“In Cube Eight” by Stephen Couch

13 min read

The A.I. screamed, and I took that as a good sign. We’d given it a big dose of the latest junk over an hour earlier, and all it had done since then was draw lazy little fractals on the main viewscreen, spirals eating each other up into infinity, amen.

But then the screams started–warbling chunks of phonemes, rising in volume, up and up–and I and everyone else on the bridge tensed, thinking we might be on the verge of a breakthrough.

Seyler took a hit from his inhaler before leaning forward and keying the mic on his workstation. “…What do you see?” he asked the A.I. Even from where I sat, I could see his pupils dilate as the drug rush hit him. You had crewmembers like that–more mystical types–who wanted to hallucinate alongside the A.I.s and try to connect with them on some sort of spiritual level.

Fine and all, but I tried to be more professional and save my recreational use for after hours. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy expanding my consciousness, not at all. I wouldn’t have agreed to this mass insubordination if I didn’t. It was simply that we needed some clear heads, some of the time if we wanted to succeed.

Resurrecting a race of extra-dimensional gods was serious business. The time for frivolity was later.

Humanity first became aware of the Liggs centuries ago, but had no idea what they had encountered, nor of its significance. Early users of bathtub hallucinogens like EDMA would often report a shared vision: ‘elves,’ creatures glimpsed through rents in the fabric of space-time, who toiled away at the machinery underlying the structure of reality. That so many people experienced the same vision independently, with no advance contact with each other, should have been their first clue that something was up.
People, however, are all too quick to dismiss hallucinations as being imaginary.
Over the intervening decades-by-the-dozen, though, those ‘elves’ still remained the purview of fringe science and cultish belief systems. Any perception of reality received while in an altered state was pooh-poohed by academia.
That is until one man, a scientist by title but prophet by deed, pointed out a way around the problem. Scientists hated and distrusted humanity, it was well known. Any evidence produced by the human mind alone would never be accepted by them as true.
But if that evidence could be reproduced through a mechanism other than the human brain…?

The A.I. continued to make its odd noises, ignoring Seyler’s questions even as the tech himself grew less coherent in his increasingly drugged state.

“Whaddayu…see? Dee? Eee? Eff?” Seyler mumbled, no longer pushing the button to activate his microphone. “Eff,” he said again, and giggled. “That’s dirty.”

The A.I. shouted something high-pitched that almost sounded like its own giggle.

Man and machine, tripping beyond dreams, so in sync but never more separated.

I checked my own readouts to see if there were any differences in how this dose of crypto-hallucinogen affected the A.I.’s brain. Lately, the techs here on Cube Eight had been mining crypto-hal off the computers on a set of cubeships: Twenty through Twenty-Four. These were the bioships, containing all the plant and animal life for the fleet. The thought was that mining data off those ships would produce hallucinogens that got the A.I. ‘closer to nature,’ or some other gobbledygook.

Me, I focused my mining operations on the artistic Cube, number Seventeen. Music, prose, film, sculpture…those would be true sources of inspiration for the A.I.’s mind to soar through.

Except it didn’t seem to be producing anything beyond the usual results. The A.I. responded to this dose of crypto-hal the same as all the others, but for the added noise-making. We were recording the sounds it made, obviously, and would subject those recordings to every analysis method we had, but looking at the results on my readout, I couldn’t help but be disappointed.

The Liggs, as ever, seemed just out of reach.

I’ve had dreams, ever since our stealth coup here on Cube Eight, ever since we crippled the A.I. to keep it from squealing, ever since we overrode the food-builders to produce drugs in addition to sustenance.

Ever since we decided to make the Liggs transcend to our plane of reality.

In some of the dreams, we succeed. Those creatures, those tuggers at the strings of the universe, come into our level of space and time, and teach us the secrets of creation, lifting us up, raising us far above our fellows. We become Liggs ourselves, and rule our little slice of existence with wisdom and beneficence.

From those dreams, I wake up crying. Partially it’s joy, from glimpsing the future to come.

Partially it’s sadness, because that future still hasn’t arrived.

I first became aware there were other disciples of Chatterjee on Cube Eight when I saw the image printed out on the wall of a workstation. It was nothing, really, and nothing a non-believer would recognize: a picture of an Old Earth cat lying on its side, its pupils wide as satellite dishes, one paw stretched out, reaching towards infinity. It was a universal symbol of Chaterjee supporters, a hidden ‘yes I am’ reference to call out to like-minded folks while leaving nonbelievers clueless.

I found out which crewman it belonged to, made contact with him, and through him found the surprisingly large cell of acolytes on board.

A cell so large, in fact, I was only half-joking when I suggested, over dinner one evening, that we take over our cubeship and use its resources to carry out Chatterjee’s great unperformed experiment.

“Think about it,” I said, as we passed around a pipe of smokeless contraband, the inhaled nanoparticles making the muted colors of my cabin flow beautifully. “We have the processing power, we have a high-functioning A.I. We just need a source of data to mine for crypto-hallucinogens.”

“Other ships in the fleet,” said Kerrville, a woman who was always excitable no matter how mellowing the drugs she took. “Twenty-six other Cubes. We tap into their A.I.s’ brains and do our crypto-mining there.”

“Won’t they detect it? Making their A.I.s go wonky from little bits of brain damage here and there?”

“Nah, sister,” Kerrville said, smiling at me. “Think about it,” she said, and we laughed at her perfect mimicry of my voice. “People have been conditioned over centuries to expect computers to foul up constantly; hyper-complex systems like A.I.s even more so. We give one of their A.I. a little virtual embolism by pulling out strings of its code, and the people on its Cube will just shrug their shoulders and repair it.”

So we made our plans.

The days smeared together on Cube Eight as the drugs became freely available. Even someone as relatively clean as me made up for it with extra indulgence in the off-hours.

Sometimes to my endangerment, as I forgot it was Conference Day with the entire fleet. I had put a reminder on my comm-collar to tell me to go cold turkey forty-eight hours ahead of the conference meeting, but I guess I had overwritten that instruction with something else. A playlist of my favorite songs, maybe.

Nevertheless, it was ten minutes until the conference, and I had a shipboard A.I. that wouldn’t stop screaming. I’d have to use it to interface with the other ships and discuss current fleet plans with the rest of the captains. The Blessed Diaspora, Tertiary Wave, wouldn’t wait just because I was buzzing and the A.I. was bellowing.

“Anyone got their head on straight?” I called out over the ship-wide. A lot of sarcastic mumbles came back, but Kerrville was just waking up, and sounded bright and brittle as usual.

She got to work reducing the A.I. down to minimal functionality, even though we’d lose the rest of its hallucination data as a result. I busied myself setting up the video filter that would make any twitching or slurring on my part look like the affects of transmission lag.

“Got it,” Kerville said, and the sudden silence from the A.I. was a relief I didn’t know I’d been seeking. I settled in my chair and brought up the filter just as Cube One signaled us to connect to the conference.

“Good morrow, Captain Pollock,” said the Admiral. I smiled back and prepared to dazzle the fleet with bullshit.

I’d been doing it for four months now, and had the routine down to perfection.

Chatterjee’s final experiment was simple in concept, but unachievable by him due to its requirements: state-of-the-art equipment and software unavailable to a deeply discredited academic like himself. But the concept…

Humans, upon taking certain hallucinogens, saw those ‘elves’ but couldn’t communicate with them. The problem, Chatterjee said, was not the program–the hallucination–but the hardware on which it ran. The human brain, while capable of great transcendence, was still too primitive a mechanism. An artificial intelligence, however, could do it with no problem.

But then came the problem of how one made an A.I. hallucinate.

The solution was crypto-mining. Humans of Old Earth had tried to use the results of mining as a monetary system, ultimately annihilating the global economy. But there was more to crypto than simple avarice. Digging out that data hidden within data hidden even further within data yielded all sorts of bizarre and unusual bits of code.

Bits of code that, when applied to A.I., functioned in most unexpected ways.

Make a human brain hallucinate, and it can see beyond the veil to those ‘elves,’ those ‘Liggs’ as Chatterjee called them, as he felt they were ligaments in the body of reality.

But if you make a powerful A.I. hallucinate, it should not only be able to see the Liggs, but communicate with them as well. Communicate, establish a camaraderie, and allow for a free flow of information.

And ultimately, invite them over to visit us.

“How much data did we get?” I asked the senior techs. Seyler was coming down off his communion with the A.I. and looked at me with a sincere smile but bleary eyes.

“I’m sorry to say, Captain, but it…looks just the same as the other data we got from the bioship crypto-hals. Same cognitive spikes, same delusional whorls, and…” He looked down at his report as though hoping it would have something new in it since he last looked at it seconds ago. “…no reports from its sensorium of detecting the Liggs.”

I let out a breath as disappointed murmurs spread around the room.

“Okay,” I said. “We keep trying.” I looked around the table. “What else is there to do? We’ve come this far, and it’s way too far to go back. Let’s brainstorm a new source for crypto-hals. I want everyone on double mind-expansion rations tonight. Dream us up something new and better, people.”
Another tech, Moone, had been looking progressively sadder as I spoke, and when I finished, I saw a tear trickle down his cheek.
“Captain…” he said, his voice a worn-out whisper. “I can’t. I can’t take any more of the enhancers. I’ve been having these dreams, where the ship is falling apart and…”

“It’s okay,” I said. “We all have dreams when the stuff wears off, sometimes bad. But how can we abandon the Liggs? They’re right there, just on the other side of veil, waiting to embrace us as equals. Moone, you’ve given us so much. You figured out how to suppress the A.I.’s memory so it couldn’t report back to the fleet. I hate to think of you giving up like this.”

Moone stared at the meeting table but at last gave one small nod.

“Tell you what,” I said. “Treat yourself tonight. Experiment and dose yourself with a new compound. We still haven’t worked through all the Shulgin codices. Pick something at random. Have fun.”
Moone perked up at that. I raised my inhaler, as the rest of the assemblage did theirs, and we all took a hit for luck.

I had bluffed in that meeting, because Moone’s comments had shook me more than I wanted to let on.

I’d been having dreams like that, too. Dreams where the ship was a neglected sty, filled with trash and discarded inhalers, where the crew wandered the ship in shabby, dirty uniforms, where only the bridge was kept clean for the weekly conferences with the fleet.
Discarded food stank up every room, and most of the toilets didn’t work. The crew wandered the halls in a daze, barely functioning, lost in illusions of scientific conquest.
Cube Eight, in those dreams, was on the cusp of irreversible disaster.
I would wake up shaken and sad, convinced in the dim light of my cabin that it was real; that my own living quarters were a filthy mess.
But a hit on the inhaler always brought me back to reality.

This time, we would tap the A.I. of the lead sensor ship, Cube Three, which scanned known space around the fleet for dangers, and generated predictive models for the voyage ahead. We felt it made perfect sense: that much data, encompassing the broad swath of stars, planets, and cosmic phenomena surrounding us, would have just the right ingredients for a change of pace in the A.I.’s diet of crypto-hals.

We had just begun the tap on Cube Three’s A.I. when my comm-collar bleeped.

“Pollock,” I said, annoyance cutting through my high just a tad. Cubeships were supposed to schedule communications with each other ahead of time. It was part of the reason we’d been able to operate as we had for so long.

“Captain,” said a voice as a holo-panel fizzed into life in front of me. On it, Captain Yawara of Cube Three, smiling politely through his thick mustache

“We just got a notification from our A.I. that your Cube’s intelligence had contacted it. We wanted to make sure everything was all right.”

I turned to Moone, who was running the tap. He looked back at me, wide-eyed.

“Sorry about that,” I said, putting on my own best smile. Yawara pulled back slightly at the sight of it, for some reason. “We were going to file a request to tap your sensor array for a project, but I guess the tap went through before the request. Cart before the horse, like they used to say?

“Ah, well, that’s okay. That actually fits in with something I wanted to mention. Our A.I. is telling us that yours is suffering some damage. Anything you need help with…what is that?” Yawara leaned in the frame as though looking past me.

“What is what?” I asked. My buzz was tilting, souring.

“Is that…Captain, we must have a bad video link. It looks like something…words, scrawled on the wall behind you. Obscenities…no, must be the link.” He shook his head. “Well, just wanted to pop in about that A.I. hiccup. You’re free to tap at will.” He looked past me one more time, then at me directly. “Don’t work too hard, Pollock. No offense, but you look run down. Yawara out.” The holo-panel faded away.

“Captain…?” someone asked after a moment.

“We move ahead,” I said. “We don’t let a close call slow us down. We’ve been doing this successfully for four months. We’re so close.” I turned to Moone, who’d been joined at his workstation by Seyler.

“Captain,” Seyler said, looking at Moone’s screen with concern. “Moone has…”

“Keep going,” I said. “Double the capacity of the tap. The Liggs are almost among us. I know it, and you know it. Everyone’s going to know it after today.”

“But Captain…”

“Do it, Mister Moone. Mister Seyler, attend to your own work.”

Moone pressed a button.

The A.I. began to shriek instantly.

“Captain,” Seyler shouted over the noise, “I tried to say! Moone set the capacity of the tap too high. He just cored Cube Three’s A.I. like an apple!”

My comm-collar bleeped again.

“It has to work,” I said, feeling the last of my good mood slither down my spine. “It has to. Mister Seyler…what kind of data are we getting?”

Seyler looked as his readouts, his face barren.

“…The same as always, Captain. No change at all. No detection of the Liggs.”

My collar beeped a second time, with the higher tone notifying me of a call from Cube One.

There’s a third type of dream I have: the worst kind.

In those dreams, I never tried drugs or alcohol. I never heard of the work of Professor Chatterjee, nor of the Liggs lurking just behind the surface of creation. I have a storied career within the Blessed Diaspora, running my research and development ship, Cube Eight, to its highest level of success and discovery.

My crew is happy, I’m content with the choices I’ve made in life, and all is well.

And I never, ever, am trapped on my ship waiting for an Admiralty inspection team to arrive and find out what I and my co-conspirators have been up to.

Those dreams? When I have them, I always wake up screaming.

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