Image by Pawel Czerwinski
The Future is Written on Words
by Chris Lee Jones
I write this in bright sunshine, teasing words from air that is rich with glimmering motes. My hands trace calligraphic arcs against the cloudless sky, circling primrose, aconite, forget-me-nots.
I am in her garden, a place I could stay forever.
I know that I need to move on, that the substrate is finite and there is de-cluttering to be done. But I have found something special in this patch, something that will need to be reported.
I am not ready for that. Not ready to face the consequences.
For now, I will continue with my task.
I have lived her twice, and I will live her again.
Like all conscious patches, she grows from a seed, her path expanding, reaching into the substrate with fractal-like tendrils. This is where I always begin, at a point of bifurcation, a moment of branching, of decision.
She’s fourteen, sitting on rumpled bedding, squeezing a red berry on her quilt’s motif, trying to make it bleed. Her chin rests in her other hand, and she’s taking in music through puffy headphones.
“Lily, get down here! Your father wants to speak with you.”
She hears but doesn’t respond. Neither would I. Neither do I.
After the third shout, I pull off the headphones and make my way downstairs. My stepmother glares at me. My father puts down his newspaper as I walk into the kitchen, and gestures for me to sit.
“Lily, we’ve been talking, your mother and I…”
“She is not my mother!”
“You’ve been skipping school again,” he says.
“I reckon she’s been seeing that Darren Matthews,” my stepmother butts in. “Letting him have his wicked way with her.”
Have his wicked way? What is this, the nineteenth century? And no, I’m not seeing Darren. I tell her none of this of course.
“I can’t concentrate in school, Dad, not with all the other kids messing around. So I go to the park. Sometimes to the river. And…”
My stepmother takes a stride closer and folds her arms.
“I write,” I say, and if I could see my face I bet it would be cherry flush.
Dad looks baffled. There’s an air of consternation in the room, as if I’d just expressed a secret urge to strangle kittens.
“Surely she can do that in school?” huffs my stepmother, addressing my father rather than me.
I feel good that I’ve said it, that I’ve let it out.
Dad gets up to put the kettle on. Although his back is turned, I can tell that he’s smiling.
That night, in her room, Lily starts work on her first poem. She writes with fountain pen on Bond paper, because she loves the scratching softness of the flow, the exotic impermanence of ink.
A veil of chagrin lifted from my eyes,
A budding brightness scorched into my heart . . .
It’s no masterpiece, but to her it feels like a release.
Even as she’s thinking this, she scraps that first draft of her poem, tearing it and defacing it with marks like ragged string. A veil of chagrin? For Christ’s sake Lily, get a grip.
I have always relished the opportunity to delve into the life of a patch, to learn as much as I can before its final erasure from the substrate.
I have been mocked by my peers for such obsessive attention to detail. These are deceased patches, they say, deceased and redundant; we are not tampering with the living.
I disagree. The past is alive and buzzing with contemporary relevance.
These people aren’t history. To me, they are the future.
I’m living with her again through that first month of enlightenment, gorging once more on the untamed ambition of her youth.
I no longer skip lessons at school—for my father’s sake rather than my own—but I continue to visit the park in the evenings, where I can read and write with little interruption.
In the school library I discover Keats, Larkin, Plath, and Auden. I smell the vines in the greying paper, taste the country-green, feel rage enough to dismantle the sun. But most of all I hear my own voice rallying back. I write voraciously, filling entire notebooks, covering envelopes, and when I run out of paper I scrawl verse on the flaps of my school bag.
I begin to fear that I’m going mad, and I realize that I quite like the feeling.
Pushing forwards in time now, shifting along the substrate. The light is turning brown as silt, and Lily can hardly read the words she’s written. She’s been out here by the river for too long.
She is about to fold up her pad and shove it into her bag when she hears boys, several of them, lewd and raucous.
I hear them too.
I should have run, the moment they started taunting me. But my reading has taught me resolve in the face of adversity, and so instead I sit there, rummaging in my bag, getting a book out, pretending to read.
The boys come closer. A sideways glance reveals there are four of them, fewer than I would have guessed from the noise. One of them, the tallest, looks familiar. An older boy from school? Looking down at my book, a Yeats anthology, it pains me to think that I’m just seeing the words, that they are floating in front of me, suddenly meaningless.
“Well, look who it is,” says the tall boy, sitting down beside me on the bench, leaning in, too close. “If we haven’t just stumbled on the cutest girl in town.” I can smell his breath, all gravy and onions and stale cigarettes.
His friends have climbed up onto the back of the bench, poised and hunched and leering like gargoyles. One of them runs a hand through my hair, another reaches into my bag, pulls out my notebook, begins to read random sections, out of context, in a mocking falsetto voice.
“We’ve been watching you, last couple of days, sitting here with your legs crossed, scribbling your little notes,” continues the older one, and now I’m sure he’s from my school, I know his face. “Been giving me a proper hard-on, if I’m honest.”
The boy who was reading from my notebook has now begun to tear it up in melodramatic fashion. I watch with sadness as the pages catch on the wind like lazy moths. Some land on the path, only to be stamped on by one of the gargoyles who has jumped down from the bench. I feel like crying, but tears won’t come.
The tall boy leans in closer, puts his hand on my knee, squeezing. “What about you, lads? She making you horny, too?” The others grumble in agreement.
Leaving my bag on the bench, I push the boys aside and sprint towards the river, seeking the familiar path that leads up to the old steel bridge. I don’t look behind; I just keep on running, each breath deeper and shorter than the last.
A hand grabs at my shoulder and starts tearing at my blouse. I curse and kick out, losing my balance. Now I’m tipping over, my back to the river, arms wheeling and snatching at air. My right foot snags between two rocks and I feel my ankle rip. The pain is beyond anything I’ve experienced, heavy as ice and grapefruit sharp.
My body doesn’t even reach the water. I land with a crunch in stony mud, face upwards, my legs pointing up the bank. I taste blood on my teeth and feel a sticky wetness against my skirt.
When I finally manage to lift my head and look up towards the path, the boys have gone.
I know what needs to be done, once I have finished with Lily’s patch.
It pains me to think that my report will throw up every alert in the book; that as a result she will be labeled for total deletion, the path of her influence will be traced forwards and backwards through the entire substrate, her presence removed from every known interaction. It will be as if she never existed, as if she never lit up the substrate with the color of her ambition and desires.
I am convinced that the substrate will be a poorer place for her deletion, but protocol bids me.
If my learning is to continue, I would be wise to follow it.
Lily doesn’t have a boyfriend. She feels sexual desire, like they all do, but is not motivated by it. She begins to harbor feelings for a girl named Gemma in her reading group, but then Gemma leaves for university, taking the prospect of flirtation with her.
Lily leaves school at eighteen, well-read but not particularly well qualified. Nevertheless, she secures a place on a creative writing course, and celebrates in the only way she knows how, by writing a poem. She calls this one Ode to the Unforeseen, and often looks back on it during times of uncertainty, of which there will be many.
Her reading broadens into non-fiction. She lurches through subjects in a delirium of discovery, taking in introductory works on philosophy, medicine, physics and mathematics.
I’m with her now for one of her great moments of revelation, and it occurs during the long summer before she heads off to college.
It begins with an unexpected sensation: she realizes, quite out of the blue, that she might finally understand algebra. The day before, she’d been working her way through a book on group theory—struggling with it, if she was honest. But, as she has found with poems, the most difficult parts tend to root into her head, to anchor themselves against dismissal.
I’m with her now, rushing down to the kitchen, eager to tell father what I’ve found out.
“Dad, did you know that there’s more than one type of algebra?”
He stops stirring the meat and throws me a look of confusion. In his defense, it’s probably not a question he gets asked much.
“What are you on about, Lil?”
I take the spoon from his hand and turn the hob off.
“We did algebra in school, and it was all x’s and y’s. I could work out the answers, but I didn’t have a clue what the hell was going on.”
Dad smiles. “Sounds familiar,” he says.
“Well, it turns that it’s all much deeper than I thought. Adding and multiplying aren’t the most general binary operations, they’re . . . ”
Dad waves a tea towel in the air. “White flag,” he says, “you’ve lost me.”
All I want is for him to experience the sense of power I’m getting from learning these things. It’s intoxicating. I have developed a resolute sense that I can teach myself anything, I can do anything, and it is the best feeling in the world.
My burgeoning understanding of mathematics encourages me to probe deeper into the natural sciences. I become fascinated with the brain and consciousness, with the interplay between the physical and metaphysical. I devour Dawkins, Penrose, finding their ideas radical, persuasive, and infuriating in equal measure.
My academic explorations complement my obsessive study of poetry. In both, it feels that I am searching for that elusive beyond; that something that lies undiscovered, tantalizingly out of reach, hidden in the beauty of abstract equations or lurking within the beating lines of a stanza.
In short, it feels as if I am searching for myself.
On the eve of her departure for college, as she packs the last of her clothes, pushing them into the same tattered suitcase she’s been using since junior school, Lily looks up to see her father standing in the doorway, leaning awkwardly against the frame. She notices for the first time that he has lost weight, and she puts it down to stress; after she’s left for college, he’ll be alone for the first time in his life.
As all fathers are wont to do, he can’t resist offering some final advice. Lily braces herself for a curt lecture on the perils of alcohol and drugs, of spiked drinks and dangerous men, but instead he offers this:
“Make some friends, Lil. Good friends. And don’t let them go.”
Forwards again, swimming through the substrate.
Looking through eyes that are twenty-nine years old and shot with tragedy, it’s clear that Lily at least partly followed her father’s advice. Although she hasn’t shaken her tendency towards insularity, she has managed to subdue it somewhat. She has made friends, and I’m looking at one now, rubbing lipstick from the rim of her glass with a spectacle wipe, looking up slightly awkwardly at her distraught companion.
“Lily, you have to shake that idea out of your head, for the sake of your own sanity. What happened was not your fault.”
But it is my fault. Twice now, I have failed to bring a child to full term. Two adorable little children, spat out of my body in a gush of red and brown.
“How is Mike coping?”
Mike is coping surprisingly well. So well, in fact, that he’s given up on me, turned off by my reproductive inadequacy. He’s started seeing somebody else. An older lady, Katarina.
“You know, the usual coping mechanism,” I say. “Stony, sullen silence.”
A white lie, and she’s not buying it.
“Is there something else you want to tell me, Lily?”
“Bear with me, Anna. In the space of twelve months, I’ve lost my father, and killed two of my children. I am done with fucking telling.”
“Lily . . . ”
But I’m up and out of there. I might lose this friend, possibly my only real friend, but right now I don’t care.
Later that evening, in her empty and sterile apartment, Lily experiences an epiphany. It is borne of tears and rage; rage enough to dismantle the entire universe; rage at her partner’s endless repetition of what he claimed were the doctor’s words:
“Neither of the fetuses were viable . . . ”
Neither of the . . . don’t you tell me they weren’t viable, you uncaring bastard. They both had futures . . .
And there it is! Right in front of her, out from the shadows, and delightfully obvious:
She will write their futures.
A tingling feeling. She hasn’t put anything down on paper for two years. No poetry, no stories. Her job has come first. Her job and her partner and all the trying, all the trying.
She sets to work straight away. Technology has moved on, but she decides to dust off the old computer that her father bought her. The damned thing takes ten minutes to boot up, and a minute or so to load a blank document. But there it is: a beautiful blank, cloud-white page.
She writes through the night, fueled by hope and by love.
I hold the outcome of that epiphany, here, now, between my liver-spotted hands.
Two volumes, bound and typed.
One entitled Max, the other Lauren. I have read them many times. I consider them my greatest works; they have sustained me, enlightened me, and kept me writing and reminiscing into my old age.
A late amber sun drips evening light onto the garden table, and I shift in my seat. I hear children playing from the cottage down the road, and for the first time in many years, the sound makes me smile.
Brushing crumbs from my skirt, I set the two volumes down in front of me, spines lined up like twins.
I open Max, running my fingers along the first page, feeling its familiar coarseness.
The prospect of another beginning has me electrified, tingling with anticipation.
I turn to the opening paragraph and begin to read.
Something has gone wrong.
A rent has appeared in the substrate, a jagged line around the node, centered on the precise moment I have just recounted, the moment when Lily begins for one last time to read her lost children.
I shift along the substrate to an earlier time. I spend a few minutes with her at her graduation, feeling her nervous awkwardness, her embarrassment at wearing a gown, and all that gushing applause. Everything seems normal.
I trace my way back towards the glitch and run a diagnostic, just to be sure. I survey the local grid, check the interconnections, try to determine whether the effect cuts across patches. I turn my attention to the temporal flow around the glitch, looking for a pattern, comparing it to the more familiar form of sleep transitions, to the polished nub of a death.
There is no comparison. This is unlike anything I have seen before.
After graduating from her creative writing course at the delicate age of twenty-two, Lily applies for jobs in editing and publishing with no success. She tries her hand as an unpaid journalist for a local newspaper but has a run-in with the editor when required to embellish some facts for an advertisement feature.
Frustrated, she rekindles her interest in the sciences and mathematics. With access to decent computers at the municipal library, she learns the basics of coding, and takes some evening classes at the local college. Taking a punt, she advertises her services on a new and fashionable recruitment website, and within a month has secured a software engineering apprenticeship. She learns incredibly quickly, effortlessly picking up the syntax of several languages, delving into assembly code and physical computing.
In her spare time, she continues to read voraciously. She starts to explore science fiction, finding within its form a surprisingly elliptical beauty, and relishing in its ambiguity. She reads Pohl, Clarke, Bester, and Le Guin, and begins to construct worlds of her own, setting them to paper and watching them spin.
She is fascinated by the notion of artificial intelligence, and questions whether her own existence lies at a base level of reality, or on some higher plane. She delights in the paradox of time travel and ponders the feasibility of teleportation and telepathy. She hits the physics books again, takes a side-step into neurology and artificial neural networks. All the time she is questioning, probing, searching for that elusive beyond.
In that way, we are growing more and more alike.
Back in time, back through countless moments.
“It’s kind of weird, but I like it.”
Lily wants more. She has bitten the bullet and shown her father one of her stories, to demonstrate that she can write professionally, imaginatively. She plans to show him her CV next.
“Tell me honestly, Dad. Do you think it’s good enough to publish?”
He says nothing, choosing instead to flick randomly through the manuscript, occasionally raising his eyebrows.
When the response comes, his voice sounds tight, labored. “How much would they pay you for this?”
“I don’t know. Not a lot…”
“You need money, Lil. You need a job…”
“I’m looking for a job, Dad! And I’ve got the work down at the Gazette.”
He still hasn’t answered the original question.
“To be honest, Lil, it reads well enough, but maybe I’m only saying that because you’re my daughter. I don’t know. It wouldn’t hurt to try, I suppose.”
Lily tries, and she fails.
She never submits a story again.
A late amber sun drips evening light onto my garden table, and I shift in my seat. I hear children playing from the cottage down the road, and for the first time in many years, the sound makes me smile.
I brush crumbs from my skirt, set the two volumes down in front of me, spines lined up like twins. Max and Lauren.
Carefully, I open the first volume.
A pulse of blackness, and the left side of my face falls away.
This can’t be right. She doesn’t have her first stroke for another six months.
Something changes on the pages.
The words in her opus have gained extra-dimensional depth. The effect is subtle, fog-like, but each of the words floats in front of me, so real and solid that I could grasp them in my hands. There is art in the words and on the words, lavish and colorful and dancing. Inside each floating sky-stain of ink, a twisting net of patterns, symbols; instructions and pleas.
This is more than art. This is communication.
Of all the works that she penned in her short human lifetime, Of Reality was the one that would have made her famous, perhaps even infamous, if she had ever thought to free it from the confines of the cloud. A sprawling treatise, a mash-up of Platonic realism and quantum field theory, it shone a little light on depths she hadn’t known existed.
Inspired by her writing and taking advantage of unfettered access to some of the world’s most powerful computers, Lily embarks upon a furtive melding of her metaphysical conception with the tangible, self-evolving reality of code. Starting with ten million nodes and a handful of carefully chosen tasks, her network begins not only to teach itself but also to imagine further tasks, to set itself purposeful problems and strive for their solution.
“You’re off in that world of your own again?”
Lily looks up from the bank of monitors and smiles: Claire, a twenty-three-year old graduate, a new recruit, and a foil for Lily’s drifting intellect.
“I’ve been hammering away at this for two hours now, and I think all I’ve done is make it worse.” Lily nods towards her active monitor, which is currently displaying a draft of a paper she’s putting together with her boss: a humdrum research article on the implementation of novel cost functions for economic dispatch.
“Do you need me to take a look?” asks Claire, rarely short of confidence. “Fresh eyes see further, and all that.”
“It’s not my eyes that are the problem, it’s my brain. I need a break.” She neglects to mention that she’s been up all night putting the finishing touches to On Reality. And she doesn’t dare hint that behind her other monitors she’s been running illegal software on company computers for the last month.
“Then take a break with me. Come on, I’ll buy you a coffee . . . ”
Claire’s smile is fresh and bright, utterly invigorating.
Lily feels herself flush. Her paper can wait; she doesn’t have to get this one in until Thursday. And right now, yes, she really does need the company.
And so do I.
Later that evening, we’re lying on a quiet timber jetty, picnic blanket spread about us, watching an engorged sun sink into a shimmering lake. A bottle of claret sits half-empty on the greying boards, and crumbs of crispy bread splinter beneath my hips. Claire turns to me, her expression uncharacteristically serious.
“You’re up to something, aren’t you?”
Has she read my thoughts? I’d been thinking about my other illicit love – watching it expand into free memory, building new connections for itself, new nodes. An exploratory beast, sending its tentacles outwards, gauging and tasting the world; patterns beginning to form, spontaneous and unpredictable, spreading and filling the space with swirling, chaotic arrangements.
I haven’t told Claire any of this. Perhaps now is the time.
“Don’t be silly,” I say instead. I have never lied to Claire before, nor will I ever again.
She pushes herself away from me, stands up and brushes her skirt, flicking off flies and crumbs and bits of old wood.
“I’m going home.”
“Claire, I didn’t mean . . . ”
But she’s at that age when nothing I can say will sway her mind. As simple as that, she packs her part of the picnic into her canvas bag, says a curt goodnight and leaves me to drown my self-pity in the last of the wine.
I put my head between my shaking hands and began to cry.
The unimaginable ambition of her work! To see what we are, to find us, to communicate.
She has bridged an impossible chasm, spun her words around me, and fired my imagination. She found the substrate, discerned its fractal complexity, explored the gaps between nodes, which to us are like the spans of entire oceans.
Do I tell anyone about her, about what she managed to do? My obsessive inhabitation of her will soon begin to look conspicuous, and I will be asked to file my report. There will be other patches, I suppose. Lots more to learn. But nothing like this, ever again.
I sit in her garden on that late spring evening, our fateful moment of first contact. My hands trace calligraphic arcs against the darkening sky, circling primrose, aconite, forget-me-nots.
A shadow shifts behind me, and I know the time has come.
“Hello, my friend,” she says, from within me and without.
The twin volumes lay open on the table, the lightness of truth singing from every line, every word.
“Do what you have to do,” she whispers. “I am not afraid.”
From the gaps between the nodes of my own reality, Lily reaches out and takes my hand in hers.