They housed me in a small metallic room and gave me pants, a small towel and soap. Others from my group were close by in similar rooms, all in the same building where we woke up. Someone had asked if we could go outside, but I didn't hear the reply.

Few days later I started thinking and realized I haven't been thinking before. It was sort of a second awakening, with a disappointing taste. Not thinking was pleasant, but you realize it only once it stops.

The absurdity of it all stopped me from thinking I was in prison. Yet, nobody could leave, nobody had seen any sunlight. A network of tunnels connected all sleeping blocks, a big warehouse, a dining area and showers. Floors and walls hummed steadily: you could feel your skull vibrating when you roll away from the pillow at night. Perhaps, we were underground.

We started talking to each other. Nobody had any recollection of the past or even their names. Both men and women of average size and weight, we spoke the same language and looked similar.

‘Human experimentation’ and ‘we are dead’ were common theories. I couldn't take any of it seriously. Too plain to explain anything.

The machines in the dining area generated enough food for everyone. Scheduled eating was the only thing giving structure to our days. At other times, most of us walked around, participated in shallow conversations and slept. No desire, no creativity, no lust. If I hadn't seen blood and feces I wouldn't have thought we were humans at all.

The labyrinth of tunnels seemed endless. Some doors were unlocked and lead to other similar places, only configured differently. Same empty rooms, warehouses, dining areas and showers. I always came back before dinner, and one night I noticed an empty seat where there's usually a bald guy. Nobody had seen him after.

The rumors of people getting lost in the labyrinths became reality.

Sometimes I went very far. Further away the configurations started to change slightly: some doors went directly into small rooms, others into warehouses of various sizes. Some walls had finger-sized holes leading into dark emptiness.
A month or two later I made a bag out of a towel, saved up enough food and left on an expedition. Smaller rooms had two doors only, so I just went through. Larger ones had several doors, so I marked the one I came from with a piece of food. The first hundred or so rooms were almost identical. Then I started noticing small differences. Sometimes I found small metallic things on the floor, like bolts of small washers. I collected them and used to mark doors. Sometimes rooms had a different lighting color, as if someone had replaced the light bulbs at some point.

The first night I realized that not bringing a pillow was a mistake.

The next day was the same. New rooms, new doors, new pieces on the floor. New lighting. One room quickly filled with metallic echoes of my scream. A neatly placed pieces of a human corpse lying in the corner. Bones and what's left of hardened skin, covered with a piece of clothing similar to mine.

Angrily, I kicked it, hoping to find some signs of… something.

I had food for around three days, so I had to start walking back on the second day. Risking it, I continued forward half of the third day, but it was all the same, hopeless and suffocating.

I wasn't the only one attempting to explore the labyrinths. Several people and a few groups tried other directions. Our lethargic discussions filled with dread as everybody shared the same experience. Nobody talked about dead bodies, but it was implied.

One group has reported meeting another group, the one supposedly leaving a long time ago and just crossing their path accidentally. The earlier group was rough, angry.

Months later some people starting remembering their lives, houses, children. I did not. Their stories seemed artificial. Their worlds did not intersect at all. No common lands, culture or even types of names.

I met a guy who called himself Tuoni. He went on two sole expeditions: once for four days, once for almost two weeks. The deeper he went, the more dead bodies he found. None had any sings of struggle, all neatly put in a corner and covered with cloth.

We went together once. The food was enough for about three weeks. After ten days we found a fresh body lying against the wall, arms around the chest, hugging itself for the last time. We moved it to a corner and covered with its shirt.
Two weeks later we were back, hungry and dreadful.

For a long time nobody went. Slowly, a group was forming, the one that decided to go and not come back. Food was the only concern, otherwise, all parts of the labyrinth are as good as our base. Some of the staff operating the food generators joined the group. We were all in the same boat, it turns out. The staff was like us, only waken up earlier. The staff that woke them up was an older generation, some of them already dead of old age. Grandstaff and grandgrandstaff were rumored to have left the base for good, never seen again.

I joined the first group of about fifteen people, with an ever-growing chain of food supply. We'd pass food up the chain with regular runners. A rotation system was put in place so that people don't get crazy going back and forth all the time. Gradually, people from at start of the chain, closer to the food generators, were to move forward and replace the ones that got tired of exploration or lost or died.
With rumors of more and more people waking up, we had a steady supply of new blood, and in a few years nobody knew for certain how long the chain was and how far did the tip go. I always kept myself at the tip. Still mostly lethargic, we haven't developed any rigid hierarchy or discipline. The whole organization was pretty inhuman, insect-like. Nobody was hopeful, nor depressed. We were just doing our jobs, however superficial.

Every few years or so we'd intersect a chain of people without knowing for sure whether it's our chain or a completely different group from a completely different origin. It didn't matter much, at this point the goal was to continue as long as there's new unmarked territory.

One night I remembered my birth.

The taste of metal, dry mouth, burning sensations somewhere below the waist, intermittent sounds of some machine. It was as if my body was turned on by a team of mechanics following strict instructions. Treating me like a machine, with complete disregard for humanity. Moments later I was able to ask the person above, “What?”

The person seemed to understand me. Perhaps, something had happened, and this is a doctor. His clothes did not match my assumption. Old gray shirt did not inspire confidence.

I seem to be regaining logic quickly, I thought.

“Breathe, do not sit up,” he said. I ignored the advice and started to move what seemed like a set of cotton pillows — my useless hands. It took all of my energy to raise them slightly, and they fell on my chest with a senseless thump.
The burning sensation was steadily rising, and soon I felt salty beads of sweat running into my eyes. It was that pain-induced, sick, feverish kind of sweat. The dry mouth generated a creepy screaming sound, barely loud enough to make an echo. We were in some sort of warehouse or hangar.

Nothing. Then I woke up again, who knows how many minutes or days later, with five plain-looking short guys standing around. “He's up. Let's go,” one of them said, and my bed started rolling forward. I felt a bit stronger this time and tried to tilt my head to look ahead. Horror had filled my reality as I stared at two black stumps in place of my legs. Violently bitten and burned, it looked too horrendous to be realistic. Dark, broken gaps followed upwards to under a gown. I was devoured like a tree by lightning. Physical pain has never been real, it was just a warm-up act before the true thing: fear. Fear had filled all of my world. I wasn't in hell, I was hell.

Woke up in a small room. Blue light coming from behind. My legs are fine, yet, I have no volume for hope. The bed started moving again, I went back into nothingness.

Then it happened.

We reached a large empty hall with gigantic doors and heavy levers. By pushing the levers we opened the doors and found, for the first time, something that didn't resemble thousands of prior rooms. There were only six of us — a typical supertip expedition.

For the first time since the birth I had sick salty sweat again. A mere fact of this place being different to absolutely everything I had ever seen made me shiver with a new breed of despair. Wasn't I hoping for a change?
We closed the door behind us and the lights started to turn on, machines whirring. The ceilings and floors became screens filled with symbols and lines. Several chairs, slightly oversized for our bodies, moved up from underneath. Finally, one whole wall opened up to show us a blinding void of a starry sky. We reached the cockpit of this endless spaceship.

The excitement quickly turned into hollow misery. Now we were certain there is no way out. It's not a building we could escape, not an underground jail we could dig our way out of. It's a true prison.

The controls in the cockpit were undecipherable. Even worse: buttons, levers, knobs, screens — none of them did anything. It appeared like the ship was in a working condition, but we could not operate it.

And so we lived. Eating, exploring new directions, trying more button combinations. Aging, dying, waking up more people. Our group of six was aging slower than the ones behind. Those who stayed at the food generators were long dead, as far as we knew, replaced by newly woken up.

It went on until the day we saw another ship in the window. It just appeared and immediately connected with us via a video screen. We saw other people just like us, in a similar room, same clothes, same despair and emptiness. It was like looking into a dream mirror.

As soon as the connection was established and before we could even realize what had happened, the cockpit lights went red and the screens started showing weapons being engaged. Some sort of a gun with a visible target locked on the other ship. In a moment, we saw their ship almost growing a limb — a huge brutalist section shifting out of the bottom and slowly rotating towards us. Nobody said anything yet, but everybody realized that we're pointing deadly weapons at each other.

“Please, don't shoot, we're not in control over here,” I said.

“We have no idea what's going on,” one out of a dozen faceless humans replied.
Could this be true? If they started like us, but then somehow managed to control the ship, it's possible that they would try to trick us. They could be bad people, destroying ships like ours, taking our supplies. Why though? I imagine their ship is as barren as ours. Maybe, their food generators are broken. If they think we are in control of our ship, not disengaging the guns could be a good reason to destroy us.

“If neither of us can control the guns, neither can change anything,” I said. It sounds wise.

“What do we do?” they said.

“We're not in control…", I repeated. Then it all ended.

“That is the most cruel, most inhumane and existentially horrific idea I've ever heard!” said Manager The Third. Others nodded with that kind of “Yes, but…” kind of nod. A long presentation of project ‘Eventual Consistency’ was finished, room filled with nods like dots of an ellipsis…

“Let's forget for a second the fundamental problem of endlessly decreasing entropy in a relatively small region of The Universe. You know that non-entropy is a limited resource, right? But hey, let's forget about it. Let's just talk efficiency. How in the world are you going to justify the idea of sending out a myriad of extremely energy-hungry ships that support millions of human-like entities, and that's before the fact that most of the ships will be destroying each other, endlessly, and rebuilding themselves, endlessly, while consuming the non-entropy of The Universe. Is your plan to accelerate the heat death?”
New wave of nods.

“I will address your points in order,” said Presenter. “First, yes, non-entropy is limited in a universe, but remember where the self-healing ship technology comes from. Not this world. We don't know how it works, but we assume that the energy does not come from this universe, either.”

“That claim is not proven,” said someone from the long table.

“Incorrect. That claim is not provable. Big difference. We can't prove it comes from this universe, and the only way to prove it is to literally monitor every particle, which isn't feasible at this stage of development. We're going to continue under the assumption that the energy comes from outside, and I take full responsibility for this.”

“You take full responsibility for this universe?” said another voice.

“After all, that is my job. If I make a mistake, we will inevitably move onto another project. Now, with that out of the way, the heat death and energy consumption are no longer relevant discussions. I understand that your main concerns, Manager, is time efficiency and cruelty. I can't speak about cruelty: consciousness is not my area of expertise. As for time efficiency, this is truly the best way our models yield. The goal is consistent exploration of all regions of space. But we don't know what's out there. We cannot plan, we do not possess enough computing power to account for all possibilities. The only rational alternative is to postpone computation, postpone any work related to adaptation to unknown conditions.

“However we dislike the organic nature of evolution, it must be applied to semi-organic systems like space and semi-organic goals like exploration. It'd be foolish not to use this weird alien resource we'd been gifted. Let the ships move in random directions. Let the organic entities on board evolve into true pilots. Let them fight for resources. Let those who can’t evolve die and be reborn, better. Or, I should say, different.”

“How long until we see results?” said Manager The Third.

“With a million ships right away and an odd number of autonomous factories in place, it'll take a billion years in local time to completely encompass what's reachable. Each ship is expected to die and be reborn at least ten million times. But we don't need to wait, that's the beauty. We can hibernate here or leave entirely, checking in a few days later.”

“I still can't bear the burden of that much conscious pain. All these people…”

“Organic entities, Manager. They are not people.”

“I'd argue about that if I had the energy. They might be more people than we are.”

No nods this time.

“Regardless, these entities are created and kept alive by the ships. We're not inflicting pain on entities, we're simply not disallowing entities to be created. Big difference.”

“So you say. Would you take full responsibility for that, too?”

“Nothing to take here, Manager. As I said, this is not my area of expertise. As far as the legislation goes, as you well know, the things created by alien ships are alien and not of our concern.”

“Well. I have no better alternative, do I?”

“Seems that way, Manager. Do we proceed?”

“Yes. Let's try and see. Hopefully, next week another team will have a better idea.”

“Not if our idea succeeds first.”

They housed me in a small metallic room and gave me pants, a small towel and soap. Others from my group were close by in similar rooms, all in the same building where we woke up. Someone had asked if we could go outside, but I didn't hear the reply.

All these people… If they remember as little as I do, then I can be whoever I want. Their King even. Look at them. Barely walking. Lost to uncertainty. Weak.
This is what freedom is, I realized. Where they see nothing, I see anything.

Putting my head on the pillow, I feel my skull vibrating off of the floor. I can feel the enormous power of this place, whatever this is.

It doesn't matter what it is, I think to myself, and fall asleep, smiling.

(Rakhim Davletkaliyev, Helsinki, Finland, 2020)

(A Russian translation is available here.)