The Zero-Sum Engine
In an inescapable trap, it does one little good to truly understand how sharp the Damoclesian sword is, how thin the thread marking the difference between life and death.
When Freud called dreaming the royal road to the unconscious his major failings were a limited imagination and the assumption of a contained interiority. There is an active metaphysical layer to dreaming beyond the purely physiological and the psychological; an effort and exertion whose labours are taken unasked - and given unbidden - to service on the frontlines of a war for the fate of all existence. Depersonalised and shorn of all agency, our sleeping, mindless wills are used as fuel, grist for the mill of impossible machines locked in endless struggle.
In this war we serve not as discrete entities but, non-corporeal and radiant, we power vast and fearsome engines as knotted gestalts of energy; our collected unconsciousnesses sparking within unconscionably immense machines that manipulate exotic concepts and matter that could not exist within our normal frames of reference. The battlefield is not one we would immediately recognise as such, even if we were not relying on interpretations of alien sensations received through an apparatus entirely divorced from the physical organs and mechanisms through which we experience the waking world.
If it were ever fought in terms more analogous to our understanding of violence, that front of the war seems to have long since been abandoned. The conflict has - for want of a term that more properly conveys the bleak, bloodless and hopeless efficiency of what it is now - evolved. Now there is only endless industry, an arms race in which all energy and endeavour has been turned to the construction of something that will end the war in a single stroke. The whole plane of existence is a factory dedicated to the perfection of a single, cataclysmic weapon: A doomsday device.
It is unclear how long this war has gone on, certainly there have been mentions of the trace memory of it - dim echoes of nightmares that can hardly be recalled and are even less easily articulated - going back more than a thousand years. The awareness that it is a nightmare which many have shared, that the recollection can be teased out of people (almost without exception) through various memory enhancement techniques and treatments, has waxed and waned over time. In the past century it has become a more commonly studied phenomenon, albeit only among the expected esoteric circles.
Even allowing for the expected and inevitable variation in descriptions given in the reports and records that have been gathered as a result of this increased interest, a less fragmented understanding of the war has begun to form. Inasmuch as a consensus can be drawn out, there is some evidence that this phase of the conflict began with the two sides building their own weapons; patterns of scrap and salvage seeming to suggest two separate loci of construction and creation from which the perfect machine could end the war.
At some point, in what might be the most alien of behaviours in a whole reality set to a great work that we can barely begin to put words to, a weakness and wastefulness was recognised: If one of these engines would be enough to destroy everything that is, was and ever would be, then a second was surely redundant. Although there were no apparent shortages - either in material resources or the motive force provided by our unselved dreaming minds - work began on one machine that would be shared between the factions: The Zero-Sum Engine.
Whatever had been built to this point was stripped down for parts, a unilateral disarmament as a precursor to the creation of something more horrendous than either side might have been capable of on their own. The laudable giving way, immediately and jarringly, to the laughable - if one were taken of a particularly bleak humour. In the place of these weapons there is now a monolithic, living engine in constant motion, enveloped in the swarming thrum and roar of two workforces who toil over its perfection tirelessly.
There is no violence between the two armies; both said to be perfectly alike in aspect no matter the specific descriptions. Instead they make additions and modifications on top of one another’s existing efforts, a litany of excessive armaments and redundancies and overwrites intended to ensure not only that the engine will complete its allotted task, but that one side can claim victory (a term even more meaningless here than it ever was). The engine may well be - or may as well be - entirely functional already: Neither army will let the other’s work be the catalyst for their shared annihilation.
The most prominent and profound gap in our knowledge concerns perhaps the most obvious question that confronts those who - through their own gnostic experience or through the work and writings of others - come to learn of this ceaseless cosmic struggle: Who and what are these opposing forces? Even those with the clearest and most consistent recollection of their time in service, those who can remember being used by both sides at different times, cannot ascribe more complex motivations than the twin drives of duty and enmity.
The machines work with their own and against their other because they must and because they hate, respectively. If they have or if they are cognisant (whatever form that might take) of a greater or a grander purpose than destroying one another - and being the cause of that mutual destruction - it appears that we are incapable of comprehending it. Though even this is based on an assumption that we have the necessary faculties to be aware of it, hardly something which can be assumed (given the fluidity of our interpretative understanding of their entire plane).
Certainty is in short supply; our continued existence apparently relies on the Zero-Sum Engine living up to a name that we ascribed it little embarrassment towards irony. It is the near impossibility of comprehending the scale and significance of such a thing that keeps those who know of its existence from an absolute dread or total panic: We live in the shadow of this monolith in much the same way as we do those of a thousand other existential threats - in ignorances either wilful or unwitting - waking up and putting the war behind us each day, every day for the rest of our lives.