A small part of the ship’s front dissolved into the vacuum of space and scattered itself across the immediate surroundings. Denna watched a visual representation of the nanomachines from the bridge as they propelled themselves outwards to analyze the area.
The ship itself was no bigger than a wine cork, composed of billions of nanobots which computed and rendered both Denna and the landscape of her choice. While working, she’d decided the best environment the computer should paint was that of a spaceship’s deck, as she’d remembered it from reruns of old television space operas from her childhood. Lots of useless knobs and dials, large upholstered chairs, and automatic doors that parted for her with a swoosh.
She stood dressed in a slick uniform, gaping at a large screen on which the nanomachines’ gathered data had been relayed.
All readings nominal. Trace amounts of carbon, oxygen and silicon had been picked up in a radius of ten thousand kilometres: remnants of an ancient supernova in the sector.
No sign of a Node. Denna pulled out the star chart and marked a big red X over the sector her ship currently occupied.
She then ushered the data off the screen with a swift hand movement, sending it straight to the self-cataloguing database, and walked over to the oval table in the center of the room. Slumped on the captain’s chair, she passed one finger back and forth over the mahogany surface of the table, gazing abstractedly somewhere far.
Immersed as she was in her own thoughts, a spasm of loneliness snuck through her diamond-hard fixation with the mission, making her heart pound a tiny bit harder.
She stood, nervously tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear and walked out of the command room.
Once in her quarters, she made the decision to sleep for another hundred thousand years. Steering the ship would be a program based on Bayesian probability, scouring the vastness of the galaxy for a hint of her chase.
She got in bed before the ship’s engines fired.
Smeared barely above the horizon was the setting sun, its light viscously spilled over the distant mountain range. Oliver sat on a wooden chair, paintbrush in hand, adding a few finishing touches on the canvas.
As she walked into this private vista the first thing Denna noticed were the undone laces of his red sneakers, wriggling in the grass as he tapped his feet to the rhythm of painting.
“Wow.” She spun around to take in the whole scene. “This is nice.”
“Thanks.” He smiled to himself and kept on painting.
A swallow fluttered by and rested on an oak tree branch. Denna sauntered over and began massaging Oliver’s shoulders. She leaned, whispered in his ear, “I was talking about the view.”
He turned to face her, the thin-framed round glasses sliding down his nose a notch. “I know. I made that too.”
She laughed. A fascination with art wasn’t something they’d shared, Denna being the rational, scientific half of their marriage, but even she could appreciate the poetic sensibilities of what Oliver was doing. Creating a landscape of ones and zeroes through mostly automated computer processes within the City then manually repainting it on canvas, which itself was nothing but a visual and tactile simulation represented by a different set of ones and zeroes. When she’d deconstruct his artistic escapades in such a manner the inherent beauty became apparent. Her path was different than his but both led to the same sense of aesthetic.
“You know what I’d like you to do?” she asked playfully as Oliver got off the three-legged chair, wiping his hands on tattered denim jeans. “Copy yourself a million times over and do nude self-portraits in every pose imaginable. Now that kind of art, I can get behind.”
He frowned, grunted, then threw her on the grass and leaned over, kissing her entire face.
“Who made you that funny?” They laughed and kissed in the oak’s stretched shade. Within a few moments, they saw the sun completely drop away beneath the horizon. The first stars appeared as tiny specks of paleness against a darkening sky.
“I can’t believe we’re about to do this.” They lay side by side, hands locked. The oak tree’s leaves rustled, a cool and soft breeze had made its way through its branches, and the comforting sound reminded Denna there remained nothing to fear, nothing to doubt.
“You prepared your part?” Oliver lifted his head to properly gauge his wife’s emotions. She appeared nervous but absolutely determined to proceed with what they’d planned for a long, long time.
“Of course. You?”
“You saw mine already.”
She burst out laughing. She should have known Oliver couldn’t possibly be so nonchalant as to indulge in a painting exercise right before their very big moment. She saw now that he was as scared as her, a realization which boosted her confidence and libido. His palm was sweaty. She gave him a passionate kiss.
Out of her pocket she produced a book of matches. Catching Oliver’s puzzled expression, she said, “This is my part of the bargain.”
His expression failed to change.
She took a deep breath. “When I was a kid, around eight, I found a box of matches in the pantry. Fascinated, I began playing around with them out in the backyard. The feeling of power they gave me was incredible: I could create fire, and destroy it with a single stomp of my foot. Obviously, I never harmed a living being – dry grass and twigs my only playthings when I played god of fire.”
Oliver laughed. “That does sound like you.”
She continued, “One day, sitting cross-legged among the poultry in our barn, I accidentally set fire to the bale stack. The poor animals ran out, but they’d blocked my way and before I could escape there was a large fire between me and the door. I cried on the ground, hugging my legs, until my parents rushed in to help and finally managed to put the fire out. It was traumatic. The terror of the experience will always be etched in my mind. A mental scar forever reminding me to be cautious.”
He stroked her hand gently.
“Our child will be born in this new world,” she continued. “With no pain or suffering. No death. I certainly don’t want to inflict on him the traumas of our long history as humanity, but I think it’d be valuable if he could learn to appreciate life for what it is, or rather, what it used to be. A fragile and extinguishable spark.”
Oliver sprang to his feet, pulled her up. “That’s beautiful.” He began unbuttoning her plaid shirt, a rush of excitement catalyzing their primal and utterly human instincts. Denna pulled out and lit a match as his lips went up and down her neck.
“Shall we?” They turned to face the easel.
The pastel painting of a waning sun burst into hypnotic navy blue flames the very moment she’d cast the match. The two separate datasets these visualisations contained were merging, permuting to combine into a distinct whole, a completely separate entity. Hand in hand they stepped into the fire. The City flooded their brain-models with digital analogues of endorphins and serotonin, casting weights on the pleasure links of their neural nets, stimulating the activity along pathways leading to their reward centers. The two lovers bathed in each other’s company.
The City was software running on a cluster of supercomputers buried underground in a protected vault on Earth, a framework environment capable of sustaining approximately a thousand fully-functioning virtual citizens and an almost infinite amount of landscapes for them to call home. Compared to the resources necessary to calculate a single state of the human brain, let alone an ever-changing array of states needed to produce consciousness, landscapes and non-living matter were abacus-level work. Suffice to say, no citizen ever felt claustrophobic, except for when a daydream would venture far into the philosophical realm and they’d be reminded of the common, yet deliberately ignored fact that everyone was stuck inside microchips. Denna had chosen to migrate into the virtual around the age of thirty. Cities weren’t exactly a novelty then (yet only a handful existed) and the dropping prices of scanning technology had made migration available to almost everyone. She’d chosen a destructive scan: nanotechnology destroyed parts of the brain as it copied them onto the supercomputer and instantly activated the scanned neural clusters on the new substrate in order to make the translation from biological to mathematical seamless. All she knew about Oliver was he’d been an artist on the outside and had joined the City as a performance or experiment of some kind. He’d chosen a non-destructive scan, and sometimes she found the fact that there existed a flesh-and-blood version of her husband who’d never heard of her a tad unsettling. She rarely gave it much thought though.
Bluish flames no bigger than a clenched hand burned around their naked bodies. The two lay in comforting black ash, silent, content with just smiling.
Just as the last of the flames went out, a warm breeze slithered between them, a gentle caress on bare skin. It picked up pace until it swept the blanket of ash away, and every other pixel of the scene with it, leaving nothing but white light.
Denna’s emotions swayed violently; she couldn’t decide whether she wanted to cry, laugh or scream. The oscillations became stronger and stronger, the whiteness around turned blinding and she lost awareness of everything but her own feelings. She couldn’t form a coherent thought. Her body vibrated.
Suddenly, calmness descended. She opened her eyes. Sensations crawled back to her. She became aware of Oliver now, holding her hand as they stood in a room of blue-painted walls. Carpets threaded with drawings of airplanes and stars and planets. A box full of plastic toys.
A tiny, almost inaudible whimper came from the distance.
Oliver squeezed her hand, gestured her to move closer to the crib. Both remained speechless.
Of course they could’ve simulated the nine months, but what use of it, when they could just upgrade their brain-models to the same state as if they had lived through such a period? Simulacrum hormone levels, memories of anticipation. All numbers representing their being were woven perfectly to foster the illusion of pregnancy followed by birth.
She lifted the baby boy in her hands.
In that instant she could’ve felt pride at the fact her son was the first baby born within their City. She could’ve been amused that her guess of the baby’s gender had been incorrect, and that she’d have to settle for naming him Thomas now. Relief that everything had turned out okay.
Yet all she managed to do was cry her eyes out and numb everything away except for a feeling of pure and irrevocable love for her newborn son.
A soft, gentle buzz shook Denna from years of sleep. She stretched on the four-poster bed, eyes squinting in the non-material sunlight. Still yawning, she got up, rubbed the sleep off her eyes and strolled over to the window. Leaning on the sill, she gazed at the sea outside as it broke relentlessly against rock, only to retreat back to itself again, leaving nothing but minute foamy scars over the ragged surface. The impartial sun graced the battle scene with a golden hue. Denna took a deep breath of salty air, forgetting for a brief moment where she truly was.
A seagull circled above her. In a raspy voice it croaked, “We found him.”
Staring at space through the grand screen before her, Denna could scarcely make out the mesh of interconnected Nodes that called itself New Amsterdam. Scattered in an area of ten thousand cubic kilometers were thousands of lumps of nanomachines, which in an ingenious pulse of distributed computation brought to life both the virtual megacity and its denizens. The ship’s autopilot had located this new settlement, had queried it for information and had sifted through its public databases until it’d found that one of its first settlers had been Thomas.
The City’s outward communication protocols were the same as those forged on Earth many years before. Denna sent out a request packet asking for permission to enter its limits. Within moments, it responded with an acknowledgment packet and a stream of unidentified data. Reluctantly, she accepted it into her ship.
A man dressed in multi-colored overalls materialised right next to her, a jester’s hat on his head. He blew his trumpet, completely oblivious to Denna, who had cupped her ears in a hopeless attempt to muffle out the fanfare.
“You’ve been granted permission to enter New Amsterdam, ma’am,” the jester hollered and held out his hand. He was a non-sentient messenger, and Denna thought his form and presentation conveyed a lot about New Amsterdam’s policy makers’ level of officiality. Not only was she completely unsurprised by their lack of seriousness but actually felt comforted, because now for the first time she was confident about being on the right track.
She stored a backup of herself in the ship’s memory and with a wide grin on her face took the messenger’s hand.
The entire scene winked out of existence only to be replaced a moment later by blurry lights and an array of hardly distinguishable noise. Ringing in Denna’s ears were human chatter, laughter, the rush of cascading water.
She looked around her, wide-eyed. She stood in the middle of New Amsterdam’s major travel hub, the port of the bustling metropolis. People appeared or disappeared into thin air all around her but none bore quite as naïve expressions on their faces as her. In the center of the citadel was a fountain in the shape of a giant brain, water trickling down the creases of its golden cortex and medulla oblongata into a wide shallow pool. She felt something brush her hair. A flock of cnidarians floated above her with tentacles extended for a gentle caress of her head. Her Neural Overseer, the symbiotic software running in parallel with her mind, recognized the gesture as a friendly greeting and Denna returned it by nodding curtly their way. Confused and caught off-guard by the sheer amount of people jostling about (though many in the most non-human forms imaginable), she remained rooted to the spot, lolling her head from side to side. Several bipedal denizens grunted as they bumped into her, and the nasty looks from busy pedestrians didn’t subside until the City’s throng control software reduced her solidity to zero percent, making her pass-through. The ceiling appeared to stretch upwards into infinity, a vertiginous sight which she couldn’t bear looking at more than once.
To her right, above an information bureau, a purple neon sign welcomed her to the City, flashing on and off.
She walked to the girl behind the desk.
“Excuse me,” she leaned on the counter, “where can I find the post-bohemians?”
The girl’s hair changed color every half-second. She smacked her gum and said, “Head for Montmartre.”
“How do I know where to find it?”
“The City guide’s in your pocket, ma’am,” she said, and refocused all of her attention on her nails. Even if it weren’t for her absolutely puzzled look, Denna’s aura of translucence made it quite obvious she was a newcomer.
Denna searched her pockets and sure enough found a device of some sort in one of them. Prior to her dispatch to New Amsterdam her ship had relayed all information that it’d found on Thomas straight to her brain, and part of it was that her son had frequented a hedonism revival group which called itself the post-bohemians. Information on citizens was available as long as they’d set their profiles public, but unfortunately New Amsterdam kept all information regarding its structure and functioning secret, at least until one was allowed in, leaving Denna absolutely clueless about where to find or how to look for these new hedonists.
The device she fished out of her overcoat’s pocket was a beige rectangle with five buttons vertically aligned on its side, the name of a different part of the City etched on each one. Denna was convinced New Amsterdam held more than five neighborhoods, but also supposed that one had to have some sort of higher-level clearance to visit them, or even to be aware of their existence.
She pressed “Montmartre”. A sudden force propelled her forward, wind rushing against her face. Boutiques, cafes, restaurants on both sides of the main street turned into blurry smears of light as the invisible train wagon drove her towards her destination.
A stream of air whipped her face continuously, and when the ride was finally over, she couldn’t help feeling glad. She took a breath of air, tried fixing her disheveled hair, and looked around. There was absolutely no need to query the knowledge archives to figure out that the weird architecture she gaped at was a feeble attempt at copying the aestheticism of the ancient neighborhood whose name this computerized corner of interstellar space had borrowed. Night had fallen, and the starless sky was perforated by a full, grossly oversized moon. On a wooden bench slept a young man, a bottle clutched in his hand whose green contents had spilled on the ground. Her Neural Overseer recognized the tint of curiosity and superimposed a stream of data over the bottle, labeling it as Absinthe, apparently a popular alcoholic drink during the peak of old Montmartre’s era. She sidestepped the snoring bohemian and began ascending a long flight of stairs which she supposed led into this hedonistic haven, where she’d be presented with the opportunity to ask about her son’s whereabouts. At least, that was the plan. Anonymity appeared to be a valued commodity among the City’s dwellers, so there’d been no public listings of the inhabitants and their living addresses. She’d have to scour the area and rely on people’s goodwill, a prospect she wasn’t looking forward to.
She gripped the iron-wrought railing and climbed on. There were steps, followed by an even surface of a few meters and then further steps ascending into the night sky. Each tier was lit by candelabras, a burning candle in the lantern; swarms of gnats circled the lights, dappling the ground with their dancing shadows. With each footstep upwards the City graced Denna with increasing solidity, until finally as she climbed off the stairs and stepped onto a wider, flagstone-paved area, she was made full and impenetrable again.
What she took to be the central square was deserted, not a single soul bathing in sensorial delights as she’d expected. It was a wide circular area ringed by a string of houses, none more than two stories high. Most had dangling plywood signs above the front entrance and all of them read bar. Light spilled out from the windows of only one: Chez Toulouse.
She felt a twinge of familiarity as she processed the entire view. It wasn’t impossible that she’d been to the real Montmartre herself, or rather her flesh-and-blood version many years before, or maybe she’d read and seen enough historical info-dumps about the place that she’d absorbed the information. Either way, she couldn’t be completely sure; all she knew was that it’d been a long time ago. Being digital made room for perfect memory but the impracticality of the feat made most citizens shun the option. Remembering everything when you lived for thousands of years meant getting bogged down in endless minutiae, and total recall would slow down computation to the point of making your perfect memory useless. Most citizens opted to have expert subsystems within the NO make the choice of which memories to guillotine and which ones to reinforce, based on a multitude of factors including personal experience history and subjective emotional weight of the memory itself.
She knocked twice on the dry wooden door of the bar. Through it, she could hear nearing footsteps. The door’s unlatching. A creaking as an old wrinkled face appeared in the gap. It widened and a pair of worn-out eyes, nested deep in a tired man’s face peered at her.
“A drink.” Her voice shook but she quickly got a hold of herself. “You won’t deny a lady one drink, would you?”
His eyes scanned her from head to toe. The door swung open. A musty smell dominated the little tavern, wooden planks squeaking as she walked in. The man locked the door behind her. The place was tiny but even in these small hours there were half a dozen citizens inside, spread out among the few irregularly arranged poseur tables. Most were young hooded gentlemen slouched silently over their drinks.
She sat herself at the bar opposite the old man who was now scrubbing a cognac glass with a piece of grimy cloth.
She gestured at a party of three sipping a black drink. “I’ll have what they’re having.”
Grumbling, the bartender set the cloth and glass on the counter, pulled out two bottles and fixed her the drink. The pungent smell confirmed her suspicion that the drink was indeed quite strong. She instructed her NO to disregard the gastrointestinal input before taking a tentative gulp. It reminded her of black liquorice. She took another sip. Her Overseer negated the intoxicating effects but her taste buds tingled with pleasure.
Scarcely clad girls projected on the tavern walls danced to no music, reached out from their two-dimensional surface for an occasional cuddle with a patron. In one corner, a hooded gentleman hushed a girl away by blowing smoke rings in her face. Coughing, the girl retreated and tried another customer before slipping back into the wall, disgruntled from the lack of affection. Before long she’d launched into a mute belly dance as if nothing had happened.
The entire bar was chock-full of anachronisms and contradictions. Everything felt like a charade, a theater stage with people merely acting out their part, slurping drinks, intoxicating themselves to no end until they’d drowned in their own thoughts and had learned to reject the incongruity of their ‘physical’ surroundings. Denna was by no means a historian, but the traditionalist attitude widespread among Earth’s citizens helped her delineate between technologies that were centuries apart. The bar’s atmosphere made her uncomfortable; the place resembled a collage of various eras, a sloppy patchwork, like a sentence strung together with words in different languages.
Denna’d emptied her glass but the sweet aftertaste lingered in her mouth for a while longer. By now she’d realized her plan to overhear something meaningful had been doomed to failure right from the start. No one appeared inclined to talk. To get what she wanted she’d have to be direct.
“I don’t mean to interrupt your business,” she spoke softly to the old bartender, “but I’m new here and I need directions.”
He scoffed as if telling him she was a tourist were an insult to his intelligence. He kept his firm gaze on the glass and cloth.
“I was wondering where I could find the post-bohemians?”
The old man’s hand went through his thinning white hair then gestured at the bar’s patrons.
Denna rolled her fingers around the stem of the glass. “I understand, but I’m looking for someone specific. Thomas.”
With the name she emitted a string of numbers, Thomas’ unique identifier, an unsheddable appendage required for every citizen within the federation of Cities. New Amsterdam wasn’t technically a part of the great network of nanotech Nodes scattered across the galaxy but it was all she had, and it was worth a try. Nothing was immutable, physical appearance meant next to nothing in the digital era, so most federation émigrés had decided to keep their ID as a token, a reminder of who they were.
“Why the hell should I give you any information? Go back to where you came from,” he spat out.
Denna leaned over the counter. Deep scars formed intricate patterns on his face, fault lines in the flesh.
“Please.” Her voice betrayed emotion for the first time. “I’m his mother.” Over a private channel she sent him the part of her own ID which confirmed her statement.
The old man frowned, took the drink from her hand.
“I don’t know where you come from lady, but here, we don’t give out people’s whereabouts,” he hissed, pointed at the door. “Now please leave.”
Disappointed, she got to her feet and he escorted her to the exit. Several young faces glanced up at them. The door was unlatched again and she found herself out in the cold night.
“Go home,” said the grumpy bartender. “This isn’t the place for you.” Over the private channel he added, “Try Maximilian, he might know something about your son.” He shut the door and shut both their private and public communication channels.
The air outside felt colder, each breath a sharp sting to her chest. It took her a few moments to regain her composure and make sense of what just happened. Startled, she summoned up the address he’d given her. A thread of green arrows appeared on the ground starting from her feet. She followed the trail with her gaze: the green light shone straight across the square and took a sharp right turn in a side street lodged between two closed bars.
She stuffed her fists in the overcoat’s pockets and headed for this Maximilian’s home, following the green fluorescence.
Dashing across the sloping side streets, she switched off all realistic body behavior. This isn’t Earth, she had to keep reminding herself. No need to be traditional. The small houses, squeezed in neat rows, became a blur and she sprinted along the trail of arrows. Overhead, the full moon followed her steps. Its bright paleness contrasted against the dark sky, making it look eerily like a cardboard cut-out clumsily stitched to a sheet of black velvet.
The last green light pointed towards a yellowing doormat. The wooden arched door above it was ajar. The house resembled every other house: two stories high, white sandblasted outer walls bisected by a black wooden plank. Gingerly, she pushed the door open.
On a red upholstered sofa sat a young man, his straight black hair draping down to his waist. His hands, adorned with platinum rings, rested on his thighs. His neutral expression was contrasted by pitch-black eyes that stared intently straight at her. He wore mottled cowhide boots strapped with silvery laces, and black leather pants tucked in the inside of each boot.
“Maximilian?” She slid into the room. He nodded slightly. A gesture so economic on movement she couldn’t be sure he’d nodded at all. His chiseled facial features made him look rat-like, though not in a menacing way.
The red-and-black carpet’s patterns changed, expanded then retracted under her weight as she walked over it and sat on the sofa. The room was dimly lit by a crackling fireplace. Maximilian didn’t stir; his head turned ever so slightly to catch a glimpse of her in his peripheral vision.
“I know who you are.” He spoke in a baritone voice, his lips barely flinching beneath a hook-shaped nose. “Toulouse told me just now.”
“I figured as much.” She tried to mimic his mannerisms. There was a certain glow around him. Something told her she could feel his presence in a room with eyes closed.
“I knew your son. He’s no longer here.” His eyes shifted to a cedar wine cellar in the far corner of the room with three dusty bottles in stock. His wording was laconic, each syllable spoken softly out of respect for the weight it carried.
Her heart sank.
“You were friends? Where is he?”
Another imperceptible nod and the pallid face turned to her. “Where he could be, I do not know.”
A million thoughts raced in her mind and she had to resort to her Overseer to calm her down.
“Why did he leave? Weren’t you close? Didn’t he say anything?”
“We were close. He didn’t say much.”
The room began closing in, its kitsch stifling Denna. She prompted her body to resume simulating human functions. She needed to take a deep breath.
Shimmers in the man’s sleek black tunic, reflections of the kindling fire. She sensed the room was about to swallow her whole. This never-ending chase was too taxing, all her pent-up emotions were about to claw their way out. She wanted to scream at the pale face before her. Tear his stupid head off. Storm out of the room and go back to Earth. Give up.
It was then that she saw it. Glinting in the warmth of the fire, a speck of light hung from this man’s neck.
The tumbling of the waves tickled their bare feet. Thomas laughed, playfully jumping over the water as a wave broke. He liked the way the sand gave way under each step. He told her that.
Denna held him as they walked along the edge of the slanting shore. She carried their rope-soled sandals by their straps in the other hand. They were alone on a beach stretching endlessly in the distance. The sky was a pale turquoise painted in pastel, the brilliant contour of the sun overhead blurred by a warming luminescence.
The sea retreated then another wave washed over and Thomas jumped, tugging her hand to do the same.
“How much more do we have, Mommy?”
She mussed up his blond hair, pointed straight ahead. In the distance was a coconut grove, the palm tree trunks sticking out through the shimmering heat.
Thomas let go of her hand and quickened his pace, impatient to reach the shade. Chirps of crickets from somewhere beyond the confines of the beach. Foaming of the sea. The entirety of their landscape had a soothing influence on her, and she smiled to herself, sauntering after her son. Oliver’s outdone himself, she thought, her feet splashing in the shallow water as she ran.
Thomas had his back propped against the ragged tree trunk when she caught up with him, sifting absent-mindedly through golden sand.
She sat next to him. For a moment she let herself enjoy the hot, salty air wafting in by way of a gentle breeze.
She opened her eyes, squinting in the countless little reflections on the sea surface.
“Do you know why we’re here?”
“You wanted to show me something,” he said and stuck his fingers in the sand.
Obeying her swift hand movement the sun dropped away, leaving behind a dark night sky, and bright stars popped up, connected with pale lines. The names of the constellations shone in cursive lettering.
“You know what those are?” The edges of her mouth twisted into a smile. She’d been waiting a long time to teach Thomas astronomy.
The air grew slightly colder but the sand kept its warmth, and he tucked both his hands beneath it.
“Exactly,” she said proudly. She proceeded to explain why they were connected, and how those shapes represented ancient meanings men had extracted out of ignorance and faith. How in reality the stars weren’t connected at all, but were kilometers and kilometers apart. Unfathomable distances for the first stargazers.
Barry the pink hippo, an intricate expert system meant to impart knowledge to kids, had taught Thomas basic physics, maths and chemistry, but she’d wanted to be the first to approach the subject of space – a fascination of hers from her own childhood.
Thomas watched in awe, and Denna made a pulling gesture as one single dot increased in size. The pale stars faded out of view and were replaced by a large one, burning bright, its sheer volume taking up half the hemisphere.
“Do you know why it burns?” Their faces lit up with the orange color of the star.
He brought up a hand to shield his eyes until they’d adapted to the brightness. Some sand got in his bangs. He shook his head to get it off, then shook it again, this time slower, to answer her question.
“Barry’s told you about the elements, right?”
“Yeah.” He frowned as if to remember. “There’s iron, oxygen, hydrogen.” He pronounced it heed-rogen.
“There’s also helium.”
“There’s that too. But you see, when a star burns, it’s because it makes a bigger element out of smaller ones. The energy released from that transformation is light and warmth.”
He gazed up at the burning star, mouth half-open. The black sea, now clam, reflected the starlight. The crickets had died away, or maybe she wasn’t paying them any attention. Out of the corner of her eye she observed Thomas’ reactions, and felt thankful for him turning out the way he did. It seemed as though all her curiosity and thirst for scientific knowledge had seeped into him, a conclusion reinforced by Barry the pink hippo’s weekly reports.
Cupped in her hands was some sand, and she squeezed it tight, only to reveal four separate burgundy balls when she opened her palm.
“This is hydrogen.” She presented the atom models to Thomas who gaped in amazement.
“Here, take them.” He did. “Feel their weight.”
He raised his hand up and down as if to gauge their combined weight, then returned them to her.
“When they collide under very, very big pressure,” she stretched out her hands, nodded in the direction of the sky, “like they do up there, they fuse into another element.” She clapped her hands, smashing the four atoms together. Bright light flashed in every direction, then dissipated, and when she separated her palms Thomas could see that the spheres were no longer separated. Now they intersected in the middle and were a part of a single object.
“This is helium.” She passed it to Thomas who took the model gingerly out of fear of burning his hand. “Feel its weight.”
Once more he shifted the atom in his cupped hand, this time more attentively.
The software physics of the landscape had exaggerated the normally subtle change and his face lit up when he noticed the difference.
“Yeah, it’s much lighter.” He smiled, tossed the helium atom from one hand to the other.
“The difference in weight turns to this.” She pointed at the star whose surface of fiery ripples was ever-changing. A large stream of solar flare erupted. “Light and warmth.”
Once more he dug his hands under the sand.
“Let me show you something else now.” A flick of the hand. The brightness disappeared, left a black gaping hole in the sky, then two identical stars zoomed in, each half the size of the previous one. The sea mirrored these two celestial objects engaged in a tangled dance around each other.
She was about to launch into her spiel on binary stars and gravity when Thomas produced something out of the sand.
“What is this Mommy?”
She took the small mollusk shell from his hand and inspected it closely.
“A sea creature. You’ve learned about seashells with Barry, right?”
He took it back; his fingertip caressed the ragged surface. He flipped it over, examined it from every side.
“Yes, but there’s nothing here. Why doesn’t it move?”
Then she remembered specifically which topics she’d configured Barry to avoid. It’d be up to the parents to explain the now-obsolete cycle of life in all its painful detail. A prospect she wasn’t exactly looking forward to and had secretly hoped it’d be a while before she’d have to broach the subject. Now she just cursed Oliver for his slight, which she hoped for his sake was unintentional.
Should she explain how the shell was nothing more than a dataset, a pixelated construct? That in reality no creature had died? That’d confuse him more than it’d help, she decided.
“The thing you’re holding is the home of an animal.”
“So it’s not home then, is it?” Something in his tone made Denna realize how much of the primordial instincts had been woven into her son’s mental tapestry. He knew things didn’t add up, but couldn’t quite put his finger on what felt off.
The two solar furnaces burned effortlessly, circling one another without missing a beat.
She turned to him, one side of her face glowing from the intricate simulation on the sky.
“All living things used to have a beginning and an end.”
Oliver should be here for this, she thought. But then the words flowed out of her mouth as if she’d practiced this discussion, as if it were a hereditary function supposed to be performed at a certain point by every mother in the whole history of humanity.
She looked deep in those round blue eyes and proceeded to talk of the old cycle of life. She spoke softly, and he listened about birth and death, growth and aging, decay, irrevocable facts of a world now gone, truths no longer true.
He listened serenely, as if he too had been aware of it from his conception but needed someone wiser, an authority, to confirm what he’d always suspected.
When she finished he held up his flat palm, gazed at the mollusk shell, its wavy surface a mesh of white and purple. His eyes watered, glinting in the fierce binary sunlight.
“I think it’s time to leave.” She stood. Pulled him up.
He closed his palm and pocketed his discovery.
Denna flicked her hand once more and the stars, sky and beach washed away like watercolor in rain.
“This is my son’s necklace,” she yelled, his pointy nose touching hers. Her first thought was he’d stolen it from Thomas, but then she remembered how impossible that was in a digital world. Every object in the room stopped its movement: the fireplace, the swinging of the pendulum of the walnut clock in the far corner, the bizarre carpet. The whole room poised to attack the foreign body threatening its peace. Or at least, that’s how Denna saw it to be.
“I know,” Maximilian said calmly. “He gave it to me.”
She loosened her grip and let go of the necklace. Maximilian massaged his neck, tucking the seashell beneath his shirt. Things resumed their flow.
“Listen,” she pleaded lugubriously, “I’ve come a very, very long way just to learn more about my son. I’ve slung myself from Node to Node, visited all sorts of Cities across the federation, and when I failed to find him there, I took a ship and scoured space physically. Just to see if he’s…okay.” The last word stuck in her throat.
She couldn’t contain herself anymore. A stream of tears rolled down her cheeks and she cupped her face, sobbing.
Maximilian regarded her indifferently, then the black hollow eyes strayed across the room.
“I can’t pretend I know much about your son,” he said, and only after the pendulum swung three times, added, “but I can tell you what he’s been through in the short amount of time our friendship lasted.”
“Please.” She lifted her head, wiped tears with her sleeve. “That’s all I want. To know.”
He took a deep breath, furrowed his brow as sign of his effort to recall the details of a story he didn’t look forward to telling.
“We came to this City together,” he began. “Had met at another Node. We were both lost. Different background, different lifestyles, but a mutual lack of vision. We both had no idea what could possibly make us happy.”
His features softened slightly, making him seem somewhat more affable.
“He was obsessed with suffering. Kept on and on about it, how suffering is the basis for all life, happiness being only the exception, not the rule.”
Denna listened, treasuring every word.
“Pain is inherent to our universe, he often said. He talked to me at lengths about entropy, the history of Earth, and evolution of life and complexity in general. He though the universe favored complexity but its creation always came at a cost. It was something that depressed him greatly.”
“What did you do when you came here?”
He counted out three pendulum swings, then said, “When we settled, I offered a solution: numb out feelings. I said we should become stoics. Observe life through a rational lens, and not through a crippling veil of emotion.”
“But, I thought as hedonists you were supposed to do the opposite, crank up the juice on your pleasure centers, no? I saw men in a bar that looked like that hadn’t been clear-headed in years,” she protested.
“Depends on your disposition. Some men take pleasure in the excess of stimulation, others only in its complete absence.”
“Did it work, then?”
The corners of his thin lips twisted into a sour smile. “No,” he said, “for him it didn’t. On the contrary, it made things worse.”
Denna went through her hair nervously. It was weird hearing about Thomas after all this time. It felt unreal.
“Why didn’t it?”
The tunic creaked slightly as Maximilian shrugged. “I can’t be absolutely sure, but I’ve been meditating on it ever since, and believe I understand him now.”
She was sitting on the edge of the sofa now, biting her knuckles.
“His suffering wasn’t emotional,” Maximilian continued in the same soporific voice. “It was rational. His discomfort with life stemmed from his completely materialistic perception of the universe: an impersonal process nonchalant to individual fate. Maybe he wasn’t depressed as you’d define it, since he’d chosen a stoic way of life, but he certainly knew that he would be had he been able to feel emotion, which in a way was kind of the same thing. Nothing had changed. Somehow, despite the complete lack of emotions, he managed to reason his way back to sadness. So he discarded the stoic lifestyle, trying to tackle his worries differently.”
Much like a still pond suddenly disturbed by a skipping stone, the rustic carpet’s colors expanded then retracted, and it took Denna a moment to notice that this display of color followed the movement of a black cat. With graceful gait the cat approached, one measured step at a time, its tail coiled in a question mark.
“This is Godot.” Maximilian stretched out his palm and the cat brushed its head against it, ochre eyes fixated on Denna.
“Cats remind me of me,” he said and petted Godot’s head for a moment until the feline turned and waltzed away into a corner, purring along the way.
Denna eased a bit as the animal retreated. She’d never liked cats.
“So, what happened afterwards?” she asked.
“Well, the stoic experience proved immensely helpful to Thomas.” He touched the tips of his fingers together, held his palms at chin level.
“He was now utterly convinced his worries regarding suffering weren’t just a product of his own emotional mind, instead, he came to see them as logical truths, astute observations of the clockwork of the universe. And as such, he figured, they could be subjected to the rigor of the scientific method.”
She felt shivers scurry up and down her spine. Did he mean what she thought he meant?
Seeing her expression, Maximilian reached inside his collar, pulled out the necklace and held it clutched in a tight fist before her.
“Your son disproved the necessity of suffering.” A wide grin spread across his face, white teeth glinting in the light of fire. “You want to take a look?”
She took his proffered hand. Their bodies swirled in a maelstrom of shifting perceptions as the room fuzzed out of view in a display of effervescence.
Presently, they stood on a level surface covered by a thin film of ash. She saw she still held hands with Maximilian and instantly let go. Looking around, she noticed her field of view was rather limited and obtuse: the further out she looked the darker the view, shifting colors along the spectrum from pale blue near her to pitch-black in the distance.
“Where are we?” She gaped at the surrounding abyss, unable to shake off a slight nag of claustrophobia.
“Underwater. In Thomas’ world.”
Once more her body had acquired that ghostly luminescence indicative of its pass-through status. Maximilian’s was the same. They took several tentative steps along the muddy ground. Mechanics were by no means rendered realistically so it took a moment getting used to streamlined movement where sluggishness due to water was expected. Or rather, a moment for the Neural Overseer to asses, learn, and adapt her mind to the situation. The occasional glint of luminescent plankton micro-activity dotted the darkness.
“What is this place?”
“Your son’s experiment.”
They walked on, Maximilian casting the occasional glance at Denna to gauge her reactions, and the bubble of graduating shades of blue followed their step, lighting the way a few meters in every direction. When he saw she’d gotten used to the novelty of the scenery, they stopped.
“Let’s get some more light.” He made an L-shape with his hand, summoning an incongruous control menu. Selecting the brightness option, he twirled a dial and with that the diameter of light expanded from several meters to ten times its size.
Her stomach did a back flip. Around them nothing but emptiness of the deep ocean.
He looked at her, waited a few moments for her to get comfortable, then spun the dial and stretched the darkness-eating bubble further out.
“What exactly…did he do here?”
Maximilian glared at her, that quasi-human smile of his cemented on his face. For a person who could feel no emotion he sure seemed to revel in his role as tour guide.
“The only path to complex life we’ve observed seems to be biological evolution. Even artificial life forms are designed by beings that have evolved spontaneously themselves. Complexity doesn’t just materialize out of thin air. So, what law of nature makes evolution possible?”
Like an obedient pupil she blurted out, “Natural selection.”
“Right. Devour to survive. Eat or be eaten. Rather cruel wouldn’t you say?”
She kept quiet.
“So,” he droned on, “because natural selection is a process allowing for evolution to create more and more complex life, we can safely say that complexity begets suffering. Every rational self-aware mind is the product of countless predecessors clawing at each other’s throats for millions of years. But then that makes you wonder: how can you disapprove of a natural prerequisite for intelligence? You can’t hate suffering and death when you owe them your existence. But Thomas would have none of that. He even accused me of being cruel myself when I mentioned he should just accept that fact. ‘Everyone who approves of nature’s harsh laws or justifies them is an accomplice to evildoing’ he told me.”
His lips stretched into a bigger smile making him look even more like a rodent. His facial expressions bore no correlation to his mental states since he could feel nothing, yet they still manifested like masks. That made her uncomfortable.
He said, “He figured the only way to disprove the necessity of suffering is to find an organism which lives, and, more importantly, evolves sans pain and suffering. Find, or create one yourself.”
He pulled out the shiny control panel once more and prodded his finger at two or three drop-down menus.
“Meet Landa,” he said, and with a click, a white translucent blob materialized on the ocean floor before them.
Oliver’s hands rested on her shoulders, and he regarded her solemnly through rimless round glasses. “It’s not your fault.” He shook her gently, stressing each word.
Her puffy eyes looked away.
She’d just come back from a landscape Thomas had built: a rainy seaside port, or rather just a tiny portion of a port, a single wooden sailing ship anchored near it.
“This is not a discussion, mom,” he’d told her after she’d protested for the thousandth time. “This is goodbye.”
But she’d tried to understand him, had tried to reason her own way to his conclusions and time after time had failed. She’d told him that. He’d smiled, shook his head, staring down at the wooden planks connecting the ship to the port, his blond hair tied into a ponytail the way she liked it.
“I can’t pretend I’m happy anymore, mom,” he’d said, no louder than a whisper. “And why exactly should I feel happy? Just because I was privileged to be born now, in your generation’s shiny new era of utter perfection, your own fucking utopia? I should feel okay for living on a planet of fossils? ‘Walk’ on the ground which is nothing more than the fertile mulch compounded of billions of corpses?”
Denna’d thought of mentioning that that was the way it’d always been, but she’d always said that, and it never seemed to make a difference with Thomas.
The rain had begun to pound harder, planks creaking beneath their feet.
“I need to get off this giant graveyard. The ghosts are haunting me day after day.” And with that, he’d stepped on his ship and sailed away into the simulated ocean; a gesture meant to convey his transfer to one of the several solar system Nodes, the recently established extraterrestrial Cities. Which one, he hadn’t mentioned.
In a previous discussion Denna and Oliver had offered to join him, but he’d waved them off, saying he needed to take this journey on his own.
“It’s not your fault,” repeated Oliver, but she simply couldn’t bring herself to believe him.
She sat propped against the edge of their four-poster bed, its laced pink curtains creased up behind her back, Oliver kneeling opposite her.
“He’s just a kid, Ollie.” She took a deep breath, shut her eyes but no more tears came. “And already he’s miserable.”
Large blobs swelled up and gobbled the smaller ones in the lava lamp on their nightstand, its blue and red light scattering across the room.
“We should let him figure this out on his own.” He heaved out a sigh. “It’s no different than any other crisis a person goes through. Don’t you remember your youth?”
“It’s not the fucking same, Ollie.” Her bloodshot eyes bulged out. “I burdened him with this bullshit from the very start.” She couldn’t brush off the twinge of guilt she felt like a knife whenever she’d remind herself that she’d had a hand in his oversensitivity.
“You know that’s not true.”
But she didn’t know. What did Oliver expect? That she’d simply let her son wander across space until he discovered himself? Nothing could guarantee his happiness, regardless how far from home he’d run away. At least in her youth virtual settlements on the fringe of the solar system weren’t there to harbor anyone suffering an existential crisis.
“What if he doesn’t straighten up? What if he…” She couldn’t bring herself to say it.
Oliver took her hands in his. “Listen to me. He’s a bright kid. He’ll never harm himself, because then he’ll inflict harm on the people who love him. And isn’t that what this is all about? The pain of others?” Oliver’s confident tone was soothing. She hugged him.
The muffled sound of the lamp began to irritate her so it switched itself off. Exhausted, she pushed herself on the bed and Oliver followed.
“It’s probably best for him to be away from Earth for a while. Might help him grow out of it.”
The whole day played over in her mind until she could sense herself drifting off to sleep. For her, one thing was certain and one thing only: she’d never have peace of mind until Thomas did too.
The creature, if one could call it that, was a round-shaped see-through gelatinous mass roughly a meter in diameter, its skin the milky color of a plastic bag. At first sight, it appeared non-sentient.
“Is it alive?” she asked, the scientist in her enthralled by this display.
“This one isn’t. What we’re seeing now is not an effective simulation of life. Nothing’s being computed. These are but visual snapshots of the Landae your son created.”
They approached the creature. She tried to run a finger along its skin but her non-solid hand went through it and she retreated instantly.
“Care to elaborate?” she asked, hands clasped behind her back.
“Thomas analyzed countless sets of data on the evolution of life on Earth, and after painstaking research he devised several simple rules a creature should obey for it to skip the entire no pain, no gain philosophy.” Those last words rolled out with a trace of bitterness.
“This little fella,” he continued, “is subject to those rules.”
“It doesn’t seem to do much.”
He invoked the control panel, clicked about with his finger.
“Rule number one: Landae shouldn’t age or die. They alternate between periods of youth or intense activity and periods of hibernation depending on resource availability. Meaning if resources (sunlight and algae – they are herbivores) are scarce, they simply stop consuming and bio-activity is reduced to almost zero. Once receptors on its outer membrane detect an increase in resources, chemical processes within kick in and youth is restored.”
A school of fish zigzagged into view.
“Rule number two: It should evolve without dying. This is where it gets interesting.” The fish swarm surrounded the creature, picking at its outer membrane. “When we introduce predators in our scenario we can observe a crucial property of the Landae.”
Within moments, small fist-sized balloons grew out of the creature and covered its entire surface.
“The genetic code of a Landa is stored in replicators based on nucleic acids strung together by protein-building organelles. What we see here is what Thomas dubbed Landites.” He pointed one long finger in the direction of the bubbles on its skin. “The creature’s defense mechanism is also the way it climbs up the evolutionary ladder.”
“You’re losing me,” she confessed.
“It’s simple. Each Landite is spawned from the same genetic code as the original Landa but for a single, purposeful alteration: a random error, difference, in the genetic code. What we have then, is a whole bunch of mini-Landae, each different from the original by a single allele.”
The swarm of fish picked at each individual Landite, sucking at the nutritious cytoplasm, and most gave way and popped under the pressure of the fish. In the end, only a single bubble was left intact on the creature’s skin. Despite the valiant efforts of the fish to pluck out its contents, it didn’t budge, and remained whole.
“What we see here,” Maximilian intoned, “is that one version of the genetic code gave us an impenetrable membrane. Now, chemicals will signal the Landa, and it will suck in the contents of the remaining Landite, and copy its successful genetic material, storing it for later use.”
“So essentially,” Denna began, “it’s sacrificing extremities, limbs, to test out a model effective in repelling a predator?”
Maximilian nodded. “Efficient enzymes within the Landa will now begin to apply the new genetic material to every Landite next time the fish come around. If a different predator comes along, or if the fish adapt to the change and Landites start bursting again, chemical messengers will inform the Landa and the entire process will begin anew. In this instance, the mutation produced an impenetrable membrane. In another it might be foul cytoplasm, poison-squirting polyps along the surface of a Landite, neurotoxin-laced tentacles and so on.”
She was astonished. “I understand.” Regarding the brilliantly crafted creature, she asked, “How far has it evolved?”
Maximilian circled the Landa slowly as if to examine it, cocking his head from side to side. She wasn’t sure whether he admired it or scoured it for faults. His stern look reminded her of an old botanist friend back in her City on Earth, and how he used to tend to his garden, mercilessly pruning away branches which grew in shapes and directions he’d found non-pleasing.
Once he made full circle, his expression relaxed and, ignoring her question, he said, “Which brings us to rule number three: replication. To satisfy the definition of life, a Landa must reproduce or replicate itself.”
On the control panel he flicked through several menus and selected an option.
“After a period of activity, mechanisms within the Landa that count out the youth/estivation cycles signal the nucleus the time for reproduction had come. Ribosomes replicate the genetic material of the Landa and pass it to a Landite.”
As he spoke, a singular Landite sprouted on the upper half of the Landa. It inflated and within moments detached itself off the skin, propelling itself outwards.
“Flagella on its rear end propel it until most of the energy reserves are depleted,” explained Maximilian and dashed after the hurtling sphere, beckoning her to follow.
They sprinted after the carrier of genetic material until at long last it spent its supply and settled on the seabed in a cloud of gray particles.
Maximilian poked his finger at the floating computer menu. “Let’s speed time up a trifle.”
Within seconds, the Landite’s diameter expanded to the size of the other, fully grown Landa from which it’d jettisoned itself. Denna’s pupils widened at the fast-forwarded view of the Landa’s life cycle: it sprouted Landites and thwarted predators many times over in the space of seconds, it hibernated, reverted back to youth, then hibernated again and only then did it inflate and eject a little seed-carrying Landite of its own. The child grew and matured too. Predators changed, grew fiercer and more complex, and consequently, so did the Landae defense mechanisms. Around their pale luminescent bodies, in a diameter of half a kilometer a whole genealogical tree of Landae had emerged. Some had hardened membranes while others had Landites of menacing-looking colors. When the number of Landae around Denna was approximately two dozen, Maximilian lifted his finger from the fast-forward button on the floating magenta-colored menu.
“Observe what happens now.” He pointed one bony finger in the direction of one particular Landa, its bulbous extremities constantly being burst by a crab-like creature.
One of the Landites on its upper half popped out. Nothing seemed different from all the others she’d seen ejected for the purpose of reproduction except for the timing: none of the other creatures had decided to reproduce under duress. The catapulted Landite landed a few meters next to one other mature Landa. Three more Landites popped out from the creature endangered by its predator’s pincers. All landed in the near vicinity of other Landae.
Maximilian observed the display intently.
“Is it reproducing?” Denna asked.
He shook his head.
“This was something Thomas hadn’t really expected, in this form, and I remember him being incredibly pleased with the result.”
“What’s going on?”
All four Landites suddenly changed color from pale white to blood red.
“They’re releasing alarm chemicals,” Maximilian explained. “The original Landa couldn’t cope with its predator and decided to ask others if they’d had more luck. It’s asking for genetic material. It calls for help.” He smiled. “The Landae are learning to communicate.”
“How’s it doing that?” She looked in puzzlement as the red hue of the Landites spread out from the spheres and moved to the Landae they had landed close to.
“Vacuoles carry the genetic material of the one Landite which has managed to resist the attacker the longest. The Landa which accepts this material then tests it against its own longest-resisting Landite.”
The red hue got absorbed by the four different Landae. As Maximilian sped time up, the hue-accepting Landae eventually got attacked by the crab-like predator and sprouted their own Landites against it. Out of all four, only one managed to outmaneuver its attacker by way of lining up its outer cutis with glands that produced an acrid-smelling liquid. Once it’d managed to do so, an array of eight Landites from its upper half shot out in all directions, searing the water, laden with the newly created successful genetic material for other Landae to absorb and use.
Maximilian paused the scene.
“We’ll have to skip a big chunk of time for you to appreciate the next step in these creatures’ evolution.”
Frozen in time, the spherical creatures with their bulbous sprouts ceased all movement, their predators at bay, stopped dead in their tracks. In the pale fluorescence of the ocean floor, Denna suddenly felt alone.
“What happens next?” She took a few steps around one particular creature, its round, gene-testing extremities only half-extracted, on their way to defend their host from a two-tentacled cephalopod.
“This crude form of communication was reinforced for many years due to its success at helping them ward off danger.”
All Landae disappeared and the ocean floor was once again plain and level.
“What Thomas had noticed, and later shown me, after millions of generations and an improved form of communication with a plethora of different chemical messengers, was this.” The space between them filled up with Landae of roughly similar shapes and sizes as far as the eye could see. They had kept their original form with only minor diversification.
What had changed was that now they constantly launched Landites at each other with improved precision and at least one every minute or so, in a palette of different hues.
“What puzzled Thomas at this stage was no matter how long he ran their simulated evolution, the Landae didn’t seem to evolve. They just kept multiplying and stretching out towards the horizon without making any physical change. I suppose he expected to see hands growing out of them, digestive tracts and of course, brains. Nothing of the sort happened regardless of how long he’d let the sim run. The only thing that improved was their method for communication via chemical messengers. And even that was a mystery. He couldn’t figure out what those chemicals signified, why they changed the chemical build of the cytoplasm so often (represented by the difference in colors) when it had nothing to do with predators or resources.”
The stoic’s facial muscles twitched and pulled into smiles and frowns as he spoke, but those were empty expressions, atavistic vestiges of a time when words could provoke feeling in him. Now, his face played out its part, echoing sentiments that the brain no longer produced.
“The explanation eluded Thomas, at least until one day he decided to switch his viewpoint.” With no warning their feet were separated from the ground. Denna flailed her arms around and yelped in surprise. She blushed as they rose up, the Landae-swarmed ground zooming further and further out.
From up above the entire ground looked like a grid, a switchboard of different colors dancing elegantly. When she mentioned that to him, Maximilian agreed about the analogy.
“That’s exactly what Thomas realized.”
Denna’s eyes widened. The beauty of the scene below was breathtaking.
“The interesting part is their life cycle had completely changed shortly after they’d self-organized in this way. Estivation no longer happened at the same intervals as before. Instead, youth and hibernation depended mostly on their neighbors. Which makes sense, due to the availability of resources. Since Landae can’t die, they’d devised a system to take turns at being vigorous.”
The creatures became dots as their luminescent observers soared towards the ocean’s surface.
“When Thomas came here, the reason for his creatures’ lack of change became apparent.” He flashed his empty grin again. “They are beings valuing information. And with nothing impeding their growth, the population could potentially become infinite, so it would make sense that they’d migrate away from the physical to pursue progress.”
The dots below made patters, organic and complex, but recognizable for a trained eye.
“It can’t be,” she exclaimed, dumbfounded. “It’s a cellular automaton.”
The excitement coursing through her mind pinged her Overseer to take a snapshot of her state of mind alongside a visual and aural recording of the scene for future reference.
“Indeed it is. These creatures are nodes of a thirty-two-state cellular automaton. And guess what?”
She stared at the ground below her and the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place.
“It’s Turing-complete, isn’t it?” she asked, and Maximilian bobbed his head up and down like a proud professor.
“Not only that,” he said, his fingers forming a steeple, “but what they’re computing was far beyond what anyone would’ve expected: the automaton’s modelling self-awareness. A conscious mind.”
She couldn’t believe it. Striving to prove that evolution might work in a non-violent system, her son had managed to create creatures which as a consequence of the simple rules their existence reposed on, had turned into a layer that computed sentience. The very notion of it boggled her mind.
“At that point, Thomas approached me for advice. What he held in his hands was precious, fragile, and required skillful handling. How do you reach out to a mind buried beneath three abstractions of reality? How do you explain the convoluted metaphysics of vis existence if ve asks? How do you talk to ver in the first place? The fact that ve’s a single being living a solipsistic life could make ver unreachable in the first place.”
“How did you proceed?” She was unable to take her eyes off the pirouetting colors on the grid below.
“We analyzed. For a long, long time. Ran limited simulations of ver parts, trying to learn as much as we could. When we felt confident enough, Thomas mapped his own mind into a cellular automaton with the same rules as the one governing the Landamind.”
At this point Maximilian pulled out the control panel and poked his finger at an icon. An immediate falling sensation followed and the colored dots vanished.
When she looked around Denna saw that they were sitting on the red upholstered sofa in Maximilian’s room. The fire flickered, Godot lay curled next to it lazily flapping his tail this way and that. She pressed her palms against her eyes. Wrapping her mind around all that she’d just heard gave her vertigo.
When she opened her eyes she saw Maximilian next to her, his face once more blank, not even willing to make a semblance of an expression.
“What happened next?”
“I wasn’t a big part of it afterwards.” He spoke with the minimum amount of physical effort. “He spent most of his time there, talking to ver.”
The room exerted an influence on him; he’d reverted back to his meditative self from before their excursion into Thomas’ experiment. He continued, his tone neutral but she perceived it as morose, “One day he came back, said he was leaving. And that was that.”
“He said he needed to reach out to other life forms. Catch evolution in the act and interfere, stop its deadly hand. Said he was going to help out as many biospheres as possible overcome the natural injustices.” He shrugged, his tight tunic squeaking with the heave of his shoulders. “He said ve opened his eyes to his weaknesses, and he could finally see the flawed premise of his thinking and the downward spiral he’d set himself on by brooding and navel-gazing.”
His eyes shifted to the walnut clock in the corner. “In return for this realization he promised to show ver the world.”
He put the seashell necklace back over his head and tucked it beneath his shirt. “All he left me is the data from his experiments.” He leaned back, then, like a storyteller who waits for the listener to get off his knee.
Denna stared at the crackling fire until it died out.
“Why don’t you send a Copy? Or better yet ten thousand Copies in different directions?” Oliver was trying to convince his estranged wife to reconsider her decision.
It’d been over a hundred years since Thomas’ departure, and they hadn’t heard a single word from him since. Growing ever more concerned, Denna had pinged all nearby Nodes for her son’s address and when all had returned negative responses she knew what had to be done. Now she stood all packed (a chunk of her personal library and knowledge base compressed into a neat file) and ready to leave Earth.
Thomas’ migration had strained her marriage to the point where they couldn’t stand being in the same room for more than five minutes.
“Because it won’t be the same,” she replied conversationally. “I want to be the only version of me that meets him.”
“And what exactly do you have planned when you do?”
She shrugged. “I haven’t figured that out yet. I just want to be sure he’s okay.”
Oliver sighed, pushed his glasses up his nose.
“Well, if your mind’s made up…”
“Are you sure this is the only way?”
She finished zipping up her files. Soon, she’d beam up to the furthest Node.
“This is goodbye then.” Oliver’s eyes were fixed on the ground.
“Yeah. I’ll see you when I see you.” She strolled over to the door of her house and held it open for him.
Denna scooped up some water from the brain-shaped fountain, its spraying sound ringing in her ears. She had her back turned to the jostling throng of passengers, arriving or departing to and from New Amsterdam. Despite a brittle emotional tie she’d managed to form with this City she knew she wouldn’t really miss it. Not one bit. She closed her eyes and felt the cold water trickle from her hand down her face.
She turned to face the crowd, strapped the brass buckle of her coat and shouldered her way to the information desk, a wide grin plastered on her face.
She’d head for the nearest federation Node physically then transmit herself to Earth from there. What she’d do back home she didn’t know. The gap of thousands of years her travels had placed between her and everyone else there would make restoring connections difficult. But that was alright. She looked forward to new beginnings.
“I’m heading back to my ship.” She emitted her personal information to the girl behind the desk on a private channel. The girl’s hair was going through the colors of the rainbow in a matter of seconds.
Red bangs. “Okay,” she said laconically, eyes on a screen out of Denna’s sight. Orange side curls. “Hope you enjoyed your stay in New Amsterdam.” Yellow ponytail.
Just as a bright fluorescent green patch of hair grew out of her head like radioactive grass blades, she said “Have a nice trip” and with that Denna was pulled out of the City’s database and transmitted back to her point of origin.
Presently she stood in the bridge of her ship, facing the simulated windowpane. The black patch of space painted on the screen was piped from tiny sensors on the front end of her ship, after crude estimations and recalculations.
She looked out into fake-space, hands clasped behind her back.
Her son was somewhere out there, a companion by his side. A void carved itself in her heart then, and her chest tightened. Her long-time guilt had drained out of her, slowly, leaving behind a vacuum of emptiness almost as unbearable. But she could live with that. As long as she was convinced her only child was happy, doing what he felt was right, she knew she could endure just about any kind of pain.
Looking at the blackness before her, she imagined herself seeing Thomas. But unlike all previous daydreams of their encounter, she didn’t picture any lecturing, any disputes, pleading for a return home, or tears. All she could imagine now was a hug, an ultimate act of letting go, because she knew he’d grown, matured, and knowing that was enough.
Damien Krsteski writes science fiction, mostly at night. He comes from Skopje, Macedonia, and can be found at http://monochromewish.blogspot.com.