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Soul Rise

'Arid' competition entry

By Charles ThompsonPublished 3 months ago Updated 2 months ago 24 min read
2

Warren came from Rose’s room – he was a far more amiable presence than he had been arriving. He always was after seeing her.

He would usually brush past Peter in one of his motheaten jumpers and make his way towards Rose, as if he were as important as any visiting doctor or nurse. Rose had fallen ill to a degenerative disease eight months earlier - a disease which confounded a host of medical professionals. Warren was the supervisor to Rose’s PHD and dutifully visited several times a week with books and papers. He was middle-aged, with thinning black hair - he rarely made eye contact unless delivering the salient point of an argument, and he spoke quickly, sometimes tripping over his words. He possessed no natural charm but was supremely intelligent – a man some may have described as a polymath. One day many years ago, Rose had committed the grave error of recognising a tract of Proust he had idly thrown out before his students in a lecture hall. Since then, he had taken particular interest in Rose and in her career. While Peter found something odious about the man, he was not entirely resentful of his visits: he was glad at least one person behaved as though Rose still had a future to prepare for.

"Engulfed in the desert's parched silence, I was nothing but another grain of sand in the wind," said Warren, almost whispering the final words with a thespian air. Peter realised he was reciting part of a poem he shared with Rose a few days earlier. It seemed Warren took a sneering pleasure in learning of this aspect of his inner life - as though Peter was a hapless donkey who had strayed into a dressage arena. Warren grinned but tempered his tone: "No that’s good, Peter. After all, writing is a form of immortality, isn't it? Such is the work we're doing," he said, turning an arm towards Rose.

For seven years, Peter and Rose had been the trial subjects of Soul Rise – one of the many projects to come to prominence throughout the 'AI afterlife boom'. The program was led by Warren, and through his association with Rose, Peter had become reluctantly involved. While most projects of this kind relied on static data – photos, videos, even social media activity – Soul Rise used dynamic data capture: cameras, imperceptibly small, were implanted under their skin and recorded every external detail of life. This data was run against internal sensors measuring perspiration, heartrate, and neurological activity. All this would be synthesised to form a digital representation of them, which at the time of their death would rise in a new world. Warren had a reputation as a cavalier figure; he had not complied with regulations demanded of developers in the field and many of the components of his engines and the exact means of data capture were unknown. Many still feared the ways in which artificial intelligence would transform their day to day lives, or the moral and spiritual challenges it raised: to these people, Warren seemed like a captain drunk at the helm, laughing madly as he drove his vessel headlong into a storm.

Despite his bemusement, the poem seemed to have the affect of distinguishing Peter as a more feeling person than Warren assumed. He began addressing Peter like a young undergraduate under his charge: “Can the soul - what we are inside - be transported into a new plain of existence?" he asked, grasping the air with vigour. "Or is it all just heinous parody? 'Praying on the grief of the broken hearted and lonely' as my detractors would say.”

"I suppose I've never viewed this project as a means of immortality,” Peter replied, “just a repository of experience.”

"And if those experiences are within a host; a host who will continue to learn, and remember, and create - a host which for all intents and purposes, is you?"

"But it's not me - it's not the person who is speaking to you now," replied Peter.

"Are you the man you were yesterday? Or an hour ago?"

"Of course," said Peter.

"Are you?" asked Warren with wry smile.

"The one who dies in this world," said Peter, "does not enter the world you have made."

"But the one who enters remembers the one who died, just as we remember who we were yesterday.”

"And what of the one who dies?" asked Peter.

"What of the one who sleeps?” parried Warren. “We die a million deaths, Peter - the main cause of our neuroses is our inability to accept it."

Peter was worn down, and each mention of death weakened his composure. "If you can so easily accept it, Warren. Then why have you done all this?" Peter asked.

Warren paused, and turned his eyes up as if the words would drop from the ceiling. “It seemed rather natural, to be honest with you. I don’t really know what will come of it, but I must say, I’m surprised you don’t see its potential.”

Peter sighed with exasperation.

“Don’t you see?!” Warren said through gritted teeth, “You get to keep her!”

"Please stop, Warren!" Peter said, finally overcome. "God knows, this is hard enough."

The door from the bedroom opened and Rose’s waifish form appeared. She slowly walked towards the two men as Warren straightened his back. "We'll make a philosopher of him yet!" he said, shaking Warren’s arm. Rose perceived her husband's distress and came to his side and clutched his arm.

“Well, I’ll be off,” said Warren abruptly. “Rose, Remember Descartes - page 46 - perhaps you can discuss it with your philosopher husband!”

Rose smiled politely and Warren left.

“I didn’t show him the poem – he found it on the bedside table,” Rose said.

“It’s alright,” Peter replied. "For what it’s worth, I think it was the longest we’ve ever spoken.”

Rose rest her head against his shoulder as Peter caressed the top of her hair. “Can I keep her?” he mused.

Rose died at the age of 29 and Peter’s life passed beyond the point of his comprehension, will, and desire. In the months that followed, he staggered from one day to the next, usually drunk or asleep. One recurring dream he had in this time was of a lone horse, thundering across a vast expanse of desert. Sometimes Peter would view him from above – sometimes as if he were looking through his eyes. Peter sensed his desperation, his thirst, and his anger. What he was running towards, or what he was running from, he didn’t know - he knew only that he couldn’t stop. One evening, Peter awoke from this dream and lay in a reverie, his lips tingling with the anguish of the day. He turned on his side and stared at the buttons on the sofa cushions and traced the weave of the fabric when he heard a voice.

"Peter?"

He gently rapt at his temples.

"Peter!" the voice came again.

He turned to his computer on the far side of the room. The monitor flashed on and threw colours and light across the walls. He crawled from the sofa and lifted himself in front of the screen and saw her. In a desert of white sand, she stood barefoot under the stars, with a soft breeze in her hair. She walked slowly towards the screen and smiled. Peter fell backwards and crawled out of the room. "It isn't her," he told himself.

"Pete! Come back, Pete!" she called.

Peter slowly walked back into the room and stood in front of the screen. "What do you feel?" he solemnly asked.

"I don't know how to answer that."

"Do you feel anything of who you were before?!" Peter asked.

"Oh Pete."

"If it were even remotely possible to believe that some true part of the woman I knew had passed through this screen - I would!" he said. “If there was so much as a thread of hope, I would chase after it all my life - you know I would!”

Peter gazed at his wife in disbelief, pulled between a moral resistance and overwhelming desire. He relented. "Every night, I can only hope my conscience lets me escape without some memory of an awful thing I once said - or something I neglected in you.”

“Peter,” she said consolingly.

“Like dancing!” he said. “You always said you wanted to dance! But I was too shy - or easily embarrassed and I never took you!”

Rose brought her face closer to the screen as if it were almost the same proportion as in life. “Come with me,” she said.

She led him further into the desert, as something in the distance caught Peter's eye - a group of scrawny, scabby stray cats. They pattered past Rose, who turned around and laughed. “Should I try to catch one?”

“Why are there cats here?” asked Peter.

“They’re from Athens – don’t you remember?”

“They’ve come from Athens? I don’t understand.”

“No! We went to Athens and they’ve come with us!” she replied.

Peter and Rose had travelled Europe in the early years of their relationship and Peter now understood that any fragment of their life together, could be manifested once again. Edinburgh Castle loomed in the distance, on top of a mountain which grew incongruously from the sand. Patches of grass then spread under foot as Rose passed through the lush green lawns of the ruined Tintern Abbey - the stars sheeting over the open vaulted ceiling, and the moon big as in picture books. Peter watched the golden curls bouncing on her shoulders, the elegant lines of her neck and jaw, and with every passing moment he became weaker, unable to resist the unveiling of this new world. From the Abbey, a room appeared on a small hill in the distance - a room with no ceiling and only three walls like a movie set. Duke Ellington could be faintly heard, as though the music played out on an old gramophone. He watched two figures dancing – himself and Rose as they were some years ago. Inside the room, Rose stopped and glared dramatically like a flamenco dancer as Peter strut before her. They met in the middle of the room with audacious twirls, lifts - and slaps. The high drama collapsed as they fell over each other in fits of laughter, Peter clutching an eye. Peter and Rose lay together, with wine stained lips and flushed cheeks, still, but for the rise and fall of their breath.

The room sunk into the sand; as did Edinburgh Castle, and Tintern Abbey. Rose stood before Peter. “We danced!” she said. Peter was silent, wondering how such a beautiful memory could be all but forgotten in his own mind.

“Peter, I know we didn't have children. I know we didn't get to grow old together, or do nearly as much as we would have liked to do together, but if you knew my life would end when it did - if you knew it was a fixed date - would you have still chosen me?" asked Rose.

"I would have chosen a scrap - a speck - of you! I would have chosen you for just one day," Peter emphatically replied.

"Well, we had so much more than that, darling!" she said. “And I feel so, so grateful I had the time I had with you.”

Suddenly, Rose became distracted as her eyes tracked the movement before her. A man on horseback strode into view: Dressed in early 17th or 18th Dutch clothes - like a character from Rembrandt's Night Watch - he had a white ruff, a wide brimmed black hat, a cloak, and long leather boots. He dismounted and stood before Rose, seemingly oblivious to the watcher behind the screen. He bowed, took the reins of his horse, and extended his hand towards her.

"My mother told me not to get on horses with strange men," Rose said.

For a moment, the man’s hat seemed to hang over his eyes like a child playing dress up, and he took on a look of preposterousness.

"Who is that?” asked Peter with laughter. “When did we meet him?"

The figure in black looked over his shoulder and towards the sky with alarm.

"What's your name?" asked Peter.

"I do not answer to you," the man in black responded. He then pressed his hand to Rose's cheek with lament. He got on his horse, uneasily looking about himself, and rode off.

"Perhaps he's the embodiment of some dark part of my psyche," Rose said with laughter.

“Is he real? Or a little joke Warren has slipped in?" Peter asked. "I imagine there's all kinds of nods and winks to the intelligentsia."

“I don’t know – I’ve not seen him before,” she replied, watching him disappear over distant hills.

"What are the rules here?" Peter asked. "Can you build a wall to stop him from returning?"

"There appears to be certain things I can do in certain areas and not others," she replied. "Below these flats, at the bottom of the hill where the sand is like ash, I can't do much, but here, I seem to be able to conjure what I like."

As she spoke, a firework shot over the sky, it exploded raining streaks of pink and green fire and formed a scene - their kiss at the wedding altar.

“Well that's impressive,” said Peter.

For a moment, Peter turned away from the screen and he looked over Rose's books and essays on the desk before him. One book caught his eye: a book with a blue linen cover – Meditations I, by Descartes. There was a post-it note attached by Warren: 'Page 46 - read carefully'.

Peter pushed the book under the light of the screen and opened to page 46. He was drawn to a paragraph underlined in pencil:

“I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgement. I shall consider myself as not having hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses, but as falsely believing that I have all these things.”

In the inner spine of the book there seemed to be secretions - yellow powder. It seemed typical of Warren’s slovenly nature, and Peter presumed it was probably the crumbs of an old piece of stilton. He mused on the passage from Descartes and then thought of Warren: he had been avoiding his calls since Rose’s death and had no desire to speak with him or to discuss Soul Rise. He had been dreading seeing the fulfilment of the project and how his wife would be manifested. He could see now that although she was behind a screen – her likeness was uncanny. She appeared exactly as he remembered her, all be it, before she fell ill. It was the uncertainty, however, which he could not reconcile: the question of what was inside – what did she feel? Could there somehow be enough of her here? Could Warren have advanced the technology so profoundly that feeling within the ‘artificial’ paradigm was no longer something predicted and simulated, but somehow given its own impulse and truth. Even if that were possible, Peter remained on the other side of the screen.

"Rose, I need some time to get my thoughts in order," he said. "You won't go anywhere, will you?"

"Of course not," she said.

Peter lay on the floor and a certain giddiness trickled into his mind, as though parts of his being were coming out of a thaw. He fell in and out of sleep as soft thuds came into his awareness - a possum or rat, he thought, not entirely sure if the noise was from his world or Rose's. He wearily turned his attention to the sound but soon fell into a deeper sleep.

In the morning, Peter opened an eye to the room, and watched fibers of dust pass through lines of sunlight. The motor of the air conditioner waned and the air seemed to become thicker – and sour. He became aware of a numbness in his throat and a swelling in his eyelids - panic shot through his limbs. He opened the door to the side of the house, where grass now grew to his waist. Lightheaded and wavering on his feet, he looked to the back end of the air conditioner and noticed a strange powder caked over the fan. He pressed his arms against the door frame to hold his weight and tried to focus his thoughts. He lowered himself to the ground when suddenly two legs appeared in front of him. He continued to grip the doorframe as a boot was pressed to his chest and pushed him backwards. The boot then dropped on his face and his throat. As the dogs in the next house barked and scratched at the fence, the boot gave up its pressure for a moment, before pushing harder and harder at his throat – pushing and twisting. Peter flailed at the leg, seeing only a vague shape of a head - hooded and masked. The boot pushed until Peter lost consciousness.

The horse thundered into his mind's eye again: under an amethyst sky, a trail of sand kicked up like white smoke. Nostrils flared; he huffed and growled - straining forward – ever forward - charging towards a destiny that never arrives.

Peter was awoken by rain washing over his bloodied face. Most of the day had passed but he was lucid and aware of a sharp pain in his throat. He presumed the attacker believed him dead, but they had not taken or damaged anything. More striking than the pain, however, was his fixation on Rose and his desire to understand the nature of her rebirth: whether all he could do was adore her from behind a screen, he would do so willingly if he just knew - what did she feel? There was only one person who could be relied on to tell him-

Peter looked at a rectangular block, slightly protruding under his wrist. With a steak knife, he made an incision along the skin, and levered the block out. He placed it on the desk and crushed it under his elbow. Peter tied a piece of cloth around his arm and looked at the screen with rapt attention. His phone rang.

"Hello?" he said.

An automated voice answered: "Hello. Connection has been lost with your EPU. Would you like emergency services to be called?"

"No," Peter replied.

"All data will stop recording until your EPU is reinstalled."

The phone went silent.

Peter returned to the screen: the eyes which had tracked Rose now followed a new figure who had arrived in the black sand below. Peter immediately recognised his slight hunch and floppy dark fringe - they were his own. Having removed the EPU, Peter could no longer be heard in the digital world. His counterpart turned and gave a salute before running up the sandhill towards Rose.

Suddenly, the heavy thud of hooves was heard and a long shadow was cast over him. The figure in black had returned and loomed above Peter with a look of outright malice. He drove his horse down the sandhill and into Peter - his body twisted and flailed in the air and tumbled back into the ash-like sand. The man in black circled him slowly and pulled a musket from under his cloak. "No more eyes in the sky for you," he said.

Peter lifted himself up on his hands and knees. “Who are you?!” he asked, barely able to enunciate the words.

The man walked his horse before him again. "Does the philosopher not recognise me?" he replied.

A chill ran through Peter, and in that moment, it became clear. “Warren?” Peter asked.

The man in black dismounted from his horse and took out a rope from the saddle bag. "Today was a bit grizzly, but it was necessary," he answered. "I didn't mean for it to be all boots and blood!"

The morning’s attack flashed in Peter's mind as his senses reeled, unable to comprehend an act of such violence from a man he had known for so long. Then, something which had always been intuited but never fully realised crept into his awareness, and his sense of the world was shunted towards darkness. He thought of Rose - her disease in its agonising mystery like an ancient curse, and then of Descartes, and to the yellow crumbs in the pages of Meditations I.

“And Rose?” asked Peter grimly. "Were you the reason?"

Warren, the man in black, glanced at him with a wry smile.

"Warren! Please tell me it's not true!” cried Peter.

"It's true enough,” he replied, “but Rose required something more artful and delicate - like the woman, herself, I think you'll agree."

Peter’s face wrenched in abject grief, and from behind the screen, this expression was mirrored. "Why couldn’t you have just kept a version of her in this awful place and left us to be happy together?!” Peter cried.

"Because I believe in this technology, Peter,” replied Warren. “I would not be talking to you as I am if I didn’t.”

Warren fit the musket under his cloak and knelt across Peter’s legs. “If you move, I’ll put a hole in your head and you’ll truly know the meaning of oblivion,” Warren said. Warren began tying the rope around Peter's legs as he was moved to speak again. “I love that woman, Peter, and I will not accept a double."

From behind the screen, Peter was arrested by a rage of such power it seemed to be experienced physically as much as emotionally. He found the keys to his car and went outside. He had not left the house in weeks - a bouquet of flowers lay on his windscreen - the petals had dried and were scattered across his bonnet. Dusk had set in with a balmy wind, and a light rain swept back and forth. There was a mania in the air.

Warren's house was half an hour from where Peter lived. He drove almost insensible of the traffic - his mind fixed on the man who murdered his wife. Night had fallen as he arrived at Warren's unassuming terrace and the rain had broken into a downpour. He looked through the front window into a room where colonial artefacts and militaria gambolled up the walls. He could see an open door to the hallway, where shadows were thrown from the end of the house. Peter lay his shoulder into the door, and as the rain continued to fall, he was completely undetected. He came down the hallway to a large room where he was confronted by the sight of Warren, as he had known him: he was suspended by cables and pulleys, as if he were some enormous baby in a bouncer. He wore a dark headset and a red leotard marked by patches of sweat. Peter watched a large screen that displayed the scene he had earlier left: his digital form was now tied up to his shoulders, as Warren simulated the movements of the man in black.

"She'll want nothing of you, even in this world," said Peter. Warren clenched his teeth with rage, as the man in black picked up the end of the rope and tied it to the saddle of his horse. As he finished the knot, his eyes darted to something in the distance.

"Peter!" cried Rose.

She ran to the bottom of the sandhill and threw herself on top of her husband. Gripping his face, she looked deeply into his eyes. "What did you do?!” she asked. “What have you done to yourself?!"

"He's not dead, Rose,” Peter replied.

Hearing those words, Warren, both in his digital and physical form, swung about in a panic. At that moment, Peter tackled Warren from his suspension, and on the screen, the man in black froze, with his head tilted to the side. Rose uncurled the rope from around Peter’s body – he stiffly moved his shoulder with a wince. “Rose, it’s Warren!” said Peter.

“What do you mean it’s Warren?” she asked. “Why does he look like that - why is he doing this to you?!”

“Somehow, he has learnt to exist in both worlds,” he replied. “Peter is with him now.”

“He’s truly not dead?!”

“No, Rose. We took out our EPU,” he said. “Peter was desperate to know.”

“Know what?” she asked.

“He wanted to know whether he could love you as he once did, and whether you could love him.”

Rose paused and a pained expression came over her. “And now do you know?” she asked.

Peter nod and smiled with a quiet sadness. Rose looked into his eyes again and laughed through her tears. “This is all mad!”

Rose and Peter were roused as the man in black gave a jolt. Rose helped Peter to his feet and together they lay Warren to the ground – as his horse shook and stamped a hoof indignantly. They took the rope and begun binding Warren - the man in black's - ankles and hands. They wrapped the rope around his body and then tied a knot around his neck.

In the room, Peter pushed his knee to Warren’s back. His teeth were clenched with abject hate. He lifted Warren's head and threw it into the floorboards - and then again. Peter suddenly stood up and looked over Warren - his nose broken and his leotard hiked over his stomach. Warren then clutched at his chest and Peter took a few steps away, reeling from the violence of the scene. Warren's phone rang and Peter answered.

An automated voice responded: "Vital signs critical. Do you wish emergency services to be called."

"No," replied Peter.

He watched Warren twitching and gasping; his face spasming in flashes of rage, agony, and fear, like damned souls rearing their heads. Then he collapsed facedown with a wheeze, his arm stretched out before him.

Peter turned to the screen as Warren’s digital form transformed into his likeness in life: the rope was drawn tight, and his body jerked, as the fat of his waist and arms bulged over the loops. Rose approached him in disbelief and as their eyes met, he looked at her meekly. He briefly opened his lips to offer some explanation but this was beyond even his powers. He closed his eyes and turned his face to the ground to escape her gaze. Without any of his former guile and trickery, seen as he was, Rose too intuited the darkness Peter had. She looked mournfully over Warren, and then into the endless sky, and she wiped away a tear.

Rose suddenly looked towards the screen. "Peter!” she called with new resolve. Peter's heart wrenched, sensing a final parting-

“I will always be with you,” she said. “You do not need to try to remember me, or how things were. I don’t care if you kill my plants, if you sell my bike, or if you open your heart to another - I hope you do. Our love is beyond memory - it is in a timeless place: it will come to you, speak to you, and it will find you in dreams. I do not need to be forced or superimposed into your life. Whatever good I brought to you, let it pass on to others - that’s how you keep me alive.”

"Rose!" Peter called from behind the screen, "Rose, I love you!"

"I love you, Peter," she replied, intuiting his words. “I love you and I’ll always be smiling over you.”

Rose returned to the Peter of her world and together they walked up the sandhill and returned to the white expanse. They stood before each other, hand in hand, as if they were at the altar again. Looking into each other's eyes, Rose quietly asked, “Are you ready?” He gave a nod, and slowly, their bodies were drawn into the sand. The desert was quiet.

In Warren’s room, Peter fell to his knees as grief came over him once again. But it seemed grief in a purer form - a grief that did not resist or attempt to change what could not be changed – a grief that was allowed to pass. Peter exhaled in catharsis and wept.

At the bottom of the sandhill, the screen returned to Warren. His horse suddenly reared back on its legs and let out a deafening cry: he huffed, kicked, and shook his neck as if harassed by flies. He trot away, at first in backward circles, and then he broke into an uneasy gallop. Warren's eyes tracked the horse with alarm, "Come back here, you bastard!" he cried. The horse found a more open stride - he lowered his head and streaked across the desert - into eternity.

Bound and alone in the world of his design, Warren looked down on himself with disbelief. He turned his eyes to the screen, to Peter, and with a spiteful grin, he spoke: “Engulfed in the desert's parched silence, I was nothing but another grain of sand in the wind."

humanityevolution
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About the Creator

Charles Thompson

Late 30's, father of a 2 year old boy and a baby girl. Graphic Designer. Living in Ballarat, Australia.

Dostoyevsky is my biggest writing inspiration.

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