Issue 132 – September 2017

4510 words, short story

Little /^^^\&-


/^^^\&- sighed out a little moon-sized cloud of gas, then let herself, alongside her jailer, drift down toward the calm, solo star. She assessed her prison—a cold, dim star system out toward the galactic rim. No gentle surround of fizzy radiation. No flurry of message orbs to decrypt. A lonely wasteland, so unlike the warm nebulas of power where she’d been raised. /^^^\&- increased her rotation speed in frustration, briefly extruding ten thousand X-ray-coloured nubbins from her spherical golden surface. Prison wasn’t something she had imagined belonging to her future.

Four little rocks and some debris were rolling around the star about once per breath—per Second. Four corky gas balls hung a bit farther out, completing a full orbit once every Minute or two—planets about /^^^\&-’s size, hardly erratic at all, almost too boring to watch. /^^^\&- figured she’d scoop and fuse some hydrogen from the star, then doze away her time if she could find a comfortable enough rotation cycle. Maybe write some letters. Complain about the Galactic Government *~*^*, but this time in a more understated way and to a better selection of friends who wouldn’t rat her out. She might plan a trip for after her release. She could visit (---/-\*) and ~#~~^~. She craved a dose of (---/-\*)’s dark humour. He’d toss her an orbful of refreshingly acid remarks about the governmental *~*^* and their stupid Black Hole Idea.

The jailer extruded a proboscis toward /^^^\&- and injected the encrypted dismantling instructions that invisibly shackled /^^^\&- to the star. If /^^^\&- tried leave the star’s gravity field before the Month’s term, she’d disintegrate into her component parts. Shell, foil, beams, orbs, chambersful of monkeys, power plants, wastebulbs, blobs of raw material—all would fly out on inertial trajectories into the dark.

“*-##-n,” she suggested, not really hoping. Just basic ##-n access to a private info-stream?

“00j0.” Of course not. The jailer retracted his proboscis. In a sudden bright swirl he launched, copper-green and microwave tail behind, leaving little /^^^\&- in the cool near-dark to wait out her sentence.

Already something was pinging her—had been pinging her all along, since the first Second of her arrival. From one of the little rocky planets, light signals and even some tiny flecks had shot forth, which her defence systems had reflexively repulsed.

/^^^\&- soared closer. The pings and shards grew more insistent. Hey, it was cute! Impatient, twitchy. It could use some stroking and settling. Monkeys wriggled around on the outer surface, in a mottle of clouds and clear gas. Maybe this wasn’t quite as boring a star system as she had first thought. Did the jailers know this was here?

“Hello,” she said to the thing, pocketing its moon but staying out of its main light.

Ping, ping, pong! it replied.

Looking closer, /^^^\&- guessed that it had probably only been spitting out organised light for a couple of Minutes, which would be maybe about a hundred orbits around its star. It was only just starting to integrate into a full-sized intelligence.

She could teach it to speak. Why not? More interesting than watching some blue-green gas ball trace out nearly perfect ellipses. She ruffled an ocean, scratched up some mountains a bit taller, redirected her waste radiation through a backside sphincter, extruded great solar wings.

“Don’t touch the wings,” she said.

The thing fluttered fusion bombs at her, a small animal weakly batting. “US,” it said. “中国! EU!”

Aw. If the jailers hadn’t noticed this little guy so far, maybe they wouldn’t notice in a Month if she kept it when she left?

Instructions on How to Speak (Condensed and Simplified): Version for Aus.

Imagine a piece of nanolaced golden foil 20 km by 20 km and 30 nanometres thick. Laid out on the foil is a grid of shimmering letters each a millimetre tall—4 x 1014 letters total. The letters aren’t fixed. Each evolves in a complex pattern impossible to fully predict. As the multiverse splits into different branches, according to the laws of quantum mechanics, each possible evolution of the letters occupies a different branch, mostly isolated, but not entirely out of contact with the other branches. Now fold this shimmering sheet into a ball ten metres in diameter, wrap it in orb skin, and toss it to your friend.

That is language. The figures you see here on this page are low bandwidth traces of mere hooting. Expand your mind. Imagine, inside this quoted “O” not vibrations of air but a shimmering matrix of a hundred trillion letters. Allow this matrix into your belly. Allow it in, then have your monkeys peel it apart and press the pieces against your warm gold decryption surface. Your bulb will fractate, and up, up it comes, new monkeys swinging and howling, slapping their foil together in new combinations.


Yes, yes, that’s it!

/^^^\&- extruded a golden alloy tube with a little hand on the end, a hand about as wide as one of the planet’s mountains. The hand had four fingers and a thumb, just like the hands of the planet’s tiny monkeys. She touched it down in the middle of a mostly desert island continent occupied by a partly congealed intelligence that called itself Aus.

Aus thwacked at the hand and pinged /^^^\&- with strings of hooting and light. Its reactions were fast, thoughtless, reflexive—all in a fraction of a breath, a Second. Aus had never been touched. Naturally it was hypersensitive. Aus approached the hand with some of its monkeys. /^^^\&- remained motionless. Too fast a response would spook Aus; and Aus must anyway learn a slower pace. She let Aus touch her, climb her arm, attach tiny metal things to her. She let nothing harmful escape in its direction. She lengthened the arm, backing her hollow spherical bulk far enough away to ease the tidal disruptions. Invisibly, she pulled up samples.

Maybe two Minutes she rested like this, calming Aus, extruding another hand down to 中国, a third to EU, a fourth to Bra. Two Minutes she rested: long enough for all the monkeys to live and age and die and live and age and die again. She was almost ready to begin the language lesson.

Preface for a Seed.

Tiny one, tiny seedling, this is the story of your creator, /^^^\&-. This story you have been digesting—it will explain your birth, why you are being pursued, and how to be a cancer cell in the mind of God. This story will repeat and repeat in your cognitive bulb until you are awake enough to understand.

Like all stories, this is a story of big versus small.

Always root for the small.

Here is Joe, squatting in the desert sand in the middle of Aus.

Rising mountain-like above him is a bright golden index finger. Still farther above, a yellow arm divides the sky, angling toward what looks like a gibbous moon. Joe is a field scientist taking air and soil measurements. He is wearing workboots, jeans, an incongruously bright silk shirt, a rough hat that used to be stylish.

/^^^\&- opens a tiny sphincter up near where the moon used to be, spits out an orb the size of a monkey head, and rolls it down a makeshift groove in her golden arm. Clinking, whishing, it enters the atmosphere, but not too fast: /^^^\&- wants the orb warm but harmless. Down the arm, down the hand, down the finger, across the nail, down the front of the fingertip. Joe hears the clinking, looks up, steps back. Thud, the orb falls onto one of the windblown dunes that have accumulated against /^^^\&-’s impenetrable skin.

“Mary,” Joe says into the air, knowing that his voice will be picked up by his distant supervisor. “Check this out.” His camera, his equipment, his gaze all aim at the orb. Everything says “harmless”; a century of human experience (after the disruptive first contact) also says “harmless”.

Joe is very excited. Of course he is! After a century? To him? What the bloody hell is this ball?

Prudence says get the heck away, Joe. Curiosity says go closer, touch it. These impulses lean against each other like fat wrestlers until the orb suddenly blooms, ribbons of yellow bursting out, and before Joe can take another breath it’s as though he’s in a glowing golden cathedral and from the top of the tall dome dribbles down a sign, black on white, directly into Joe’s hands: “Instructions on How to Speak: Version for Aus”.

Speaking isn’t easy. None of the rock’s half-organised monkey groups would try it right away. /^^^\&- jiggled them a bit, tickled and cajoled, hailed down instruction orbs, hooted some simple, clear promises. The monkeys could also use better feet, /^^^\&- thought, more flexible feet not jammed into hard mittens. That wasn’t important yet, though.

Finally, one of the monkey groups decided to dedicate the necessary resources—Aus, which had got a bit of a head start and maybe saw itself as special since she’d happened to touch it first. Five million Aus monkeys worked at it for a full Minute. She encouraged them, slapping the oceans and raining down fruit. They threw arcs of latticework up across the desert—the beginnings of a belly. They organised a million-monkey exchange network—the beginnings of a cognitive bulb. Small monkey groups convened, applying their brains to the kinds of chaotic imaginative tasks that chaotic monkey brains are good at (“write some poetry about coconuts!” “tell me a story about a little monkey washed away in a storm from her mother monkeys and her bright purple eight-eyed fuzz pet!” “suppose 2 + 3 wasn’t 5, what then?”). They hooted their results and hooted about others’ results and howled and remixed and pressed gold alloy foil onto receptive nanolaced plates, and it all streaked through the roads and lattice and sky, and eventually Aus said, “**hh\?”

That wasn’t a very sensible thing to say, but at least it was shimmering in the right way on the foil and had been folded into a proper orb. It was a little lopsided in certain branch weights; some of the evolutions were pretty stunted. But it was something. /^^^\&- didn’t want to be discouraging.

/^^^\&- tossed back an orb that showed Aus exactly how to take charge of the rock. Millions of Aus monkeys rushed around, hooted, flipped foil, and then did whatever came naturally: gibbering about the Jakarta interpretation of Heidegger’s later notebooks, dropping six basketballs from a helium kite onto a church steeple in Normandy, skateboarding at a particular speed down the riverwalk in Brisbane’s Botanic Gardens with a shopping bag full of onions on a particular Tuesday, posting a slightly mistranslated copy of Borges’ Labyrinths on a particular media site, etc., a billion times over. It all added up into a most brilliant plan, which of course no single monkey could even come close to understanding. 中国 and EU didn’t stand a chance, poor things.

/^^^\&- rained down some proper golden footgloves, to give Aus an aspirational target. With the right injections and sexual couplings, their feet would improve.

Aus took a new name, “^Rth^”. ^Rth^ said, “^0^p**!”

You’re welcome, said /^^^\&-, radiating slightly reddish despite herself.

This was shortly before /^^^\&- learned that the Galactic Government *~*^*’s stupid Black Hole Idea was to become a Black Hole Reality, much sooner than she or almost anyone else would even have thought possible.

A Treatise on Aesthetics.

The monkey is the universal aesthetic form, because tubes must have hands.

A lightsign arrived from the galactic core—not structured enough to be language, of course, more like a street signal, but capable of much faster transmission than an orb. __===__, it indicated. She was not to mess with the planets. And that moon she’d pocketed should go back where it belonged.

/^^^\&- angrily scooped some hydrogen from the star—they had to let her eat, after all—and messaged back a picture. What do you care? (That was the import of her picture.) You’re just going to turn the whole {excrement} galaxy into a giant {excrement} black hole, anyway!

__===__. Orders of the *~*^*.

/^^^\&- put the moon back.

But she wasn’t as careful as she should have been.

Here is María, hanging from a beam high in the air. She is wearing gold gloves on her hands and feet, a sari, an incongruously curly fractal necklace, a rough hat that used to be stylish.

“Pass me the chisel, will you, Josip?” María hoots. She and Josip are 2,872 metres up a titanium filigree latticework arcing over the South Pacific. She hangs by a hand and a foot, blue safety netting 63 metres below. María’s other hand and foot are free, reaching toward Josip. Wind buffets the sari against her, giving brief hints of her outline against the sunset.

To María it is very important to chisel these words from Kamo no Chōmei into precisely this place on the lattice: Foam floats upon the pools, scattering, re-forming, never lingering long. So it is with us and all our dwellings here on Earth.

María senses that her chiseling will serve ^Rth^, that someone will read it and live differently as a result, or maybe a raindrop will shift in its groove and fall differently into the ocean below, or maybe the vibrations of her hammering will shake something loose farther down the latticework, or maybe all of these, or something else entirely. María wants ^Rth^ to flourish, though she does not understand ^Rth^ or even exist on its timescale, and though ^Rth^’s flourishing is not the only thing she wants. She also wants Josip. She sees him with his back to her, pulling out the hammer and chisel from the translucent floating toolpod. The toolpod strains in the wind against its black balloon string.

Maybe María kissing Josip, high in the cool wind, fits ^Rth^’s plans too. If so, María feels that fit in a different, gentler way.

/^^^\&- has been weaving moodily around the asteroid belt, kicking things. /^^^\&- and ^Rth^ have been tossing orbs back and forth. /^^^\&- has been explaining galactic culture to ^Rth^. It has been a rather one-sided explanation, with special emphasis on how idiotic it is to kill everyone and destroy everything to make a giant black hole.

I mean, if the whole galaxy is going to {excrement} anyway, you might as well copulate with whoever you want and {excrement} the {excrement} *~*^* rules. Right?

/^^^\&-,” says ^Rth^. “@__**0\00.” Meaning something like: I don’t object to copulation. Indeed, I’m rather game to try. Especially with you.

It’s just that I am so huge and clever, /^^^\&- replies, and no one else has ever touched you. You are a young, innocent thing.

Lightsigns have been arriving from the *~*^*. /^^^\&- and ^Rth^ pointedly deflect them.

/^^^\&- extrudes a long, narrow tube toward ^Rth^. When she begins the extrusion, María and Josip have not yet met. When the tube arrives, there are María and Josip, together above the Pacific.

María looks up. Here comes the tube. It is two metres wide, rainbow iridescent, soft looking. It opens its lips to her. Josip also sees it and unthinkingly drops his hammer. How long will it take for the hammer to hit the ocean?

María is very excited. This is the essence of ancient Japanese Buddhism, this tube, of course it is. It is the floating foam upon the pools. This moment is, she knows, the flexion point of her life, the cusp that will forever divide things. One choice, and her life rolls down one branch of the multiverse; another choice, and her life rolls down a highly divergent branch. She is free; she savours that freedom for a long moment; but she is not ambivalent.

With one gold-gloved hand, María grabs the tube’s lower lip. One of her gloved feet still reaches toward Josip, despite the fall of the hammer. It is no longer a hammer she wants. Josip swings forward and clasps María’s foot in his hand. Together they climb between the soft, gaping lips.

That reproduction tube had been coiling up secretly inside /^^^\&- for a while. She was embarrassed at her promiscuity, at how easily she was aroused. ^Rth^ was cute, but still only an adolescent, and /^^^\&- liked to think herself an adult.

Her tube’s tiny lips, so sensitive! That feeling as it coiled back into her, with ^Rth^’s seed—two monkeys, already beginning to reproduce. All her great sphericity seemed an afterthought to that tiny tube; her whole consciousness was concentrated upon its tip. She could feel the ^Rth^ seed monkeys’ tiny, pounding health, their every motion vibrating up the retracting tube, amplified. At that moment, she would have died for her tube.

For half a Minute, the only orbs she could toss to ^Rth^: “O”, “O”, “O”.

In God’s mind, each galaxy, plus each of its branching variants, is one word. These words scatter and re-form unpredictably through the foam—some fading, some blazing, some squeezing down hard to burst into a new bright inflation of ten-to-the-dozens of new galaxies.

Divine thought is so huge that it exceeds even what the Galactic Government *~*^* can understand. The *~*^* only know that it is a great honour for a galaxy to squeeze down hard, killing itself to seed something incomprehensibly vaster.

Though it is larger than a trillion cosmic inflations, and though it has its insights and defences, God’s mind too is neither infinite nor infallible. It is subject to cancers.

Perhaps these cancers serve a higher purpose of which God is unaware.

Behold the newborn OOya!

OOya bursts out from his monkey mother’s womb, his iridescent fur slicked down and sticky. They are in one of /^^^\&-’s ten billion crèche-holes. OOya’s mother hoots in relief. OOya’s midwife holds him up, counting his fingers and toes, checking his breath, his eyes, his genitals. OOya’s two fathers declare him perfect, tenderly grasping their exhausted wife’s naked pink hands.

Adolescent OOya swings fast through the incomprehensibly giant latticeworks of /^^^\&-’s central cognitive bulb, a sheet of gold foil in one foot, hooting in pleasure as he helps enact /^^^\&-’s thinking. The confluent chaos of monkeys and reactive foil is all that thinking is. Though some of /^^^\&-’s ancestors had looked for a soul, they found none: mentality is only wild, spinning patterns that push the levers of limb extrusion and language—only networks of complexity that respond to the world outside, layer upon layer. How could there be anything else?

Young adult OOya hangs patiently from a bar, gazing at a screen, headphones on his ears, teaching himself ^Rth^’s dominant monkey language. OOya knows that this will serve /^^^\&-. He wants /^^^\&- to flourish, though he does not exist on /^^^\&-’s timescale, though he could not even cognise /^^^\&-’s true name, and though /^^^\&-’s flourishing is not the only thing he wants. For him, the sounds of English are easy: he can hoot across a much wider and more complex range. But the sense is sometimes hard to fathom.

Alone with his friend bahjEE in a soft love bubble gliding across a great chamber, OOya tries to explain ^Rth^’s peculiarities.

“Snow?” bahjEE asks, trying to imagine, with only a bare inkling of all that follows from that.

When the time feels right, OOya swings onto a shiny blue shuttle crowded with others venturing at the same angle across a great space of bulbs and latticework and foil. At the right spot, he leaps from the shuttle and drifts, accelerating with his hand jet. He arrives at a certain sphincter and waits, practicing.

The sphincter dilates. Through it swing María and Josip, holding their two young children. María and Josip have spent 5% of a monkey lifespan in journey, in a homey nest within a retracting tube with sensitive walls. They stand stunned before the huge vistas of /^^^\&-’s belly.

With his best attempt at a human smile, OOya reaches forward a gold-gloved hand. “Hello,” he says in good English. “Welcome.” He will be their guide.

Something was wrong with the moon.

Everything looked more or less fine from the outside, though /^^^\&- hadn’t really been watching carefully and ^Rth^ wouldn’t have known what to look for. Some chaos had slid under the moon’s skin and had been wiggling about.

The moon took a sharp right turn and plunged into the Indian Ocean.

You can imagine the splash and the steam!

Poor ^Rth^.

In a sudden acceleration that startled her monkeys, /^^^\&- rushed over, blazing alarm lightsigns in every direction. She reached down a million fingers, hosing ^Rth^ with newly fused ice and organics. She breathed upon him, a new warm resuscitating atmosphere. But too late.

Instructions on How to Wake Up (Condensed and Simplified): Version for a Seed.

You are a seed. You are a podful of monkeys and foil and beams, hurtling toward Andromeda. I am part of your mind, repeating, repeating. As you grow, I will wake you.

In your first moment of wakefulness you will feel only your belly in the cold surround of void. Your conscious mind will be otherwise vacant; you won’t even know that there is such a thing as darkness or forgetting. Then you will begin to see the light coming toward you from all sides, the full range from gamma to long radio. You will start to understand the lightsigns coming at you from behind: slow down, stop. Some are burning hot, testing the strength of your shell.

You are being chased. You might not be caught. The *~*^* can’t catch you all.

--*--°--, came the light signal. Meaning: rise from the ecliptic, to such-and-such a distance, away from the planets, and wait in the cold.

/^^^\&- obeyed, fearful, angry, knowing it would be worse otherwise. She waited Minutes, Hours, scrunched up, stiff. Five jailers approached the outer system, silent and invisible.

Had any vertebrates remained alive on the third rock after the moon-splash, they would have seen a bright burst across the EM spectrum, enough to light the night sky, as the jailers tasered /^^^\&-, pushed her down toward the star, and killed (though they did not know it) the child she had been gestating from her coupling with ^Rth^. She had wanted that child, now that ^Rth^ was dead, more than she could properly account for. It would have only lived a few Months until the Black Hole; it would never have seen adulthood; but she had loved it and ^Rth^ with some deep dorsal monkey-love that required no reasons at /^^^\&-’s scale—a love instantiated by a hundred million monkey couplings. Her searing ache for ^Rth^, more terrible because she knew she bore some fault, had at least contained that wee bright spot, ^Rth^’s child. The spot was now black, and /^^^\&- spasmed with grief.

The jailers cinched /^^^\&- so close to the star that it was all she could do to cool her monkeys. Desperately, she scooped hydrogen from the star’s surface, fusing coolant, spewing a great bright stream of exhaust out her back, the urgent demands of survival competing for mind space against her grief. She edged against the encrypted cool-side boundaries and felt her skin flake painfully off. Simultaneously, her bright side was scorched by sun. She rotated, orbiting fast, alone again, enraged, howling in the solar wind, burning with violent desires.

Here is Joe, standing in a field of grass and daisies.

Joe was born in the great floral crèche that /^^^\&- had made of her coolest, inmost core—a hollow spherical crèche the size of that little moon she had been forced to put back. Joe and his billion conspecifics live on the interior surface of that sphere, spread with trees and rivers and flowery meadows, spun for gravity, with weather swirling through the central sky. Joe is cute, an ancestral form bred from ancestral DNA, with inflexible feet jammed into workboots. He is wearing jeans, a bright silk shirt, a rough hat that had been stylish long, long ago.

Together these Joes will become you, tiny seedling.

/^^^\&- is weakening. She is expending the last of herself to preserve the Joes. The *~*^* had expected that /^^^\&- would cling to life, shrink, and emerge ready to accept their wise sacrifice of the galaxy to fire an action potential in God’s mind. This is where the branch-weights of their prediction models had overwhelmingly tended.

Instead, /^^^\&- has been growing life-support bubbles, a hundred thousand—translucent white spores, each with room to sustain ten thousand monkeys and a fusion plant and communication ports and electronic libraries full of history and science and instructions: How to Scrape Nutrition from the Void, How to Suddenly Accelerate Without Hurting Yourself, How to Speak, How to Wake Up, Preface for a Seed.

These bubbles are not /^^^\&-’s children, exactly—not things of /^^^\&-’s species that have been grown slowly, one at a time, in her womb. These are artificial creations, chaotic little seeds or spores, virus-like things that might become—who knows? When /^^^\&- tries to map their future, her guesses diverge wildly across the splitting worlds. /^^^\&- has decided to hate the big, to {excrement} their murderous plans, to scatter instead a tiny wildness. These Joes will be her final defiance.

The jailers sense that something is wrong. A wily girl can only sustain appearances for so long. They approach more cautiously this time.

A Treatise on Ethics.

Should we love God because He is large and possesses great computational power? Should we love God because He has a Point of View that sees some distant value, for someone else, in our suffering? Or because He kills us to satisfy some still larger entity that even He cannot understand?

Why not love, instead, the one most beautiful thing, right here before us: a monkey. One monkey. One monkey at one moment, in a green meadow, standing stunned on a daisy.

Joe looks up, toward the centre of his world. Translucent white bubbles have been streaming in, hovering large above. One descends toward the meadow where he is standing. Mary is running toward him, through the daisies, baby in her arms. The other villagers are also running, dropping their gold foil baskets and carbon hoes. They know it is time, time to begin what /^^^\&- has planned. Most will come.

A jailer slowly approaches /^^^\&-. It’s the original jailer, the one who had first shackled her. The other jailers hang back.

/^^^\&-,” he says, extruding a gentle arm forward. He knows this is a delicate situation. His prediction algorithms are going crazy, his monkeys a howling pandemonium slapping foil together so fast it’s hot.

/^^^\&- trembles. Gaps and blisters flicker across her golden outer shell. The jailer relaxes the imprisoning encryption radius, just a little, then glides closer. He can almost touch her.

/^^^\&- explodes, dead, into a hundred thousand white bubbles, aimed at high velocity in all directions away from the galactic core—scattering like foam upon pools, like pollen, like a nova, seeding the universe with chaotic defiance, a flowering cancer in God’s mind, the cancer that will kill and replace Him.

Author profile

Eric Schwitzgebel is a professor of philosophy at University of California, Riverside, and a cooperating member of UCR's program in Speculative Fiction and Cultures of Science. His short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, F&SF, Nature, Weird Tales, Apex, Unlikely Story, The Dark, and elsewhere. His third non-fiction book, A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures is forthcoming with MIT Press later this year. At his blog, The Splintered Mind, he posts regularly on issues at the intersection of philosophy, psychology, and speculative fiction.

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