Chapter Fifteen — Of Progress

Photo by Jacky at Morguefile.com

With Sys still out to sea and no pressing issues to be addressed Seth, Sarah and Roberta got together every morning to read um’s symphonic quantum physics masterpiece: Seth was in charge of the translation, Sarah clarified any ambiguous emotional nuances and poor Roberta was expected to understand the theory and present it to the sisters.

The knowledge system was structured with crystalline clarity and if any of them were Purple they would probably have thought so themselves, but sadly Sarah’s genetic inheritance only worked on a subconscious level and even Roberta’s genius couldn’t match the immortals’ capacity. Seth chose to withdraw completely from the interpretation of the knowledge and let Roberta put it in a form human brains could understand first.

“It’s great to spend time studying stuff you will never understand. We can store the tome in a glorified location of the library and be safe in the knowledge that we have it. As far as music is concerned, it sounds great!” sister Roberta mumbled, humbled by the fact she couldn’t understand a single phrase of the theory.

“Don’t let go, you’ve unscrambled harder things than this!” the leader encouraged her.

“No, I didn’t!” Roberta answered with certainty.

“Well, we don’t have anything else to do, so what’s it going to hurt?” Seth tuned her argument to a different rationale.

“There is no way! I doesn’t matter how many times I read it!” Roberta threw in the towel, embarrassed.

“Maybe you need the prerequisite classes,” Seth asked, half jokingly.

“Maybe I do,” Roberta answered. Sister deAngelis and sister Jesse had entered the lab quietly and were staring at the three and trying to figure out if they could be of assistance.

“Maybe Sys can help when she comes back,” Sarah offered.

“Yeah, like you needed another reason to call the poor thing back to your obsessive maternal smothering!” sister Joseph snapped through the interlink.

“Sister, you’re crossing a very fine line!” the redhead snapped back.

“Can you ask um to send whatever information it thinks might be useful so I don’t have to wait until it comes back?” sister Roberta asked.

Sys graciously obliged, to the sister’s even greater distress.

“This is even worse than the original!” poor Roberta wailed.

“We’ll leave you to it,” Seth concluded gently, signaling to the other sisters it was time to leave Roberta alone.

“Sarah, can you please stay? I may need to bounce some ideas off of you.” Roberta asked curtly as she threw herself back into the unintelligible sea of knowledge.

Lily sat on the beach and studied the figurative system of human knowledge from a very large papyrus-like sheet, struggling with its fluttering in the breeze and trying to keep unruly strands of hair off her forehead and out of her eyes.

“Wow! Heavy stuff! This looks like something Sys would dig up!” Jimmy commented from behind her. He’d been watching over her shoulder for a while but Lily was so preoccupied with interpreting the structure she didn’t hear him.

“Um did, in fact. Sys left this with me before it went to sea, it thought I might be interested in it, Purple finds it fascinating,” Lily said.

“Purple finds walking fascinating. What are you looking at?” Jimmy asked.

“The differences between inductive and deductive reasoning,” Lily answered.

“Mother Superior would be pleased! She practically lives on this stuff!” Jimmy exclaimed.

“Wait until she sees me meditate!” Lily countered.

“You really are trying to get in her good graces,” Jimmy noticed.

“So what if I am? She is my mentor, I wouldn’t find it detrimental if she actually liked me,” Lily opened up. “Besides, I wouldn’t be preaching if I were you, how many times did you get kicked out of sister Roberta’s lab?”

“That’s different, I was on time-out!” Jimmy protested.

“For the first six months! It’s been eight years!” Lily laughed out loud.

“I like engineering!” Jimmy continued defending himself.

“And I like logic, a disciplined mind and the advancement of knowledge,” Lily offered back. Jimmy decided to declare armistice and changed the subject.

“Did Sys say when it will be coming back?” he asked.

“Um keeps saying two weeks every time it talks to its mother, but I really can’t imagine charting the entire ocean floor in less than a year. I think Sys is afraid its mother would have a fit if she learned the real duration of this trip.”

“Do you think they’ll be able to figure out how to work with entangled particles?” she continued.

“I don’t know. Sister Roberta is grumpier than ever, the less she understands the madder she gets, even sister Sarah thinks twice before approaching her now. She doesn’t like to have to rely on Sys,” Jimmy said.

“But Sys is practically Purple and they know everything, it’s not a fair contest!” Lily exclaimed.

“Sister Roberta doesn’t see it that way,” Jimmy whispered.

Sister Roberta wasn’t going to admit defeat in this matter. She pored over the theoretical basis every day and whether she did or did not understand it she could surely recite it in her sleep. The cursed particles in her simulations reacted in most unusual ways, as if they belonged to a different reality whose laws were different and unknown, in unexpected and unrepeatable patterns, in a nutshell sister Roberta’s worst nightmare.

“What makes you think you can ever understand it? Purple has a few billion years on us, you can’t make up for that in a few years, I don’t care how smart you are!” sister Joseph encouraged her through the interlink.

“Thank you, sister Joseph!” sister Roberta retorted.

“Just saying you’re not infallible. How is it going?” sister Joseph continued unperturbed as she opened the lab door. Sister Roberta was inside the bubble and therefore out of sight.

“Let me in!” the former demanded. Roberta expanded the permissions list to include sister Joseph’s brain wave profile and the sister found herself inside an unbelievable world of elementary particles with leptons and quarks flying by her ears. Sister Roberta had decided to match their flavors and colors with actual ones and the entire simulation smelled like an ice cream parlor where the delightful scents of chocolate, strawberries, raspberry, mint, vanilla and banana overpowered the more subtle ones — black cherry, rhubarb, caramel, pistachio, watermelon and peach. The confections kept changing color and flavor, migrating to the most stable states — vanilla and chocolate, whose percentages of the mix slowly increased.

“What, no jimmies?” sister Joseph asked, trying not to look impressed. A fistful of photons, gluons and Higgs particles rained from above like rainbow sprinkles in vivid neon hues. “I see you made the photons yellow,” sister Joseph continued.

“Yes, they felt sunny and warm. They are lemon flavored,” sister Roberta answered naturally.

“Where are the cursed entangled particles?” sister Joseph asked, curious.

“All of them are, it’s just impossible to find their other selves, I can’t tell what matches what. This one, for instance,” sister Roberta said, poking a scrumptious pink strawberry flavored quark and straining her neck trying to find its companion.

“What are we looking for, anyway?” Joseph asked.

“That’s the problem, I don’t know!” Roberta answered frustrated.

“It doesn’t say in that thick tome you learned by heart?” the former asked.

“I can recite it to you if you want and you can tell me,” sister Roberta offered, but her visitor was too entertained by the ice cream factory to pay attention.

“Oh, look! That one moved!” sister Joseph laughed as she poked randomly at lemon yellow photons. The gentle particle motion stirred to a colorful boil.

“All of them are moving all the time, sister!” Roberta commented, dejected.

“This is fun!” sister Joseph answered, excited. “Wouldn’t it be easier to start with just one pair?” she continued.

“It would be, but it wouldn’t work. The experiment relies on statistics, it needs a larger context.”

“Sister?” Jimmy asked hesitantly.

Roberta emerged from the bubble, followed by a gloriously entertained sister Joseph who looked at the two suns and realized she was awfully late with her daily tasks. She left in a hurry, sending the cargo schedule for the month through the interlink.

“What is it, Jimmy?” Roberta turned to her unofficial pupil.

“Can I see the model?” he asked.

“Sure. Take the book with you, you might need it,” she answered. She watched Jimmy disappear into the bubble with the thick treatise of Purple quantum physics under his arm, then sighed profusely and turned her attention to her other mental torment: she grabbed one of the rocks off the shelf and tried to record as much as she could about it before the light of the microscope made it jump.

“Sister?” Jimmy asked through the interlink.

“What is it, Jimmy?” she answered absentmindedly.

“Did you only make doubles?” he continued.

“Yes, two particle entanglement seemed complex enough.”

“What if some of the particles left?” Jimmy said.

“What do you mean?” she asked, puzzled.

“What’s to keep them in the simulation, they may be anywhere by now, they might have made that rock jump,” he tried to explain.

Sister Roberta looked back at the microscope to find the rock had indeed dematerialized. The irritation she experienced about this phenomenon was infinitely amplified by its uncontrollable occurrence. Blood rushed to her cheeks and she cursed under her breath, which drew the mental fire of several other sisters, shocked by the profanity. She took a deep breath to calm herself and thought about what Jimmy said.

“You mean the real particles, not the gigantic simulated particles?” she asked.

“That’s the problem! The whole bubble is made of photons and electrical impulses,” Jimmy questioned.

The thought gave the sister pause. She told Jimmy she would analyze his premise and give him an answer and threw herself into the now infinitely more convoluted nature of the phenomenon.

She pondered the details endlessly, turning night into day and forgetting to eat and emerged from her lab a couple of months later with an answer.

“Jimmy is right. The simulation tampers with the very nature of the experiment. We’re going to need a hadron collider.”

Centuries later her dream became part of the symbol of Terra Two, the iconic image ever present in educational materials, planetary governmental issues and almost every other official insignia, a shiny titanium ring surrounding their beautiful coffee colored planet — the orbital particle accelerator that spun slowly around the equator half way between the planet’s atmosphere and its two natural satellites, gracefully responding to the varying pulls of the two suns, the moon and the planet itself with its strange undulating dance.

At night it sparkled like a thin silver rainbow catching the rays of the suns from behind the horizon, perfectly complemented by the planet’s artificial stars.

The construction took a couple of decades, really a blink of an eye in the extended length of their existence, and shaped the memories of one generation of children, the ones who grew up watching it happen.

Just when Sarah resigned herself to stop asking Sys came back, a little dusty from all the sediment deposits but otherwise in perfect shape for a seal-dolphin. Upon returning um changed itself back, more or less, modifying subtle details in the process that its mother decided not to notice.

Sarah doted on it hand and foot acting like a mother hen and greatly irritating sister Joseph who couldn’t stand coddling which she thought weakened the spirit.

“The sugar toy is lucky it’s not human!” the sister grumbled in silence. “It wouldn’t be able to tie its shoes as a result of your ever loving care!”

The return of um stirred a whirlwind of activity, in part relating to the archiving of the new data, in part regarding upgrades and streamlining of equipment that the prolific um came up with to pass the time during its travels.

Sys took a quick trip around the fields to see what changed in its absence, followed by a very eager Sarah who filled in the details — the second rotation of the vanilla orchids that placed the plantation so close to the apothecary shop it doused it in sweet fragrance, sister Joseph’s new breed of rabbits that had long silk fur, and Sarah’s latest product, an ionized hygroscopic aerosol designed to release rain regularly and with great precision in specific areas. They passed through the pear orchard where the kids were playing hide and seek, picking fruit every now and then to quench their thirst. The kids tried to engage Sys in the game since it looked just like them, but um graciously declined. Sarah remembered what Seth said, that the appearance of this unique being didn’t inform on its intellectual capacity. She was struggling with doubt, wondering if it wouldn’t be more appropriate for Sys to choose a different guise.

“Actually I kind of like this form!” Sys smiled sweetly, cute as can be with its fiery curls surrounding its tiny frame and casting shadows on its warm chocolate skin.

The tour ended abruptly with an admonition from sister Abigail that it was five past seven and Sarah was late for Vespers. The redhead left in a hurry, anticipating scolding commentary for her lack of discipline. The sisters were half way through the service by the time she arrived and nobody paid attention to her. The light was diminishing gradually in the Prayer Hall and the last rays of the suns got caught in the beveled glass edges and cast rainbows on the stone floors. The chemiluminescent glass amplified the diffuse radiance of the window panes until they reached optimal levels. There were no shadows around anything in this warm transparent glow.

The entire scene, with the sisters seated on the floor in their simple garb, surrounded by diffracted light in this sparse glass and stone room devoid of furniture, a room whose ceiling was so high its details got lost in the shadows of the tall arches, seemed so surreal to Sarah all of a sudden that she couldn’t concentrate on the words of the sermon.

It was so strange, this home world of hers, with its singing skies and its paisley islands and the green moon casting ghostly shimmer on the waters. She couldn’t see herself from the outside but as she sat still in the heart of the eerie building the bearer of immortal genes, mother of artificial life and rainmaker extraordinaire, Sarah with the angel hair fit right in.

There were many years between sister Roberta’s vision and its becoming reality, months of designing and prototyping, more months of project detailing with a large team of experts, years of concerted effort from the people of Terra Two, slight setbacks and unexpected breakthroughs, arguments over how things were to be done, mostly due to sister Roberta’s impatience with the much slower schedule of the others, schedule that allowed for indulgences like personal lives, logistics and social calls.

When the construction started on the hadron collider sister Roberta’s schedule got packed to such a degree that she actually considered ways in which she could be in two places at once but since that didn’t happen she was away for long stretches of time, leaving the other sisters with the difficult task of making up for all the daily activities of this one woman crew.

Seth went with her on occasion just for a chance to catch up on overdue visits with old friends and colleagues in Airydew, the largest metropolis on Terra Two and the seat of planetary government, and discuss the many day to day planning and coordination details they usually handled through the interlink.

In the absence of its two most active members the group activities mellowed out a little, with the addendum that sister Joseph was a stickler to their prayer schedule and ensured above all else that it didn’t get neglected.

Sarah found herself with a lot of free time again and spent most of it walking out into the fields, and the more she saw them the more she remembered the love and passion of her youthful years that brought her to this enchanted place.

As she walked eagerly from one lot to another, Sarah noticed the plants transformed themselves in response to the different conditions of Terra Two, they weren’t radically different from the species they had brought from Earth but the redhead’s endless dedication saw the little changes — a bluish hue in the green of the foliage, due to the lightness of the soil, the stronger ridges on the stems of herbaceous plants, developed to better support their much larger size, the completely new cultivars that emerged on their own, perfectly adapted to the climate of Terra Two. Sarah couldn’t get enough of this expansion of vegetal life around her and even with her days of creating transparent roses long behind her she realized that the greater miracle was what they had created here, a planet that was alive and self sustaining, growing and developing its own ways, without human intervention, the way Earth had been through the ages.

The purple bean plant had grown significantly over two hundred years into a strange local tree of life, it grew aerial roots that made it look like a small forest full of birds and small creatures of the fields who found sanctuary from the cats in its branches. Its original trunk was still standing, half green, half purple, so thick now that two peoples’ outstretched arms couldn’t surround it.

Sarah walked through one of the fava bean plots, passed several chamomile scented cats and returned to the kitchen with a full basket of produce, to the delight of sisters Jesse and Felix, who were on kitchen duty. Sister Jesse was cooking her favorite childhood dish, chicken in a pot. Three plump birds covered in butter and spices were waiting for the vegetables to arrive. Sister Jesse uttered a sigh of relief at the sight of Sarah and her basket and quickly got to chopping and dicing.

“How long are they going to be gone?” sister Felix asked. “It’s getting pretty understaffed around here, by the time we’re done with the double duty kitchen shifts I’ll be an accomplished chef.”

“Too bad that no amount of kitchen experience can prevent sister Abigail from burning our food,” sister Jesse chuckled softly.

“Watch it, Parmentier! If you don’t like my cooking you can all feel free to do triple kitchen shifts!” sister Abigail complained from afar.

“Scorched runny oatmeal, what’s not to like?” Jesse couldn’t help herself. Sister Abigail sulked, but said nothing.

“Roberta said they ran into some delays, procurement for one of the alloys in the external hull took longer than anticipated, so she had to stay longer, but Seth will be back for dinner,” sister Felix continued.

“How are things in Airydew?” sister Benedict asked. Seth nodded her head to signal that things were going well, as expected. Sister Benedict had an inquisitive nature and her bright blue eyes sparkled with curiosity. Sometimes she wished she could reach inside the leader’s head and drag out those words she so seldom spoke.

“Like for instance?” the sister insisted, slightly annoyed.

“They finished the transoceanic bridge, it’s a sight to behold,” Seth indulged her. The islands of Terra Two weren’t very large so the greater cities had become by necessity an extraordinary openwork of connecting bridges, intricate in their layered weaving of merges and overpasses, more beautiful in their utilitarian ever evolving ways than any pre-defined design would have allowed. The transoceanic bridge was a very ambitious project, connecting seven islands to a total length of two thousand and fifty four miles, spanning vast stretches of open water over fast running currents and twining between several gigantic purple bowls.

“Really? How so?” sister Benedict delved into Seth’s mind for details and sat back in her chair with enchantment at the sight of the shimmery ribbon that linked the islands like colorful beads on a silver chain. “What else?” the sister pressed, disappointed by the taciturn leader’s lack of cooperation.

“It was hot and noisy. Every public area is drowned in a combination of human talk and purple music, it gets very distracting if you speak both fluently,” Seth continued in a weary tone.

“Aah, so they did take to your new language?” sister Benedict pressed on, very excited about the news and completely indifferent to the exhaustion in the leader’s tone.

“Take to it? Half the population speaks nothing but! They are all running around with their portable brain enabled harmony generators, completely out of sync with each other. I walked for an hour from one end of the sea terminal to the other and it felt like attending fifteen consecutive instrument tuning sessions at the philharmonic. Thank goodness for peace and quiet!” she sighed with relief as a vibrant clatter of broken glass and metallic screeches rose to a deafening amplitude.

“Oh, don’t mind that!” sister Benedict chirped cheerfully. “They’re recycling a couple of buildings into a new genetics and bioengineering institute, it’s going to be a few days.”

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