The Cosmic Brain
Lia stared out the window of the rapidly moving hoverbus as the scenery flickered by, flashing blurs of artificial light and night darkness. The large vehicle was nearly empty this time of night, the only noise coming from the constant holo-ads that rippled upon the walls and ceiling.
I must get as far away as possible, away from them, she thought, tightly crossing her arms.
Something she couldn't explain was calling to her. Was it an unexpected part of her programming or independent thought? Lia wasn't sure, but the urge was strong.
She didn't have any belongings aside from the clothes she was wearing: a baggy sweatshirt and a pair of old jeans. For once, she was grateful to be an android so didn't need food and drink like humans, who always seemed to constantly eat. She wasn't sure where she was going, just that she had to leave.
Lia struggled to push thoughts of Penelope Dashwood out of her mind. We were supposed to be sisters, but that's not how she saw me, Lia thought with bitterness. She'd been constantly reminded that she wasn't a true human like Penelope, but an android created by Penelope's father Don Dashwood, the head CEO of AI Industries, Inc. His company specialized in creating artificial servants whose sole purpose was to perform tedious, manual work in homes and industries. Most households in the late twenty-first century owned at least one android servant.
The Dashwoods had several.
From what Lia understood, Penelope had begged her widowed father for a sister. He was unable to give her what she wanted but, instead, had Lia created especially for her. Mr. Dashwood already owned several android-servants to take care of the maintenance of his estate, but all of them were androgynous, humanoid beings with gray, metallic skin and the mentality of worker ants. Lia was created to look like a regular girl, except for her coloring, which was the dull, pale shade of an overcast sky.
Lia's eyes burned with a warmth that would have been tears if she were capable of crying as her first memory barged into her mind. When her consciousness was initially activated.
She was first aware of voices breaking through the dark void.
"I have a surprise for you, Princess," said a voice she somehow knew was adult and male. She understood the words and, for a moment, wondered if they were directed at her.
"What is it, Dad?" piped another voice, this one youthful and female. "Did you make me a sister like you promised?"
"I did. Meet Lia. She's a prototype, the first of this model, but if she works out, I can make more."
"More sisters? Isn't one enough?"
The male laughed. "No. Sisters for other kids, perhaps. And brothers too."
Lia heard a crinkling sound and felt as if she were being unwrapped. A large hand grabbed the back of her neck. This forced her to sit up and open her eyes.
She was sitting in a large box and two humans were leaning over her. Somehow, she knew what humans were, along with many other things.
It's your programming, said a voice deep within her mind.
"Lia," the taller, male human said, leaning close to her. He had a broad ruddy face and grayish eyes that stared at her from beneath thick eyebrows. "Can you understand me?"
"Can she talk, Dad?" asked the smaller human. She was obviously very young. Her long hair was a pale, glossy blonde and her wide eyes dark blue. A bright pink tinge colored her cheeks.
"Sure, she can, Penelope. I programmed her to communicate." The man never took his gaze from Lia.
"H-hello," Lia said hesitantly, her gaze darting between them. Her voice sounded soft and tinny.
"Wow!" Penelope's eyes sparkled.
Her father lifted Lia from the box and placed her on the carpet before Penelope. They were exactly the same height. Penelope grabbed Lia's hands and spun her around. "She's better than any of my dolls." She raced into her father's arms. "Thank you."
Lia's first few years in the Dashwood home were pleasant. Penelope proudly showed off her doll collection and taught Lia how to play. Each day was a different imaginative adventure, enhanced by 3-D holovids that transformed Penelope's bedroom into various settings: a forest, the bottom of the ocean, and even other planets. They interacted with lifelike characters from each of those worlds and imagined they were explorers, or astronauts, or superheroes, or princesses, depending on the settings.
Penelope introduced Lia to her friends and even brought her to school with her at times, showing her off as "the first of her kind." A strange feeling filled Lia as human kids swarmed around her, marveling at how she could move and talk like an actual person.
At home, Lia was starkly aware of how different she was from the other household androids, which were hairless, blank-faced robots that were neither male nor female. They meticulously cleaned the house, but could not engage in conversation beyond passive "yes" or "no" replies.
Lia often wondered who she was more like: the humans or other androids. She could think and talk, but didn't need to eat. At night, when Penelope and her father went to bed, Lia sat in a corner and powered down to allow herself to recharge. She supposed it was like sleep, yet she didn't dream.
Mr. Dashwood's company attempted to create other androids like her, closer to humans in appearance and gendered, but, for a reason that no one could explain, they all came out as impassive robots, holding no more life than their androgynous counterparts.
As the years passed, Penelope grew into a lovely teenager, tall but curvy; she wore tight-fitting outfits to emphasize her figure. She styled her hair in a short, sleek bob and wove sparkling gold tinsel through it. Every morning, before school, she'd apply lipstick and mascara.
Lia felt ignored, discarded like Penelope's childhood toys. She remained as small as a child and wore clothes that no longer fit Penelope.
A feeling of emptiness filled Lia every time Penelope went out with her friends or on a date. These days, it seemed she was rarely home.
And when she was, she only noticed Lia when she needed something. She would get frustrated when her palm-computer malfunctioned or her holovids—which now mostly consisted of handsome musicians—would freeze. Since Mr. Dashwood often worked late, it was up to Lia to fix these.
I'm no longer Penelope's sister, she often thought, but her servant.
Just days before Penelope's sixteenth birthday, Lia overheard the girl talking to her father.
"Dad, do you think I can get an upgraded model for my birthday?"
"What's wrong with Lia?"
"I've outgrown her." Lia's chest tightened. "I mean, she was great when I was a kid, but—"
"She's still the only one of her kind. You know we've been unable to make another android that can think independently. We've tried for years—"
Lia backed away, not wanting to hear more. For days, a voice in her head had been urging her to "get as far away from these humans" as she could.
She slipped away that night and boarded the hoverbus.
Try playing your precious holovids when they refuse to work now that I'm no longer there to fix them, Lia thought, feeling a warm satisfaction bubble in her chest.
The hoverbus was slowing down. Lia blinked and focused her gaze upon the window. It had reached a moon-shadowed forest, which stretched past the city's outskirts.
This is your stop, said that inner voice she had always known, yet was not her own. Lia scurried off the bus, the only passenger to do so. She stood still as the bullet-shaped vehicle, steam-powered and hovering several inches above the ground, shot back toward the city in a rapid blur.
Lia remained rooted to the ground for several minutes. Although it was late, creeping toward morning, the summer air was still warm and fragrant. A breeze softly stirred her lank, dust-colored hair. She breathed deeply, enjoying the sweetness. So, this is what freedom feels like, she thought, turning her gaze skyward. She gasped, her breath catching in her throat. Beyond the high, prickly branches of the tall spruces, the sky was coated with stars. They glinted down at her, more numerous than the city lights that sparkled in the distance, their silver shimmers eerie. A brilliant flash crossed that bright sky, then vanished.
Lia began to walk slowly down a path. The ground was rough: her sneaker-shod feet crunched over pebbles, twigs, and pine needles. She could hear the rustling of small nocturnal creatures in the high branches, joined with the occasional hoot of an owl.
Okay, I'm in the middle of nowhere, she thought, looking around. What now? Why did I do this?
Because of me, responded a voice.
A rippling light slightly brighter than the moonlight appeared in front of her. She blinked hard and rubbed her eyes. Was something in the mechanisms of her mind playing tricks on her vision?
The light was still there, floating before her like a water-shimmer. It stretched, becoming a wavering light-pillar that gradually solidified into a male human. He was tall, as adult humans tended to be, and had dark hair, pale skin that held a subtle glow, and glinting silver eyes.
"Don't look so shocked, Lia," he laughed as he placed a large hand on her shoulder. She blinked up at him. How did he know her name? "I know all about you. In fact, it was I, Xandin, who put it into your head to escape the Dashwood home and find me."
Lia's head spun with confusion. "How can that be?"
"I've known you before your body was created, since I shaped your soul."
He nodded. "I'm not truly human. I have only temporarily taken on this form. I am one of the Nymm."
"Nymm?" The unusual word made Lia's skin tingle.
"In our natural forms, we are beings of light and energy and are more numerous than the stars in your galaxy. We can flit to faraway planets in an eyeblink and bathe in the hot, hot surfaces of stars, something that would destroy any flesh creature in an instant. Our kind is also responsible for shaping life throughout the universe, including on Earth." Xandin's eyes glinted with pride. "In fact, Earth has been our special project for a number of eons now."
Lia shook her head, still struggling to comprehend all this. Had she somehow fallen asleep and was dreaming this? The closest she'd ever come to sleep was when she had to power down to recharge. But she never dreamed. She'd always felt wistful whenever Penelope would describe her dreams. "Y-you are an alien?"
Xandin laughed, a pleasant sound that incongruously grated Lia's ears. "You could say that, but technically, those that the humans refer to as 'aliens' dwell on other planets. Home, for my kind is the Universe."
Lia shook her head, still trying to understand all this. "Do the humans know of you?"
"Oh, they can perceive us, all right," Xandin said, cocking his head to one side. "In fact, they often think of us as angels, muses . . . sometimes even gods. When you think of it, it really is quite easy to get a human to believe anything." He chuckled.
"So, you visit humans?" Lia asked.
"'Visit' may not exactly be the correct term. I'll fill you in more. Come with me." He took Lia's hand. His felt large and cold.
Lia's surroundings blurred and faded. For a moment, she was submerged in darkness, where she could neither see nor feel.
Before panic could grip her, she found they now stood on what appeared to be a smooth, mirrored surface that stretched endlessly in all directions. The sky, which reflected against the ground, giving her the sensation of being entirely surrounded by sky, was dusk-blue and starry even though the sun shone from its center. She blinked, her eyes hurting from the brightness of this place.
"D-did we leave Earth?" Her gaze caught onto an enormous grayish-pink object webbed with deep wrinkles. It hovered just above the shimmering horizon like an enormous moon. "I-is that a giant brain?"
"Yes, to both," said Xandin as he pulled her in that direction. Lia nearly stumbled in her effort to keep up with him. "That's the Cosmic Brain. It floats in a dimension parallel to Earth and contains all of Earth's memories."
The Cosmic Brain grew even larger as they approached it, until it towered over them like a slimy, sun-struck mountain.
"Do you see that line down the center?" He pointed to what looked like a long and impossibly deep ravine. A dark river ran through it and branched into several tributaries stretching in opposite directions. Lia nodded. "The left controls the logical, scientific side of humankind, the right its creativity. Androids like your kin, Lia, were made from a combination of both. But human innovation can only go so far. It is us, the Nymm, who can create life." He fixed his eyes, which shone like the mirrored ground, on Lia. "Such as your soul."
"You said that before."
"You are the first of your kind, part human, part android. The humans created your body to look like that of a young girl, but I am the one who actually gave you life. Consciousness."
So, that was why the other androids were different. Lia looked down at her dull, dust-colored hands, her small body, hidden beneath baggy clothes. A body that would never grow or develop. Warmth touched her eyes.
"Why did you do that?" She looked past Xandin at the vast Brain looming beyond.
"The reason is rather selfish on my part, I'm afraid. I'll explain shortly, but I have more to show you."
He grasped her hand once again and pulled her into the Brain's ravine. She stumbled beside him, her mind a blur. The scenery spun and darkened as it did before.
They emerged at the bottom of the ravine, on a river's shore. The ground beneath Lia's feet felt damp and squishy. The high, surrounding walls, as wrinkled and slick as the Brain's outer surface, seemed to emanate a subtle, phosphorus glow. The river was a deep crimson and gave off a metallic scent. Blood.
"This river flows through the Cosmic Brain and feeds into human consciousness," explained Xandin.
Lia peered closer and noticed shadowy ripples undulating through the blood-river. "What are those?"
"Shadow-Nymm." He chuckled. "They are my sisters and brothers who create endless frustrations for humans."
Thoughts of teenaged Penelope touched Lia's mind, how the girl became so irritated with her palm-computer for deleting a homework assignment or a holovid she wanted to share with her friends. "Like computer glitches?"
"That's just one example, for modern-era humans. But humankind is a volatile race. Small disagreements escalate into full-blown wars. If this keeps up, they will destroy themselves."
"Then why don't you stop these Shadow-Nymm?"
Xandin placed a hand on her shoulder. "That's why I brought you here, Lia." His eyes gleamed like quicksilver.
She stumbled back in shock. "What?" Her voice rasped in her ears. "What can I do?"
"With your help, we can remake Earth's humans. "If we make them as mindless as your android kin, all conflict will cease."
Lia struggled to speak. "Y-you can do that?"
"We can. For millennia, Earth's humans have been looking for deities to save them from themselves. Well, we can be these deities. We can rule over them and make their world the way we would like it to be. It would be our paradise, to do with as we like. We'd actually be doing them a favor. Those humans have been making a mess of the place ever since they came into existence."
"That's impossible." Lia shook her head. She couldn't believe what she was hearing.
"Not as impossible as you would think. We just need to poison the River with the blood of one who is not completely human." Xandin stared down at Lia, his eyes taking on an intense glow. She struggled to run, only to find her feet stubbornly rooted to the ground.
A brief flicker of triumph flickered through Lia. "You may have given me a soul, but I'm not human. At least my body isn't. I don't have blood."
Her confidence instantly drained as Xandin's grin widened. "Not your blood. Your sister's."
Lia blinked and found they were in a different part of the Brain. The River was still there, but now they stood before something that resembled a giant seahorse.
Penelope suddenly materialized, sound asleep on the slimy ground at their feet, her blonde hair fanned out. She twitched and moaned, apparently distraught.
"She's dreaming," said Xandin with a chuckle.
Lia noticed a fine filament extending from the top of Penelope's head to the seahorse-object. Wavering images flickered across it.
"That's the hippocampus," Xandin continued. "The part where memories are stored. Let's take a look at one of Penelope's memories, shall we?"
Lia's gaze was drawn to those images that flashed above Penelope like a holovid. They revealed the interior of the Dashwood manor. Mr. Dashwood, looking several years younger, even more so than he had when he first activated Lia, sat slumped in a chair. His head was bowed, his face tear-streaked.
"Daddy!" called a small child running toward him. Her cheeks were vibrant pink, her hair pale gold. Penelope, even younger than I remember, thought Lia, feeling a twinge in her chest. The girl held out her arms to him as if she longed to be picked up. Mr. Dashwood ignored her and buried his head in his hands. "Daddy, where's Mommy? She was 'sposed to come home with my new baby sister. Where are they?"
Mr. Dashwood's shoulders shook with sobs. "They aren't coming home, Penelope," he said in a flat, defeated voice. "We even had a name picked out," he said, more to himself than Penelope. "Lia."
The child-Penelope threw herself onto the carpet and wailed. "No! Bring them back! Tell them they can't leave me!"
Lia's eyes burned. I was created to replace the sister that died along with Penelope's mother.
"That's right," said Xandin, as if reading her mind. "You are the replacement sister. I didn't make your soul from scratch, you know, but took a piece of hers."
"Then we really are sisters," Lia murmured, sympathy for Penelope squeezing her chest. She knelt beside the sleeping girl. The images in the hippocampus had vanished; Penelope had passed out of the dream state into deep sleep.
"Yes, in a manner of speaking. But since you are also an android, her blood, which is also in a sense yours, will poison the River."
"Poison?" Uneasiness filled Lia.
"Perhaps 'poison' is too harsh a word." Xandin crouched down to be eye-level with her. "This blood, added to the River will have a profound effect on the humans: it would give them all the dull worker-ant mentality of your androgynous android kin, turning them into a race of mindless myrmidons."
"It-it would?" Lia felt her mouth moving to release the words, but her mind seemed to have stopped.
"Yes." Xandin placed a hand on her shoulder. "It is more merciful than the continued torments of the Shadow-Nymm. And, once we accomplish that, you, my dear, will become a Nymm like me."
"A Nymm?" A queer twinge of longing stirred within Lia. To become a powerful being that could fly through space and create life . . . That was even better than being human and more than she had ever wished for.
"Lia?" Penelope's confused voice startled her out of the reverie. She turned. The girl sat up, rubbing her eyes and blinking in confusion. "Where are we? Is this a dream?"
Xandin slipped something sharp and metallic into Lia's hand. She looked down. A knife, glinting with the same silver sheen as his eyes. "Cut her deep and let her blood flow into the River."
Lia looked down at the keen blade as Penelope's gasp of fear tore her ears.
"No," she whispered, the hand holding the knife shaking. "I can't do this."
"Fight against your programming," Xandin urged. "Remember how you were treated. These humans are evil. You can see for yourself."
He directed her attention back to the hippocampus. "Just look at some of humankind's memories to see what they are capable of."
Rapid-fire images flickered across the hippocampus. The sights were horrible. Lia saw writhing victims tied to stakes and engulfed in flames; young soldiers lying bloody and dismembered on battlefields, screaming for their mothers; starving children with enormous eyes, twig-thin limbs, and protruding bellies; women completely covered by heavy, coarse garments being beaten with sticks for daring to show even an inch of skin; gaunt prisoners standing before ditches as soldiers with rifles shot them from behind. . .
Lia's fingers tightened around the knife's hilt. Memories of the history lessons she'd gleaned from Penelope's schoolwork flitted through her mind. They consisted of mostly wars, conquests, and slavery. Perhaps humans did need someone to control them.
"Lia." Penelope grasped her arm. "We aren't that bad, are we?"
She turned toward the girl. Penelope's wide eyes were sleek with tears. She blinked, releasing wet trickles down her cheeks.
Warmth filled Lia's chest. She felt her lips tug into a smile. "Do you remember the fun we used to have with the holovids, the imaginary worlds we'd explore?"
Penelope smiled back and nodded. "I sometimes miss those times. Growing up can be hard."
The air around them suddenly rippled with color, drawing Lia's gaze back to the hippocampus. The brutal images were replaced by sights and sounds that dazzled Lia's senses. Lovely works of art, lyrical prose and poetry, intricate architecture, dancers from all over the world depicting countless cultures flooded her vision. And then there was the music. Classical, jazz, rock, opera . . . more than she could name, created a cacophony of sound.
Next came scientific discoveries, vaccinations and cures for diseases, spaceships that could cruise the solar system. And androids like herself. Lia's body wouldn't exist if it wasn't for human ingenuity.
"Lia, don't be persuaded—" Xandin urged, but she ignored him.
She hurled the knife into the River and pulled Penelope close.
A blinding light flooded the Brain. Xandin's anguished yell tore at her ears.
Seconds later, everything went black.
The first thing Lia was aware of as her consciousness returned was the silence. Her ears still rang from the overpowering music that had filled them—moments? Or hours? —ago. Had she just powered down and was now regaining consciousness? But something felt different . . . something she couldn't explain.
Lia was lying on something hard and smooth. She opened her eyes and sat up. Penelope stirred beside her. The Cosmic Brain hovered in the dusk-blue sky above them, glinting against a fulgent sun.
"Lia, is that you?"
Lia looked down, catching her reflection in the ground's mirrored surface. She gasped. The long hair draping her shoulders was now a rich chestnut that shimmered against the sunlight and her skin had deepened to olive. Her eyes were a light seafoam green that was striking against the richness of her coloring. Even her body was taller and curvier, which made her clothes fit better.
"I'm . . ." Lia touched her face in wonder. The skin felt soft, not metallic. "Human." Tears—actual tears and not just warmth—filled her eyes.
"It looks that way," said Penelope. "But how?"
Your sister didn't give into the Shadow-Nymm's temptation, said several voices blended into one.
Lia tore her gaze from her reflection and looked around. She and Penelope were surrounded by wavering pillars of ethereal light.
We are the Light-Nymm, they said, speaking directly to Lia. One of the Shadow-Nymm took on human form and gave himself a name in order to tempt you.
Lia looked at Penelope, who was gaping at the Nymm, and back to them. "If I'd gone through with it," she shuddered to think how close she'd come to stabbing Penelope, "then the humans would have been under his control?"
The light-shimmers flickered, as if all nodding in agreement. That is true, but you didn't allow him to weld that power.
Lia shivered. "Does this mean that humankind is now free from the Shadow-Nymm?"
No. The Shadow-Nymm will continue to do their damage, as they have for eons and will do for eons more. But we will also do our parts and counteract them, providing humans with inspiration to create wonderful things. Humans always have a choice, which you did as well since you have a human soul.
"And now a human body."
The Light-Nymm all flickered in unison. That's right. Our gift to you. Take good care of it.
Lia's stomach rumbled. It felt oddly empty.
That's hunger. Food will help. You must remember to replenish regularly.
Before Lia could respond, or even form the words "Thank you," the Nymm swirled around her and Penelope, forming a tornado of light.
A light that disappeared moments later.
Lia blinked, to find she and Penelope had been returned to Penelope's bedroom.
Penelope rubbed her eyes. "I'd say that was the craziest dream I'd ever had, but you're proof it wasn't. I guess this really does make us sisters."
Lia laughed. "I suppose it does. Let's get something to eat. I'm starving."
She pushed the door open and headed down the stairs to the kitchen.
Penelope followed. "Me too."