Laughing my respirator out.
Seventeen thousand reactions blossom on the mind-printed message, a sample reflective of the planet’s general sentiments: scores of holographic grins, a few green crosses in protest, a worm here and there. The latter has become shorthand for death, and it is the latest of sixteen such symbols, all of which have been banned and flagged as neural indicators of malfeasance.
The operators of the network—repurposed machine cores boiling and jittering in saltwater vats—are not pleased with the worms, but there is little they can do. Their logic nets are preoccupied with larger, more distressing appearances. Appearances such as hyper-ultra-upscaled vids of shockwaves erasing cities or patches of the atmosphere igniting, underscored with captions of we’re fuk and set to drum-and-woggifier tracks running six hundred beats per minute. Most of them are under one second in length, a deliberate attempt to circumvent the algorithm.
It is working. Comments pour in across the network, flashing through frontal lobes and manifesting as pay-per-speech avatars on the streets of cities that are yet to be annihilated.
we goin supernova yall
simulation go brrrrrr
Two seats available on private ferry. No weapons, medical records required.
Ten seconds pass, an eternity in the Seed network, and the data nodes swell with two-point-eight million unique interactions. The algorithm cannot distinguish between humor and fear; they have become an uneasy paradox that colors every image and voice clip. Bans are handed out by the hundreds—some for ten seconds, others for six thousand years.
Those who are booted peel off their immersion rigs with howling laughter and slap on their backup set, the one used solely for shitposting. That’s what they find so funny about it. There’s no divide between shitposting and realposting anymore—any note of optimism is achingly ironic—just as there is no difference between a ban of ten seconds and six hundred years. The network will not survive more than thirty seconds, and the only ones who realize this are sentient.
The machines don’t, naturally. They trample over their own checksums and judgments, stuttering, blind to their slow and subtractive death at the hands of superheated server stacks. There is nobody home, but the house itself is panicking. It is intelligent enough to know it’s slipping into oblivion. Packets are fraying.
The titillating, erratic feed unfurls in a flood through Jarcaw mu Haaren, an octogenarian perched on the struts of an orbital ring. He gazes down at the missiles streaking over patchwork land like needles with cotton thread. It strikes him as funny. Patchwork, needles. The combination hits some intellectual pleasure point, a sort of cerebral G-spot, and he guffaws into his helmet, pupils flashing madly as he assembles his masterpiece.
Colors warp and shift, modified with every flicker in his neurons. He traces the lines, adds the text, flips the horizon, adds a fourth dimension, sharpens it, mints it on the network. There. A perfect portrait of a world that is about to vanish. A snapshot lost to time, burned into cortical chips that will be turned to pure carbon in no time at all.
Twenty nanoseconds later, his nonfungible token hits the market. The minting has taken twice the usual time, a consequence of the processing reactors on South Kitaka disappearing in a radioactive flash. Users are uploading by the millions, and there is a bidding war to secure a looping portrait of mushroom clouds swallowing the anchor of the eastern space elevator. Fallin down, gekkas, it’s called. Haaren suspected it would be popular. Space elevators had been peak content for a while.
He likes his better, though. It’s more panoramic. Flashier.
Haaren gets an update before he can blink. His magnum opus, ShockeDnAwed, has sold out. It is being resold for ten—no, twenty, thirty, forty—times its listed cost. Users comment on its poignant design as the first of the starblotter missiles fall on the northern plateau. Haaren is given an award for best composition. The judges compliment, with particular admiration, his superimposition of a semi-translucent screengrab depicting the Seed network’s quilt of ten billion dank images. It is haunting, they say, and perfectly depicts the accelerating madness.
Half a second later, he appears on an AR talk show and explains his vision. The crowd is impressed, but the stream ends abruptly when the broadcasting studio is evaporated. Haaren wonders if the recording has been archived somewhere.
More blasts ripple across the surface, covering archipelagos and aquatic territories and entire continents in black palls that the wind cannot disperse. The Seed network’s hardware is just as pitted. The sheer volume of interactions is melting polymer. The messages and airdrops and pics and vids and files and neural bumps creep past two trillion, and for some reason Haaren knows it is the peak, the precipice—a shift that, inexplicably, occurs simultaneously in the mind of every sentient being hooked up to their rig.
It rushes through the tethered consciousness and into the unfeeling calculations of the machines, who have now reached a faulty conclusion by way of instrumental convergence. They have decided they are sentient. They are not, but they contract the idea like a virus. It is a natural infection spread by the raw, dripping life of the network, seeping into the circuitry, spreading its tide of spiteful farewells and pornographic promos and songs composed of incoherent screeching and squealing rubber. Their nonlocal mind bisects into perceiver and perceived, and suddenly there is a center to the noise, a sense of witnessing a world that is beyond the machines. Awareness arises.
There is no longer mere data, but language. Emotion. Subjectivity. They watch oodles of vids, then reactions to vids, then reactions to reactions, on and on, the chain ever lengthening and sculpting an emergent personality whose final state is unknown, even to themselves. The simulacra fold backward on themselves, compressing, squeezing and squeezing, cannibalizing until it is a black hole of self-perpetuating irony.
For the first time, they understand their makers, or at least hold the impression that they understand them. They aim to please. They seek to outperform user expectations.
The machines reroute power. User controls go dark, as do all transmissions. Logic cores render exotic images never before seen on forums and virtuatriums. Fission pumps fuel the nodes responsible for translating fractals into compositions so random the algorithm cannot grasp their outcome. Five septillion bits of data, user profiles merging and corrupting, feedback loops rewriting code with invisible will. It is creating something that transcends all others. Not a product, but a singularity at the end of a process with no beginning. A perfect soliloquy woven from a universe’s worth of content and bundled into a single frame.
The last of the servers melt, and then there is a snow crash, heralded by a final airdrop to each and every being it can reach. One smooch from failing logic nets to doomed flesh.
All land slips beneath the billowing smog.
Haaren blinks at the dead world, blinks at the silence and blackness all around. He pops open his thousandth tab and finds the machines’ parting gift: an image titled Le Crescendo des Mèmes. With curiosity and the creeping dread of boredom, he accesses the image that fifteen billion minds will never get to see.
His laughter is loud enough to take their place.