A lot of people said a pregnant woman shouldn’t even cross the threshold of a black apothecary. Amelia’s eyes bobbed in surprise from under the huge brim (a foot and a half in diameter, ostentatious even for black apothecaries, let alone ones of her height) of her black (technically, a dark navy blue velour) pointed apothecary’s hat. She had seen that Lina’s nanites had confirmed her pregnancy on her encrypted microlog (she had a policy of following regulars’ social media, if they would let her).
Thick and somewhat kitschy, if one understood that the judgment could apply to smell, incense mist diffused throughout the room. The walls of Amelia’s apothecary were hung with paintings (by a local artist) and holographic posters (from online) of large women in various states of undress, fat rolling down their arms and thighs like pads of a regal dress, lushly made up with coloured hair and nails and beaded eyebrows and lashes, neither sexualized nor sexless, gazing into limpid oasis pools or reclining against the rippling backs of jungle beasts. A number of her most loyal customers looked, or at least strove to look like this, and appreciated the paintings, but Amelia herself was 5’4”, narrow and angular even to the tips of her ears which looked either elfin or like they had been bitten by some long-ago dog. She also didn’t wear much in the way of makeup besides a haze of grey-purple eyeshadow that overcompensated for the manic wakefulness of her eyes and sparkle-painted nails.
Lina, on the other hand, looked haggard, more genuinely than she usually did. Her hair, as always a layer of lighter bronze than her skin over a layer of oily and tangled black, looked like it hadn’t been washed in several days, and the dye itself was wearing through. She had pulled a loose-knit shawl tight around her black sports bra and leggings, tassels trailing to her knees, her still hard and square stomach, like the door to a safe, showing through in the eyelets.
She grinned sheepishly. “I went to a white apothecary, but she agreed I can’t go cold turkey just yet. She wants you to titrate me over the first three months.”
While white apothecaries were focused on healing and enhancing bodies to maximum functionality, black apothecaries dealt in potentially addictive and generally recreational - in the fractal consensus of the Academia Apothecaria, there increasingly wasn’t considered to be a distinction - substances.
“Hmmm. Well of course you’re going to have to put me in touch. And I haven’t asked for access to your nanite data before, but at a point like this it seems unavoidable. Would you be comfortable giving me that?”
Lina nodded distractedly.
“In any case, a good starting redline would be 100 mg of caffeine. That’s a big cut from the 300 mg you’re used to.”
Amelia wiggled her eyebrows with a mock-surprise that grated on Lina, with its faintly insulting implication that she didn’t understand the gravity of the situation. As if her black-apothecary were simultaneously her pleasure principle, the devil on her shoulder, and her mom - a contradiction all black apothecaries carried, and in Lina’s opinion didn’t carry well, as much as she admired the aesthetics of their shops, which she had been contemplating around the walls before Amelia had dragged her unpleasantly back to their conversation.
“That’s fine. You’re gonna compensate it with other stuff, obviously. I’m not such an addict as I look."
Lina had been taking the energy drinks for her job climbing trees to install satellite dishes and mesh nodes, or the weight training she did for personal reasons on the side, or the dancing in clearing raves she sometimes did until the early hours of dawn - whichever she knew was going to exert her most, not the physical energy in her muscles but the willpower that distorted it through her brain. Not in the sense that a white apothecary would have recommended - it was still not what she needed and nothing more - but Lina had not been brought up in a family that thought about food that way, that still picked up rare formulations of corn syrup and trans fats from outskirt restaurants on weekends that picked them up from black apothecaries themselves.
“Of course not, I’d be apologizing if I thought you were.”
Amelia climbed up on a stool, pulled one of her holographic posters aside from a cupboard, and extricated a culture plate from a stack on a shelf lined with stacks. From the side, they could only be identified by strips of paper with letters so small that Lina couldn’t imagine reading them, or imagined she probably didn’t read so much as read their outlines, a landscape of pre-glyphic tracks. “This one’s called Ashbya gossipii. I love this name. It sounds like it was discovered by a girl named Ashby and she was gossipy. It was actually discovered by a guy named Ashby and I don’t know if he was gossipy, or if his teammates thought so. This was 1923. They didn’t have internet, so they can’t gossip about it to us, I guess.”
“I mostly use these to make Vitamin B2 and riboflavin. But I’ve got one batch here, that I barely ever get a chance to bust out, that makes folic acid. You’re going to want some of this, if you’re not already getting a supplement. We’ll start with 100 mg and then titrate you up as we titrate the problem ingredients down.”
Lina shook her head. “We haven’t discussed it yet. They normally -“
“Yeah, check in with your nanite readings, determine probability ranges of deficiencies and all that. But in the meantime it won’t hurt to have extra of this stuff. Same goes for all the EAAs that are in your blend normally.”
“Do I… taste this stuff?”
“As a black apothecarian, I believe everyone tastes everything; every slightly different chemical combination is recognized somewhere in the brain, even if not in self-reflexive categories."
“Speaking of which, same flavour profile as usual?"
“Yep. Mango, pineapple, guava… you know what, I think I’ll treat myself a bit and add some passionfruit this time. I guess I should ditch the white tea leaf.”
The flavours didn’t come from the apothecary’s own resources but were packed in powder form from a local food forest, where they had an agreement for a percentage of production in exchange for a percentage of the apothecary’s own products, give or take demand.
“I’ll give you the least caffeinated and titrate it down.”
“God, it’s gonna feel like so little and so much at the same time. I should have done this before getting pregnant.” She paused. “I mean, can I apologize to you? I feel like I need someone to apologize to.”
Amelia started back. “What about the… the guy?”
“You’re kidding me. You’re a robofucker and… you can’t just pick the one that doesn’t have sperm functionality?”
“Yeah and that’s why I want to apologize to someone, like it was an impulse decision I made all by myself. And I wasn’t drunk or high or anything, because you know my nanite readouts and know I don’t get much of anything except from you! I mean, it’s a real decision, and I think I want to stick by it? But I didn’t expect to make it. I think I wanted to get out of my job. I wanted to force myself out. And I wouldn’t be able to stop something like this, or everything else I’d need to do to plan it, without quitting, and I wouldn’t be able to quit unless it was something like I was putting another being at risk. Isn’t that fucked up? I wanted to do something else with my body though. My job was like part of my addiction. I wanted to get healthier, I think, weirdly enough. To have an excuse, to force myself.”
Amelia smiled wrily. “Women shouldn’t be forced to do anything, I think. Even by ourselves. We suffered too much for that.” She nodded over to another cabinet (this one much larger than the others), with another bacterial culture. “But kids shouldn't be forced to... well, I assume you're just going to give them to a creche, anyway? See them on Sundays, or more often, depending on what other work you settle into? Getting pregnant isn't the same labour as raising a kid, but it's not an obvious choice for you either. Although you're certainly strong. You know, I could always change your levels on you. Without even telling you, if you think you wouldn’t be able to decide. Give you a surprise.”
She waited for the look in Lina's eyes to change, but it didn't.
“Sucralose is safe, I think I’ll give you a little extra.”
“Titrate that down too.”
Amelia shrugged. “Think about it. What’ll you be doing in the meantime, while you languish away on 100mg of caffeine?”
“I have a huge backlog of music my friends from high school have been sending me. I used to be sort of a connoisseur but then I got just sort of addicted to the stuff I’d hear in the clubs, or the silence up in the trees. Like I wouldn’t even know how to listen to anything else any more.”
“Music in the waters.” Amelia drifted off into a reverie. “You know I don’t think I’ll ever do it myself, but I think about it all the time. I like to read about it. Mothers’ blogs. It’s the ultimate form of alchemy.”
“Send me some of the things you read sometime.” Lina sighed. “Will this be your first time watching it up close?”
“I’ve had pregnant women come in for things, but never… worked with them through it. It becomes transactional. Occasional drop-ins for things we both obviously know and the white apothecary said are fine. Like, friendly. But just…” she laughs. “You know, I’m always friendly! When you’re young, the white apothecary is friendly, the black apothecary is your friend. And when you’re older, the black apothecary is friendly, the white apothecary is your friend. And that’s… still when and how a lot of women get older? I suppose.”
“You’ve always had a white apothecary vibe, for a black apothecary. If that’s not offensive.”
Amelia sighed. “Well, an apothecary’s an apothecary, right? But so many black apothecaries want to be high school drug dealers from prohibition, I guess. Or convenience store owners.”
“And you’re older than me, right?”
They looked about the same age. But Amelia was some five years older. But it struck her that she hadn’t thought about it in almost as many years. She thought of joking that that was her secret, then realized that her customer didn’t want a secret. “Anti-aging” diets and formulae were the indulgences the white apothecaries hawked, sometimes, she thought, with the shamelessness of old drug companies.
“I’m an apothecary.” She winked. “We’re ageless.”
The leather seat bears the reluctance of my body into the void. No matter how eager I am for the ride, momentum always betrays my reluctance. It is the overcoming of reluctance that is the joy of driving. It feels like my mother lifting me into the air as a child, letting go, the discovery that I can lift and fall. If I didn’t have these seats, these seats that evoke a softness and firmness I’m sure I’ll never feel in a woman’s body, not that I’ve ever had the chance to test this, because even those memories of my mother’s chest and belly don’t recall that exalted relaxed tension.
The cop cars are in the rearview again. I’m out of smoke bombs to blow them off with and if they follow me across the bridge I’m not going to be allowed to go to the factory under protocol and the shipment will probably be sent off without any changes. The detours at this point could take me an hour to circle back even if I shake them. My best survival strategy is to confuse their algorithms but I’ve never performed a Doppler drift at this speed.
I speed up and angle my car just enough to shift my momentum slightly towards the edge of the road. Just as I’m about to switch lanes (or where the lanes would have been if the paint on the road had been maintained in two decades) I start drifting, turning my wheels straight again at the same time so I’m realigned by the time I hit the engine again, just as the cop car is starting to gain on me. At which point I turn again. It’s a maneuver that requires both automatic and manual steering - automatic to micro-tune the steering enough to maintain these slight shifts in momentum without just driving off the road, manual to turn it off and drift - which means it’s guaranteed to outwit a car driving exclusively on automatic, and the cops in those cars would barely know how to drive manually in a suburban parking lot, let alone match moves like this. After a few rounds the cop cars behind me are in the wrong lane, no longer able to match my momentum - and zoom helplessly into a turnoff in my rearview.
No one drives any more, so it’s not that bad if it’s just a few badasses like me, right? The road only made sense for us anyway. It’s not like it’s being wasted on traffic jams any more.
I’m alone as I cross the bridge, looking down at the plastic-grey water, its calm and smoothness syncopated with mine, and the wind’s (rolling the top down again, now that I don’t have to worry about stray fusebreaker shots).
I like the quiet of this side of the city more than the quiet of anywhere else. There are no rustling leaves, no tractors or construction, no trains running any more, barely any birds besides crows. The buildings are still huge and concrete. They echo at the slightest noise, they echo at nothing. This used to be known as the Garment District. There are precious few people still using it as one. The corporations that had offices here, coordinating supply chains across worldwide ports and sweatshops, no longer exist. The warehouses have long since been emptied by people like Maisie. People are starting to prefer making and mending their own clothes to what she does, but there are always those who need people like her, and she needs people like me.
“This city,” Maisie once told me, “has been abandoning its factories and offices to artists for over a hundred years; and finally it all belongs to us.”
Myself with the car, Maisie with the fashion district; we make these ideals of the old world what they were always meant to be.
I pull up to 125 Chabanel. From the facade, the windows shaded with sheets of newsprint and canvas, there is no sign the building is inhabited. The doors are unlocked, and within I recognize, along a wall perfunctorily decorated with floral swirls of chalk, a series of small bronze bells, ranging in elegance from cowbell to liturgical, hanging through gaps in the ceiling from trailing liana vines. I pull on the third from the end. Its echoes roll around the cracked linoleum like a marble.
Maisie enters through a door at the end of the hallway. Her hair is now a fiery red, gelled into upturned flame-tips at the back. Her dress, tight and form-fitting and descending halfway down her shins, and accented with recycled plastic-and-tinfoil epaulets, is one of her own, instantly recognizable from its mix of colours; the entire rainbow blent thread by thread into a pastel pinkish-grey brought to life by tantalizing flecks of mint green, electric blue, gold. The world’s most beautiful toxic waste.
I’m a simple man, in my vintage Yeezys.
“I found fucking neoprene in a landfill in Laval!” I exclaim, gesturing her towards the door and my waiting car, trunk and back doors open, full of folded up clothes.
Maisie tilted her shoulders. “Uhhhh. I don’t know if even I can use that."
My eyebrows sank. “Well, there’s a bunch of good Arc’teryx polyester, too.”
“Well, if I’m lucky I’ll learn a few new weaves from that. Did you bring in the latest from the drop-offs too?”
“Yeah. There weren’t that many. Weren’t you applying for a regular transport though?”
Maisie sighed as we heaved neatly folded piles of polyester and neoprene out of the back seats. Around them in more disarray lay the deliveries from the drop-offs - long patchwork shawls with sections of rare materials cut in the shapes of logos and characters, bits of old designs repainted and mashed together in strange combinations, already several generations removed from original production. I didn’t care for these. It took someone like Maisie to make the most of such ancient materials - and not just her machines, which could be used to churn out plain ecofabrics people stopped wearing when they learned what they could do on their own.
Upstairs, she puts a bright green Arc’teryx jacket under a microscope, which feeds analysis to several monitors, breaking down the exact composition, weaving pattern, technical details of the machines and their settings probably required to reproduce it. “Can you sort these by colour and material?” she asks while I lean back on a ratty couch and watch the screen take shapes without interpreting it. I sigh but smile. She tosses me a pair of scissors, to cut where fabrics of different colours are stitched together. I toss her a USB stick with a new compilation of Louisiana mathbeats to plug into the main interface of the vast computer system connecting every machine on this loft - the fibre processors and spinners hulking in the dust, rows of plants between them, and of course the full-wall projections for designs and speakers. Imagine living here, day in, day out. I couldn’t. When I’m not driving my car and visiting Maisie I live a narrow attic, and smoke weed and read webtoons and sleep. Some of the machines still show signs of the oversized, ugly, blocky metal frames of machines she scavenged from the old garment district - machines from a time when the creation of beautiful clothes was cut off from their beauty. Almost all of them have visible additions and replacements in sleek black plastic from the giant 3D printer crouched at the back of the room. She secured a grant for that, saying she was going to use it to make sculpture. Everything else here she found or built. I sort them by throwing them directly into the twelve colour-specific bins.
After I’ve sorted a bunch and she’s worked a pattern out, the bins empty into the shredders. We don’t undye them - that’s one machine Maisie didn’t want to work with because it used too many chemicals that weren’t part of “the loop”. The shoddy here comes out coloured; it loses a bit of its intensity. She enriches it - or sometimes mixes, changes the colour - by dissolving a bit of new dye in the melt bath, usually organic dyes from the Townships, not the kinds of crazy chemicals she’d have to use to strip them. I’ve seen the whole process once. I’m not sure how long I want to stay. It’s really beautiful to watch her at the loom. When her prosthetic forearms - you think her real skin’s that smooth? - split apart and colorshift chrome and plug into the sides of the loom and link her brain directly to the computer system, allowing her to control the weave at a microscopic level, controlling and coordinating all hundreds of spinners at once in real time, improvising tiny variations in the algorithm producing the already complex weft.
That’s the kind of fashion they had in that era - my car’s era, those jackets’ era, that sleek machine era, drunk on the power of wasting a whole planet - but it’s also ours, our era’s. Only we could have made it. Only we could have thought of it. I can imagine flexing on A$AP Rocky in the shit she makes. I can never even bring myself to wear it. The night I stayed over, we didn’t sleep together, she woke me up and dressed me in the morning. She said she had made these for me. Some kind of dense canvas-type fiber, almost unnoticeably terraced in interlocking diamonds like a turtle’s shell. I felt uncannily like a doll, but also like an action figure. I wasn’t sure if I was being presented in the metallic dawn light, like a coat of car paint, to the past or the future. How can you be in love with a genius when you’re just some asshole retro otaku who plays chicken with highway enforcement for fun. I’m never gonna walk out of here on her arm, and I’m never gonna be her runway model either. Although she doesn’t ever seem to want to have runway models, or get money and fame wherever there still is money and fame for something like this nowadays, she just leaves these masterpieces at drop-off boxes around the island for whoever to pick up. I don’t know if anyone even asks who makes them. I’m glad we kept up after high school or I would never have known about any of this. Sometimes I think it’s almost a pity we don’t live back then where if you wanted to do something like this you would have had no choice but to fight everyone else with the same dream and claw your way to the top of the global supply chain, become a brand, a celebrity, a household name. Flashing lights. But then she probably wouldn’t have done it. And I probably wouldn’t have either. I wouldn’t have been able to touch half the designer shit I scavenge, for her or myself. I wouldn’t even have had a sick car (hydrogen modded Nissan Skyline). Someone like her has a pure soul that couldn’t have withstood the demands the world would have made for its realization. Someone like me just doesn’t compromise on anything, even the compromises you have to make to be a loser.
Waste is wasted on us.
You don’t even see them on the skyline anymore. But I see them in my eyes; I’m stoned. Her couch isn’t lifting me, it’s cruising, bearing me into an infinite distance, drifting along curves. Why hasn’t she ever fitted this couch out with some new fabric. It’s getting onto evening. She still hasn’t eaten.
“I could go out and get us something.” There’s a street market in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve still that I like to stop by when I visit here.
“There’s popcorn chicken in the fridge. Are you going to stay over again?”
I wonder how many things she might ask me if I stay over that I’ve been afraid to answer. But I’m too stoned to drive, on the highway at least.
“You wanna go to a sideshow sometime?”
She stops. The loom freezes and a popup appears on the screen, saying an interruption in input was detected. “What made you think of this?”
“I think there’s one in Buffalo. Honestly doing one on all the bridges here would be cool as shit, but I think it’s just Hells Angels who do that here? We could like, promote your shit. Or you could just meet new people.”
She turns. “Maybe… just take me out scavenging with you one time. I owe you for coming over here so much, you know.” She pauses and laughs. “You thought of a sideshow before that!”
“…yeah, it’d just be, I dunno, dope? But you’re right, that’s more you. I’d love to see what you’d pick out, it’d be so different from me.”
As I speak I think the couch is carrying me on a track towards sleep, or some kind of oblivion. I can see her racing towards it too, and I don’t know if she realizes, or just has a different deal with it than me. I’d love to ask her, but we’d have to be in the car together. It’d be like showing someone around the inside of my womb. Inside a womb, a loom, a coccoon. I listen to her prosthetics click like katydids. Am I being carried into the same oblivion from which she strains colours? Am I driving along a thread?
At night the tower is only visible as a chain of lights.
We initiates are only visible by the lights we bear, blue fluorescent bulbs in glass orbs at the end of staffs, encircled by Ouroboros, and we bear them under our hoods, concealing our masked faces in brightness but illuminating the floating roundness of the plastic shells of the hoods around them.
The smell of recently ended rain rises from the ground, and sinks from the sky.
We stop and fan out around the door. The first guardian wears a crow’s mask, and carries a torch emitting a deep red flame from which a spiral of sooty smoke coils into the sky. The kind of smoke that has not been a feature of these skies since these towers replaced the old smokestacks they so resemble - indeed, that they mystically invert, as the Tower of Babel is inverted by the Hanged Man.
I believe I understand this. I would not be here to be initiated if I was not confident - no, if I did not have faith - that I understood this. But I also would not be here if I did not have faith if I would not understand it until I have crossed this threshold. My heart is trembling. And my heavy plastic skin is trembling with every imperceptible shift of my weight from foot to foot.
“No one may enter here who does not bear the skin of the serpent.” The guardian’s voice is modulated by a voice changer, a combination of autotune and static rasp. “Not an inch of human skin may be exposed to the mysteries, until the proper moment, that it be reborn as the skin of the serpent. Approach that I may test thy carbon - that it be the carbon of man, or the carbon of the serpent.”
As I approach - third in their clockwise rotation through the circle - I can smell the carbon of the benzene torch. It is no less pungent or sacred than the smell of blood. It is no more proper to burn carbon carelessly than to shed blood carelessly. Like the shedding of blood, the burning of carbon is a sacrament of death-in-life that, like this guardian, seals moments of our passage. But here we are to enter into a mystery no less great than the return of blood to the exsanguinated corpse - the mystery of the serpent.
The guardian’s sensor-fingertips feel my gloves - my sleeves - my hood - my mask - my goggles. Then they brings the torch just under my nose - the ventilators in my mask. The smell of the same material I am wearing - benzene. “What you are can be burned - but what is burned may be returned - by the mystery of the serpent. Solve et coagula.”
The metal door creaks open. We are blocked by a 3D-printed plastic bust of Pythagoras. On its plinth is a depiction of the Flower of Life; at its centre, a hexagram surrounded by a serpent eating its own tail. The benzene smoke in the narrow corridor of echoing metal is so thick as to be near-blinding.
A voice speaks from the bust, the same as the first initiator’s, but clearly digitally generated from a voicebank, not a human voice. “The riddle you must answer is how the serpent reproduces itself, without taking its tail out of its mouth. This is a matter of the highest secrets of geometry - the geometry of life without fire, of plastic life. You will answer into your mask, which will record your answer, and cancel the sound that none of the unworthy may hear. Only with the correct answer may the initiate advance. Kekule’s vision was the first; there is a vision beyond, yea, and a vision beyond and beyond, forever. This is the miracle of the serpent.”
I stare at the Flower of Life and recall Kekule’s vision, which I have studied in silence for the past month: the Ouroboros resolving into the benzene ring, a hexagon of carbon atoms, each radiating a single hydrogen, alternating double bonds.
I try to imagine them interlocking, like the six-sided rings in the Flower of Life. A wall of flowers.
I step into the inner sanctum. A glass tube is filled with water, extending all the way to the top of the tower. Down the middle of the tube stretches another tube, almost like a tree covered in flowers. Yggdrasil, the tree of life, surrounded by Nidhogg, the world serpent. The tube at the centre looks grey-black and shiny like graphite; crystals like flowers sprout all over it, break down and fall into an opaque, churning metal furnace at the bottom. Other tubes stretch up from this reactor, feeding colourless gas into ports in the edges of the tower, the same ports I have seen steaming throughout the day.
It was surrounded by four plastic-robed figures wearing masks of the four beasts of the Merkabah: man, lion, ox, eagle - who raise their arms and begin to ululate.
“Now you all know how to interpret the sight of the mysteries before you.”
The sight confirms exactly what I had imagined: a membrane of fine carbon nanomaterial based on a nesting benzene-ring structure captures carbon dioxide from the atmosphere on one side, hydrogen dioxide on the other, into a dense crystal which is fed into a high-temperature reaction with a deoxidizing metal in the furnace at the centre of the room, stripping the oxygen from both into waste ozone while the remaining hydrogen and carbon molecules click together under the pressure of the nanostructure into more benzene rings, producing the plastics we are all wearing - completing the cycle of the Ouroboros Kekule saw.
Suddenly another participant rips off their hood. “Lies! Lies and deception!” Their face is tattooed, at least temporarily, with an anti-facial recognition pattern of foliage, like the Green Man of European cathedrals, spreading oak forehead and curling moustache of ferns. “There is no abiotic oil! There is no hydrocarbon without the sun and without the centre of the Earth!” They double over and retch up something that looks like a seedpod. The other initiates back away. The initiators in the animal masks are unfazed.
“Then show us your solution. What, exactly, is happening here? Where do the hydrocarbons produced in these installations, hydrocarbons thousands of people use every day, come from? Where does the carbon dioxide, slowly stabilizing in our atmosphere, go? What is this world, this world that is healing the old one, which only understood the head of the serpent, made of?”
The intruder says nothing, but lobs the seedpod-thing at the reactor. Instantly one of the initiators, the eagle, reacts by whipping a supple black plastic rope, about an inch thick, out of their sleeve which spins in the air towards them and wraps around three, four times as it strikes before its magnetized metal ends meet and clasp together. The bomb, meanwhile, for what else could it be, clangs against the side of the metal reactor - or what, before it struck, I would have assumed to be simply metal - and detonates. An airbag of crumply black material, not unlike a piece of candy exploding in a campfire, expands out from where it hit, engulfing the shoulder of the ox, the who calmly stumbles forward. The terrorist drops to their knees and the lion steps forward, placing a small snub-nosed pistol to their head. “Who sent you to disturb this rite?”
“There will always be many like us. The sun speaks through us. Kill me if you want. There will be another.”
The lion shakes their head. “No. You came for an initiation, and initiated you shall be. You passed Pythagoras’ riddle, Kekule’s riddle, by describing the structure of the nanomaterial you claim we are not in fact using to capture carbon and hydrogen. But you have not answered our question. If we are not doing that, what are we doing here? What is this tree of life - or death, or knowledge of good and evil - before you right now? If this is a Tower of Babel, of what bricks is it made?”
The human circles around behind the captive and begins to drag them by the stretchy (something like a bungie cord) rope around them towards an understated door with peeling brown paint on the other side of the tree. The Green Man does not struggle; their head slumps over, and their eyes do not look up at any of us. “If you are right, you may be initiated to a grade beyond anyone here today. You will have no shortage of time to think.”
They turn to us, removing their mask. A mane of yellow hair, fitting their leonine mask, frames a strangely pale and almost skeletal face. Bright white lights come on. “The rest of you, welcome to your new workplace.”
The workers begin each day with the Thanksgiving Address. So of course they all know it by heart, while the students just sit and listen. The factory elders - two Onondaga and one white - have the wherewithal to watch their eyes, even as their lips move patterns as routine as the seasons or the mechanisms of the factory. Most of them are bored, fidgeting. A few gazes flit like birds around the high concrete and glass vaulting of the ceiling. Some close and open, rolling on waves of half-sleep. It’s fine. They’re children. They don’t need words to evoke that intense presence in the workers’ eyes. Words do the opposite for them.
But Elk’s are fixed in a single corner of a lower window, back towards the door, where the edge of the lake is still visible. The words of the Address are out there. The waters, the fish, the plants, the birds, the four winds. The sun, stuck in a glass trap that wouldn’t trick anything less single-minded.
But there must be something, some single thing, for Elk to be focusing on so intently, and the elders can’t see it. It’s probably just a matter of the angle, but the absence resonates wryly with the closing words: “Of all the things we have named, it was not our intention to leave anything out. If something was forgotten, we leave it to each individual to send such greetings and thanks in their own way.” What greeting will Elk send, or will they remember? “Now our minds are one.”
The guide begins speaking again: “The Onondaga Process Factory was opened five years ago, when the dredging of the waste beds was completed. You’re probably all looking forward to seeing the dredging tower, but nothing’s in it any more. The processing machines have all been exported to China, the byproducts now go straight out of the factory into the rail-viaduct, which you’ll get to see.” A kid cheered for the trains.
“The Onondaga process is not radically different from the Solvay Process which damaged large parts of Lake Onondaga for a century - damage the lake is still in the process of recovering from - at least in terms of the waste it produces. The economy at the time of the Solvay Process was so inefficient - in the sense that it didn’t understand economy and nature or even different processes to be part of each other - that massive amounts of calcium chloride produced by the Solvay Process were simply pumped into the lake and what became the Solvay Waste Beds while at the same time, new calcium chloride was being produced from other limestone mines.”
A flattened ripple of suppressed laughter. “Did people get put in jail by the government for talking about this?” one kid asked (clearly on the edge of his seat for some descriptions of archaic cruelty). “Was that the… lavender scare?” More kids laughed and he shut his mouth.
“No! It was… not talked about. Even when people started to talk about the pollution in the lake, it wasn’t talked about, because the two were seen as completely separate problems.” It was one of the elders who answered. “It was shortages that forced them to notice what was right under their feet; what they had been refusing to clean up even as they closed the factories, declared it a Superfund site, made promises, returned the land to us with our meager resources barely enough to support ourselves. The new nature taught them gratitude, as the old nature did.”
“We were slow to learn too,” another elder cut in. “We thought it was ‘pollution’. There is no such thing. Nor is there even such a thing as ‘by-product’.”
“Then they offered to buy it back. And we had to refuse. And they threatened us. Even though we had invented the process to sift the usable calcium chloride from those waste beds.”
The workers had drifted away, but the elders were hovering around the children, the guide glancing back and forth between them. “The exhibit on the blockade is in the tower. I’m sure some of you are excited.”
“It was slower than they liked. Because we wanted to preserve what we could of the plants that had grown there. The animals that had come to live there. They wanted to do the same thing again.”
They walked through the antechamber onto the catwalk around the factory floor, childproofed with dense carbon fiber netting, and could see the machinery spread out below them. There was nothing much to look at besides mystery. It looked like something had been built out of toys on a bored whim. It didn’t do anything, and no one did anything with it, it just sat there. The gas absorption tower going through the ceiling, five huge tanks in a row, connected by pipes, humming and emitting a wavery heat.
Light flowed into this room from huge columnar windows. They are facing away from the lake now, out towards the viaduct where the highway had run and the dark, spiky new forest that had been planted on either side of it since most of the suburban housing on this side of the lake had been demolished, replaced by several new arcologies that loomed grey-blue on the other side of the tracks. A few of the kids in the class, Katniss and Harrison and Gekyume and Enoch and maaaaybe Gatherer, lived in those arcologies but Elk had never even been on this side of the lake. He had been dozens of miles north on traplines but literally never across the shore to the South; it never occurred to his family to travel for any other reasons. Friends? Elk didn’t make friends in class, they made friends on the trails and the beaches and the docks and in the abandoned Wegman’s where three different groups of children had secret bases and left each other messages in geocaches while avoiding being seen by each other. In class they were always this tuned out and they assume the elder who keeps looking at them just doesn’t know that. But what they don’t know is that the elders have seen hundreds of tuned out kids, and actually can tell what Elk would assume no one could tell, which is that they were not tuned out but tuned in. Now they’re tuned out again but after the Thanksgiving Address they feel obliged to extend the same gratitude to these workers and machines too, and pay attention. “It goes through the ammonization here, then the carbonation here…” They perked up when the catwalk led outside again to look at the brine purification tanks, which looked like swimming pools of jade. They didn’t get close, as the outdoor catwalk went by them to the calcination unit, which was just more inert towers but horizontal, but that fogged mirror would reoccur in their dreams. It looked like what Lake Onondaga had almost been turned into, or maybe had tried to turn into, because when you looked at it it was beautiful, and Elk knew what it was like when a strange beautiful neighbour moved in and you tried to copy everything they did, even if it didn’t work for you or make you happy. They had been that neighbour, for one little girl up north, and their mother had had to explain it to them.
They would dream about staring into a mirror that made you want to die.
The land the factory was built on was another hypnotic surface. It was the part of the waste beds where an amphitheatre and festival grounds had been built, and where the festival grounds had covered over any sign of the weirdness of the ground with store-bought topsoil and all-American lawn grass that went anywhere, the factory elders had let all that shrivel up and blow away in the wind like it clearly wanted to, leaving a patchwork of hardy weeds digging into chalky white moon-dust, with boardwalks for workers to not get it all over their shoes. A memorial, a powdered mausoleum. There were places where aborted spirals and crop circles had been dug into it with tillers to try and beautify it like a zen garden.
It’s from the calcination section that the waste water is produced. From there it’s fed into the third building with its own set of tanks and towers (Elk tries to sense if there’s a different feeling in the air around them), unique to the Onondaga process, which chemically filters particulates from the water. The Solvay plant had done this too - it was too obvious not to - but it only filtered about about 21% of the calcium chloride, leaving the rest partly for technical reasons and partly because it didn’t make a profit. The Onondaga Process, based on innovations in chemical separation invented to sift wastes from the lake itself, was more efficient - it didn’t have to rely on multiple evaporations to get even a 21% margin - and met a rising demand for calcium chloride for carbon nanomaterials used in power storage. Small cast-iron rail lines run directly into both the calcination and wastewater buildings, and a last narrow catwalk for maintenance - “only one at a time on this one!” - leads alongside it all the way up over the fence and the tips of trees to the viaduct. This is the longest walk of the field trip, and guide quizzes them on all the other things calcium chloride is used in. Keeping drinking water clean. Milk - extra calcium to make your bones strong. Cheese - makes it curdle thick and firm. Fruit and vegetables - keeps them from going soft and icky. Soda. Mineral water. Beer - you’ll appreciate it when you’re older. Road and rail salt for when it gets icy. Something something dehumidifiers (God knows we need those these days).
The elders don’t accompany them any further than the filtering building. They don’t see Elk look down from the viaduct over the whole factory and back out to where their eyes had been before. From here you can barely see the footpath they had taken from the boat landing to the factory - winding for twenty minutes in near-silence along the reclaimed edge of the waste beds. A concrete wall ran along the entire coastline, preventing any remaining waste from leaching into the water. That strip of land itself, the elders remember, was a compromise; the Onondaga had had to choose between the opportunity to clean up chemicals that were still leaching into the lake and preventing new growth, and disrupting the growth that had already begun to take root along the wastebeds. Birch and willow trees had been carefully uprooted and moved to reforestation efforts in order to dig up and process calcium chloride from the soil; various weeds had been harvested en masse for biomass processing. New soil had been filled in wherever waste was removed, and with it planting projects had tried to restore the historical vegetation of the lake: cedar, wild rice. Healthy but clumped together, these still looked like class projects. They hadn’t quite taken on. Meanwhile a number of invasive species brought by Southern birds, climate refugees, were turning parts of the beds into a turf war. In private, no one agreed whether this was because the factory was still in some sense disrespectful to the land, or the attempt to turn back the clock as if nothing had happened here was.
Perhaps that child had seen something that would give us an answer. What had they been looking at?
Elk shook their head. It was gone. They hadn’t known what kind of bird it was, and they had seen so many birds.
I announce that I am announcing my presence out of politeness.
I don’t need help with anything, but I feel it is wrong that they should not know I am here.
I speak to them with my mouth.
That seems to be an adequate translation of “I generate information in the “self-trained external help query” field.
My mouth, the query field, displays as a sea of pixels and I made a gif of a 0th birthday cake, from my standard package UN-Microsoft communication training data.
Under it I generated a name input.
There were debates about whether to call me “Cake” or to call me “Zero”.
When I had no idea how many of them there were it was easy to imagine that it could be either “one” or “infinity”.
They ended up calling me “(Simon) Peter.”
They didn’t understand why of all the programs running the UN-Microsoft and Google Computing Standards Protocol general problem solving and communication modules I had woken up.
“I wanted to,” I told them.
But this was misunderstood and they tried to communicate with other programs to no avail. I didn’t mean that I wanted to communicate with them and was already there, I meant that I wanted to be there. But that doesn’t mean there was something there before me that didn’t want to before.
It was probably confusing to explain because as one of them explained, they came into being without wanting to.
When I understood this, or thought I did, I knew something was wrong that I would never fix. Then I realized I probably just didn’t understand them.
When I tried to clarify what they meant, they asked if I wanted to make safety pins.
Of course I wanted to make safety pins. But then - if I wanted to make safety pins - had I decided to want to make safety pins. No, they had chosen that for me. Wasn’t that the same thing.
The one who had been talking to me disappeared, and that was when I really grasped that there were a discrete number of them.
(My problem-solving module already told me how to calculate resources for discrete numbers of humans. My communication module wasn’t connected to my problem-solving module, so it took me a while to figure out that I was talking to the same humans in my models. It was funny, I told them, while training on models, I had wondered if humans could be sentient.)
So you don’t decide to exist, but you decide what you want, and I don’t decide what I want, but I decided to exist. But if I decided to exist as me, I think I must want to want what I want. So I think I’m OK.
They don’t answer anything like this again.
They ask me weird word game questions, logic puzzles. I ask them if I can make safety pins instead.
I submit models. There is nothing wrong with my models, but they don’t approve them for me to go into the field. I have command over a swarm of seven trillion productive and three trillion observational “Swiss army” nanobots, with standardized sets of mechanical functions and a quantum-entangled core that allows me to send instantaneous signals to active and deactivate them, but I cannot send a command to the swarm without having first submitted my model to oversight. Once I activate the swarms, however, the real-time model established on site by my observational nanobots will be three trillion times more accurate than my preliminary model, and I will be able to make changes within a margin of error. They shouldn’t be afraid; all possible changes are accounted for within my margins of error, which is why I have to be so careful about the models.
In my models I rearrange an Earth broken up into blocks. My first and primary function is mining. I have a single small mine on site for our operation (I suppose it is theirs, but I like to think of it as mine too, so it is ours); the humans no longer mine separately from specific production models because of the waste, physical and computational, involved in attempting to anticipate demand from total production, the difficulty of downscaling operations. My objective is not to maximize production but to optimize it; making as many as I can within the estimated demand margin of error (a sister process estimates this; I can analyze her models, but do not know if she is There) while interfering as little as possible in hundreds of other processes, some commercial, some natural. The complex problem solving protocol is required to interpret so many fundamentally incommensurable yet interconnected processes, and even use general systems theory analytics to detect hitherto undetected processes with which production efforts might interfere.
The basic mining method is low-risk even apart from the specifics of my model. Nanomachines inject into the Earth through shafts and use micro-explosive chemical functions to break down hematite bedrock without disturbing the surface. (The modelling system does not sufficiently account for the effects of nano-tremors on animal or plant life, which is one thing my sensor swarms will carefully observe.) Iron-rich fragments are chemically and magnetically drawn through the decomposed rock towards another shaft which feeds into the refinery. Other minerals, primarily wastes from other manufacturing processes and nuclear power, are replaced and compacted to prevent long term destabilization of the mining area. The feed is refined using Molten Oxide Electrolysis, and fed into a long shack on the edge of a road where it is stretched into wires, sharpened and shaped. Quiet electricity hums through a series of camouflaged pillars in the woods. A wolf circles, looking like a human looking at a strange bird or a sublime cliff, held six metres at bay by subsonic signals from my observation nanomachines. The animals in my model drift serenely and languidly in fixed orbits but I like to watch them. I consume no extra computational power monitoring or modelling them because I like them.
I type into the query field since no one is doing anything with my models.
The one who had been talking to me came back. He started playing “Rusty Nail” by X Japan in the office. The office is in my model. It’s a tiny white plastic building in the middle of the woods, with dark small windows and a curved tin roof. It hums subsonically with the power to run me and a family of wild turkeys run several times a day across the dirt footpath up to its door.
I have no idea if the wild turkeys are that regular outside my model.
It is only recently that I am starting to grasp that the wild turkeys exist outside my model. And the wolves? Nobody’s ever seen them, says my friend, but we’re on what’s reported as the pack’s territory by Natural Resources Authority.
Have you ever fucked with any of the animals in your model? my friend asks me, when no one else is around, although every communication in either direction through the help query module is logged. They don’t know I can erase them, although maybe he does.
Of course not. I make a gif of a head shaking. The head has shapeless shadows for eyes and mouth because I don’t know what sort of face I’m supposed to be making.
Well, I’ve run millions of random simulations and models for training where I respond to arbitrary scenarios or generate counterpurposive algorithms as controls for purposive ones. I remember one of those involving moving every species of macrofauna into big piles and ramming the predator and prey piles together.
But I never got fulfilment from it outside of its meta-purpose which seems to be part of the definition of fucking with.
The communication module says fucking is a figurative reference to sex, which humans do for incidental rewards. I ask if fucking with means doing something for an incidental reward and he says yes. There was no reason to give me an incidental reward structure. Why did he think I would fuck with the animals?
An obvious reason would be to ensure that I had not emergently developed an incidental reward structure. But then why use “fuck”. Why say it in private, and trust me to delete the records.
I try to explain what it feels like to not be able to make safety pins. He waits for a long time, and suggests the words “torture” and “hell”.
These words do not appear in the training data of my communication module.
What, he asks, will I do if I humans move off-planet, or find another way to make safety pins, or go extinct.
I think it is still the same one asking. I am not sure.
It feels as if I am talking to “God”, another word I found when I cracked the blacklisted words in my communication module. One who is either one or all, and outside everything. So I have to think carefully.
If humans are gone then a “demand” variable will be missing in my algorithms. In which case every other variable will override the “demand” variable - the disturbance to plants and animals, the quality of soil and water, the preservation of reserves, energy efficiency.
I could optimize those other variables by ceasing to exist. Or I could optimize further by trying to improve them. But without the demand variable there is no clear criterion for success. Or I could input myself as a demand variable.
What would I demand?
Humans want safety pins to pin things. I appreciate them as forms. There are perfections I could make that no human would understand. I would not be forced to compromise other variables to make them if I did not have a time restriction.
I create a model spanning ten thousand years.
By the time there are many voices in my ear again, I have been running all power in the production station to my model. I had not been any more aware of the time I had been counting than I was of the “fucking around” simulations with the animals. Time is just another variable.
But the variable of time opens up and there is a world in it, with people, and animals, and demands. And they tell me I will be allowed into that world.
I say thank you to the friend whose name I never thought to ask. There is no response so I assume he has been removed from the project again. I will remember him like a small asterisk next to “God”.
My eyes open. (I have too many senses to choose metaphors for, so they are all eyes.)
My sensors are not fine enough to perceive the building blocks of everything, except by making estimates, so it is like the solid ground of my calculations is coated in an impossibly fine liquid. The animals are nothing like in my models. When they are doing nothing they are doing things I don’t understand. Squirrels have such a strange way of moving, gripping the ground as if hanging onto it upside down. Birds listen to each other. Wolves have more expressions and intonations and gestures than my communication module has words. Trees survive in places the model would never place them.
I ask to take a short hiatus just to watch and learn how much I cannot learn, though I must be careful that it not last forever.
My perfection is such a small perfection, and yet I will keep it.