Chapter Six — Of Being

Photo by Katri at Morguefile.com

Seth kept following the rhythmic sequences of 0s and 1s that moved fast before her eyes; the bits turned into words and pictures, sentence structure diagrams and collections of synonyms, commas and exclamation marks, menus and bubbles, a whole new chamber music user interface written for a gamma radiation string quartet, with octets condensed into measures and harmonized in thirds.

It was strange and wondrous this mainframe generated music, an eerie blend of monotone ison and whale song, melodious and random at the same time. Seth was so transposed by the unearthly series of sounds that her psyche became completely impervious to her surroundings and started existing in a different world, one without scale, without Newtonian physics, floating in an immaterial pattern of vibration and wave interference.

It was so soothing, this music of the spheres, so revealing in ways impossible to explain, that the leader began wondering if her human limitations would ever allow her to perceive the meaning of the overlapping harmonies, if it was even possible for the brain to process them at the same time. She got so humbled by the extraordinary capacity of the immortal colony, this unbounded brain that kept growing in understanding since time began. She wondered how much knowledge was stored in this extraordinary biological machine whose fluid and swift patterns could incorporate anything, including the clunky, inefficient and slow human language, a means of communication that must have seemed to them as effective as carrying water in a sieve.

Uneasiness hit her all of a sudden after all those decades of being afraid of nothing, of challenging the universe as if it were a toy, in the face of this vast benevolent intelligence, so patient with her limitations, so protective, so self-denying that it approached godliness. This intimidated the leader who, for all her audacity, had always yielded to the will of God.

“Are you making progress?” Sarah’s thought fell on the silence in the gentlest way but its echo boomed like a cannon inside Seth’s altered consciousness. The leader shuddered, jolted.

“Progress? Yes, I guess so,” Seth answered, as if from another world. “They will certainly understand any language, the most complex system of communication we can come up with at the pinnacle of our civilization, I’m just not sure we will be able to keep pace with it ourselves, it is too much.”

“What do you mean?” Sarah continued prodding, blending the thoughts with the feelings behind them in an attempt to understand what Seth meant. She sensed the awe, the excitement, the uneasiness, pride and exhaustion in a way that made the redhead worry that the leader was at the end of her rope and this mental exercise was going to fry her brain like excess voltage overloads a circuit.

“Maybe the shorts will increase my brain’s efficiency,” Seth regained her bearing and sense of humor. It felt as if the room was suddenly filled with static electricity that made their hair stand on end.

“Can’t be that scary,” Sarah continued gently.

“Not to you, I’m sure, flower child. Not all of us are comfortable with this intimate level of understanding, I feel like I’m stripped of my skin.” Seth frowned.

Sarah stopped for a second to ponder what made Seth think she felt comfortable with her every thought and feeling exposed, it was something she learned to live with after so many decades but not something she would have chosen if asked. It came as a given, it was the rule of their community and equally uncomfortable for everyone concerned. Sister Joseph could be particularly caustic with her unspoken diatribes and one couldn’t avoid the disturbing mental imagery they generated, Sarah was sure she could do without those, for instance.

“I know, I know,” the leader conciliated. “She makes me cringe at times.”

“That’s ’cause you can’t tolerate the truth and only talk to the cat-brained kumbaya who thinks what you want to hear!” sister Joseph’s commentary surfaced immediately, harsh as sandpaper.

“Thank you, sister Joseph,” Seth responded, still retiring before the overwhelming complexity of the language.

“She’s gone off the reservation, for sure!” sister Joseph mumbled, morose, then found something else to occupy her attention.

“Can you listen to this for a second?” Seth asked Sarah and set the musical wave generator without waiting for an answer. The eerie music started again, lulling the latter into reverie and a deep peace that seemed to radiate through her skin. She didn’t understand the message, of course, but it felt familiar to her, she could almost swear she heard it before, maybe in a dream.

“What does it mean?” she asked, enchanted.

“It is not a phrase, it’s an image, an orange crocus.” Seth answered eagerly. Sarah kept listening to the picture with a delighted look on her face that made the leader wonder if those microscopic inhabitants that lived on the inside surface of her cells had something to do with it.

“Cat. Sister.” the leader joked unconvinced. The redhead’s level of comfort with the music of the spheres gave her pause.

“Water is blue,” said Seth.

“Water. Blue.” whispered the ocean softly.

“Is,” said Seth.

“Is,” answered the ocean.

“Water is blue,” repeated the leader.

“Water. Blue.” said the ocean.

“Is there something wrong with me? I’ve been repeating this sentence for the last four hours, I know you can say ‘is’, why don’t you?” she said, exasperated.

“Is,” said the ocean.

“Is blue,” insisted Seth.

“Is. Blue.” said the ocean.

“Water…” said Seth.

“Water.” repeated the ocean.

“Water is…” said Seth.

“Water. Is.” the ocean continued.

“Water is blue,” said Seth.

“Water. Blue.” the ocean whispered proudly.

“Sarah! Roberta! Jesse!” Seth screamed.

“What?” they answered through the neural interlink.

“Come here, please, if they tell me ‘water. blue.’ one more time I’m going to lose it!” the leader thought in response, with a tinge of insanity that let them all know she meant it.

“Maybe they think we use too many words. ‘Water. Blue.’ is enough to convey meaning,” said Roberta.

“Whose side are you on?” Seth jumped, upset.

“Water. Blue.” Roberta laughed.

“They don’t get verbs, they think all words have the same weight and can be used anywhere in the sentence, I’m not even going to attempt adverbs or conjunctions,” said Seth. “What would be the point?”

“What. Point.” whispered the ocean.

“You are smart,” said Seth. “Why don’t you get it?”

“You. Smart.” said the ocean.

“Add pronouns to that list,” Roberta laughed again.

“I think we are going about this the wrong way. How about word-image associations?” Jesse suggested.

“They know what ‘is’ means, they just won’t say it,” Seth replied frustrated and left.

Sarah sat on the soft sand next to the water, smiling. “Such a beautiful afternoon,” she thought, “so peaceful.”

“Sarah.” the ocean whispered.

“Yes,” she said.

“Sarah. Is. Sister.” the ocean continued proudly.

“Oh, so you can use verbs, why didn’t you tell Seth? She was really disappointed!” Sarah asked, more baffled than upset.

“Water. Blue. Funny.” giggled the ocean, with the vocal inflexions of a little child.

There is a level of wisdom one acquires in time that allows one to accept that dealing with living entities is an eminently unpredictable process. If one is a scientist, especially in one of the hard sciences where one plus one is always two, parallel lines never meet and the mixture of hydrochloric acid and lye always yields salt and water, one gets more frustrated than the average person by the logically flawed, physically impossible and emotionally charged reactions of unfamiliar living things.

The beautiful surprises though are the breakthroughs you don’t expect, the unexplained recoveries, the unconditional love. Despite all its vast body of knowledge, its long life, as long as the universe’s, the immortal ocean fell in love with the limited, arrogant and bratty newcomers.

There was no logic behind the affection this immense pseudo-brain poured on the slow giants, no reason why they cherished their relationship and wanted to find out more, no fretting over hidden motives, no reservations. Of course one would argue that the benefit of logic told the vast intelligent community that the out of scale newcomers couldn’t pose a threat to them even if they wanted to, but logic had never entered the argument. The ocean was trusting, open, with no defenses.

Sarah adjusted quickly to this closeness, after all she had spent decades surrounded by children and the liveliness of an untarnished spirit was all too familiar to her, but the spontaneity and the boundless energy of the childlike giant wrecked havoc on the nerves of the more hardened sisters. If sister Joseph ever needed additional reasons to be always angry at the world the kindergarten level of conversation that didn’t cease for even a second so she could regain her wind pushed her to the limit. Just like a four year old the ocean never stopped talking, a total chatterbox that mixed revelatory knowledge with nursery rhymes and enthusiasm over the most mundane activities, like for instance when it was in awe of sister Novis’s graceful gait and thought putting one foot in front of the other as a means of locomotion was miraculous in terms of evolutionary progress.

Seth had mixed feelings about the interaction. On one hand she was instinctively drawn to this personality so open to learning and change because she felt there was no limit to what their joint efforts could bring forth, on the other hand she wasn’t a very patient person and was used to communicating with reasonable adults who could express themselves eloquently and keep their emotions under control, and the seemingly endless occurrences of toddler-like tantrums drove her nuts.

More than once she swore to abandon all efforts of communication and run away to the mountains to live off the land, with no neural interlink bracelet and no responsibilities whatsoever. Sister Joseph and the immortals were two extremes of the mind spectrum between which logic and sanity couldn’t possibly survive.

“There is no way to stay rational while communicating with this entity who recites the mathematical formulas of the grand unified theory while wondering what butterscotch popsicles taste like! We’re just not made for this, it’s like trying to swallow the ocean, it can’t be done!” she screamed, exasperated, when after several hours of seemingly encouraging progress the immortals asked her what was the meaning of the word ‘BE’.

“They sure got love fast enough!” sister Joseph mumbled. “Why don’t you ask cat-brains to explain existence to them, maybe they’ll listen to her,” she continued, in a surprisingly unique attempt to be helpful.

One thing to be said in defense of the immortals is that they had stopped trying to aggravate the leader and only asked questions because they really wanted to know, not to amuse themselves.

The hive intelligence never irritated Sarah who was in awe of everything it could do, even the doldrums. She spent a lot of time on the beach talking to the ocean, listening to its worries and feelings and questions about life; in a way the ocean thought Sarah was its mommy, just like a Roc bird hatched in a sparrow’s nest looks up to its mother hen. The eternal child didn’t care that mommy had human limitations, it sensed her unconditional love and felt happy.

So cat-brains set aside a few choice words to share with the grouchy Joseph later through the neural interlink and set out on the difficult challenge of explaining to the immortals what it means to be. Secretly she allowed the ocean to use shorthand so that the back and forth of communication wouldn’t be slowed down by formality despite Seth’s strict instructions that the immortals should use proper grammar at all times.

“I am,” said Sarah.

“You. Purple. Sanctuary. You. Purple.”

“No, I am not part of the hive mind, you just live inside me.”

“Purple. Inside. Sanctuary. Think. Inside. Ocean. Think. Same. Think. You. Purple.”

“No, I am not, there are only a few of you that live inside my cells, compared to your total population, your collective intelligence. I have my own mind, my individual intelligence.”

“How. Many. Make. You.”

“I don’t know, I never thought of it this way, us humans are not used to sharing consciousness.”

“Neural. Interlink.”

“Yes, but every specimen of our race can exist independently. We don’t need to share our thougths in order to survive.”

“Purple. Individual. Survive. Alone.”

“Then purple is, that is what it means to be.”

“Common. Think. Not. Be.”

“Yes, if you exist collectively, you also are.”

“Purple. Think. Sanctuary. How. Many. Make. You.”

“I don’t think any amount of purple would make me not me. I have intrinsic characteristics that make me what I am.”

“Purple. More. All. Cells.”

“I guess if I had more purple beings than human cells that would theoretically alter my human status, but you already modified my DNA and I’m still me.”

“Joseph. Sister. Possible.”

“As delightful as that sounds, I don’t think any amount of purple DNA would alter the sister’s charming personality.”

“Aren’t you the gossiping Judas, cat-brains!” sister Joseph protested through the interlink. “Keep your opinions to the meaning of life and leave me out of it!”

Sarah would have liked to protest that she didn’t bring that up, but realized it would dilute the conversation and let it go.

“If. Purple. More. Than. You. How. You. Not. Purple.”

“I don’t know, I guess it is my soul, it doesn’t depend on the physical body.”

“Purple. Not. Soul.”

“I’m sure you have spirit, individually and collectively, I can’t tell if it takes a single individual or your entire collective to bring it forth.”

“Sarah. Colony. Soul.”

“It is possible that the immortal colony inside me can reason autonomously.”

“Purple. Soul. Sarah.”

“No, I’m still me. You just live there.”

“Purple. Hurt. Sarah. Sister.”

Sarah paused, she really didn’t know how to continue in a way that didn’t hurt the immortals’ feelings.

“Sarah. Purple. Memories. Sarah. Sister.” they insisted.

Sarah remembered her vague feelings of recognition, her unexplained deja-vus, her instinctive reactions to things that should have been unfamiliar. She started wondering if they were right, if the only reason she maintained her individuality was grounded in quantity rather than essence, and she got really scared of losing her soul again, a flashback of a hundred and ninety years ago, she was terrified that she would be engulfed by this massive collective intelligence with no trace of individuality left.

“No. Eat. Sarah. Sister. Love. Sarah.” the ocean appeased her fears. “Sarah. Is. Purple. Is. Sarah. Sister.”

The conversation had reached a turning point where it reverted from Sarah teaching the ocean the meaning of life to the ocean reassuring Sarah that there was one to speak of.

“Parent. DNA. Parent. Not. Sarah.”

They were right, in an absolute logic kind of way, after all she was a combination of her parents’ genes and maybe inherited some of their traits, her mother’s quirkiness, her father’s patience, but she wasn’t them, she was Sarah with the angel hair, a unique eternal soul.

“What. Is.” whispered the ocean, as if the conversation just started.

“Give it up, cat-brains, you can’t explain what you don’t know,” laughed sister Joseph.

“Joseph. Explain.” said the ocean.

“No way you are dragging me into this, I have better things to do with my afternoon than to worry about my immortal soul; it’s safe and sound, unlike other people’s.” sister Joseph clamored. She turned her mind to Sarah. “Aren’t you late for Vespers? Almost two hundred years and no progress with self-discipline, some people are beyond help,” she continued.

“You see now why they are driving me insane?” asked Seth, anxiously. “By the end of the conversation you reach the conclusion that you don’t exist. I like existing and was pretty sure of it until recently. I’d like to keep it that way.”

“Sarah. Late. Vespers. Go.” the immortals dutifully nudged.

“Oh, how sweet, they keep your schedule for you!” sister Joseph mocked. “Too bad they can’t perform your tasks and teach your pupils! Ah, wait, they do!” she continued.

Sarah’s apprehension returned; fortunately for her the monotonous rhythm of the evening prayer soothed her mind and chased away the worries. It brought her back to that place of certainty that was beyond logical argument or created capacity, no matter how vast, to that center of existence that was infinite, eternal and all knowing. That’s where Sarah found the misplaced meaning of the word “be” and with great relief put it back in its correct location in her mind. “Seth is right,” she thought. “I love them, but they can drive humans insane.”

“Focus!” Seth chastised her. Sarah brought back all her attention to the evening prayer.

“What do you think they are doing?” Lily whispered.

“I don’t know,” Jimmy answered. The kids were perked up against one of the open windows of sister Roberta’s lab with only their eyes and tiny noses peeking above the rough sill. They looked like they were enacting a comic strip image.

The sisters were sitting on the floor in four neat rows with their backs at them, focused on an ongoing experiment. There was no sound or thought in the room other than the words the kids had just uttered and sister Joseph shuffled to signal her displeasure at the disturbance.

It was strange and unsettling for the children, who from the second they could understand communication were exposed to every word and thought in their community, to experience this silence. Way back in older times, for older people, that would have been pure bliss but for them it was as distressing as suddenly losing one of their senses. They did however abide by sister Joseph’s unexpressed reproach and kept their mouths and their minds still.

In front of the sisters, above what looked like a sheet of glass, floated a holographic box. Seth stretched out her hands inside the virtual model and gently touched the back of the container. Periwinkle liquid-like foam spread quickly on her hands and wrists, in a strange motion that looked like a time lapse film of moss covering a rock.

“Oh, this is soo creepy!” Jimmy couldn’t help himself.

Sister Roberta turned towards him with a stare that reminded the little trouble-maker he had just gotten back his lab privileges.

For a few minutes it looked like Seth was wearing shear and shimmery water gloves and then the foam flowed to the tips of her fingers, relaxing back into the ever moving boundary. The surface became agitated, like that of a pot of water coming to a boil, quickly shifting patterns as it saved the new information.

The stillness in the room relaxed and the sisters started shuffling around. Lily and Jimmy took the opportunity to sneak in.

“What is that?” Jimmy couldn’t help himself.

“It’s an intelligent polymer”, Sarah whispered quickly. “It memorizes the shape and chemical composition of the model and can record a sequence of movements to create a library of components which can later be combined into larger motion patterns. We are trying to make an organic robot that the immortals can use remotely as a ‘body’.

“Why?” Jimmy asked.

“So that they can move around and explore the islands. They were so amazed by sister Novis’s walking and so sad they couldn’t experience it that we decided to give them legs,”

Sarah smiled.

“Is it going to look like Mother Superior?” Jimmy asked the obvious question.

Seth looked back at them with a mixture of outrage and alarm.

“I don’t think so, Jimmy, this is just a rough prototype test. It would make more sense for it to look like sister Novis, but I don’t think she’d be ok with that,” the redhead continued.

“Would you want a copy of you droning around like a zombie stuffed with purple goo?” sister Novis asked, irritated. “You can have my graceful gait, if you want, but that’s it!”

“I don’t think the immortals get the concept of individuality and personal space. Actually I don’t think they understand why humans consider their bodies individual property and don’t appreciate sharing them with the collective,” Sarah answered tentatively.

“So who is going to volunteer?” Jimmy asked.

Sarah shrugged.

“How about Solomon?” Jimmy said. “He’s not going to be offended if we make a plastic cat just like him.”

“I don’t know about that. Just because he can’t give his consent it doesn’t mean that we should do something to him that we ourselves wouldn’t like.”

“You know, just when I think you couldn’t be battier you go right ahead and amaze me with a whole other level of barmy!” sister Joseph exploded. “The privacy and ownership rights of cats! That takes the cake! Should I ask for permission before I trespass his marked territory? He looks at me kind of strange lately!” she continued her diatribe.

“However, we’re not copying him. I like having just one Solomon.” Sarah defended her argument, unfazed.

“There is not one blessed day I don’t wake up regretting my decision to come here with this barnyard bonanza instead of dying peacefully of old age like God intended in a place far from people and twenty light years away from all of you!” sister Joseph frothed, aggravated.

“She loves it, doesn’t she?” whispered Jimmy very softly.

“Every blooming second of it!” Sarah giggled quietly. “What would she do without an audience?” the redhead asked rhetorically.

“Enjoy life!” sister Joseph barked and turned her back to them.

“So, how are we going to make the robot?” Jimmy returned to the subject.

“How about you kids help me custom make a human form?” she asked Jimmy whose eyes sparkled at the prospect. He took off running and yelling with excitement as he passed Lily like a full speed freight train “We’re going to design a human being! We’re going to design a human being!”

“Well, not exactly,” Sarah protested, trying to clarify the concept.

“There’s what comes of your teaching philosophy!” sister Joseph yelled again. “We’re all going to hell and it’s going to be your fault! Design a human being, Lord have mercy!” she continued, more and more outraged.

“A human form, not a human being,” Sarah clarified.

“If the purple goo tells it to fry and eat the lot of us whom should we blame?” sister Joseph pressed on.

Sarah wanted to point out the faulty logic of this argument since there would be nobody left to file the complaint and 99% of their bodies’ composition was completely unsuitable for the indigenes diet, but she took the high road and kept quiet.

The kids were bubbling over with excitement. Each of them had composed a list of attributes they very much would have liked the robot to have. Sadly the combination of the aforementioned attributes was physically impossible to build, so they each got to contribute one item that would work with the construct as a whole.

“I want it to have brown skin like me,” Lily said.

“And blue eyes,” said Jimmy.

“And copper hair, with springy curls” said Jenna.

“Why not blond?” asked Lily.

“I like copper better,” Jenna said with a superior attitude.

“And it should be tiny and delicate,” said Keko, slanting her long oblique eyes with delight, like a Siamese cat.

“And it should be good at sports,” said Tommy, “I want to play catch with it.”

“And play the piano,” counteracted Jesse.

“No, the guitar!” said Jimmy.

“It can do both,” Sarah intervened to make peace.

“And know how to swim,” said Jimmy.

“Jimmy, you wouldn’t dream of taking another ride on the currents by any chance?” Sarah inquired, worried.

“No, sister,” Jimmy answered with the voice and demeanor of a little angel. Sarah shook her head in anguish.

“And it can have sister Novis’s walk if Purple likes it,” Tommy conceded.

“And it should like cats,” Lily concluded.

“I’m sure it will like cats. Cat. Sister. Remember?” Sarah laughed.

“It is going to look like you picked the parts blindfolded. Are you sure you don’t want it to be a fifty foot Cyclops with four arms that plays the harpsichord?” Seth joked through the interlink. Jimmy considered the Cyclops idea for a second, then dismissed it.

“No, it would scare the girls,” he condescended.

“Speak for yourself, crybaby!” Lily jumped. She was the oldest among her friends and had maintained her unspoken leadership role since birth, she wasn’t going to concede it to Jimmy just because he was male! Which brought fourth the very obvious question of gender. All eyes were pinned on Sarah, waiting for a decision.

“Well, since either gender choice would upset half of you, how about we create a third gender, just for the robot?” she offered.

“So the robot would be an ‘it’?” asked Lily.

“Practically it is an ‘it’. Technically it will be a ‘they’. We can call it an ‘um’,” Sarah said.

“I, you, he, she, it, um, we,…” Seth recited through the interlink. “Would multiple ‘ums’ still be a they?” she asked.

“Technically a singular ‘um’ is a ‘they’,” Sarah countered.

“I see they rubbed up on you, this conversation is almost as maddening as talking to Purple directly,” Seth mumbled.

***

After prolonged design sessions where the features and attributes of the robot were painstakingly crafted until the children were happy with the results, ‘um’ was born, a delicately androgynous creature with slanted blue eyes and fiery hair shining even brighter against its chocolate skin, standing barely five foot two, graceful as a butterfly and swift as the wind.

“We need a name!” the kids jumped, crowding around the doll-like figure to touch and observe it. “The skin is so realistic, it looks alive,” Lily said, amazed.

“The ocean likes to have sisters, how about we call ‘um’ Sister?” Jimmy said.

“It would be kind of confusing because all of us are sisters, we will never know who you called,” Sarah said.

“How about something shorter, like Sys,” Jenna said.

“Sys. Sister. Love. Sys.” Jesse recited. “It’ll do,” he approved.

“Sys it is,” Sarah sealed the deal.

Sys stood still with its aqua blue eyes gazing vaguely in the distance and a sweet smile on its lips, completely oblivious to the fact that it was going to love cats, play the piano and the guitar, be good at sports and enjoy swimming. Despite the hodge-podge of characteristics um belonged in the noisy group almost as if it were the same age and had just joined them for class.

“I’ll have to remember all the time it’s an ‘um’,” Sarah thought, gazing at the tiny figure that looked so much like a child it gave her goose bumps. “If I didn’t know it weren’t human, I’d offer it ice cream.”

“If I told you once, I told you a thousand times, when you’re looking for trouble you’re sure to find it. I don’t like this ‘um’ business one bit. Too arrogant.” sister Joseph voiced her opinion and for the first time Sarah considered that maybe the grouch had a point.

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Between the virtual world, immortality and reshaping matter reality takes a whole new meaning for the plucky descendants of the human race. The children of Terra Two are growing up in a world where dangers are non-existent and almost anything is possible.

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