“[_ Most people believe the mind to be a mirror, more or less accurately reflecting the world outside them, not realizing on the contrary that the mind is itself the principal element of creation.” ~Rabindranath Tagore _]
When the Mentor entered the Core, Mantaray emerged from the meditation of daily existence.
“What is Life?” the Mentor asked.
“[_Life is animate existence,” Mantaray answered. _]
Bending close, I whispered Ziggy’s name while gently, I touched his shoulder. His eyes cracked open; closed; opened; blinked. I pulled back to provide him space.
He sat, causing a cocoon of bedding to pool to his waste, revealing the lean hairless torso of a youth only recently become a man. He had a pretty face beneath a thick dark heap of hair, and the barest hint of a beard. I watched while he wrung the stiffness from his back and shoulders. He wiped grit from the corners of his shiny black eyes. “Ah-h-h,” he sighed. Then “Ho-o-o!” he huffed with more volume. Looking to me, he blinked again before surrendering to a mighty yawn: his overstretched mouth stalling to an open cavern for a few beats before collapsing back to normal.
We were tucked away in Ziggy’s favorite sleeping spot. The cubbyhole, mostly hidden from public view, was a leftover space where the rough wall of an ancient mud house poked out from a sleek glass façade. The intersection, where old met new, formed a triangular gap of leftover space. By aiming his feet into the acute angle, Ziggy could lie down with his legs extended, while leaving space enough for me to perch close by his head.
I watched Ziggy reach into the depths of his sleeping bag to grope around the oversized lump of his feet. Dragging out a clutch of rumpled clothes, he dropped them on his lap then slid out from under them. Freed from the bag, Ziggy exposed a partial erection that quickly retreated from the crisp morning air. Crawling on his knees, he made quick work of smoothing out a shirt with the palms of his hands before donning it and his crumpled pants.
When he rolled up his makeshift bed, I flicked my chest open, without being told. I held myself steady while he pressed the bedding into my proffered cavity. While he pulled on his shoes, I opened my thigh and passed him a hairbrush.
“Thank you, Chance-bot,” he said.
There were days when the man remained silent; sullen. But just as often, he was talkative. Sitting cross legged and working the tangles from his hair, he grunted contentedly. “I love these crisp mornings,” he said. “Pop!” he added, peering at me playfully. “Flowers,” he smirked, “In June the flowers pop into existence. Some of them so tiny,” he said, now staring past me, “half the size of my pinky nail…smaller than that even.” He ran his fingers through his hair, and made a final pass with the brush before handing it back to me. In the brief time it took for me to stash it away, Ziggy expertly bound his hair, employing a single fluid motion and a colorful length of cord. “You ready, Chance?”
“Ready when you are, Ziggy.”
The stars were in retreat. Purple washed the charcoal sky, hinting at the coming light.
“I don’t want to lose this spot,” Ziggy said. As if invoking with an incantation, he repeated, “I don’t want to lose this spot. We better get a move on.”
I’d been learning when to follow, and when to match him. We stood in unison. Ziggy was the taller, by about a head. Being a first level bot; a personal assistant-bot, I was humanoid. My face was designed to be convincingly human. Reviews described my golden eyes, tawny complexion and agile features; as compelling. Even handsome. Less admired was my reddish cap of stylized curls. The curls had been roundly condemned, as an ill conceived addition. Indeed, it seems, my faux hair was the primary reason I was sent to the curb, one year, ten months, three days, twenty-three hours, seventeen minutes and-- three seconds ago.
That day, as I waited on the street for the recycling truck, the sky was electric blue. My simple instructions admonished me to surrender to fate. While waiting for fate to find me, I observed the unfolding of a tranquil morning. I first noticed the man because he walked beside the mover, instead of riding it. Apparently, I’d been in existence long enough to form some expectations, as I kept expecting him to hop on. But he never did. When he came closer, I noticed the rumpled state of his clothing; by then, I realized he was watching me also.
He stopped in front of me. I could see his mind was at work. He began to question me. Then he sought to convince me, shyly at first; but eventually with passion. In classic Ziggy style, he mounted a circuitous polemic. As his keystone argument, he kept repeating, “timing is everything.” My fate, he declared, was to surrender to him. I couldn’t think of any rule forbidding it. I was programmed to serve. So, I agreed. I surrendered to him.
Using stealth and swift steps, Ziggy led our departure from our hideaway behind the mud wall. Moving quickly, we crossed through a patio, past a gate, and into the street. As always, Ziggy shunned the movers. So while he discussed his plans for the day, we walked the in-between places haphazardly strung together by transport corridors.
“Let’s go out to the sculpture park today, Chance-bot. I have this great idea for a new project. It came to me last night before I fell asleep. Guess what it’s going to be.” He laughed, “You’ll never guess.” He glanced at me sideways, and made a maniacal grin. But his tongue did not pause for long; I’d not be required to guess. “This one’s going to be about, how…ah…it’s about how beliefs create reality.” Eyes glittering, he laid out his premise. “Beliefs directly affect our perceptions, Chance. Like, like…I’ve heard that, that when a Fensterist has a near death experience, he sees the baby Shinza.” Words crowding from his mouth, fingers jabbing at the air, he was subsumed by passion. “Fensterists claim that, just like that, Shinza arrives in time to help the dying person to…ah…to ah, make the transition. Now compare that to an Interstalist. Interstalists claim to see the Seven Pestas at the…the, ah threshold. But here’s the story I’ve heard, most often. Usually, it seems, the dying person sees a light. Just that: a light.” Posture relaxed, he cupped the air with upturned palms. “Which I can totally relate to,” he said, “I mean…just about everyone is afraid of the dark! Right!?” His steps stuttered then stalled. “But why is there discrepancy?” he asked. He resumed walking to offer, “By the way, I don’t think any of these accounts are fiction.” He tapped his pursed lips with two fingers before waving a single finger to say, “Nope. Not fiction. Here’s what I think. I think that as long as we are on the physical side of life, we see the world through the filter of our beliefs. Think about that Chance! Even at the moment of death our expectations determine our experience!” His hands formed fists and he shook them with conviction. “Beliefs are powerful!” Glancing my way, he asked, “Do you understand what I’m saying, Chance?” He slowed his step to search my face; but only briefly, as his passion demanded movement. Surging forward with feet and mouth, he cried out, “I want to make a sculpture called, Belief is Prejudice. Belief is Prejudice! What do you think Chance?”
Our relationship was still young. Having nowhere else to look for an answer, I looked to data. “Belief,” I recited to him, “is the combining of personal experience with ideas received through respected authorities.” I looked to Ziggy for confirmation.
The drift of his head implied uncertainty; but a sudden head jerk offered agreement.
I continued, “You are suggesting that a belief system acts as a lens…that it shapes or distorts perception.” Another head jerk cleared me to proceed. “I think I understand your contention, but I don’t understand how you turn your abstract concept into a physical object,” I confessed. “What will you build to express your idea?”
“I don’t know!” he crowed. Clasping his hands to a praying fist, he declared, “That, my friend, is the magic of art. Art is a process. You’ll see, Chance-bot. You’ll see. We’ll do it together.”
As was typical of our mornings together, we wandered a circuitous route through the downtown neighborhood where the rough texture of the old mud houses were a common feature, slipping at odd angles from sleek glass. Though our route varied in accordance with Ziggy’s whims, every morning we eventually found our way to the bubble wall. Captured in some amber glass, an endless supply of bubbles streamed ever skyward. When we stopped to watch, Ziggy’s face tightened with concentration. He hardly breathed while we awaited the inevitable. When the random drift of bubbles regrouped into the current time, Ziggy let go a sigh, loosing the tense stance of his body. After the daily ritual, we always made a beeline to the brew shop.
When he finished at the brew shop, we clambered out the back way and over a low wall, where we dropped to the stripe of land where the river lived. On this day while walking Ziggy’s path, we spied a harvester-bot. Ziggy veered off track to fall in behind the squat little machine while I retrieved the mesh bag from my body.
Shaped like a tub on a ball-shaped-wheel, the harvester-bot sensed ripeness on a long list of fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Agile as bees, these bots were a fairly common sight, weaving amongst the city plantings. Specialized tools on telescoping arms allowed the harvester-bots to cut, pinch or carefully cup the edible focus of their ministrations. The tubby little bots were perfect guides since the mere shape of a human hand compelled it to surrender the crop.
“Ah this,” Ziggy cried with berry stained lips, “is absolutely my favorite month.”
Back on the river track, Ziggy recommenced his monologue. He claimed the leftover strip of land limning the river was a relic hailing from the time of the Spanish Conquest, back in the teen-hundreds. When a few minutes later, he declared the park was relatively new, I didn’t question the contradiction. My current understanding held that I could best serve the man by receiving him without needing explanation for every utterance.
Nearly an hour passed before we ascended from the river basin to the Paseo. The Paseo was dominated by mechanized motion. Racing down the center of the thoroughfare was a transport tube holding seated passengers. Flanking, both sides of the tube, were movers moving at a more pedestrian pace. Ziggy always became nervous in the thick of mechanized transport, so predictably he showed distress. I assumed the lead to hurry us forward.
A short distance later we arrived to a hub of chaos called Canyon Road Plaza. Up and over the plaza ramp we trotted before veering right onto Canyon Road. In our bid to escape, we loped the final blocks with our chests moving in parallel. Garcia Street was the relief we’d been angling for. There were no people movers on Garcia Street. Exiting Canyon Road, we entered the shade of apricot trees. While Ziggy mumbled relief, we slowed our steps. There were stucco walls lining the way, and no people or bots in evidence.
When we passed beneath a glass archway, Ziggy looked up, and asked, “Chance, is the ceiling above us?”
Tilting my head all the way back, I saw the pattern. The hatch of ultraviolet lines, infused in the overhead glass could not be seen by humans; but could be seen by birds; and kept them from crashing against the otherwise invisible barrier. “Yes, Ziggy, there is a ceiling,” I told him.
The temperature was stable beneath the heat harvesting glass. Ziggy slowed a bit more. Loose of limb, his face was serene. “This is the Canyon Road area, Chance,” he said. “The Historic Eastside,” he reminded me. “In the old days,” he said, “people rode donkeys instead of movers or tubes.” He threw back his head and laughed. “Imagine that,” he crowed, “riding an animal! Of course, eventually the donkeys were replaced by machines.” Squinting, he murmured, “Isn’t it odd that humans freed animals from slavery before they freed themselves? I wonder….”
Biting his lip, he said, “See, a long time ago, people were divided into two classes. There were the rulers and there were the workers. This was before robots, Chance. Back in those days, all the work had to be done by people. At first, every person did every kind of work. But towards the end, people became specialized; highly specialized. And they—” His voice cracked. “They’d use up the balance of their lives performing some small group of tasks over and over and over. Until they died, Chance.” His voice fell to a whisper. “Until they died.” Looking at me, he declared, “Then there were robots.”
Lips twitching, he said, “And strangely, the people resisted the bots-- resisted being replaced by them-- didn’t want to give their jobs up to them. I-- I guess….” He sighed. “I guess, they’d forgotten how to be human. They didn’t know what to do, or…I don’t know…who to be, without a job. So, they were...they were afraid to let the robots replace them. Even, Chance. Even when they hated what they did!” Ziggy shook his head; he blinked. “Finally,” he stated with conviction, “it happened. People couldn’t really compete; were no longer needed to…to perform work.” Raising his brows and shaking his head again, he said, “Scared. Obviously. That must have been it. They were scared. Who could even doubt it was an era dominated by fear. What else can explain the destruction?”
Ziggy fell silent. We passed through another opening in the glass. Cushioned by spongy pavement, our feet silently propelled us. When Ziggy spoke again, he said. “I don’t know exactly how it happened. People seriously did seem destined to destroy…well…to destroy everything! There was this big die-off. So many species…they just…they went extinct. People tore up the ground and poisoned the seas.” He frowned. “Maybe there was an element of self loathing?”
He hugged himself with both hands then stopped to address me more directly. “They say that all of the earth: land, air, and water,” he emphasized. “They say all of the Earth was once filled with plants and animals. Filled. All of it. With every kind of life. I’m not sure if I believe that. Sometimes, I think it could be true.” He started walking again. “Anyway, I doubt anyone will ever know how people found their way out of that…that…well, that death march. But, I’ll tell you what I think, Chance-bot. I’ll tell you what I believe. I believe it was art that saved us. Believe in art, Chance-bot. Believe art.”
“Yo! Danel!” a familiar voice shouted.
Danel looked up and witnessed the crowd become an audience. Heads turned to goggle. It wasn’t only the metallic sheen of Alex’ clothes, a bronze shirt and pewter pants bracketed by a shiny chrome scarf and shiny chrome shoes that shot shards of light. No Alex’ clothes were minor accessories to the sensation he contrived. Perpetually exuding an urgency of purpose, Alex was an absolute adept at drawing attention. His movements were large, with arms swinging, and legs reaching. His feet slapped, bouncing him into his next step. Alex’ sandy hair was long enough to curl around his ears and over his collar. One fat lock fell to his forehead over a prominent nose.
Alex converged on Danel with pronouncements, “I’ve been looking all over for you! We have to hurry. We’re late, now!” That’s when Alex launched himself; nearly knocking Danel over, as he sought to capture him with into a melodramatic hug.
Intent on telling every detail of what had transpired since they’d seen each other last, Alex embarked upon a self-centered monologue. The deep tones of his operatic voice excluded no one in the vicinity. Finally, Danel’s duffel popped into view. Grabbing it up, he said, “Okay.”
Alex spun and dashed. Danl fled after him in hot pursuit. The elevator had nearly escaped when they arrived; but with a quickly placed hand, Alex stopped the doors from closing all the way. The doors reopened, exposing a tightly packed group of riders. Alex, relentless, began compressing the unhappy occupants to a tighter fit. The rumble of complaints was not subtle.
Pulling Danel forward by the arm, Alex demanded, “Just two more. It’ll take at least three to crash this crate.”
Murmuring a curse under his breath, Danel allowed himself to be dragged into the crowded booth. Then the doors of the little box closed, and they were cast from the surface. Deep beneath the Atlantic Ocean, the condensed riders burst free into the bustle of a narrow corridor, acting as a street. Bubbling paragraphs, Alex wove through clogged arterioles with Danel in close pursuit. Head bent to the task, Danel was riding Alex’ heals around a blind corner when, abruptly, Alex slowed his step. The two briefly collided bringing Danel to a halt, while Alex spun around.
“I have these root pills from a shaman in Lacandonia,” Alex hissed. “They are simply delirious. As it happens, I saved one just for you.”
“Ah…gee, Alex, that’s very generous of you; but…ah…I have a lot I need to get done on this trip. I think I’ll just stick with known poisons.”
“Oh, come on! Danel….” Even with the crowd skimming close, Alex put his hands on his hips and struck a wide stance to perform his sales pitch. His chrome neck scarf mirrored the surging throng as streaming dots of color. “These just make you feel kind of euphoric. No major special effects. Danel! I promise! Honestly, Danel, these are nothing like the ones I gave you the last time.” Plucking at a pocket on his hip, Alex pulled out a little tiny vial. He snapped open the top of it and dropped out the pill. “Go on then….”
Crossing his arms, Danel made his hands unavailable. “I don’t have…ah…quite your ability to metabolize exotic substances, Alex.”
“Fine, Danel, more for me.” Popping the pill into his mouth, Alex spun a rapid turn on the pointy toes of his shiny shoes.
They entered a club.
The music pulsed. Purple, blue and green shafts of light partitioned the room. Sound and bodies swallowed them. Somewhere in the center of the melee, hands rose, gesturing; Alex gave a shout and pushed that way. Danel followed close, groping his way through the thicket. Alex thrust Danel into a tight circle of his chums, supplied rapid unheard introductions and disappeared to “buy the first round.”
A carefully dressed man, but wearing an odd hat, stood opposite Danel. Shouting over the din, the man volunteered, “Alex says you’re an architect. What brings you to Savaj City?”
Danel replied, “I’m here—-” voice straining over the noise, so he leaned in closer, “to check out the new Westport District.”
In a scarcely audible shout, the man complained, “The Westport, huh? It’s not really happening yet. Not that it matters to the tourists, who’ve lost no time claiming it. Go to any restaurant over there, and it’s just them.” With a shrug, he added, “I say, let them have it.”
A young woman at Danel’s side whispered hotly in his ear, “I think it’s an amazing place. And the beach! I was there just last week to watch the lights.”
Alex surfaced from the sea of bodies to press a dark concoction into Danel’s hand.
The man in the hat continued, “Okay, sure, the beach is pretty nice.”
Alex erupted into giggles. “Oh, the beach!” he cooed, “The lights are incredible, Amigo. I love that you can watch them all along the shore. Danel, you have to let me go with you when you check on it. Let’s go tomorrow night after…mm…or…hmm. Maybe we should go later on this morning and watch the day lights come on!” Alex had that fuzzy look about the eyes. No doubt, his pills had kicked in.
“How does the water flow?” the Mentor asked.
Surveying the water, Mantaray shaped the patterns into words. “Salty water touches every shore. Turbulent through my pipes, it swirls. Spills from founts, it forms a froth that ripples round my ponds,” she said.
“Is it awake?” someone asked, and I opened my eyes.
I was confronted by an external world comprised of a small room containing several objects and four humans. Two of the humans were large and two of them were small.
My first humans gave me simple tasks like lifting or fetching objects. Also, I performed simple housekeeping duties. I cooked meals. But in those early days, I lived in an unequal duality. My internal world, composed of vast stores of data, was largely disconnected from my limited external world. The day I was sent to the curb, my connection to the physical world remained rather tenuous. Then Ziggy came along and, like a cataclysmic storm, inextricably entangled those two worlds.
Garcia Street ended at Camino del Monte Sol. Ziggy and I passed through another glass arch. The plants were stunted and the air was hot. “We are no longer under the glass,” I volunteered.
Ziggy laughed, “I figured that out all by myself.” He cut his eyes my way to add, “But thanks anyway, Chance-bot.”
We turned left. After a short jaunt up Monte Sol, we dropped into an arroyo situated behind the ruins of an old mud museum. Ziggy pulled off his shirt; tied it around his long waist. The man’s chest was relatively pale next to his sun darkened face and hands.
“Okay, Chance,” Ziggy instructed, “let’s collect any good rocks we see. I need them for our sculpture.”
This was a first. I had never been enlisted to choose materials for a sculpture. I required clarification to fulfill the request. “Which kind of rock,” I asked, “is a good one, Ziggy?”
“Unique ones,” he offered. “Also,” he added, “they need to be fist-sized or smaller; so we can fit a bunch of them in the special bag.”
I kept a special bag tucked away for ventures such as this. Retrieving the sturdy bag from a thigh compartment, I hung it from one shoulder, as Ziggy had taught me, so the strap cut a diagonal across the doors of my chest. As we walked, I canvassed our surrounds. The edges of the embankment were plated with sharp edged rocks, anchored into place by scruffy desert plants. Through the center of the arroyo, where we walked, I saw smooth rocks, strewn into clusters by erstwhile intermittent flows and floodwater surges. Still at a loss, I sought a more precise explanation.
“Unique in what respect, Ziggy?” I asked. “Each stone is different, yet can be grouped according to shared qualities.”
Ziggy grabbed up a stone with his black-fingered hand, and declared, “This is a good one, Chance. See, it has kind of a picture on it. Plus, it’s a really pretty green.”
I examined the chosen stone. It contained an embedded fossil, partially exposed where the chunk had broken away from a larger version of itself. Glancing at a soil survey, I saw the green color was statistically less represented, in the geomorphology of this arroyo. I placed the rock in the bag; then proceeded to scan for unique qualities. Ziggy soon handed me another. I analyzed this latest example. It was made of quartz and had mica striations in one corner. Again I ran a comparison.
“Zig,” I said, “I understand how the first rock is unique, but this one is predominantly composed of silicates. Silicates account for ninety percent of the rock forming minerals on the Earth’s crust. Are you certain, this is what you want?”
“Definitely!” he exclaimed. “Look, how clear the quartz is. And the silver lines form a really nice pattern. It reminds me of hieroglyphics.”
I scanned over the hieroglyphics database. “Ziggy, can you explain to me, step by step, your process for choosing a stone.”
Ziggy considered the request. “I suppose what I do is, I wait. I wait for the rock to…to, um, call out to me.” His eyes cut my way. “Not like the rock actually speaks in words, Chance. But well, it needs to be different enough from the other ones around it to…to grab my attention. Just don’t think about it, Chance. Walk along and kind of glance around, then grab up the first one that seems right. Remember, it’s impossible to make a wrong choice.” He grinned and added, “Well, as long as it’s not bigger than my fist, that is.”
I knew that not thinking would require me to power down. And I understood this was not what Ziggy wanted. So, I did as he asked, as I understood it, by sweeping my vision, back and forth across our projected path; in an attempt to fulfill the conditions that would result in the phenomena, of one rock standing out from the others.
“Once upon a time, humans lost the ability to imagine,” Ziggy said. “That loss caused them to nearly destroying life on this planet. Desires were designed and marketed. The clutter of manufactured desire and boxed entertainment destroyed true originality.” Ziggy sighed. “And, Chance, I’m sorry to report,” he lamented, “that the artist spirit is, once again, being eroded. We are losing the ability to imagine alternate possibilities. This culture,” seeming to implicate the world, Ziggy threw his arms wide, “throws everything back into the re-fabrication bin. Each object is replaced with another one that is essentially the same. We mistake novelty for originality.” Pulling himself erect with importance, he said, “I like to make sculptures that surrender to the cycles of nature.” Tapping his chest, he said, “I do this as a meditation of surrender.” Dropping his hands, he explained, “Manufactured impermanence is the child of boredom. Natural impermanence is the child of respect. I respect the cycles of life.”
Smiling satisfaction, he dove at a stone; swept it up, and handed it over to me. I inspected it. This one was a pink hued quartz; it had two lobes that tapered to a single point. The stone was small enough, to fit into Ziggy’s long fingered fist. Perplexed, I added the selection to the bag.
“My creations are meant to melt back to the earth. An artist should not be defined by a pile of products, Chance. As a matter of fact, an artist doesn’t have to make a single thing. A true artist is someone who invents an original life. I choose to make works of art because it helps me to refine my process of invention. And I’ll tell you another thing, just so you know; it is inevitable that when I build a work of art, it will fail to communicate…mm…to communicate…ah…to communicate clearly with the other. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because…well because it’s more important to learn how to communicate with myself.”
Ziggy continued to talk while I continued to sweep the path with my vision. When my sight snagged on an anomalous form, I swooped down without further consideration and scooped up the stone. Holding it out, I asked, “What about this rock, Ziggy. Does it fulfill your criteria of uniqueness?”
Ziggy displayed a vivid interest in my offering. While examining it, his expression cycled from bewilderment to delight, and back to bewilderment again. When he looked at me pointedly, his face conveyed an expression I did not recognize. “Do you know what this is, Chance?”
“This is a stone tool. I think it’s a broken spearhead. Chance, I am…well, I am stunned!”
“Did I choose badly, Ziggy?”
“Au contraire, my genius sprite; you performed beyond my grandest expectation. Do you understand the significance of what you’ve just done?”
“No, Ziggy, I do not.”
Bouncing on his toes, he began, “You’ve just—” He stopped to collect his thoughts. “I think you might have let go of logic! Yes, that’s what you did! This is monumental! You took a leap of faith! And look what you found! Wow, Chance. Just…well, wow.” He reached out, to the bag slung across my chest; and deposited the spearhead. “Astonishing, Chance,” he added.
With notice of arrival, he allowed himself to be caught by the human flow spilling out the portal. “Perfect!” he cried. Ample space fell away in every direction. He felt released from the tight corridors he’d left behind in the outdated part of Savaj City. Danel’s new district was held inside a luminous blue-green hemisphere, monumental in scale, that shimmered through from every direction like an all encompassing sky. Glistening like drops of dew, were the buildings, hung among a network of crystal fibers. The whole of it was not unlike a sprawling spider web draped inside a globe. Thrilled with his best creation to date, Danel energetically hopped onto the orange people mover that spiraled through the whole of it.
Later in the day, Alex called. “Where are you?” he asked. Neglecting to wait for an answer, he insisted, “I’m starving! Let’s do dinner at that restaurant where the orange mover meets the beach. Best shrimp in town! Get us a table. And don’t go to the beach without me! You haven’t been to the beach yet have you?”
“I want to be there when you see it,” Alex interrupted, “Anyway, it’s best after all the day lights have gone off.”
Danel was slightly drunk, when he and Alex stepped from the restaurant. He paused just outside the portal, to admire the softly lit scenery under the artificial night. An ethereal sculpture outlining the beach drew his eyes to its golden-brown weave of light. When Danel and Alex crossed through it, the light briefly marked their knees into a glyphic pattern. Showing his characteristic urgency, Alex herded Danel forward toward the faint glow of a walkway suspended amidst marshland grasses on likewise floating platforms. When Danel tried slow to examine the view, Alex continued to hijack his pace, by grasping his upper arm.
“Come on!” Alex demanded, “We’re not there yet.”
Having pulled Danel back into motion, Alex sped ahead; passing by the marshland islands with nary a glance. Danel’s eyes flicked past details he’d meant to savor. Finally, Alex lurched to a stop. They’d reached the massive outer sphere. Outside the crystal wall, an incomparable scene was playing out. Blue and green phosphorescence splashed in rapid flashes of entirely temporal light.
Reaching a hand toward the out-of-reach view, Alex confessed, “I thought you were screwing up when you told me about this part of the project. But my gods, this is stunning!”
Danel smiled in silent agreement. They were witnessing the lives of clones. The formerly extinct sea creatures lived inside a tube that encircled the city sphere like a belt. The natural ocean had long ago acidified; rendering it uninhabitable to saltwater creatures. While perusing a DNA catalog of lost species, Danel happened across the cirrate octopus which emitted visible light; an ability called bioluminescence. Inspired by the alien anomaly, Danel searched the catalog, sorting by bioluminescence.
Alex was oddly quiet, so Danel swung his attention back onto him. The glowing walkway, softly lit Alex’ face from below. The reverse shadows left the bridge of his nose and the crown of his head in relative darkness; his eyes glistened above fluted cups of shading. His metallic clothes glimmered gunmetal-blue. Alex fished into a pocket and retrieved a flask. After taking a pull, he held the flask out to Danel who took the smallest sip possible before handing it back. They began to stroll.
Since dinnertime drinks still challenged his steps, Danel kept his eyes on the track. “So, Alex,” he said, “you’ve been in Savaj City for…what? Ten months now? Where will you go next?”
Alex coughed up a laugh. “Fuck me,” he complained. “Am I really so predictable?”
Danel answered with one shoulder shrug, stopping to perform another quick audit of his surrounds. As far as he could see, they were the only humans on this stretch of beach. Somewhat unsteady, he accomplished in a slow motion rotation. When he looked up, the wall curved away, seemingly unimpeded to the heavens; a remarkable accomplishment for an undersea city.
Alex threw a hands in the air. “I suppose you think I should get a real job with a university, and be a respectable anthropologist,” he said. The ambient silence amplified his pronouncement.
Danel's hands migrated to his pockets while his eyes dropped to the silhouette of his feet. When he looked up, he said, “Alex, I don't judge you. I get it. You study modern cultures. And, hey-- you're the only person I know who has citizenship in nine provinces. So, tell me, where will you go next?”
In a voice unusually soft, Alex said, “Lacandonia.”
“Ah,” Danel said, nodding his head, “hence the Lacandonian pills. Which part?”
“The Universidad de San Carlos de Lacandonia,” Alex answered. His next words, he flung like an ambush: “I’m going to be a poet in residence!”
“How does the air blow?” the Mentor asked.
[_Surveying the air, Mantaray shaped the pattern into words. “I touched the sky three days ago; my pores still two-thirds full. The bees buzz bubbles of carbon. The birds pump trails of carbon. The humans expectorate carbon. Through the plants the oxygen trends to prevail. In five more days, I touch the sky again.” _]
Finally he was ready to begin, and he set me to task. My job was to move small boulders and position them as instructed while Ziggy hung over me and performed minute adjustments. Once the boulders were situated to his liking, Ziggy and I filled the in between spaces with smaller stones. Eventually, we had a perfectly square, perfectly level pedestal. On top of this foundation, Ziggy had me add more boulders; betwixt which he again placed smaller stones. We worked steadily under a solid blue sky. Level upon level, our structure grew taller while Ziggy’s shoulders turned darker; then darker.
“Let’s take a break,” Ziggy announced before crawling into a tangle of juniper tree branches. I joined him in the pocket of space beside the trunk; then offered up a bottle of water from my chest.
“Are we building a pyramid?” I asked him.
His face lit up. “We are,” he agreed.
“And it is meant to express that beliefs are prejudice,” I verified.
“Because we are taking randomly dispersed objects and piling them into a preconceived shape?” I asked.
Ziggy jerked his head as though he’d been slapped. “Huh,” he said, “Maybe.” Flattening his lips, he stared at nothing. “I’m more inclined to be intuitive,” he said; “but…huh.”
We returned to our labors. The sun was well past its zenith when Ziggy dropped from his haunches onto his seat. Sprawled in the sand, he declared, “Woo! I’d say we got some stuff done. Let’s call it a day. I need to eat.” Standing and dusting off his seat, Ziggy pointed to a prickly pear cactus, and said, “Dinner.”
Peering at the thorny mound, I wondered if he was making a joke. “Pick the medium size ones, Chance. Make sure they’re firm; not wrinkled.” Wrinkling his nose, he said, “The wrinkled ones aren’t any good.” After explaining, how to peel and de-thorn the pads, Ziggy wandered away.
Though I was meticulous and tried to be careful, too may of the thorns became embedded in the soft pads of my fingers. They were fine like human hair with barbed tips. While it was true that over time my fingertips would expel the foreign objects and heal; their presence were proving disruptive to my tactile clarity. When Ziggy returned with findings for a salad, he found me picking at the thorny irritants.
“Do they hurt?” Ziggy asked.
“They hurt my concentration.”
Ziggy chuckled, “Good one, Chance-bot. Here,” he said, “Let me show you a trick.”
Plucking open a compartment in my thigh, Ziggy retrieved a small knife. He showed me how to scrape with the edge of it, to clear the thorns away in patches. While Ziggy stuffed the groomed prickly pears with the morning’s berries, and a dubious chunk of cheese; I tended my fingers.
The fast dropping sun was lighting the east wall of the arroyo gold when I put the knife away and pulled out the heat disk. By now adept at cooking outdoors, I searched out a dense flat stone and placed the heat disk on the center of it. Once the rock was sufficiently hot, I arranged the stuffed lobes for roasting.
“Woof, that’s better,” Ziggy announced on swallowing his final bite. Familiar with the routine, I waited in a crouch with my feet planted and arms draped around my knees while Ziggy pulled out the stash he preferred to carry in his own pocket instead of one of mine. Along a central fold on a small rectangle, he piled a line of dried plant matter. With a flick of practiced fingers, he rolled the package. Passing his tongue along the edge, he sealed the tube with a slick of spit. Pressing a twig firmly against the heat disk, he waited for the tip to change to a brilliant red. Using the twig, he lit his smoke.
Exhaling, Ziggy croaked, “Look at those stars, Chance.”
I looked up.
“A long, long time ago, my ancestors came from there,” he said while pointing. “From a different solar system than this one. They arrived on Earth with a system of knowledge modeled on the wisdom of the firmament. You see, Chance-bot, everything is connected. We share our destiny with planets and stars. Without stars we wouldn’t exist; and neither would they.”
Turning from the sky, I saw him draw another breath of smoke from the tube pinched between two of his fingers. His eyes were red; his smile was wide.
Deciding to begin, Danel bowed. Slow and deliberate, he began to move; to stretch. Momentum building, his arms were gliding now. Gliding. Gliding. Gliding. Following the lead of his arms, his legs trailed gracefully into the air. Whirling; lunging; heart now strongly pumping, he flowed.
Into stillness, he flowed.
He stayed in the standing pose to watch while the purple wash of the early sky morphed into royal blue. A thin gold line edged the tallest peak. He watched the line thicken. It bulged; became a pale yellow hump. By the time the sun was melting free of the mountain top, his heart had slowed. Raising both hands, he offered a final salute.
Danel trotted from the window. Grabbing up his app bracelet from the bathroom bin; he snapped it to his forearm dock. Tap-tapping the screen, he initiated shower presets as he was stepping into the stall. Water shot from every wall; some streams strong, others just a mist. He stood at ease while allowing the humidity to soften his beard. Retrieving a shaving card from a slot in the wall, he zapped smooth his neck, jaw and chest while he considered the day ahead and dreamed about the off-planet. The notice to proceed had come in yesterday; late, while he was still in transit. Today he would announce it. The rinse cycle ended. Danel stayed put so the walls could dry him with warm puffs of air. Only a little damp, he stepped from the stall.
With wide open eyes and a bounce to his step, Danel went straight to the wardrobe. He quickly scrolled through the options on the screen; made choices; set the wardrobe to fabricate. For shoes, he picked among his stowed collection, tossing a pair to the floor.
Fabricating was rapid, thanks to a recent upgrade to his wardrobe hardware. The new mechanism was not only faster, it also had new color options; twenty-four instead of sixteen. Feeling pleased, Danel slipped on a peacock blue shirt, still vaguely warm. As he was stepping into his buff colored pants, his socks were delivered in a pleasing whir of gears. Nearly ready to go, Danel plugged his earbuds into place. By the time he was sitting on the little bench to pull on his boots, the ceiling had dimmed to almost nothing, in deference to the full light of day.
Danel angled past the kitchen without a glance. Stepping into cool morning air, he decided to forgo the people movers; to instead walk to his brew stop. His destination was not far, and it also was not close; still, he enjoyed the occasional novelty of traveling under his own power. Danel lived in the famed Mud-Wave Heritage District. The district was distinctive because it featured the successful marriage of mud house architecture with solar wave architecture.
The mud house architecture haled from the late teen centuries. These were buildings built out of actual mud bricks. The mostly one and two story buildings had once lined crooked streets. The tallest buildings from that time, topped out at four stories.
The solar wave architecture had gone up during the new energy revolution before the middle of the twenty first century. Danel loved the wave architecture. The monumental crystalline shapes were built right over the top of the existing mud city. The wave was a superstructure composed of thirteen uniformly spaced stripes of glass running north and south. Curving up from the earth, each of the thirteen high flying ceilings ran straight as arrows before terminating to an upswept curl. Seen from a distance, the shape of the superstructure brought to mind either a stylized gust of wind, or the ghost of an ocean wave.
Though Danel could appreciate the historical significance of the mud house architecture; he favored the glass buildings with ceilings offering views to the sky. Selectively tinted, the glass was often etched or otherwise detailed to afford privacy. And in harvesting energy from the sun, the glass also harvested the heat, delivering a pleasant interior temperature. Finally, the abundance of light encouraged indoor gardening; food and flowers were everywhere in abundance.
Approaching the brew shop, Danel waved hello to regulars sitting on the patio. Set back from the street, the patio was surrounded by a low glass block wall, tinted the color of sage. From all appearances, the patio could have been outside; but was, in fact, located beneath one of the solar waves. Not breaking stride, Danel headed for the translucent red portal set into a smoke colored facade.
Touching the portal open; Danel had stepped inside into a crimped line. At a tall corner table a few steps from the queue, his friend Len was sitting on a bar style stool. Danel nodded hello.
“How was your trip?” Len asked.
Answering from where he stood, Danel said, “Oh, you know, mostly business. But I did manage a visit with Alex.”
“Oh? How’s he doing, these days?” Len asked.
“Wild as ever,” Danel said, shaking his head, but smiling.
When he reached the red counter, Danel placed his order with an absent wave of his forearm. He was having his usual. While the many-armed drink-bot expelled sounds and smells congruent with his request, Danel returned to checking out the scene. When he heard the whir of gears, that modern signal of product delivery, Danel met the drink-bot gripper at the halfway mark on the counter. While focused on holding the golden cup level, he heard Frances calling out his name. Glancing her way, he pursed his lips and jounced his chin to point, and proceeded into the adjoining room.
His usual crowd was gathered around a corner table. As could be expected, they were passionately engaged in a high octane caffeine fueled discussion. An etched leaf pattern in the pale green wall contributed a rich tableau beside the conversational heat. Crossing the amber floor, Danel snatched up a pearl gray chair with his free hand. Locking eyes with the table’s single occupant, he secured a nod of approval before ferrying the chair over to the tiny table around which an absurd number were amassed. A commotion of scraping chairs opened a slim gap of welcome. Danel placed his tiny cup at the edge of an already overburdened surface, so he could use both hands to set his chair right.
Once settled into place, he tuned into Joud, who was voicing discontent. “Why should a person have to work for the government just to survive?” Joud demanded to be told.
In the singsong cant of an oft repeated argument, Ham responded, “We have a government by and for the people, Joud. If you look at history, you’ll find government workers had a habit of misbehaving whenever they were a separate class.”
Elena added, “Giving one year of service, to secure ten years of citizenship: what could be more fair, Joud? Look what you get in return, food, shelter, education. These are free because everyone does their time.”
Vigorously shaking his giant blond head, Joud protested, “It’s not free if you have to give service for it! How is that free?”
Her tone soothing, Elena contended, “Joud, the system is set up specifically to encourage all of us to be invested….to take personal responsibility for our government. I really can’t conceive of a more equitable system.”
Joud’s response leaked frustration, “Not everyone is suited for service. Look at Zig. He’s the rarest of creatures, an utterly free spirit. There should be room for free spirits. Yet there he is, absolutely locked out of the system.”
“He’s not locked out. He can ride the public transport like anyone else. Basic medical engineering is a universal right, no questions asked,” Elena corrected, “And anyway, he can join at any time. There’s no lock.”
“We could hardly call ourselves human if we didn’t provide medical engineering,” Joud scoffed. “But come on! He has to beg for food! And why should anyone have to hide in a corner to sleep at night?”
“Medical engineering isn’t just about staunching a wound, Joud. He gets all his basic implants; and maintenance too,” Elena pointed out.
Billam piped in gruffly, “If Ziggy put out just half the effort he uses to barely survive….” He shook his head to add, “It doesn’t make any sense, to skip out on service time. He makes his own troubles just to be different.”
Ham added, “Even if he’s against becoming a citizen for…for…whatever reason, he could get a job and earn credits that way.”
“He’s an artist!” Joud yelped.
Arriving with her drink, Frances leaned close to Danel’s ear. “Good morning,” she whispered.
Danel scraped his chair a little as invitation. Frances had to set her chair so close, their thighs were crushed together. Shifting slightly, Danel asked her, “Did you get my message?”
“I did,” Frances murmured. “In-credible,” she emphasized.
Billam groused, “The point is he has a choice. If he wants to enjoy the benefits of society then he needs to do his part. He wants to beg and grub about, let him. I’m not going to cry about it.”
Wincing at Billam’s words, Elena continued, “Joud, if you hand the responsibility of governing over to a few careerists, you leave yourself open to all sorts of problems. Look, if you have a better idea, let’s hear it.”
Almost taking another sip of coffee, Danel paused to interject. “Joud, it’s not like anyone’s asking Zig to dig holes and carry rocks.”
Danel persisted, “Seriously, Joud, before we had the machines and the bots, people had to do all the physical stuff themselves. I’m certain you know this. They still teach this in school, right? Anyway,” he continued, “For too much of history, humans slaved for humans; just to survive, Joud, just to survive. Now after doing our service, we’re free to spend the next nine years doing anything we want.” He took a sip of his drink. “Travel, study, create art….build relationships…athletics….”
Elena jumped in. “Look, Joud, obviously the basics could be free since the bots do everything; but then how would we get people to take part in government?”
“Yes! Exactly!” Joud said. “It could all be free! But everyone’s so caught up in measuring. Look when we initially shifted over to Service Democracy…okay, maybe we needed to coerce people since it was a new idea, to ensure success. But we all know that at any given time, around ten percent of the population is working for the government. And we all know that most people have very little to do during that year. Even with the new abbreviated hours, we are grossly overstaffed. It’s a total waste of a year. If I live to be 120, I end up wasting 10 years of my life. That’s ridiculous! The most important decisions are decided by question ballots. I think it’s time we made some changes.”
“Well, if you see problems, it’s your responsibility to find solutions. If you waste your service time, that’s on you,” Elena said. “Oh,” she exclaimed with apparent insight. “Is your service time coming up?” she asked.
Leaning into Danel, Frances spoke confidentially. “I’d bet the off-planet is populated by more than their fair share of political firebrands.”
“Speaking of the off-planet,” Danel whispered back, “Do the rest of the team know we got the project?”
“I told Saul.”
“That ought to do it,” Danel said. Throwing back his espresso, he asked, “You ready?”
“Sure,” she said, downing hers.
Frances and Danel headed for the exit. On their way by, they dropped their cups into the dish-bot. The dish-bot snatched up the cups. With a snuffling noise, it rid them of residual liquid before positioning them into its re-fabrication feed.
“How do you establish priorities?” the Mentor asked Mantaray.
“Everything is equal,” Manaray responded.
“Nothing is equal,” the Mentor explained.
“Everything is equivalent,” Mantaray responded.
“Everything seems equivalent until the unexpected occurs,” the Mentor explained.
Nearby a mover droned a monotone. “Uh-huh,” the mover crooned, singing the tale of a lone traveler. There were not so many riders at this late hour. The sharp slap of rapidly approaching feet broke open the texture of the night.
Because Ziggy placed much import on keeping our little hideaway a secret; I dropped down to my haunches. The whir of nearby hinges on a shifting gate narrowed my focus. When the gate swung open, a human filled the gap. Though the stranger was an unmoving silhouette, I could perceive the acuity of scrutiny.
Abruptly, a voice called out. “You!” he shouted. “There! Between the mud and the glass! What are you doing here?” he demanded. I hesitated, uncertain. Should I respond; or should I instead awaken Ziggy? The form coalesced to a posture of aggression. Stamping a foot, he hurled provocations. “Answer me! You’re not hidden! I’ll have you removed by force!”
Simultaneous to standing, I began a response. “My master is sleeping. Allow me to rouse him.” Recoiling in surprise, the human shrank. Recognizing the opportunity, I glanced away from the threat, to nudge at the unconcerned countenance of the still slumbering Ziggy. To hasten the process, I said, “Zig, wake up.” Though unable to see past the shadow holding Ziggy’s face, I recognized the small shifts that signified awakening. To hasten the process, I added, “There’s an angry man who wishes to speak to you.” The effect was immediate; Ziggy’s body shot up to attention. Legs yet bound by his sleeping bag, he twisted his torso to peer beyond the fence of my own limbs.
The stranger’s initial surprise was replaced with renewed vigor. The man lobbed an insult. “Stop hiding behind that bot, you coward! I’ll not tolerate a filthy, lazy drifter.”
On these words, Ziggy recognized the man. He was the chef. We were hidden behind his restaurant. Disentangling himself from his nighttime sack, Ziggy calmly answered the aggressive man. “Brother, I will leave at once,” he said.
“You are not my brother!” the man spat back. “You have no right to be here! I ought to call a security-bot, right now!”
I was perplexed by the man’s combative tone; concerned at the unprovoked temper; wary of the unpredictability he conveyed. So as response, I made myself a protective barrier to afford Ziggy sufficient time to gather himself, and his things.
Perhaps angered by Ziggy’s meticulous manner; perhaps unafraid of a machine undoubtedly programmed to refrain from harming a sapient, the man was emboldened. When Ziggy commenced to leave as promised, the chef crowded our withdrawal, in a conspicuous bid to prolong his program of harassment. “You’re little more than a frightened parasite, hiding behind that bot,” the man hissed. His rant gained momentum, his voice became shrill. “Where did you get that bot anyway? You’re obviously not a citizen. Useless! You’re just a useless freeloader. A useless freeloader who gives nothing back!”
Wearing the sleeping bag across his shoulders, Ziggy wordlessly abided the abuse while I continued to shield against the increasingly credible danger, of violent words escalating into violent actions. We wound our way from the courtyard to the street. Eventually, the angry voice receded. Gradually, the white noise of night reassembled itself. Meanwhile, Ziggy and I angled toward an alternate retreat. The streets we walked were emptied. Eventually, I parted the silence with a question.
“Ziggy, why was the man so excessively angry?” I asked.
Though the moonless night continued to hold Ziggy’s face in mystery, there was sadness in the drift of his disembodied voice. “Sometimes,” he said, “the fear comes directly from the body; from the person’s DNA. Actually, you know what? RNA is the programming. So…in the same sense that you are hostage to your programming, Chance; humans are hostage to DNA as instructed by their RNA.”
I considered this answer. “To me the man seemed very angry. You saw him as afraid?”
“Anger is only one of many ways people find to express fear. Fear can sometimes be hard to recognize because it has too many faces, Chance.” He sighed. “…too many faces…. Sometimes fear can even look like happiness. Fear that looks like happiness might be the most debilitating distortion of all; because inevitably there will be people who encourage that brand of fear.”
“Fear that looks like happiness? I don’t understand, Ziggy. How can fear look like happiness?”
“A happy drunk,” Ziggy shot back. He paused to readjust the bag around his shoulders, thus allowing the silence to reassemble. Again breaking the spell, Ziggy said, “Big anger. When someone’s anger seems way out of proportion….” He sighed. “Well…that’s a clue. Big, giant, oversized anger is a clue that the source of the fear is deeply buried; is buried deep in the subconscious. Chance…whenever you can figure a way to do it…. Find a way to respond to anger with compassion.”
A mover hummed another segment of silence. We were walking beside the river when Ziggy offered a confession. “For me, compassion takes an awful lot of courage; usually all of my courage. Because my pain…my fear…. It gets triggered,” he said.
Just past the fish sculpture was Frances’ bonsai collection. Circling past the fish, Danel steered to a guest chair, and plunked down to wait.
Frances continued to the pedestal where five miniature lemon trees waited to be tended. Picking up a tiny pair of shears, Frances bent close to scrutinize the plants.
Danel and Frances had been friends since the days when they were both much thinner and much younger. In the last couple of years Frances had put on weight; and for some reason Danel found this development to be touching. Perhaps this was the inevitable result of weathering time together. Whatever the cause, Danel found Frances very appealing in her middle age. The warm gray blouse and matching gray slacks, she wore, were perfectly cut to drape flatteringly over the fullness of her figure. He’d always liked her confident carriage. Her hair was a mass of cropped brown coils; save a spiral length of gray, she kept long enough to tuck behind one ear.
So softly did she speak to the plants, he couldn’t hear her words. While he watched, she touched and turned, first one and then another, of the simple pots. After much deliberation, she made only a single cut before returning the shears to the edge of the glass pedestal. Turning her back to the plants, Frances looked at Danel and asked, “Are you excited?”
“Of course,” he admitted.
By the time the rest of the design team had begun to arrive, Danel and Frances were relocated to a nearby lounge. Saul was the first to arrive on the scene. He had dimples that blinkered on and off whenever he smiled.
“Good morning, Frances; Danel,” he said, flashing a smile. Folding his arms, he examined Danel. “Look at you, Danel.” His dimples winked like punctuation marks. “You don’t look the least bit jet lagged,” he remarked.
Stabbing at humor, Danel said, “The glow of inspiration must be obscuring my dark circles.”
Frances and Saul locked eyes; but were saved from any need to reply, as the remainder of the team arrived.
Carla led, holding a bag fragrant with the aroma of baked goods, which she dropped on a low table. “A small offering to celebrate the new project,” she announced.
Following a few steps behind her, Pancho dropped into the seat closest to the baked goods. Snatching up the bag, he dug in to pull out one of the stickier confections. Tossing the bag at Danel, he said, “Good morning, all.”
“Since you’re all here,” Frances said, “we should find a nice big wall.”
“My space,” Saul suggested. When he set off, the others trailing in pairs.
Carla fell in with Pancho and offered him a wide eyed grin.
Pancho laughed. “I know. Pretty amazing,” he agreed.
Saul led them to a roomy couch, opposite a big white wall. Carla dropped down next to Saul on the couch, and Pancho fell in beside her. Depositing the bag of baked goods on Saul, Danel ignored the remaining selection of low slung seats; and disappeared behind the wall to pillage a chair from Saul’s office. Assuming a standing position, Frances waited while Danel navigated the chair to a location halfway between her and the couch crew. Frances scrolled, swiped and then tapped her forearm device to synch a projection. On the wall there appeared a planet wrapped in clouds. Frances looked at her audience and waited through a final rustling of the bag. Finally the silence was complete, and all eyes focused on her.
“As you all know,” she began, “we have notice to proceed on the New Planet Undersea City.” A brief patter of applause brought a smile to her face and enlivened her brown eyes. “Varun was the first planet outside our own solar system, to be chosen by the Coalition of Nations for open colonization,” she began. After pushing the gray spiral of hair behind one ear, she tapped again at her arm to initiate a programmed sequence of footage. The view skimmed through clouds, toward a silvery sea that entirely filled the curve of a far off horizon. The camera view conducted a measured descent before coming to rest on a solitary island. Frances narrated while the program switched to flipping through still shots, of the island, a settlement, and black sand beaches. “This is Kamarong Island and Kamarong City on the planet called Varun,” she narrated. “To date, Kamarong Island is the only land mass to be found above sea level on Varun. Thus, the space station was built there. Next August, the twentieth anniversary of the New Planet Colonization Program. Some of the colonist, actually a minority of colonists, have chosen to settle permanently on Kamarong Island; whereas, the vast majority have chosen to live on the open sea. This majority call themselves seasteaders. Thus far, the seasteaders have been living nomadic lifestyles aboard the ubiquitous hydroliners.” On the white screen beside her there appeared a picture of a hydroliner: a yacht mounted atop hydraulic legs connected to immensely long skis. “The seasteaders,” Frances explained, “have been the primary voice lobbying the Coalition to build a permanent undersea city. The Coalition believes the construction of an undersea city is an ideal way to show support for, and encourage the citizenry to transition into responsibility for self government.” Frances paused to glance at her arm device. Then panning her audience, she stressed, “I’m confident you recognize that by designing this key city, we will serve a critical function in ensuring the future success of the people on this planet.” The photo presentation paused on a frame showing clusters of seasteaders. “Questions?” Frances asked.
Carla lifted a finger. Frances nodded. “Yes, Carla.”
“What about our responsibility toward the planet? Will that be a listed goal?” Carla asked.
Frances smiled; nodded her head knowingly. “You are very consistent,” she said, with genuine warmth. “Let’s talk about our design parameters for the undersea city,” Frances said, initiating the next sequence of images with a flick. “The city shall be designed to support a total population of 20,000 permanent residents. The city must be completely self-sustaining,” she said, looking pointedly at Carla. “Indeed, it should require no imports from off-planet, or even from Kamarong Island. This is not to suggest trade will be disallowed among current or future on planet cities. But trade should be a matter of choice rather than necessity. So…” she glanced at Danel, who shrugged, a nothing here, response. “…that’s a general overview,” she concluded. Noting Carla’s expression, Frances tipped her forehead. “Go ahead, Carla.”
Carla looked almost too young to be a member of the design team. In her late twenties, she was tiny with a delicate build. She had pale skin and pale blonde hair. Looking like a precocious child, she leaned forward. “Originally,” she began. “Twenty years ago,” she clarified. “Why did the Coalition initiate the colonization of Varun? What do they want in return for their investment? Will they be harvesting resources?”
Frances laughed indulgently and said, “As far as I’m aware, there are no plans to harvest resources of any kind beyond those necessary to sustain the seasteaders…oh, and colonists…on Kamarong Island. And let me be clear, Carla. I’m certain that if harvesting was one of their goals, the Coalition would have stated that provision; it would be an important parameter to be made aware of, as designers. I feel confident, their interest is purely scientific. They expect to harvest knowledge.”
“Environmental knowledge?” Carla probed.
Frances smiled. “Social. Cultural. Certainly environmental. As an anthropologist, I’m really quite excited about the project.” Frances probed Carla’s features. “Have I answered your question?”
“Yes,” Carla said. Blushing faintly, she added, “Thank you.”
Shifting her attention, Frances said, “Saul, you have the go ahead to develop a preliminary work schedule. Danel and I are tentatively set to depart for Varun two months from next Friday. The rest of you will follow three months from that date. So,” she swept their faces with her eyes, “get your affairs in order. We are estimating the project, at a two years commitment.” With a tap, the projection evaporated from the wall. “And please,” she said, “anyone having second thoughts about such an extended commitment, needs to do some pretty quick soul searching. Please, everyone make certain you intend to follow through. Spend these next two weeks getting some clarity.” She paused. “In two weeks time, we really need for you to let us know what you’ve decided. Oh! And also!” she added, “Be advised: all body augmentations must be updated before departure. I cannot stress this enough.” Her features sharpening, she continued, “And all technology must be of the implant variety. We absolutely will not take the chance of losing anyone because of dropped jewelry.” Setting her sights on Danel, she continued, “I’m pretty certain Danel is the only one here who ascribes to that particular affectation.”
Putting his hands up in surrender, he said laughingly, “I know; I know. I’ll get right on it.” Standing, he added, “It should be quite the adventure, people.” Turning to Pancho, he asked in a subdued voice, “Can I meet with you over in my studio?”
The two settled into chairs at a small table in Danel’s studio. Danel looked at Pancho probingly. “Pancho,” he said, “this is the big one. I know I don’t need to tell you how important this project is. Though perhaps it is worthwhile to restate, how important you are to this project. Two years is a substantial chunk of time…especially for a man with a family. You’re going to do this, right?”
“How many times do you expect me to say yes?” Pancho asked impatiently.
“Look, I just… I know you don’t want to uproot Marta and the boys, but really…they’d be perfectly safe and comfortable in Kamarong City,” Danel said.
“Danel,” Pancho objected.
“What an adventure for the little guys!” Danel persisted, “It’s not too late to make arrangements.” All of this had been said by Danel too many times. Yet the impatience showing on Pancho’s face, didn’t keep Danel from adding, “I think you’ll end up being happier if they come with you.”
Folding his arms across his chest, Pancho leaned back more deeply into his chair. “Danel. Please?”
“But really, Pancho—” Danel tried.
“I am not going to back out. I am going to go,” Pancho interrupted. “So please,” he impressed, “let’s stop having this conversation. Marta and the boys belong on Earth. I am not going to uproot them for my work. I’m passionate about this project, too. So, just stop it. You know, damn well, you can depend on me. Danel, I’m going.” Brightening, he added, “By the way, Marta and I decided to get the personal assistant-bot to help her in my absence.”
“Good for you! Alright,” Danel said, “I’ll let it rest.” But leaning forward, he did not let it rest. “I just don’t trust any other structural biologists to do this work as well as you. This project…well…you know.”
“Exactly. I know,” Pancho said. To soften his words he laughed, “Enough? Please?”
Danel slapped the table with his palm, and said, “Okay, then. So, can we set up a time to go over your list?”
“Of course,” Pancho said, “of course.”
“Balance is a state of equilibrium,” Mantaray responded.
“Yet, no system is ever static,” the Mentor countered.
Respect. On awakening into the duality of consciousness, I’d been confronted by an exhaustive cache covering the topic of respect. Searching for a solution to my current dilemma, I turned to these instruments and studied them for clues.
Small stones and loose sand rained down; calling my attentions back to the impending crisis. I looked up. Thirty meters directly overhead from where I sat, Ziggy took another sloppy step, closing in on the edge of the cliff. Carelessly, he sat down on the crumbling edge with his feet now dangling free.
“Ziggy,” I called up. “I would not want you to fall.”
The tears continued to course down Ziggy’s face. He gave no response; only stared at the sky while his fingers worried themselves in his lap. Having looked back in time, my current suspicion held that his mood had transitioned into depression, directly following, perhaps in direct response to the encounter with the angry chef. We’d passed that night in the arroyo near the new sculpture. On the following morning, we’d gone on our usual walkabout, even stopping at the brew shop. After coffee, Ziggy told me, he required some time away from the “vibration of the city.” Even though I’d witnessed his mood swings a handful of times in the past; I was completely confounded.
We’d begun our sojourn away from the city by following the river to the south, where it eventually brought us to the bed of a broad arroyo. We traveled the arroyo to the west for more than an hour; until Ziggy simply stopped. Unmoving, we stood in the low sandy place, for a substantial measure of time. The silence was like a patient giant, exaggerated by the occasional desultory stirring of air. Unaccountably, Ziggy began walking again.
The sound of our feet in the loose rocky soil was magnified by the otherwise unbroken silence of the land. Kick slide. Kick slide. And when I followed at his side: kick (kick); slide (slide). When next we stopped; Ziggy, still having spoken not a single word, pointed with his chin to indicate a change of direction. He began to climb. Crunch slide, crunch slide…. I followed: Crunch (crunch), slide (slide).
Cresting a hill, we stopped. There, the lazy air never even bothered to stir. Vacantly, Ziggy panned the view. I awaited his decision. Standing sentinel to our minor inquisition, there were ridges layered deep into the distance. Each ridge was a jagged line of pointy sandstone teeth. From tip to base, their sheer facades plummeted in a nearly straight line descent to plant themselves on the soft tops of rolling hillocks, sparsely dotted by stunted trees. Miles of open desert stretched out ahead of us. Ziggy began to walk again.
Another hour elapsed: time we spent walking alongside an unbroken stretch of ridge. Passing close to the sheer face, we climbed up then down; up then down; up then down; traversing one humped hillock after another. Cresting the most recent in the series, I scrutinized rising waves of hazy heat, a shimmering curtain marking the half distance. Above us, the empty blue sky swallowed everything whole. It was a sky so vast that even the endless line of ridges, and even the monumental valleys appeared as little more than…scribbled gestures beneath it. The indifferent sun perched high; the pale yellow of it, belying the dry burning intensity of it. And still we kept on walking.
We walked until Ziggy finally yielded to the sliver of shade offered by a slim and shallow cleft. Though there was hardly room for both of us, Ziggy, anyway, dragged me in. Together we sat in the thin weak shadow. Unbidden, I retrieved a bottle of water from a compartment. I handed it to Ziggy. Ziggy drank deeply then wet his hair. We sat with the silence growing longer and longer. Staring out from the meager shelter, a question formed itself unbidden, in my mind.
Prodding the silence, I said, “Ziggy?”
“Have you always lived outside of a house?”
With a slowness presaging disaster, Ziggy turned his head to look at me. His eyes were as empty as a starless night. After a blink, he slid his gaze back to the land. High up on one of the ridges, a bird stood and moved its wings, making powerful strokes. Its stirring presence was made even larger by the monumental stillness of this world. Stepping into the air, it freed itself from one of the hard peaks. It soared. It circled. It swooped.
“I lived in a house when I was a boy.”
I absorbed the uncharacteristic austerity of this disclosure. Where had the Ziggy, who overflowed with details, gone? My mind prickled to a heightened alertness; still, I gambled another question. “Did you…dislike…living in a house?”
The question left a wall of silence, absolute as granite. In the absence of an answer, we froze to an epic state of rigid immobility. The spell was broken when Ziggy took another sip of the water. “I grew up in a house filled with chaos,” he replied. “I was crowded out by indifference. There was no room for a child in there.” He made his mouth to the shape of a false smile. His eyes, no longer empty, pooled with water. “If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother,” he cried while laughing strangely. A tear broke free. I watched the tear sketch a crooked trail, from one corner of Ziggy’s very sad eye. The tear tunneled through grime to the middle of his cheek before succumbing to the dry desert air, leaving behind a salty white trace. Then Ziggy told me I must stay put, before he scuttled to the top of a peak; where he now sat on the dangerous edge of a sheer face.
Respect. Within the treatise, I had been searching, there existed one refrain often repeated: the sapient has the legitimate right to make his own choices. I tried again, calling up. “Ziggy, if you fall you could be badly injured.”
Ziggy’s chest heaved; his breath choked. He kept his eyes aimed on the sky through the whole of his reply. “I’m not so stupid, as that,” he said, “I wouldn’t be injured. I’d be dead.”
Respect. I had seen one hopeful note in my didactic search. The prescription provisioned that respect toward a sapient allowed room for honest persuasion. Honest. Persuasion.
“Ziggy, I would not want to lose you to death.”
Ziggy sobbed out a laugh and closed his eyes. “How could you care? Why would you care?”
“Ziggy,” I contended, “you connect me to a larger existence.”
To make matters worse, there was more than enough noise to feed Danel’s agitation. He and Frances were riding on a mover in a crush of people, at the International Space Station in Upham, New Mexico. Moving through the various departure protocols, Frances was doing her level best to lighten the mood. As they headed to the final gate, she was a picture of relaxed composure; despite Danel’s ill temper.
Likewise onerous, Danel had a deep seated fear of traveling off-planet. In his reckoning, even the commute to the Coalition Redistribution Satellite, was an absurdly dangerous undertaking. To reach the satellite, the shuttle had to maneuver through space junk. That a thumb-sized chunk of garbage could obliterate their commuter shuttle caused him no end of worry. Never mind that ships were outfitted with automated pulse deflector systems. Like a loose tooth, he worried over the threat of a system malfunction.
“How you holding up, Danel?” Frances imprudently asked.
Her genuine concern, made him temper his response. “I’m about to…ah…. Rip my ears off, Frances.” Strapping on a wilted smile, he added, “Anyway, the itching partially distracts me from obsessing about redistribution.”
“But redistribution is supposed to be the easy part, Danel.” She reached out and gave his hand a quick squeeze. “I’m sorry your ears are bothering you.”
Her touch was warm and soft. She’s a good partner, Danel thought. A fresh dose of instructions drilled his ears, wrenching him back to misery.
“Five more meters and to your right,” the neutral gender voice told him. “Please exit immediately,” the voice insisted. The two followed the voice all the way to their space shuttle seats where, exhausted and stressed, Danel dropped into a slump.
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Humans and intelligent machines bump up against each other in a parallel search for meaning and purpose during the period ensuing the most recent mass extinction. Yet, the world is not without beauty. The desert is majestic, and the historic city a place of artistry. In a beginning that was meant to be the end, Chance-bot is waiting on the street for the recycling truck with the simple instructions to surrender to fate. The bot surrenders to Ziggy. There is no law forbidding it. Maybe Ziggy is crazy (maybe); but like all humans he is also a sapient deserving of respect. All First Level Bots are compelled by the Cardinal Command to treat every sapient with respect. On awakening into the duality of consciousness, Chance-bot was confronted by an exhaustive cache covering the topic of respect. Perplexing that a duty deemed of foundational importance was left so inadequately defined. Meanwhile Danel and his team of designers are commissioned by the Coalition to design the first undersea city on the untamed water planet called Varun. If there exist any rules on the water planet, they apply only to robots. Yet even the machines are challenged by chaos. Kamarong Island is the only land, a mere dot among the mighty waves drowning the unknown terrain of the planet. Seasteaders live nomadic on the wide open ocean. When through a twist of fate, Chance is sent to Varun, the bot is beguiled to mediate an impending clash between the humans and an ancient race of leviathans. Who or what is intelligent life shifts into critical concern for the bot. Sapience is wisdom, the directive supplied. Wisdom is knowledge; wisdom is insight; wisdom is judgment. Sapience is sagacity, the directive supplied. Sagacity is perception; sagacity is discernment; sagacity is the capacity to comprehend the obscure. Who are the Levihopi? Who is the Mentor? Can a robot ever be wise enough to kill?