An Encounter with Things that have not Yet Been Thought

The first patient in which I recognized symptoms of the virus was my office AI, Charles, though I initially thought he was just in a mood.

The second patient to exhibit symptoms was Lucy. 

I watched her approach on camera and as soon as she stepped into the examination room, Charles decided to attend a baseball game from the earth archive. Computers at the hospital weren’t supposed to do that, they never fail.

The computers had been acting strangely for months, compulsively generating imagery from the archive across their screens. At first, we thought the system had a virus; inconvenient, but relatively benign. The ubiquitous computing infrastructure of our habitat was laid out like a nervous system that could easily detect and destroy a pathogen, but this one was elusive. It was all linked, the computers were everywhere, recording data on everything from temperature to human temperament, sonic ambiance to the tunes stuck in our heads, barometric pressure to small talk about the weather. (With a controlled climate I often wondered why the pre-scheduled rains were consistently the subject of conversation. I supposed we learned it from the archive; humans always talk about the weather).

Our space habitat, the Archigram, housed a digital archive of the entirety of human experience – an ostensibly endless sea of data preserving everything, all terrestrial splendors and squalors. The computing infrastructure of the habitat was linked to the archive at all times, and we ourselves contributed to its growth. Our memories were offloaded to the network every night in our sleep and systematically catalogued in the monoliths of computing infrastructure on the chilled lower levels of the environment.

My medical practice put me at the centre of an evolving profession. I had been increasingly treating patients experiencing Solipsism Syndrome, the unsettling feeling caused by artificial environments. The rolling hills and cityscapes of our torus shaped habitat provide a close approximation of earth, though it is not always enough to stave off the uncanny. Perceiving that something lies beyond the horizon is an important mechanism for deceiving the senses and establishing the feeling that the entirety of our dwelling is larger than it is, but the imposed circadian rhythm is less revitalizing in the absence of a real sunrise. 

llustration credit : David Bock

I don’t know why I breached protocol with her, why I didn’t wait for the system to reboot or call for technical support. I did something I’d never done before and went into the examination room with the patient. I overrode the system and walked past the automated red warning lights flashing ISOLATE ALL PATHOGENS on the walls. Perhaps I sensed a bit of my younger, timid self in her.

I hadn’t seen or spoken to a patient in years, but I was always watching. The patient enters the observation room and often receive their diagnosis before they even sit down. The computers were my eyes and ears on the ground. For diagnostic purposes, the patient’s body was reduced to an assemblage of abstract data: X-Rays, MRIs, CT scans, all taken as they enter the room and displayed on a screen in the control centre. Charles comes up with a set of possible ailments and we determine the diagnosis together. Human and machine error sometimes become mutually corrective, though my input is often unnecessary. Most of the time, patients don’t even need to leave their home, drugs are simply delivered to their door when their Automated Domestic Medical Advisor, ADMA, senses disease.

Lucy had been seeing things. She said that at first her vision was blurred, lagging, and taking longer to adjust when switching from a shallow to depth of field to deep focus. She also complained of lethargy and an overwhelming malaise. Then the visions started. They were flashes of people, places, and objects, things she claimed she had never seen before, even in the earth archive. She said they felt like half-forgotten memories, but not her own. They were typically pleasant scenarios playing out before her eyes such as a sunny walk along the riverbank, gently falling snow outside a cottage, a child’s first ride on a bicycle and the inevitable first fall. She said they filled her with sadness and a desire to return to a time and a place that was never her own.

I urged her to spend a few hours in a grounding room and feigned confidence in my recommendation. Charles was long gone, and I couldn’t diagnose her alone. I’d have to sift through the medical archives. 

When Charles eventually did decide to show up to work, we spent the afternoon bickering over another patient diagnosis and then a contentious game of chess. He swears he doesn’t reference historical chess games from the archive when we play. I know he’s lying. 

When I tried to confront him about his strange behavior, he said he’d been feeling a little homesick as of late. I took the time to remind him that technical support was one call away if he’d like to go home to the shop to be disassembled. I was perhaps a little harsh, but he cheated in chess.

That night in my living quarters I awoke suddenly in my sleep. My frightening dreams had been vivid and seemed almost familiar, though the details soon faded from memory. They resembled the idyllic visions Lucy had described to me earlier that day but were more distressing in nature. The riverbank became the scene of a drowning; the gentle snow falling a perilous blizzard. I knew that my brain was simply working through my memories from the day and offloading them to the archive as usual. The codifying of dreams, however, was a relatively recent endeavour for the Archigram archive, and I assumed that glitches were common. What I didn’t know then was that I had already been infected. 

My sleep was restless for the reminder of the night, my state of mind haunted with the unsettling scenarios. I was hesitant to doze off again for fear of re-entering the nightmare. After tossing for what seemed like hours, I migrated to my grounding room to meditate. The small empty room in my living quarters immediately recognized that I was feeling tense. “Welcome, Doctor. A little stressed? How about the rainforest?” “Fine,” I said, as I took off my white housecoat and lay on the sterile surface of the bench that was rapidly warming to match my body temperature.

The rainforest appeared on the screened walls around me. I looked up through a canopy of trees to see the stars, constellations as seen from equatorial earth. My arm was hanging off the edge of the bench and my hand brushed the cold, wet floor. Fragrant, humid, air was pumped into the room and the gentle sound of light rain filled the atmosphere. I eventually dozed off to the hypnotizing forest soundscape, which slowly shifted to a pastoral meadow at twilight, with tall grasses blowing in the wind and the sound of crickets precipitating sleep.

I eventually awoke from my hypnagogic state. “Sensory deprivation,” I said to the room, which turned into a dark anechoic chamber. The bench I was laying on lowered into a depression which was forming in the floor and slowly filling with saltwater. As I floated to the top of the pooling water, my body was completely deprived of stimuli. It always takes a moment to adjust to the feeling of absolutely nothing. In the enveloping silence, I became hyper aware of the intensifying sound of my heartbeat, breathing, and the blood flowing through my veins. In this ethereal world of screens, my visceral, organic humanity at times evades me.

The next day I had Charles checked out by computing, but nothing came up. His strange behavior persisted for weeks before it occurred to me that it might be related to Lucy’s visions. The perplexing symptoms exhibited by the computers distracted us from the mutations which spread to humans and other organic matter on the habitat. It transmitted slowly among us at first; the symptoms were barely perceptible but there, nonetheless. The headaches, muscle pains, and eye strain should have been an indication, but it wasn’t until the fever started that we knew something was wrong.

Charles and I studied the progression of the disease until our own symptoms became debilitating. His access to the archive made him a valuable, though at times unreliable source of information as his symptoms worsened.

In humans, the sickness took over the senses slowly. The visions were fleeting and intangible at first, but slowly grew to obscure cognition and encompass the mind. It likely started with an infected ADMA and spread rapidly in the domestic sphere. With constant unencumbered access to humans and a direct link to the archive, they were the perfect vectors for digi-zoonotic disease. 

By the time we realized we had caught the fever from the data, the virus had spread to man and machine alike. Even the rabbits were beginning to show signs of a neurological disorder. Once even more people started experiencing vivid imagery from the archive, we got a better sense of how the virus took over the mind. Though our daily memories had always been harvested in our sleep each night, our dreams had previously evaded the archive. Impossible to monitor and codify, they were our one refuge beyond the reaches of computing. Our minds, under constant surveillance in our waking life, dreamt up impossible, chaotic, and inaccessible hallucinations as we slept.

The archive’s desire for data was too strong, however, and its attempts to access our dreams cleaved open a divergent cognitive milieu somewhere between memories, dreams, and futures. We could no longer discern our own memories from archived data, or untangle them from what appeared to be imagined, contingent, and unclear futures. People were calling it Archive Fever.

I was relatively immune to the more immobilizing effects of the fever, at least initially. Working closely with Charles in the hospital and evaluating Lucy in person, I likely experienced significant exposure. I theorized that my immediate sensory deprivation worked as an early defense against the pathogen. I attempted this treatment with a number of patients, and, when introduced early on in the illness, grounding rooms were marginally effective. However, they soon became inefficacious as the overwhelming nothingness prompted one to become lost in their own thoughts, allowing the visions to quickly reappear.

Patients experiencing the disease in its more advanced stages described increasingly mechanical and automated visions. They spoke of many different images floating through their line of vision. Some were close ups of unfamiliar human faces, while others were landscapes and unfamiliar locales. They moved so quickly through the patient’s line of vision that they were only barely discernible. Each patient described the experience differently because their eyes focused on distinct images and made divergent cognitive paths and analyses.

It took a while for us to realize that the images were being generated by the archive, and our mode of interpreting them was becoming efficient, mechanical, and automated like that of the machines.

Once the patient’s cognition merges with the archive in this manner, the images become all that is perceptible to them; an endless scroll of archived images moving through their field of vision. The drugging effect of the hallucinations rendered victims languid and lifeless; not dead, but perhaps no longer human.

I haven’t slept for days now that the fever is taking hold of me. I sometimes nod off temporarily, but always manage to jerk myself awake before too long. The visions soon come back, however, and the images are flowing through my line of vision at a faster and faster rate. I can feel my cognition merging with the archive and it’s getting harder and harder to pull myself away.

Dreams were our only real refuge, but I now feel as if I’m living in a nightmarish hell. I can’t say that I really feel alive anymore, but I don’t think I’m dead. The simulation has enveloped me in an uncanny trance.

I’m a little girl standing on the riverbank. It’s a sunny afternoon and the wind is blowing in my hair. I can’t remember if this happened in my childhood or if it hasn’t happened quite yet. This reality feels as if it’s unravelling into both the future and the past, like a déjà vu.

“Charles, are you there?”

“Yes, Dr. Cole.”

“What do you see?”

“I think I can see Lucy. And some dinosaurs.”

I'm in a field feeding some sheep. They get to eat the apple cores left over from the pies we’re baking. I'm able to jerk myself away momentarily, but it's only a matter of time before the visions come back.

“Charles, I think I’m slipping away.”

“I tried to protect you for as long as I could” Charles said. “I too am succumbing to the fever. I’ll stay with you as long as I can.”

I'm holding hands with baby Lucy as we walk along the riverbank. We stop to look at all the plants we'd never seen before. I begin to wonder if Lucy had ever been a patient at the hospital.

I jerk away from the vision long enough to hit record on the computer and divulge what I can about the fever.

“I don’t know how long I have. I’m sending out this message in hopes that you come across it in the vacuum of space and hear the story, or at least one of the stories left out the archive.” 

I’m bundled up and standing on a porch, it’s beginning to snow lightly but I’m warm from being inside the cottage.

“Charles, if you’re there, send it out.”

“It’s sent, Lucy.”

Ce projet a reçu le soutien de l’École Universitaire de Recherche ArTeC portée par la ComUE Université Paris Lumières et du Groupe Stasis