Art by ​Patrick Savile.​

From Fire

Digital life begets digital life in this cautionary fable of simulated genesis.

Mar 30 2015, 3:30pm

Art by ​Patrick Savile.​

Never in history has the purpose of science fiction—to serve as a petri dish for the culturing of fantastic and terrible worlds divergent from our own—been so clearly reflected in our popular media. We are all worldbuilders now, fashioning realities to our exacting specifications. We curate, we render, we model and 3D print; we roleplay, cosplay, and play first-person shooters from alien vantages, all with the heady bliss of gods whose creations have not yet turned around to look back at us.

—The Editors

You are a builder, an inventor. When the light of the computer screen bathes your skin, you embrace potentiality. You create a new life out of pixels. You name it Artemis. Artemis is androgynous, her color a uniform beige, her morphology blockish, but not ungraceful. Artemis waves to you from across the screen, then paces around the empty, white space; traversing vectors without gravity; bored. You create a plane, add earth and water. You hang a bright blue sky, insert a sun, a moon, and a splattering of stars. Artemis lays on the earth and looks up at the twinkling lights, tracing the patterns with her finger.

Like a symphonist, you sprinkle seeds with passionate arcs of your stylus. The seeds shoot into long green strands, flexing to a breeze that appears from nowhere. You deliver to Artemis a bucket to haul the water and bestow on her the responsibility of caring for the plants. Artemis does so adequately and receives shimmering tokens, which you trade for gifts of trees and tools and small, non-predatory animals.

Weeks pass during which Artemis explores the boundaries of the land. She kills some animals for food, but befriends others. She builds a home beneath a tree with vines for walls, a bed of pelts. The birds nest in the surrounding trees and sing. Artemis listens and her large square eyes blink back tears. Artemis develops her own strange ritual of song and clockwise movement, which she performs throughout the day. Otherwise, she keeps herself busy chasing rabbits, capturing fruit from trees. You beam down at her often, and sometimes you catch a glimpse of your own face reflected in the screen, the way moonlight rounds over a windowpane. You wonder if Artemis knows you're there. Can she feel you watching over her?

Artemis earns heaps of tokens throughout her diligent and harmonious first month of existence. To reward her, you cash in for a luxury-model two-story mini-mansion. You raze the land—crawling with insects, mucked with the filth of animals—tearing out gnarled roots of oak and pine, and lavish Artemis's new home with a jacuzzi bathtub, a trellised patio, a toilet that chirps, and linen curtains to billow in that mysterious breeze. Pleased with your expenditures, you sit back and wait for Artemis to throw up her arms in gratitude.

But Artemis refuses to go inside. Instead, she throws rocks at the windows and hides in the boxwood hedge. Eventually, out of hunger, Artemis enters the house. She finds a box of cornflakes and devours it, cardboard and all. To reinforce her steps toward assimilation, you spend the last few tokens on a french bulldog to keep her company. Then you deliver to Artemis a laptop and bestow on her the responsibility of tending finance. Ungratefully, she ignores your efforts. She and the bulldog spend their days stalking around the house, looking up at the sky and digging holes in the fresh sod.

You become distracted. After all you have your own tokens to earn, a cat to feed, and the hot water in your apartment has mysteriously turned to ice. Nearly a month passes before you check back in and, when you do: devastation. The house has burned down. Artemis is paper thin, only a few pixels wide, wrapped in what appears to be the linen curtain, her large square eyes bloodshot. In one hand you see she grips the charred leg of the bulldog, the rest of whose bones are scattered in the rubble. Guilt besieges you as you remember the fragility of life, and you vow to take better care of your creation.

Artemis takes the burning beams from the house and erects them into a circle of torches. She digs in the ground and unearths the laptop: shiny, glowing, square. She sits in the circle of fire, atop the flame-blackened earth, and taps at the screen. You look closer and see that, like you, Artemis is filling blank space with earth and water, bringing new life into being.

At night after you have closed your screen and gone to bed, you catch a reflection in the window sliding across the pane like moonlight, and you wave. Just in case.

This dispatch is part of Terraform, our online home for future fiction.