A hard drive with the words “a story” scratched onto the case
rating: +8+x

The last and only thing he had forgotten was how to dream.

He was not quite sure when he had stopped. Sleep had become scarcer and scarcer, and he’d never logged his dreams. Sleep times were noted by the system, of course, and if he wanted he could calculate a timeframe to the second, look through the data and find a probable cause. But he chose not to. In his mind, the dreams had turned off like a light going out when the first hard drives had been plugged in. He knew, logically, that that wasn’t true. But memory could be strange like that sometimes. It blended and warped and twisted, almost liquid. That was the great irony of the hard drives, he supposed. Freezing the memories hard and immutable. Raindrops frozen and collated.

The drives. He sighed, silently. At first they had been nothing more than glorified notebooks, matching the tens of thousands of names to faces alongside snatches of sensation. But time wore on, and it wore on him. So many names. So much to remember. And so many mistakes. So he started moving older memories over too. Those that lost him sleep at night. The faces of the dissidents he had dealt with, years ago, in the first days. But they still appeared in his dreams, faceless, silent, judging. So he stored their names too. Not forgetting, and not denying. Just storing them elsewhere. And his mind had been a little quieter. But not silent. So he moved more across, sending them down into the ever-growing towers of hard storage. Those who he had not been able to save. Those who he had chosen not to. Then, one by one as they winked out, the names of those he had worked beside, stripping their knowledge from their voices and storing it separately in four hard drives, one for the data and three for backups. The acts of kindness, the little irritations, the time given and the anger and the pain of their loss was consigned to rest, compressed, on an untended drive with memories of abandoned propaganda projects. By this point his sleep had become a machine-moderated numbness, but the dreams still persisted. Regret, and nostalgia, and fear. So he buried more. The name of his childhood sweetheart and the names of his parents and the feelings of his first heartbreak, and his second, and his third, and the warm wind of a summer’s day with forgotten significance. Down into the towers they went, silent in the disks. Silence in his mind. Numbness in his dying body.

It was then that he forgot how to dream.

He closed his eyes, quiet, listening to the blink and whirr of the drives. There was one memory he had kept for times like this. When he doubted. When he feared. To remind himself that there was no space for doubt, and that fear was a tool. Purposeful, he reached into the terminal. Somewhere in the stacks, a drive spun into life with a blink and a whirr. There was a seconds’ delay, then the response came back. HARD STORAGE MEMORY GROUP: 16/5/0197 03:31: ACCESSED. He smiled, mouthlessly, and thumbed through it, like a book with the edges of the pages worn soft and safe. He saw his past self reach out to the keyboard in front of him with shaking hands, steel bracing arching over the backs and riveted to his frail bones. He felt again the tubes running into his chest flex as he leant towards the terminal screen, motors whirring to support his spine. He felt the gloss of the keyboard through papery fingertips. It always shocked him, how weak he had been. How frail. He couldn’t see his body, now. He frowned. No. He neatly cut the memory of the thought out and sent it down into the stacks. In the past, he saw himself enter commands, hit enter, and prepare to speak. Setting down their story while they still had a tongue. A story, and a manifesto. And a defeat. No. He sent that thought down.

INORGANIC AUDIO RECORDING
VOICES DETECTED: SELF
FILENAME: A STORY

We called it day zero. The oceans flash-froze and the winds stopped. Those who had denied the coming apocalypse were not granted the mercy of a swift death. Take a walk through the cities and you can still see them, preserved in ice by the cold snap. Look close enough and you can see the tears frozen on their faces. There are stories in those corpses. Stories of stupidity, and cowardice, and fear, and sometimes just plain bad luck. The last time I saw those bodies factory winds had begun wearing them down, like the statues I saw as a child in a museum. Worn almost featureless but human nonetheless. I remember missing limbs and snapped noses and eye sockets worn to hollow dents, but I cannot tell which is statue and which is corpse.

There is a kind of beauty in that lost world. Frozen and preserved in the ice, wearing down bit by bit until it is, at last, unrecognisable. It is dead, too. Too dead to rot. But beautiful nonetheless. I suppose there is always something beautiful about the horrifying. I remember I cried, standing on the steps of that bunker as the sun blinked out and I saw my shadow cast long and stark in the light of the torches beckoning me down. Not from fear or sadness, but from awe. Of being infinitely small in a vast, blind universe, a universe that had snapped out our sun and sent us drifting off into the dark. But we would not die. Oh, no.

Forgive me. There were things…

When we knew the end was coming, we had a few choices. We could accept it, die quietly and peacefully and let our spark go out. Or we could gutter on. We could burn whatever we had and survive. And maybe, one day, we would find a new sun. That was my idea. They had proposed ships going off into the dark, but we all knew that was a fantasy. We could barely get into orbit, let alone cross interstellar space with living human crew. So I suggested something- I was an engineer, then. Ha. Maybe even a good one. And it was insane, but possible. In theory.

I wanted to turn the planet into a ship.

The plan was relatively simple. Firstly, we needed to survive. Our most immediate problems were oxygen and heat. Oxygen, would not be so much of a problem. Filter augments would allow us to keep breathing residual oxygen in the atmosphere for hundreds of years before we would have to produce more. Heat was more difficult. Our cities were not designed for air-freezing temperatures, even the ones in the far north. We would need new cities, ones that could stay warm as efficiently as possible. Indefinitely. Underground, as deep as we could go. At first, we built only one. In theory, it could support a population of around half a million people. When the sun vanished, that was the only refuge. I still remember… how we chose those who would survive. There would be no second chances. Those who had fallen through the cracks, those who had slipped, once, those who spoke too freely. Those who were too smart. Those who might have been dangerous. Chances we could not afford to give. We distributed suicide pills, of course, but I wonder how many took them. How many died to the stinging kiss of the ice.

I prefer to count those who survived. Whatever that means.

The next stage of the plan was the simplest. Expand. Get shipyards into orbit. Send mining ships ahead to the Oort cloud. Set up orbital railguns to protect the planet when it passes through the cloud. The mining ships were important. For the plan to work, we would need a lot of matter. The moon could provide some, but not enough. Not enough for the rings. We could scavenge some, of course, but again that would not be enough. What we were building… I suppose I should explain. Not that I plan on forgetting. Heh. Better to back everything up. The rings will be two orbital megastructures which we will use to rotate the planet. They will be paired with bands of iron running around the equator and the zero and one-eighty degree parallels, respectively, to function as a giant motor. One for pitch, one for yaw. We will use them to first cancel the planet’s rotation, then point it towards the nearest star. A geologically slow process. But then again, we have time to kill. Heh. One day. One day we’ll have the rings, and the engine. Here and now, we barely have orbital shipyards. But progress is being made. Slowly.

Time… Time, and decay, are not the problem. We can wear down our factories and build more, we can replace cities, we can weather asteroid impacts and radiation and the toxic atmosphere and the anomalies… but the problem is people. People are… unpredictable. Once we held that before us like a flag. The beauty of the variations of the human experience, or somesuch. But a thousand conflicting voices, a thousand voices that are afraid… are hard to control. And fear of the void is impartial. You cannot blame the void. On the other hand, the system that keeps you alive, that is much easier to understand, and much easier to blame. That fear needs to be turned elsewhere. Inwards. To each other. To make the system strong…

A machine that runs steadily must run slowly. And we must run steadily. So we rust the gears and grease the bearings with scabs and soot. Because this machine must run, at all costs, and it must run for millennia. To create a society that can survive unchanged… we need inefficiency. And we need fear. Fear of each other. To survive, I had to… had to foster that fear. And fear became hatred, and that became conflict. Small, easily manageable conflict over unimportant things. The rights to an asteroid. Territory on the ice wastes. And here and there we lose an ice-walker city, a mining ship, a factory. A life. But this system can run for eternity. Human discontent is kept focused away from the system, and away from me. As a useful side effect, it also effectively prevents anyone from becoming too old. Maybe…

Maybe in the old world they would have called this fascism. This is not fascism. This is survival. I saw… two roads. Peacefully drifting off into the dark, or keeping our fire lit. So I created a bonfire in the vacuum. Maybe we are the last light of life in the universe. I cannot allow that to go out. An empty universe… would be as good as no universe at all. But maybe I am just an old man who is afraid of the dark.

Computer, end recording.

END OF RECORDING

He sat, quiet in the twilight of blinking lights and inert memory. Slowly, he reached out to the console and brought up a view of the sky outside. The feed was grainy and crackled, but above the smog-black clouds a line was visible, bisecting the sky with a ring of iron.

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