Everywhere After All
by Brian Trent
|part 2 of 3|
“Leet, have you ever heard of All?”
It was the next morning, and the ocean was breezy and chill. Leet had his own table in the dining concourse, and Rita spoke to him through an earpiece one of her limbs had given him. This way he was in direct communication with the “main” Rita. Her other selves moved about as ship staff, tending to the many guests. When a waiter came by to refill Leet’s glass of water, the waiter gave a knowing wink.
Leet swallowed down a raw oyster breakfast and smacked his salty lips. “Sure. Some megalomaniac out of England or Scotland or something.”
“Is it megalomania?” Rita asked in his earpiece.
He shrugged, slurping another oyster. “The purpose of the Diaspora is to enhance ourselves. Not become one gestalt organism. I mean, what’s the point of improving yourself as an individual if you’re just going to lose yourself into one hyper-mind?”
A pleasant-looking trio of blonde women seated themselves at a nearby table. Leet flashed a smile at them.
Rita hesitated. A waiter came over to the blonde trio, and also hesitated. Leet wondered if all of Rita’s “limbs” were actually tuned in to his conversation with the mothership.
“Why do we learn anything at all?” Rita asked. “Isn’t it to improve not just ourselves, but the entire species?”
“Sure. But you’re not talking species. One Jupiter-brain gestalt is not a race of sentient beings. It’s an overlord into which everyone gets reduced as pockets of impulse and memory. Hell with that. I like having my own mind.”
He was speaking subvocally, his sotto voce vibrations carrying instantly through an implanted microphone in the roof of his mouth.
“Aren’t you being selfish?”
”How old are you, Leet?”
“And how many limbs do you have?”
“I kind of bristle at that description, Rita. I don’t think of my other selves as limbs. They’re like a circle of friends, living comfortably all over the world. When we meet, we share and move on.”
“That’s selfish,” she repeated. “It’s like having a coven of painters who carefully construct masterpieces on canvas, and then only show those masterpieces to each other.”
Leet was unused to the fervent undercurrent in her voice. Rita could be forthright, confident, even stubborn, but she had never exhibited the kind of proselytizing he was hearing now. She was trying to downplay it, disguise it, but it was there and Leet felt a cold prickle walking his spine.
“I do share some of my memories with other codeworms,” he said. “But that’s my choice, Rita. And I remain me.”
“Am I less an individual in my current state?”
Leet glanced around the concourse, spotting the ship staff and again wondering if they were all tuned in. Bartenders stirred drinks, greeters escorted couples to tables, cooks played with fire in the center of the room.
“Rita, if the cook there decided he wanted to disembark in Crete and become a pearl diver, would you let him?”
“I don’t like pearl-diving.”
“But maybe that version of you does. Maybe he read a book in his own cabin about the sea, and decided he wants to see it from below the horizon line. Maybe one of the passengers shared her story about how wonderful pearl diving is, and this story stimulated his imagination and got him thinking about doing something else with his life.”
Rita laughed coldly. “What would be the point of that, if everyone in the world were already part of All?”
Leet froze, the last oyster a centimeter from his lips.
The entire concourse was looking at him.
Cooks had stopped in mid-preparation, greeters leered in from the entrance, and every passenger — even the trio of blondes — stared at him.
He staggered to his feet, heart wild with terror. “Rita...”
“Just relax, Leet,” she said.
The silence of the concourse was devastating. Not a single murmur of someone’s voice or clink of a fork against a plate. No one blinked. Cold sweat broke out like wildfires all over his body.
“Leet,” Rita said, “You don’t understand. Frankly, you’re being very limited about all this. Evolution is the real issue here. It’s what’s at stake.”
That did it. It wasn’t just her words, but the unveiled mania in her voice, that drove Leet to bolt across the silent room for the deck rail.
He was passing an old man when he heard him shout, “Squid leave ink-clouds in their wake when they run away, Leet!”
Leet stopped, placing one shaky hand on the deck rail. The blue ocean looked like the safest place in the world right now. “Ex... excuse me?”
The old man held out his hands non-threateningly. The other cruise passengers slowly returned to their business, shooting him bemused expressions from time to time.
There’s only one other person on this ship, Leet thought, and yet I’m vastly outnumbered.
“Leet, it’s me,” the old man said. “Or more specifically, you. One of your other selves, you know?”
Leet glanced around to make sure no one was in striking distance. His hands twitched on the brass rail, which was cool and sticky to his touch. He glared at the old guy. “Prove it.”
“We shook hands in St. Petersburg about thirty-three years ago. I was working for an ad agency. I called myself Andre. At that time you were working as a part-time travel writer and full-time bohemian.”
Leet remembered. The guy he shook hands with wasn’t this elderly shell, but a red-haired, green-eyed fellow. But circumstances often forced a shell-change.
“Am I talking to myself, or to Rita?” Leet asked.
“Both,” the man said. “I first came on board about ten years ago, and met Rita and All. We had a six-day conversation about merging. I decided to try it.”
“I can think of plenty of reasons.”
The old man laughed softly and shook his head. The lines on his face wrinkled into a cheerful expression. “I’m still me in here! Your problem is that despite all your experiences, you continue to focus on the shell. What is the shell? Just a substrate for storage! In this body I’m you, Rita, and All. Right now.”
Leet felt he was going to pass out. The world seemed to swing in a wild carousel behind his head. “All?”
“Yes. It’s sort of like having three people at one microphone. All is speaking to you now. Your other self has stepped back from the mike, but is still there watching and listening. So is Rita.”
“Stepped back voluntarily, or was dragged away by digital goons?”
“You keep thinking this is a prison, Leet. It isn’t, no more than this ship or world is. We share such places together. We transfer out, have access to everyone within reach who has opened themselves up to this. All is right. It is evolution.”
Who was speaking now? Rita, All, or himself?
As if reading his thoughts — a most unpleasant concept given the circumstances — the old man said, “Would it be more helpful if I changed voices to indicate who you were speaking to? It’s such a superficial trick, but maybe it would be easier for you?”
Leet considered this. His hand was aching where it gripped the rail. “Sure. I’d like to hear All’s true voice.”
The old man shook his head, and when he spoke again it was in a honeyed baritone. “Here. This is the voice I was born with. But what difference does it make if I’m an Irish tenor or raspy lounge singer? Everyone on this ship is their own being. But we are also part of everyone else.
“You asked Rita about the cook deciding to be a pearl-diver. Yes, the cook could easily decide to do that. Any consciousnesses existing within the cook’s body who didn’t want to could just transfer to another willing body. The cook would then go ahead and become a pearl diver. Live his own life.”
Leet felt his heart slowing. He was no less terrified, but felt confident enough now that he could jump overboard without interference if need be. Despite the pain, he gripped the rail tighter than before. “Okay...”
“Any time the cook and his wife want to travel, they need only upload into All. All of us. They could be anywhere on the planet. More to the point, they would never really be cut off from the planet. They would be anywhere, everywhere.”
“What of the people who reject this? What of those who refuse to be part of this... this organic Internet?”
The old shell shrugged. “Their choice. This is voluntary evolution. People join for the benefits and immortality.”
“You don’t kill the ones who want to keep their individuality?”
Leet felt a new surge of adrenaline rock him. That wasn’t the answer he had expected.
Before he could say anything, the old shell went on: “Do you go out of your way to kill a bee? Or do you only swat it if it’s trying to sting you? There are certain people who want to destroy all codeworms.”
“A few corporations,” Leet said.
“No. The U.N. Congress decided to seize control of all shell manufacturers yesterday.”
Leet’s mouth hung open. “They... no.”
“Read the news. It didn’t make top headlines yet, not with all the drama over that actress, and the senator’s scandal. But a law was rammed through yesterday allowing the U.N. to take ‘temporary control of shell facilities for the tracking of criminal activities’.”
The old man’s voice changed with these last words, enacting a sound-byte of someone else’s voice. Leet matched the vocal pattern to Senator Mezzo, a longtime opponent of codeworms and one of the people chiefly responsible for throwing a lifeline to Vector Nanonics in their time of trouble.
A gusting breeze blew against him with rough hands. Leet turned his head seaward. As a child, the sea had fascinated him. Divergent sea creatures sharing the same medium. He was reminded yet again that if not for his father’s attic, he would likely have pursued marine biology.
Or pearl diving. A giddy, desperate laugh welled up inside him and escaped his lips like the squeal of a condemned man.
Of course, land animals also shared the medium called air. But liquid was more intimate, somehow. Maybe it was an atavistic affection for where life had begun. He recalled his fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Ciotto, tapping her finger against a book and saying, “Think of it this way. The ocean was too crowded, so moving onto land provided new opportunities for early life.”
Leet looked back to the old man. The breeze came again, definitely storm winds.
“I’ll think it over,” he said and then jumped overboard.
Copyright © 2010 by Brian Trent