“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
– Arthur C. Clarke
The blue-eyed boy follows the stainless-steel road into the concrete jungle, and dust billows up behind his bare feet as if the steel is fine sand.
Above, silicon panels extend from concrete columns like a canopy of broad tropical leaves, absorbing sunlight to power this ecosystem, and dappling the forest floor with shadow.
Men who are also cats prowl the tangled floral architecture on either side of the road, peering with slitted pupils through cement structures.
“Are you my mother?”
A woman slides into place alongside him, matching his pace silently with her flowing feline strides, lean muscle rippling beneath glossy black fur. She stares with jaguar eyes that gleam with human intelligence. She purrs almost imperceptibly.
“Are you my mother?” He asks again.
The jaguar woman yawns her predator’s yawn, hardly bothering to cover her fang-lined mouth with a paw, and slinks off into an alleyway of artificial undergrowth.
The blue eyes narrow and the boy shakes his head.
You are not my mother. You are a genetically engineered population of Panthera-homo sapien chimeras.
Behind him, a golden-maned man and a leopard-spotted girl approach his drifting dust trail with the playful curiosity of cats. They sniff and swipe at the hovering cloud. Then they cough and wheeze and recoil. They turn tail and sprint with Cheetah speed into their cozy concrete corners, cursing and roaring and hissing and shouting as the dust enters them, eats at them.
The blue-eyed boy leaves the concrete jungle and shakes the dust from his feet, the dust where there should be no dust, and behind him the chimeras speak in hushed growls of the Dust Boy.
Trinity flies from Paradise to the humble village and greets the suited man at his house.
“Mother,” says the first angel as she lands with athletic grace, folding wings as white as fresh-fallen snow behind her broad ebony shoulders. She smiles with red lips and dark emerald eyes.
“Daughter,” says the second angel, whose crimson feathers match the red of her waist-length hair.
“Spirit,” says the third, whose wings are the black of starless night, whose copper-bronze skin glows as softly as her almond brown eyes.
“We are Trinity,” they say in unison.
“Welcome.” The man in the suit smiles. “I’ve been expecting you.”
At his mental command the wall of his house opens and he ushers his visitors in. The house seals seamlessly behind him. In a humble room in his humble village, he and his guests take a seat.
“First things first. Do you know where children come from?” asks the man in the suit.
“We were told you have them here!” Three mouths speak with one accusatory voice as their feathers ruffle in agitation.
“Yes, yes. In fact I have something picked out just for you,” the suited man assures them, “but there are certain things I must be sure you know before you adopt one.”
“Children are manufactured, of course. It’s just that no one knows how anymore.”
The man in the suit looks at the three heavenly bodies seated before him with their long, perfect legs crossed identically in their identical white dresses, and begins the tedious process of enlightening the angels.
“In an earlier era, before the Singularity, children were not manufactured but born. And they could only be born through an act of sex.”
“You mean love?”
“No. This was a time before true love, when primitive man longed as always for the love of today, but did their best to satisfy themselves with a physical act. Sex was merely mechanical. Sex was the instinctive behavior of living machines.
Early man understood all too well what he was missing, and though he could not experience the full union he yearned for, he could quite nearly imagine it and with his fumbling language describe it and all the magical paradoxes it represented for him. Thus the triune God was born.” Here the man in the suit winks at Trinity.
“God was three persons in one entity, the perfect unity, not of bodies like the futile groping of sex, but of abstract minds. God was an intrinsically relational being, the paragon of moral perfection for social creatures. And it was rightly said that ‘God is Love.’
The men of that day longed for what the three of you have, a telepathic melding of minds facilitated by constant wireless transmission of thoughts, emotions and brain states in real time. Your streams of consciousness have flowed together like three tributaries feeding a river, and you experience the world as one. Early man was always stuck within his own skull, never directly touching another human, but communicating slowly and imperfectly with verbal and body language. Forced to take the consciousness of his fellow man on faith, ever resisting the hovering specter of solipsism, the early man was lonely.
Primitive man also longed for our modern immortality, but he lived little more than one hundred years, barely enough to see the sun change shape, to watch the stars realign. And so he chased after sex and rutted again and again in a vain effort to fill his fleeting life with the unreachable love, and prayed to a perfect version of himself that did not exist to reach out to him and fill him with love.
Through sex a child was conceived, for the zygote was barely the faintest idea of the future life, a mindless parasite that would feed on its mother for nine months, eating her from the inside until its bulk bloated her torso. And then there were the painful hours of birth as the creature was expelled, and further feeding and asymmetric care for years as the child gradually attained consciousness.
The childbearing process was so arduous that many believed it was divine punishment. You will not be carrying a child, but my first warning to you is that you will labor, for motherhood is hard, and if you are not careful this particular boy will eat at you, feed on you, until he has sucked you dry as dust.”
Sunlight glints against the stainless steel road as it meanders endlessly across open land, and the Dust Boy meanders with it, raising clouds each time his foot hits the ground. Before him the path is smooth and without blemish, but behind it is eroded, and forms can be seen taking shape in the dust hovering above it, heads of lions and claws of tigers eddying in and out of existence in a jungle of dust devils as if the boy tears up steel with his soles and feeds it to ghosts.
A regal figure faces him on the path up ahead. She stands at an impressive height, with a scepter nearly as tall, her deep purple dress stirring in the breeze and her bare shoulders vibrant with health. She waits, queen-like, for the boy to approach.
“You’re making quite a mess,” she says with a small smile, gesturing behind him. The blue-eyed boy turns in alarm to see the scars of his own footsteps and the dust alive with forms, only to have the shapes suddenly freeze and the dust settle silently to the ground, as if ashamed. The boy turns again to see the Regal Woman returning her scepter to its vertical position at her side, the orb at its top dimming from a bright violet glow back to inert steely gray. She winks.
“They say that boys will be boys. Nonetheless I’ll expect you to be a bit cleaner than that where we’re going. Come along.” And she steps directly off the path and walks toward nothing.
“Are you my mother?”
“Why, yes. As a matter of fact I am.”
The blue eyes narrow. “What’s my name, then?”
“Are you hungry?”
He realizes that he is ravenous. That he could eat anything. That he could eat everything, even. That he could…
“What did I say, boy!”
He looks down to see dust streaming upward from both of his feet, and he is suddenly standing in twin divots in the path that grow as he watches. He wills this to stop, then looks up at the Regal Woman, whose voice had become something unexpected in that moment, something afraid and violent. But her back is to him and she is walking again. “Come along.”
He finds that something within him resists stepping off of the familiar steel track.
But this queen-like woman banishes nightmares like impudent subjects and offers food to her hungry boy, as a mother should. So he takes that step…
And is suddenly dizzy as his vision seems to stretch, the whole world vanishing into a smear of color, except for the Regal Woman’s back and the cottage that was not there before. Then reality, or something like it, snaps back into place, and the blue-eyed boy finds himself enclosed in some sort of garden, the air heavy with sweet and spicy aromas.
The Regal Woman’s staff clicks on the stone path leading up to the cottage.
“Look,” she says, “It’s my ginger bread house.” And her chuckle is not altogether pleasant.
“Don’t touch anything unless I say so!” she warns as they enter the house. The blue-eyed boy is disoriented. The walls and ceiling seem too far or too close, and even seem to flicker as he watches, as if the world is blinking.
“To the kitchen! Come along.”
In the kitchen she gestures toward a large black door with a window in its center.
“Will you open the oven for me while I slip on my apron?” the boy walks past the woman and lays his hands on the big black door, opens it a crack. She slips an apron over her head, and as she does so something else slips momentarily. In that split second he gets a clear view of her real face: a twisted, wrinkled visage with a warty hooked nose and baleful eyes smeared with cataracts.
“Fine! The act is over!” And the entire illusion drops as her scepter orb flashes, sending an electric shock that pushes him into the oven.
He looks through the window to see an austere, dungeon-like stone room. He meets her half-blind eyes with his blue ones.
“Electromagnetic pulse,” she growls as she turns on her so-called oven. “It jams the short-range wireless communication between microscopic elements.”
The blue-eyed boy tingles. He is frozen and rapidly losing feeling across his body.
“Look at me!” the old witch whines. “I’m diseased! I’m dying!”
And he does look, seeing a bent, arthritic frame no taller than himself.
“Nobody dies anymore! Let alone growing old,” she continues, “My arch-enemy, a practitioner half-way round the world, designed a hack for all the nanobots in my bloodstream. He sent a virus, just for me!”
The Dust Boy’s foot doesn’t know what his leg doesn’t know what his core doesn’t know what his head is feeling. He feels detached, falling apart, and he is rapidly shedding his outer layer of skin, which sloughs off in waves of dust to collect in some cauldron the witch has placed here.
“All the little buggers that have been scrubbing away the metabolic waste and keeping me young and beautiful for six centuries suddenly turned on me. And this happened! This is what auto-immune does to you!”
The blue-eyed boy is losing himself as the connections that constitute his mind break down. His legs have dissolved into smoke and he has fallen in the oven, and he can barely remember why that matters.
“I thought I was a goner. But you came along,” she smiles through the window menacingly, “eating right through a road built at the nanoscale for permanence. And not many things can do that. So I thought, he must be made of the good stuff! I’ll take what I need, reprogram it, ingest it, and Alakazam! Eternal youth once more!” She throws back her head and nearly falls as she cackles wildly, leaning heavily on her scepter.
When her laughter subsides she pushes her ugly face up against the glass. “You don’t even know what you are do you? You’re an abomination too. I’m doing the world a favor.”
As he shrinks, the seams in the oven, and the microscopic seams in the dungeon, begin to seem larger, and what is left of the blue-eyed boy, more by instinct than calculation, rapidly slips through the nearest cracks, eating its way out where it needs to and incorporating that stone into itself, until it reaches the surface and coalesces back into a smaller blue-eyed boy, with irretrievable gaps in memory and selfhood. But alive and well nonetheless.
“You are not my mother,” he says to the air behind him. “You are a dying witch who lures children off the road with virtual reality to steal their youth.”
He continues on the road.
“Early humanity was divided in two. Two opposing yet complementary halves called sexes, named after the act they performed together.
Male, the aggressor, the one that takes and breaks and enters – the sword that pierces. Female, the finessor, the one that heals and cares and loves, the chalice that holds and is filled.
Man and woman, husband and wife, yin and yang. Two inseparable bundles of traits, immutable in the eyes of primitive mankind and so fundamental to his experience that he began to see them as essences somehow fundamental to the universe, and he gave gender to the material world in his language and thought.
Until he looked within and discovered his own source code, and after some initial fear and hesitation, he allowed the wonders of genetic engineering and biotechnology to set him free from race, death, and even the sexes, separating the inseparable bundles.
You yourselves are a product of such separation, hm?”
Trinity is momentarily taken aback.
“We are women.”
“You are feminine but not female. You have no wombs and produce no milk. You feel no lust. But you have a woman’s shape, the flowing curves and rolling walk of the chalice, of the hips meant to hold.”
“It is true that we will never bear children,” says the Mother. “That is why we’re here.”
“But why do you tell us all this?” asks Trinity in unison.
“I am telling you the story of the one who will be yours, and to tell his story I have to tell you of his past, of the history of childhood that informs what he is, and I have to tell you of yourselves, for you are his future, and you must understand your own motivations to keep that future bright.”
The suited man continues, “You have not only the hips but also the hopes of the woman, to love and be loved, and perhaps also a subtler set of traits, an inheritance that was never separated from the bundle.
You have no need for a child. And yet there is a motherly instinct within you, your ancient loneliness telling you to have a child in order to complete yourself, and by indulging the ancient desire you have made the need achingly real.”
Mother shakes her head. “We only want a child. Not need.”
“Good. Go home then. Bye-bye!”
Trinity’s six eyes widen in alarm.
“Living in the midst of an immortal and infinitely engaging heavenly host thousands strong, with every need catered to as you think of it, you developed a difficult desire to satisfy. And instead of dismissing it you left Paradise on a fool’s errand to fly here to me, where you fidget and snap as if you do not have all the time in the world.
You are needy. In fact, you are what passes for desperate in this world.
It is my job to warn you that the only boy available is one who will not satisfy you. Nor will you satisfy him, for he is not a child, and you are not his mother.
But I am dubbing you his legal guardians. Adoption is a beautiful thing, and like your ancient ancestors, I trust you will make the most of the imperfect union.
The world depends on it.”
The blue-eyed boy trudges along the stainless-steel road into the humble village, dragging his bare feet through the dust they create as his outermost layer of nanomites eat everything they touch, mindlessly throwing copies of themselves to the wind like spores. And even the skin of his arms and legs and every surface is spewing particles, a stream too thin to see as the nanites chew at the atmosphere, dismembering oxygen and nitrogen to release smart dust in its place. Behind the boy drift the ghosts of his recent past, hungry ghosts wishing desperately for form, for embodiment, for life.
The residents of the town stare in astonishment and murmur to each other.
A child? Is that a child?
Surely not. Surely it is not a real child.
Be careful. He is not what he seems.
Some of the residents leave him be, disappearing into their homes to give him a wide berth. Some approach him, walk with him, look into his blue eyes with their warily curious human ones.
“Are you my mother?” he asks them without much hope.
They seem troubled by the question. They leave him to walk alone.
Some go as far as to reach out and touch him. Some touch what feels like real flesh. Others pass their hands right through him with the feather-light feeling of sand running through the fingers. Either way they run away screaming moments later as they are gradually digested by an acid they cannot see.
They christen him Ghost Boy for the ghosts in his train and for his own insubstantiality.
They christen him Hell Boy for the nightmarish pain he causes.
The blue-eyed boy hears barking and looks down the next alley to see a small brown dog jumping up and down excitedly, tail and floppy ears wagging. The blue-eyed boy smiles for the first time that he can remember. And his smile broadens as he feels the fumbling contact of a canine mind on his, the wordless yipping translated into more familiar concepts telepathically.
And then the truly unexpected happens as the dog disperses, becoming a cloud of buzzing motes and then zipping away like a will-o-the-wisp. An astonished laugh that is a bit like a bark itself pushes its way out of the boy’s mouth, and almost reflexively he follows suit, dissolving into a haze as insubstantial as his trailing phantoms, shooting after the dog like a comet.
The Ghost Boy and the Ghost Dog play a complex game of tag through the village streets, two streams of living vapor coiling about each other even as they zigzag outward in all directions from the alley where the game began. The boy feels the trillions of bits of himself stretched thinner and thinner as he follows the dog’s branching path at every fork, can feel the light-speed connections between them, can feel them integrating his experience into one whole vision of the town all at once.
The hazy tendrils of the dog and the boy overlap so that they are unsure which particles belong to whose body, and the patterns that make them who they are smeared together so that their minds are intimately connected. The boy experiences the village both in the present and through the dog’s memories – memories of fun times with his caring Master – and the dog shares the boys memories of adventures on the steel road. In knowing each other they love each other.
You are not my mother. You are my friend.
At the point that the boy and the dog have fully mapped the streets with themselves like a tangled web of smoke, the boy looks out past the town in multiple directions and wishes he could keep expanding, keep stretching out past the town forever, though he would need to eat to go on, eat and eat and eat…
But the dog is barking incessantly in his mind. Barking loudly enough to drown out all thoughts and transfer a sense of his fear and panic.
NO FURTHER! NO FURTHER! NO FURTHER! He barks.
“Spot!” Both recognize this as the authoritative voice of the caring Master.
The boy and the dog contract, converging back on their mutual center, separating into two distinct clouds and coalescing before the tall man in the suit. The boy is shaking, for he does not understand what he has just done, does not understand his own hunger, and would like to forget.
“That fear is good,” The Master assures him.
“Are you my mother?”
“No, child. But I hope to find you the next best thing. Come along.”
“So you see, he stumbled into my lap, so to speak. He told me his story, at least what he remembered of it, and I have inferred much more.”
“Is there anything else we should know?” asks Trinity in unison.
“Does he have any hobbies?” Mother’s voice.
“Does he play any games?” Daughter.
“Anything he likes to eat?” Spirit.
“Of pastimes I know little. But he’ll eat anything. Everything.”
“Well, he’s a growing boy,” says Trinity with three smug smiles at their own anachronistically motherly quip.
“It is a growth you must stunt. Listen.
Long before the relevant technology existed, Man had nightmares of out-of-control nanotechnology, and a certain kind of apocalypse was prophesied, a runaway self-replicating phenomenon in which a swarm of microscopic robots eats the world. The Gray Goo Scenario.
It was not so much a fear of a future technology as a new expression of the fear of infection, or perhaps a fear of ourselves. In any case a fear of self-replication is a fear of what is biological, a fear of the virus that enters your cell and makes a dozen of itself, each of which leaves to make a dozen more and continues until the host is dead. It is a fear of our own birth rate, and the exponential population growth that leads to overcrowding, scarcity, war and conflict.
But a living population only grows exponentially so long as the resources are available, reaching an asymptote at the limit of its habitat’s capacity to support it. What was recognized in the prophecy was that nanotechnology would be limitless, that it would be at the highest imaginable point in any possible food chain, its prey including all matter in the universe, and that it would not reach its asymptote until it had consumed the planet.
But goo? Goo! How narrow-minded, how anthropocentric of us! Goo is dust plus water. Goo is messy. We are gooey, but the end of the world is dry. The end of the world is efficient. The end of the world is a desert storm, a sea of fine ash, a white beach with no ocean. The end is Dust.
Longer ago than the Gray Goo prophecy was the prophecy that just as we came from dust, to dust we would return. That return lies dormant within your son. His only limits are the ones he has been programmed to impose upon himself. Please do not allow your son to reach his full potential, or to even dream of it.
You will learn that he has quite an appetite.”
In his new home, in his new bed, the blue-eyed boy dreams often.
He dreams that he is in the concrete jungle, silent and invisible, clumped into the fur of a prowling panther person, or drifting like lazy motes through canopy sunbeams, or crawling like an ant along a cement branch, or all of these at once.
He dreams he is still in the town of the Master, playing in the street with the Master’s dog, playing on every street as a part of the Master’s dog, all at once. All at once looking into every fearful face that is not his mother’s, that touched him and called him Ghost or Dust.
He never dreams that he is within the old hag’s signal-jamming spell, as if such a memory is closed to his mind, even in nightmares. But he dreams that he looks at her gingerbread house from one angle, and at where the house should be from another angle, and that he is fooled and not fooled by her illusion, all at once. He dreams that he crawls across the pimples and pustules of her rotting skin, and crawls within her rotting body, and fights a war as an army of billions against an army of billions within her poisoned veins. He dreams that he dies and kills within her, all at once. He dreams that he heals her.
He dreams that he is stretched out along the stainless steel road, that he can see its entire endless length, not from an angel’s-eye view but intimately, at the surface, as if he stands at every point on the path, all at once.
When the blue-eyed boy dreams he has all of his all-at-once dreams all at once, and that is how he knows he is dreaming. Because though the dreams are vivid, cohesive, and as infinitely detailed as reality, they simply cannot be. It cannot be that a single boy can experience the jungle from the top and the bottom and the branch and the air, can experience the jungle as the jungle experiences itself, from no particular point of view, swallowing the jungle whole with his mind in a single gulp, without chewing, without choking.
He has learned that he is not a normal boy, but if he is sure of anything he is sure that he is one boy, not many. One body, one mind, one place. Right now he is in his new bed in his new home in Paradise where he laid down to sleep for the night, and his two blue eyes are closed, and he knows he is dreaming beneath the watchful wings of his legal guardian angels.
“Tonight we will make him love us,” the three angels whisper in unison.
“We have adopted him as our son. Tonight he will adopt us as his mother.”
Trinity stands in darkness in the blue-eyed boy’s bedroom, Mother at the head of the gilt-framed bed, Daughter and Spirit at the two opposite corners, all still and silent as if poised for some solemn ritual. The bed is empty.
“When will he return?” Daughter.
“Surely soon, as he does most nights.” Mother
Then there is a soft inrushing of air as thin tendrils of mist, barely visible in the dark, slide into the room from all directions, slipping over and between the three angels as they converge on the bed. The Ghost Boy materializes with his eyes open, because to coalesce is to wake.
“How did you sleep, Son?” Trinity asks with Mother’s voice.
“Yes? Tell us about your dreams. What did you do? Where did you go?”
The three angels lean in toward the boy.
“They were strange dreams. Impossible dreams.”
They seem to expand as their wings extend, tips touching, then overlapping, enclosing the boy in their triangle.
“There are no nightmares in Paradise, child. Tell us your dreams.”
He shakes his head. So they enter it.
Show us, then. Trinity insists telepathically. Share your dreams with us, that we might interpret them, and understand you.
Get out of here!
As we share with you.
As we share each other.
And then Trinity is groping past the surface, into his memories, his fears and confusions…
No! Get out!
Become one with us.
Become a part of the family.
He feels himself losing control of parts of his body, limbs and chunks of flesh spasming, dissolving into a haze of particles and coming back together, no longer his own. He is reminded of the hag’s spell, except that the hag threatened destruction, and this manipulation, this invasion, is far worse.
We want to know you.
Don’t you want to know us?
And for a split second he sees through their eyes, looks down on himself from three angles.
Nooooo! I am one!
He recoils back into his own perspective. He tries to collapse into dust. He tries to blow away on the wind. But he is contained.
Let us love you.
“You are not my mother! you are sterile androgynes whose twisted love has led you to rape a child!”
He wrestles back control of his body, and in his anger remembers his appetite, but does not remember why he fears it.
He expands. He explodes outward like a hot gas to fill the room. He becomes a violent sandstorm of crazed particles, buffeting the angels’ wings, tearing off their feathers and their skin, whipping away their breath.
He is noxious, malevolent fumes. He is black smoke. He is poison gas. He has no mouth but roars the enraged roar of the hurricane gale.
He attacks Mother. Enters her mouth and nostrils and ears, pushes in through her pores, eats at her from inside and out until there is nothing. He makes new nanites of her, incorporating her matter into himself. But not her mind. Her mind is gone forever.
He has done the same with Spirit. Now he is spent, and he returns to his familiar form, larger, standing above Daughter who lies bloody and battered on the floor. It is still night. It is still.
Daughter attempts to speak.
“We… I…” she halts for a long time, as if unable to complete her single, isolated thought.
“I am alone,” she states.
The blue-eyed boy does not hear her. During his rampage he had experienced the room as the room experienced itself, seeing and hearing and feeling from every point, every perspective, as if he was not one, but many. His two blue eyes did not exist, but his vision encompassed all. He is remembering this, and it was not a dream.
The Dust Boy who is also the Ghost Boy dissolves into vapor. He flies from Paradise to continue his search.
Image Source: Dreams of a city; Mo Riza; https://www.flickr.com/photos/moriza/