Fiction

Contact

Women_at_evening_market_in_the_street_selling_food_and_fruits

Plantains piled high. Woven baskets full of beans and pulses. Dried, salted fish and curried goat. I made my way through the evening market, sand rising in the air as trucks depart with their unsold goods, last rush for the discounted meats that spoil soon. I had been in the country for six days but still hadn’t heard from the agent who was supposed to meet me at the airfield. Company policy was to consider the contact in the wind at this point, to return to headquarters and await further communication. This was complicated, however; we hadn’t heard a word from this contact since last summer, when his name was flagged by our system after being reported by the local coroner.

Whoever was using our deceased agent’s contacts and callsigns seemed to know exactly who we were, and so was either stupid enough to assume we’d be fooled, or desperate enough not to care. I had wondered, as the plane skidded uneasily across the runway, whether it would in fact be our old associate waiting at the gate, miraculously healed of the thirteen bullet-wounds listed in the report. At least three of those went through his skull, so I was ready for a slow-talker.

Humour will preserve your courage while the little shrieker in the back of your head paints a picture of a death-squad lying in wait near the airport, Kalashnikovs clacking gently as they huddle down, all eyes on the gate, waiting for the obvious spook.

But there had been nothing. After an hour of waiting I had jumped in a taxi to the nearest town and put cash down on a room. That night I stood in the street-facing window, smoking and eyeing the women at the brothel across the road, lamenting, not for the first time, that only the Russians permit their people to fuck and get fucked up on the clock.

After three days I was antsy. It was looking more and more like someone had found our man’s contacts and gotten curious. I changed hotels every evening, but no one was following me and no one was tossing the rooms I’d stayed in. It was time to leave, I knew that. But…

My ears ringing with the blast. Patterson dead, missing the better part of his left arm on the ground beside me. Gunfire and shouting. Had to get the ambusher’s truck off the runway, or we’d never be able to take off. Crawling to my gun, legs don’t move so good. Gunman above me now, blocking the sun, raising his gun and barking something… His head snaps forward, burst of fire from the barrel of his gun as he briefly death-grips the trigger, most bullets thudding into the sand, two into the side of the plane. Above me now, my contact, hand outstretched and already stinking of cordite. Clamber onto plane as he jumps in truck and makes a getaway. Saved me.

Gratitude. I’d felt something when his name popped up red on my terminal feed. Had any of them survived the ambush? If so, they may have identified him. Did he die because he saved me? I briefly glanced at my terminal for the first time in days; unread messages nearing the hundreds now. I was being missed. I knew I had to go back, report the lead as unconfirmed and reconsider our presence in the region. Tomorrow. I’d go home tomorrow. For now, I decided to head to the market for the evening; this was where we’d first encountered our agent, pulling him out of a dispute with a local merchant and taking him to a nearby cafe, filling his stomach with food, his head with thoughts of espionage and his hand with currency.

Women carried the last of the unsold goods to the trucks, the sinking sun setting the brilliant colours of their traditional garb ablaze. I turned a corner past a fruit stand being taken apart for the night and there he was. I froze. He was unmarked by bullets, his face seemingly far older than before. But the eyes I stared into after having accepted my death would forever be burned into my memory, and I knew he had been waiting for me. Unknown feelings of warmth and brotherhood began to blossom in my chest as I headed toward him. I wasn’t even checking my surroundings anymore; I was so happy to see him. His eyes were warm but hinted to a resigned sadness. Raised voices to my left, clattering and shoving. He turned away from me and I stretched a hand out to him as night fell upon me forevermore.

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Fiction

Here’s What Happens

There is life after death, and it’s horrible. Sorry to spoil the surprise, but everyone deserves to know this, really. Since civilisation’s beginnings we’ve tried to explain what happens to consciousness after death. The simplest and most likely explanation was also the most frightening; nothing. Nothing at all. Blankness, a void of sensation you wouldn’t even be present for. No one really wants to embrace the idea that once your heart stops beating and the brain starves of oxygen, then that’s all she wrote. No brainwaves, no electrical impulses, no sensation. Nothingness.

So we devised all kinds of reasonings and fables to offer ourselves some glimmer of hope. Heaven, Hell, reincarnation, anything was more appealing than the idea of non-existence. But the truth was worse than oblivion, if you can believe it.

The ‘Earth Project’, if you want to call it that, is effectively battery-farming. The Archons, those conscious powers of nature, force and time which exist in all places and forms, needed sustenance. The forces of this universe operate in a way much like what you think happens in the deep sea; small fish eat smaller fish, then are eaten by bigger fish, on and on. In the great Cataclysm which we choose to see as the Big Bang, the cosmic singularity burst apart and what had been an inconceivable All to which there was no ‘outside’ or ‘other’ was suddenly forced to adjust to something new; disparity. Suddenly, the All was split into Many, and there was no true equality. There were newly formed beings and consciousnesses with their own identities, strengths and weaknesses. Some were bigger and more powerful than others, and found themselves suddenly at the mercy of Time, a wholly new concept. They aged and withered, but could stem the flow of entropy via the consumption of other forms and powers, and so the strongest in this new pantheon devoured those who were weaker, on and on.

Eventually, with the passage of Time, which few seemed able to get used to, there were no weaker souls left in the divided cosmos. A small collection of unimaginably vast and powerful presences lorded over the cold space and the heat and matter which dotted it. None were capable of moving against the other without opening themselves up to attack from another, and with all of them aware that they were entirely matched in strength and omniscience, it was a stalemate. Perhaps if one had eventually consumed all the others then the universe, as we see it, would have returned to it’s original unity. But this did not occur.

These ‘Archons’ hatched an idea, each realising it at the same time and aware that the others must have done so as well. They worked together, for the first time, and made the world as we know it. They pooled their collective power and formed a world situated perfectly in the comfort-zone of a healthy star. They seeded the world with a small portion of their own power, and this became Life. In time, this Life developed a kind of advanced consciousness, as they anticipated.

The Archons were starving, you see. Unable to feed upon each other anymore they were beginning to atrophy. They understood that without fresh energy they were destined to fade, and they would have to embrace the Nothingness that we so fear ourselves. And so they began to farm, and we are the crops. Upon birth we are each blessed with a kernel of that initial spark which brought forth life on this world, and as time passes it matures. Our society and development act as a kind of greenhouse, that spirit growing into a unique and bright flame. We marinate in our collective experience of ‘Life’. And then, when our physical frames wither and fail, when our bodies are no longer able to act as vessels for the burning and titanic force of spirit and soul that threatens to burst out of us, we ‘Die’. The kernel, now massive and ripe, rises out of this ecology and returns to it’s original source, the Archons.

And they eat us.

Can you conceive of it? The white fire within, the one thing that remains within you even when everything else about life changes, the inner sense of being and experience, in the end it’s just a kind of cosmic nourishment for powers greater than you can imagine. Are you offended? Does the idea upset you, that everything that ever happened to you was effectively the cultivation of greater nutrition and flavour? Well be upset. Get mad. The chickens our species sends to slaughter every day aren’t happy about their situation either; do you care?

Gods will loom over you, leering and writhing in anticipation of their meal. That’s all you ever were. Tendrils which formed the universe plunge into your very essence with no concern for your consent. Your memories are torn away, like the crisp, juicy crackling which shields a freshly-roasted pork belly. They smack their lips on your hopes and fears, sucking the marrow from the wealth of your experience. You’ll fight and struggle, they all do. If anything the Archons like it; a final bit of resistance sweetens the meat and adds a spice to your dreams. And all of this happens so slowly… They like to take their time, to ensure that absolutely everything about you is consumed and converted into fuel for their own existence, so much more significant than yours as to inspire dreadful, star-shattering laughter upon comparison.

There is nothing you can ever do to prevent this. Your soul will be eaten, and all your memories and experiences will eventually be reduced to crumbs on a plate which spans the deepest abyss of space. You don’t return, you aren’t reborn. Eventually that initial fear of our species is made true; oblivion and nothingness. You simply have to endure the experience of being torn apart over millennia, knowing beyond doubt that there is absolutely no escaping any of this.

I suppose you could spoil their meal with suicide. You’d be giving them much less to feast upon, were you to artificially shorten your ripening. But you wouldn’t even be able to enjoy their frustration; your ability to perceive it would be gobbled up in short order.

So if you are spiteful enough to wish some kind of pain upon these unimaginable titans, then pray for war. Do everything you can to herald a nuclear armageddon, because only the complete devastation of all that lives on this ‘world’ will end their meal. And as the second suns rise from silos and burst in the twilight sky and the air grows fast and hot as the blast wave approaches you, ready to reduce you to immediate ash and cinder, rejoice in the knowledge that you have hastened the death of the universe.

Non serviam.

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Fiction

Breach

 

rig

The chopper-drone was already on the roof when I reached the top of the stairs. I hadn’t heard it approach, but I suppose that’s the point of a stealth vehicle. The side hatch swung open for me and I stepped in awkwardly, sitting in the only unoccupied seat between the soldiers. As soon as I was buckled in the door came down again and we were airborne; at least that’s what the display screen up ahead told me. There were no windows in the chopper and no sense of inertia, so for all I knew we were still on the landing pad or plummeting to the ground.

As we left the city airspace the display ahead changed to various images of our destination, an oil-rig approximately 40 miles offshore. The solders around me didn’t seem to react to it; they looked indistinguishable from one another, identical armour studded in identical LEDs with identical helmets, thick metal plating covering the entire head except the mouth and nose. There were no LEDs on the helmets. Some consultant probably made a ridiculous amount of money telling the military that soldiers with inscrutable expressions were scarier. Inside the helmets the soldiers were probably shown a digital recreation of everything in front of them with additional readouts displaying useful info like the structural integrity of buildings and objects, remaining ammunition, enemy strength and equipment intel, etc. I realised then that the display up ahead was probably playing inside their helmets, meaning that the screen was all for my benefit. I didn’t pay it much mind though; I knew everything I needed to already.

The offshore rig was not a rig at all but instead the exterior front of a subterranean detention-slash-R&D facility. If that makes you a bit nervous then I suppose you’re paying attention. What we were heading into was the one thing scarier than a military blacksite: a military blacksite which has ceased communication with the outside. The soldiers around me were part of Phobos Division, tasked with dealing with messy situations the state didn’t really want civilians, or worse, corporate entities learning about. My presence on the mission was not in keeping with Phobos protocol, but they lacked anyone with my expertise and a rapid response was necessary.

The display suddenly announced that we were only a few minutes from landing and some of the soldiers around me started to flex as much as their armour and fastenings would permit. Suddenly the light in the chopper went out, seconds before the hatch opened once again, flooding the chopper with twilight and salty air. The soldiers were already up and moving, with one behind me putting a hand on my shoulder and pushing me forward, keeping me safely within the formation. The landing pad, indeed the entire upper deck was deserted save for us, and after a brief perimeter sweep we moved forward to the entryway. This would be my first task for the day.

The soldier up front made a token attempt at typing in the access code and was faced with predictable rejection, but I was already stepping up beside him. I extended my hand to the blue holographic pin pad and waited to see it. Sure enough, a grainy orange projection of code appeared behind the pad, and I idly considered that this was the second display today that only I was seeing. The code was bulky, tangled but brutally comprehensive, and for a moment I worried if just maybe I’d been a bit overconfident in accepting this job. But then something shifted. Something was behind that knotted ball of overwhelming text, something conscious, apprehensive. If I could just… just… ah. There. There it is; a solitary unit of green, utterly and obviously sentient. I pushed at it and the knot loosened. The green one darted back into nothingness, and the orange code faded away.

“Again,” I said, and the soldier input the access code once more. This time the pad turned green and the steel door before us slid open with a pneumatic “schuk”. We moved inside. The lights were still on, but no one was home by the looks of things. A reception desk stood unoccupied, next to it was the contraband-detector one had to pass through in order to proceed through he false facility and into the elevator downwards into the true installation. The soldier up front silently indicated the detector then held his hand up: there, but not yet. Then he pointed at the terminal on the reception desk: here first.

I stepped around the desk, for the first time since boarding the chopper not surrounded by the soldiers, and looked at the screen. The signing-in software of the fake drilling corporation was still up, which was unexpected. According to the reports I’d been sent, in the event of a lockdown the base security algorithms were supposed to jettison superfluous programs in order to concentrate on what was undoubtedly a more important situation developing below. The dummy corporation’s software was supposed to be among them. I disregarded this oddity and concentrated on the system before me. I let my mind relax and waited to see through the veil. Ten seconds passed and I was worrying again, trying not to think about the soldiers staring at me blindly. After a while the orange started to bleed in, but slower now, like molasses. In time it burned as brightly as it always did for me, and I started to peer across it for the links to the detector next to me, looking for it’s secret fatal function.

See, the base hadn’t purged. Upon deciding that the situation below was beyond hope, that stability would never be restored and that that which was concealed beneath was now sure to eventually breach containment and reach the surface, the security systems were programmed to utterly ignite the contained atmosphere within. Then flood it, drain it, then ignite it again. Only after this total destruction of any and all things contained within would the facility broadcast the All-Clear and end the lockdown. This facility had been in lockdown for six days now, and no broadcast reassuring those listening that the situation had been resolved, one way or another, had been received. It demanded investigation, but this particular blacksite was a special case. Outfitted with a unique cybersecurity suite which could only be directly accessed via terminals inside the base, the operation had demanded the services of someone like me.

Not to go into too much depth, but my skull contains a fortune in wetware and access programs. By just looking at a computer I’m breaking the law in every country and on most colonies. But I’m a bit of a special case, and maybe I’m owed quite a few favours, so maybe I get a pass on a fair few instances of unauthorised access and maybe I’m permitted to earn a modest income utilising these expensive tools I never asked for. Maybe. It’s hard to describe what I’m seeing when I access a system, but colours stand out pretty well; I just feel around with my eyes and I know what’s doing what and how to manipulate certain functions.

This facility had a hidden arsenal of traps to pick off any who attempted to take a look around during a lockdown. Or any who were surface-side when the doors slammed shut. It was very noteworthy that we had yet to encounter a single body or sign of havoc, as if everyone had been below when the lockdown occurred, even those without clearance. Right now I was trying to access the contraband-detector and disable it’s hidden function, which our reports had informed us was a fatal electrical field which activated upon passing through. But when I found the quiet little string of code trailing off to the detector, it showed no signs of activation. As far as I could see, the field was off. I relayed this to the soldiers and they looked back at me impassively. One of them took a magazine off his hip and slid it through the detector; the alarm flared loudly, making me jump, but nothing else, no electric. The screen in front of me flickered to show a non-permitted item had passed through, and the orange code tried to melt out of view.

That confirmed my suspicions about the bizarrely elusive orange code; it was trying to evade me. Which meant it knew what I was doing. It must have become aware of me at the door pad and had been trying to complicate itself to outsmart me. This had a number of implications, all unsettling: first, there was an AI in the network. There was a strict ban on the development of artificial intelligences within security suites; too much hazard, too much potential for sudden, inexplicable bloodshed. After the Guangdong Tragedy fourteen years ago several international and intercorporate treaties had been put in place, with punishments so severe that even the skankiest outfit wouldn’t dream of wading through that sludge, even this one.

Secondly, the AI was able to perceive me in turn. I couldn’t even explain this one: the way in which I access systems is by no means boilerplate. It’s a very specific platform, likely one of a kind, calibrated specifically for me to best be able to perceive and utilise it. When I access a system I’m basically putting it through a filter so that it appears in a way my systems find legible; for this AI to be able to react to what I’m doing to it, it must be able to detect the way in which it is being perceived, which seems impossible. While it’s trying to hide from me, in it’s own way it’s addressing me.

Communicating.

This shouldn’t have been happening. Whatever this place was working on or hiding below couldn’t have been so important as to justify the creation of such an impossibly sophisticated AI for security use; this kind of thing could bring down a nation if it ever went public. Which led to another suggestion, a clue as to exactly what kind of research they had been performing downstairs, the fruits of which appeared to have escaped containment, only to find itself landlocked on a fake oil rig with no networks to piggy-back onto back to… land.

The chopper.

I burst back out into the evening air, the shouts of the until-now silent soldiers echoing after me, in time to see the chopper-drone ascend and turn back to the mainland. Snapping to work, the world suddenly darkened around me, traces of millions of lines of code beginning to glow orange on the surface of every circuited object around me. In seconds I noticed that the radar dome to my right was in fact a disguised anti-aircraft weapon, one designed to shoot down investigators (or runaways) prior to the All-Clear being given. The chopper was designed to go undetected to such systems, but with the use of my suite I was able to manually grasp the controls and…

I was knocked back by the explosion, the flaming husk of the chopper cascading from the sky. The force of the blast shook me out of my suite and into the harsh light, but not before I saw the green malevolence dart back to the rig and latch onto one of the many bristling arms of networked software on board. It was back with us, and we were stuck here with it.

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Fiction

Promotion

The room was warm and breezy, salted air blowing through the huge balconies which looked out onto the paradise island. In the later years of his administration, the Leader had chosen to spend more and more of the year at this residence, built to his own specifications in the warmer southern climates.

The young captain looked out from one of the balconies, eyes narrow in the growing twilight. Without turning, he dismissed the other officers who had come to pay tribute to the elderly Leader, architect of the Empire and all-father, who now lay in repose before them all as his life ebbed away. The officers offered no argument, and politely departed through the grand doorway. Many of these men and women outranked the young captain but tipped their caps regardless. As the last of them departed the young captain turned and eyed the Imperial Guardsmen who stood beside the door and dismissed them with the slightest gesture. They returned an eager salute before turning to depart as well. They offered the Leader no gesture of fealty.

Now it was just the young captain, the Leader and the captain’s bodyguard. The bodyguard made a series of facial gestures which suggested a great deal of information to the captain, related to events in the senate and assurances of support from the right Houses. A final twist of the brow asked a final, potent question regarding the man who lay before them, answered swiftly by a confident nod of the head. Satisfied, the bodyguard departed as well, stopping in the doorway to turn and dramatically pull the doors closed behind him.

Now it was just the two of them, the Leader who had risen up amidst the chaos which had once engulfed their nation and forged a regime which had spread across the entire globe, and the young captain who remembered the day, some years previous, when the dear Leader had congratulated him on his promotion. He had shook his hand then with the warmth of a proud father, and assured the young captain that his loyalty and the determination with which he had helped purge the senate of dissenting factions would be greatly rewarded in the years to come. The young captain had felt tremendous pride, tempered by the hunger which had haunted him his entire life. Nothing seemed to satisfy it, yet as he climbed the ranks of the administration he sensed that he was closing in on that mysterious flavour he had craved his whole life.

After years of work, everything was now in place. He had had to sacrifice much in this pursuit, and betray a great many who were loyal to him. He had secretly arranged for the failings and hardships which beset his peers and competitors for rank, had bought votes and favours with kindness, generosity and brutal intimidation. He had murdered for this. By the time the sun had set, the announcements would begin. The sun now cast a deep, warm light across the room as it began to sink beneath the cyan sea.

Dissenters and guardsmen with misguided loyalties would be shot in the streets, hanged from the bellowers. Banners bearing his likeness would stream down from the highest structures of the capital. The captain had even composed a new anthem, drawing upon artistic stylings of the Empire’s founding nation, to play from every accessible speaker in the world upon his coronation.

There was just one last loose end. The approached the Leader’s bedside and looked down at his aged face. Lines and scars which told epic stories. Of a young man, brutalised in a lost war but capable and willing to stand up and unite his people, to spread the their culture across the globe and finally establish lasting peace. Who knew which were true stories and which were propaganda? He wondered for a moment how much of history he would revise when his rule began; how charitable should he be to his predecessor? The old man, withered before his time, had began to suspect the slow poison near the end; there was no good explanation for why his health was deteriorating so rapidly. He was suddenly unable to perform duties which had until recently been casual, but luckily he had always had officers and retainers nearby to help him and lead him to rest. All of them loyal to the young captain.

The captain leaned across the Leader for a moment and took a pillow. He gave it a single fluff, and pushed it down onto the Leader’s face. He didn’t give much resistance; by the time he realised what was happening and began to claw at the captain’s face he was too weak to even visibly scratch him. After a minute of silence the young Leader drew back the pillow. Already dark bruises were appearing on the dead man’s eyelids, but the morticians would fix that. Or maybe he’d just burn the damn thing and put a waxwork in a case of formaldehyde for people to see. He smiled at all the new freedoms which unfurled before him like the petals of a magnificent flower, and turned to leave the room, now unlit and still in the embryonic night. The Leader is dead; long live the Leader.

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Fiction

The White City

My dreams all take place in the same location now, if the mental spaces in which we wander nocturnally can be said to have a ‘location’ as such. It is a city, grand in scale but utterly ruined. White stone bricks make up towers, dwellings, sepulchres and vast stretching bridges which end abruptly in mid-air. Water surrounds the city, lays through it, though the canals do not flow and the shores do not ebb or rush. They are achingly placid, like an infinite mirror stretching past the horizon. The sky is eternally locked into a state of either dawn or twilight; it is impossible to tell which. There is no sun or moon suspended above. The city lays almost entirely empty of life.

There is a sense that this is an old place, eldritch and forbidden. It feels older than… anything else there is, to be honest. It started here, whatever it is. Did the spires once tower even higher, each window lit by fantastical lights in colours we have never seen? Did the grand beings who constructed this place once stride proudly across its many huge white plazas, resplendent in finery now forever lost to time? Did the stars ever drape across a night’s sky, the whorls and jewels of Nuit moving through constellations which are not our own?

I cannot say.

Perhaps it was always like this. Perhaps this is the first place, the first eruption of matter in a universe born anew. Perhaps it is the last, the final resting place of that shared hallucination we called “civilisation.” Perhaps it is the ruin of Heaven.

In my dreams I wander across the streets, alleys and walkways of this forsaken place. Occasionally there are others, though none I would consider denizens. I feel that the others I sometimes glance are fellow visitors, projecting to this city from their resting places, same as I. None speak, and I do not attempt to myself.

Many parts of the city appear as through they should be inaccessible, built by either maddened architectural minds or simply constructed for the convenience of a race which does not abide by the same physical laws as my own. However I do not encounter difficulty in scaling the impossibly steep white pathways. I simply will myself there, and I am transported. I have not taken the time yet to look at my own body while I explore this place. I am quietly afraid to do so.

Sometimes, but not every time, there is a strong sense of another presence in this city. While it may sound wildly out of character with everything else I have described, I am occasionally made aware of a dragon which resides here. I have never seen the dragon, not heard its roar or witnessed its flight. Indeed, I cannot in all sureness say that it embodies any of the various images we conjure in our collective human consciousness when we think of a ‘dragon.’ When I become aware of it, it is as though a deep tectonic shift has occurred in the very foundations of the place. Some kind of consciousness stirs deep beneath the city, within the very white stones upon which I stand, and it is wholly omniscient of those who wander it’s lair. Or perhaps it would be better to say those who ‘trespass’. When I become aware of the dragon, I wake shortly after. Perhaps I flee it’s ethereal gaze, perhaps it ejects me, unworthy to stand within this holy land.

I recall a single time that I became conscious of the dragon in the presence of another wanderer. A young woman, clothed in a vest with brown hair pulled back tightly. The moment I became aware of the dragon I could be sure she had as well; her face suddenly creased into a look of fear, panic and horror. Perhaps mine had as well. Perhaps it does every time.

I want to learn how to lucid dream, because I want to grapple with this city more consciously. There is some reason for my constant return there. Am I supposed to find something? Am I experiencing the memories of another? Perhaps I have been called there to rebuild it. Perhaps I have been sent there to destroy what remains.

In a way, it doesn’t seem to matter. Many of the metaphysical things we take for granted in our World and Aeon do not belong there. I do not entertain thoughts of good or evil while there, or even life vs. death. This place resides either long before or after those separations existed.

I want to go back. I want to know whether the tides destroyed this place, or if they simply pushed the great white stones together themselves. I want to know what sights lay at the tops of the highest cracked towers. I want to know if subterranean tunnels lead under the city, beneath the level of the still sea, and what magnificent force might rest there.

Part of me worries, in my waking hours, that this city might drive me mad if I spend too much time there. It is so very alien, so unlike anything I have seen in life or fantasy. Perhaps if I were to spend too much time exploring I might become lost, or lose some connection to the slumbering body which projects my consciousness into that lost place. I remind myself that I have seen no evidence to suggest that any others have become ‘stuck’ in such a way. But still I worry.

In cynical moments, to which I am prone, I wonder if maybe this is all simply an amalgamation of other mythical lost cities: Atlantis, Carcosa, R’Lyeh. But the thought occurs; I am not the only one who has visited this place. Would it not make sense that others, more gifted in poetry and prose than myself might have taken inspiration from their own journeys there and attempted to scribe the things they had seen, to try and convey to others the idea of a city lost amid time, utterly separate from our own assumptions of space, physics, time and law?

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