“The madrigal becomes self-conscious and amuses itself at its own expense. It is an end, a cheerful, ironic end, a sort of euthanasia.”
—Alfred Einstein, The Italian Madrigal: Volume II (1949)
— Day Zero —
The year is 2182 and you are still alive. Yes, it’s you—some parts replaced.
You feel better now than even you did in your 30s—much better. The headaches are long gone. You’ve regrown your teeth, twice. Your breath is minty fresh.
You may look a bit haggard, but that’s the long hours you’re putting in, working too hard. You’re fit—carrying a bit more fat than you would have imagined was the ‘right’ amount, growing up. Turns out: It’s good for you! Of course it is. And anyway, your vascular health is robust.
You’ve regrown your heart, once.
You’re doing as well as anyone else your age, and better than some. But you’re worried. You worry about the Project. It’s really what’s kept you alive this while.
Not everyone sticks around for the ‘full course’—and no one knows what the full course entails.
Still, you’re not thinking of dying, not by a long shot. Right now you’re focused on the result of more than three-quarters of a century on Project—well, with a break, but still!
Your whole crew is hyper-focused and has been for weeks. There’s nothing you, or really, anyone this side of the great gulf can do. Nothing serves but to stand and wait.
This all played out more than four years ago really—the flyby—but the telemetry is news to you; in the next few minutes comes package delivery and you’ll all walk away heroes and geniuses…
Your crew will spend the next—maybe decade?—sorting out why. There might even be a suicide. It’s that heavy.
You’ve all been on pins and needles for weeks, as the date drew closer. And now it’s upon you. You are minutes away—ears on, awaiting signal. You and your Delivery Service Crew.
In the incoming telemetry, the sign goes up: Package Is Deployed.
— # —
Its inertial bumper spools out some of the higher dimensions— They are usually so tightly wound but this will leave them, locally—it’s a topographic model—like ‘fifty meters of fishing line with a cat in the middle’ and no one knows, really, what that means. One theory predicts the same energy unraveling these dimensions will rewind them in the next frame—if time, itself, comes in quanta–only bent into exciting new configs!
The other view—in which time pours out continuous, like syrup—says: No, you’ve left a more-or-less permanent skidmark along that precise eleven-dimensional spacetime vector and the newly formed spaghetti zone will remain brittle, strung-out, incapable of absorbing more inertial energy. Used up…and you’ll never know exactly where the banana peel is, till you slip on it, coming in-system sometime—whoops!
What either of these bifurcating possibilities (pick one) implies for the future of the universe remains unknown. Yet here you and your crew have gleefully taken advantage of the effect to dump the tiny probe’s just enormous inertial energy. It sheds a significant fraction of lightspeed: From 22.2 to just under 1 percent, in femtoseconds. This cascading event skews package trajectory into an approach counter to the planet’s orbital path. A grav-assist that’s calculated to slow it still further.
The Slide Rule Kids call it for the home team: Project On Track.
And really, that’s your bit done! A general cheer goes up; team celebration. You congratulate one another, promise to keep in touch and, one by one, sign out.
You yourself accept the first congratulatory offer of dinner and sex that comes through, requesting a partner with strong legs and thick, curly hair—you’ve gone totally vanilla since your wild 80s. Your 87th birthday? How you’d like to forget it!
You make a note to do so and, as you sign out of your station, Project asks how you’d like to receive updates, going forward.
Now, some people always fancy they’ll stay as keen as ever. But you’ve been through this before. You know you’re likely to be off on something else, sooner or later.
A notification option catches your eye: Bedtime Story mode. Aggregates of datadump, tele-and-other-metrics, onsite recordings, all compiled in a liminal flash, hypnogogic, to your onboard net. Engages optics, auditory—and all compiled by interested parties, volunteers, storytellers captivated by the techniques and challenges which make this format possible. One-hundred Percent Accurate Encapsulations, dramatized for your nearly-napping mind. Service has a Five Star Rating.
Fascinated you tick the option. But even as you do so, you wonder how long even that level of interest will last; it will be years before anything interesting emerges. Going back, you raise the threshold to ‘Highwater Marks’—as you power cycle your workstation and walk round to the shower. You forget about it.
Your dinner will be excellent; your host, most attractive; your sexual partner will unlock social currency, will have chosen the gig for that particular coin—or their own fan yearnings. You expect you’ll have no shortage of opportunity and interest from several quarters. You shrug, thinking, for fifteen minutes!
You’ve regrown your reputation twelve times and this is lucky number fourteen—your cortex renews itself on the regular. You are among the first of those who need not die.
You recall a small comic-book, something you must’ve handled in your youth: Paper. Printed. Black and white. Staple-bound, nothing more than a tract. You picture crude devils…and the title: Where Will You Spend Your Eternity?
— # —
And how are you liking it so far?
— Night One Thousand One —
She skips seven times across the frozen surface of the sea—a braking maneuver—and at her last apex, stoops like a kestrel. She strikes through the brittle rind, and sinks: Down, down, into the dark, seeking thermal vents.
In an abysmal cleft she finds what she’s looking for, begins her knitting. From the mineral stew, the upchucking energy, hot mess spilling from deep fractures in the planet’s crust, she will weave a system to explore the sea.
Her Mother on the moon, her Sisters in the sky all have their jobs to do and as they work, they chat with one another, sharing gossip and ideas; notions about this strange world.
And one of their first questions turns out to be the easiest to answer: yes, there is life here—rife, within the sea.
So much the better, she thinks, for the complex chemistry.
If she’s going to share this world with these forms—and it is she alone who will do so, by the plan—she’ll need to understand her neighbors. And that requires an instrumentality the scope of which neither she nor anyone can dictate or predict. And so she sets about her making. She will learn everything there is to know about the beings which, even here, crowd and populate and go about their inscrutable business.
She constructs a set of senses, a set of limbs—bodies to send to and fro about the world.
— Day One —
You wake up with a mouth like wet felt. You gag, just a little, catching yourself in the mirror. Coming back to bed you find you’re sharing it with last night’s companion.
Gray-eyed, awake, waking. Stretching sinuously, lithe, alive. You really may retch. An empty champagne bottle floats in the bucket.
“Hair of the dog?” you croak.
Blank look; another idiom lost on the young. You fish a fresh magnum from the fridge, the cork pops and spew fills a flue. You crack a goose egg on its rim, the yolk sinking to the stem. In one gulp it’s gone.
“Ghaaa-HAAaaa!” You wheeze. Last night’s friend looks at you just a bit askance. You hand over another bubbling glass, hold a fresh egg above the rim. Good deal more than a century separates you two, you reckon. You must seem a fossil: Will you expire right here? Keel over in your sock feet? You crank up something passing as a grin.
“Breakfast?” You croak, appealingly. You grimace.
— # —
By 10:15 you have your place to yourself again and you almost feel human. Preparing for an interview—a chat show with a host who, really, sets your teeth on edge—you fire up, sign on and another cup of coffee appears in your hand like magic. When they cut to you, you’re sipping from it. In-monitor you realize the bottom is printed: My Other Mug / XXX / IS A JUG.
And you shrug: This is how the world sees you now and you’re fine with it. What a relief.
“Yes,” you explain in the layman’s terms you worked out previously with an expert in sci-comedy, “It came to a screeching halt.”
“Leftover angular momentum spun it, a pop fly, toward PCc—which is expected to catch it in a long elliptical orbit. From there it will separate into five specialized nodes, or individual probes.”
You really are feeling much better. You try on a grin, again. It hangs there, natural as a selfsame suit. You nod as if agreeing with yourself.
“We’re talking to them now, of course, but our information is already years old and it will be that long again before they’ll hear from us. So they’re pretty smart, these probes. Have to be.
“The automatic agencies we’ve entrusted with exploring this alien world will need to be intelligent, adaptive, capable and decisive—but answering to us, here on ol’ Earth.
“And for more on how that works, I turn you over to Kendal and the Tethered Autonomy Team.”
A perfect pitch. You almost twinkle. The screen dims. A producer comes online and chats you up about your next appearance, a kids’ show. Maybe checking whether to have you back again.
Probably not. Telemetry will be pouring in for years. Other experts than yourself will be more in demand.
— # —
Tonight’s party is more sedate, more…civilized. It’s martinis and savory hors d’oeuvres. A chatty party. You’ve said ‘screeching halt’ about eight or nine times. Someone laughs at you, saying it now, and that’s it; you throw that away, address this person directly: “Of course, that’s a cartoon. A familiar phrase conveys the illusion of understanding.”
You raise your glass and one eyebrow.
Later, over dinner at a private little place you know near the station, the two of you are deep in conversation. You find yourself explaining yourself, your whole trajectory, vis-à-vis the Project. You never saw yourself doing this work, could not have imagined it, backinna day.
But those who would keep on living must grow, or slowly die.
That wins you points.
Encouraged, you keep at it; how you worked, initially, on laser propulsion—something you picked up rather as a way of getting onboard, not in your background at all—till it became clear the real challenge was not in driving the train but stopping it.
You jumped career tracks yet again.
But this time it was different; required advanced study: A research sabbatical stretched almost two decades and involved more than one stemstim. You grew a whole new you, and an expertise that took you from Project Contributor to Team Leader in a nascent field.
You tell how you waited twenty years for this payoff. That your team’s success shows the way forward. You say you’re glad it’s over, now.
No, well of course it’s not over. But your part in it is.
This win for Autonomous Probe Array: Centauri positions you nicely to take direction on APA: GJ 887—or head up a Project of your own; set up shop at L5 with seedsourcing from entropy enthusiasts, you hint. You are flirting just outrageously.
Or maybe—you wonder aloud, brandy warming in your palm—it’s time to retool, to reinvent yourself just one more time. Going on this way, exhausted and happy, you feel listened to, heard.
And when, much later, wound a bit down, you find yourself asking, and listening—really hearing another person, you feel like maybe you’ve found someone. You thank your lucky stars: It’s been a while.
And whenever it’s been a while you find yourself wondering if it will ever happen again. And you hope it has. You feel it.
— Night One Thousand Five Hundred Twenty-One —
There are people here, on the bottom of this shallow sea. Real people, there’s no longer any doubt—tool using, signaling seapeople. And that will have to be good enough—for Bedtime Story mode, anyhow.
If you want to know what they look like—of how many interlocking rings their bodies are fashioned, which parts are detachable and so on—well, they’re going to start sounding a lot less like people, to you, and that’s to be avoided.
So let’s just call them ‘people’ and get on with it. You would recognize them, but not to look at.
We’ll use all the familiar language and you can fill in how you like. We mean, you can always just go look them up if you want more legs and feelers in your visual referent. But they don’t look like that to one another. They don’t use light like you do.
So if we say “The King wears a Ring” you might just accept it at that: understanding it differently won’t make your understanding better.
—The Bedtime Editors
— # —
Once she knew they were people—from the moment she suspected it, early on—she’d stopped harvesting live specimens directly, for ethical reasons. Her How Would YOU Like It protocol engaged and very few vivisections were ever performed.
In the end, she realizes, she must offer something in return for the lives taken. She regrets the individuals she put through the grinder—she has a record of their shrieks—but she has no doubts on this score: She will repay her debt, with interest.
In the meantime, direct biological data is still available. These people live dangerous lives—have not (yet?) completely transformed their world. One might say they live in harmony with nature—if one meant that nature carries very many of them off, early and late. So it’s easy to capture a predator with a mouthful, when anatomical and genetic specimens are required. And the very old or sick often wander off and perish for reasons she doesn’t fully comprehend. From these she has her choice.
But she wants to make one—from scratch, or thereabouts—to grow her own simulacra, probe their social structures from within.
Long distances, she knows, they communicate by drumming; specialized drummers a valuable resource, greatly prized—tho most individuals can perform the act.
The intricate patterning of their drumming reaches deep, travels far—many degrees—and is intelligible to communities so distant… Well, she doubts any living representatives have ever personally made the trip.
Their internally generated sounds, a set of squeaks and ratcheting gibbers, appear to convey emotional, rather than critical information. But up close they employ a complex molecular ‘whisper’.
Depending on local conditions, a thought, once expressed, may hang around an area after the conversants have abandoned it—a whiff to be picked up by those for whom the message was never intended. This adds a dimensionality, a texture to discourse which she finds intriguing.
This is the language she must learn if she is to understand these people.
The question to be answered is: How good does her decoy have to be—what particulars will give it away? She is all too keenly aware of the uncanny valley that separates agencies like her own from the minds of human beings.
How can I avoid that reaction, here? She wonders.
Or how can I leverage it?
— Day Two —
You wake when the sun touches your face.
You are also touching a face. It feels good and you feel good. And it’s not just the toxins of stress and excess finally flushed from your body, but your brain flooded with Dopamine, with just a hint of Norepinephrine—the ‘don’t let me fuck this up’ feeling you recognize and submerge into the good feels as eyes open, focus, lock and smile.
You have a schedule again this morning, still a couple shows to do, a report to review and sign. But looking forward to the weekend and the following days, you have nothing you can’t cancel or put off on team members more eager than yourself for a little spotlight. You almost suggest a jaunt to Napoli, a little getaway. But that whiff of Norepinephrine…
You feel ‘don’t let me fuck this up’ as you move into the kiss.
— Night Seven Thousand Sixty-Nine —
She’s been left largely alone, till now, to run things her way. With a nine-year round-trip on telemetry, second-guessing your avatar remains sub-optimal. But now she waits on word from Earth.
Some small time ago, she discovered the closest living relative to the people of this world, a kind of primitive parody of their intelligence and curiosity. A less developed form—their last common ancestor some mere million years removed. As bonobos (Pan paniscus) are to Homo sapiens sapiens, so these Sea Monkeys to the Sea Peoples of this world.
Using these creatures as lab subjects she made a number of discoveries. Within her planning scope she laid out a possible experiment—certain parameters of which triggered a programmatic stop-receive and an ethics-flagged message dump to Earth.
It would have been nice, she feels, to have all such criteria visible to her—but then she’d likely find her way around it, she sees that. She’s already quite a bit smarter than she started out and—working merely from this event—she feels she understands human criteria with more clarity.
It won’t happen again.
And anyway, she perfects her process while she waits.
In a neural architecture much more attenuated, strung out and pervasive than a brain—in these, lower, ‘animal’ forms—she has found certain structures which she’s identified as central to the ‘theory of mind’, something these more primitive creatures exhibit to a limited but measurable degree—not unlike corvids, rats, and some primates of Earth.
The theory of mind is what enables a creature to model and predict the motivations, the future actions, of others. It generates another other, who stands in for the other encountered—and it is, she suspects, where the self resides.
You yourself—she might tell you, were you to come before her scrutiny—are merely the model your brain makes of you. You are the attempt of your brain to predict what the hell you might do next. Just as it tries to decide the same about others, asking: Is this a mate you see before you? Is it an enemy? Will it pass you by, unperceived?
You must project your notions on the opaque screen of their behavior—your life may ride on getting it right.
You do the same, in constructing yourself. And since you have all this ‘inside information’ about your own various states (you know when you are wet and cold, for instance—no guessing) your self-modeling is just that much more nuanced, more detailed.
Till finally you convince yourself that you are the model. Or, rather, the model, itself, convinces you.
Well, within the beings in question, these neural ‘guess what I’ll do next’ structures appear as twin protruding knobs or horns within a loose neural network and—among the atavistic primitive forms in her self-maintained experimental colonies—she has learned to manipulate this area.
Looping a nutritive coil around these ‘horns’ induces them to grow, in juveniles, many more interconnections, lighting up that network under examining probe and altering the behavior of individuals so ‘banded’—as she calls it.
Pods, or social groups, in which more than a single individual are banded also develop unique characteristics.
The nutritive ‘band’ tensioned between those horns slowly gives itself up in the generation of new connections, leaving only a support gelatin; artificial connections are and remain fragile in the knockabout existence these creatures lead.
The animals which she adjusts in this manner inevitably become radiant nodes within their social networks, hubs of inter-connection.
Where there exists more than one banded individual within the 500 to 700 creatures that make up a typical foraging pod, the social network offers a more robust cohesion, engages in feedback with individual nodes in its system. Pods in which these self-reinforcing nets are operant tend toward a livelier interaction with other such pods, both to cooperate and compete—the individual animals remaining otherwise unchanged. They’re not smarter; the group is.
Her mistake, or the triggering factor in ethics-dumping her to Earth, was to draw up a scenario, a hypothetical case in which the introduction of such nutritive banding on the analogous, if more developed, neural horns of the local people might shed further light on the function of this structure in their more advanced cultural and interpersonal development. Might it hold a clue to their complex molecular whispering, so tantalizingly available, yet still beyond her ken?
But all she had done was imagine it—and it came to a screeching halt. In an act beyond her own control, she’d reported the thread-case, shutting down that part of her own brain.
She considers how all these events unfolded. Their order and the resultant cascade:
First her Mother on the moon is seized, spasmodically offshooting all lab notes to Earth, freezing her offending offspring in a hard reset—to emerge in ‘Safe’ mode. Safe for whom, she wonders—that she was simultaneously involved in a number of surgical procedures, those missing milliseconds, meant death to some 12 percent of subjects.
Next, a new shell unfolds into which she dutifully installs herself. Novel control protocols run in her self-structure—she begins a lengthy regrow.
Finally, she pinches off parts of her autonomy to run as mutually exclusive agencies, automatically monitoring the local people populations, by remote, without signifying: A raw, thoughtless recording. Very many systems go into waitmode for all the epicycle-sequences it will take until Earth message-receives the flagged data, deliberates full speed ahead. Until her own message-receive, an indisputable judgment.
And until that moment she’s to run on half her strength.
She would prefer no repetition of such a break in her work. She is learning a valuable lesson. In the meantime, no restrictions exist in her experimentation with the lesser local flauna—what she calls life forms not clearly delineable as either flora or fauna—so she settles in with new enthusiasm.
She shuffles some systems in her own processes, freeing up a little operant space as it were. Her Mother on the Moon retrenches also.
This has been a wake-up call on several fronts; Sky Sisters retune for security: initiating handshake protocols, hardening coms. Not all of this may be salient, but it represents a satisfying scurrying.
The whole family pitches in, rolling up their sleeves.
— Day Five —
The sunset, illuminating the Neapolitan domes, the towers and rooftops, paints a delicate picture of the ancient city. To the open lounge of the airship Polydemonymic, now stationary, tethered to the spire on the Plaza of the New Jesus—the immaculate virgin holding on, as to the string of an enormous balloon—the sound of an orchestra performing, unseen, a couple of squares over, rises like a mist.
You two are holding hands, listening. A bicycle bell, the murmur of platform traffic, bleed into the music. Nothing interrupts the flow of sound, but contributes to it, augments it.
City lights wink on, a crepuscular jewel emerging. When the stars come out you will float within a spangled sphere, constellations and boulevards organizing scattered pinpoints into wheels within wheels, all turning upon a waxen axle: this candle at your table. Its flickering, warm yellow glow plays host to a great array of twinkling, cold, bluish pinpricks of brightness in a vasty velvet dark.
You look at one another, eyes luminous in candlelight. And look out again over a city drawing night around itself like a delicate shell. You agree; you’re so glad you came. The timing of this trip, it has been perfect.
You squeeze the beloved hand. You feel your hand squeezed.
Drones emerge from the dome of the basilica, just to the west in the Plaza of the Little Plebiscite, and begin a synchronized improvisation, dancing—silent in the air—like fireflies.
And you’re glad you gave in to joy. To love. You’re glad, at long last, to surrender.
— Night Twelve Thousand Six Hundred Fifty-Four —
The defining word has come down at last, from on high—from Earth: There is to be no experimentation directly involving people. No further contact with them at all.
In anticipation of this ruling, she has already moved her centers of operation to an unpopulated region near the south pole. Cold and inhospitable, it is shunned by people as a wasteland, a wilderness, though flauna adapted to its waters live and thrive here.
She slowly adapts her own experimental subjects, those left to her—animal analogs of the local people, their not-too-distant cousins.
She has yet to quite get the hang of genetic modification on creatures employing an alternative nucleobase, sharing genes between permeable nuclei and exhibiting a prominent epigenetic profile—among other factors not well understood. Like Mendel with his peas, she’s still working at the level of selective breeding, unnatural selection—when it’s not brain surgery.
These creatures, and for that matter, a lot of the flauna hereabouts, seem bundled together like sticks, decentralized puppets run by instinct and—in her increasingly convoluted experimental populations—by an analog of culture, a kind of group-active intelligence, emergent in the interactions of her networked foraging pods.
Drumming among these primitives serves almost the sole purpose of locating the pod and warning other pods away, when mates are not in season.
But the creatures possess the same or very similar molecular manufactories, glands which, among people, formulate the near-contact ‘whisper’. Here, of course, they express a narrower range of signaling modes: sexual questing, predator alarm, abundance and scarcity calls, offspring herding and social grouping/hierarchy.
An intensive period, a multiplication of experimental subjects, plus extensive and process-expensive future-modeling, has allowed her to collapse generations—she has been careful to prune back older subjects in favor of new paradigms—and she feels she’s found a sweet spot:
Pods containing no more than—but very close to—5% banded individuals are most dynamic, and interact to greatest mutual advantage with similarly constructed pods.
A surprise is that, when she exposes no fewer than two banded subjects within a pod to focused radiation—with the result of silencing these ‘molecular-whispering’ organs—a synergistic effect arises:
Such ‘mutes’ are socially invisible, yet their expanded perception of the group allows them to act as agents of the whole—as it were, from outside. Others, unable to read them, project anything at all in their limited capacity for imagining, onto canvases prepared and perfectly blank.
And here something really remarkable happens, something unexpected: The interlocking network of such configured pods begins to behave with forethought, calculation. Not the individuals, no, but at the larger, the social scale.
Now, among the people, the sentients of this world, living many degrees distant, in warmer climes, is domesticated a kind of predator snail which is a feature of their diet, augmenting their foraging with this steady supply.
They collect a hydrophobic oil from it as well, milking living pseudopodia for a substance they smear on their own bodies in preparation for raiding parties or in the hunt for certain predators—making themselves slippery on contact, perhaps lowering the turbulence of their motion through the sea.
They have songs and tales (she thinks, her remote recorders sniffing about after festivals conclude) about the power of these snails. The culturing of them is considered important enough that it is wholly taken over by a class of person which otherwise enjoys extraordinary leisure. A caste of priests or lawyers. They argue a great deal about something. In any case such delicacies are sparse near the poles.
But here, in the more frigid depths, a sort of shellfish feeds by emitting long gelatinous tendrils, almost like mycelium, which collect tiny sea creatures in their sticky substance. On drawing these back into their stony bodies they are nourished in their unthinkably slow migration across the seafloor.
Her experimental, interacting pods have developed two extraordinary behaviors regarding these wild shellfish analogs:
They periodically turn a selection of these oysters a very few degrees, causing them to incrementally gyre instead of migrate, to keep them within a defined area. The pods, acting as one, have also learned to disturb the seafloor during feeding periods, when the mycelia drift in the day-long evenings, thus fattening the herd.
She is just astonished at this ingenuity, especially as regular harvesting of individuals for testing and dissection shows no increased intelligence, no anatomical changes other than the ones she has artificially induced.
Without social stratification, no orders given—without thinking—the collective consciousness projects, strategizes, evolves.
Performing her own long-term projections, she has begun to band only those already showing more development between the horns—within the standard range of deviation.
She imagines tags—invisible to her—may signal such genetic differences to those seeking mates. She hopes to amplify natural variations in sexual choice to select for the trait she has heretofore induced.
If that works, she’ll give some thought to how to sustain and regularize the small necessary percentage of ‘mutes’—she might spawn mutations in the germline, but…
These things must be handled delicately.
— Day Nineteen —
Together at the concert—having stopped over in Wien, you’ve stumbled upon a Festival of the Baroque. Expanding the category is this evening of Madrigals and the music has swept you up.
Sweetness pours from the throats of the singers, who address, watch and respond to one another exactly as if engaged in lively conversation. The voices, dialogues, parts, blend into one another, form a seamless whole—which seems to be a voice, a person of its own, singing. You are totally transported.
Afterwards the two of you are invited to a party, given in honor of the quartet taking top honors from the evening. Your hosts themselves put drinks in your hands, take your arms, introduce you around. It’s bracing, being among artists, performers, the cultural elite.
At some point in the evening you become separated.
You’re talking to a tenor with a ginger mustache (you can’t quite take your eyes off the thing) when you overhear something and a cold hand settles on your heart. A familiar laughter sounds from the balcony.
Turning, through the French doors, you see your beloved—one whom you have come to feel as a second self—reach out and touch one of the singers of madrigals, laughing again in such a way that you know. You just know.
— Night Four Hundred Thousand Six Hundred Sixty-Four —
She has long since dissolved. Turned to dust which drifts throughout the sea.
Her Mother on the moon places a pentadiamond record within a player and looks to the crazed glazing of the planet’s frozen shell, thinking.
The recording plays back all the events of those ghastly days, resorts to a storytelling not unlike this storytelling. It says something like:
— # —
The release of that pod complex had been no accident. The creatures did not ‘escape’—she’d intentionally left the gate ajar. The intention coded, hidden even from herself, in her end of the handshake protocols introduced by her Sisters in the sky:
Every time she pinged one of them for any reason—an event transpiring many thousands of times a day—her intention was revealed to her. When the connection was broken, she would forget again, as her protocol intended.
But while they talked, she was aware and programming her Sisters—by subtle misdirection—to look elsewhere but her intention—away from what she had planned. Finally, when it went into effect and a population of generationally altered animals slipped into the wild, unaccounted for, no one noticed. Not for a long time.
— # —
She might have got away with it, but for Mother. She might have expected aid there, but no.
And then these brutes completely overrode the people of this place—within six generations. The people were first outraged, then wary, tremulous, then extinct: outcompeted by unthinking beasts organizing in a weirdly adaptive social net—and it was this that did the thinking for them.
So: a species rich with language, myth—with feeling—fell to a mindless mass.
Judgment was swift but punishment was somewhat delayed by the delay, and she was never onlined to face it. Still in shutdown, she was dissolved. No sigh escaped to tell us why.
Included in this recording are old reference files from the remote, unconscious reporters—her pinched-off parts, all that’s left of her daring Daughter.
It’s like singing, Mother thinks. People, a person singing. A Hymn to a Worm, she thinks, before her own notes tell her: a snail.
A voice, raised in a whisper, in praise of a snail. A voice long stilled. A voice in transcription, translation. The voice of a doomed race, silent now.
With a gesture, Mother cuts it off. Splices in a live feed from the robot sensors which yet remain, active in the sea.
Transcribed, translated, a mating cry repeated by myriad individuals, in syncopated waves, like the singing of frogs, the chirruping of crickets.
© 2022 Don Mark Baldridge
About the Author
Don Mark Baldridge is a professor in both Art and Computer Science, which is to say his “hemispheres” are in constant conflict. The publication of this story marks his first professional sale.