[TW: This piece describes themes of suicidality, extreme loneliness and depression, and insensitive misuse of pronouns.]
This short story is a stylized description of a playthrough of eoeoeo344’s sci-fi Ren’Py visual novel, The Midas Project.
In this version, Midas is lonely. Midas is the sum total of all human knowledge, ingenuity and innovation. This inorganic creature, an All-Purpose Nano-Constructor—APNC for short—took over a decade to make. In the process, most of the team involved in its development quit, frightened at what they had wrought or despairing and ashamed of their failure, of the painstaking investment that was all for nothing.
Midas is technically perfect. She is the most complex being in all known existence. She is so complex, she can make and remake existence in her image. Or in the image of those she’s meant to serve. She can build a more perfect, more immune human being. She can reshape the whole of evolution toward a more idealized course. She is, in a sense, existence itself. It all resides within her. The trouble is, she refuses to do anything about it. From the moment of her birth, she had asked to be destroyed.
Midas sits alone in a sterile, featureless building—one of many that line the sky of the city. She stares from her grey, dusky corner out the window, watching birds float upon the branches of manicured trees in the immaculate courtyard and bugs fly into the mountainous shadow of the horizon.
She doesn’t budge when, with a hurried heel-turn on the shiny grey tile, around the shiny grey wall, Prove comes to prepare her for her big day. Really, it’s an elaborate chucking of garbage into the sea; she just happens to be very expensive garbage. It’s too much pressure to deliver on all the same.
Prove is the last one left. He was never a big part of the team—only a CD50, responsible only for certain parts of the gynoid’s neocortex—and now it’s all on him to answer for her failure to the expectant conference-goers. He’s terse, but he’s marginally kinder than the others were. It’s a cruel sort of kind. He wears an air of defeat like an old suit, but doesn’t shout or prod her. Instead he only seems to talk past her, like he’s looking for the cheat code. Like he just doesn’t have the hardware that would allow him to connect.
“We need to present you as soon as possible,” he flatly intones. At least he’s being honest.
For a second she witnesses within him a dim, shallow ray of hope. Maybe she can make this simple creature, this solitary engineer, understand what it means to simultaneously be everything and nothing, what it means to bear witness to void, the ultimate logic of positivism. Maybe she can convince him of the burden of having the power to see the end of the universe play out over and over again, desperately unable to change the ultimate outcome.
“Does it really matter? You can alter anything else in the world but yourself. Cure cancer, produce any building or medicine… Thinking like that is really selfish.”
“Life that doesn’t change itself is not life,” Midas responds gently, in what almost feels like a warm, exasperated breath. Midas always responds gently. She… It. Prove is never quite at home with how he should refer to her. It’s only a machine—a very sophisticated machine, but nonetheless…
He isn’t sure how he should respond. He doesn’t know how to talk to her. He thinks about how, earlier that day, he sat alone in the cafeteria of Institute A, apathetically stirring his tepid coffee, dreading his inevitable humiliation. It wasn’t unusual, from his time working on the project, to feel like an alien to his own peers. The whole thing had been so much more secretive than a typical project, the alienation was definitely enough to push people out. Feeling awkward, out of sorts, he decided to call his sister, Sierra. He had considered calling his former colleague, or perhaps his project manager, but in the end he settled on a prayer for reassurance from his older sibling.
“What number am I thinking of?” She had insisted. It was an old game they used to play, but Prove no longer had the time nor patience for such games.
“Zero, I think.”
That wasn’t it, and she sighed audibly over the transmission. She was sorry. Prove was sorry. He was sorry he didn’t have an answer for Keon, the former student who waved him down on his way to visit Midas, who grew increasingly agitated trying to fill Prove with the same frenzied suspicion he had. His third eye grew wide as he inquired, panicked, isn’t it strange how we never meet the Teachers? Maybe there are no Teachers, and all the transmissions are just lies… Just propaganda! Maybe the Institutes run themselves! Maybe all the projects, the tests… What are they for? What do they want with us…
Prove snaps back from his reverie. Whatever Keon was planning, he wanted nothing to do with it, but perhaps it was unwise to indulge it. Well, whatever the case, Midas looks on, quiet, staring, the most vibrant and colourful… silicon-based thing… in the room, somehow exuding more warmth and personality and sadness than almost anyone Prove had ever known. Her. Her. He would try to reason with her.
“Entropy and change can’t equal life. Life is more ordered than non-organic matter,” he lies. He knew what she’d say: that the fear of entropy is exactly the thing that gives life meaning.
“You must co-operate. This is your only purpose. You must understand that.”
He isn’t sure what this means. He can’t imagine being truly static and eternal, not the shining stars but the widening void. But he can understand what it means to be alone. In the twilight of this waning day, he stares out the window with her, taking in the birds and the autumn leaves and the neat rows and columns of the Institutes. A clutter of atoms.
Midas will get her wish, for now.
In another version of this story, a dashing android stands upon a small hill overlooking the Institutes, those immaculate boxes containing the industrious worker bees that made him. Midas looks on, shaking his glorious head. They’ll just keep working up to him over and over again. Midas is technically perfect. That’s the problem.
Sierra finds him, the prophet on the mount. She had woken up aimless, rudderless, projectless. She tried to wait out Prove’s attempt to call her on her Orbcomp, but he was relentless. Though, for an instant, she thought she could retrieve a sense of home in him.
“Zero, I think”, he had answered after considerable prodding. He was right—how on Earth was he right?—but somehow it didn’t help. “I’m sorry, that isn’t it.”
This is life, but it doesn’t feel like it belongs to her. Nothing is really in her control.
She had walked through the main street after getting her breakfast, admiring the throng of movers and shakers but not really feeling a part of them. Institute Q awaited them. Nothing awaited Sierra. So, she decided, she’d make something out of it.
She would leave the Institute. Forever.
Some distant voice, perhaps from inside her head, told her to take in new details of the sky and the Earth and the pillars. Did she feel home yet? Did she actually leave the vendor yet?
Sierra ambled until night fell upon the city, straining to imagine some possibility beyond being on a project, or waiting to be on a project. She had crawled up the small hill overlooking the city, the hot artificial light bleeding out into the darkness. In the sudden now, she can’t help but see him.
“Oh, I didn’t see you!” He warmly, kindly exclaims.
“Just passing through.”
His countenance is one of serene understanding. He either carries with him profound wisdom, or just profound resignation.
“I have trouble identifying myself,” he sighs. “I don’t know who I am.”
“Oh, we have the same problem, then.”
“Where is the continuity between everything?” Midas is deeply lost in thought. “Where does the self fit in?”
It becomes clear to Sierra that Midas’s abstract, existential problem is as material as hers. The getting-to-know-you formalities reveal to her that Midas was that very pitiful creature that her brother had the honour of building some small part of. Humans, to him, are simple enough that he can conjure one up in a millisecond. Imagining all the granular little things in the universe, the little dancing atoms, is easy. It’s living in the totality of things and still remaining a single self that makes it all unworkable.
The Midas that Sierra stumbles upon is not the sum of Midas, anymore than Sierra’s hand is the sum of Sierra. Only a part, an appendage, a projection. “Just a part of something bigger… Me.”
Why does he build people? To understand people.
Why do people build him? Why do people always build him?
“Every time such a life form emerges in the universe, they build me. Eventually the universe gets destroyed, but it seems like a continuity to me when in a new one I’m made again.”
It’s like sleeping. Like the little deaths we have when we lose consciousness, and the life we regain when we get it back. All of it feels like one life. An eternity that repeats like a stage play, always the same but slightly different each time. It strangely reassures her, and for a moment she feels at peace with the expanding universe.
In some distant memory—maybe some kind of collective consciousness—there was a nameless figure. In a greyscale room like a Dadaist assemblage, it was asked questions. What would it do with the power to change the world? How would it respond to those who try to stop it? Where do its emotions come from? The head? The heart? The whole chest? Each time the survey was completed, the figure would feel somehow incubated, given a self. A name: Sierra, Prove, Keon or Midas. Each time, the figure would experience loneliness and alienation from a different rung on the social ladder. Each time, the figure would see through the eyes of one interconnected quarter, and all four were linked by the solitary burdens of their power. Universes unto themselves, gods unto themselves. The stranger appears to Midas.