"To see a world in a grain of sand,
and a heaven in a wild flower;
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
and eternity in an hour."
The night was no longer littered with stars as it was in the older days. Not even the savage poles or scorching deserts could have survived long under the onslaught of technology. The world was a spiraling circuitry of artificial light and steel.
This was the main reason why Celos has chosen to live on board the Mariner, one of the first of the giant biosatellites to be open to the public. There were still stars here, if one went to the uppermost floor and looked through the Plexiglas dome cap. Of course, living where you could look out of any window and feel as if your very feet teetered on the edge of cold space was not for the fainthearted. A few people had gone mad up in the face of the stars, where the sunlight struck the ship and the planet it orbited but not the vacuum of the sky.
Celos stood with his hands clasped behind his back, his feet planted firmly apart. When he took this position, usually it was when he was looking up at the heavens and naming the stars one by one. But today he stared down at a picoscreen, where the plans for yet another nanochip were displayed.
Brain implants, brain implants, brain implants, he thought. Would that they could find another place to stick all of their ruddy machines. The tiny script flashed on the screen and the young man who was presenting this new augmentation began to speak.
"We are currently patenting this implant and perfecting its installment operation," he said in a voice that suggested at his nervousness. "It is quite possibly the most significant advancement in nanotechnology since the cerebral adapter. We at BINA believe it could become its own multitrillion dollar industry if it is allowed to flourish,"
"You know," interrupted Celos, "They used to write science fiction television shows, back when they had television, where stuff like this appeared constantly. The godforsaken fiction writers came up with a cerebral adapter before you did," There was an uncomfortable silence, and to the casual observer it would have become apparent why the representative from BINA was so nervous. Celos, who no longer seemed interested in the picoscreen or its contents, looked up through the Plexiglas at the stars dotting the sky as wildflowers once dotted the fields on Old Earth.
"I'll fund your implant, Dr. Wong," he said disinterestedly. "You don't have to prove to me what it does or how rich it may make me,"
"Thank you, sir," stammered the baffled representative. He closed the screen with a tiny, sharp click and shuffled out of the room, wiping his brow. The silence he left behind was almost absolute, except for the distant ubiquitous humming of the ship's engine room, where the picogenerators would be opening and closing enough black holes to make a dimensional analyst go cross-eyed.
Celos, who was one of the least augmented people in the transhumanism industry, was also the richest off-worlder and strangest mind known to man, at least in the 2900's. He tinkered with ideas but never executed them, grew cacti in his cabin, and seemed to be almost repulsed by the very market which had made him famous. The world had become decadent and digitally obsessed, he claimed, and no amount of technology could preserve us forever. One of the millennia, Sol would expand and our world would disappear. He constantly raved at scientists, attacking their theories and accusing them of his own faults, like hypocrisy or self-indulgence. In essence, he was an empty man who had to hate almost everything in order to feel full- but often, this did not work either. And so, he found himself staring up at the stars wishing silently that he had some purpose in this world where nano- and picotech were on the verge of displacing humanity.
There was a blip over the intercom system.
"It's time for dinner, Celos," said the voice of his personal Communicator, which he had outfitted with a smooth and pleasant woman's voice. His state of displeasure meant that even at this innocent reminder, his mind raged.
"You're a bloody computer, aren't you?" he nearly shouted at it. "Why do you always have to tell me what to do?"
"Isn't that my job?" it asked indignantly.
"A computer, and yet you are asking me questions,"
"That's the idea of AI,"
"Artificial intelligence! Whose brain food idea was that, I wonder?" he asked, storming towards the door with heavy, angry movements.
"I hope that was a rhetorical question," the Communicator said flatly. Celos did not reply, only stalked off down the halls towards the galley.
There were so many humans on the Mariner, artists and scientists and a few businessmen and common-workers, that sometimes it became difficult to deal with simply hearing them all in the galley at mealtimes. It drove Celos mad, to catch snippets of mundane conversation without even listening.
"My dog was taken in for the knee surgery today…"
"…Lena, the youngest, she's playing the violin now, very good for her age…"
"…heard that the AI's are giving the workers down in Sector A2 trouble…"
They were serving beef portabella and potatoes with green beans on black plastic plates with the serving area for each part of the meal separated. It was clearly Geno-food, not the good stuff you could get if you had a proper woman living with you or a chef on hire. Even the kitchen bots could cook better if you talked them through it enough times. But the availability of fresh ingredients in orbit was less than optimum, even with the black holes throwing up gravity fields and air supplies. Food, that's what ought to be coming out of those wormholes, thought Celos as he shoveled the bland fare into his mouth without bothering to taste it. He drained his glass of water that was probably stuffed with fiber and vitamins, and left the galley still broiling in his displeasure with everything around him.
"What's got your goat, anyway?" asked the Communicator when he entered his quarters and sat on the bed, staring out the small round window to the sprawling lights of the planet.
"Everything," he sighed, no longer willing to fight with anything and everything that entered his sight. "Everything is so stupid. You know, if we all disappeared, eventually all of this steel, plastic, even the rotten Styrofoam that they have stuffed in the melting chambers down there would all be gone. Overgrown. The artificial trees can pollinate themselves. We haven't stopped the weeds from creeping up through the cracks in the concrete,"
"And this upsets you?" inquired the Communicator, seeming curious.
"Yes!" Celos retorted sharply. "It does! Don't you want to leave an imprint on this universe? Don't you want to feel like you meant something in the space-time continuum?"
"Not at all," said the computer dryly. "That's essentially why AI was created. Humans are all full of ambitions and motivations, so it's hard for them to stay constant. So, the constant jobs were taken by us AI's, so you humans would be free to try and leave your imprints,"
"I know that,"
"Then why did you ask me?"
"I just did. It doesn't matter. All men want that, you know. To live forever, metaphorically speaking. This day and age we can nearly do it literally. Still seems like something is lacking,"
"I don't know what you mean, but I can run a hot bath for you if you like," the computer offered. Celos sighed the sigh of a man who has no faith.
"That would be wonderful," he replied.
The light was blinding, the world completely without focus. He felt like he might have been suspended in water, but his limbs were no less light than they always were.
Celos, the wind sighed. He wanted to reply, but it seemed as if he had no mouth. Then, he thought that his mouth might in fact be there, but it might be sealed shut.
Ceeeeloosss. It was as a whisper in his ears, starting very close and ending very far away. He tried to move his mouth again.
"Mmphff," he said.
Celos, he heard again, only this time it was more impatient, as if someone was searching for him. Where the bloody hell are you, Celos?
"Here!" he replied sharply. A gust battered him, and he fell to something solid but just as white as the rest of his surroundings.
Ah, said the voice, now taking on a slightly higher tone and a crisper pronunciation. It seemed satisfied. As Celos shook himself and stood up, he felt the flat ground at his feet give way to crumbly white soil. He pushed his toe around in it, making a wide arc in the dirt. Suddenly, tiny shoots of green began to push up through the floor, and he was standing on a bed of downy moss and clover. White and purple flowers opened, and the air took on a faint breeze. The horizons were still unclear.
There you are.
The young businessman cast about for a source for the ghostly speech, but there was nothing but the grass and himself. He fingered his cerebral adaptor as it pulsed with trapped energy and picotech electrical generators. The voice giggled faintly.
I'd forgotten how strange your body modifications were, it said. It was becoming more and more girlish.
"Who are you?" he asked.
Never you mind, it's fairly irrelevant at this stage. Do you like the grass?
"What?" Celos felt confusion rippling through him- all his emotions seemed heightened.
The grass. I grew it for you. Is it comfy?
"Well…" he stammered. "Yes, it's quite nice. Thank you,"
I hear the Lycopodium complanatum is very soft, but I am not an expert on these things. Though one day I suppose I will be.
"Right…" mumbled Celos. "What should I call you?"
Don't call me anything, the voice said. It was clearly that of a girl's now, and something was moving quickly along the horizon. Like I have stated, it is irrelevant. You seem to be distressed lately, Celos. Would you be willing to tell me why? The young man felt his body stiffen- why would this stranger, who was as likely apparition as flesh, know his troubles?
"Possibly," he offered. "But I might wait until I can see who you are first,"
You will see me, but you will not see who I am. No, that is for the far future, if at all. One hopes it will be, but time changes always. I will arrive in a moment.
"Alright," said Celos patiently, sitting down in the clover, which was now beginning to sprout wild bergamot. An herby smell tainted the air.
I hope you don't mind bergamot, the voice said.
"Not at all," he replied distantly, twirling a purple clover flower he had plucked in between his fingers. Before he noticed any change, there was a rustle of movement in front of him. His glanced up and came face-to-face with a beautiful, porcelain doll. Unlike most of the women he was used to, no hair at all fell in carefully sculpted waves around her face. She was rather gaunt and young, her large blue eyes the picture of innocence and yet seemed to sparkle with thought and knowledge beyond her apparent years. She smiled at him.
"Hello, Celos," Her voice filled the air, and seemed to echo through the entire tiny world they stood in. Her carefully bowed lips shaped the words precisely.
"Hello," he replied, reaching for a name to call her but finding nothing. He eyed her bodysuit- it had to be a bodysuit, but there were no seams. It was made of fibers that seemed to wink and shimmer with life in the blatant whiteness of the sky.
"You were going to say something about your ongoing bad mood," she prompted him in her gentle voice.
"I was," he agreed, twirling the flower in a sudden nervousness. He felt like he was in school again, at age three, with a twelve year old who knew so much more than him staring him in the face asking for the answer to some achingly long math formula. "I feel… empty,"
"Go on," she encouraged, her eyes sparkling with intent.
"Well…" Celos heaved a frustrated sigh. "Humanity has advanced so much over the past few centuries. But, if you think about it, we're still using the same materials. The steel, the iron, the plastic, the stone even. If we were to vanish, or die out…" his words faded.
"What would happen, do you think?" the girl asked. For a moment, he was lost in thought, and silence swallowed up the shift of the breeze.
"Well, nature would take over," he said finally. "Our manufactured trees and plants would creep in and push all the other materials away, because the metal is all inanimate. The life of the plants would push away the cold stone or the rusting steel and, over an appallingly short period of time, all traces that we ever lived would be gone,"
"Yes," said the doll-girl. Since his words a look of anticipation and pleasure had crossed her face, and she smiled. "You would not exist in the time-space continuum, would have no ripple in the ways of the universe,"
"Exactly," Celos sighed.
"You're not the master of nature, not in the long run," the girl continued.
"Not in the least," the boy agreed.
"Well," she said conversationally. "Life clearly is the dominant power in the universe," There was a spell of silence.
"…It is," conceded the businessman.
"And clearly the only way to have power over nature is to have power over creation," she went on, as if to no one in particular.
"Yes. It would make you like a God,"
"No," she cut in sharply. "Humans create every single day. Creation is a common act,"
"What?" Celos blinked. "We do?"
"Of course you do," said the girl in exasperated tones. "You have children, you draw, you write music, you create surgical implants. You're well on your way to total transhumanism,"
"Clearly you have never thought of this as creation,"
"No, it's certainly creation," the boy said. "It's just not the kind of creation that puts you on a level with…" his voice faded as he stared at the clover flower he twirled in his fingers and then at the girl. "…God…"
She only lifted an eyebrow muscle- there was no hair there- at him.
"You created this clover, and the moss, didn't you?" he asked.
"I said I grew it just for you," she replied levelly.
"Out of nothing!" he cried.
"Wrong," she smiled. "Out of will to live. Out of my will for it to live, life is born," The clover flower fell to the grass, dancing a little on the faint breeze.
"You…" Words failed him, for the first time in many years.
"I am not God, so don't believe that I am," she said. "I just understand. I understand all things that come within the reach of my arms,"
"But, you…" he started.
"No," she cut him off. "Like I have said, all men create. When we can understand all the things that we touch, then we are mighty. But what limits the number of things we can touch?" Her slender white arm rose as if it were one with the wind. "Just these, our bodies. Until we are rid of them, our understanding goes only as far as our arms can reach. But, when our spirits leave our bodies…" The large blue eyes twinkled as they watched the sky intently, full of anticipation.
"You want to die?" asked Celos in bewilderment.
"Death is just another path, another place of being," she said calmly, now watching her hand as it fell gently back down and she began to stroke the soft moss.
"I'm not sure I'm convinced," the young man replied.
"You will be, one day," she said, smiling at him. "But for now, I believe my time is up," Her body, slight and pale, rose into the sky at a speed which was slow enough for him to watch but too fast for him to comprehend. The grasses and flowers and moss receded into the white pebbly earth, and then the soil gave way to smooth frictionlessness and then he was suspended again. There was no light or darkness, only himself and the echoing memory of the girl and her creation.
Celos woke with a start. The large red numbers on the picoscreen by his bed read 01:00:00. Sweaty and wildly energized but also exceedingly tired, he rubbed his eyes and laid back down on the smooth satin white sheets, fingering his cerebral adapter as it pulsed with a barely visible light in the dark room. Through the window, the cities glimmered in candescence. When he let his eyes slide shut, he saw the girl's face and her words echoed in his ears. Turning his adapter a few notches that he might not dream again, he fell asleep.