Behind the polyglas the sky was orange over the city. The white towers were tall and thin, with minaret tops. Just like the snow asparagus FourMother cloned in the agrovat, Lewis thought. Funny he’d never noticed the resemblance before.
Turning from the window, Lewis moved to the low table beside the bed, where Montgomery hunched with a tiny mixing spatula over jars of colored powders. He leaned over his friend’s shoulder as Montgomery spooned the last of the mixture into a vial, added two tablespoons of water, and shook.
“Bingo,” Montgomery said as peered at the settling bubbles.
“It’ll never work,” Lewis said.
“We’ll see.” He set the vial of green liquid in a stainless steel rack and handed Lewis a scalpel. “Ready?”
Montgomery rolled up his sleeve and placed his elbow on the tabletop with a steel tray under his forearm. He held a clear vacuum tube ready in his other hand.
Lewis laid the scalpel edge along the soft inside of his friend’s forearm and slashed. The wound sealed itself almost instantly.
“You have to cut deeper,” Montgomery said.
On the third try the cut showed bone and Montgomery was able to insert the vacuum tube before his nanobots could reconstitute the damaged tissues. Sensing the presence of a foreign body, the enhanced macrophages in his blood attacked, devouring four millimeters of the tube before he could extract it. He managed to transfer a half teaspoon of blood to the mixing plate, where it boiled savagely in an effort to destroy itself. Lewis applied several drops of the green liquid and the bubbling stopped.
“Wow,” said Montgomery.
“Let me try.”
“You know it won’t work.”
“It was my idea.”
They repeated the experiment, but Lewis’s blood simmered on the plate, assimilating the tincture before devouring itself and leaving the metal spotless.
At this moment the bedroom door hissed open and Montgomery’s younger brother Walter burst in.
“Monty, Monty!” he hollered, though Montgomery was barely two meters away. “I finished my Virgil translation! Want to hear?”
Lewis spun on the child and snarled. “Damn it, Widget, can’t you see we’re busy?”
Montgomery lifted a hand. “I said don’t call him that.” Turning to the child, he said, “Walter, do you remember our agreement?”
Walter pouted. “Yes.”
“Good. Would you like to try again?”
The child left the room, waving a hand across the door’s wall sensor.
“You’re in a generous mood tonight,” Lewis said.
“Lay off. He’s only seventy.”
“Seventy and a half,” said Lewis mockingly.
The door chimed.
“Enter,” said Montgomery, and Walter stepped back into the room.
“Now would you like to hear the Virgil?”
Montgomery set down the tiny stainless steel mixing paddle and leaned back in his chair. “I’d love to,” he said.
“Quid noster vadis hocnum,” Walter began. “Septis inculum questis…”
Lewis folded his arms and spent the duration of the performance glaring into a corner of the ceiling. He and Montgomery had completed the required translations too, all fourteen thousand pages, during their P levels. Lewis had been voted third best translator in his generation. They had given him a prize. That was four hundred years ago, but he still remembered every word of it well enough to snort at Walter’s occasional error.
But Montgomery listened rapt and beaming. Yes, the translation was imperfect, but his brother wasn’t even through his M levels yet. It had taken him only seven years to finish it, less than half the average time. And for his N’s, at the request of his professor, Walter would translate the works of Virgil into Sanskrit.
“Bravo, bravo!” said Montgomery, clapping as the performance finished.
Walter wrinkled his nose. “It’s okay, but I still like the Hindus better. Hey, what are you making?”
“It’s an experiment,” Montgomery said. “Don’t touch.”
“Energized tincture of carbon,” said Walter, identifying one vial by its particular rusty hue. “Potassium cilicate, hydrogen carbonate.” He examined the mixture on the plate, deducing the proportions of its contents. He made a quick mental calculation and wrinkled his nose. “Meat tenderizer?”
Montgomery laughed. “Not exactly. But close.”
Lewis, who was sitting on the bed, sighed explosively and fell backwards onto the pillows.
“Widget — sorry, Walter — aren’t you supposed to be deriving the differential calculi or something?”
“I finished,” Walter said. “A cleaning agent?”
“No, it’s not exactly that, either,” said Montgomery.
Lewis sat up again. “Could we just get on with it, please?”
“What’s your hurry?” said Montgomery. “Anyway, it’s my experiment.”
“What experiment?” said Walter.
Lewis hopped to his feet. “Your experiment? It was my idea.”
“Yeah, but I’m the subject.”
“Monty,” said Walter, tugging at his brother’s sleeve. “What experiment?”
“I’m the one publishing it,” Lewis said.
“Publishing. Exactly what are you publishing, Lewis?”
“I’m publishing the study. The… the data.”
“The data,” Montgomery repeated.
“What data?” said Walter.
Lewis waved the child off and strode to the window. Montgomery rose from the chair and followed.
“Yes, Lewis,” said Montgomery. “What data? Temperature drop? Weight loss? Putrefaction?”
“I don’t know!” Lewis burst. “Whatever — whatever happens.”
“You don’t get to know what happens,” Montgomery said. “I’m the one. I’m the one who gets to know. You just get to watch.”
It was night now, and the white towers gleamed in the darkness. Lewis went to the window and stood with his fists behind his back.
“And I can wait a hundred years if I want. And in a hundred years, Walter will be old enough to publish. And then it can be his experiment.”
“Fine,” said Lewis, not turning from the window. “He can stay.”
“Good,” said Montgomery. “That’s nice of you.” He returned to his chair and laced his fingers over his knee again. “Walter? Do you have a question?”
“What is your question?”
“We are conducting an experiment in a form of altered consciousness.”
Walter peered skeptically at the red mixture. “Is that a precursor to ergotamine?”
No, Montgomery explained. Those were psychoactive compounds, and this was something different. This one wasn’t technically psychoactive, because it didn’t act on the brain. At least, not directly. The way the compound acted was. .. did Walter remember when Montgomery fell down the stairs, and got a purple spot on his arm, and SixMother had to take Montgomery to a scientist, because nobody could identify it?
“I remember the purple spot,” said Walter. “Your bz – bzorze.”
“Bruise,” Montgomery corrected.
And the compound did something like that, but a whole-body effect. There was very little data on the phenomenon, and even that was very old, and unreliable. And what they were going to find out was … well … did Walter know how old Montgomery was? That’s right: eight hundred and forty years old. And how old was Walter? Seventy and a half, of course. And Mother? Six thousand and eight. And TwoMother was nine thousand, and so on, up to SixMother, who was in her twenty-five thousands. And how old did Walter suppose Virgil was?
Walter blinked twice, then said, “Thirty thousand, four hundred and sixty-eight.”
At the window, Lewis scoffed and turned to face them. “Four hundred and sixty-seven,” he said.
“Sixty-eight,” said Walter.
“Excuse me,” Lewis said, “but I should know. My great-great-great-great-great grandmother translated the original codex.”
Walter looked at his brother. “Great-great-great-great-great grand?”
“He means his SevenMother,” Montgomery said.
“That’s right,” said Lewis, advancing. “My SevenMother. And where is she now?”
Walter took a step back.
“In her room?”
“Wrong,” said Lewis. “Guess again.”
“In the cafeteria?”
“Wrong again,” said Lewis.
“Lay off,” said Montgomery.
“What do you care?” said Lewis. “You’re the one with the defect. You get to know. I’ll never know.”
“Know what?” said Walter.
“Ha!” A fleck of spittle flew from Lewis’s lip. “Know what! What not know?”
Before Montgomery could act, Lewis had seized the child’s arm and dragged him to the window. “There,” he said, pointing. “What are the specifications of that tower?”
“W-Winchester family residence,” Walter stuttered. “Height, one thousand, six hundred and seventy three meters; circumference three hundred…”
“Super,” said Lewis. “Great. And that one?
“Paloma family residence,” said Walter. “Height one thousand…”
“That’s enough,” said Lewis. “You know them all, right? Of course you do, all four million. And in your Q2’s you’ll learn the building systems and subsystems and the genealogies of every person on the planet. Look: See that star?”
“I can calculate its mass to within four grams.”
“Monty,” said Walter, “will I learn the masses of the stars?”
Montgomery was laying on the bed now, staring at the ceiling. “Yes,” he said dreamily. “In your Q17’s.”
“I can name them,” said Walter.
“Sure you can,” said Lewis. “And one day you’ll know the names to everything. But where is my great — my SevenMother?”
“Would you like me to query the locator?”
Lewis laughed bitterly. “The locator doesn’t have access to that data.”
“Because she’s gone.”
“Then we’ll query the remote locators, too.”
“It won’t work.”
“Because it won’t,” Lewis said. He stared out the window for a moment. “It’s like this: where do you suppose Virgil is?”
“In his room?”
“No. Virgil is gone. Go ahead, query the locators. Query them all.”
Walter thought for a moment, but didn’t submit the query. “Is that what your experiment is? To find your SevenMother?”
“It’s more than that.”
“But for valid data you need thousands of subjects. Not just Monty.”
“No,” said Lewis. “It’ll only work on Monty.”
“Because he has the defect. A recessive gene, plus a vulnerability in one of his macrophages. Anyone else, their nanos would just gobble it up.”
Walter creased his brow, calculating. “That’s improbable,” he said. “Monty, is it true? Monty?” He went to the bed and shook his brother’s foot. “Monty?” He climbed onto the bed. “Look, Lewis,” he said. “Monty’s asleep.”
Lewis came over. Montgomery’s lips were covered bubbles of white spit.
“Monty?” said Walter. “Monty? Monty? Monty? Lewis, why won’t he wake up?”
“He’s not asleep,” said Lewis. “He’s with Virgil.”
Jessica M. Wilson says
What a great story—so good, I had to read it twice!! [redacted] Thanks for reminding me of how cool SF can be.