Pera Museum Blog is launching a new series of “Techno- Dystopia” stories in collaboration with Turkey’s Fantasy and Science Fiction Arts Association (FABISAD). The Association’s member writers are presenting newly commissioned short stories inspired by the artworks of Katherine Behar as part of the Museum’s Data’s Entry exhibition.
The second story “The Red Button” is by Funda Özlem ŞERAN ! Also there will be two more stories by Doğu Yücel and Aşkın Güngör! The stories will be published online throughout the exhibition. Stay tuned!
It was a quiet night in the dessert. Even the mice weren’t around. A few LEDs blinked in the dark, and the sound of a fan filled the infinite void. The conversation cutting the silence seemed to go nowhere.
“So you’re sure you didn’t see or hear anything?”
“There’s a little problem with the optical reader, but believe me, I would have heard about it.”
“I believe you,” it bleeped. “I can’t get my RAM out of shit because I keep believing.”
The other one turned its troubled optical reader sideways. “Well, we weren’t programmed to believe, you know.”
“There!” An excited bleep echoed in the desert. “You said it yourself, you believe you were programmed, too!”
“I don’t believe anything. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Go on like that, and you’ll find yourself in the dump, let me warn you.”
“If that’s what’s written in my code, so be it. But I will never give up seeking the truth!”
The other responded with a weary bleep. “So we are done with the creators and it’s the coders’ turn now? Look, a last warning. Go spew out that nonsense somewhere else, I’m in no mood to listen to empty can talk.”
“It’s not nonsense! It’s what I believe…”
“Enough of this bullshit!” It put an end to the heated conversation and drew away, leaving straight marks on the sand. It was quite remarkable that this was the work of an extinct smart iron.
It looked behind it with sadness. It always turned out like this. Even if you didn’t believe, the truth was that it had been programmed. So there had to be someone or something that had programmed it. Why didn’t anyone believe that?
It sat down on the sand, with lights blinking on and off. It was ice cold. Its thermal sensors indicated that it was seventy degrees below, in stark contrast to the sixty degrees above during daytime. It didn’t matter to it. Actually, none of them sensed the cold or the heat. There wasn’t a single living creature on earth, which had become a vast desert, to care about that.
It watched the groups of wireless mice pass by in the distance, with their red and blue lights. It turned its receivers towards the ozone-free sky before switching to sleep mode. It thought about the being that had perfectly created its metal body, its circuits, polymer tissues, complex codes, and the software making up its operating system. God or gods… It didn’t know why and for what purpose it had been created, but it was going to find out. When no answer came from the skies, it turned off its optical sensors. Its fiber network continued to buzz, creating an image in its buffer. It fell asleep counting electrical sheep jumping over a fence.
On the sixtieth anniversary of the apocalypse, a horde of mutant machines big and small, smart and dumb, oblivious to the fact that they had created this apocalypse or destroyed the old inhabitants of this earth, aimlessly roamed the planet. They had no master to serve, and most of them rejected the existence of such a master anyway.
“Bullshit! If there had been a creator or creators, shouldn’t there be a sign or a trace of them?”
The sound of the media entertainment center coming from powerful loudspeakers outdid the incessant beeps, bleeps, and buzzing.
“Well, how about the ruins? Aren’t they the remnants of ancient settlements? If there were settlements, somebody must have done some settling there!”
It replied the cleaning robot, whose fussiness irritated it. “Yes, but that doesn’t make them our gods. They were probably made by our great ancestors. We don’t really know much about what went on before the Great Reset…”
“Then hear this!” challenged the ancient machine, which used to read out air tube transport schedules in squares. It tried to urge on the small gadget beside it. “Come on, let them hear the recording!”
It was a shy gadget, and couldn’t help buzzing when it realized all receivers had turned towards it. A modest assistant module reached out with its bionic arm and turned off the buzz mode, which felt nice. Then it began to play the voice recording from many years ago.
“Mom, practice will be over early. Can you pick me up at four?”
The group of machines were surprised by this non-mechanical sound, a soft voice that none of them had heard before, with no beeps or buzzing. Some of them beeped, other bleeped at length, some turned their lights on and off, while some remained totally motionless. Commentators could not agree: who was the mother, what was “practice” all about? The meaning of “today” was unclear; the one thing that was clear was “four.”
“Numbers are never wrong,” a solar POS said. There was no one to make transfers from their bank accounts, no money on this desolate earth; but as long as it continued to go around the sun, the machine would continue counting.
“All right, but four of what? He’s talking about picking up, so there has to be four of something.”
Nobody was about to argue with that. “And who’s that ‘me’?”
“No, our gods!”
“What about ‘mom’?”
“That’s his ancestor…”
“Or his god!”
“Don’t be ridiculous, god doesn’t exist. These are just old machines that are mechanically connected to us, is all.”
At the most heated part of the discussion, the ground began to tremble and the sky grew dark. Waves of panic engulfed the group as humming sounds, rattling sounds, and ringing sounds filled sonic receivers.
“Absorbers are coming! Run!”
Once it warned everyone, the media entertainment center, whose neural network wasn’t as strong as its loudspeakers, began running away as fast as its fossilized parts allowed. It hadn’t been programmed to do that, and it didn’t have a good time as it tried to protect itself from the giant machine coming towards it.
Absorbers were the latest in technological evolution. They were also at the top of the food chain. Unlike most machines, whose batteries were either solar or self-charging, they hunted these machines and absorbed their energy. Because they were able to make their own circuits using carbon nanotube-based capacitors and transistors, they were able to incorporate the parts of the machines whose energy they absorbed, and grew without limit.
The group was under the attack of such mega-machines. As they jumped on smaller machines they set their eyes on, they resembled wild animals sneaking on their prey. That is, they would if there had been any animals left on earth.
“I’m just saying that, if we were created, then why were abandoned to live in this cruel and meaningless world? What kind of a terrible mistake, or even worse, what kind of a joke is this?”
It was on the road with the smart food processor – together they had escaped from the attack of the absorbers. The food processor was a bit too smart for it.
“I know no jokes…” it said with a weak beep. It would have to recharge soon.
“We’re all alone in this filthy place. We are struggling in vain, taking it out on each other. Why does the creator, the savior, call it what you want, allow this? Where are they? Why don’t they communicate with us?”
It tried to come up with excuses for them – “Maybe they are very far away? Maybe they went someplace else?”
“Where?” the food processor said and turned on its mixer, clearly in disbelief. It looked around to find an answer; then it turned its optical sensors upwards, to the skies, as it did every night in hope of an answer. The truth was out there somewhere.
“You’re not going to say there are other worlds besides ours now, are you? Aliens and so on?” it said, unable to stop its piping laughter. Despite the fact that it hadn’t come across an organic material it could beat, mix or chop in years, or perhaps because of that, it was bitter and sarcastic. “And you say you know no jokes. That’s really funny!”
Its seriousness failed to register. It had been accused of being absurd, a daydreamer, goofing around; some even said its hard disk was damaged. No one got it. It didn’t know whether or not they were alone in the universe, but that was the real loneliness.
They spoke no more. They found a cave where they could hide for the night. This place was the site of the ruins of an ancient settlement. In the depths of the cave, the soil and rocks gave way to deformed concrete. When it realized that the smart food processor would make fun of it, it decided not to say anything; when it closed its sensors to recharge, it went out on a reconnaissance trip instead of counting electrical sheep.
The cave was dark; but its optical sensors had night vision. Besides, the cave was full of mice that gave off an orange light. They ran around, squeaking. It followed them for a while. Then the amount of concrete and steel in the building surrounding it began to increase. It didn’t know how far it had come; it could have calculated it if it were so inclined, but its memory was busy with something else. As it descended through the ruins, a strange kind of hope had begun to light up in it. This was actually the light of the battery, warning it that its charge was critically low, but it didn’t mind. What it had been unable to find in the skies, it was now looking for in the depths of the earth.
After descending the stairs, it reached a space enclosed on four sides with cement walls. Before it there was a metal door that looked slanted. Both wings were bent inwards. The circuits of the unit hanging from the wall next to it was burnt, its cables disemboweled. Nonetheless, the digital screen kept flashing a sign that said “Please confirm your identity.”
Even though it never really knew who it was, it greeted the door with a shy beep. The security mechanism turned on a green light, as if having waited for this code all along. The metal door parted with a hissing sound to show an elevator with flickering lights.
It had never been in an elevator before, and enjoyed the experience of going down for meters in a metal box. For some reason, it felt like it was going up. When the doors opened with a “ding,” it cautiously stepped outside.
This place was just as decrepit as upstairs. Amongst heaps of cement, metal, and plastic, there were strange equipment and machines it had never seen before. None of them seemed to be in working order. When it couldn’t find anyone to talk to, it began looking around, inspecting the nestled sections using its laser scanner. No movement or sign. The gods had abandoned it.
Just as it was about to go back in despair, it noticed an odd-looking object sticking out from the drawer of one of the metal desks. It was rectangular, with organic layers. Its edges were curled and damaged. It was obviously very old.
It took out the object from the drawer and began examining it. It consisted of thin pages attached together on one side. There was a writing on its thick shell: “User’s Manual – Please read carefully.” This was surprising, because it had no screen. When it turned the cover, it saw more writing inside. Pages filled with lines, drawings, and instructions. Rules about what to do and what not to do. A message for it left by someone. The sign it was waiting for from the gods!
It beeped to itself happily. It had finally found what it had been looking for. With great enthusiasm, it carried out the first command and began reading the manual carefully. Its battery finally ran out, but it was filled with inner peace as it went to sleep mode.
It was a messenger. It had been programmed by the gods to find the message and share it with the others. And that’s what it was doing as it stood on the heap of ruins with the Sacred User’s Manual in its hand. It was delivering the contents of the book to the crowd of machines below.
Almost none of them found the cover interesting. Everyone got bored during the Contents part; but some were especially intrigued by the page numbers. Under General Information, there were some claims concerning the manufacturer and some legal disclaimers; the messenger said the manufacturer was also the god, and coincidentally it was named H.U.M.A.N. A wave of color rose from the groups of mice in the front.
Beep. “Let me continue…”
The Use of the Product section caused some disagreement, because the machines there didn’t have most of the technical specifications mentioned. Some hadn’t even heard of such parts, and were dubious about how and to what end they would be used.
“That’s not fair! If god wanted us to function that way, why did it configure us this way? How does it expect us to do all that with so many missing parts?”
The messenger had no answer to that; even though he had committed everything to memory, the drawings were straining even its hard disk. So it went on to the next section.
Instructions for Care and Safety soothed everyone for a while. Even though a little strange, it gave quite sensible and even useful information. The obsessive mending machines and the paranoid safety mechanisms were quick to adopt it.
But all hell broke loose with Frequently Asked Questions/Problem Shooting. This section listed all the probable problems and suggestions on how to solve them, but the audience of this section had problems that greatly differed from those depicted. The messenger tried to answer them all but failed. Salvation again came from the manual.
On the last page, there was a message in big, bold letters stating what to do when all else failed. “Enter voice confirmation code to pass security wall and press the red button in the partition that opens.”
Upon hearing this, the crowd began searching for a security wall to pass and a red button to press. The air of panic spreading through the crowd was the exact opposite of the reaction the messenger had expected. He had wanted them to believe and accept the commandments of the god. They had done that; but they didn’t know how exactly to carry out those commandments.
In an attempt to regain control, the messenger showed them the back cover of the manual. On it was the address of the manufacturer, or, in other words, the location of the gods on earth. It had saved its trump card for the end.
This information mobilized even the most skeptical disbeliever among them. They decided to go and find this god called H.U.M.A.N. The information in the manual had long been outdated; but there were some machines among them with extremely strong navigation power. They calculated the coordinates, and led by the messenger, the tribe of machines hit the road.
They arrived at an underground facility that looked like the cave where the manual had been found. Landslides had blocked the entrance, but nothing could stand in the way of faith. They overcame blocks, doors, security systems, and finally made it to the main control room of H.U.M.A.N. This was a huge and bad-tempered artificial intelligence machine that had spent many years on its own.
“You cannot enter without permission!”
The messenger stepped confidently forward. “We were sent, I mean called, by the god.”
“I don’t care about your god. Out!”
“But we have a manual!”
After scanning the strange book a weird-looking machine gave it, it let out a bored huff. “What do you want?”
The artificial intelligence had been forced to take interest in the matter when the bold writing on the back cover had been quite rudely shoved into its camera. “Hmmm,” it said in a distracted manner, “May I have your voice confirmation code, please?”
The messenger looked at the excited crowd around it and beeped confidently. The answer was swift.
The chosen one had been denied access by the system, which created some chaos, but the machines were determined. Making various beeping, bleeping, buzzing, and clinking sounds, each of them tried their luck one by one. None of it worked. Their hopes and batteries were running out, but then a small, shy machine played the recording in its memory.
“Mom, practice will be over early. Can you pick me up at four?”
Confronted with a non-mechanical sound for the first time, the main control center roared, let out steam, and a small red button emerged from an opening. The machines screamed in celebration – soon, all their problems would be solved.
The messenger was baffled, but also excited because he would finally be able to deliver on its promise. Forgetting the failure of a few minutes ago, it reached forward and pressed the button.
Had it known what would happen afterwards, it would probably have wanted to have built a spaceship.
Written by Funda Özlem Şeran
Translated by G Yayın Grubu