22390 words, novella
SEARCHING FOR NEURODATA . . .
NEURODATA NOT FOUND
STARTING SHUTDOWN OF FUNCTION_GRIND
Today, Painterman is staring out from the framed acrylic scene on the sixth wall, grinning at us with painted teeth and leaning against the trunk of an oak tree, its leaves and branches rendered in delicate, careful brushstrokes. The paintbrush he always holds is expertly colored and textured to look as though it is pressed against the surface of the painting—as though he is painting the viewer. Yesterday, he was staring out from the painting on the second wall, the day before that, he wasn’t in any of them . . . At first, I tried finding some sort of pattern in the paintings, trying to predict which painting he would be grinning at us from next, but from my observations it seems as though the probabilities of him facing us from any of the paintings, or none of them, are equal.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve woken up each morning in this blasted six-walled chamber—seven-sided if you count the floor. It has become my entire world. I don’t know what came before I was here, and these days, I’m starting to question whether or not there even was a “before.” A terrifying thought.
As I do every morning, I greet the child. Somehow, I know her name is Down, just as I know my name is Charm. She doesn’t say anything, sitting slightly off-center on the floor of the chamber. She has never spoken, nor risen from her hunched position on the floor as far as I know, her head buried in her arms and knees. She spends the day humming the same simple melody, over and over again. I’ve never seen her face. I’ve tried and tried, but the child doesn’t seem interested in communicating with me. Still, I say good morning to her, and wrap her blanket back around her shoulders—every morning it has fallen off, and every morning she shivers without it.
I go back to my spot in the room, in front of what I refer to as the first wall. A lush oval rug about the width of my body stretches from the wall, almost reaching Down and the center of the chamber. A quilted blanket rests on top of it, crumpled from when I got up to greet Down. A nearly identical setup of oval rug and quilt lies in front of each wall, in alternating patterns of cyan, magenta, and yellow. They make a pretty sight, the bright colors against the smooth, polished deep black surfaces of wall and floor, though the colors seem a bit incongruous with the ornate, solemn painting that hangs above each sleep-spot. I used to wonder why neither my reflection nor Down’s appear in the dark mirrorlike surfaces, but I’m used to it now. I still wonder what I look like, though, and sometimes scrape at the walls with my hands, frustrated that I can’t see my own face.
I lie back down on my rug, on top of the quilt, and look up. There is no ceiling to this chamber, and I am thankful for it every day. I can look out at the sky, that beautiful infinite grid of infinitesimal squares, emitting either red, green, or blue light in tiny bursts too small for my eyes to discern the individual colors, but important enough to create massive, swirling, magnificent dances of light. The sky is the reason I do not spiral into desolation, trapped in this chamber. It’s too beautiful, too mesmerizing. And every morning—the way I know it is truly morning—the Ripple arrives. The most beautiful light-dance of the day, which happens to be the only light-dance repeated in exactly the same way each time, at exactly the same moment in the day. A massive ripple of color that erupts across the sky. It’s absolutely enchanting.
But for some reason, the Ripple isn’t starting on time today. Did I oversleep and miss it? Have I woken up too early? That doesn’t make sense. I always sleep and rise like clockwork!
The day passes, and the Ripple does not arrive. I begin to feel the pressure of sleep trying to shut my eyes, and as valiantly as I try to fight to stay awake and watch for it, eventually I succumb and fall into a dreamless slumber.
When I wake up, the first thing I notice is that the sky is dim, emitting bland beige-orange colors. It has never done such a thing before. Then I sit up and give a startled shout when I see Down. She has stopped humming her melody, and she has shifted slightly to face me. Though her face is still buried in her knees, her arm is outstretched and pointing to something above me . . .
I turn around and see that Painterman has moved to the first wall’s painting, grinning out at the room from right above me.
“Do you want to see the painting?” I ask her.
She doesn’t respond, just keeps pointing. I look at the painting, shrug, take it off the wall, and place it in the space next to her, on the center of the floor. Down stops pointing and turns away, resuming her original position. When I glance at the painting again, I notice that the scenery in the painting is different—an ocean now instead of a garden. Painterman is gone, but two new figures are in a boat in the background—a taller one and a short one, both too far in the distance for me to discern their appearances. And there is a shadow of something in the water. I try to pick up the painting, but it’s not budging for some reason. It feels permanently stuck to the floor. I tire myself out trying to move it.
The Ripple isn’t coming today either, it seems. And the monochrome dim orange light currently emitting from the sky is making me feel very claustrophobic. The dynamic patterns of light used to make the space of the open-air chamber feel infinite, as though it was part of the sky itself. Now the orange sky feels like it’s getting ever-closer to the walls, constantly shrinking the space. I sigh and try to go back to sleep.
Knock . . . Knock . . . Knock . . .
KnockKnock KnockKnock . . .
KnockKnockKnockKnockKnock KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK . . .
I wake up to an unpleasant banging sound coming from the painting on the floor. I sit up and see Down’s face for the first time—she is staring at me. I find that I can only see her features when I don’t look at her directly, and her face is blurred when it’s in the center of my gaze. Is that what it’s like to look at me too? I wonder.
Then Down speaks, and points to the painting on the floor next to her, which has Painterman grinning out from it once again, as well as those two new figures and the underwater shadow. “Could you help me open it?”
I take a moment to process that Down has spoken for the first time since I’ve known her. Then I say, “Are you sure? We don’t know what’s trying to get in. And as far as I know, we can’t move the painting anymore—it’s stuck.” A name, “Strange,” pops into my head as the banging on the painting continues, and I don’t actually know if it’s still impossible to move the painting—after all, there’s clearly a hollow space under it now that wasn’t there before. So I go over to her and begin to lift a corner.
It takes both my and Down’s strengths, combined with help from whatever is on the other side, to lift the painting, which seems to have turned into a heavy trapdoor. As it’s opening, I catch a glimpse of the hollow inside—I see three staircases: one curving away toward the left, one following a straight path forward, and one following a straight path to the left, all extending downward.
Then a hand pushes itself through the space between the floor and the painting, and someone begins to climb into the chamber.
It had been a month since Kabir received and decoded his older sister Roop’s message, which was written in the secret code the two of them came up with together once. And it had been three weeks since he’d convinced his parents to let him continue eighth grade remotely and enroll in a prestigious internship program in her city instead . . . a prestigious internship program he had faked with the help of his most trusted friends. His parents agreed on the condition that he would stay with Roop during that time. On the train and boat rides to Roop’s city—a new international research city called Octavia on an artificial island in the middle of Lake Erie—Kabir didn’t even look outside at the scenery, only reading that message over and over again, to the point where he had memorized it.
PLEASE DO NOT SAY ANYTHING TO MUM OR DAD. I’m not supposed to send you this message. I’ve done something. It certainly looks bad on the surface of things. But I did it to help somebody. I did not fully understand what would happen. The whole thing is being kept under wraps, so you won’t see anything about it. But I have gotten a sentencing for this crime. I’m being forced to get a Babirusa installed in my brain systems today. To trap and keep all the parts of myself that created the urge to commit this crime far away from my conscious self. Once it’s installed, I’ll never feel the urge to do anything like that again, so I can keep working where I’m working, and I can keep being a part of society as always. But I do not know what parts of me are going to go.
I do not want the Babirusa. Please know that. I’m telling you this because . . . well I don’t know who I am going to be at the end of today. I want you to know why I might be . . . changed.
When he arrived at Roop’s apartment, she greeted him with a hug, saying, “You’re taller than me now! Oh wow, that’s so weird. Come on in!”
The apartment was tiny—it was given to her by the company she joined after college, some new psychiatric and sleep research facility called REMedy where she worked as a cryptographer. But she was super messy, with papers scattered everywhere. He saw a book that looked like it hadn’t moved from its spot on the floor in months, titled Architectural Design of Octavia, open to a page with some triangle diagram drawn on a city map, as well as research papers on various cryptanalysis algorithms. Kabir sighed. He hated mess.
Roop pushed a scattering of papers off the living room couch, and said, “You can take the bed, I’ll take the couch. I fall asleep here often enough anyway. Go ahead and put away your suitcase—I’ll order us some nice takeout for dinner tonight . . . Kerala cuisine sound good?”
So far, she seems the same . . . Kabir thought to himself.
After the takeout arrived and the two of them had eaten heapings of delicate, fragrant appam and rich coconut stew, Roop said, “So, tell me more about this internship!”
“It’s neuropharmacology stuff.” Kabir didn’t miss a beat. Technically, that’s true . . . that is what I came here for . . . he thought.“I’ll be looking at isradipine and the downsides of using it to treat cocaine addiction.” That part was a lie, taken from one of his old interests.
“Ah, I remember your fascination with L-type calcium channel blockers. Wasn’t that the reason your grades slipped so much last year? During your seventh grade? Mum was all worried . . . she called me all the time to talk about it.” Roop rolled her eyes.
Kabir shrugged. “It was more interesting than the stuff they taught us in school, so my mind kept wandering over to it instead. It was difficult to focus on anything else even if I tried my best to. You were the same way, remember? With all that math stuff? And hey! You were the one who told me all about oligonucleotide synthesis from your chemistry class, which started me down this biochemistry rabbit hole in the first place. I was doing fine in school before that!”
“Kabir, oh my gosh. I’m not Mum or Dad! I agree with you. Fuck middle school, man. Middle school sucked. Studying isradipine sounds way more fun. But . . . be careful with those rabbit holes. Make sure they don’t eat up anything from your life that you genuinely care about.”
The dishes were washed and put away, and the leftover coconut stew packaged into the fridge. Then Roop pulled something out of the freezer that shocked Kabir to his core.
“I found these recently and I love them. Strawberry popsicles. It’s been years since we had them, remember we used to have them all the time as kids? Well, you’re still a kid. Anyway, want one?”
“Roop . . . But what about Aaji and everything?”
“What do you mean? What does this have to do with Aaji?”
Kabir frowned. “You were eating one when we got the call that Aaji died. Six years ago? You always say you’ve hated the taste ever since . . . remember?”
A dazed expression passed over Roop’s face. “I . . . don’t remember that part. I remember getting the call, but I don’t remember eating anything while it happened . . . ” The expression dissipated, and she shrugged. “Anyway, tastes can change. Maybe I like them again now.”
Kabir shook his head at the popsicle she offered him, and Roop sighed. “What is it?”
“Kabir, you’re making a sad face.”
“I’m not! It’s how my face naturally is . . . ”
“Uh, no it’s not. Seriously, what is it?”
Kabir was quiet for some time before speaking. “Well, do you remember the message you sent me? About a month ago . . . ”
“What, congratulating you on the internship? Yeah, I remember!” Roop grinned. “I was so excited for you!”
Kabir smiled at his sister weakly. What does she remember? Does she even know she has a Babirusa? “No,” he said. “Never mind . . . Well, actually I’m kind of worried about you. You seem a bit different than usual, and you are forgetting things.”
Now Roop fell silent for a while. Eventually she spoke up, quietly. “Do you know what a Babirusa is, Kabir?”
“Um, I know some things about it . . . the general idea is that it’s this thing placed in your brain, that maps what goes into your instinctive decision-making to lots of probability distributions, and then it takes out some of the things contributing to those distributions and locks them away, consequently changing your instincts, right?”
“Yeah. Well, I got one. I needed to. The hard truth, Kabir, is that there were some parts of me capable of doing really terrible things, and those parts of me needed to be locked away. I’m a much better version of myself, now, because of the Babirusa. But that’s why I might seem a bit different. I think everything that matters is still easily accessed though. I don’t feel any different . . . though obviously the whole point of this is that I can’t subconsciously remember being in a different state, so there’s no way I would feel any difference anyway.”
“What did you do to get the Babirusa? Isn’t it a type of criminal sentencing?” Kabir asked.
“Trying to remember exactly what I did is like thinking through weird, painful molasses. I don’t want to do it at all or think about it at all. That’s for the best, Kabir. It . . . caused deaths. Of three people . . . they’re in preservation chambers at the moment, undergoing a final investigation. It’s over. It was wrong. I had to get the Babirusa as my sentencing because REMedy wrote it into our initial contract if the sort of crime I committed was related to work there—the Judges of Octavia approved it too.”
Kabir was taken aback. Deaths?! He finally asked, “But don’t you feel scared? Upset? That part of your consciousness is trapped somewhere? That you’re . . . I don’t know, incomplete?”
Roop’s expression darkened. “I’m not incomplete. Think through it. You brought up the probability distribution stuff. That’s what’s changing—those distributions. The actual operations that use them are still the same, and that’s where a consciousness lies. My consciousness might be different based on what’s being fed into those mathematical operations that make me, sure, but it’s just as complete as a consciousness with different distributions. I’m just as valid, and whole, as I was before the Babirusa, and shouldn’t be treated as anything less than that.”
Kabir frowned. “But—”
Roop interrupted him coolly. “Look. It’s been a long day. You should probably get to bed now.” Then her tone softened a bit. “I hope the first day of your internship goes well tomorrow. You can borrow my bicycle if you want.”
Later, lying in bed, Kabir got a message on his touchscreen. It was from an anonymous source . . . but the words made him sit up. This happened a lot faster than I thought it would . . .
This anonymity is for both my safety and yours. I have gotten your message and I see the threat your idea poses to my technology. I agree to your request to meet with me. I will be available tomorrow, 8am, at the attached coordinates.
This was the reason Kabir came to Roop’s city. The reason he lied to his parents. To meet Dr. L, the mysterious creator of the Babirusa . . . And find a way to free the trapped fragments of consciousness in his sister’s mind. To get her back.
Kabir hugged the touchscreen to his chest and fell fast asleep.
“So there are more chambers like this one?” I ask. Strange, Down, and I have arranged ourselves in seated positions around the painting on the floor. Strange’s face has that same quality as Down’s, where I can only see his features through my peripheral vision. He holds a transparent satchel containing sheets of blank paper, with a side pocket containing a bottle of black ink, a bottle of clean water, some sort of a filter, a paintbrush, and a small tool about the size of the paintbrush with a tiny, pointed spade at the end.
“Yes, more nodes. Seven of them including yours are like this one. I don’t know if they all look like this one, on the inside. I’d only ever been able to see them externally, from underneath the nodes themselves, or perceive them as a void space when I passed through them, until you created their doors. This one is the first I’ve entered since.” he replies.
I’m about to ask what he means by “passing through” the chambers—or “nodes” as he calls them. But Down picks the filter out from Strange’s satchel and my attention shifts toward it. It has a pretty translucent sheen, and the mesh is a material unlike anything else.
He chuckles. “It’s a nice filter, isn’t it? It filters ink from water, rather than water from ink.” He takes the paintbrush, dips it into the bottle of ink, and then swirls the inky brush around in the clean water, leaving a spiraling trail of ink behind it. Then, he caps the water bottle with the filter, and upends the bottle over the one containing the ink. Down and I watch in fascination as ink drips back into the ink bottle through the filter, while the water remains in the water bottle.
“Before the Rumble stopped, even the ink I used on paper would reset at the start of every cycle, the paper returned to a blank state and the bottle full. But now, I have a feeling there will be no more Rumbles, and the amount of ink I have is limited. The filter will conserve a lot of it, and make sure I always have water to clean the brush with, but still . . . I have to be careful with how I use this paper.”
The Rumble? “Do you mean the Ripple? What’s the Rumble?”
Strange frowns. “To mark the beginnings of every cycle, you know, that massive rumbling, shaking of the ground we stand on? Like things are shifting around . . . A bigger version of what you feel when you pass through a node . . . never mind, you’ve never done that . . . how should I explain this?”
He pauses for a little while before continuing. “My life has been marked out by these regular intervals, I call them ‘cycles.’ At the beginning of each cycle, I would feel a massive rumble of vibrations, and I would be transported underneath one of the chambers in this place. I used to spend the cycle navigating through all the staircases and nodes, traveling from underneath one chamber to underneath another, but eventually I stopped, and remained where the Rumble took me. Eventually, no matter what I did, I’d feel the next Rumble, be transported again, and a new cycle would start.”
“Hmm.” I think about this. “Your cycles sound a lot like my days. You see that orange sky up there? It used to be a lot less nauseating to look at. It used to contain a myriad of colors of light, and at the start of every day, the most magnificent dancing pattern would ripple through the sky. I called it the Ripple. It was beautiful . . . ” I sigh sadly. “But I don’t think it’s coming back.”
Down starts laughing then. “Thank goodness for that! I don’t want it to ever come back! I hate whatever caused those things, the Rumble, the Ripple, whatever. I call it the Ringing. This horrible piercing painful sound . . . I could only block it out when I stayed in that hunched position and hummed that one specific song. Any movement, any deviation from that melody, and the horrible Ringing would fill my head. It would get slightly weaker as your day, or cycle, or whatever, went on, but right before it became bearable, it would come back, probably at the same time your Rumble and Ripple happened. After that final Ringing, it kept getting weaker, until I could move at last without unbearable discomfort. I was finally able to get you, Charm, to open the door to this chamber and let Strange in. See, those figures in the paintings? They have something to do with where we are in this space.”
“That makes sense!” I grin. “All those times Painterman—I mean, Strange—wasn’t on one of the wall paintings, he must have been underneath us! And those new figures, they must be you and me, Down!”
Down nods. “Now that the Ringing is gone, don’t you both hear it? That clear, beautiful note—a low A note, that’s surrounding us now? It’s WAY better than that awful Ringing.”
I definitely cannot hear anything. Strange and I shake our heads. “I don’t hear anything,” Strange says. “But I agree with Down—I’m glad the Rumble stopped, it was quite terrifying, and I never got used to it. Still, without it and the navigation it once motivated me to undertake, I wouldn’t have been able to put together this. I made it with the ink and my palette knife, and though I made it some time ago, even the Rumbles didn’t reset the ink from it.”
He extends his forearm to show us a tattoo on his skin. “The numbers are nodes.” he says. I can see an equilateral triangle with a circle embedded in it, and lines connecting the corners of the triangles to the midpoints of the opposite edges. There are various number labels on the diagram at intersections of lines, as well as arrowheads on the lines.
“What is this?” I ask.
“It’s a map of the rules of this place. It’ll be easiest to explain if I just . . . show you. Will you leave this chamber and come with me?”
I look at Down and she nods, as if to say we can trust him. Somehow I know we can. It feels as though the three of us have always known each other, as though we are each a part of something bigger . . .
Strange, Down, and I open the painting trapdoor and climb down a short rope ladder to a platform below us. I can see the three staircases again, reaching downward in a curving path toward the left, a straight path to the left, and a straight path forward. Like in the tattoo . . .
“This is Node 1, that we were in. I carve markings where I can, when I travel.” Strange points to a carved number on the platform, that has lines representing the three staircases reaching from it.
Down starts walking toward one of the staircases, but Strange stops her.
“Wait! Don’t go that way!”
He motions for us to follow him, and we move to the edge of the platform, which follows a curvature that takes us around and underneath the platform so that now we are standing on its underside, and what used to feel upside down soon feels right-side-up. Now, we are looking at the other side of those same staircases, and in this perspective, they are pointing upward, not downward, and reaching straight up forward, curving up toward the right, and straight up toward the right. A carving on this side of the platform shows the number 1 and how the three staircases appear to us now.
“The arrows in my tattoo point along the upward staircases, not the downward ones. This is how you get to those.”
I speak up, looking at his tattoo. “So if we take this path forward, will it take us to Node 5, and would the curving one to the right take us to Node 2, and so on? Is that right?”
“Not quite.” he replies. “The nodes and staircases have some really unique properties, and it’s a bit more of a puzzle. We can take staircases to nodes, but in doing so we also pass through another, and the nodes are all a part of these interconnected cycles. It might be easier to visualize like this.”
He paints something on a sheet of paper with the ink. “These each represent a staircase’s path. It’s a set of seven cycles, each containing three nodes. The paths take us through an alternating pattern of portal-nodes and destination-nodes.
“Starting at any node, you always pass through the next one, a portal-node, and arrive at the third, a destination-node. For example, the staircase-path we see stretching forward goes from Nodes 1 to 5 to 6 and then back to 1. But if we take the path, we will not arrive at Node 5. We will pass through Node 5 and arrive at Node 6. If we take the curving path to the right, we will pass through Node 2 and arrive at Node 4. And if we take the straight path to the right, we will pass through Node 3 and arrive at Node 7. I’ll show you, follow me.”
We take the staircase going up straight in front of us. I notice the words “To Node 6 through Node 5” carved on one of the steps in Strange’s handwriting. As we continue up the stairs, we suddenly find ourselves unable to see each other or the path in front of us, and the ground below us seems to be vibrating. I can almost discern a six-walled chamber around us, but only in my peripheral vision, and it feels more like the absence of a six-walled chamber . . . like a void.
“This is us passing through Node 5!” Strange calls to us, and his voice sounds muffled. Soon, the void-like surroundings cease, and we see the stairs again, clearly illuminating a singular path to another platform. I rush toward it, climbing onto the platform that has “6” carved onto it, after Strange and Down, and look around in amazement. While arriving to the platform I could only see a singular staircase but looking back I can see three: a left-upward staircase and a right-downward staircase with a sixty-degree angle between them, and a center-downward staircase splitting the two.
Strange points to a trapdoor at the center of the chamber floor above us, with a short rope ladder leading down from it. This trapdoor is circular. “These appeared on each of the nodes around the time you say you placed the painting on Node 1’s floor.”
“Well, I want to see what’s inside!” Down climbs up the rope ladder, and we climb up after her. Together, we push open the trapdoor, and emerge into Node 6.
Kabir woke up after Roop had already left—she left at 4:00 a.m. to attend some sleep lab shift at REMedy. He wondered why they needed cryptographers at a psychiatric and sleep research company, but Roop had signed an NDA and wasn’t allowed to talk about it. While dipping butter toast in the previous night’s coconut stew and sipping boxed mango juice, Kabir studied satellite images of the coordinates he was to go to and ran through what he wanted to say when he got there.
From the satellite images, it looked like the coordinates were under some sort of a train overpass in a relatively remote area close to the coast of the island. This remoteness as well as the anonymity of the message he’d received made Kabir wary, so he set up a one-button-push emergency message alert system on his touchscreen that would send Roop the coordinates, if needed. And before leaving the apartment and bicycling to the overpass, he pocketed a small resealable bag containing a few colorful pebbles and his Swiss Army knife.
Kabir arrived early and waited for nearly half an hour at the overpass. While he waited, he mentally reviewed the technology of the Babirusa, making sure for the thousandth time that his invention’s mechanism would actually work as planned.
Dr. L’s invention was essentially an injection of self-assembling nanobots that travel to the brain. RecorderBots, AxonBots, and a Beacon. RecorderBots start out as a blank template and embed themselves in neuron membranes. They send their neural recordings and activity data to the AxonBots, which are embedded within the insulating myelin sheath surrounding the neurons’ axonal projections. The AxonBots run parallel to the true neurons’ axons, without touching them, and are wrapped in a special type of lipid protective layer. They are able to transmit electrical signals to one another at incredibly high speeds, immune to degradation because of their highly conductive graphene lattice structure, and create pathways that all lead to a central nanobot assembly, the Beacon.
The Beacon can communicate with the biological neurons as well as with the nanobot pathways and serves as the main command center to adjust neural activity. The setup process involves it transmitting specific signals through biological neural pathways to auditory, visual, and olfactory cortices that simulate a sound-sight-smell sensory reminder cue and forces a memory of whatever crime was committed to be recalled. That’s enough to start building threads through the brain, of instincts and memories and emotional maps that contributed to the decisions made in that context. The Beacon then determines the likelihoods of feeling and experiencing something given a set of information based on those thread maps, and what neural activity patterns it will need to pay close attention to. It then sends signals back through the AxonBots and to the dormant RecorderBots—
His thoughts were interrupted as soon as 8:00 hit, when a door slid open in the ground, startling Kabir, who had been expecting a person to show up. A stone ramp led down from the opening. He nervously went down the ramp. At the bottom, he saw a strange white spheroid hovering above a thin metal track. A door slid open in the spheroid, and inside he saw a comfy sitting area.
This is too weird . . . maybe I should go back . . .
The door leading outside had shut above him.
A robotic voice sounded from the spheroid. “Message for Kabir. Scan voice to unlock message.”
“Voice has been scanned. Message unlocked.”
Then another, non-robotic voice spoke from the spheroid. “Hi Kabir, it’s me, Dr. L. You’re about to meet me, so you can know it stands for Lakmal. Call me Maya though. Sorry I couldn’t meet you there myself. Don’t worry, you can get into the vehicle. It’s a prototype for a Standard Autonomous Vehicle—or SAV—technology that’s in development here in Octavia. Trust me, this one will be the next big thing. Did you like the secret passageway? My wife is the lead architect of Octavia, and she hid all sorts of secret architectural wonders on this little island, even some that only she and those who worked on constructing the place know about. Anyway, I’ll see you soon.”
“She’s married to Grace Garcia?!” Kabir exclaimed aloud as he climbed into the SAV.
“That is correct,” the robotic voice spoke again.
“Huh. Cool.” Kabir watched the SAV door close, and he clutched his backpack as the thing accelerated down some sort of tunnel. To calm his nerves, he did his best to focus back on thinking through the Babirusa technology.
In a couple hours, after receiving the Beacon signal, RecorderBots are able to mimic crucial transmembrane proteins. Voltage-activated sodium ion channels, inhibitory GABA receptors, all the different kinds of calcium-ion-modulated potassium channels, NMDA receptors . . . But two key differences exist. RecorderBots only activate—whether activation means allowing affinity for neurotransmitter binding or simulating the reach of a threshold voltage or something else—when the Beacon tells them to. And RecorderBot regulation of neural excitability works in the exact opposite way to natural channels and receptors. They will exactly counteract neural activity, if the Beacon tells them to. This is how it constantly counteracts and diminishes the values of the memories, instincts, and whatever else existed that led to the crime that was committed.
But Kabir’s invention, his dynamin-GTPase, had the power to stop all of this in its tracks.
After speeding underground for about five minutes, the SAV slowed to a stop, and the door opened. Kabir audibly gasped in wonder. He was in an underwater space. A curving stone pathway was in front of him, and on one side of the pathway, there was an extremely tall wall of perfectly transparent glass between him and the lake water, which displayed the transition between the edges of sunlight’s reach and the murky darkness below. A school of fish danced along the curvature of the space. It felt like an even more magnificent version of an aquarium’s main display.
“Beautiful, isn’t it? Grace’s designs are quite something. Ah, the walleye are swimming around. Look at that.” A very tall woman with short, cropped hair walked toward Kabir. “Welcome to my home. I’m Maya. Did you bring it? The dynamin-GTPase sample you described?”
Kabir nodded, and Dr. Lakmal broke into a grin.
“Great. Come on in, have some tea, and let’s chat about how to avert the complete collapse of my technology.”
She led Kabir through the main doors and into a sort of foyer. “I have to admit, I didn’t expect you to be so young. How old are you anyway, twelve?”
“Um no.” Kabir frowned. “I’ve just turned thirteen.” He paused upon seeing what was displayed in the center of the room. Dr. Lakmal laughed and said, “Don’t worry, it’s only a sculpture, not the real thing. It was a gift.”
In the center of the space, on a display stand and encased in a glass box, was a skull—or a sculpture of one—that belonged to some sort of an animal, with tusks that curled back onto themselves and had broken through the animal’s own head.
“A Babirusa. The animal is extinct now, but it had this fascinating anatomy, growing a tusk that would, if not constantly ground down, eventually curl back and puncture its own skull and brain, killing itself. It was the perfect name for the technology I had developed, based on some of the properties the two shared.”
Kabir looked closer at the sculpture and noticed small silver engraved words on the display stand, reading:
FROM YOUR FRIENDS AT REMedy
“Come on, I have tea waiting for us.”
Kabir followed her into an immaculate and cozy kitchen with a royal blue statement wall and pretty wooden cabinets. A very tall light well in the ceiling brought natural light into the space and provided a small square view of the sky. Dr. Lakmal handed him tea in a transparent glass teacup, took a cup of tea herself, and motioned for him to sit at the table.
“Take a sip of tea, Kabir. Before it gets cold.”
Kabir took a sip, did all he could to keep from gagging, and then discreetly spit the liquid back into the cup. Licorice, ugh. Why did it have to be one of my sensory sensitivities? he thought. Why did it have to taste like licorice? I can’t make a bad impression . . . and not drinking the tea would be impolite . . . He smiled and nodded at Dr. Lakmal and tried to think of a way to make it seem like he was drinking the tea as she continued to speak.
“Kabir, when I designed the Babirusa, my heart was in the right place, but my solution was . . . flawed. The problem was clear, yes. The way our systems used to judge human beings was terrible. We would assign them a moral value, and increment and decrement that value with every deed, depending on how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ the deeds were. Reducing the dimensionality of human behavior on so many levels, didn’t it? Not only were we reducing the complexity of behavioral history and context contributing to a decision to a binary good versus bad, but we were also suggesting that moral value only has a singular scalar quantity that goes up and down depending on the sum of those inaccurately reduced-dimensionality-decisions. We should have been treating decisions in isolation from one another and considering the unique behavioral trajectory leading to each one. And this inaccuracy was all because humanity conflated breaking a law—a clear binary ‘yes or no’—with the moral value of a decision, which is an immensely complex, multifaceted thing.”
Kabir noticed that she looked up at the light well whenever she talked. He removed the pebbles and Swiss Army knife from their resealable bag and put them directly in his pocket. Then he poured some of the tea into the resealable bag as she kept talking. I’ll slowly pour all of it into this bag, then I’ll ask to go to the bathroom, and then I’ll throw it out, he decided.
Dr. Lakmal continued, “And so breaking the law—mind you, judged by people with their own immense biases—resulted in cruel, inhumane punishments—imprisonment, for example—designed to ‘right the moral value counter’ when this moral value counter does not even exist. It bothered me immensely. That’s why I designed this. It would treat human beings as the multifaceted, complex creatures that we are, and it would trace back the unique behavioral trajectories as best as it could, and only affect a decision in isolation—protecting everything that contributed to the rest of the person.”
Yes! It’s all in the bag now. Kabir finished pouring the last of the tea out. Dr. Lakmal looked at Kabir again and smiled again when she saw that the tea had disappeared. “Are you following so far, Kabir? And did you like the tea?”
Kabir nodded. “Thank you for the tea. I think I follow so far. You wanted to only affect the stuff behind a single decision with your technology, so that the whole entire complicated person wouldn’t be reduced to ‘good’ or ‘bad’ just because of that one decision when they were judged.”
Dr. Lakmal’s expression turned serious. “Yes. But . . . I was wrong. The Babirusa doesn’t do that at all. It can drastically change a person. While each decision itself has a unique fingerprint of history, memory, sensory context, and behavior leading to it, that fingerprint is connected to countless others, all of which will be affected if that singular branch goes. The same memory can drive both an act of altruism and an act of malice, can’t it? Locking it away to stop the malice would also stop the altruism. It is making the same mistake, wrongfully reducing the complexity of the thing to good versus bad. Truthfully, Kabir, I want to work toward a better solution. And . . . well truthfully, I’d like to stop the Babirusa, too.”
Kabir was surprised. “What made you realize all of this? Dr. Lakmal, what changed your mind?”
Dr. Lakmal smiled. “Meeting Grace did. My wife. When I sold my technology to REMedy, I met her, the architect of the city, of the REMedy laboratories. She’s been against REMedy from the start, Kabir. The way she designed the city, there are these hidden passageways, two of which REMedy doesn’t know about. She was planning ahead the whole time. But anyway—I was thinking of the good my technology could do in the hands of a sleep research company, while she was thinking of the harm it would do in the hands of a corporation, or even its harm in general. After many arguments, then discussions, then late night philosophy-laden conversations, she changed my mind.”
She went quiet for some time, then said, “Okay, let’s talk science now. The protein you printed can disrupt the Babirusa, can’t it? From what you told me. Your dynamin-GTPase?”
Kabir cleared his throat again, nervously slipping into a summary he had practiced and prepared. “That’s right. What I made is a modified version of dynamin-GTPase, a protein that normally wraps around cellular vesicle necks as the vesicle is pinching off from a cell membrane. Anyone can make it at their local protein printer. My dynamin-GTPase, if it enters the myelin layer of neurons holding AxonBots, will be attracted to the protective lipid layer surrounding the hexagonal lattices of graphene in the AxonBots. My dynamin recognizes the specific phosphorylation pattern on the inositol ring portions of the AxonBot lipids, and it polymerizes and wraps around the lipid layer—and consequently the AxonBots themselves—in a helix. The lipid protection layer on the AxonBots is attached to the edges of the graphene lattices, so as dynamin does this twisting helical wrapping, it causes a rotation of every other graphene lattice in the AxonBots ever so slightly, just one point one degrees, and this turns the thing into a Mott insulator—not letting any electrical current flow through anymore despite having an electrically conductive structure. Once this rotation is complete, the AxonBots won’t be able to communicate with the Beacon, and the Beacon won’t be able to communicate with the AxonBots. The Babirusa will be toast. Um, Dr. Lakmal, may I use your bathroom, please?”
Dr. Lakmal nodded. “Please, call me Maya. Take a right after leaving the kitchen, and the bathroom is at the end of a hallway once you go down a flight of stairs. You know, if the Babirusa were to be destroyed, it would do a lot of damage. You understand a lot of the mechanics of the thing, but you still don’t really know how it works, the programming. What’s inside it, what it thinks, what it feels, what it wants to do. You still don’t know why it’s called the Babirusa, why that’s the perfect name.”
Kabir got up, and as he exited the kitchen, Maya called after him. “When you come back, I’ll tell you.”
After he climbed down the stairs, Kabir breathed a sigh of relief and took out the resealable bag full of tea. Walking down the hallway, he noticed a warm glowing light coming out of one of the rooms, and when he moved closer, a sausage-like dog rushed out at him, barking in indignation and startling him enough to fall down.
“Astrocyte, calm down, please! Oh my gosh.” A very pregnant woman with short curly black hair and a prosthetic arm made of intricate machinery stepped out of the room, and the dog—Astrocyte—trotted happily toward her, panting and wagging its tail. “Sorry about that. Astrocyte likes to guard my workroom for some reason. I’m Grace. Did you want to see the workroom? I noticed you peeking in.” Then she saw the resealable bag Kabir was holding. “Is that . . . Maya’s licorice tea?” She laughed heartily as she figured out what Kabir was planning. “Go ahead and throw it out, I won’t tell. Then come see the crib I’m designing for little Fano here,” she put her hand on her belly.
Kabir thanked Grace, his face bright red with embarrassment, and hurried to the bathroom, where he poured the tea out into the sink, rinsed the bag, and re-pocketed it before going back to the workroom.
“Woah.” The walls were lined with prosthetic arms, each made from different kinds of machinery. There were worktables everywhere with architectural models, vivid landscape paintings, and drafted drawings all over them. In the middle of the room, Grace was tinkering with a half-constructed crib, and Astrocyte was asleep near her. “The arms in this room are particularly tailored for different art forms. I have one I like for painting, drafting, carpentry, and so on.”
Kabir studied a fascinating diagram that was tacked to the wall, showing an equilateral triangle with a circle embedded in it, and lines connecting the corners of the triangles to the midpoints of the opposite edges. At the midpoints and corners of the triangle, as well as the very center of the diagram, were labels, “e1,” “e2,” and so on up until “e7.” There were arrowheads as well, on the lines.
“It’s showing the multiplication rules for octonions, a type of number system.” Grace said. “There exist seven variations of the square root of negative one denoted by these e-number things, as well as the real numbers. The system follows multiplication rules that can be visualized with this diagram, where each of these seven nodes represents a variation of the square root of negative one. You multiply by following the forward arrows—for example e1 multiplied with e2 would be e4, and they wrap around in interconnected cycles of three nodes, so e2 multiplied with e4 would be e1. If you go backward, the opposite direction to the arrows, you end up at a negative node, so e4 multiplied with e2 would get you negative e1. You can read more about it here—”
She flipped to a page in a book titled Architectural Design of Octavia containing the triangle diagram. “Of course, we can’t actually move through this city like octonion multiplication in real life, but I did my best to make pedestrian circulation through the city interesting, inspired by this beautiful mathematical construction. I’m proud of the REMedy underground laboratory system especially, in which the seven labs can shift around one another on tracks, determined by the tunnels you choose to go through. You might hear some of them from this house, a distant rumbling, like things are shifting around.”
Kabir looked at the book. “My sister has this book! It looks really interesting. And that’s a lovely crib, thanks for letting me see it. And it’s an honor to meet you too, Octavia is a beautifully designed city. I should probably get back upstairs though.”
Grace smiled. “Don’t be too intimidated by Maya. She’s really a sweetheart, I promise. You know what, I’ll come with you. I feel like getting a snack.”
They climbed up the stairs. Kabir looked back to see Astrocyte had woken up and was now standing guard outside Grace’s workroom.
Maya was standing at the entrance of the kitchen. She grinned when she saw her wife, and said, “I knew you’d be up here soon enough. There’s a blueberry muffin that I’ve been keeping warm for you in the oven.” Then she turned to Kabir. “Look kid, let’s cut to the chase. I know why you wanted to meet. It’s your sister, isn’t it. Roop? You put your last name in your original message, and while it isn’t necessarily publicized, I have access to a database of everyone who gets the Babirusa installed in their brains. I’ve been particularly interested in her case because of the circumstances surrounding it at REMedy. Anyway, I’m guessing you came here to threaten me, right? I have to help with your sister or else you will make the printing protocol for your modified dynamin-GTPase public and risk the future of my technology? It’s impressive. You’re lucky we have the same goal. Your protein has some issues though, Kabir, regarding safety.”
“Wait, you knew about Roop? I . . . guess I should have thought about that. I didn’t come here to threaten you. Though actually now that I think about it, it’s a much better idea than what I had in mind. I came here to find out how much harm my dynamin-GTPase would cause a consciousness—not the Babirusa, but the real person, because . . . well I wasn’t going to tell you this, but I was planning on somehow delivering the dynamin-GTPase into Roop’s neurons, and I want to make sure I do it safely. Trust me, I know the old Roop did not want the Babirusa, and it was wrong of people to force her to get it. I want to rescue her.”
Maya looked stunned. “You have no idea how dangerous that would be Kabir. You could leave your sister with permanent brain damage. Yeah. You need to understand why it’s called the Babirusa. Give me a moment.” She rushed down the flight of stairs leading to the hallway.
Grace chuckled through a mouthful of blueberry muffin. “It’s a sweet thought Kabir. But how does Roop feel now about the idea of getting the Babirusa removed?”
“I . . . haven’t asked her in her current state, but I’m pretty sure Babirusa-Roop would not want me to get rid of it. She likes the way she is with it. She liked the way she was before the Babirusa too though! And I bet it’s just . . . programming that makes her want to keep the Babirusa now. I guess it’s maybe not the most ethical thing, but stopping the Babirusa is mainly undoing something that was way more unethical, isn’t it? She’s changed, I’ve seen it. Bringing her back is what the old Roop would have wanted.”
Grace looked concerned. “Hmm, I don’t know. I think you should at least consider Babirusa-Roop’s point of view. She’s still a whole person and forcing her brain to change when she doesn’t want it to be changed is in some ways doing the same thing that was done to the old Roop.”
Kabir frowned, but before he could respond, Maya returned and placed something on the kitchen table.
“This is a model of a Beacon assembly. Think about what it contains when it’s assembled within a person’s brain. The Babirusa can change the weights that certain memories, instincts, personality traits, et cetera have for the biological consciousness by adjusting the likelihood of their occurrence, right?
“Well, the activity behind those memories, instincts, and personality traits is one hundred percent likely to exist in the Babirusa space, running through AxonBots instead of real axons. Because the program needs that data to execute the correct inhibition and excitation patterns to avoid their occurrences in the biological brain. The driving force behind the slight alterations to instincts, how important memories are and whether they are remembered, or personality is this set of probabilities that make up the ‘activity that would have been.’ It’s consciousness in its own right, that’s living in the space of the Babirusa. Not ‘missing parts’ of a person, but full consciousness itself—it’s still functioning using the same mathematical operations that the biological consciousness runs on.
“And it is experiencing something. It won’t be able to access any real incoming sensory data—only memory fragments stitched together at random, kind of like a dream. Who knows if its experiences are typical of a human’s, or if they are entirely different, or if they vary from person to person. But I know something, from my studies of this beautiful phenomenon.
“I named this the Babirusa because every single time it’s installed, the locked away parts of the consciousness are somehow always fighting to be able to access reality. I have no idea how they are doing it, or what it feels like or seems like to them, but if there aren’t measures put into place, they will find the part of the Babirusa that communicates back to the real brain—the Beacon—and they will then be able to interact or reintegrate with the biological consciousness again, like a tusk that grows on a journey to reconnect with the head from which it formed. Even REMedy doesn’t know this yet, it’s specific to the Babirusa’s use for rehabilitation.
“This is why, like the grinding of a Babirusa’s tusk, there is a grind function in the Babirusa program to prevent the consciousness in the program from finding the Beacon. FUNCTION_GRIND uses sensory data accumulated from after those parts of the consciousness were locked away, information beyond the reach of the locked consciousness. Using this data, it is able to generate countless, continuously updating, ‘random’ patterns that are impossible for the locked consciousness to make sense of, as they are made of data the locked consciousness has never experienced. When one of these patterns is introduced to the locked consciousness, it overloads the consciousness until the pattern incorporates itself into the Babirusa, and this keeps the consciousness trapped in the same place in terms of progress made toward the Beacon, only for a little bit of time. New patterns need to be introduced at regular intervals, to keep the consciousness trapped forever. Whatever the locked consciousness is experiencing in there, we know its life will be marked out with some sort of regularity.”
Grace dusted crumbs off her hands and spoke. “Also, if you shut down the Babirusa, not only will you lock away or kill that consciousness in the program, but you will also lock into place the states of the RecorderBots at that moment, which could potentially be far from ideal, since they are only supposed to be transiently active when the Beacon commands them to be. Did I get that right, Maya my love?”
Maya smiled at her. “Yeah, exactly right. Good point.”
Kabir sighed. “So it could seriously hurt both the biological brain and the consciousness in the Babirusa.”
Maya nods. “Kabir, I will help you with Roop. Those ‘deaths’ of people she killed might not have been complete deaths. See, I sold the Babirusa technology to the psychiatric and sleep research company REMedy for their research, right? And the deaths in Roop’s case involved usage of REMedy’s modified version of a Babirusa. Parts of their consciousness might still be alive, as full people in their own right. I’m pretty sure the deaths were unintentional, but the better news is that Roop might not have even really killed them. But Kabir, if I help you, you have to promise me something.”
“Destroy the dynamin-GTPase and the method that would make it. Before you leave today. Trust me, it would do more harm than good.”
Kabir nodded. “Okay. But how will we get my sister back, then?”
Maya smiled. “I’ve been working on a safer way to stop the Babirusa for some time now, involving shutting down FUNCTION_GRIND. Give me a day or two, and I’ll set it up for Roop. A way to let the trapped consciousness find its own way back to reality.”
Node 6 is beautiful. Also hexagonal in its ground plan, it has walls made of stones, varying slightly in hue from blue-gray to gray-brown. Climbing hydrangeas are draped everywhere, growing elegantly around the framed circular paintings, which depict the same scenes that were in Node 1, but on different walls now. I can see that the ocean painting from the floor of Node 1 is hanging on a wall here, and the figures have disappeared from it, though the underwater shadow remains. Something about that shadow makes me feel particularly strongly, as though I am bonded to that painting . . . but perhaps I am just moved by its beauty.
There is a wall missing a painting here too, and there is a painting on the floor here too, but the painting on this floor is the one that shows an expansive autumn forest. Down and Strange’s figures are in this autumn landscape, and so is mine, but my figure is facing away, and I can’t see my face.
“You really don’t hear anything?” Down is frowning. “There’s a chord now! A low F note, the A note above it, and the next F note after that A note. It’s pretty but . . . it doesn’t sound quite right, you know? I feel like it should be a different chord. It should be a D note and an A note, not an F . . . ”
I’m drawn to the ocean painting again. What is it about that shadow? I feel like something is trapped in the painting’s depths, something that should be with us . . . Oh. That’s it. There is somebody else in this place.
Down exclaims aloud, “Strange, please let me use your paintbrush and paper. I have to write this down while it’s still in my head.”
Strange gives her a sheet of paper and his ink bottle and paintbrush. Down paints some sheet music on the paper. “This is the melody I used to have to hum to keep the Ringing at bay—the music that was playing in my head!” The music shows a bass clef and treble clef, with notes playing at the same time. The bass clef shows a main melody, notes going from a low A note up to a D note, then up to G, then down to C, up to F, down to B, up to E, and finally back down to the same A the melody started from. In the treble clef are shown chords accompanying the melody.
Down speaks. “Look, I know both of you can’t hear these notes, but I need you to trust me. I think the melody I heard in my head wasn’t just any melody . . . I think it was a path. Through this place. If my hunch is right, all of the nodes will have a specific music note associated with them that’s part of that bass clef melody. Node 6 is an F note, which exists in that melody. Now we need to look at the others and find out what node contains what music note.”
“Wait.” I say. “Before we go any further . . . I think there’s another person somewhere in here, with us. I think they’re . . . in the painting somehow. I don’t know. We need to try and find them!”
“We can look for them while we figure out what music notes are in the chambers!” Down looks impatient. “Come on, I know this will lead us somewhere.”
For some reason I don’t think this other person is going to be in any of the chambers. But as we climb out of Node 6’s chamber and back down the rope ladder onto the platform, I feel that same strong feeling as I did when I looked at the ocean painting . . . when I turn toward the downward-pointing staircase that would lead us back through Node 5 and onto . . .
I ask. “Strange, what exactly happens if we travel along a downward-pointing staircase instead of an upward staircase?”
Strange shudders. “You end up at a negative node. Taking that staircase you’re looking at would take you backward through Node 5, and you would end up at Negative Node 1. I’ve only been underneath a negative node once, long ago, and it was enough. There was a platform, and the staircase I’d come from, and nothing else. No chamber, nothing. I was in a true void. The only way to come back to the regular chamber-node system from a negative node is to take a downward-pointing staircase from the negative node. I guess the two sort of cancel each other out and bring you back to a positive node.”
“Don’t you think things might have changed since the Ripple, Rumble, and Ringing stopped? Or since I placed the painting on the floor of Node 1’s chamber?” I frown. “Maybe there isn’t a nothingness down there anymore. Look, I have my own hunch, and it’s telling me to go down this staircase, that the other person, who I know exists, is down there somewhere, and I need to find them.”
Down tugs at my arm. “Charm, please let’s stick together, I don’t want to separate. Could we figure out my music pathway first? I know the feeling you are experiencing when you talk about this person you need to find, like you must do something. It’s how I feel right now about figuring out the pathway. I think doing this will . . . unlock something. Please, stay with us? We can all go find this new friend afterward, together.”
I smile at her. “Fine, that sounds good. Let’s figure out your path.”
So we go around the edge of Node 6’s platform to its underside, and now in this perspective the previously upward-pointing staircases now point downward and vice versa.
Each of the nodes is a unique and interesting little space, though they all share the same hexagonal walled structure, all are open to the still-nauseating orange sky, and all have paintings hanging on five of the six walls as well as one painting, looking as though it had been placed on the floor, acting as a trapdoor. We’ve already seen Nodes 1 and 6, so it’s fascinating to visit the others. Node 2 has a chamber of white marble, with golden embellishments where the walls meet the floor, and richly embroidered sofas. Node 5 has a bleak gray fortress of a chamber, with formidable stone gargoyles glaring at their occupants from the tops of the walls, and throne-like chairs. In Node 4 you find a cozy wooden space with neatly folded flannel blankets, in Node 7 you find a room painted a glossy dark purple flecked with silver, looking like the depths of outer space. Finally, Node 3 contains a chamber whose walls are made entirely of stained glass, that sparkle and bathe us in dancing, intricate geometric patterns of colorful light. The whole time, Down has been taking notes on that sheet of paper. I can see her grinning through my peripheral vision as we return to Node 1, sit on the rugs, and wrap ourselves in quilts. “This is it!” Down exclaims. “The correlation between nodes and music notes is quite simple. The notes progress from A to G in node order. So, this melody in my head tells us the order of destination-nodes we need to go to.” She shows us the piece of paper, which is now titled “The Path” and contains a list of the Node-music correlations as well as a labeling of each of the bass clef notes with Node numbers, in the order 1 4 7 3 6 2 5 1.
Strange studies the paper. “That is a nice path. It takes us to every node as a destination exactly once, before returning us to our starting position. We go to Node 4 through Node 2, then to Node 7 through Node 5, and so on until we finally arrive back to Node 1 through Node 6. Shall we try it?”
Down nods. “I can hear the A note in this room again, clearly. It’s lovely . . . let’s complete this melody.”
We open the painting trapdoor, and I try to ignore the feeling I get when I look at the ocean painting on Node 1’s floor.
As we travel along Down’s pathway, she talks about the chords she hears as we enter every other chamber. While we build the melody, we discuss what might happen when we complete the path . . . I can’t hear anything in the chambers, and neither can Strange. Maybe nothing will happen. That would be disappointing, and I certainly hope Down is right about this, but more than that, I hope this path doesn’t lead to something harmful happening.
We all hesitate for a moment before the final portion of our pathway, traveling from Node 5 back to Node 1 through Node 6. Then Down says, “Come on!” and we follow her.
This time, when we enter the chamber of Node 1, I can hear it. And from the look on Strange’s face, he hears it too. The final chord, of A notes and E notes. It feels and sounds triumphant. The noise is emanating from a small glowing ball made from some sort of iridescent wispy substance that is floating in the center of the chamber. The three of us approach this floating thing carefully and reach our hands out to touch it together.
As soon as our hands touch the iridescent substance, we start falling into something. A dream? A sleep? No . . .
We can feel . . . hear . . . see the memories. It’s like it’s happening in the present, not the past. And the memories belong to someone. Someone named . . .
Roop sits at her touchscreen in the REMedy office space, which offers a view of the lake and usually sits above the first of the seven underground research laboratories below. She sighs as she studies up on a rehabilitation technology called the Babirusa. I wonder why Dr. Aoki wants me to learn about this stuff. I bet it’s to fill time in between curve-plots. Still, it’s truly fascinating material . . . Roop glances over at her boss and mentor, Dr. Stephanie Aoki, and sees that she’s busy with something.
While she’s been told that her job, while simple and suitable for her entry-level position at the company, is incredibly important and can disrupt highly sensitive research processes if done incorrectly, it doesn’t change how tedious the actual work is. If she knew what the research that she’s supposedly helping with actually was, maybe the curve-plotting would be more interesting, exciting, even! But for now, they’re keeping her in the dark. And why isn’t this curve-plotting automated? Still, Roop trusts and respects Dr. Aoki immensely, so she doesn’t complain.
Roop can clearly tell that her job is working with some sort of Shamir’s secret sharing scheme algorithm. She’s been given a special number, 14736251. At some random point in the day, she will get notified of three point coordinates on a coordinate plane, each with an X and Y axis dimension, and labels Charm, Strange, and Down. Their coordinates are different every time. Roop’s job is essentially to plot a curve that passes through those three coordinates, and a fourth point with the X dimension being the data’s timestamp, and the Y dimension being her number 14736251. After plotting this curve, she would take the Y-intercept number, and use that number to activate some program called Zaqīqu. There are a couple other curve-plotters like her, who work different shifts, because whatever Zaqīqu is, it can run at any time of the day.
As the workday comes to an end, Dr. Aoki walks up to Roop. “How did the curve-plotting go today? And how far are you with learning how the Babirusa works?”
“Curve-plotting went fine, and I just need to review the nanobot and graphene lattice stuff. Dr. Aoki, I’ve been meaning to ask, why is the Babirusa important to the research here? Does it have something to do with my curve-plotting? I’ve been doing this same task for months now, inputting numbers and starting up Zaqīqu every day. I’d love to know a little more about what it’s doing.”
Dr. Aoki smiles kindly at Roop. “One of the most important things you need to know and understand about science is that discovery and progress are married to tedium and frustration. Most of the work we do is going to be monotonous and repetitive, but you can find beauty in it, knowing that every curve you plot is a tiny step forward toward the next era of sleep research. Still, I can understand how frustrating it must be, not knowing what this is contributing to. I think it’s about time you started having more of a role in the work. You’ve been doing well and proved that you can work through tedious tasks. We will need cryptographers like you for this soon, and work will be frustrating, and take a long time, but it will still be fascinating and almost magical. All science is like that. Meet with me Monday first thing when you come in, and I’ll tell you what your curve-plotting has been doing, and why I’ve had you study the Babirusa. Now, could you please lock up Sleep Lab 1 for me? The automated locking system is broken today for some reason. Then feel free to head out and enjoy your weekend!”
Roop grins. “Thanks so much Dr. Aoki. I’m super excited to learn more about the research here.”
Dr. Aoki smiles again. “I’m happy to see your enthusiasm for it. I’m excited to show you too. Alright, go lock up the lab and get out of here!” She puts on her coat, waves goodbye to Roop, and leaves.
Roop opens the door to her favorite pathway leading down to the underground labs, one that takes a spiraling stone staircase down. The tunnels holding the labs shift smoothly around, a system like trains redirecting, inspired by multiplication rules for octonions. She still finds it unusual but has come to appreciate the advantages of easily moving entire tunnels containing rooms of heavy, carefully calibrated, sensitive equipment to various locations where they would be used. At the labs’ level, she sees on a monitor that there is currently no ongoing shifting activity, so she enters a Transporter—one of several small command rooms that shift the tunnels around—and enters a coordinate location into the Transporter’s touchscreen. She hears things shifting around her, then she sees a tunnel entrance in front of her and walks over to Sleep Lab 1.
The sleep labs are set up so that the laboratory equipment is in an upper room, and the bedroom for a patient is in a lower room. They’re all given names by the company employees based on the characters of the spaces—for example in Sleep Lab 1 the “computer lab” is paired with the “ocean room” while in Sleep Lab 6 the “courtyard lab” is paired with the “autumn room.” The names alone are pretty random, but they make sense when you see the spaces.
Roop locks the entrance to the lab, and begins walking away, when a hidden door suddenly slides open in the tunnel wall, seemingly appearing out of nowhere, and a young girl, about eleven or twelve years old, stands at this new entrance, holding a heavy rock.
Roop is startled. “What are you doing here? And what—how did you get here?”
The girl has a serious expression on her face. “You weren’t supposed to be here.” She sighs. “I guess you’re involved now . . . ” She looks Roop up and down and shrugs. “You’ll do. I’ve broken the automated lock system and disabled the security cameras. It was all being controlled by one little box, so I threw this rock at it, and it’s dead now. I’m Daria. I’m here to rescue my dad. You people need to let him go.”
Roop frowns. “Rescue your dad? Who is your dad? Does he work here?”
Daria says something to herself. “I guess I don’t know if getting him out of there will hurt him or not though . . . ”
“Woah, slow down. What are you talking about?”
Daria sighs. “You know, the dream-sharing machine? Sheesh. I thought you people were supposed to be smart. I was going to break the machine with this rock and set him free.”
“Look, I really don’t know about any dream-sharing machine, or about anybody being trapped in here . . . I’m sorry. But I also know that breaking any of the machinery in here with a rock wouldn’t be a good idea.”
Daria smirks. “Breaking stuff with rocks has worked out pretty well for me so far. I guess you have a point though. I don’t know how the machinery works, or if breaking it would give him brain damage or something. Alright. Come along with me then. I need to convince you to help me and my dad before you run off and tell people about me.”
“I don’t know, Daria . . . we should probably get you back to your school, your family . . . ”
She scowls. “Like I said, my dad is here. He’s my only family. I hate the Octavia Boarding School. If you come with me, I can show you the hidden passageway I came from, and others like it too. I can see you keep looking at it. There are two of them here, including this one, and they connect to each other. The other one makes loud echo-y noises when you run through it. Heh. I bet that freaks the REMedy people out. And . . . well if you don’t come with me, I’ll scream at the top of my lungs and say you kidnapped me. That wouldn’t make you look good to REMedy, would it?”
Roop massages her temples, she has a headache now. “Fine. I’ll come with you. Please don’t scream . . . I like my job here.”
The girl grins and sets the rock down just inside the hidden passageway. “Just in case it comes in handy later.” Then the two of them go up the ramp of the passageway, which seems to twist and turn endlessly in the underground space. It’s lit by orange lamps. “It senses motion and the door will close by itself once you move far enough down the pathway,” Daria says.
They emerge behind a small grove of trees near the coast of the island, and Roop sees a trapdoor covered in expertly done artificial wildflowers shut behind them, the fake flowers blending perfectly into the real flowers next to them. “You have to pull this one orange flower to open this entrance.” Daria says, before pointing through the trees at a bakery across the street. “Let’s go there. Can you buy me a warmed chocolate chip cookie? The Octavia Boarding School doesn’t let me have any. In there, I can tell you my and my dad’s story.”
Roop sighs. “Fine.” They go into the bakery, she purchases a cookie for Daria with Octavian currency, and they sit in a corner booth of the place. Daria pushes a button on a bracelet she’s wearing, and a hologram image pops up of a laughing man and a baby version of Daria.
“This is me and my dad, back in Manila. My dad’s name is August Sibug. He was a pilot, and the Philippines had developed the most innovative and effective new all-electric aircraft of the century. My dad was recruited to fly around the world and help showcase this new line of environmentally friendly airplanes for a while. I got to go with him, and we saw all sorts of awesome places together, learned lots of awesome languages together . . . I didn’t have to go to school back then, my dad taught me everything from math to art to biology to geography.”
She takes a large bite of the cookie before continuing. “Anyway, my dad was invited to Octavia by REMedy three years ago for a big opportunity. We got to go to this big fancy hotel, and they gave us this big fancy suite. I was nine at the time, so they let me hang out and read my book in the suite while the REMedy people and my dad had their meeting. Grown-ups never take me seriously or think I will understand what they’re talking about, but I do. They told my dad that they had this new technology in development that would allow people to share dreams. That it would help treat mental illnesses like PTSD, by replacing traumatic nightmares with ‘happy places’ they could go to, stitched together from other peoples’ experiences. They said my dad was chosen as one of the people in the world who has had, and I quote, ‘one of the richest and most varied compilations of life experiences ever to draw from’ because of his travels and his experience with that technology. They were honest with him, saying nobody else had said yes and he would be the first ‘experience donor.’ He—” She puts down her cookie and looks sadly at the table.
“What is it?” Roop asks gently.
“He agreed to help them. I screamed and cried after the REMedy people left, asking him why. Why would he do this, how could he leave me alone! The study was supposed to take a few months, but they warned that it could go a little bit longer. Then he started crying too, and it was the first time I’d ever seen him cry. He told me that the REMedy people were doing a very good thing. He said that my mom had died from sadness because of a mental illness, and that this felt like his way of being able to help and save others like her.”
She finished the cookie and chewed the last mouthful thoughtfully. “They put me in Octavia Boarding School after that, while my dad was in the study. I waited for a few months, then a few more months, then a year had passed by, and there was no sign of him coming back. I realized at that point that REMedy might not be letting him come back. I think his experiences must be too good, I think they don’t want to let go of him. So that’s when I started to sneak out of the school at night and explore Octavia. Did you know that there are secret passageways and tunnels all over the place, that nobody knows the location of, and are like a puzzle to unlock?”
Roop nods. “That makes sense. Grace Garcia, the architect, likes puzzles. The REMedy underground laboratory setup is inspired by this eight-dimensional number system for example. I read that in a book. There must be other puzzles on this island too . . . though I wonder why these passageways weren’t mentioned in the book. Anyway, continue, please.”
“Well, I would sneak out every night and look around, and I figured out all of the passageways. It took me two years, but I think I’ve gotten every single one. I don’t know what the puzzle is, but I got a map of the island, divided it into a grid, and searched a square of the grid every night. I’m good at searching for things. I was super happy when I discovered the hidden passageway we just came from, that leads from that patch of trees into either an empty space or one of the REMedy tunnels, depending on how the labs there have shifted. Anyway, I have two train tickets now, that are scheduled for this upcoming Tuesday at 1:00 p.m. For one of the two trains that actually go across Lake Erie and will let us leave this island for good. I was going to break him out and hide him in the secret passageways until then, but now that I think about it, my rock plan might not have been the best.”
Roop is concerned for this child. She notices, now, the massive dark circles under Daria’s eyes, indicative of sleep deprivation. And something about Daria reminds her of her own little brother Kabir. “How did you get the money to buy train tickets though? Also, if you explored the island during the nights, when did you sleep?”
Daria grins. “I forgot to say! I’m an extremely good pickpocket. I’ve honed the craft to perfection over the past few years. I’ve always succeeded, and I’ve only gotten caught once, back when I was nine. I just pretended I didn’t understand what I had done, and then I made myself cry, and the person ended up comforting me. That’s when I picked their pocket successfully. I only took some change from everyone, but over time I accumulated enough to finally buy train tickets. For sleeping, I’d take a long nap after school, and I’d also sleep in literature class. There’s an old-fashioned teacher in literature class, who makes us read boring old books written over a century ago, about boring boys—it’s always boys—with boring lives. I’d rather let my brain cells have fun dreaming than subject them to that kind of misery. Sure, I didn’t do much homework, and I don’t really like homework anyway. But they can’t really kick me out either, can they?”
Daria looks sad again. “My dad was a way better teacher. I used to know lots of languages, like Tagalog and Mandarin and Marathi and Portuguese, but I’ve forgotten so much of them because he’s not there to talk with me in them anymore.” Then she sits up and looks at Roop. “Okay, you’ve heard my story. Now will you help me rescue my dad?”
Roop’s heart goes out to this kid. Three years . . . that’s horrible. How could REMedy do this? I have to help this child. “I’ll do my best, Daria. I’ll try to find out where they’re keeping him. On Monday I’ll be learning some stuff about the research they’re doing there . . . I think it might be the dream-sharing machine. I’ll try to get my boss to let me see the machine in person early morning on Tuesday. On Monday evening, at this same time, let’s meet again, here at the bakery, and we can figure out a plan to get your dad out in time for you both to catch your train.”
“You won’t betray me, will you Roop? You will really help?”
“Of course I’ll help. This is not okay of REMedy. And . . . well I have this thing, where if someone reminds me of my little brother, it hurts me if anything hurts them, just like it would hurt me if anything hurt my little brother. Something about you reminds me of him, so I would never hurt or betray you. I will help you, Daria. You have my word.”
Daria smiles. “Good. Just in case, I’m keeping this for now though.” She holds up Roop’s wallet. “I’m going to keep all of your important identification stuff until you help me get my dad out of there, but you can have this back.” She hands Roop her REMedy building access card. “See you Monday!”
Daria runs out of the bakery and across the street to the patch of trees, Roop’s wallet in hand, and when Roop looks over, she has disappeared from view.
“I see you need to get a curve-plotting done. Do that quickly, then come to my office. I want you to know that I’ve now given you access to all of the code for Zaqīqu. I’ll explain it in our meeting, but I hope it’ll serve as a source of inspiration for you—a hint of your future here—as you continue your work.” Dr. Aoki tells Roop on Monday morning. Roop feels a cold sweat as she enters the numbers into her work touchscreen and activates Zaqīqu. What is this doing? I guess I’m about to find out . . . Then she goes to Dr. Aoki’s office.
“So, you’ve read up on the Babirusa and how it works. Now I’ll tell you why it’s important. See, we’ve bought the Babirusa technology here at REMedy, and we’ve modified it for usage in a dream-sharing technology. Zaqīqu. The setup is pretty straightforward. There are four sleep pods set up in a room. Three of them are for occupants, testers of the technology who volunteer from the company. We’ve named these three sleep pods Charm, Strange, and Down, and they’re what send you those inputs for your curve-plotting. The host pod is called Higgs.”
“What’s in the fourth sleep pod?” Roop asks, knowing and dreading the answer.
“That would be the host, whose experiences create the dreamworlds for the patient—or tester in this stage. This person is not from the company. He was chosen for his rich life experiences. While the host sleeps continuously for this current stage of our study, the testers experience sleep in three-to-eight-hour batches and rotate out. Everyone in the pods has the Babirusa installed, and the Babirusas wirelessly communicate with the sleep pods, which communicate with one another. In the power-up stage of Zaqīqu, before the dreaming, we have the testers’ Babirusas play slow coordinated waves of neural activity originating from the thalamus and this, combined with a melatonin dose taken some time prior, is what induces the sleep.
“Once the power-up is complete, inhibition is sent to the testers’ pons in the brain stem, preventing motor signals from reaching the spinal cord, and consequently preventing any movement during the dreams. The sleep pods translate neural data between the dream-sharers, curating electrical activity patterns for each occupant so that the testers experience the dreamworld from their own perspective, but can observe what the others sharing the dream are doing. Ideally, once we have patients instead of company volunteers, we would ask the patients to describe ‘happy places’ prior to treatment, and then actually craft those places using the host’s rich contextual memories, slowly replacing the appearance of the traumatic episodes with the appearance of a happy place to go to.
“The curve-plotting works quite well for this system. It’s only when the three occupants are lying within the pods, and someone from the company—you, Roop—approves the activation, that Zaqīqu will be able to start.”
Roop tries not to betray any emotion. “You say the host is sleeping continuously . . . what exactly do you mean by that? How long has that person been in there?”
Dr. Aoki looks conflicted. “I . . . can’t say for sure, but it’s been a long time. I know he consented to being a part of this study, though—in fact, I’m told he was eager to help us and believed in our research. The truth is, disconnecting him would be . . . complicated. With how things are currently programmed, he can only be disconnected while Zaqīqu is running, and if that were to happen, while it would most likely be fine for the occupants in the Charm, Strange, and Down pods, there’s a small chance that disconnecting him would risk not only permanent neurological damage to the minds of those in the Charm, Strange, and Down pods, but also risk their deaths.”
Oh . . . I don’t want to hurt or kill anyone . . . but keeping him in there forever is just wrong! It’s just a small chance, right? The odds are in my favor . . . Roop can’t help but frown, and Dr. Aoki notices.
“I know . . . it’s a tricky situation. But with people like you working on the program, maybe we will be able to change things! Maybe you can find a way over the next couple years to make disconnecting him safer for the occupants. And think about the genuine good that this will bring to the world. It’s what I remind myself of whenever I worry about him. That the end goal will help so many people.”
“That’s true.” Roop smiles at Dr. Aoki. “I’ll study the code today, and I’m sure I’ll have a ton of questions for you when I finish. Could I see this room at some point tomorrow? I’m really interested in actually seeing this stuff with my own eyes!”
Dr. Aoki seems relieved, and she smiles back. “Ask me anything you’d like. And technically you aren’t allowed to access the pod room yet, but I am, and you can come with me as my shadow. There will be a session of Zaqīqu that’s running early in the morning tomorrow, and we might be able to catch it before it ends. First thing tomorrow morning? Are you willing to be here at 6:00 a.m.?”
Roop grins. “That sounds great.”
“Let’s go over the plan, one more time. I want to make sure you know it.” Daria sandwiches a snickerdoodle cookie in between two chocolate chip cookies and takes a giant bite. Roop and Daria are in the bakery, sharing a platter of cookies, watching the pretty orange sunset, and figuring out what they’ll do tomorrow morning.
“Alright. I’ve been reviewing the code of Zaqīqu all day today, and I’ve figured out what I need to do to disconnect your father. I’ve configured it so I can access the code from my personal touchscreen. The pods are currently being kept at Sleep Lab 3, in the cathedral lab above the garden room, which very few people at REMedy are allowed to access. Dr. Aoki will bring me there at around 6:00 a.m. That’s where you come in.”
Daria nods. “I will be hiding in that second hidden passageway that’s near the REMedy labs. I will bring one of the school touchscreens that I’ve stolen from Octavia Boarding School’s literature classroom, and you will send it that other program you made, the one that will set off a security alarm far away from you. At 6:07 a.m., the alarm will go off.”
“Yeah, this particular alarm is serious, related to theft or damage to sensitive equipment needing immediate attention. It will definitely make Dr. Aoki leave. She’d have to use a Transporter to connect the Sleep Lab 3 tunnel to whatever tunnel brings her closest to that area. After she does that, while she goes to that other tunnel and isn’t in our tunnel anymore, I’ll go to the closest Transporter, and enter coordinates so that our tunnel containing Sleep Lab 3 moves to the spot with the other hidden passageway, that leads to this area with the bakery!”
Daria says, “This is when you’ll access the Zaqīqu code and disconnect my dad. I’ll be waiting at the entrance of the other hidden passageway, so that I can be there to greet my dad and lead him out of this place. Then we can go catch our train out of here.”
Roop swallows a mouthful of ginger snap cookie, and thinks to herself, Is it right to keep the risks to the other three people a secret from Daria? Maybe she should know. Then again, she’s only a kid. And it’s such a small chance. It’ll be okay. She doesn’t need to know. She smiles at the child. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Daria. Be careful, okay?”
Daria smiles back at Roop. “I will. You be careful too, Roop.”
“Dr. Aoki, why exactly do you need cryptographers here? I see that curve-plotting is basically Shamir’s secret sharing scheme, but anyone can do the curve-plotting.” Roop asks as they take a path down to the lab levels, Tuesday morning. Roop checks the time: 6:02 a.m. I have five minutes.
“Think about it Roop. What is one of the first things that humans, being the corruption-prone species that we are, would do once dream sharing becomes easily accessible technology?”
“Um, use it to hurt other people?”
“Hurt other people, gain an unfair advantage in things, intrude on people’s lives, feelings, thoughts, ideas . . . We need cryptographers to develop methods to protect dreamers from those who seek to harm them or invade them in some form. You, and others like you, are the future guardians of our collective subconscious.”
They enter a Transporter. 6:04 a.m. Roop’s palms begin to sweat.
6:05. They walk down the tunnel and enter the cathedral lab.
“Well, these are the Charm, Strange, and Down pods, and that one over there is the host pod. Not super exciting to look at, but Zaqīqu is currently running.” Dr. Aoki gestures to the four completely closed off pods. The people inside are not visible. Monitors above the pods display the vital signals of their occupants.
Then the alarm starts.
Dr. Aoki looks frightened. “That’s not good at all. Coming from Lab 6 . . . Oh shi—Listen, Roop. I need to go check that out now, but you don’t have clearance to go there . . . alright, just stay right here, okay? We have to shift around a bit so that we can pass by Sleep Lab 4 to get there.” She hurries out of the room.
Dr. Aoki goes to the Transporter. Roop steps out of the cathedral lab, and soon sees the tunnel connect to another one.
“Hold on for just a minute, I’ll be right back.” Dr. Aoki tells Roop as she walks out of the Transporter again and moves briskly past. Roop watches as she goes into the adjacent tunnel.
As soon as Dr. Aoki steps into the second tunnel, Roop runs to the Transporter and enters the coordinates that would take them to where Daria is waiting. As the Transporter starts to shift the tunnels, Roop sees that Dr. Aoki is looking at her from the end of the other tunnel, but soon the tunnel’s shifting moves her shocked face out of Roop’s field of vision.
As soon as the tunnel locks into place, Roop taps four times on the wall and starts running toward the lab. The hidden passageway opens, and Daria runs out past Roop, carrying the heavy stone she’d kept at the entrance of the passageway. She rushes to the Transporter and throws the rock as hard as she can against the control panel, keeping the tunnel in place.
“Good thinking, Daria!” Roop exclaims. “That buys us some more time for sure.”
“I did say the rock might come in handy!” Daria follows Roop into the lab.
It all looks so strangely peaceful. The pods, the monitors showing vital signs, the humming of the machinery . . . Roop thinks as she takes out her touchscreen and runs the code she wrote to release August Sibug from Zaqīqu.
As the code runs, a horrible piercing painful sound rings through the place. Daria watches the host pod anxiously, and Roop watches the Charm, Strange, and Down pods. Only a small chance they’ll get hurt. They’ll be fine. They’ll be fine.
Finally, the host pod’s lid slides open, and someone sits up.
“Papa! Papa it’s me!” Daria rushes to August Sibug’s side and hugs him, crying “Papa, I missed you. I missed you so much. Why did you have to go?”
The three other pods have stayed closed, but the vital signs are looking okay, so Roop exhales in relief and turns to the father and daughter.
“Daria? Is that you? You look older . . . what? How long have I been asleep?” August turns to Roop in confusion. “What have you people done to me? How long have you kept me here?”
Roop looks uncomfortable. “You’ve been asleep for three years. Your daughter has planned and worked toward freeing you for those years, and she’s just succeeded. She bought train tickets out of the island for both of you . . . she’s a pretty amazing kid.”
Daria wipes the tears off her face. “It’s okay Papa. She helped me get you out, because I remind her of her little brother and because I’ve stolen her wallet and told her I wouldn’t give it back until you’re free.”
August is quiet for some time, but then he bursts out laughing. “Sounds like my Daria. You haven’t changed one bit, have you?”
“I’ve become a better pickpocket.” she replies with a serious expression.
“You both should get out of here.” Roop smiles at them. “We probably don’t have much time left before someone else finds us.”
“Will you be alright?” August looks concerned. “You can escape with us, you know?”
“No, I want to make sure the other three people in the pods are going to be okay. And if they’re looking for me too, it’ll draw extra attention to the two of you. I’ll be fine, seriously. Go.”
Daria nods at Roop, takes her father’s hand, helps him stand up, and leads him to the hidden passageway. He’s stumbling a lot, walking for the first time in three years. “Follow me, Papa,” Daria says. They start walking up the ramp. August still seems dazed. Then Daria turns around and says, “Thanks, Roop. Goodbye!” and throws Roop’s wallet back out into the tunnel before the entrance to the passageway shuts behind them.
Roop picks up her wallet and smiles a little when she pockets it, then walks back into the lab. Maybe I should try opening them. Roop moves toward one of the pods and starts trying to pry it open. She can see her reflection in the polished reflective black surface. As she keeps trying to pry them open to no avail, the monitors showing the occupants’ vital signs start to flash red and beep.
Oh fuck. No. No no no no no no!
Roop tries again to open the pods, then tries scrolling through the Zaqīqu code to find a way to stop the damage, but her mind suddenly can’t make sense of any of it through her growing panic, it’s like the lines of code are blending together. She starts to hyperventilate as the electrocardiogram and neural activity and breath monitor signals start to run haywire, and without knowing what to do, starts scraping at the pod surfaces with her hands, saying aloud, “No, please stop, I don’t know how to save you, please, please don’t die, you weren’t supposed to die.”
Her panic has caused orange and black spots to fill her vision, and she feels dizzy. As she finally sees and hears the vital signals of the pod occupants flatline, everything goes dark for Roop, and she falls to the floor.
Roop stands before the Judges of Octavia, a board of scientists, various community members, and educators brought in to review and deliver sentences for crimes committed . . . though Roop has heard rumors of REMedy having wormed its way into a position of influence over them. You never think something like that will affect you . . . until it does.
“L’Inverno, Allegro non molto,”by Antonio Vivaldi plays softly in the background.As Octavian policy, the judges wear anonymizing digital distortion masks, giving their faces a blurred quality, their features only sharpening slightly when Roop views them through her peripheral vision. They’ve just approved REMedy’s initial contract condition sentencing her to get the Babirusa if a crime committed was related to REMedy work, after calling Dr. Aoki in to talk about what she saw.
Roop had avoided meeting Dr. Aoki’s eyes when she described the events, instead looking at an art piece in the room, a rectangle with countless tiny red, green, and blue lights that flashed and caused rippling movements of color across the rectangle. She’s still in shock from what happened. I never meant to hurt anyone. The chances were so slim . . . but I suppose I did know what risk I was taking. And something good did come out of it . . . no I shouldn’t think like that, people DIED because of me. I don’t want the Babirusa. I can learn from this experience without the Babirusa, and I can change for the better even without the Babirusa making that change for me, right?
“You confirm that there were no other witnesses apart from you, August Sibug, and potentially Daria Sibug?” one of the Judges asks, and Dr. Aoki nods and says, “Yes, I confirm.”
Another Judge stands. “Dr. Aoki, our sentencing extends to REMedy. While August Sibug was a consenting participant in this sleep study, his experience was extreme and ultimately caused emotional harm to him and his daughter. Octavia will not pursue them, and we have used our authority to cancel his contract. We also insist that there is not a repeat of his situation, and our ethicists will evaluate your future dream-sharing research with extra rigor and scrutiny. And Dr. Aoki, as you were the only witness, please give your consent to have your memory of these events altered to remove Roop’s involvement, so that we can all best facilitate her Babirusa rehabilitation process and move forward from this.”
Dr. Aoki looks at Roop. “Roop, I understand what you did, and I’m genuinely happy for August Sibug and his daughter. But these people did not have to die. They were my friends and colleagues, and they could have been your friends and colleagues too. We could have figured out how to disconnect Mr. Sibug safely. It might have taken longer, maybe years, but everyone would have stayed alive. You were impulsive and it led to a tragedy. I know you’re a good person Roop, but I disagree with how you handled this situation.” She looks down. “I do want to continue our work together and design a better framework for dream sharing with you on my team. I wouldn’t be able to do that knowing what your actions have caused, so I will gladly have my memory altered so that you have as comfortable and supportive of an environment as possible during your rehabilitation.”
The Judge nods, and Roop feels a cold weight in her gut. She understands where Dr. Aoki is coming from, but she also truly believes that keeping August trapped for any more years would have been detrimental to Daria’s emotional health . . . Still, her opinion doesn’t change how much Dr. Aoki’s words sting and ring true as well.
“You have half an hour to go back to your apartment and get any affairs in order before the Babirusa installation. One of us Judges will accompany you there, to make sure you follow protocol, and also to help you destroy any remaining evidence or concrete reminders of your crime. You are not to tell a single person about the Babirusa installation until one month has passed and the system is fully integrated into your brain, as it might otherwise interfere with your rehabilitation. Now go and prepare yourself, please. This meeting is adjourned.”
At her apartment, Roop thinks about her little brother Kabir. “How much will it change me?” she asks the Judge who is accompanying her, who is still wearing their digital distortion mask.
“It varies from person to person. For some it’s very subtle, while for others, they become drastically different people. I’m sorry, but I can’t say how much it will change you.”
Roop frowns, then says, “Could I please send something to my little brother? It’s not going to be about this, don’t worry—it’s just a series of chess moves that I promised I’d send him, and well, I don’t want to forget.”
The Judge nods. “Fine, but please hurry. You have about eight minutes left before your installation procedure. I’ll get the nanobots ready now. Just to be safe, delete the message after you send it. It might elicit a bad association to this day and the Babirusa installation.” They take out a transparent case and open it to reveal a small bottle of an inky black liquid, a small bottle of clear water-like liquid, and two syringes.
Roop finds a piece of synthesized paper and a pen, and she hastily writes an encrypted message to her brother. The message looks like a series of chess moves, but it’s actually explaining that Roop is getting the Babirusa, and she would want Kabir to know why she might be changed.
The Judge glances at the message briefly and nods again, then approaches with the syringes full of liquid. “It’s time.”
As Roop feels the cold liquid full of nanobots enter her bloodstream, she sends a picture of the paper containing her encrypted message to her little brother, Kabir, and then deletes it on her end.
I have figured out what we discussed at our last meeting, and it is ready to be executed. Feel free to stop by anytime you are able to, and we can begin. I have configured the coordinates under the overpass to recognize your voice. Just speak something at the location and you will be able to get here.
It had been about a week and a half since Kabir got that message from Maya, and he was on the fence about shutting down Roop’s FUNCTION_GRIND. There were definitely differences in Babirusa-Roop compared to the old Roop, yes. She wasn’t as impatient or impulsive as she used to be, and she now laughed at or was indifferent toward some of the things that used to make her cry or feel sad. What Grace Garcia had said to Kabir really resonated with him, and he didn’t want to force Roop’s brain to change against her will. But . . . he also wanted his sister back. Maybe it’s selfish, he would think. I miss the old Roop though.
Then a day came that made Kabir decide for certain.
He saw that Roop was watching an old movie from the late 2020s called Chutti, an adaptation of a very old story by a writer who lived in the twentieth century named Rabindranath Tagore. She had tried watching this movie once before, when she visited their parents’ house for a university holiday, but she couldn’t finish it—there was a young boy in the movie who was bullied by his classmates and the cousins and aunt and uncle he lived with, and Roop said the boy in the movie reminded her of Kabir. She couldn’t bear to watch the rest of the movie, saying that it hurt her too much to see anyone that reminded her of Kabir getting hurt, and she made a point to avoid even thinking about that movie or the story at all costs ever since then, literally shutting her ears if it was brought up in conversation.
At the time, Kabir had laughed at her for it and pretended it was nothing, but he secretly took that moment to heart. It was one of the things that he consistently reminded himself of whenever he was feeling sad. That one moment had become a symbol to Kabir, a reminder of how much Roop cared about him.
So when he saw Roop . . . observing this movie with a neutral expression, when he saw her notice him and grin, offering him a bowl of popped water lily seeds, when he heard her say it was a “fascinating story” . . . Kabir felt deeply, deeply sad. Because to him, this meant that the Babirusa had taken something away that he truly needed in his sister. It took away the part of Roop that wanted to help others or felt protective toward others when she saw something of Kabir in them.
“I’m . . . going for a bicycle ride.” he told Roop, trying not to let her see the stream of tears falling down his face.
“Is everything okay?” Roop looked concerned.
“Yeah. It’s allergies, I’ll take an antihistamine, and it’ll be fine. I’ll be back in the evening . . . Enjoy the rest of the movie.”
Roop frowned. “Kab—”
He had left at that point. He took Roop’s bicycle and pedaled as hard as he could to the overpass, letting the wind in his face wipe away the still-flowing tears. He said, “Hello,” at the overpass, the door in the ground opened, he took the ramp down, and got into the waiting SAV. Then he finally sobbed all the way to Maya’s and Grace’s house. Though he did his best to stop crying, when they greeted him, it was clear how he was feeling.
“Kabir! We didn’t think you were coming back! Oh no, are you alright? What’s wrong? Hey . . . come inside.” Maya walked up to him, and Grace was next to her.
They brought him to the kitchen table, and he sat down. Grace sat down next to him, and Maya asked, “Do you like peppermint?” while putting a mug of water in the microwave.
Kabir nodded. “I love peppermint.” He watched as Maya poured a packet of hot chocolate mix in the microwaved water and added a few marshmallows. Astrocyte came to the kitchen too, leaving the post by Grace’s workroom, and curled up under the kitchen table next to Kabir’s feet.
“There you go.” Maya handed Kabir the mug and cleared her throat. “It . . . makes me feel better when I’m upset. The marshmallows are peppermint flavored.” She looked a bit uncomfortable, then Grace looked at her and nodded, smilingly, and this made Maya relax.
“Sorry for crying, I didn’t mean to.” Kabir sniffed as he took a sip. The hot chocolate did make him feel a bit better.
Grace frowned. “Why apologize, what’s wrong with crying?”
Kabir sighed. “I don’t know, I want to be a strong and capable person . . . like . . . I don’t know, like both of you. I don’t feel much like that right now.”
Maya laughed at this. “Crying doesn’t make you any less capable. It shows that you can acknowledge how you feel and allow your biological processes to do whatever is needed to make you feel better. Come on, think about it from a science perspective. Crying literally flushes stress hormones out of your system, automatically relieving distress. And well, Grace and I cry all the time!”
“That’s true. Maya cried the other day when her house plant named Daisy died. I recently cried because I was scared of parenthood. But I comforted Maya about Daisy, and Maya comforted me about Fano, and we made each other feel better. It helps in being strong and capable if you have support like that.” Grace smiled kindly at Kabir. “Would you like to talk about what’s bothering you?”
Kabir explained the situation with the movie, and how he couldn’t let this part of Roop be locked away, that he needed that part of her to come back.
Maya said, “I’ll set up the shutdown program right now. We can get her back, okay?”
Grace nodded in agreement, and Kabir looked at Grace in puzzlement. “You wouldn’t be disappointed?”
Grace looked amused. “Oh, goodness, not at all. I brought up valid concerns of mine earlier regarding Roop’s autonomy. The truth is that if I were in your place, I probably would make the same decision and bring her back. It might not be the correct decision, ethically, but it is the human decision, isn’t it? That does have its own value too since, you know, we’re humans with finite time in this world, and we want to do what makes us happy. Besides, I know Maya needs Roop’s memories to come back too, to help in recovering the consciousnesses of those three people from their Babirusas.”
Maya said, “That’s right. Kabir, I need you to do me a huge favor and bring Roop here to meet me once she can access her previous state of consciousness again. Those three people she thinks she killed are not actually dead but trapped in Babirusas at the moment. Knowing what she did exactly to disrupt the program they were running on can help me help them.” She motions for Kabir to come look at her touchscreen. “I’ve located Roop’s Babirusa, and all I need to do is run the shutdown program. It stops letting FUNCTION_GRIND access any more sensory data, so it becomes unable to generate those incomprehensible patterns that would overload the locked consciousness. But the signal isn’t clear. I need her to go underground somehow.”
Kabir thought for a moment, then remembered something. “I have an emergency message configured on my touchscreen that would send Roop the coordinates of the overpass and notify me once she gets there. I prepared it just in case something bad happened. I’ll send it to her, and it’ll only be a matter of time before she reaches here. Then you can open the door, and she will enter the ramp and be underground.”
Maya said, “That sounds like a good plan.”
Kabir sent the emergency message to Roop. After some time passed, he received a notification that she was standing at the overpass. Maya opened the sliding door that would lead underground.
“There! She’s underground now, her Babirusa’s signal just became much clearer. Shall I run the shutdown program?”
Kabir nodded, and Maya began the shutdown program. Soon, some words appeared on Maya’s touchscreen.
SEARCHING FOR NEURODATA . . .
NEURODATA NOT FOUND
STARTING SHUTDOWN OF FUNCTION_GRIND
Kabir then sent a message to Roop telling her that the emergency message had been a false alarm, and that he would be back within the hour. Shortly after he sent that message, Roop went back above ground.
Maya pointed to the words on her touchscreen. “This means the shutdown of the grind function has started, Kabir. The locked consciousness is now on its journey to find the Beacon, and the untangling of Roop’s mind has begun.”
“So . . . we all used to be Roop, then.” Strange says as we make our way up the curving staircase that will take us from Node 1 through Node 2 to Node 4.
“I suppose so. I suppose that’s what the ‘before’ I always wondered about is.”
We pass through the void-esque surroundings of Node 2, climb onto the platform of Node 4, and start moving back down the downward-pointing staircase, back toward Node 2.
This time as we pass through Node 2 backward, it’s not quite a void, and we can barely perceive the true character of the space, but it flickers and has no substance.
Strange seems nervous, and Down holds his hand, saying, “Don’t worry. We’ll all face the negative node together, Strange. This time, you won’t be alone.”
“Remember, we’re going to find someone else there this time, too.” I say. The feeling is getting stronger and stronger for me as we take the downward-pointing staircase leading to Negative Node 1.
When we reach the platform, we look over to find that there are only downward staircases leading down from the platform, and there is a trapdoor and rope ladder floating in the void above us.
“This is even weirder. Watch!” Down says, and we watch her try to go around and underneath the platform to its underside. Every time she disappears from our view, she reappears next to us. “There are no upward staircases leading out of this thing, only downward ones!”
“Come on. They’re waiting for us up there.” I say, and the three of us climb up the rope ladder and push open the trapdoor, emerging into . . . a small wooden boat, floating in a seemingly endless ocean. There are three . . . portal-like things around us on the boat, and we can see what’s on the other side of those portals if we were to go through them. A short upward staircase leads up from each portal entrance, and into either an autumn forest, a beautiful meadow, or a snow-covered mountainous landscape. They’re . . . they’re the places from the paintings!
“The autumn forest portal must be the upward staircase leading from Negative Node 1 through Node 5 to Negative Node 6, and the meadow one must be the upward path from here through Node 3 to Negative Node 7, and the snowy mountain portal must lead us through Node 2 to Negative Node 4! The upward paths starting from a Negative Node must take us to other parts of the negative node domain!” I grin. “It’s absolutely beautiful here.”
Where the sky had been a dim orange in the positive nodes, here the sky was a bright, clear, cloudless blue. I can feel the fourth person nearby. In front of the boat, there is a shadow of something deep underwater. I take a breath, and dive into the water.
Strange and Down dive in after me, and soon we realize we can still breathe and converse under water too. A school of Lake Erie walleye fish swims next to us.
The colors don’t fade for some reason, as we swim deeper and deeper into the ocean. They stay bright and clear. Soon enough, what was causing the shadow reveals itself to us. A beautiful, massive palace, made of stone and colorful glass, that casts dynamic moving patterns of light on the ocean floor, with a mesmerizing, swaying kelp orchard in the grounds surrounding it. Some music seems to be softly emanating from the castle. It’s familiar . . .
“They’re inside.” I tell Strange and Down, and we enter the space. That’s what the music is! It’s louder inside, and I recognize it immediately.
“L’Inverno: Allegro non molto,” by Vivaldi, the same music that played when Roop helped August Sibug escape from REMedy. The music seems to be playing from the very substance of the castle, from the stones and the glass themselves.
“I knew you’d come here soon enough. I’m Higgs. Nice to meet you.” Their face also has that blurry quality, but I’ve gotten used to seeing it by now, and I’ve started to find it pleasant.
“That music! Do you understand why it’s that song?” Down asks them, and they sigh and say, “Yes, when you all activated Roop’s memory I experienced it too. It used to only play once at the start of every hour, but then it suddenly started looping and never stopping.”
“Your hours must be the same thing as our cycles and days. Did you notice anything else change when the music started looping?”
Higgs nods. “I swam up to the boat and saw that a heavy trapdoor had appeared there. It actually opened briefly when I went there, but then it shut itself again.”
Why didn’t they go through? “Higgs, why didn’t you go through the trapdoor? You would have been able to find us, I’m sure of it!” I say.
“Because I like it here! It’s beautiful, and I enjoy the music, and I have always been able to go through the boat portals and others like them into other beautiful places too. There’s a whole world here that I have to myself, and I’m . . . happy! I didn’t feel the need to leave. Besides, I knew you would find me eventually, I could feel your presence moving around in the world and understood it would only be a matter of time. I can show you, you know? I can show all three of you the magical landscapes of this world. You can live here if you want, we could all be happy. I can tell you find the place beautiful too.”
Down nods. “I would like that, a lot. I want to see the forests and mountains!”
I want that too. We’ve finally found a place where all of us are together, and it’s a beautiful world we have all to ourselves to live in. I smile. “Let’s do it, Down. Thank you for the invitation Higgs, I’m glad to accept.”
Down sits down on the floor, and Higgs sits next to her. She starts telling them all about the staircases and chambers and how they work in the positive node domain. It makes me feel happy to see them sitting and chatting together like that. We’ve been on such a journey . . .
Strange is standing off to the side, though, and he seems troubled. “What is it?” I ask.
“I’m just thinking about how everything changed, suddenly. How there were regular cycles, days, hours, and then it all changed, and we were able to find each other. Don’t you find that odd? We’re inside a Babirusa, right? Well what if . . . someone changed the Babirusa somehow?”
“Oh no.” Higgs says sadly, overhearing. “Now that I think about it, you’re right. From the memories we just saw. It must have been . . . Kabir.”
The four of us stand in silence for some time.
“He was the only one who knew. Because we sent him that message.”
“He probably misses the old Roop.”
“How much do you think Roop has changed since we left her?”
“Maybe we should find our way back to her.”
No. I think. “We’re . . . we exist because of the Babirusa, though. If we start trying to go back to Roop, what if we stop existing in our current forms? Kabir . . . Kabir shouldn’t have stopped anything.”
“If Kabir hadn’t changed things somehow, we wouldn’t have been able to find each other, Charm.” Higgs says. “We would have stayed stuck in our various locations of this world.”
Down adds on. “And . . . doesn’t it feel like we’ve been all working toward something? Like no matter what we do, it’s progress in our journey? What if that’s it, that no matter what we do or how we progress, we will find our way back to Roop eventually, and it’s only a matter of time?”
Strange nods. “Kabir probably misses his sister . . . we should at least try, I think, to access that other reality. It might not be so bad, we might stay in our current forms too. We just don’t know if we don’t try. Like Down says, we’re probably already trying even if we don’t realize it. Ever since the Rumble, Ripple, and Ringing stopped.”
They have good points. But I want to hold on to this place, to these friends I’ve made. “I just don’t want to lose any of you.”
Higgs says kindly. “No matter what, we will be together, won’t we? Even if we change, we will still have everything that makes us us.”
Down brings Strange, Higgs, herself, and me into a giant embrace, and the four of us stay like that for a little while, taking comfort in the bonds we have developed and reminiscing about our lives. Finally I break away, and a few tears fall from my eyes.
“Alright, how do we even approach finding a way into the other reality from here?” I say.
I see Higgs smile through my peripheral vision. “I think I have an idea. Down told me how the portal-nodes and destination-nodes work in the positive domain. Well, from what I understand, it’s kind of like whatever node you pass through decides what staircase to spit out for you based on the pathway you arrive at it from, and it only spits out a single one each time.”
“That’s right,” Strange says.
“Well, maybe if all four of us simultaneously pass through the same exact portal node from four different paths that lead to it, the portal-node won’t know what path to spit out next. Maybe it will be broken, or overloaded, or something, and maybe the path it spits out, or whatever happens when we jam it like that, will lead us out of here!”
Down says, “I mean, it’s worth a shot. How will we make sure we all pass through the node at the same time?”
“I know.” I say and break off a small pane of glass from the window. “Listen to this. The music is coming from the substance of this castle. Why don’t we each take a piece of the walls or the windows of this place with us. We can use the music to time our arrival, since the song loops.”
“Good idea.” Higgs says. “Now we just have to decide what node we all want to pass through.”
We decide to pass through Node 1, which all of us feel something special toward in our own ways. Higgs will pass through it from Negative Node 5. I will be passing through it from Node 7, in the 1-3-7 path. Down will be passing through it from Positive Node 6, in the 1-5-6 path. Strange will pass through Node 1 from Node 4, in the 1-2-4 path.
All of us are hopefully in position by now. We each took a piece of the castle, and each piece of stone or glass that we picked is playing “L’Inverno: Allegro non molto.” We gave ourselves three loops of the song to get to our positions right before Node 1 on our respective staircases, and at the start of the fourth loop of the song, we will pass through Node 1 simultaneously.
I hear the violins build and crescendo, and then the song ends, and I run into the void-space of Node 1, passing through it.
All possible pathways we can take after passing through Node 1 are visible to us now, and there is a new one as well, leading straight upward. A ladder made of a thin, glittering rope of an iridescent material, stretching upward for seemingly forever. That must be the pathway we need to take. I feel anxious. There is still time to turn back, isn’t there?
“I’m . . . afraid.” I say. “We can still go back, and we don’t know what lies ahead, or who we will be.”
Strange touches my shoulder gently. “No matter who we are at the end of this, we will all still have each other, Charm. Nothing will be lost. Whatever happens to us now, we are all facing it together, none of us are alone anymore.”
I nod, taking one long, lingering look at my friends.
Then the four of us lock arms and begin climbing up the ladder.
Roop has been getting severe headaches, as well as auditory and visual hallucinations for the past hour. It’s been a couple of days since Maya started the shutdown. One hour ago, Roop said, “They’ve found the ladder that leads to me. They’re coming here now.” And after she said that, for the past hour, Roop has sometimes lost touch with reality completely, breaking out into a sweat and talking in four voices completely different from her own voice. Kabir tried to get her to come with him to a doctor, but she refused, saying, “They’re so close now.”
Now, she has locked herself in her room, after saying, “They’re here. I can talk to them.”
Kabir is very worried for her right now.
All of us are still here, in the same form but floating in a nothingness. It was a relief to come out into this space and see that Higgs, Strange, and Down were still there next to me. The ladder is still there too, leading back down to the world of the Babirusa. We can see out through Roop’s eyes, feel her emotions, read her thoughts. Now we can communicate with her. We have talked and talked for hours now, discussing how to proceed with our lives. And we have made our decisions. It’s time to talk to Roop’s brother, Kabir.
We open the door of Roop’s room and walk outside. Kabir runs to us and gives us a hug. “Roop, please go to the hospital. I’m so sorry, this is all my fault. I didn’t mean to do this to you.”
“Hey, it’s okay. Sit down for a minute, we need to talk.” we say gently to him.
He sits on the living room couch, and we sit next to him. “Just listen for some time. We know what you did. We are not a singular person speaking to you right now, but several people. Together, all of us combined would make up the person you know as Roop before she got the Babirusa. We can combine and become her again if we want to. We have talked to one another, learned about each other’s lives and opinions and desires. The Roop after she got the Babirusa is also a whole person, and we can’t force her to become something she doesn’t want to become. And well, there are others now, too, who used to be components of Roop but are now entire people themselves. They don’t want to become something else either, and you have to respect that. I know you want the old Roop back, but you need to understand that she is still there. All of her is still there, in us, and all of us can now communicate with one another because of what you did, which we are thankful for. But we cannot give you what you want. We cannot give you your old sister back. We’re sorry.”
Kabir sits silently for some time, then says, “Will you all be able to visit again? So that I can talk to everyone who was a part of the old Roop, at the same time?”
We nod. “Of course Kabir. We can visit and talk to you like this, anytime.”
A few tears fall from Kabir’s eyes, but he smiles and hugs us. “Then you’re not lost or incomplete, at all. You’ve just changed, and that’s okay. You’re still my sister.”
Tears fall from our eyes too, and we hug him back.
Kabir looks at the sculpture of the Babirusa skull in Grace’s and Maya’s house. Maya and Roop are sitting in the kitchen. Charm, Strange, Down, and Higgs are visiting this reality from Roop’s head too, and all of them are discussing how best to recover the consciousnesses of those three people who were in the Zaqīqu sleep pods when August Sibug was freed from the host pod of the dream-sharing system. Roop is organizing a follow-up meeting with both Maya and her mentor Dr. Aoki, who was really happy to hear that the consciousnesses of her colleagues might still be alive, even if they might be changed in some way.
Kabir has started to appreciate the new Roop. He knows now that she still cares about him just as much as the old Roop did, and he cares about her a lot too.
Grace walks up to him, holding baby Fano, and looks at the sculpture with him. Fano reaches out and pulls Kabir’s ear, staring at it with wide curious eyes.
“So, what are your plans now? Are you leaving Octavia?” she asks him.
Maya walks up to him as well.
Kabir says a bit sadly, “I guess I should probably leave. There’s nothing more for me to do here. I’ll miss it a lot, though.”
Maya smiles. “Well, I don’t know if you’d be interested, but if you do want to stay on this island, there is a way.”
“Really? What’s that?” Kabir asks eagerly.
“How about an internship? I have some projects in mind that I would definitely love to work on with you. We can optimize the shutdown of FUNCTION_GRIND with the inputs of Roop and others who currently have the Babirusa, so that we’ll take into account the opinions of the people and consciousnesses post-Babirusa as well. And I’m sure Grace would like to hear your thoughts on how to limit REMedy’s influence on Octavia.”
Kabir grins. “That . . . would be awesome.”
On the way back to Roop’s apartment, Kabir says, “Hey, could we stop by the store so I can buy a box of strawberry popsicles? I’ll share some with you.”
Roop looks puzzled. “Are you sure?”
Kabir nods. “Yeah. It’s been a while since I’ve had one.”
Roop smiles. “Alright Kabir. Let’s get some.”
The four of us do visit Roop sometimes, catch up on what is happening in that other reality, and spend some time with Kabir. But really, we like to wander through the reality of the Babirusa and all of the wonderful spaces and places it has created for us. The forests, gardens, mountains, oceans, and other expansive landscapes of the negative nodes, the little rooms with their unique characteristics in the positive nodes . . . I even started to like that orange sky, knowing that I have a whole other spectrum of skies to visit in the negative nodes, and once I realized that it’s the same color as a sunset.
The Babirusa is the reason we exist, after all, and it contains our world, the one that we’ve come to know and love. It has turned into a beautiful place for the four of us to live our lives out in. Truly the perfect home, for the little family that we have become.
Arula Ratnakar is a scientist, artist, science fiction writer and aspiring astronaut. She graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in May 2021, where she studied biology, neuroscience and architecture. She now works in a neuroscience lab, where she is interested in studying neurophotonics, the intersection of declarative and procedural memory, and brain simulation science. All four of her published stories can be found in Clarkesworld Magazine and her artwork can be found in the first issue of Dark Matter Magazine. She is autistic and bisexual.
Themes of identity and reality have always interested Arula, particularly as someone who is the daughter of two immigrants from India and has grown up in the U.S with many different cultural influences. Arula plans to continue writing science fiction stories, and hopes to work on science fiction movies someday.