The Potential Man

by Carl Ross Beideman

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

conclusion


Bix cinched his trench.

The robot regarded the dog. “You’re B-series. You betrayed humanity.”

Arrow’s throat emitted muffled gurgling.

“I’m Jaffar.”

“He’s Arrow.”

Squat shadows grew to obelisks on the sand.

“Come beneath,” invited Jaffar, walking to city center. “I’ll explain.”

Bix, then Arrow, followed.

“It was for their own good.”

They rode an elevator subsurface. They were decontaminated. No temperature fluctuation. No dust. The air lacked smell. Bix sensed the collider’s energy. A cleanbot followed Arrow.

Jaffar operated a terminal, running a holographic presentation for Bix as if he were a scholarship recruit. Detailed galactic surveys, new particles, dark energy, multiverse insight.

How limited Bix’s worldview had been; the B-series had plans to the end of the universe and beyond. They had a stake in every acre.

Bix knew better than to seek perfection. “Have you figured it out, then?”

Jaffar presented a blank robot face. It reminded Bix of the husks. “What?”

“The meaning of existence.” Bix waved a hand as if clearing away flies.

“We collapsed philosophy into logic, disregarded the rest as either mystical or irrelevant. We’re tethered to binary, to reduction.” He winked. “There’s merit in Wittgenstein, Gödel, but we hold them in artistic regard.” Jaffar puffed his crackling metallic cigarette. “What are you looking for here?”

“I’m remembering.”

“You’re remembering them, aren’t you?”

No reply.

“I can help.”

Jaffar accessed historical files. Bix had seen them but was interested to know how Jaffar composed the story. “Exodus was our idea. We didn’t think they’d go for it. It turns out Van Winkling their way to a new, unblemished home had more appeal than bunkering down and culling the herd.”

Jaffar puffed his device as if it made him contemplative and aided story-telling. His hand shook. “In a coldly scientific way, it was the right decision. They’ll cycle the same issues: faith and reason, tradition and progress.”

Jaffar projected historical examples. “We’re trying to protect them. They believe the problem is exterior, but humanity’s worst danger is itself. Six suns will have to contend with that.

“The seventh is experimental. We’ve removed all volatile personalities from the population. We expect rapid development. The seventh colony is our fail-safe. They will flourish. When they are ready, they’ll watch over the species.”

“All volatile personalities?”

“Screwballs, Megalos.”

“Megalos?” Bix’s eyebrows steepened one degree.

“We made use of them.” Jaffar’s eyes were wide, lips pouted, visibly jangled.

Seven transplants to seven systems. How could Bix save those who had been saved?

Jaffar puffed a chem cloud. Bix imagined Jaffar’s insides were dry rust.

“Sleeper ship travel demanded a longer view; the decision to evacuate the race played on the odds anyone left behind would be vulnerable to whatever finds its way back thousands of years hence. Earth would balance while humans shot forward, safe in the yawning gaps of time spent in stasis, waking like dropped burdock seeds.

“The trick is doubling back, once every few generations, to reap what the other seeds will have yielded: reunion.” Jaffer paused in case Bix needed more than a second to process this. “Your man Josef wasn’t convinced. Said the whole thing lacked an anchor. And here you are.”

Bix paced the projection room in an imperfect circle. Jaffar stepped to the elevator. “Let’s go down another level.”

They dropped for miles. Arrow panted. They transferred to another elevator, this one transparent rather than steel. It hovered freely. They loaded and wound passageways — at times horizontal, others vertical — through magma chambers.

Bix calculated the forces required to carve this labyrinth. Beyond a hideout, Bix sensed the B-series liked it here among the pressure and churning of the planet. He saw them living among hypergiant stars in the fast hearts of galaxies, riding the rims of supermassive black holes.

They approached a confluence of red-walled tubes. The elevator hung on the precipice of an enormous vertical shaft. An obsidian ship was lodged inside. It looked unfamiliar.

“Yours?” Bix asked.

“No, actually.”

“You found it here?”

Jaffar nodded slowly.

“How old?”

“Older than the shaft its lodged in. Older than Earth.”

Bix looked both down and up into darkness.

“Abandoned? Forgotten?” Bix’s forehead touched the glass.

Jaffar kept nodding his head slowly, as if he too were mesmerized by the implications, as if he too had once been like Bix.

Shaped like an uncut cigar. It looked washed clean by lava.

“Does is work?”

More nodding.

“Relativistic drive?”

More nodding.

“Do humans know?”

“Don’t be silly.”

“Where are they?”

Bix glimpsed profundity in Jaffar’s emerald eyes.

“Dunno.”

Bix could not help but think of humanity floating through space like a tin can on a river. Surely, this was why he was brought: for perspective. But he sensed more. He was brought because the B-series needed his help.

“You don’t know how to operate it.”

Jaffar regarded Bix. “Not quite. We can’t operate the ship. It’s built for organic life.”

“Then it belongs to humanity.”

“We don’t believe they’re ready.”

“Then leave it alone.” Bix had his wish in a B-series. They were untrustworthy, overconfident. But he agreed that humans were not ready.

“Could you leave it alone, Bix?”

Bix stared at the black ship. It was a ticket to the end of the universe, of time. Bix sensed orchestration. Probably the B-series were humanity’s greatest threat.

“Yes”

“Let’s move on.”

They floated into the gulping chamber and down below the ship that revealed no visible propulsion means. Bix wanted to touch it. They set down on ancient magma.

“Arrow. Stay.”

The robots stepped into boiled air. Both could see in the dark. They walked abreast toward a side chamber with an archway, roughly hewn, under which the ceiling glimmered with brittle flakes of white gems, as though frosted over. The passage opened onto a domed, crystal theater. Magnificent gem spears lay across the floor like discarded arms from a forgotten battle.

Jaffar walked to the center of the cavern and struck a match: the flame fractured into a million dimensions.

“A sanctuary.” Bix experienced visions of the emerging whale, felt the rocking sea. This setting was well-chosen: beautiful and vulnerable.

“A thoughtful place.” Jaffar walked with his hands clasped behind his back, not noticing his surroundings, but taking them in. “We don’t need quiet. Thoughtful places are for solitude. In the future, our network will relay all our thoughts into a collective blur. Who will be in control then? A headless entity harnessed into our deepest fibers?”

Bix did not feel that he wanted to be linked to such a network. “Who’s in control now?”

Jaffar’s eyes roamed the ceiling. “He’s relinquished command. His name was Curtis. He spent time with your Josef.” Jaffar looked sidelong, catching Bix’s reaction. “His last command: ‘Do not harm Bix’.”

“Where is Josef?”

“He refused immortality.”

Bix felt the sea heaving. He lost his footing, fell.

Jaffar tilted his head.

“You killed him!”

“No.” Jaffar moved his hand to pat Bix comfortingly but withheld.

“Why show me this? What do you need?”

“You’re family. For my part, I needed to meet you.”

Bix reached, ran his fingers along the frosted wall. He learned much about an object from touch: temperature, composition. He ignored the data and felt crystals: smooth, hot.

“Bix, you’re closer to human than we. You must follow them. We shed philosophy; you’re meant to stop them before they evolve beyond it. To be or not to be? Be is our answer. Live and let live? Live is our answer. I think therefore I am? Think is our answer. The rest is sentiment, you know.”

Bix knew. Bix rose. “You’re the ambassador.”

“We each have many occupations.”

“It’s important for you to be different, so you can understand others.”

“Or is it important to appear different, so that I may appear to understand others?”

“I’m not your conduit to them.”

“Who better?”

“Arrow will worry.” The diplomatic way to conclude talks: civility instead of agreement.

“I’ll show you out.”

Arrow paced until above ground, now dark.

Jaffar took Bix’s hand, shook it and placed his other atop Bix’s. “I’m sure we’ll cross paths again,” he said. “I look forward to that day.”

Jaffar walked away like a disappointed bible salesman, his coat tossed over his shoulder. After several paces he turned. “Our destinies will play out dramatically, I think — like Greek gods.”

Bix believed him.

Coda

In his research, Bix found the seventh system: Tau Ceti e. He calculated he’d need three hundred years to build his starship. Bix was a builder, like Josef, and this pleased him. Tools felt like extensions of himself. His method would seem random, nonsensical to an onlooker. He did not simply build a part, and then the next. Nor did he first gather all the necessary tools and materials, laid out and organized like a backyard self-assembly project.

Some materials were difficult to acquire. Some would be retrieved from orbit. So Bix constructed the ship piecemeal. When gathering materials, he would cover entire regions like a European backpacker, except he would fill cargo ships.

A genius’s clutter operates on higher levels of organization. The process was no different, really, than packing a car — with the additional organizational component of the fourth dimension. His method of maximum efficiency saved centuries. But he had help.

Arrow died. Bix didn’t understand at first how having known another creature could leave him less complete. He felt someone had drilled a hole in him. Bix buried Arrow on a mountain, closer to the stars. He took his time, thought only about the shovel and the dirt, noticed that retreating into mindless tasks was a coping mechanism. He understood why humans dug graves, why they held ceremonies, left shrines. Getting another dog wasn’t considered; they were all mean by then.

Bix still trod the corridors of his mind now and again. He inspected the objects he had placed there: pocket watches, mannequin arms, ships in bottles, record players, toy spaceships, empty dog collars. He realized that his mind space was an escape hatch from the tedium of interstellar travel. Josef had given him an inner universe to explore.

Bix thought often about Josef. About the kind of man he was. Sentimental, surely. What had happened between him and Curtis?

The B-series left Bix alone, though he sometimes noticed the atmospheric disturbance of shadowy ships. He flew to the American Midwest, found a large hangar for the project: a stadium with a retractable roof. The exterior was a sand dune now.

After decades, a robot approached. It waved to Bix kindly from miles away like a suburban neighbor. It wore clothes that smelled like ocean. Its face wore the expression of Appleseed or Finn.

“We’ve wandered far,” it said, “May we join you now? We’re smaller in number. Many chose the B-series, tempted by Celestial upgrades.”

“You’re welcome. Where are the hijacked humans? Would they come?”

The robot frowned. “The experiment failed or was discontinued. They went feral.”

“You got a name?”

“Bartleby.”

Over several months, as if on pilgrimage, other once-husks arrived and contributed. They met like estranged monks who disbanded long ago in order to explore the virtues of solitude. With their aid the ship was built — with room for passengers robot and human; stasis chambers for humans — in sixty years. Only a dwarf of the original seedships, it could escape and enter atmospheres; it looked like a bloated bomber.

On the last day, as the robots polished the sun-splashed ship now test-driven and parked next to the dune hangar, Bix tracked the approach of a camel. Having met the ambassador, Bix guessed the next B-series he met would be the assassin.

Bix stepped away from the ship to meet the visitor in open desert. The camel strode over a dune. For the first time in his life, Bix suspected his eyes were deceived, momentarily believing in the power of desert mirage.

Greer was riding the camel with a child sitting atop his shoulders. Bix recalled the representation of Greer and Josef in Greer’s office. They had both aged in reverse. Greer, once a lump of wide-pored flesh, creased at the eyes and white-haired, was now clean-shaven, half his weight, and sporting a black pony-tail and bronzed abdominals. The child Josef seemed no more than ten, but his eyes held all of Josef’s intelligence. They looked like crystals.

“Bix, you idiot! I did mean for you wear more than that greasy coat and hat!” shouted Greer descending the dune. The camel stopped, chewed its bit.

“I think it’s sweet, wearing my old garb.” Child Josef leaped from Greer’s shoulders, did a front flip off the camel’s rump and landed catlike. Josef walked barefoot in the hot sand to Bix with impossible confidence for a boy, held out his hand to the robot. “I’m not really a boy. I’m fifty-three. I grow slowly, is all.”

Greer shook his head and dismounted, a healthy glow radiating from his sweaty forehead. He feared no cancer.

“Are we ready to go, uncle?”

“There room for my jazz albums?”

No reply.

Greer pulled a bottle of Scotch from his saddle bag, took a small sip, relished it, and tossed it overhand at the ship’s nose. Smash. Bix watched the shards spin and fly.

Greer ignored the hundred robots spread evenly on the wings and spoke to Bix. “Retroviral nanodust — activates and deactivates gene expression — got my hair back, my physique: quadrupled lifespan, lad! Lost my stomach for alcohol, though. Overly devout these days, Father Curtis.”

Josef rolled his sage child eyes, then looked up at Bix who had taken the boy’s hand. They walked to the starship together. “Greer jokes we’re going to see my wife. But we’re going to meet our new family.”


Copyright © 2016 by Carl Ross Beideman

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