The Carshalton Array’s 115th artist in residence was lesser known when she was chosen. She was a controversial choice, neither a flamboyant poet, nor a painter with grand visions. She lived quietly by herself in a rotting cabin and fashioned miniatures out of remnants. Tiny things, no grand statements. She shaped discarded things into minuscule objects, easy to break or lose. A long-gone friend of the artist had once persuaded her to publish photographs of her work online, hoping artistic recognition would bring the withdrawn artist happiness. Meager recognition and not a lot of happiness came.
The artist accepted the residency without issuing a statement beyond “Oh, thank you, what an honor.” Critics–most of whom had never heard of the artist–published outraged think pieces, especially the writers: how dare the Carshalton company deprive prolific and promising artists of the opportunity of a lifetime? Rather: how dare she accept, that obscure outsider from a cabin in the woods, who had once shown real promise in something–child prodigy in something, whatever. She had crumbled under pressure. That was what was relevant–crumbled! One thing hadn’t gone her way one time, and she’d sobbed ‘unfair’ and thrown it all away to start making–what was it–figurines from trash to sell at her local church bazaar? How dare the Carshalton company select an inconsequential trash artist without follow through, without business acumen, to represent humanity in the pristine wilderness of outer space!
The artist ducked under the lightning storm of press flashes without comment and boarded the remote controlled launch pod to spend one Earth year alone in space, specifically, next to an anomaly in space that was utterly and completely void. The anomaly contained no stars, no dust, no rocks, no gas bubbles, nothing at all that was measurable. Artists were craving it like they had once craved Vantablack. Soon after the Array had been completed some 120 years prior to the appointment of the 115th artist in residence, the Carshalton company had realized this, and, five years after the Array’s launch, the company began bestowing upon one artist a year the privilege of dwelling there, right next to the void.
Upon arrival at the Array that hung steadily between nothing and Earth like a curled-up hedgehog floating among the stars, the new artist in residence was given an automated tour of the facility and a code. The friendly actor from the onboarding video demonstrated how to enter the code into a specific console in the Array’s central control room if an alarm were to sound. The artist was told she needn’t be concerned with anything else in the control room, only that one console and only if the alarm went off, which it oughtn’t, but just in case, if it ever did, she was to enter a sequence of letters, numbers, and non-alpha characters into that specific console. The friendly actor from the onboarding video expressed their confidence that the artist would succeed in this simple task and the screen went back to showing the Carshalton logo.
“What does the code do? What kind of alarm is it?” the artist wrote to Earth, since the onboarding video had mentioned that somebody at Carshalton HQ would be happy to answer any questions she might have.
After a few days, she received a response in which she was told not to worry about the code and the alarm.
The artist was relieved not to have to worry. She was busy in her head after the excitement of her first space launch and the long journey away from people and observing her anxious mind for any changes and poking at the darkest of her thoughts to check whether great distance might take the edge off.
During her first few days on the Array, the artist spent some time walking around the balled-up-hedgehog-shaped installation to try out different vistas and places to dwell and to work. She spent an equal amount of time looking toward the empty part of space and the non-empty part of space. Despite its absence, she felt inclined to issue a greeting to the anomaly.
“Hello,” she said to it, as if it were a thing.
Its perfect unresponsiveness exuded power. It didn’t want anything, so it wasn’t going to manipulate, exploit, or lie. It wasn’t going to react, either, even if it were to be manipulated and exploited and lied to. Everything and everyone were treated equally by it. The artist felt inclined to bow to it. She felt inclined to ingratiate herself to it, by becoming like it, equally indifferent toward everyone and everything.
When she put on her magnifying glasses to work on her miniatures, she always chose rooms and galleries facing back toward Earth, toward the non-empty part of space. The galleries facing the void were sacred. They weren’t for working. They ought to be kept empty. Working meant ruminating on whatever violence or injustice needed shrinking, squashing, minimizing, to rob it of its vile power. The void was above all that. It was indifferent and free of all such struggle. Free.
“Look at me now,” the artist said toward Earth while working on an abstract miniature of a broken system. She even raised a fist, as if she were leading troops into battle. For the first time in her small and shy life, she felt powerful with the holy absence behind her.
But then she hesitated and checked her thinking: she was imagining power and some abstract battle with the void as an ally by her side, but the emptiness had never expressed hostility. Despite fears expressed in the Carshalton Array’s mission statement, nothing hostile or alien had ever emerged from it. The anomaly wasn’t passively threatening either. It didn’t have an irresistible gravitational pull that swallowed ships and made widowers. The anomaly didn’t have vengeful intentions. It didn’t have any intentions other than, maybe, to be or, more precisely, to be absent.
After spending a few weeks next to the indifferent absence, the artist stopped thinking quite so much about hostility, without at first noticing that her thoughts had ceased circling around overwhelming injustices and pains and not knowing how to exist in the world.
Day after day, she worked on her projects. A collection of miniatures of oppressive regimes became smaller and smaller, as if the carvings wanted to approach zero. A haunting diptych of callousness and violence was almost invisible after she had finished it, even when viewed through magnifying glasses.
“I love you,” she whispered to the anomaly every day.
For the first time since the incident on Earth, during which a person had stolen a beautiful thing the artist had created in her naive youth, the artist stopped working on shrinking and squashing and seizing symbolic power she had never had. For the first time, a pause didn’t bring on haunting thoughts of her stolen work and how it was abused now. She sat in stillness across from the void and smiled. The feeling inside her was, for the first time in her life, bliss. Nothing needed squashing. Nothing needed diminishing.
The alarm, when it came, was unrecognizable as an alarm. A soothing voice began to speak throughout the Array. In every hallway, in every empty gallery, the voice spoke.
“Signature of incoming object unknown. Please verify.”
The voice sounded friendly and patient, but all the display panels were flashing the word “alarm.”
The artist in residence needed a while to surface from her stillness and to understand that the pleasant words were the alarm that had been mentioned in the onboarding video. Obediently, she ran toward the control room. On one of the control room’s display screens, the artist saw two pixelated symbols: one represented the Array, the other an object approaching the Array. The object was nearing from the non-empty side of space, from the direction of Earth. It was a ship. Signature unknown. It wasn’t the ship that was to pick her up, she had another six months. It was something else. Something big, even when viewed on a small screen as a pixelated abstraction.
The artist switched on the control room’s big central display screen up front. The Array’s Earth-facing cameras showed the artist a frightening image: a machine was churning through space, toward her, toward the Array, and toward the anomaly. A space combine harvester. A vile and merciless thing; pincers and shovels, shears and knives protruded from it.
The artist’s fingers trembled when she entered the code. She double-checked it. She pressed ‘enter’. A low rumbling began. It rose to a whining whirring, accompanied by a subtle vibration through the floor, the walls, galleries, bulkheads. One of the many displays showed an animation of the curled-up-hedgehog-Array unfolding its weapons. A stack of barrels slid into position and aimed at the approaching machine.
The artist braced. She held on to a bolted down chair with one hand and covered one ear with the other. She squinted at the central display screen and the space harvester coming toward her. A gentle pop was audible and the slightest of twitches throughout the floor could be felt. Then the threatening machine out there disintegrated gracefully into small remnants. The animation showed how the Array’s barrels folded in again and the hedgehog curled back into itself.
The artist in residence breathed heavily. When a biological remnant came hurtling toward her, she yelped and switched off the central display screen.
“The alarm went off,” she wrote to the company, fingers trembling. “The Array shot down a machine. There are dead bodies. I didn’t do anything. I promise. I only entered the code.”
She sat and trembled and thought: her life’s theme, to become a killer, to have the best of intentions and still end up a killer.
Carshalton HQ replied within the hour to reassure her:
“You did the right thing. Please be advised that due to unforeseen circumstances Carshalton Incorporated has decided to terminate its artist in residence program, effective immediately. Please stand by for pick-up in 45 daytime-likeness-cycles. We apologize for any inconvenience caused. Carshalton and its subsidiaries remind you that it is vital for the future prosperity of humanity that you enter the code should the alarm sound again. Thank you for your compliance and help.”
The artist in residence digested the day’s events by sitting in an empty gallery across from her void. She cried, about her residency being cut short and about not being able to escape her life’s theme and about having caused death again. The empty anomaly watched on, indifferent.
After the anomaly had consoled the artist somewhat, she decided to use her sharp eyesight as well as her magnifiers to glean answers from the floating debris.
Had the Array acted in self-defense or in offense?
Difficult to tell.
Had she caused death?
Yes. Unmistakable organic shapes were mixed in with metal shards.
Was she to blame? She had caused death before and nobody wanted to hear about it and it had gone unjustly unpunished. This time, she had only followed an order. That would go far as a justification should it ever come to an accusation, she knew.
Liebherr, the artist read on a broken, spinning bulkhead. She cross-referenced that word with the information databases. A manufacturer of refrigerators, she found, but somewhat further down in the search results, she learned that the company had a heavy industry branch, too.
When, a few days later, the alarm went off a second time, the artist’s knees buckled.
The prosperity of humanity depended on her entering the code, they had told her. They had put it into writing. Compelled by uncertainty and fear, she did as told and entered the code again. The Array unfolded its weapons and made another approaching machine vanish from the screens. The artist zoomed in on a piece of debris on which she could make out the letters JCB.
The torn legs and arms and torsos looked similar to the previous ones.
When the alarm went off a third time, the artist saw a piece of debris bearing the inscription Hitachi. She drew an observation from her broken data: miners and mining equipment were sent toward the Array. She established two hypotheses: miners and mining equipment were sent to dismantle the Array, or: miners and mining equipment were sent to mine the void.
“Who gets to lay claim to resources found in space?” she searched.
Whoever gets to them first.
Carshalton had gotten there first. Well first. They, too, must have felt its power, like the artist in residence had when she stood with her ally, the void, behind her and imagined how she and it would diminish adversarial people and adversarial systems until they became more like it, like nothing. And now, the artist hypothesized, as often in art and probably also in science, many different interested parties had gotten their technology ready, all at roughly the same time and now they came, came to dismantle, dismantle the innocent void.
“No,” the artist said and focused her mental energy on seeing, for once, not the power to do good but the power to cause destruction.
“Negative energy weapon,” the artist searched. Still a hypothetical technology, she learned, and read further that, if, oh, if only it existed…the justice that could be meted out with such a weapon…
She stopped searching. The intended use didn’t matter. The threat of dismantling nothing into yet another vile something was the only thing that mattered.
The artist recalled her youthful enthusiasm for speaking to machines and she used the remaining weeks of her residency to reprogram the computer. When the fleet including the Carshalton bulldozer arrived, ostensibly to return her to Earth, ostensibly because the artist in residence program had been terminated, she keyed in a new code.
The hedgehog-array unfolded, fired, and after that she was left alone.
Her final act before she succumbed to starvation, slightly before she would have succumbed to radiation sickness, was to teach the Array to be indiscriminate. She taught the Array to treat everyone and everything equally; there was no such thing as friendly fire.
Nowadays, historians on Earth argue that someone whose impossibly brilliant code was used widely in modern warfare’s extinction machinery should never have been allowed to set foot on a facility built to protect such a potentially invaluable tactical asset as a pristine void. Hadn’t they known when they appointed her as the Array’s emergency-button-pusher in residence? Hadn’t they believed her when she said that it was her code that had been stolen when she was a young woman and that was sold and built into war machines the galaxy over?
Nowadays, technological metaphysics on Earth hypothesize that the artist’s genius was such that she managed to shrink herself down to a spark of spirit, which she uploaded into the Array’s circuits. Philosophers and theologians debate the nature of atonement, revenge, justice, and self-sacrifice by pointing to the artist as an example of all those lofty concepts. To this day, the Array has not let anyone approach the anomaly without defending it against human use, some say, exploitation. The Array’s energy is mysteriously inexhaustible. Its firewalls enigmatically impenetrable. Some say the Array kills reluctantly; that it senses the future in which negative energy has been harnessed and can be deployed, that it seeks to prevent some great evil. All know that the Array remains vigilant.