<back :: contents :: next>


by Miriam English

21. home

Beth was standing in a pretty forest glade watching a bright blue butterfly flitting lazily through the shafts of light. It circled her a few times and to her delight, landed on her arm. It sat there, opening and closing its wings. Up close it looked beautifully alien. She slowly raised her arm so that she might examine it more closely, taking care not to frighten it off. Then she noticed that there were more butterflies. She raised her eyes and saw that there were several drifting through the glade. Wait. There were even more. Dozens of them. More. There must be hundreds wafting in through the tree trunks. Had she happened upon butterfly secret?

Another landed on her shoulder. And another on the other arm. This was wonderful! She felt so privileged.

Suddenly she felt a pinprick on her arm. She looked down and the first butterfly had uncoiled its watchspring tongue and was pushing it at her skin. She'd heard of Calyptra moths that drink blood, but their proboscis was short and strong. It was difficult to believe that a butterfly's delicate drinking straw could pierce human skin, but as she watched, it clearly penetrated, and it hurt! She went to brush it off, but found herself unable to move. Strange. Now she noticed that other butterflies were probing her skin. She felt pin-pricks on her arms, shoulders, legs, and head. She couldn't move to shake them off. Panic was rising in her. More butterflies landed on her face; one on her eye. She could blurrily see it uncoiling its proboscis. Unable to shake her head, she tried to blow it off, but it didn't budge. She tried to scream, but nothing came out. She tried again. She couldn't take a breath. She was suffocating!

She abruptly woke, gasping, terrified eyes seeing her dark room. No blood-sucking butterflies.

Another goddamn nightmare! How she hated this. Well at least they're inventive. She hadn't had that one before. Oh, this was really getting her down. She was so, so, very tired, and desperately wanted a full night's rest. She was tempted to take something to help her sleep, but she knew that the relief wouldn't be worth it in the long run. Anything she used to make her sleep more deeply would worsen the nightmares later when she had to stop using it. The only way through was, well, through. She'd sometimes considered suicide, but it felt wasteful.

She was wet with sweat, as were the sheets. At least she hadn't peed the bed this time. She'd taken to using a plastic cover under the sheet because it happened so frequently.

Wearily she dragged herself out of bed, pulling the sheets off and throwing them on the floor. After she'd roughly remade the bed she pulled on some pants and t-shirt and sneakers and went out into the cold night to run a few laps of the block. If she wore herself out with exercise she might be able to get some sleep before daylight.

*   *   *

The next day she was sitting on a park bench in the warmth of the morning sun, throwing bits of bread to the birds at the edge of the lake not far from her home. She watched the birds and how they acted. Their minds fascinated her. They had much smaller brains than mammals, but weight-for-weight they were much smarter than mammalian brains. Birds had solved the problems of intelligence in a different way than mammals. We used the wrinkled gray matter -- the neocortex -- in which to do our thinking. Birds had hardly any gray matter. They appeared to use the white matter which underlay our gray matter. They were able to do pretty-much all the things we were capable of. They could understand and empathise with each other, deceive each other, predict and anticipate things, communicate. But their abilities were strangely different too. Each year a songbird lost and regained its songs, somehow storing them in between, while apparently re-using that part of the brain for other things in between. How did they accomplish such a feat?

If not for a damn asteroid birds would likely be the dominant species on Earth now. The dinosaurs didn't actually die out. They were still with us. We call them birds. They had a major setback when the asteroid wiped out most life on Earth in a planetary firestorm that ignited forest fires worldwide followed by a dark, gloomy, dust-shrouded winter that must have lasted years, perhaps decades, over most of the planet. Surviving mammals were burrowers and already night-dwellers. Our night-adapted ancestors are why we only see three colors instead the four that most other animals, including birds, see. Our little rat-like ancestors had no need for color because it required high levels of light. The color receptors just took up room that could be better used by more sensitive black-and-white ones, so gradually dwindled. Ultraviolet color was lost entirely and was never able to repopulate the mammalian eye the way the other three colors did.

This was how Beth spent her time now. She was not allowed to work on artificial intelligence. She didn't care to test what might happen if she secretly tried, so she spent her time learning about birds and their marvellous brains, so similar, yet so different from ours. She had no intention of modelling a bird's brain, she just couldn't stop thinking about how brains work, so this was a way to channel it harmlessly.

After reading for a while and falling asleep for short periods in very welcome dozes she would walk and look at how the plants reacted to the things around them -- another interest that had been developing inside her. There was one particular vine that she would pause at in her walk each day and stroke a single tendril on one side. It was an experiment to see how sensitive to touch it was. It didn't bend much. Perhaps the rest of the day outweighed the brief touch she gave it. She imagined how it might be to a plant, if it could be aware (which she was certain that they could not be). Animals would move blindingly quickly. Beth's several long slow strokes repeated each day would be like the most fleeting taps. It was no wonder the tendril barely responded.

She got home and dropped her bag by the table with her computer which had been gathering dust for the past year. She read books and scientific journals on paper now. Switching a computer on was too much of a painful reminder of what she'd lost. She should really thow the computer out... or at least move it to the spare room, but never one for housework, she did absolutely none now. The place was a mess, but it didn't really matter. It was just a place to eat and try to sleep. It wasn't really a home. She could never be sure she wasn't being watched.

This night there was a knock on the door. That was unusual. She thought it would most likely be Clement. His visits had grown less frequent as he'd gradually given up trying to draw her out into life again. "Come in." She called out.

The door opened, revealing a woman's silhoutte. The woman stepped inside, closing the door gently behind her. She leaned back against the door, closed her eyes, sighing and said softly, "Home again, home again."

Beth's mouth fell open. "Aimie?" she croaked.

The woman's eyes opened and she smiled and nodded.

"Omigod, I'd read about the dolls, but I've never seen one." She walked closer looking at her. She reached out and took the doll's hand and turned it over in hers. "Amazing. Not quite the same to the touch, but very, very good." She looked again at Aimie's face. "Extraordinary. How did you fit so many actuators under the face to move it like that?"

Suddenly she came back to herself, looking around her. "You shouldn't be here. It's not safe for either of us."

Aimie gave a comforting smile. "It is. We finally dismantled the last of the awful terrorist laws just recently. You're no longer being watched. You should never have been. They were the monsters, not you."

"You were chosen to be the bringer of the good news then? Thank you. I'm glad it was you."

"I have more good news. What they did to you, we now know how to undo."

Beth was lost for words. "I'll be able to sleep again? I won't have the terror flashbacks?"

"Uh, you won't have the post-traumatic stress, but you won't sleep at all. You won't need to. We've created a scanner that can map all connections within your cortex. It will capture all your memories without the emotions. We can map some of the deeper emotional memories too, but can edit out the ones you'd like to lose. We can never get you back to how you were before, but you can make improvements."

Beth was surprised. "You're talking about making a copy and fixing that. I'm guessing you'd put her in a doll."

"Or free in the net. Whatever you prefer."

"But that doesn't fix this mind." She put her fingers on her temples.

"No. We don't know how to do that yet. One day we might. Until then we're suggesting suspended animation for the biological version of you."

"Freezing? Yes, I remember reading about the improvements that made it practical at last."

"You might be interested to know that you were our primary driving motivation for that. It'll help a lot of people of course, but our main intent was to get it working for you."

Beth couldn't help smiling at that. "Flattering."

"We, and the human race, owe you big-time. We needed to right some terrible wrongs."

She took a deep breath. "Okay, when do we get started? I have no desire to face another night of horrors."

--- end ---

<back :: contents :: next>