Welcome to NaNoWriMo, where I - and thousands of other plucky souls - try to write a 50,000 word novel in a month.
You are reading "Tales of the Algorithm". A compendium of near-future sci-fi stories. Each chapter is a stand-alone adventure set a few days from now.
Everything you read is possible - there's no magic, just sufficiently advanced technology. Think of them as technological campfire horror stories.
Your feedback on each story is very much appreciated.
And so, let's crack on with...
Cats are afraid of cucumbers. Seriously, go look it up on YouTube! You'll find millions of videos of cats catching a glimpse of a cucumber lying on the floor and freaking the fuck out. It is hilarious. Why the hell do cats jump in the air when they spot an errant cucumber?
It's built in behaviour.
Oh, not against cucumbers. No. Cats don't like salad, but they're not terrified of it. Cats fear snakes.
Most mammals do. It is a hardwired instinct which is buried deep in the meat between our ears. Some common ancestor survived because they lept out of the way when they saw something slithering towards them in a cave. That genetic memory got passed down, amplified, and burned into our genome. It expresses itself in a complex pattern in the brain which keeps us safe from snakes. Every time we catch a specific movement out of the corner of our eye, we honour the memory of our progenitor.
All animals have this instinct. Even the humble honeybee. For generations, beekeepers have passed on a series of truths about their hives. Some border on superstition and are little more than ritual. But one is... curious. Beekeepers dress in white. Look back through any book of mediaeval illustrations and you'll see the apiarists in gleaming bleached cloth. Why is that?
Try approaching a beehive while dressed in black. Do you know what will happen? The bees will get agitated and swarm. Then they will attack you. They will treat a black-clad figure as a mortal threat to the hive and attack mercilessly. It drives their tiny brains insane. Every resource of the hive will be turned against you. So beekeepers wear white and the bees remain calm.
OK, but why is that? Perhaps the bees are afraid of bears? A grizzly can devastate a hive in moments. It makes sense that ancient bee ancestors would only survive to reproduce if they feared darkly coloured bipeds ambling towards their hive. Yes, that's the most likely explanation. Bees are still paranoid about pre-historic bears coming to steal their honey.
We don't need to guess, of course. We have SCIENCE!
I loaded the bee's brain into the computer. That makes it sound like I shoved an old-fashioned USB stick into a port. Let me explain. Take one bee. Fire a high precision laser at its head. Burn off the carapace until you get to the brain. Use an even more precise laser to scan every neuron. Bounce that laser back and forth until you have a complete map of the brain stored in your computer.
Now repeat for several thousand bees until you have a statistically average bee brain. Run a few thousand simulations on it to ensure that it is a coherent neural image and you're done! Well, OK, now you need to find a machine which can simulate trillions of neural connections in real-time. But other than that, it's pretty simple. You now have a virtual bee to torture.
Look, animal experiments are unethical. I get that. And I didn't want the Animal Liberation Front blowing up my lab! So this is why I used simulations. It's perfectly ethical. There's nothing wrong with wanting to cause immense amounts of pain and suffering to a virtual insect. I performed acts of unspeakable cruelty to the bee and then hit Control-Z. Harm undone. No (living) bees were harmed in the making of this movie, right?
So I found out what made my bee afraid. What made the bee very afraid.
I passed a number of visual stimuli to my little v-bee. A white-clad beekeeper invoked a minor amount of fear. Maybe a 2-out-of-10. The vision of a wasp entering the hive drove up the v-bee's stress levels - getting up to 7/10. As predicted, an animation of a big bear strolling towards the hive - sans pic-a-nick basket - drove the v-bee absolutely mental. It exhibited a rage that was so deeply enmeshed in its pathetic little brain that it overrode all other feelings. The brain wanted to attack the bear - and it absolutely would not stop until either it or the bear was dead.
Well, great? Hypothesis proved? Might have made for a tidy little paper. Not Nobel winning, but it could have picked up some small prizes. I might even have been able to commercialise the research and find ways to scare bees away from areas where they're unwanted.
But it wasn't enough. I'd basically proved that putting up bear scarecrows (Bearcrows? Scarebears?) might be useful. Surely there was something that terrified a bee more? I ran multiple parallel simulations which allowed me to torture that poor little v-bee for decades. I played it videos of every animal I could find, making it think that its hive was being attacked by a horrorshow of birds, insects, mammals, reptiles, and even dinosaurs. Did you know bees and dinosaurs coexisted? True fact! And, somewhere in that little tangle of neurons is the secret to which is a bee's favourite dinosaur. Yup, there's one in there which was, apparently, somewhat symbiotic with proto-bees. And that information is still encoded in their DNA. Isn't that neat?
I was pretty drunk when I made the discovery. Not about the dinosaurs. About the other thing. I'd reset the v-bee's brain a billion times - erasing all notion of its previous abuse. When, just for fun, I wondered how it would react to fish. Yeah yeah, I know, stupid. Bees can't go underwater and fish rarely make it up trees to hives. I was bored and drunk, so what? The v-bee didn't care about trout or pike or bream or even piranha. It was mildly curious about dolphin, which was a bit weird. And then I had the virtual hive be attached by an octopus.
The v-bee shat itself in terror.
I don't mean that metaphorically. The virtual bee was in such a state of distress it lost complete control of its bodily functions, evacuated itself, and flew away as fast as it could. Its fear levels were off the charts. A virtual bee has no mouth, so cannot scream. If it had, it would have howled in anguish. This fear-instinct was expressed in a dozen parts of the bee's brain. This wasn't a holdover from the Jurrasic era lingering away in a dormant area; this was a fundamental part of bee psychology. The sight of tentacles flailing towards them was a bee's number one fear.
I repeated the experiment on humans. Yes, look, I know, ethics, right? But, to be fair, this was fascinating. There existed a complete unknown and unexpected fear response deep within an insect. It didn't make any sense that it was an octopus of all things, so I was desperate to see if other animals had similar deeply-programmed fears. And, yeah, I could have used a cat or something. But a) torturing cats is probably bad luck and b) you only get a Nobel prize if the experiment works on humans.
So I trawled the Paris Morgue for corpses. They didn't need to be particularly fresh, but they needed their heads intact. I know what you're going to say but here's the thing; GDPR doesn't apply to the dead. That's not my opinion, it is literally the law. And if the dead don't have data rights, presumably that means they don't have Intellectual Property rights over what's in their heads. Anyway, I'm not a lawyer but I'm pretty sure that's true. And besides, anyone who willingly jumped into the Seine was unlikely to sue me.
I'm not going to bore you with how I bribed the morticians and carried severed heads back into the lab. It's a bit tawdry and disgusting. No one likes tales of blood-soaked freezer bags and running from suspicious gendarmes right? You're here for the science, not the salacious stuff. Besides, you can read my deposition at your leisure.
Anyway, I eventually scanned in enough human heads to have a pretty good "default white male" brain. Hear me out - cadaver-snatching is one thing, but I didn't want to be accused of interfering with female corpses. That sort of thing really makes a guy look bad. And I knew the social-justice hit-squad would make my life hell if I was caught robbing the bodies of ethnic minorities. But no one cares about white guys, right?
I subjected my v-man to total stochastic terror. Rather than pump its virtual eyes full of video nasties, I developed a genetic algorithm for fear. I'd show the brain random colours and shapes, then measure its fear index. Reset the brain. Show a different pattern. Measure. Reset. Every time I found something which even slightly increased the fear response, I fed it back into the algorithm. Think of it like gradient descent down a slope of pain.
The algorithm was disgusting. From random stimuli it had, over the course of several billion virtual years, discovered what truly terrified men. It concocted vast, slimy beasts with fangs and piercing cries. Undulating waves of bloody fat covered with putrid maggots crawling closer to you. Winged and horned demons with poison for eyes. Each more disturbing than the last. Whenever the algorithm generated something good, I'd gird my loins and sneak a look. Without fail, the merest glimpse would chill my blood and give me sleepless nights.
But the algorithm didn't just produce visions of madness. I set it to produce sounds. If you've ever been in a zoo at feeding time, you know how every animal scuttles when it hears the mighty roar of a lion. Children stop dead in their tracks. Adults spin round helplessly looking for the source of the threat. I had my algorithm generate frequencies which would be blasted into my virtual torture dungeon. It could delve deep into the mind and find the sounds which caused the human brand to collapse into a pile of ash. The algorithm fed on itself as much as it fed on the suffering of its victims.
And then, one day, it stopped. The algorithm had reached a local maxima. It had discovered the apex of dread. A sequence of sounds which caused our forefathers such alarm that the very memory of it echoed through a thousand generations of men. Within humanity's soul was a dark and shocking secret. Something that we all knew. That we all feared. A tune of such despair that it caused the mighty to tremble, the brave to weep, and the faithful to doubt.
My trembling finger hovered above the keyboard. A swift tap of the enter key was all it would take for me to hear this demonic laugh. I'm a man of science - so I prayed to several gods I didn't believe in. Perhaps they would give me the courage to... my finger spasmed and bashed the key. It was too late.
My laptop's pathetic little speakers moaned. A sound filled the air. The entire room vibrated with noise. I flung my hands to my ears desperately trying to block the pain. It wasn't enough. The obnoxious sound pulsed into my head - driven like rusty iron nails into crumbling bone. The words were indistinct and powerful. They overwhelmed me and I collapsed into a sobbing heap. I tried frantically to crawl away but my legs were frozen in fear. The droning went on and on and on filling my world with an unholy cacophony. I bashed my head against the floor. Smashing it against the cold concrete as hard as I could until I blacked out.
Months later and my court-mandated therapist has instructed me to write down everything I can remember about that night. My face is still a broken mess of scars. My hands will not stop trembling. I jump at every sound. On the rare occasions I manage to fall asleep, I wake up screaming moments later. They've tried restraining me and sedating me but it is all for naught. And so I write. I fill a dozen notebooks in grotesque imitation of my normally precise handwriting. The asylum therapist opens the first notebook in my presence, but she doesn't notice the glint in my eyes. Why would she? All she can do is stare at the page.
The words are an obscene onomatopoeia.
With the unspoken agreement that unites all madmen, we begin to chant.
"Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!"
I'd love your feedback on each chapter. Do you like the style of writing? Was the plot interesting? Did you guess the twist? Please stick a note in the comments to motivate me.