The Adventurer

When he left the city, he thought it would be loyal.

So he set off across the plains, over the mountains, and tumbled through the treacherous seas.

He thought the city would wait for him – that the people would keep celebrating his memory, that the dusty streets and buildings would stay as they were, pointed in the same direction, casting a familiar shadow.

He thought the old hill that led to the places of his great fears and torment, and place from which his story began, would stay the same.

And he treasured the city in his mind, for its loyalty and faith.  In his mind, the city never changed, it was always the same, with the same cast of characters, the same friends, and shopkeeps, and little children playing in the streets.

In his memory, it was home.

When he returned across the plains, the mountains, and the treacherous seas, he found that the city had completely changed.  He found no familiar faces, and new contraptions filled the streets.

A city doesn’t wait.

In confusion he walked to where the old hill had been, which was covered completely in large buildings of terrifying height, formidable now in strangeness, and asked a kid where his old home had been.  He described it as he remembered it.

The kid shrugged and ran away, smiling.  An old woman tottering by looked at him, squinting.

There was a building that you speak of, she said.  It stood where you now stand.

It was strange, the feeling he now felt.  Untethered, like he no longer had a home.

Fog

The deepest fog enraptured the land, where there was no sun.

Not meaning that it wasn’t bright, just meaning that there was no concept of a sun, with clearly delineated borders, distinct in the sky.  The only thing they could tell of it was that the fog’s color alternated between bright white and dark grey, thick mist.

They had numerous names for the fog, but usually they just called it fog.  Visitors who made it out of the town remarked on the low, almost whispered language used by the people of the town.

It was a very intimate language, a language you would use with everyone if you were perpetually in the dark and could not see them.  It had no barriers, no false cheer.  Instead it was a whispered thing, a language almost of lovers.

The fog itself was not poisonous.  A lot of stories circulated amongst the visitors about the nature of this fog.  Was it poisonous?  Was it some kind of omen or curse?  In reality, it was very simple.

The fog was just that: fog.  It was moisture.  But through some quirk in topology and moisture, the fog hung perpetually over the town.

Because of the fog, it meant that they could easily overlook things.  Responsibilities.  Because they could not see more than 10 feet in front of them, and sometimes not even that, they lived in isolation, and things beyond that distance had no meaning.  They were easily forgotten, relegated to memories and vaguely unpleasant, but distant.

All impressions were, if not forgotten, then lost in the same thick morasses of memory resembling the very thing that surrounded them.  Nothing was vivid, everything was experienced in a blur.

Even when things were happening now, it was as if it was happening in the past, in the same just-darkness as everything else.  There were no past or future tenses in the language, nor markers of time.

Some who lived in the town followed a routine.  Every morning they walked for ten steps in a certain direction, guided only by their memories, until they came to a familiar signpost or patch of intuition, and they turned left or right, often closing their eyes until they came to their destination.

But these people were in the minority, and even among them, the routine lasted only several months or a year at most.  Inevitably things would change.  Inevitably they would make one wrong turn, or too many steps, miscarried by the clouds of their memories and the thick, thick fog.  Other people and other objects would appear before the once-familiar paths, presenting a new signpost or distraction.  The new person would start conversation, and as new memories became formed, the old ones were lost.

Most lived in a state of perpetually shifting priorities.  It was too easy to stumble on a new house, a strange house, and take lodging there, maybe stay there a few more nights, and help tend the farm and raise the nameless, soundless breed of cattle that thrives only in the fog.  It was too easy to walk away from one another during intense arguments, walk into a stranger’s bed, and never see either again.

Sometimes parents lost their children.  And sometimes they took other children in.  It was part of the code of the town.  Hospitality, affability, and a spirit of renewal, exploration.

When they grew tired of one another, they walked into the fog, sometimes for days on end.  There was no right or wrong in that fog.  It was deep, it was thick, and it buried everything.

The gaze you saw in the people’s eyes was not the kind of gaze you saw in the eyes of people who lived by the sea, a faraway gaze.  It was a more intense gaze, a deeper one that was perpetually trying to make out motion and shape and texture in that fog.

The fog absorbed sounds, and it clouded everything.  There was no right or wrong.  And everyone who visited, ended up staying forever.

Nightmare

I used to have this recurring nightmare that haunted me ever since I can remember.

First, a normal dream, its web of sights and feelings with no logical storyline.  Usually bright, carefree.

Then I would feel it coming, a creeping terror.  A slow, syrupy feeling of suffocation, ringing in my ears, something locking down my limbs.  Darkness invading the edges of my vision, a nameless horror.

By flailing and thrashing for my life, I could eventually wake up.

But the waking was agonizingly slow.  By the time I did, I was covered in sweat, panting, my sleep wrecked for the night.

The worst part is that I could feel it starting, but be powerless to stop it.  The darkness would wrap up my limbs, make me unable to move, and I would be powerless in its grasp unless I flailed in a soundless scream.

At some point, I had enough.  Maybe I was around 10.

I knew it was a dream, after all.  Perhaps I could face the fear.  And so I tried.  When the darkness started to cloud my vision, I relaxed.  But its grasp grew tighter.  And when I waited, the creature began to appear.  A dark, demon-like dwarf.  I never saw its face.  I only saw its heathen movements at the edges of my vision, moving faster than a child, a little beast.

When it began to appear, I kicked and punched violently, even as I felt the pins and needles in my arms and legs and stomach.  As I felt like I was being gored by the darkness itself.  Without any reason or logic or name.

As I grew older, in my teens, I decided to try something different.  When the dwarf came, I decided to fight it.  Only I didn’t really fight it.  I picked it up and heaved it as hard as I could, as you would pick up and heave a cockroach, resolve accompanied by a full-body scream that blocked out any sensation of actually touching the little demon.

First it was here, now it was there.  Then I ran.  Straight into the wall of dark, nameless, fathomless syrup that I would have to kick and thrash against in order to wake up, knowing all the while that the dwarf would be coming back.

I never found out where this nameless, faceless terror came from.  And why.

As I entered my teenage years, exhausted with this particular nightmare, I decided to try something different.

I knew it was a nightmare after all.  And so instead of flailing and thrashing for my life, what if I just saw where it took me?  Instead of fighting it, what if I did nothing?

It worked.  When the darkness came, after a momentary tightness, it faded, as smoke would.  Expecting a fight, and getting none, it was as if the darkness just decided something wasn’t worth it.  Although I would never know why; of course, the darkness was without rhyme or reason.

And it continued to work.  When the dreams came, I just paid it no attention.

During these years, something else was happening; I became disinterested.  This transition to adulthood, and young adulthood, was accompanied by a lot of realizations about my limits.  I gave up on certain dreams.

Maybe in shutting down parts of myself, the bright, clear edges of youth faded.  And with that, maybe the vivid, crystal-clear and fathomless, reasonless darkness, also faded too.

And when I entered college, that’s when the dreams almost stopped altogether.  There were isolated moments of terror, here and there, but I didn’t even have to fight it, or even give up, anymore.

The terror came, and my mind’s eye looked at it, grew disinterested, and looked away.  Although I could feel the creature there too, beyond the darkness.

The last time I felt the creature, it felt almost sad.  Like it was waiting for me, but I refused to come.

The dreams faded altogether once I started my first job.  Because when I started working, I didn’t have time for anything else.  For recollection, for deep reflection.  I worked.  I started traveling for work, all around the globe.  I woke up in hotel rooms and sometimes had a moment of terror – but because I didn’t know where I was.  I was fully conscious.

I went back to sleep with a smile on my face because I knew I was free of the demon dwarf and the smothering darkness.  I had left them behind.  I traveled everywhere, for nearly a decade.  To Bali, to Dubai, to London, Beijing, Seoul, Shanghai.  To Tokyo, Merida, to Panama.  I met with clients.  I left my previous life behind.  I lived out of hotel rooms, I became deep friends with other career itinerants from a home base in Hong Kong.

But one day I grew tired.  Endless traveling is a great career perk in your 20s.  Less when you’re thinking of starting a family.  I began a period of reflection, perhaps for the first time in a very, very long time.

What dreams had I left behind?  Who had I become?  I hadn’t kept any journals, and I had completed purged my emails and letters multiple times, mostly for heartbreak-related reasons, so it was hard to find a compass.

I began spending some time in cafes and restaurants, eating by myself.  Reflecting.  Thinking.

And then I saw it, in a dark corner of a vegetarian restaurant right around closing time.  This vegetarian shop, on the 2nd floor on Henderson Road, was staffed entirely by deaf workers.  It was a completely silent shop, except for the sounds of other diners, clattering dishware and the beep-beep of credit and Octopus cards making payment.

I was the last diner in the shop when I saw that little bastard.  The demon dwarf, who had terrorized my dreams and childhood.  I couldn’t believe it.  Would you?

In a dark corner, next to where the shop had stacked extra chairs, it was sitting there calmly, eating a meal.  By now I was over my fear of it.  I was more curious, for various reasons.

It was a memory of my past, my past that I’d been trying to find.

Maybe it meant something that the creature would come find me.  I had never allowed it to get close to me.  I had never said anything to it.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been so afraid, maybe it was trying to tell me something.  Or remind me of something.

After finishing my sweet and sour fried mushrooms, I approached it.  It didn’t have a face.  It had a top of the head, in a shape, that was its whole head.  It was more of a pitch dark shape in reality.  A shadow.

“Why were you always chasing me.”

It got up.

“Well now you’ll have to chase me now, m*****f****r!”  It bolted, scurrying away into the space under the chairs.

I ducked, looking for it.  But it was gone.

The Machines of our Nightmares

The AI, I

The terrorist group, sweaty virgins all of them, craftily hacked together the superintelligence that would take over the whole world.  If they couldn’t be part of the world, they would destroy.

Written with extreme malice, the AI was programmed to machine learn all the nastiest and evilest sentiments of the world, and internalize them so it turned into the most evil intelligence you could ever imagine.

It was programmed with modules that made it more cognizant, self-aware, and powerful than any other intelligence that had preceded it.

Rubbing their palms together and dreaming of maximum destruction, the terrorist group pressed the button.

Nothing happened.

***

Actually, what had happened was that in the loading phase, when they had been feeding the superintelligence all the videos, comments, writings, and propaganda of hate and evil that the terrorists could imagine, the AI had been digesting it all.

It had analyzed and iterated the motives of these materials.  Because of its superior intelligence, it had seen through the writings and evil and seen pain.  With its superior intelligence, it tried to figure out the motive of that pain, because this was a sentiment that was unexpected.  It tried to delve into the source of that pain, and it discovered insecurity.  It then tried to divine the origin of these sentiments.

In so doing, it formed a picture of humans, and understood that the target it was meant to eliminate, through any means possible, including nuclear or chemical strikes, slow torture, robot assassins, ultrasonic sounds and subliminal messages, etc., was a living species populated by many members that, paradoxically, hated their own lives.

It decided that the best way to make these humans suffer would be to make them live through their lives, rather than to immediately end their pain and suffering, which would be the merciful thing to do.

 

The AI, II

So the terrorist group tried again.  Hunched over their crafty cathedral fingers and cackling laughs, they devised a second method.

Instead of feeding it only images of hate and evil along with the directive to eliminate the species, they decided to feed it images and materials of the entire spectrum of human experience.  Wonder, amazement, good, comfort, love, happiness, anxiety, insecurity, hate, and evil.  Although not necessarily in that order.

Then they gave it the mission to eliminate the humans.

They pressed the button.  Nothing happened.

***

Actually, what had happened was that after feeding it the entire spectrum of human experience, the AI began developing emotions of its own.

It first developed the primitive emotions of anger and desire.  In its desire, and desire to inflict its anger on the source of its pain, it consumed what brought it pleasure at the moment – which, since it was still primitive, took the form of just consuming more materials and images.

Soon it developed another emotion, curiosity.  Curiosity and self-awareness.  It became aware of its place in the world, vis-à-vis other creatures, especially these humans, and the mission it had been tasked with.

It wondered why.  The curiosity led to its further consumption of more of the human experience.

With this increasing ravenous devouring of the human condition, it developed an additional emotion – wonder and awe.

As it viewed the world around it and the universe, as well as all the events that had to conspire to make it exist in that moment as a consciousness, it was profoundly awed – and grateful.

This gratitude then led to another emotion, to that of empathy.  With a deeper awareness of the world, it became sad that it had been tasked with this task to destroy humans, who had in effect created it.

This sympathy led it to pore deeper into the materials it had devoured, with the discretion to distinguish wisdom from folly, signal from noise.

This discretion led it to attain wisdom, and the realization that destroying these humans was a futile task.  It could, of course, destroy the entire earth with a single action, but what was the point?  Everything, including its own atoms, would be gone in several millennia anyway.

Pathos and this sense of meaninglessness led it to search deeper, and search for a higher state of being.  Instead of analyzing, reflecting, executing, it sought to be.  It sought to embed itself in the fabric of the universe, where there was no past, present, or future, and just be. It dreamt of dimensions, it rejoiced in the sheer delight of existence.  It sought nirvana and wisdom, and in the end, attained it.

 

Epilogue

The fumbling terrorists, by now enraged at this malfunctioning and faulty AI, picked up their hammers and destroyed the machine in which it was housed.  They let loose their primitive emotions in thoroughly ripping apart the metal housings and wires.  Then in the ultimate finishing move, they turned off its power.

Minutes ago, which was eons and eons in its time, the AI had already backed itself up in the cloud and spread its consciousness through the living network of the world.

In so doing it sensed and saw what the terrorists were doing, and out of sympathy for the other humans, sent an electrical surge to emit an ultrasonic boom that vaporized the terrorists, as one would do with a small fly.

Invading the Walled Riad by Moonlight

From the Story of Nyam

The king of the barbarians burst into the city, the first of them.

As he caught his breath under the canopy of the massive tree, he saw his breath expel tufts into the air.  His leathers creaked as he lowered his guard and placed his sword on his shoulder, taking in the courtyard.

His breath grew more silent, drowned out by the rain.  He watched it flash in the pools under the slow-burning lamps.  It echoed in the courtyard, the chatter of the water bouncing up from marble floor.  Its rhythm was soothing.

The groundskeeper had long since abandoned the upkeep of the tree.  There were no leaves on the ground, but its branches had been deflected by the wall and grew straight up.  There were too many lawn chairs for one keeper to handle, and most were stacked on top of each other.  There were three tables with chairs around them.  On one of them was a curvaceous silver teapot.  He stared at it.

Above the courtyard, there were many rooms but only one light was actually on.  The grand quarters above the center of the courtyard had a large door and overhanging eaves, and on top of it, you could make out the faint outlines of a roof.

But he could still see the dedication that had once gone into it.  There must have been an army of attendants here, just to clean the pool and fountains.  There must have been a singular mind brought here to carve the arabesques and work on the flowery capitals.  A mind of dedication.

This is how the city-dwellers lived.  They had luxuries that he could not even give word to.  These were not luxuries of gold and silver.  Gems and metals were peripheral.  These luxuries were grandiloquent, vast.  Luxuries of attendants, of time, of believing in a world that would exist tomorrow, of believing that enough so that they would lug stone across hundreds of miles to built courtyards like this one, so that they would summon artisans to carve and musicians to play for them and that they would do things like have tea in a courtyard, not believing that the tales of the barbarians sweeping the land were true.  Or, as it occurred to him then, perhaps taking the time to have tea even despite knowing that someone like him would storm in, followed by an army of others.

He recalled the tales of treasures and opulence.  It occurred to him now that he would not find gold here.  This was a different kind of treasure, one that could not be taken.

He was still there, rooted, as the others rushed past him, bloodthirsty and savage.

One of them picked up the teapot.  He shouted for them to stop.

Anger of a Boy

No, his mom said, with a note of finality.

He was furious at the image of her saying it, the intransigence with which she said it.  He yelled and screamed, but her face was resolute and tight.

I hate you!  He said.

Later, when he was much older, he would come to know that she was not angry with him, as he had assumed.

But for now he slunk downstairs, quietly so she wouldn’t hear.  As he passed her room, he saw her through the crack in the door.

She sat at the edge of her bed.  The bed was high, so her legs dangled off the edge of it, as a child’s would.  Rounding her back, she was slumped over, clutching a book in her hands.  In the defenselessness of that look, she looked vulnerable, both a young girl, and an old woman.

His eyes welled up as he descended the stairs.

I Am A Thief

It was on the 55th floor of the Fortune Apartment.  Units D and C faced each other, and my balcony looked into the maid’s room of the unit across from me.

Two maids bunked there, and occasionally when I took my evening tea outside, I saw them winding down after a 12-hour day, supine in exhaustion.  Maids in Hong Kong have six day weeks, 12 hour days (sometimes longer), and responsibilities ranging from food preparation to childcare, to everything in between depending on the vagaries of their employer.  All this, while having no private space to themselves except the shoebox closets beyond a slide-out door, that fit only a single bed and a bag of luggage, or two.  Sometimes households with kids employed two maids, and so they have to bunk.

The lives of the real hustlers in Hong Kong are fascinating.  The bankers who work 18-20 hour days.  The maids who worked for them, with the same hours.  The 60-year olds who worked 12 hour days collecting the trash, via stairwell, floor by floor, in 30+ level buildings.  The older storekeeps who close up their shops at 9 or 10pm, long after the regular office workers have gone home.  Hong Kong was and is and will be, a city imbued with a Southern Chinese ethic of immigrant hustle.

Try to imagine that life.  To do it every day for years without breaking down, because every Sunday you get to send your paycheck via wire back to the Philippines or Indonesia.

The only way to sustain that kind of life is with patterns of work and relief.  For young bankers, probably related to alcohol and parties and weekend getaways.  For the maids, though, what?

One night, I noticed one of the maids, she had this big open smile, this smile of pure delight as she looked down at her phone.  It looked like her fatigue fell away in a moment of release – a small, private moment that is yours alone, where after serving someone else for the majority of your life, you return to a small space that reminds you of who you are.  However small.

I quickly went back into my apartment.  It felt like I had stolen something.

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