Bewildering Stories

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The Wheel, Reinvented

by Jonathan Laden

2024 : The Year of Our Lord

Gregory hated this part of the job. He turned his hips, his back cracking painfully from bottom to top. He was too old to sit in one of those uncomfortable chairs like the 20-year old students all around him. Especially for a biology lecture. He had become a professor of molecular engineering because he hated the messy processes of biological systems, for Gate’s sake.

The school had brought in some young hotshot to head the department, leapfrogging Gregory’s claim as the most senior professor. The new guy had insisted that all his teachers must sit in on classes from other fields of science. “Cross-pollination of ideas is an essential part of what makes a University great,” he had said. Or some similar garbage. And here Gregory sat in the back of a dingy biology classroom, instead of in the clean room of his lab.

He looked around the room. There were many more young women here than in the engineering classes he taught. Maybe just for the courses that met distribution requirements. The woman to his left doodled on her notepad, evidently as bored by biology as he was. She had come prepared: five different colored pens lay in a row at the top of her desk.

If only he’d thought to bring his printouts, he too could be making some minor use of this time. The damnable part is he was running up against a brick wall. He could get the machines small enough to specifications, but could not force them to do their work and replicate consistently. It took too long a sequence of ones and zeros to instruct the machines to do their complex task. Such excessive length inevitably led to instability.

The attached desk rubbed against his gut, stifling his supply of air. His sole source of funding for his position was in jeopardy, and yet he was stuck in this classroom! His department head was stifling his source of funding on purpose, Gregory was sure of it.

The woman leaned back to admire her work. Gregory peered at the notepad. She had sketched the entire classroom faithfully. Except that tri colored butterflies emerged from cocoons on each seat where a student should have been. “It is quite lovely,” he said louder than he had intended. Several heads turned his way. Including the young professor’s.

”Professor Smithson!” Gregory was reminded of his days at the back of the class in grade school.

But this was different. He was decades older than this young self-important biologist for one thing. “Yes.”

”I must ask that if you intend to sit in on my lecture that you do not distract my students.” The attractive young woman to Gregory’s left tittered.

Yes, it was just like grade school. Gregory crossed his arms. “By all means. Carry on.”

”The four purine and pyrimidine bases make up all of DNA. It is, you might say,” Hoary glared at him briefly, “The machine code of all living organisms.”

Gregory crossed his arms. “It’s not the same at all. Machine language uses just two states.”

”A cosmetic difference.” His attention diverted by boys passing notes on the other side of the room, Hoary lost interest in whatever point he might have been trying to make at Gregory’s expense.

The girl smiled at Gregory. He almost imagined she was attracted to him. More likely she was an art major who was glad to have some appreciation for what she did best. She leaned forward and diligently sketched a strand of DNA interweaving the helix in an intricate pattern into the wings of a large butterfly. It was amazing to see how long a strand she could fit into the space. She made a dot for each base, though she used all five pens - not limiting herself to four as would have been more appropriate. The wings veritably exploded with dots of different colors. That girl needed to get out of this wasted class, and into an art studio where she belonged. Gregory glanced at his watch.

Then stared back at the drawing. Did machine language need to use just two states? A four-letter alphabet could provide so much greater density of information, or even five. Nature’s mechanism for replication worked amazingly well. Why reinvent the wheel?

Squeezing free of the desk, Gregory snatched the butterfly.


”I must have this. It is the answer.” He hurried to the door, ignoring Hoary’s cry of protest. He must get to his lab.

16,342 Rotation of the Holy Holiest

Blopritz adjusted his aural capacitance, his ears telescoping to seven times normal size. He must have misheard. “Do you mean to say that we weren’t created? He projected his eye forth and set it to rotating slowly. “Do you not see the intricate interaction of camera eye, lens, and millions of light receptor cells? How could any of these mechanisms come about except all of a piece? Even now, we can not build anything nearly so sophisticated. Only the Holy Holiest could have made such as we.”

Yurvint raised his voice fourteen octaves in response. He floated up above the table. “You’re wrong.” Steam rose from the top of his skull. The boy always had been a hothead. “Our development was all the result of random mutations to our replicode over the course of untold numbers of rotations. And the selection pressures that led to the most fit winning even a slight edge over the others in the race to replicate.”

”Where did you come up with such a crazy notion?”

”My teacher, Torkid.”

Blopritz turned his eyestalks to look out the window at the waves lapping against the shore. The plants waved in the breeze, the rust color showing they were almost ripe for harvest. He had worked damned hard to provide his son this spectacular view. And the education to become so thoroughly misguided. He would see to it that this Torkid was not allowed to pollute vulnerable minds again. For the veneration of the Holiest. “If you have actually been attending your classes, you must know our replicode is phenomenally stable. It takes millions of iterations for a single mutation.”

Yurvint nodded, his head bumping against the ceramic ceiling of their home. “Even so, Father.”

Blopritz re-compacted his ears. He could not believe what he was hearing, but wave-recognition was not the flaw. It arose directly in the head of his son. “Impossible. How do you propose that life began then? Did a whole bunch of atoms just slam together and decide to recreate themself? Using six different silico-acids? Stumbling upon the process of electrosynthesis? For such a thing to occur is just about infinitely improbable.”

Yurvint’s voice subsumed back into the normal range. “Yes, Father. Over the course of five billions of years across zillions of pools of primordial muck it must have happened. Self-replicating silicon life began.” The boy collected the liquid runoff from his metal head and re ingested it. At least he had learned his manners at that fancy school, if nothing else. “And here we are.”

* * *

Blopritz resisted the urge to float out of the ceramic learning station in Yurvint’s classroom. He had worked long hard rotations to earn a life of luxury for himself and his family. Starting in the communications post, he had struggled his way up rung by rung to the top of the corporate hierarchy. As a result he could provide the best education possible to his son at this University, where most of his business rivals had attended. Yet here he was, crammed into the station in his son’s class, craving the simple indulgence of sufficient space to fit his limbs comfortably. Meanwhile the details of the merger with Megaplex lay fallow upon his desk at work. If the need to protect his son weren’t so urgent, he would have gladly skipped parents’ day at the school.

Projecting his eyestalks, he glanced at Yurvint, in the next station over. The boy leaned forward, taking notes copiously on his electrotab, not even noticing the attractive young woman who kept glancing at him. Blopritz’s eye met hers and he winked. She could, after all, be his future daughter-in-law. Quickly, she withdrew her eyes back to her station. She kept her eyes trained straight forwards afterwards, her stalks only occasionally twitching in Yurvint’s direction.

Yurvint’s single-minded dedication reminded Blopritz of his own efforts to build his career. It made him proud, he admitted. But, by the Holiest of Holies, the things this Torkid taught! No father could sit silently and watch his son put such earnest effort into such “Rubbish!” Blopritz hadn’t meant to speak aloud. Though once he had, the relief - and a plume of steam - flooded out of him. “You know better. Do you expect us to believe that life spontaneously emerged?”

The professor shook his head. “Our protocol is to send a signal through the tab when you have a contribution. For a parent, I will forgive the interruption.” Several students in nearby stations dilated their voice projectors in paroxysms of laughter. “Getting to your point. Yes the random forces of nature are, in themselves, sufficient. The first reproducing molecules were undoubtedly simple silicates. It was only billions of rotations later that cumulative selection led to the replicode we know as the instructions for all life.”

Yurvint turned to him with a smile. “See Dad? The Holy of Holiest is not needed to explain any of this.” The girl dilated her eyes in shock at this pronouncement, then turned her eyestalks firmly away. She would not be Blopritz’ daughter-in-law after all.

The Holy of Holiest not needed? Yurvint would surely spend the afterlife as a slab of obsidian if he continued to believe that. The Holy of Holiest may not seem necessary to Yurvint anymore, but he was certainly not merciful.

Something must be done to save his son. If it wasn’t already too late.

* * *

Torkid slammed the Chief Administrator’s door behind him. He floated away in a cloud of steam large enough to obscure his view of the campus below. Which was well enough; he didn’t wish to see that traitorous institution anymore. Not ever again.

He came to rest in a stand of trees by the outskirts of town. As he sat, silently staring at the striations on the trunk, Torkid came to some level of acceptance of the Administrator’s action. Yurvint’s father hadn’t been the first parent to complain about the “blasphemies” he taught, after all. Too many high-powered parents wanted their children to be stamped as educated, not encouraged to think. Certainly not allowed to think beyond the narrow confines of the holy doctrine. The University might be prepared to deliver what Blopritz wanted, but Torkid would not. Not in his class. He wouldn’t stoop so low even to retain his tenure.

Torkid tied his eyes in a loose knot. There’d be no more stooping for him whatsoever, now that he’d been relieved of his duties. Torkid had always been an academic. There was nothing else he wanted to do. The trees rustled. He hastily untied his eyes, before being caught in such an improper pleasure.

Yurvint burst through the leaves. “I’ve been looking all over for you. It’s just as you said. Read this!” The boy held up one of the junk journals from the food market checkout stands. Torkid raised an eye and cleared his air passage to admonish him for polluting his fine mind.

But before he could say a word, the promo blasted: “Monsters of the past! Discovered in their ancient burial grounds.” Some fanciful illustration of a large being with eyes the size of most men’s faces danced across the journal’s front.

”Could it be?” Torkid had nothing to lose by trying to find out.

16,344 Rotation of the Holy Holiest

Torkid had grown tired of re-ingesting. Yet he could not help but emit vapor under the heat of the waning desert sun on his metal exoskeleton. After six long weeks, the dig ended tonight. And they had found nothing. Leaning on his shovel, he projected an eyestalk and glanced across the pit at his companion. Yurvint lifted a spade full of dirt and waved it.

Torkid could almost taste the meal of silica leaves in oil that awaited them. He should have already called Yurvint to retreat into the shade of the tent to eat and rest. But the young man’s efforts had not flagged even after all the long hours. And Torkid did not wish to face the end of his hopes any sooner than he must.

He dug into the dirt, his ears drooping with the effort. It was no good. There was nothing. He strained to turn and deposit the load up out of the pit. It was over. He walked slowly to Yurvint’s side. “Let’s go in before you pop a gasket.”

”I’m not quite done yet.” But even the young man dug slowly, with obvious effort.

Torkid watched him. “You were to be an engineer not an archaeologist Yurvint. Why ever did you accompany me on this dig?”

Yurvint bowed his head. His thin trail of steam glowed orange and red in the reflections of the sun setting behind him. “It was my Father’s complaint that cost you your position at the University. I can never forgive myself for that.” He turned and dug into the dirt with a vicious energy. “Here I thought I might help find the ancestors that would prove your theory.”

”Your Father’s complaint was only one of many.” Torkid dropped his shovel. “Never apologize for your enthusiasm.” The boy made no response to his advice.

Yurvint flung a shovelful of dirt out of the pit. “The dig ends tonight and we’ve found nothing.” Yurvint lowered his voice to a low rumble. “We must continue.” He attacked the dirt.

Torkid raised his own voice several octaves to compensate. “No. We must stop. I may be cast out, but you have your entire career in front of you. Achieve great things, Yurvint. That is what you must do for me.” He looked all around him. “Wallowing with me here in the muck serves neither of us.”

Yurvint nodded, his eyestalks waving in his sincerity. “Just a few more moments. Then I’ll be ready to go in.”

Torkid stood by in silence. Did his electromagnetic sensors detect something? Perhaps, a skeleton lurked underneath the millennia of accumulated sand. It could be the linchpin he needed to establish his theory of selective progression, and salvage his reputation. Or perhaps it was just the last shimmering ray of hope, overwhelming the sensitivities of his systems.

The chill descended, quickly working its way into his joints. “Yurvint. You must stop now.” Yurvint nodded, his head bowed. Torkid took one last look at the pit the young man had dug. As if by the finger of the Holy Holiest Itself, a straggling ray of light illuminated the farthest reaches of the excavation. Something gleamed. Metal!

And where there’s metal, there’s life.

* * *

Torkid floated into the University laboratory before dawn. Yurvint and his discovery had been admitted to the hallowed halls with no fuss, but to bring back an expelled professor took untold unraveling of red tape. Even so, Torkid’s status was only probationary. But at least he could finally come and see the fossil.

The only technician present nodded sleepily and returned to calibrating her machines. Torkid extended an eyestalk and peeked under the tarp. The University team had done a remarkable restoration. Amazingly, the being’s massive, poorly-structured brain was intact. He looked at the monstrosity in consternation. Physically it was dominated by a massive screen. There seemed no method of locomotion, and extremely limited sensory input. How had this thing survived, even against primitive competition? Perhaps its size had been protection enough.

It had only two states, instead of the six that determined the replicode of all known life. This fit Firtz’s arch theory that something more probable, like simple silicas had first formed in the primordial ooze. Yet this structure seemed inherently less likely to form than even current replicode. In fact, there was no discernible mechanism of reproduction whatsoever. This was clearly a progressionary dead end, not the proof he had sought. Its existence might even spell the death of the entire theory.

He turned to the technician. “How soon until he can be powered?”

She telescoped her ears. “It’s been ready for days. The team leader’s just cautious.”

”Let’s turn him on then.”

She hesitated, sending her eyestalks rotating in opposite directions to check around the room. “Why not?” With new energy, she moved about the room, flipping switches and rotating dials.

Torkid stood at its side. Energy coursed through the thing’s veins, but there was no spark, no anima. Only strange symbols flowing across the screen. In fact, three of the same symbols that were ingrained in the monster’s face. Torkid traced the contours of the meaningless “I”, then “B”, then “M.”

Perhaps the Holy Holiest had designed this being to convey his messages in its godly language. Perhaps it was a piece of art made by an ancestor society. In any case, this thing did not provide support for the theory of progression. Torkid released a great burst of steam.

He would be exiled to teaching simple maths to children.

16,459 Rotation of the Holy Holiest

Yurvint adjusted his limbs, hoping to ease the pain in his joints. To no avail. He was old. Very old.

If he could but finish this final bit of engineering he would cease to function in perfect satisfaction. But not until. He had been driven by the vision for forty rotations now, so much so that he could almost taste it.

It would work. He knew it must. The thought of all the benefits was almost too much to bear. For health, engineering, who knew, maybe even interstellar travel. In honor of his first mentor, he had named them Torkidites.

The trick was in finding the right material to build with. After more than a decade’s struggle with germanium, and several rotations more with aluminum, he had finally found the right basis for his self-replicating machines. It had been so clear, that he wondered if senescence kept him from seeing it earlier. For stability and flexibility, it had to be carbon.

It was just a matter of time before he found a coding sequence that would allow him to make the Torkidites replicate reliably.

Copyright © 2003 by Jonathan Laden