Sometimes creative writing can be leveraged to trigger productive reflection on complex issues. This post includes the full-text of a short story on catastrophic risk, ‘The Sequence Matters’. It is an entry in the Effective Altruism Forum’s Creative Writing Contest.
Effective Altruism is a community that addresses issues such as existential risks to humanity, how to do the most good possible, and what the most rational global priorities are.
EA has been running its creative writing competition because stories have been a key factor driving EA’s growth since its inception. Influential stories include those by: Peter Singer, Eliezer Yudkowsky, and Nick Bostrom.
What follows is my entry in the EA Creative Writing Competition. I hope you enjoy it.
The Sequence Matters
When a structure kills by collapse, investigators search for causes. Perhaps design was flawed. Perhaps maintenance neglected. Perhaps the wrong structure had been built in the first place.
Everton remembered interrogating C in prison. After obtaining his evidence, he chose to leave the heavy cell door unlocked. Clueless then to the consequences of his actions.
Lord Thomas boomed.
‘I cannot help but think, Mr. Everton, that our being here today poses many more questions than we seem to be answering.’
The Supreme Justice shifted on his throne. His every glance captivating onlookers in the gallery. The Justice eyed his peers at the bench, stroked his ample beard and tapped his pen. Pointing at Everton in the witness box he spoke again.
‘It’s clear that we congregate today due to the actions of someone known simply as ‘C’. And I cannot fathom why no one is able to tell me more about them than an initial. But what is even less clear, Mr. Everton, is the role that you played in what can only be described as the catastrophic events of six months past.’ Thomas paused and checked his papers.
‘C was a woman,’ said Everton.
‘What’s that?’ hissed Thomas.
‘I’m telling you more about her,’ said Everton. ‘C was a woman’.
Thomas carried on, ‘Furthermore, as Justice Parata has significantly brought to our attention, we must ask had this disaster never been predicted by the mysterious C, would it even have occurred at all. And if it weren’t to have occurred at all, would it have ever been predicted? You see the awkward position we all find ourselves in. Such are the questions that stalk our collective minds. And,’ Justice Thomas drew a breath, ‘We are well aware that C did not survive these events, so we have no recourse to an interrogation of… her. Indeed, it seems no key witnesses remain alive, except, mysteriously it must be said, for you Mr. Everton.’
‘C had a moral heart,’ said Everton. ‘But more than that she had a moral mind.’
‘It is not some disembodied mind that is on trial here Mr. Everton…,’ Thomas spoke with force.
‘And just who is on trial Jeremy?’ The gallery breathed a collective gasp as Everton addressed Justice Thomas in the familiar. ‘Who is on trial? The dock stands empty like some gaping sore.’
‘Mr. Everton, we don’t need a defendant to hold court. As we proceed the defendant will take shape. We seek justice in its purest form. Words easily bring that which does not yet exist to life. The papers will write about it and the defendant will be as real as you or I. As real as her alleged crimes, and as real as the Law itself.’
‘And the wound will ooze, responsibility will fade in phantoms.’
‘Mr. Everton, you walk a very fine line!’
‘You have no idea how fine that line is Jeremy. You have not heard what I have now heard, have you? That’s why I’m here today after all. I mean how could you have. When did you last leave these chambers? Ever since your appointment you have been preoccupied with your precedents and papers, nothing more. You are the prisoner here!’
The gallery gasped again.
‘I stand here wondering,’ Everton continued, ‘how all this came to pass. We sat side by side, you and I, the same lecture halls, the same exams, with the same ideals and hopes. But that was a long time ago, and now you sit there as Chief Justice and I stand pleading with you, offering truth after truth and you cannot hear me. What made you so different from me?
‘We are the ones asking the questions here. All you need do is answer,’ said Justice Thomas.
‘Don’t lecture me of all people on interrogation Jeremy. If it weren’t for my methods you wouldn’t even have chambers to preside over.’
‘Everton. What exactly is it that you believe we need to know? I am listening. Forget all this theatre. Explain it to me.’
‘I fear that some lessons seem simply unable to be learned. But I am willing to take you through the evidence. Step by step.’
As Everton began to relate the story, a small girl in the public gallery gripped her mother’s hand and a tear slid from the corner of her eye.
C opened her eyes. A scuttle of rats’ claws vanished in a corner. She turned on the light. She was sitting at her desk. She had dreamed of an open door and a masked face. Now she was awake, wide awake. The windowless room around her was sharp with detail, but unfamiliar, older somehow, or more distant. Her mind wandered far from the desk in front of her. C had not remembered falling asleep.
The tower is unstable, she thought. It’s going to collapse.
C rose from the desk. She felt grounded. Before she stepped toward the door she could see herself opening it. Her movements like a lagging image, but lagging forward.
The corridor was a swarm of construction. Panels missing, pipes and girders exposed. An organic lattice of curves and fractals. A welder focused solely on an incandescent arc.
When she got to Chad Schwartz’ office she already knew Schwartz wouldn’t understand. He’d repeat the mantra, the algorithm says it will work, the tower supports our flourishing.
‘Wait a moment,’ said Chad Schwartz holding up his hand at C’s entry. His attention and that of his aide was directed at a glass tank. In it a rat sat on a platform surrounded by water. The rat was gnawing on a stack of hard uncooked spaghetti. On another platform was a large stack of food, and the exit.
‘Wait for it…’ said Chad, ‘there!’
The rat was inching the last stick of spaghetti across the span between the two platforms. Sniffing the air, it took a nimble step onto the hard pasta. But the single pasta couldn’t support the weight. It snapped dumping the rat into the water.
Chad exploded in laughter, waved the aide away and turned to C.
‘There were times C, when your concerns were figured with pencil and paper. But the structure must expand, it’s our priority, and we have the algorithm now.
C said nothing. Dismissed before she’d begun. A glance at the letterhead of some paper in the trash as she departed. Schwartz Corp, with an inky black swan of a logo.
C returned to her office, clambering over cable spools and toolboxes in the hall. An arched ceiling reinforced with spidery piping. A worker unscrewing a railing, placing it in a carton of scavenged metal. Intent on a sheet of instructions.
C shooed a rat away from her desk and sat in the chair. The upholstery had been removed some time ago. Stalked by anxious thoughts of some distant disaster, she opened the book again.
C woke. The room around her seemed crisper than ever. Perfect contrast despite the low light. She felt herself drifting through hallways, climbing ladders, gazing to an unseen horizon, even as she sat in the chair.
The collapse could be soon, sudden, and sharp she thought.
She tried to decide if her mother would believe her. Or if it’d be like the time she’d found a dead rat in the kitchen drawer. She should’ve kept the stinky thing as evidence.
C began to write. She wrote about the problem of space, the uncertainty of the iron stack, the bottomless chasm, the bridge that had once been started, the reconfigurations of the tower, the doctrine of upward expansion, the calculations of balance and stability, she speculated about the outside, though she had never seen it. And these days she included the rats. With her new information, she projected forward, far forward.
She tried to sleep, occasionally a sudden sense of falling, halted by a gasp and the stutter of her heart. She wasn’t dreaming but everything looked different now.
She reached for the phone to dial her friend Nadia. But she quickly hung up. She wondered who might be listening.
The bulb of her desk lamp fizzled. The door to the office swung open. Silhouetted, a masked figure appraised her. Ten years working here she thought. This was something she had never predicted.
‘This is so much more important than everything else,’ C said.
A strong breeze flowed through Nadia’s office. Nadia, focussed on the details of one of her origami birds, seemed not to notice. Black polythene fluttered against one wall. Rusted beams had been pushed through the wall into the office, realigning the structure’s skeleton.
‘Did you hear me?’ said C.
The figure in the mask shadowed her two steps behind. It had wordlessly followed her here.
‘Remember those jellies we shared as children,’ said Nadia without looking up. ‘Where was that, level twenty? The atrium balcony, I don’t remember the past so clearly.’
‘The level eighteen storeroom. Before it was sealed.’
‘Yes, that’s right. You stacked those paint buckets so high.’ Nadia laughed. ‘Oh the mess!’
C couldn’t help but laugh, ‘we should’ve taken our time, got the trolley first. Mum was furious.’
Nadia didn’t seem to notice the masked figure.
‘Anyway,’ Nadia said. ‘We have the algorithm now. One thousand elegant levels by the end of the year if you believe the forecasts. Which of course we must.’
‘But what about next year?’ said C. ‘Or a hundred years from now?’
‘Do you think this one’s pretty?’ said Nadia, still focused, and holding out an origami bird, ‘or should I start again?’
‘People will die,’ said C. She knew that was an understatement. But glancing at the masked figure she said no more.
C rode the elevator, traversing a cubic kilometre of the tower. The carriage now just a flimsy cage, its panels scavenged for the upper levels. Levels slid past in a blur. Rats clung to the exposed cables hitching a ride. The whole structure shuddered briefly.
C updated her prediction. The collapse was imminent.
She thought of Gustav and remembered a conversation they once had. The old man, her colleague, had been fussing over his coffee.
‘Gustav, I’m sorry, but I need to know about the rats,’ C had said.
‘No, no. None of that matters now, not like then, back then when we had a choice… I’ll tell you something else.’
‘Gustav this is important.’
‘Many things are important my dear. Your obligation to drink coffee with an old friend is important. Here, drink, focus on the moment. Most employees of this company have never taken leave you know. They have never stepped outside the levels of their offices and apartments, never sought to exit the tower, let alone seen the chasm. But why should they? What do they want for in here? Yes, there is a world beyond these walls. A world of endless resource. But people don’t covet what they know nothing of.’
‘Tell me about the rats Gustav. Have they always been here? Why doesn’t anyone control them?’
‘We used to suffer your structural failures, but they never amounted to much, we might expect similar threats in the future, but as we’ve learned they’re never an existential risk. Besides, we have the algorithm now and its precision is beautiful and flawless. You’ve seen the harmony of the girders we place. Structural stability is its primary goal, there is a counterbalance for everything.’
‘The rats Gustav.’
‘The bridge and the tower were under construction. We flourished, but we needed more space. We’d plundered the iron stack. But there was abundance in the half-finished bridge to repurpose. A structure stands on its core you see. So much else is unnecessary. Fractional reserve building. That was the great innovation. Decoration, furnishings, all repurposed as structural components. The tower continued to expand upon a foundation of clever calculations. And now with the algorithm, we’ve handed design to the machine. You’ve seen the forms it creates, organic designs, unfamiliar geometries. Beautiful, beyond our wildest dreams. Further and taller, and yet just as stable. Ten times the size of the original structure, by rearranging the same components. The algorithm showed us how to drill down you know. Deeper and deeper, expanding into the earth.’
‘Gustav I need to know about the rats.’
‘Yes, yes, I’m getting there. Patience. All these activities create risk. Our new powers, our new ways. Catastrophic risk. But it is managed with the algorithm, every design, every geometry, they always hold. I do remember the old basement. As boys we’d go down there in our grubby shorts and spy on the workers. I remember the day a man in overalls emerged from one of the tunnels, clutching a sack that was writhing with the throws of some living thing. The new drills delving deeper and deeper, unleashing God knew what. One boy had nightmares after that and threw himself from a high window.’
‘A window?’ said C.
‘Fifty years ago they were common. Especially on the upper levels.’
‘I’ve never seen one.’
‘There’s a hatch on the roof too, and ladders descending. There’s been so much expansion of late. Thin wiry extensions to the tower. The old windows were boarded up with the first wild predictions of structural failure. But the algorithm sorted that.’
‘But Gustav, the rats. Tell me more about the rats.’
‘It all changed in ’27 when Chad ordered the basement secured for storage. I suspect a part of him secretly believed in structural failure. He’ll deny it, but the figures in the book can’t be ignored. Couldn’t then, but were, can’t now, but still are. The basement would offer a refuge in the event of failure.
‘But since the drilling the basement became the most complex network of interconnected tunnels and rooms imaginable. Literally thousands of different chambers, dating from different eras. Set up for different power supplies, with different plumbing, faucets, pipes. In starting to explore and clear out the basement on an industrial scale Schwartz-Corp disturbed the rats. Hordes and hordes of rats.’
Gustav had taught C so much about the tower and that day he’d given her the book. She read it twice and it changed everything.
The elevator jolted to a stop.
There was condensation on the glass of Gustav’s door. C wiped her fingers across it and peered inside. The apartment was dark. She opened the door and stepped inside. Dead rats littered the floor and there was stench. But it wasn’t the rats that smelled. Gustav’s large frame lay motionless in the dentist chair he’d taken to napping on. A mug of cold coffee on the spittoon ledge. The surface of the coffee black, reflecting what little light there was. C saw her own reflection, and that of the masked figure behind her. A voice invaded the silence.
‘It’s time. We have come for you.’ The masked figure was now flanked by three rough looking guards.
C knew this moment had been inevitable.
C was blindfolded, carried by strong arms, and taken to a small interrogation room. C’s captors departed. Sitting across a white table from her was Debrovka, Schwartz Corp’s head of legal.
‘Are you here to advise me?’ C asked.
‘No. I am here to prosecute you,’ replied the lawyer. C realized this was the truth.
‘Are you Schwartz Corp’s senior trend analyst?’
‘Do you know Mr Gustav Muller?’
‘Come on Deb, you know I do.’
C felt a strange sense of relief.
‘Nadia Rogers claims that you threatened to kill people this evening.’
‘No. That’s not what I said.’
‘That’s what’s been reported. I am placing you under arrest and charging you with murder. You have the right to say nothing. Under constitutional reform ten zero one one that is your sole right. Do you have anything to say?’
The official record notes that C was silent. In her prison cell, she stood barefoot in a white gown on a cold concrete floor. The ceiling rose high, four triangular panels, sloping and converging in a dome. No doubt the algorithm’s design. She wondered how the walls of the cell would crumble over millennia, where the first cracks might start.
‘What is this?’ the masked figure demanded, a man’s voice. He dropped a stapled sheaf of papers to the floor at her feet. A treatise on the long-term future of Schwartz Corp, with references to dynamics presently in operation. As the document struck the floor the cell shuddered, as if rocked by an earthquake. The pained screech of strained steel pierced the dead air. Then all was still again.
This interrogator saw C’s fear. ‘Don’t worry, the algorithm will intervene. Work crews will be prioritised and redeployed as always.’
‘That’s not what’s worrying me,’ said C.
The masked man snatched with a gloved hand at the collar of her gown, scrunching the stiff starched cloth. He knocked C’s knees from under her with a practised swipe of his boot. Her body folded to the cold stone floor.
‘Why do you persist with this line of thought?’ he asked quietly, kneeling, gesturing to the papers, his lips and hot breath close to her ear. She could smell him and thought, he brushes his teeth, he wears cologne, his uniform is straight, he takes pride in his appearance. He is not like the guards.
C concluded the masked figure is respected, revered as much as feared.
‘Why don’t you forget those calculations?’ A controlled whisper in her ear. ‘It would be easier on all of us. You might even get your job back.’
‘I don’t pick and choose the data,’ she said, ‘What am I supposed to do? Chad set me this task. I…’
‘But you went beyond your remit! A week, a month. Yet here you are writing of decades, millennia.’
‘There is so much to lose,’ she said.
‘Then tell me,’ he said. ‘Hurting you is my role, not my desire.’
C got cautiously to her knees, she opened her mouth but paused.
The interrogator sat on the concrete plinth bed, ‘Go on.’
‘This tower we’re in,’ said C, ‘what does it look like from the outside?’
The masked man considered this strange question. ‘Well it’s… I mean obviously, … it’s…’
‘Well is it square or round, or…?’
‘What does it rest upon? Where does the steel come from?’
These were not questions the interrogator had ever contemplated.
C took a breath and told the interrogator the story of Chad’s rat and the pasta bridge.
When she was done the interrogator nodded and removed the mask. ‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘And it’s obvious really. He can feast, he can walk free, and he can build a bridge. But the sequence matters.’ He paused, thinking, and then added, ‘I need to go, and you should go too.’
The Interrogator closed the door and left.
The tower shivered. The vibrations and groans of a structure stressed. C stood alone in the cell. She pushed the door. It wasn’t locked.
Forward lagging again, with head down, hungry and cold, she hurried to her office. The book still lay on her desk. C took it under her arm and picked a piece of cake from the drawer.
A crash to one side startled her. She turned to see an iron bar jammed through the wall into her office. Jiggling, it levered an opening, and a long metal strut was pushed through. The algorithm was changing things again, maintaining the fine balance of structural integrity. Endlessly trimming the tower like a wing in flight.
A young girl had poked her head through the door at the sound. She looked at C. C looked back. The child was nine or ten years old. As plaster crashed from the office wall, the girl beckoned C. Book secured under one arm, C followed her into the passageway.
‘Over here, I hide in this cupboard when the builders come,’ said the girl.
With the cupboard door closed it was quiet. The girl turned on a flashlight.
‘Why are you dressed funny?’ she asked looking at the prison gown.
‘It’s a disguise,’ said C, ‘someone dressed me up, so people won’t see who I am.’
‘I see who you are,’ said the girl.
‘Yes, but now you’re in on the secret.’ C smiled, ‘Do you want some cake?’
‘Mummy says I’m not allowed it.’
‘But do you want it?’
The girl nodded several quick nods.
‘What’s your name?’ C asked
‘Hi Abi, I’m Cassandra. What do you do in here?’
‘I play with my friends.’
‘In the cupboard?’
The girl nodded again, chocolate icing smudged on her nose.
‘Can I give them some cake?’
‘I suppose so, but…’
‘They’re over here.’ The girl had already run deeper in the storage cupboard to a door. She opened the latch and ducked through.
C followed her into the darkness where there was a smell of urine and wet fur.
‘Shh,’ said the girl. ‘Close the door, they’ll come soon. They like it dark.’
‘The rats are your friends?’
‘But wouldn’t you prefer friends you can talk with?’
‘I can talk with the rats’
‘You can talk with the rats?’
‘What do they say?’
‘Wait and I’ll show you’
‘Look Abi, there’s a big problem. We need to leave this place.’
‘No wait here, the rats have a big problem too. Sometimes I need to call them,’ the girl said and sung a high note. ‘Come on, this way.’
Abi scampered into a shadowy hall accessible through gaps in the structure where a warm draught was blowing. In places the floor was missing too. By some marvel of calculation the algorithm has kept the tower standing for decades as it grew.
The girl was listening now. The hall felt close and hot.
‘Here they come,’ she said, her eyes eager in the faint light.
C heard scuffling and scratching. A chorus of squeaking and peeping followed. A cluster of sleek shadows hustled along a pipe and formed a ring around the girl’s feet. Their chatting high-pitched and constant.
‘Shhh,’ she says to the rats. ‘I’ve brought a friend. Be nice to her.’
There rats sat on their haunches. Their tiny front paws jittered and clawed at the air. Watching with suspicious eyes.
‘He wants to know who you are,’ said Abi pointing to the biggest rat. ‘He wants to know who’s side you’re on.’
The rat squeaked and jittered. Perhaps this girl is lonely thought C. Perhaps she is playing games. Perhaps she is mad.
‘Who is he?’ asked C.
‘He’s their King. He wants to know why you, a big person, will talk to him when the other big people attack and poison his kind?’
‘Tell him I’m sorry for what my people do. Tell him not all of us feel the same way. We don’t all want to kill rats. We’d just rather they didn’t overrun our offices and homes. Those who kill and poison rats do it only to protect their own space.’
The girl whispered to the King. The big grey rat became agitated. He turned around and around on the spot as if chasing his tail. Then he puffed his fur and reared up on his hind paws. He nibbled at the air and hopped up and down.
‘You’ve made him angry,’ said the girl. She watched the rat, listening to his squeaks. ‘Wait, ‘he’s saying more.’
The rat squeaked at length. The girl translating as fast as she could.
‘I am the King of the rats. We lived in those cool quiet tunnels long before your tower arose. At first there was distant rumbling. Our wise elders reflected. They decided that adapting to these vibrations would not do. We were too uncertain of the source, the meaning, what the future held. The elders declared that we must investigate the trembling, and we would have, but the vibrations grew suddenly forceful, and a strange and huge revolving object plundered our great hall. As it withdrew, we saw a tall shaft and light far above us. Investigating this new place, we found the lower chambers of your vast structure. None of us could ever have guessed at the ultimate magnitude of your tower here. For yes, we were beneath the basement of your tower, and we observed your great machines grinding the earth without regard for our tunnels and homes. You drove foundations deep. You set cats and poison upon us. A few of your children heard our pleas, it seemed only they could understand us. But of course, children, though perceptive, lack wisdom and influence. We knew a frontal assault would be futile, so we targeted the weaknesses of your machines. We gnawed cables or wires. For a time, your excavations slowed, but recently you’ve brought more destructive methods. You blast the rock with your fearsome technology and build even greater foundations, in our earth! We have no defence and there was no hope of escape. Until we secured access to the upper floors of your tower.’
C stared at Abi knowing the story could only have come from the rat. She asked, ‘you know how to reach the summit of this tower?’
‘Yes, but we are unable to open the hatch,’ said the Rat King.
In that moment, C foresaw the hatch opening, she had visions of an exodus down endless ladders.
‘Show me the way,’ said C to the rat, ‘I can help you. Abi, find some place safe.’ C handed Abi the book, ‘and take this with you.’
C followed the Rat King. The rats, hordes of them, swarmed from all around and followed the pair. They climbed ladders, walked beams of wood, leaped from girder to girder, swung on dangling cables. Climbing for hours through the maintenance halls of the tower. The horde of rats growing ever larger into a thrashing squealing sea of urgency.
Arriving at the hatch, C was acutely aware that she had never been outside the tower. She wasn’t sure exactly what was outside the tower. She’d heard the stories, read technical reports, and seen drawings. But none of that guaranteed what she might find.
C was sweating as she unscrewed the final nut on the hatch and took its weight as it dropped free from the frame. C looked at the ocean of rats below her. Moisture dripped from holes in iron. The rats looked exhausted. C lowered the panel and let it clang to the floor. A blast of heat and wet buffeted her face.
Wiping her face and eyes of hot stinging rain, C hauled herself onto the roof. Around her stood a disparate array of pylons, antennae and an intricate lattice of catwalks. Yet nothing seemed complete. Whole once-towering needles of steel lay strewn, dismantled. They were sparse metallic skeletons. Gaping holes in the roof revealed canyons of woven iron framework plunging dozens of floors into the interior of the tower. Elevator cables hung idle, their carriages removed. Fixtures and struts and even load bearing girders were gone, wrenched from the fabric of the tower and carried off elsewhere.
Soon there were hundreds of rats swarming beside C, then thousands, millions piling across the roof which creaked.
Looking down, C saw that the tower shot magnificently upwards, kilometres from the rocky ground. It was not symmetrical. Huge spindles of parasitic structures clung to each side. Counterweights dangled from crane-like beams, slowly adjusting to maintain balance. Antenna clawed disorganised craving the sky.
Looking to the distance, C could see a vast land stretched to the horizon, resource rich but empty. The tower stood alone. But it stood on an island of rock. The shores of which were bounded all around by a fearsome precipice. The ruins of a half-finished bridge jutted into the abyss, far short of the land around. The frame of the bridge like some decaying edifice, now a dwindling supply of steel to the ever-hungry tower.
Upon the cracked and broken island of rock around the tower, bound by the precipice, lay twisted iron, cracked concrete, burned and blackened piles of rubber. But there was nothing else. No trees, no birds, no water, no space. The precipice lay between the tower and everything else.
Straining under the untold unbalanced weight of the rat hordes, the structure let cry a sudden wrenching wail. The most violent metallic shudder yet. A plea of agony as steel folded upon itself…
‘And this is the truth?’ said Justice Thomas.
‘It is,’ said Everton.
‘Foolish woman. Half our people have perished. Half the tower is lost over the precipice. What did she think she was doing?’
‘I believe she thought she was saving us from an existential threat.’
‘And what do you think?’ said Thomas.
‘I think it was a good plan. But the algorithm didn’t know. It hadn’t predicted the shifting weight of the rats. Nothing like that was in the training data.’
‘You’ve not spoken like this before Everton. What’s changed you?’
‘C’s story in that cell. In a few words she conveyed the essence of our predicament. That one creative act, though imprecise, perhaps because imprecise, did more to change how I think than a hundred dense short-sighted reports.’
The small girl at the back of the courtroom holding her mother’s hand was deep in thought.
She thought, was Cassandra too foolish or just too late?
She thought, I wonder if the chasm is bottomless?
She thought, it is not the tower that needed stability, but the bridge.
She thought, the sequence matters.
She clutched the book in her other hand.
She knew the word now. The Precipice. One day she would read it.
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