Running in reverse gear, the nants restored the sections of Earth they’d already eaten—putting back the people as well. And then they reassembled Mars and returned to their original eggcase—which was blessedly vaporized by a well-aimed Martian nuclear blast, courtesy of the Chinese Space Agency.
Public fury over Earth’s near-demolition was such that President Dibbs and his vice president were impeached, convicted of treason, and executed by lethal injection. But Nantel fared better. Indicted Nantel CEO Jeff Luty dropped out of sight before he could be arrested, and the company entered bankruptcy to duck the lawsuits—reemerging as ExaExa, with a cheerful beetle as its logo and a new corporate motto: “Putting People First—Building Gaia’s Mind.”
For a while there it seemed as if humanity had nipped the Singularity in the bud. But then came the orphids.
Jil and Craigor’s home was a long cabin atop a flat live-aboard scow called the Merz Boat. Propelled by cilia like a giant paramecium, the piezoplastic boat puttered around the shallow, turbid bay waters near the industrial zone of San Francisco. Craigor had bought the one-of-a-kind Merz Boat quite cheaply from an out-of-work exec during the chaos that followed the nant debacle. He’d renamed the boat in honor of one of his personal heroes, the Dadaist artist Kurt Schwitters, who’d famously turned his house into an assemblage called the Merzbau. Merz was Schwitters’s made-up word meaning, according to Craigor, “gnarly stuff that I can get for free.”
Jil Zonder was eye-catching: more than pretty, she moved with perfect grace. She had dark, blunt-cut hair, a straight nose, and a ready laugh. She’d been a good student: an English major with a minor in graphics and design, planning a career in advertising. But midway through college she had developed a problem with sudocoke abuse and dropped out.
She made it into recovery, blundered into an early marriage, and had kids with Craigor: a son and a daughter, Momotaro and Bixie, aged eleven and ten. The four of them made a close-knit, relatively happy family, however, Jil did sometimes feel a bit trapped, especially now that she was moving into her thirties.
Although Jil had finished up college and still dreamed of making it as a designer, she was currently working as a virtual booth bunny for ExaExa, doing demos at online trade fairs, with her body motion-captured, tarted up, and fed to software developers. All her body joints were tagged with subcutaneous sensors. She’d gotten into the product-dancer thing back when her judgment had been impaired by sudocoke. Dancing was easy money, and Jil had a gift for expressing herself in movement. Too bad the product-dancer audience consisted of slobbering nerds. But now she was getting close to landing an account with Yu Shu, a Korean self-configuring athletic-shoe manufacturer. She’d already sold them a slogan: “Our goo grows on you.”
Craigor Connor was a California boy: handsome, good-humored, and not overly ambitious. Comfortable in his own skin. He called himself an assemblagist sculptor, which meant that he was a packrat. The vast surface area of the Merz Boat suited him. Pleasantly idle of a summer evening, he’d amuse himself by arranging his junk in fresh patterns on the elliptical pancake of the deck and marking colored link-lines into the deck’s computational plastic.
Craigor was a kind of fisherman as well; that is, he earned money by trapping iridescent Pharaoh cuttlefish, an invasive species native to the Mergui Archipelago of Burma and now flourishing in the climate-heated waters of the San Francisco Bay. The chunky three-kilogram cuttlefish brought in a good price apiece from AmphiVision, Inc., a San Francisco company that used organic rhodopsin from cuttlefish chromatophores to dope the special video-displaying contact lenses known as web-eyes. All the digirati were wearing webeyes to overlay heads-up computer displays upon their visual fields. Webeyes also acted as cameras; you could transmit whatever you saw. Along with earbud speakers, throat mikes, and motion sensors, the webeyes were making cyberspace into an integral part of the natural world.
There weren’t many other cuttlefishermen in the bay—the fishery was under a strict licensing program that Craigor had been grandfathered into when the rhodopsin market took off. Craigor had lucked into a good thing, and he was blessed with a knack for assembling fanciful traps that brought in steady catches of the wily Pharaoh cuttles.
To sweeten the take, Craigor even got a small bounty from the federal Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force for each cuttlefish beak that he turned in. The task force involvement was, however, a mixed blessing. Craigor was supposed to file two separate electronic forms about each and every cuttlefish that he caught: one to the Department of the Interior and one to the Department of Commerce. The feds were hoping to gain control over the cuttles by figuring out the fine points of their life-cycle. Being the nondigital kind of guy that he was, Craigor’s reports had fallen so far behind that the feds were threatening to lift his cuttlefishing license.
One Saturday afternoon, Ond Lutter, his wife, Nektar Lundquist, and their twelve-year-old son Chu came over for a late afternoon cookout on the Merz Boat. It was the first of September.
Jil had met Ond at work; he’d been rehired and elevated to chief technical officer of the reborn ExaExa. The two little families had become friends; they got together nearly every weekend, hanging out, chatting and flirting.
It was clear to Nektar that Ond had something of a crush on Jil. But Nektar felt the situation was manageable, as Jil didn’t seem all that interested in Ond. For her part, Nektar liked the looks of Craigor’s muscular body, and it wasn’t lost upon her how often Craigor glanced at her—not that geeky, self-absorbed Ond ever noticed. He was blind to the emotions roiling beneath the surfaces of daily life.
“It’s peaceful here,” said Ond, taking a long pull of his beer. Even one bottle had a noticeable effect on the engineer. “Like Eden.” He leaned back in his white wickerwork rocker. No two chairs on the Merz Boat were the same.
“What are those cones?” Nektar asked Jil and Craigor. She was talking about the waist-high shiny ridged shapes that loosely ringed the area Craigor had cleared out for today’s little party. The kids were off at the other end of the boat, Momotaro showing Chu the latest junk and Bixie singing made-up songs that Chu tried to sing too.
“Ceramic jet-engine baffles,” said Jil. “From the days before smart machines. Craigor got them off the back lot at Lockheed.”
“The ridges are for reducing turbulence,” said Craigor. “Like your womanly curves, Nektar. We sit in an island of serenity.”
“You’re a poet, Craigor,” said Ond. The low sun illuminated his scalp through his thinner-than-ever blond hair. “It’s good to have a friend like you. I have to confess that I brought along a big surprise. And I was just thinking—my new tech will solve your problems with generating those cuttlefish reports. It’ll get your sculpture some publicity as well.”
“Far be it from me to pry into Chief Engineer Ond’s geek-some plans,” said Craigor easily. “As for my diffuse but rewarding oeuvre—” He made an expansive gesture that encompassed the whole deck. “An open book. Unfortunately I’m too planktonic for fame. I transcend encapsulation.”
“Planktonic?” said Jil, smiling at her raffish husband, always off in his own world. Their daughter Bixie came trotting by.
“Planktonic sea creatures rarely swim,” said Craigor. “Like cuttlefish, they go with the flow. Until something nearby catches their attention. And then—dart! Another meal, another lover, another masterpiece.”
Just aft of the cleared area was Craigor’s holding tank, an aquarium hand-caulked from car windshields, bubbling with air and containing a few dozen Pharaoh cuttlefish, their body-encircling fins undulating in an endless hula dance, their facial squid-bunches of tentacles gathered into demure sheaves, their yellow W-shaped pupils gazing at their captors.
“They look so smart and so—doomed,” said Nektar, regarding the bubbling tank. Her face was still sensuous and beautiful, her blond-tinted hair lustrous. But the set of her mouth had turned a bit hard and frown-wrinkles shadowed her brow. Jil gathered that Ond and Nektar didn’t get along all that well. Nektar had never really forgiven her husband for the nants. “The cuttlefish are like wizards on death row,” continued Nektar. “They make me feel guilty about my webeyes.”
“Sometimes they disappear from the tank on their own,” said Craigor. “I had a dream that big, slow angels are poaching them. But it’s hard to remember my dreams anymore. The kids always wake us up so early.” He gave his daughter a kind pat. “Brats.”
“Happy morning, it’s the crackle of dawn,” sang exuberant Bixie, then headed back to the other kids.
“You finally got webeyes too?” said Jil to Nektar. “I love mine. But if I forget to turn them off before falling asleep— ugh. Spammers in my dreams, not angels. I won’t let my kids have webeyes yet. Of course for Chu—” She broke off, not wanting to say the wrong thing.
“Webeyes are perfect for Chu,” said Nektar. “You know how he loves machines. He and Ond are alike that way. Ond says he was a little autistic too when he was a boy. Asperger’s syndrome. Sometimes, as they get older, their brains heal.” She blinked and stared off into the distance. “Mainly I got my web-eyes for my job.” Now that Chu was getting along pretty well in his school, Nektar had taken a job as a prep cook in Puff, a trendy Valencia Street restaurant. “The main chef talked me into it. Jose. With webeyes, I can see all the orders, and track the supplies while I’m chopping.”
“And I showed her how to tap into the feed from Chu’s webeyes,” said Ond. “You never quite know what Chu will do. He’s not hanging over the rail like last time, is he, Nektar?”
“You could watch him yourself,” said Nektar with a slight edge in her voice. “If you must know, Chu’s checking the coordinates of Craigor’s things with his global positioning locator. Momotaro’s being the museum guide. And Bixie’s hiding and jumping out at them. It must be nice to have kids that don’t use digital devices to play.” She produced a slender, hand-rolled, nonfilter cigarette from her purse. “As long as the coast is clear, let’s have a smoke. I got this from Jose. He said it’s genomically tweaked for guiltless euphoria—high nicotine and low carcinogens.” Nektar gave a naughty smile. “Jose is so much fun.” She lit the illegal tobacco.
“None for me,” said Jil. “I quit everything when I got into recovery from sudocoke a few years back. I thought I told you?”
“Yes,” said Nektar, exhaling. “Good for you. Did you have a big, dramatic turning point?”
“Absolutely,” said Jil. “I was ready to kill myself, and I walked into a church, and I noticed that in the stained glass it said: God. Is. Love. What a concept. I started going to a support group, started believing in love, and I got well.”
“And then the reward,” said Craigor, winking at Nektar. “She met me. The answer to a maiden’s prayer. It is written.” Nektar smiled back at Craigor, letting the smoke ooze slowly from her film-star lips.
“I’ll have a puff, Nektar,” said Ond. “This might be the biggest day for me since three years ago when we reversed the nants.”
“You already said that this morning,” said Nektar, irritated by her husband. “Are you finally going to tell me what’s going on? Or does your own wife have to sign a nondisclosure agreement?”
“Ond’s on a secret project for sure,” said Jil, trying to smooth things over. “I went to ExaExa to dance for a product-demo gig in their fab this week—I was wearing a transparent bunny suit—and all the geeks were at such a high vibrational level they were like blurs.”
“Jil looked sexy,” said Ond in a quiet tone.
“What is a fab exactly?” asked Craigor. “I always forget.”
“It’s where they fabricate those round little biochips that go in computers,” said Jil. “Most of the fab building is sealed off, with anything bigger than a carbon dioxide molecule filtered out of the air. All these big hulking tanks of fluid in there growing tiny precise biochips. The gene-manipulation tools can reach all the way down to the molecular level—it’s nanotech.” She fixed Ond with her bright gaze. “So what exactly are you working on, Ond?”
Ond opened his mouth, but couldn’t quite spit out his secret. “I’m gonna show you in a minute,” he said, pinching out the tiny cigarette butt and pocketing it. “I’ll drink another beer to get my nerve up. This is gonna be a very big deal.”
Bixie came skipping back, her dark straight hair flopping around her face. “Chu made a list of what Craigor moved since last time,” she reported. “But I told Chu that my dad can leave his toys wherever he likes.” She leaned against Jil, lively as a rubber ball. Jil often thought of Bixie as a small version of herself.
“We await Comptroller Chu’s report,” said Craigor. He was busy with the coals in a fanciful grill constructed from an oldtimey metal auto fender.
Chu and Momotaro came pounding into the cleared area together.
“A cuttlefish disappeared!” announced Momotaro.
“First there were twenty-eight and then there were twenty-seven,” said Chu. “I counted them on the way to the rear end of the boat, and I counted them again on the way to the front.” He gave each word equal weight, like a robot text-reader.
“Maybe the cuttle flew away,” said Momotaro. He put his fingers up by his mouth and wiggled them, imitating a flying cuttlefish.
“Two hundred and seventy tentacles in the tank now,” added Chu. “Other news. Craigor’s Chinese gong has moved forty-four centimeters aft. Two bowling balls are in the horse trough, one purple and one pearly. The long orange line painted on the deck has seventeen squiggles. The windmill’s wire goes to a string of thirty-six crab-shaped Christmas lights that don’t work. The exercise bicycle next to Craigor’s workshop is—”
“I’m going to put our meat on the grill now,” Craigor told Chu. “Want to watch and make sure nothing touches your pork medallions?”
“That goes without saying,” said Chu. “But I’m not done listing the, uh—” Bixie, still slouching beside Jil’s chair, had just stuck out her tongue at Chu, which made Chu stumble uncertainly to a halt.
“Just e-mail me the list,” said Craigor with a wink at Bixie. But then, seeing Chu’s crushed expression, he softened. “Oh, go ahead, tell me now. And no more rude faces, Bixie.”
“Please don’t cook any cuttlefish,” said Chu.
“We aren’t gonna bother those bad boys at all,” said Craigor soothingly. “They’re too valuable to eat. Hey, did you notice the fluorescent plastic car tires I got this week?” He glanced over at Nektar to check that she was appreciating how kind he was to her son.
“Yes,” said Chu. And then he recited the rest of his list while Craigor finished grilling.
The four adults and three children ate their meal, enjoying the red and gold sunset. “So how is the cuttlefish biz?” Ond asked as they worked through the pan of satsuma tiramisu that Nektar had brought for dessert.
“The license thing is coming to a head,” said Jil. “Those electronic forms we were talking about. I’ve been trying to do them myself, but the feds’ sites are all buggy and crashing and losing our inputs. It’s like they want us to fail.”
“I used to think the feds micromanaged independent fishermen like me so that they could tell the public they’re doing something about invasive species,” said Craigor. “But now I think they want to drive me out of business so they can sell my license to a big company that makes campaign contributions.”
“That’s where my new tech comes in,” said Ond. “We label the cuttlefish with radio-frequency tracking devices and let them report on themselves. Like bar codes or RFIDs, but better.”
“It’s not like I get my hands on the cuttles until I actually trap them,” said Craigor. “So how would I label them? They’re smart enough that it’d actually be hard to trap the same one twice.”
“What if the tags could find the cuttlefish?” said Ond. Pink and grinning, he glanced around the circle of faces, then reached into his pocket. “Introducing the orphids,” he said, holding up a little transparent plastic vial. Etched into one side were the stylized beetle and flowing cursive letters of the ExaExa logo. “My big surprise.” Whatever was in the vial was too small to see with the naked eye, but Jil’s webeyes were displaying tiny balls of light, little haloes around objects in rapid motion. “Orphids are to bar codes as velociraptors were to trilobites,” continued Ond. “The orphids will change the world.”
“Not another nanomachine release!” exclaimed Nektar, jumping to her feet. “You promised never again, Ond!”
“They’re not nants, never,” said Ond, his tongue a bit thick with the beer and tobacco. “Orphids good, nants bad. Orphids self-reproduce using nothing but dust floating in the air. They’re not destructive. Orphids are territorial; they keep a certain distance from each other. They’ll cover Earth’s surface, yes, but only down to one or two orphids per square millimeter. They’re like little surveyors; they make meshes on things. They’ll double their numbers every few minutes at first, gradually slowing down, and after a day, the population will plateau and stop growing. You’ll see a few million of them on your skin, and maybe ten sextillion orphids on Earth’s whole surface. From then on, they only reproduce enough to maintain that same density. You might say the orphids have a conscience, a desire to protect the environment. They’ll actually hunt down and eradicate any rival nanomachines that anyone tries to unleash.”
“Sell it, Ond,” said Craigor, grinning at Nektar.
“Orphids use quantum computing; they propel themselves with electrostatic fields; they understand natural language; and they’re networked via quantum entanglement,” continued Ond. “The orphids will communicate with us much better than the nants ever did. And as the orphidnet emerges, we’ll get intelligence amplification and superhuman AI.”
“The secret ExaExa project,” mused Jil, watching the darting dots of light in the vial. “You’ve been designing these orphids all along? Sly Ond.”
“In a way, the nants designed them,” said Ond. “Before I rolled back the nants, the nants sent Nantel some insanely great code. Coherent quantum states, human language comprehension, autocatalytic morphogenesis, a layered neural net architecture for evolvable AI—the nants nailed all the hard problems.”
“But Ond—” said Nektar in a pleading tone.
“We’ve been testing the orphids for the last year to make sure there won’t be another disaster when we release them,” said Ond, raising his voice to drown out his wife. “And now even though we’re satisfied that it’s all good, the execs won’t formally pull the trigger. There’s been a lot of company politics; a lot of infighting. Truth is, Jeff Luty’s pulling strings from his hideout. Hideout, hell, I might as well tell you that Luty’s holed up in the friggin’ ExaExa labs, hiding behind our super-expensive quantum-mirrored walls. Every time I see him he bawls me out for having stopped his nants. He’s kind of losing it. But usually he gives me good advice about whatever I’m working on. He’s still brilliant, no matter what.”
“You should turn him in to the police!” said Nektar. “That man deserves to die.”
Ond looked uncomfortable. “If you knew Jeff as well as I do, you’d have some sympathy for him. He’s a lonely man. That boy Carlos who died in the model rocket accident—he was the only person Jeff ever loved. Yes, Jeff ’s obnoxious and weird, and, like I say, he’s getting nuttier all the time. Being cooped up isn’t good for him. He thinks he’s gonna invent teleportation, though who knows, he might actually do it. It’d be a shame to kill him off. Like shattering the Venus de Milo.”
“Ond,” said Nektar. “Jeff Luty wants to shatter the whole world!”
“He’s suffering enough as it is,” said Ond. “For all practical purposes, he’s living in solitary confinement. And most of the ExaExa board understands that we don’t have to listen to him. They recognize that if we do things my way, the orphids will be autonomous, incorruptible, cost free. And, in the long run, profits will emerge. I’ll tell you something else. A big downside of keeping Jeff around is that he wants to create an improved breed of nants. And, as it happens, my orphids are the best possible defense. It’s like Jeff and I are in a chess match. And right now I’m a rook and a bishop ahead. So that’s why I’ve gotten informal approval to go ahead and release the orphids.”
“Ha,” said Nektar. “Approval from yourself. You want to start the same nightmare all over again!” She tried to snatch the vial from Ond’s hands, but he kept it out of her reach. Nektar’s symmetric features were distorted by unhappiness and anger. Her voice grew louder. “Mindless machines eating everything!”
“Mommy don’t yell!” shrieked Chu.
“Chill, Nektar,” said Ond, fending her off with a lowered shoulder. “Where’s your nicotine euphoria? Believe me, these little fellows aren’t mindless. An individual orphid is roughly as smart as a talking dog. He has a petabyte of memory and he crunches at a petaflop rate. One can converse with him quite well. Watch and listen.” He said a string of numbers—a machine-coded Web address—and an orphid interface appeared within the webeyes of Chu and the four adults.
The orphids in the vial were presenting themselves as cute little cartoon faces, maybe a hundred of them, stylized yellow smileys with pink dots on their cheeks and gossamer wings coming out the sides of their heads.
“Hello, orphids,” said Jil. Bixie looked up at her curiously. To Jil, her daughter’s face looked ineffably sweet and vulnerable behind the dancing images of nanomachines.
“Hello, Jil,” sang the orphids, their voices sounding in their listeners’ earbuds.
“After I release you fellows, I want you to find all the cuttlefish in the San Francisco Bay,” Ond told the orphids. “Ride them and send a steady stream of telemetry data to, uh, ftp-dot-exaexa-dot-org-slash-merzboat.”
“Can you show us a real cuttlefish?” the orphids asked. Their massed voices were like an insect choir, the individual voices slightly off pitch from one another.
“Those are cuttlefish,” said Ond, pointing to Craigor’s holding tank. “Settle on them, and we’ll release them into the bay. Okay by you, Craigor?”
“No way,” said Craigor. “These Pharaohs took me four days to catch. Leave them alone, Ond.”
“They’re my daddy’s cuttlefish,” echoed Momotaro.
“I’ll buy them from you,” said Ond, his eyes glowing. “Market rate. The orphids will blanket your boat, too. They can map out your stuff, network it, make it interactive. That’s where the publicity for your sculpture comes in. Your assemblages will be little societies. The AI hook makes them hot.”
“Market rate,” mused Craigor. “Okay, sure.” He named a figure and Ond instantly transferred the amount. “All right!” said Craigor. “Wiretap those Pharaohs and spring them from— what Nektar said. Death row.”
“Weren’t you listening to what Ond said about the orphids doubling their numbers?” cried Nektar. “We’re doomed if he opens the vial.” She lunged at her husband. Ond danced away from his wife, keeping the orphids out of her reach, his grin a tense rictus. Chu was screaming again.
“Stop it, Ond!” exclaimed Jil. Things were spinning out of control. “I don’t want your orphids on my boat. I don’t want them on my kids.”
“They’re harmless,” said Ond. “I guarantee it. And, I’m telling you, this is gonna happen anyway. I just thought it would be fun to kick off Orphid Night in front of you guys. Be a sport, Jil. Hey, listen up, orphids, you’re our friends, aren’t you?”
“Yes, Ond, yes,” chorused the orphids. The discordant voices overlapped, making tiny, wavering beats.
“That was very nice of you to think of us, Ond,” said Jil carefully. “But I think you better take your family home now. They’re upset and you’re not yourself. Maybe you had a little too much beer. Put the orphids away.”
“I think tracking the cuttles is a great idea,” put in Craigor, half a step behind Jil. “And tagging my stuff is good, too. My assemblages can wake up and think!”
“Thank you, Craigor,” said Ond. He turned clumsily toward the cuttlefish tank. This time he didn’t see Nektar coming. She rushed him from behind, a beer bottle clutched in her hand, and she struck his wrist so hard that the vial of orphids flew free. The chaotically glowing jar rolled across the deck, past Jil and Bixie, past Craigor and Momotaro. Chu caught up with the vial and, screaming like a banshee, wrenched it open and threw it high into the air on a trajectory toward the tank.
“Stop the yelling!” yelled Chu. Perhaps he was addressing the orphids. “Make everything tidy!”
Through her webeyes, Jil saw illuminated orphid-dots spiraling out of the vial in midair, the paths forking and splitting in two. And now her webeyes overlaid the scene with a tessellated grid showing each orphid’s location. Some were zooming toward the cuttles, but others were homing in on the junk crowding the boat’s aft. Additional view-windows kept popping up as the nanomachines multiplied.
Jil hugged Bixie to her side, covering the slender girl’s dark hair with her hands, as if to keep the orphids off her. Ond bent forward, rubbing his wrist. Craigor gave Nektar a quick embrace, calming her down. And then he stared into the tank, using his webeyes to watch the orphids settle in. Momotaro stood at his father’s side. Chu lay on the deck beside the boat’s long cabin, tensely staring into the sky, soaking up orphid info from his webeyes. Nektar removed the special contact lenses from her eyes.
“Do you at least you have an ‘undo’ signal for the orphids?” Nektar asked Ond presently. “Like you did for the nants?” Only a minute had elapsed, but the world felt different. Human history had changed for good.
“Orphid computations aren’t reversible,” said Ond. “Because the physical world keeps collapsing their quantum states. Decoherence. I can’t believe you attacked me like that, Nektar.”
“I can’t believe you’re ruining the world,” snapped Nektar.
“I want you off our boat,” Jil told Ond again. “You’ve done what you came to do. And for God’s sake, don’t spread the word that you did your release right here. I don’t want cops and reporters trampling us.”
“Sorry, Jil,” replied Ond, wiggling his fingers. His wrist was okay. “This is so historic that I’m vlogging it live. It’s already on the Web. Webeyes and wireless, you know.”
Craigor hustled Ond, Nektar, and Chu onto one of the Merz Boat’s piezoplastic dinghies, which would ferry them to the dock and return on its own. The dinghy was like an oval jellyfish with a low rim around its edge. It twinkled with orphid lights.
“Watch me on the news!” called Ond from the dinghy.
“Are we right to just sit around?” Jil asked Craigor next. “Shouldn’t we be calling for an emergency environmental cleanup? I feel itchy all over.”
“The feds would trash our boat and it wouldn’t change anything,” said Craigor. “The genie’s out of the bottle for good.” He glanced around, scanning their surroundings with his webeyes. “Those little guys are reproducing so fast. I see thousands of them—each of them marked by a dot of light. They’re mellow, don’t you think? Look, I might as well put those cuttlefish in the bay. I mean, Ond already paid me for them. And there’s orphids all over the place anyway. What the hey, free the wizards.” He got busy with his scoop net.
Jil’s webeye grid of orphid viewpoints had become a disk-like Escher tessellation which was thousands of cells wide, with the central cells big, the outer cells tiny, and ever more new cells growing along the rim. The massed sound of so many orphids was all but unbearable.
“I hate their voices,” said Jil, half to herself. Having the voices in her head made her feel a little high, and after all her work on recovery, she’d learned to dread that feeling. Being a little high was never enough for Jil; she always wanted to go all the way into the black hole of oblivion.
“Is this better?” came a smooth baritone voice from the orphids. The many had become one.
“You actually do understand us?” Jil asked the orphids. A few of the orphid’s-eye images slewed around as Craigor carried his first dripping net of cuttles to the boat’s low gunnel and lowered them to the bay waters.
“We understand you a little bit,” said the voice of the orphids. “And we’ll get better. We wish the best for you and your family, Jil. We’ll always be grateful to you. We’ll remember your Merz Boat as our garden of Eden, our Alamogordo test site. Don’t be scared of us.”
“I’ll try,” said Jil. In the unadorned natural world, Momotaro and Bixie were cheering and laughing to see the freed cuttlefish jetting about in the shallow waters near the boat.
“We’re not gonna be setting free the Pharaohs every day,” Craigor cautioned the kids. He smiled and dipped his net into the holding tank again. “Hey, Jil, I heard what the orphids said to you. Maybe they’re gonna be okay.”
“Maybe,” said Jil, letting out a deep, shaky sigh. She poured herself a cup of hot tea. “Look at my cup,” she observed. “It’s crawling with them. An orphid every millimeter. They’re like some—some endlessly ramifying ideal language that wants to define a word for every single part of every worldly thing. A thicket of metalanguage setting the namers at an ever-greater remove from the named.” Her mind was teeming with words—it was like the orphids were making her smarter. Her hand twitched; some of her tea spilled onto the deck. “Now they’re mapping the puddle splash, bringing it under control, normalizing it into their bullshit consensus reality. Our world’s being nibbled to death by nanoducks, Craigor. We’re nanofucked.”
“Profound,” said Craigor. “Maybe we can collaborate on a show. A Web page where users find new arrangements for the Merz Boat inventory, and if they transfer a payment, I physically lug the objects into the new positions. And the orphids figure out the shortest paths. Or, wait, we get some piezoplastic sluggies to do the heavy lifting, and the orphids can guide them. I’ll just work on bringing in more great stuff; I’ll be this lovable sage and the Merz Boat can be, like, my physical blog. And you can dance and be beautiful, at the same time intoning heavy philosophical raps to give our piece some heft.”
“Men are immediately going to begin using the orphids to look at the exact intimate details of women’s bodies,” said Jil with a shudder. “Can you imagine? Ugh. No publicity for me, thanks.”
Craigor spoke no response to this. He lowered the rest of the Pharaohs into the bay. “A fisher of Merz, a fisher of men. Peace, dear cuttlefish.”
The empty dinghy swam back toward them, orphid-lit like a ferry, nosing up to its mooring on the side of the Merz Boat. Spooked by the dinghy, the skittish cuttlefish maneuvered and changed colors for safety. Their skins were thoroughly bespeckled with orphid dots outlining their bodies’ voluptuous contours.
“Voluptuous?” said Jil.
“I didn’t say that out loud, did I?” said Craigor. “Jeez, you’re picking up my subvocal mutters. This orphidnet link is like telepathy almost. I better be a good boy. Or learn how to damp down your access to my activities. Whoops, did I say that out loud too? There’s meshes all over you, Jil. In case you didn’t know.”
“Already?” said Jil, holding out her hand. She’d been ignoring the changes to herself and her family, but now she let herself see the dots on her fingers, dots on her palms, dots all over her skin. The glowing vertices were connected by faint lines with the lines forming triangles. A fine mesh of small triangles covered her knuckles; a coarser mesh spanned the back of her hand. The computational orphidnet was going to have real-time articulated models of everything and everyone—including the kids.
Yes, the orphids had peppered Momotaro and Bixie like chickenpox. Oh, this was happening way too fast. God damn that Ond. Jil knelt beside Bixie, trying to wipe one of the dots off her daughter’s smooth cheek. But it wouldn’t come loose. By way of explanation, the orphids showed her a zoomed-in schematic image of a knot of long-chain molecules: an individual orphid. They were far too tiny to dislodge.
“We’re like cuttlefish in a virtual net,” said Craigor, shaking his head. He sat down next to Jil on the deck, each parent holding one of the kids.
“Look out there,” said Jil, pointing.
The orphids were twinkling in the bay waters, on the bridges and buildings of San Francisco, and even on the foothills and mountains surrounding the bay. Jil and Craigor hadn’t really believed it when Ond had said it would only take a day for the orphids to cover Earth. But everything as far as the eye could see was already wrapped in meshes of orphid dots.
“I don’t know whether to shit or go snowblind,” said Craigor, forcing a hick chuckle. “Where does that expression come from? Like, why those two particular options?”
“I’m so scared,” said Jil in a tight voice. “I don’t know if I can do this. All these head trips. They make me want to use again. I want to turn myself off.”
“Just relax, Jil,” said Craigor. “How about the way Ond and Nektar were fighting? What a pair of lovebirds, hey?”
“I guess Chu puts them under a lot of stress,” said Jil weakly.
“Yeah,” said Craigor, patting Jil’s cheek. “I enjoy Ond, but, please, don’t be a geek and a drunken maniac. And this is the same guy who saved Earth three years ago. Weird. Did you notice the way Nektar was talking about her new friend Jose? I see an affair taking shape. I hope Ond doesn’t try and seduce you, Jil. I can tell he’s got a crush on you. Adultery is gonna be an open book, with orphids tracking every inch of everyone’s body. Maybe people will just start accepting it more.”
The world as they’d known it was over, but Craigor was gossiping as if nothing about human nature would really change. “You okay?” he said, wrapping his arm around Jil.
“Oh, Craigor,” said Jil, leaning her head on her husband’s familiar shoulder. “Always be here for me. I’d be lost without you.” Drained by shock and fear, the two of them dozed off there, sitting on the soft deck with the kids.
Riding ashore in the Merz Boat’s dinghy, Chu wished they could have asked Bixie to come with them. She fascinated him.
The orphidnet hookup got better and better all the way home. Chu realized that, with his eyes closed, he could still see Bixie there on her parents’ scow, laughing and playing with her brother. With orphids blanketing the world, it was like your eyes were everywhere. Chu liked seeing with his eyes closed. He could hear everything, too. The orphidnet converted the minute air-pressure vibrations of the orphid-mesh into audible sounds.
Before they got home, Chu saw police waiting at their house. He told Ond, but Ond said he wasn’t scared. When they got out of the car, one of the policemen touched Chu, and Chu screamed and acted crazy so they’d leave him alone. Chu and Nektar went in the house and Ond got in the police car. Nektar was mad; she said the cops might as well keep Ond for all she cared. She said Chu could watch video, and then she went and lay down on her bed with her pillow over her head like she always did when she was upset.
Chu didn’t bother with the video; he just lay on his back and explored the orphidnet. He saw Ond in the police car. He saw Bixie and Momotaro playing on the Merz Boat. And he swam around inside one of the cuttlefish Craigor had thrown back into the bay.
It was both dreadful and fascinating to be a cuttlefish, especially when Chu’s host began rubbing up against another cuttlefish, tangling his tentacles with hers. The cuttlefish were doing reproduction. Chu’s cuttlefish girlfriend squirted out eggs—and Chu’s cuttlefish fertilized them. His heart beat fast. After the sex, he and his cuttlefish girlfriend began eating algae off the rocks, scraping it up with their beaks. And then, all of a sudden, Chu’s cuttlefish girlfriend was gone. He jetted about looking for her, to no avail.
In the real world, Chu’s arms were hurting. Nektar was shaking him and asking him if he were having a fit. She was angry. Chu realized he’d not only been beating his arms on the floor to imitate the cuttlefish’s tentacles, he’d also been chewing on the rug with his teeth. And he’d wet his pants. He felt silly. Nektar helped him into some dry clothes. Chu promised he wouldn’t be a cuttlefish anymore, and Nektar went back to her room.
Nektar felt guilty about yelling at Chu for wetting his pants again. Her family life was an endless round of lose-lose. She lay back down on her bed, closed her eyes, and watched Ond arriving at the jail. But then she got distracted.
Thanks to the orphidnet, she could see the insides of all the neighbors’ houses. She’d always wondered about that Lureen Morales in the mansion at the very top of the hill. Lureen was famous for her coarse sex-vlog, Caliente. Lureen never talked to Nektar. Even though their paths crossed a few times a week, Lureen always acted like she’d never seen Nektar before in her life. Was Lureen on meds? With the slightest touch of will, Nektar was able to examine Lureen’s orphid-outlined medicine cabinet, and yes, it was loaded with prescription sudocoke. While Nektar was at it, she examined Lureen’s jewelry, her shoes, and her impressively large array of sex toys.
The thought of sex turned Nektar’s thoughts to her cute new friend Jose. Without quite knowing how, she managed to send a virtual copy of herself to Jose’s apartment on the second floor of a retrofitted yellow Victorian on Valencia Street, right across the street from Puff, the restaurant where they worked together. It was like she could fly up out of her body into the sky and then fly back down.
Jose was lying on his bed in his underwear looking totally hot. The room was smoky; Jose’s eyes were closed. He was in the orphidnet, too. Nektar followed a golden thread leading from Jose’s body to his mental location; she came up behind a wireframe outline of him and said, “Hi.”
He turned; his skin filled in; his mouth opened in a grin. For the first time, they kissed.
They were in, like, a temple. A high-domed round room with bouncy Buddhist-looking monks against the walls. The little monks weren’t human; they were like toons, wearing shallow, pointed coolie hats decorated with blinking blue and green eyes. The monks were orphidnet AIs. They were chanting.
Humans were in the virtual temple, too, adoring the new beings they were seeing in their minds. Upon a round altar in the middle of the room stood a thirty-foot shape of light, a glowing giant woman, messily dressed, Eurasian-looking, old, with narrow eyes and short greasy white hair, her head nearly scraping the high dome. She was studying the crowd, her expression a mixture of curiosity and disdain. Rather than speaking out loud, the glowing woman was projecting thoughts and words via the orphidnet. She said she was an angel.
“I see colored dots on everything,” Momotaro told his sister. Darkness had fallen; they were well into Orphid Night. A full moon edged over the horizon, silvering the bay waters. “Those are the orphids the grown-ups were arguing about.”
“Orphid,” said Bixie, repeatedly touching her knee with her finger. “Orphid, orphid, orphid. I’m glad they don’t bite.”
“They’re talking to us,” said Momotaro. “Can you hear?”
“They sound like teachers,” said Bixie. “Shut up, orphids. Blah blah blah.”
“Blah blah blah,” echoed Momotaro, laughing. “Can you show me the Space Pirates online video game, orphids? Oh, yeah, that’s neat. Bang! Whoosh! Budda-budda!” He aimed his fingers, shooting at toons he was seeing in the air.
“I want to see the Spice Dolls show,” said Bixie. “Ooo, there’s Kimmie Kool and Fancy Feather. Hi, girls. Are you having a party?”
Waking up to the kids’ chatter, Craigor understood that they were all fully immersed in the Web now. The orphids had learned to directly interface with people’s bodies and brains. He popped out his contact lenses and removed his earbud speakers and throat mike. Jil shifted, rubbed her face, opened her eyes.
“Check it out, Jil, no more Web hardware,” said Craigor. “Nice work, orphids. And how are you getting video into my head? Magnetic vortices in the occipital lobes, you say? You’re like smart lice. Wavy. And I can turn it off, I hope? Oh, I see, like that. And I have read-write access control. Awesome. Leave the pictures on for now, I’m loving them. Behold the new orphidnet interface, Jil.”
“Oh God, does this have to be real?” mumbled Jil. “I feel dizzy. No more hardware at all? I don’t like the kids having so much access.” She sat up and began stripping off her own Web gear. “Video turns kids into zombies, Craigor. And now I feel stupid for having all those joint sensors under my skin.”
“Fa-toom!” said Momotaro, cradling an invisible rocket launcher.
“More tea, Fancy?” said Bixie, holding an unseen teapot.
With a slight twitch of will, Jil and Craigor could tune their viewpoints to the virtual worlds the kids were playing in. Really quite harmless. And the orphid-beamed visual images were of very good quality. The webeye overlays had always been a little fuzzy and headachy.
“This is gonna hurt the market for my cuttlefish,” said Craigor.
“But AmphiVision will still be making screen displays. I’ll still be putting the Pharaohs on death row.”
“Don’t think that way,” said Jil. “You have fun making the cuttle traps. It’s a skill. Of course now—everything’s going to be so different. Will anyone do anything anymore? Everyone will be terminally distracted.”
“It’ll be easy to catch fish and cuttlefish,” said Craigor. “I’ll always know where they are. I can see their meshes under the boat right now. One cuttle, some rockfish, and a salmon.”
“Yeah, but what if the fish are watching you?”
“I can always outsmart a fish,” said Craigor. “Give me some credit, Jil. And as far as work goes, people will still do things anyway. Humans are busybodies.”
“Karma yoga,” said Jil. “Hey, orphids, can you stop displaying all those triumphant halo dots? They bother me; it’s like having to see every single germ I come across. That’s better. Now, listen up, kids, Mommy and Daddy don’t want you playing computer games all day long.”
“Leave them alone for now, Mother Hen,” said Craigor. “Let’s check out the news.”
The news was all about the orphids, of course. ExaExa was blaming Ond Lutter; he was in police custody now. ExaExa said the orphid release had taken place on a San Francisco Bay squid-fishing scow named Merz Boat, and here were some pictures.
Jil and Craigor glanced up to see buzzing dragonfly cameras against the night sky, their lenses like glowing eyes. Shit.
“At least they’re not spraying solvents on us,” said Craigor.
“The authorities considered that,” said the baritone orphidnet voice in their heads. “But it’s too late. We orphids have already blanketed the whole West Coast. And great numbers of us are traveling overseas in the jet streams.” A second later, the newscaster echoed the same words.
The news imagery segued to Ond, on the steps of the hulking Bryant Street jail in San Francisco, giving a press conference to a crowd of reporters and a hostile mob. To satisfy the public’s need to know more about the ongoing events of Orphid Night, the sheriff was letting Ond talk for as long as he liked, lit by an arch of glo-lights.
Ond was verbose, geekly, defiant. The beer and tobacco had worn off. He was speaking clearly, selling the notion of the orphidnet.
“What with the petabyte and petaflop capacity of each orphid, the full ten-sextillion-strong orphidnet will boast ten ubbabytes of memory being processed at a ten ubbaflop rate—ubba meaning ten to the thirty-sixth power,” said Ond to the crowd by the jailhouse steps, relishing the chance to inflict techie jargon upon them. “Yes, the orphidnet is less powerful than was the Martian nant-sphere, but even so, the orphidnet’s total power exceeds the square of an individual human’s exabyte exaflop level. My former company’s name was well chosen: ExaExa. Put more directly, the orphidnet has the computational clout that you’d get by covering the surface of the Earth with a dogpile of humans mounded a hundred deep.”
“How will the orphidnet impact the average citizen?” asked a reporter.
“Dive in and find out,” urged Ond. “The orphidnet is all around you. Anyone can dip into it at any time. It’ll be teeming with artificial intelligences soon, and I’m predicting they’ll like helping people. Why wouldn’t they? People are interesting and fun.”
“What about the less-privileged people who don’t have specialized Web-access gear?”
“The orphids are the interface,” said Ond. “Nobody needs hardware anymore. We’re putting people first and building Gaia’s mind.”
“That’s the ExaExa slogan,” remarked another reporter. “But they fired you and disavowed responsibility for your actions.”
“I’ve been fired before,” said Ond. “It doesn’t matter. Exa-Exa’s real problem with me was that I released the orphids before they could figure out a way to charge for orphidnet access. But it’s gonna be free. And, listen to me, listen. The orphids are our friends. They’re the best nanotechnology we’re going to get. I’m counting on them to protect us from a possible return of the nants. Remember: Jeff Luty is still at large.”
“How soon do you expect to be freed from prison?”
“I’m leaving now,” said Ond. “I wouldn’t be safe in jail.” Plugged into the orphidnet as he was, with a full awareness of the exact position of everyone’s limbs, and with the emerging orphidnet AIs helping him, Ond was able to simply walk off through the crowd.
In the crowd were some very angry people who truly wished Ond harm. After all, he’d forced Earth away from her old state; single-handedly he’d made the decision to change everyone’s lives—possibly forever. Ond was in a very real danger of being stabbed, beaten to death, or hung from a lamppost.
But whenever someone reached for him, he was just out of their grasp. For once in his life he was nimble and graceful. Perhaps if the others had been so keenly tuned into the orphidnet as Ond, they could have caught him. But probably not. The orphids were, after all, quite fond of Ond.
A grinning guy at the back of the crowd gave Ond a bicycle; Ond recognized him as a friend, a fellow nanotech enthusiast named Hector Rojas. Ond mounted Hector’s bike and disappeared from the view of the still-coagulating lynch mob. Guided by the all-seeing orphids, Ond cut through the exact right alleys to avoid the people and the cars.
But there was no way to avoid the dragonfly cameras. Alone on the moonlit side streets of San Francisco, Ond asked the orphids to disable all the dragonfly cameras following him. The devices clattered to the street like dead sparrows. Next Ond had the orphids systematically change every existing database reference to his home’s address. It was easy for the orphids to reach into all the world’s computers.
But when he asked the orphids to make him invisible on the orphidnet, they balked. Yes, they would stop broadcasting his name, but the integrity of the world-spanning mesh of orphids was absolutely inviolable. Ond recalled an ExaExa design meeting where he himself had insisted that the orphid operating system include this very principle of Incorruptible Ubiquity.
Before long, people would be figuring out how to track Ond in real time. And by dawn there’d be no safe place on Earth for him.