Copyright is held by the author.
HE WAS suspended like dust in the sun. But there was no sun in the hangar and only enough light to find the Coms socket he was hooked into.
His mind turned to the Fluid Drive. “What time is it?”
Fluid Drive said, “11 pm.” as if it was a good time to commit suicide.
Beth hated 11. Two ones, separate, standing up, bare and blatant. It was like him and the computer, of course without the equality. He was one and it was one and he was locked to it until the end of his lifetime, which could be another few thousand years.
At three in the morning backup mode would digest the day’s ideas, problems, and imaginings. “Woken up” again he would get back to those same issues, and his own, sharing at large with all the others plugged into the Coms Matrix . . . It wasn’t so bad, even if it wasn’t so good. They spent time thinking; their bodies were nourished while they slept.
Beth, like all his fellow Lung People, was not the ancient human form, which could be absolutely beautiful (seldom) and deformed, obese and ugly (often). He thought that he was glad of that fact – but remained aware of a nagging sense of doubt. The archives on Fluid Drive detailed the hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, the genetic design and prosthetics, which had changed humankind, until everyone he knew, depending on his or her role, was more or less like Beth, a tubular balloon with a brain at the end. Minute differences were noticeable. Everyone in the hangar was prosthetically improved with the ball-bearinged socket designed to accommodate the quantum cable which connected to Fluid Drive. But Gimel, for example, well, you only had to look at him; his arms and hands were weaker, and one of his legs was damaged. It hung there, useless at guiding him in the air; more like a broken stick than the air paddle it was designed to be.
Gimel worked next to him and talked out loud all the time, which was against protocol — counter-culture.
“Did you know that at one time in the near past fingers and hands were used for computers. That’s why fingers have survived.”
He would bring up that story pretty much every couple of weeks. It was as if his mind wrapped around it every sleep time and wouldn’t let it go. Fingers were Gimel’s… what did you call it . . . his romantic . . . possession.
“Oh, and I suppose we don’t need them for plugging into the Coms sockets, or speaking,” Beth would say, the pragmatic Devil’s advocate.
The finger thing was Gimel’s addiction; his compulsive thing. Beth knew he had one in himself, but his words hadn’t shaped it yet. It would come. It was maybe just more subtle than Gimel’s; like a secretive facial tic, or something that happened inside, maybe even atom-sized, neuron-triggered. Everybody here made one, or it made them. That was your proof of final initiation into the Lung People.
No one had said that in words. You didn’t have to here, where words had become anachronistic. One just knew.
“Just think, check the database for old humans and think of us now. We use our fingers and our eyes to interact with Fluid Drive Coms Units. Way back then, they made words appear on screens with those ancient clumsy keyboards and hardware you see in the foyer museum. Now, where are we? Performing magic, mind to mind with Fluid drive. Finger signs manipulated as fast as a hummingbird’s wings. Then there’s our eyes subtly nuancing language between one another. There’s almost no need for sound.”
He didn’t get the irony. Gimel never used finger signs and never stopped talking.
Gimel reached up and tightened his socket, an achingly long process for him. Beth stared, half aware of the rhythmic beat of ceiling fans, and amazed at the same time that he could be so completely entranced by something so brainlessly stupid as Gimel tightening his Coms socket. Gimel had crappy hands — so what? Who could care less that it cost Gimel more effort than most; that it ate up maybe thirty seconds more? Did anyone else notice things like that?
Lately, Beth was coming to terms with the strong intuition that he was odd, shaved at an abnormal bias. Gimel was cuckoo, but he fit in. He did his work, he slept, he seemed to enjoy meetings. All that. Cuckoo, in that case, was nice. Beth wasn’t nice.
Gimel was speaking again.
“I wasn’t kidding what I said about writers. There were people, thousands and thousands of years ago, in the early days of computers and even before, who wrote on their own, not connected to any Hard Drive or Fluid Drive or anything like that.”
Gimel talked about them as if the knowledge would alter the world, or the hangar at least, or some dysfunctional corner of Fluid Drive (if it had one). Beth didn’t believe a word of it, and just signaled him laughs with his free fingers not messaging Fluid Drive.
“You are totally lacking in curiosity and imagination,” said Gimel. “These people wrote stories, essays, all sorts of original data, just because something in them made them do it.”
For a moment Beth forgot Gimel. He inhaled, then exhaled, then fell silent, like a snowflake touching warm flesh, melting. His brain, mercifully, shut down. He joined, then, all the others who were hooked up to the Fluid Drive as their mental union melted and formed a droplet bigger than all. It was a trick of his. Beth loved those moments.
“I want something bigger than all this. Bigger than your autonomy and writing.” He finger signaled to Gimel as he detected the static click of the mic in his Coms line butting in. “We are not one and single, not one of us, separate and autonomous. We are alive to do this work, this thinking, imagining, creating for the betterment of the human-kind. We are building, constantly building, inch by psychic inch. But what is it all? It’s simply the epitome of the physical sciences, the mind/science world celebrating itself. It can neither accommodate nor understand anything else – and it ultimately has no purpose.”
Gimel said. “Don’t be foolish. It was the ennui and cynicism of the past that almost destroyed things. But look at us, all energy . . . ”
“All mind . . .”
“Yes, and maybe all these generations of Fluid Drives have been right. Maybe we will know when that shift of self into oneness comes. They say it can. That it has happened before with miraculous results.”
“Talk is cheap. And once again, it’s all mind-oriented.”
Beth stopped for a moment to contemplate a logistical issue that had been sent their way regarding the transformation of antimatter into variable light speed energy that could be stored and utilized for individual use, altering orbits with ease. He played it out in his mind, part imagination, part theoretical physics, and tossed out some useful notions. Everything fast and loose; that was the key here. Beth liked to think that they were the trouble-shooters, the inventors who mentally dared. It wouldn’t work any other way. Get bogged down and cowardly with their minds and they’d soon be out of work and missing what they did best.
“So, tell me,” Beth finger-signalled his rhetorical question, speaking of the problem he had just been posed; “Why would Fluid want to know about variable light speed energy for the individual if we are all simply made to hang here like comatose sucker fish all our lives? Somebody’s going to use that energy, and it isn’t us. We’re just Lung People. We can’t do anything than what we were designed for.”
At least, Beth thought so, until that night in a niche of darkness, when he disconnected from the Coms, (stealing a forbidden two minutes or so) and his brain came up with the idea of motion. Not the regular swaying here under the fans, but real, directed motion, whether with a group or just as an individual lung. “Notion of Motion” came to him. He kept repeating it to himself in a mimetic byte, hoping the Fluid Drive would not see it, or see through it. It was a memory trigger with some hope of being hidden for a while.
Beth introduced Notion of Motion to a complacent Gimel. It was big and amorphous. Beth struggled.
“I believe that we can do it. We can reduce ourselves to sheer thought, or maybe expand is the more accurate word . . . We become absolute mind. And if we communicate, if we commune, then we generate power far beyond what we do now. For example,” Beth felt his arm quivering at the Coms socket, as if urged to rip it free, “I have been exploring the event horizon, carried right next to it through my mind. Who’s to say we can’t commune and all move through it. There would be real purpose, not simply hanging here, fuel cells for the Fluid Drive. Ideas, our minds, they are ours, and together they are power. Why should we not use them?”
Gimel insisted. “They will see it coming miles away. Already, you can be sure, they know how much time you and I have partnered our minds. This is your job, Beth. Mine too. There’s nothing glorious in it for us, but we get to eat and sleep, and spend our lives thinking. In my book, that can’t be beaten. I’m not playing any silly games on event horizons . . .”
“Okay then. We do something smaller. But unique, something Fluid Drive hasn’t asked of us. If we could truly coordinate our minds and imaginations together, evolve one mass psyche that does not belong to Fluid Drive. Maybe we could move things. Move life.”
He almost felt the magical urge of anticipation he had once felt when they first anchored him to the Fluid Drive when he was a precocious infant. But he only knew it now by its absence. Fluid Drive was that something bigger than himself, that which gave him ultimate meaning, for which he was automatically grateful. That was not gratitude. It was cowardice.
Like Gimel’s response, muttered through closed teeth. “What’s life Beth?”
Gimel’s answer made Beth nervous, and his nervous glance flicked around the hangar, until it dissolved beyond even hopelessness. Then work was the answer. Beth buried himself in it.
Sometimes he could feel something inside him butting against distraction, communication, work and forced play; testing its strength against all this that made up their synthetic life. He felt it, and it spoke a terrifying language, and some nuzzling pleasuring pain he had no name or face for.
Then he tried to feel outward, to talk, to connect, to know somehow what others there were feeling- if there could be communication on this one little thing. Huge thing.
They didn’t want to know, and they didn’t even hear. And Gimel had grown cowed and nervous. Altogether he was sad, through and through.
Then, in his next sleep, Beth felt Fluid Drive drinking his mindsoul. Their imaginary tongues wrapped together, an infinite kiss, until he was a vibration the fluid drive drank. It swallowed long, then stopped, relinquishing just a drop of mercurial memory.
He remembered Beth. Then fear shot into his stomach. Fluid Drive knew.
Beth crept into the waking shift as if under fire. He anticipated his end. Fluid Drive’s fingers touched his mind and what was left of him cringed. He had felt virtual wars from the archives; he had become the turret, the gun, the bullet, the flesh slammed by the bullet shock. And he waited, day after day in dry mouthed terror for that final moment in which his soul would hit the final fathom and its obliterating electric pain.
And then it was as if something swept him brutally empty. Brutally, icily and beautifully empty of clutter. He had won. A sliver of himself, drained but determined, repeated simply, “Beth,” and he knew for certain that Beth could move. “Gimel,” he signalled.
Gimel ignored him. Beth could feel his mind frantically fiddling avoidance.
He signaled him again. Nothing.
“GIMEL!” Beth yelled. Its echo bounced to every last space in the hangar. Fluid Drive be hanged. This had to be talked over, just a little, even if he was going ahead anyway, even if he was caught and condemned.
“I know at least half your eye is watching, Gimel, so this is it. I am going to leave here.”
“Going where?” Gimel signalled angrily, and Beth realized that this could mean the end of a friendship, such as it was. “Down the hall to the next office? Some kind of infantile protest about something?”
“No. I’m going out that door over there.” Beth pointed to the nearest exit door. There was something outside this hangar, maybe even outside their conglomerated cities. He knew this. That was his compulsion; his facial tic; his Gimel obsession.
“They’ll punish you for it. Probably take you off this project. They’ll make you a labourer or something.”
“No, they won’t. They’ll be grateful.”
“Why the hell would they be grateful to you? For going out a door?”
“Because I will tell them what’s beyond.”
“They told us all that already”
“When? Centuries ago, millennia. We’ve been told and have to shut up about it forever. We know nothing about it today. So, I’m volunteering.”
“Idiot. How you gonna get there? You can’t fly, can barely walk.”
“But I can float, from Coms jack to Coms jack. There’s scores of empty ones between here and the door. And I’ll bet that door has an emergency bar. I can do it.”
“You’re nuts,” signalled Gimel and returned to his work.
Beth floated from empty socket to empty socket, making a path without too much exhaustion. Even his strong arms ached and he fumbled at the Coms jacks, but eagerness drove him. Finally, he arrived at the door. He listened to the hangar. Still only the fans going whomp whomp. No alarms. And way back there, Gimel didn’t so much as peek. Beth lock-detached his Coms socket and switched to breathing mode, then did it. He pushed on the panic bar. The door swung stiffly open.
But outside, earth was arctic desert. A high wind bit into his nakedness, stinging it with ice pellets that left wounds. The door slammed behind him. Beth dived into what cover he could find, a shallow snowdrift. But it did no good. He could feel the last of his warmth sucked from him by the frigid cold. He splayed in the snowdrift, trying to approximate a swimming stroke. But in swimming, being buoyant naturally helped. Now, his legs and arms splayed and rowed with no effect while his gut froze and emptied of energy.
He grabbed with his fingers and dug his toes in behind. His lungs clawing in oxygen, Beth’s fingers and toes loosened him from the snow trap. He had only moved forward mere inches, but more of this and he might reach the hangar again. He dug and pushed until he had covered a few feet. If he had teeth they would be chattering down to shards.
Then a massive, bullish wind hit him sideways and he rolled across a series of snow dunes that crowned a deeper downhill slope. Blown down there, he would never get up again. He would die down there in the shadows.
An idea hit him and he dug furiously with his hands until he found what he wanted. Roots. Roots to act like hooks. He strained with his numbed arms, his body spasmodic in the frigid wind. Finally, he broke loose a handful of the stronger pieces and, holding a few in each hand, stabbed them into the snow and began to drag himself away from the slope and closer to the hangar. Digging with stiff arms, his hooks rooted deep, he hauled himself away from the worst of the wind and up to the relative shelter of the hangar wall. He tucked himself against the exit door and gasped and stuttered madly from the cold. He banged his roots against the door and the effect was disheartening enough to bring tears. Little bumps no one inside would hear over the fans, and out here, the wind howling and pummeling. He threw his roots away and cuddled up to the door, pushing on the metal with his hands and head. Then suddenly he was stuck. His hands would not come apart from the metal and his forehead remained glued. How had this happened? Was there some kind of magnetism to the walls? Who else had come out here and ended like this? Disbelief bred panic and he wrenched and wrenched at his hands until he drew blood and found them stuck in another position.
Eventually one bloodied hand came free and Beth punched the door with his knuckles, slam, slam, slam until he felt reverberations and some kind of activity inside. Someone must have heard him. He punched some more until finally the door swung open and the interior heat bathed him like a balm. He gasped with relief as hand-held heaters were aimed at his face and hand until he was free. Then he was upturned, gripped firmly by arms and legs and carried across the hangar at speed. His hands still bled and screamed where his carriers touched them, but the relief of having been saved immunized him from deeper recognition of pain.
Finally, in a small, empty room, his Coms socket was cleaned and he was hooked up once again to the Fluid Drive. He felt that familiar mind embrace that always first came with connection. He floated, his arms hanging out so as to keep his hands from brushing his body.
“You’ve been out, I see.”
“Yes, I. . . .”
“I wanted to explore deeper, to find something new we could use or . . .”
“Impossible, here. Earth is arctic. Did you not understand, the cities are for your protection, your nourishment? The museums, the memories we give you access to should have told you that.”
Beth said what he thought was the right thing. “I know that now. I never really paid attention to those details. I just thought there was something new out there, some-thing I could discover, some contribution . . . And,” he confessed contritely, “. . . I didn’t trust the information we were given. I got bored and . . .”
“It happens. But few take the drastic measures you did. Some, but not many.”
Silence. Beth hung like yesterday’s party balloon, his spirit deflated.
“So, what are we going to do with you? We don’t know if you can be trusted . . .” The voice sounded a supercilious note.
“I’ll do anything you assign me to. I mean it.” Beth thought of prisons he had seen on the Coms encyclopaedic databases. Would they imprison him for this?
“Dirty work? What you might call stupid work? After all, there must be some punishment, some reminder of your foolish behaviour.”
“Yes.” Beth was humble but relieved. Work beat prison any day.
“Then we will have you cleaning Coms sockets. You will do this when your wounds have healed sufficiently. And you will do it until we decide to release you from this demeaning labour and perhaps use your creative mind again. Do you understand?”
“Yes. Thank you. I am grateful.”
So, Beth’s hands and skin improved until he was ready to work, and every day when awoken he fed briefly from the Coms connection in his room, then strapped on the vacuum and miniature water-hose and, floating through the hangar, followed the lines of workers, discovering unused Coms sockets and cleaning them thoroughly, and occasionally cleaning Coms sockets causing trouble for their users. He saw Gimel in passing now and again but dared not speak to him. He kept silence, but for the occasional “You’re welcome,” if some worker were kind enough to thank him for the servicing.
Then, Gimel whistled high and piercing across the hangar and Beth smiled. It could be no one else. He looked across and Gimel was beckoning him. Beth was at his side in seconds. Gimel whispered.
“I’ve got something for you. Something you can’t forget.”
Beth laughed. They were going to be friends again, he knew it.
Gimel held out his shortened hands and Beth realized he had never truly looked at them before. He had not looked at a lot of things, it seemed. Gimel’s hands were missing three fingers on one hand and the thumb on the other, and old scars striped his palms. Beth recalled his daily struggles with the Coms socket. Then the obvious hit him hard.
“You went . . . ?”
“Just over five years ago. Frostbite. It was frozen over out there then too. Always has been. Always will be, they say.”
“I’m sorry,” said Beth.
“Never mind. It will mend,” said Gimel.
“No. Your brief delusion. Then you will be back beside me again.”
“I asked them to put me back next to you and mentor you. You, in turn, will mentor someone else. In time. ”
“I’d better get back to work then,” he said. “No messing around.”
The Lung People, Gimel, they were all his. This hangar, his mind, were his home.