Neon Sea Dreams
When you win that award and get up on stage, don't forget to thank those who made it all possible.
It had been the longest summer. A decade spent in Atlanta had done nothing to inure her to the heat, the humidity, the people--rather, each passing year had worn her out a little more, made the seasons a little less bearable. This time, she swore, she would leave.
"I'll miss you, though," she said to Fungus the Bogeyman. Fungus rippled the photophores on his skin, waves of iridescence slipping beneath the nest of electrodes that cradled him in his tank. "But will you miss me? You don't care about this weather, do you? You don't have to...." She checked the temperature and salinity, pH and clarity--all was well in the cool seawater that bathed the constantly dreaming squid.
She looked out of the window at the city below, its bright colors beaten flat by the sun. No coolness there, she thought. Nobody watching out for me. And when she published and left? She'd been there: some interest, some conferences, a few offers of collaboration. They could wait. A year off, perhaps. The log cabin in the mountains. The cottage on the edge of Dartmoor. The Cape. Silence and birdsong, dry land and sea, sun and clouds. She needed all of them, and none of this. Even the blandness of the office had begun to disgust her. It was a playpen set up by the grown-ups, a place to keep her quiet while they did their grown-up things elsewhere.
Back to work, or she'd never leave. She sat down at the terminal and typed away, leaving the city behind her as she dropped like a diver into the depths of her private world. No one was here in her silent sea; nobody drifted with her through the suspended motes of numbers, the tangled clumps of equations and thoughts waving slowly. This was her fiefdom--no, more than that, her creation.
Well, it was his--she couldn't think of the Bogeyman as an it--as much as hers, and it seemed unfair to claim all the credit. Perhaps she'd give him co-authorship of the paper. It was the least he deserved for the years trapped in his tiny glass rockpool, she thought, although it'd be a bit difficult for him to give the talks. She had a momentary vision of Fungus in his tank, casting shadows on an overhead projector to a roomful of rapt neuroscientists, and laughed out loud in the empty room.
She worked until one in the morning, then walked out into the stifling night, hailed a cab, out along Peachtree to Dekatur. The apartment was far too good for her, a long-term loan from an absent friend, not really hers at all. She had been glad to accept it, but too worried to make any changes. It was his decor; she placed her books, her music, her clothes in it. They were a portable environment, life support in a welcoming but alien place.
Tired, she couldn't sleep. Lay awake naked on top of the bed, the breeze from the fan an insubstantial touch, background murmur to seaweed thoughts that looped and crossed restlessly in the currents of the night. Eventually, unnoticed, sleep came.
She was in her inland sea again, but this time she wasn't alone. There! A shadow against the sandy floor, mottled by the sunlight. Dash, dart, into the shadows and out. She dipped down, chased after it. She was a sea lion, a dolphin, some playful sea being wanting to catch and be caught. There! She had it now, seen it sneak into a crevice in the jagged limestone, anemone urchin-encrusted stone that darkly, spikily ringed the white pools of sand. No way out for you!
She looked in, held her face inches from the hole in the rock. An eye looked back at her--a flash, a familiar rainbow cascade. Fungus!
"Mate!" she said. "Am I glad to see you! Must be good for you to be free after all this time, eh?" She held out her hand, and Fungus gently wrapped a tentacle around and around, a perfect spiral, covering the finger without a gap. She tugged gently, felt him tug in return. Two tugs. Two tugs back.
"You're in there, aren't you?" she said. "You know."
When she woke it was 5 a.m. The air in the room seemed thin as vacuum, the once-smothering humidity just a ghost of the sea. She reached into herself, found the dream even as it deliquesced in the thin air; remembered the games and the patterns, the cascading patterns played across Fungus' skin as he hung in the pellucid water in front of her, the patterns that slowly began to make sense. And her following him, following to the hole in the rocks, the hole with the steady, cool current that could only come from outside....
"Girl, you have got to get a grip!" she said to herself. "This is no good. Time to wrap up and ship out."
She barely glanced at Fungus when she got in, just running the checks on the water without the normal half-conversation she had with him. Three more weeks, she thought. Three more weeks and she could publish.
Was it time for the title? Why not? It was an act of faith with her that the giving of a title to her work came at the end, not the beginning. Naming something before it existed always seemed wrong, unscientific. Uncover, then describe. She played with words... the usual stuff first. Neurophysiology of Squid? Who cared about that? Cognitive Location Precepts? No....
She looked at the title on screen, and knew that it was right. Cognitive Cartography of Lycoteuthinae Nematolampas. Cog. Cart. That'd do. She wondered how the abstract would look. By selective stimulation and deep neurophysiological structural and activity-based monitoring, the normal environmental responses of L.N. can be mapped to the point where the animal's expectation of its normal habitat is fulfilled. That habitat may thus be mapped and itself simulated, allowing an exploration of the behavioral and cognitive responses... and so on.
Actually, it was pretty good. She could see a thousand research projects sparking off from this. Multiple animals. Multiple environments. And what could be done with all those other cognitive mapping projects? MIT practically had their artificial squid neural net already. Wouldn't it be good to put it in that environment?
Poor Fungus. He'd given up his life for hers. The work that would set her free had left him dulled and manacled in a box, dreaming his dreams in a world that would die when she stopped bothering about it. She worked on through the day, trying--but never quite managing--to forget the bundle of life in the tank behind her.
That night, the dreams were darker. She revisited the inland sea, but the water was still, cold. No seaweed drifted, and the limestone rocks were dull, skeletal. A faint tang of decay on the air, in the water, was all that was left of life. Overhead, the sun was red, shrunken, dour, and a couple of clouds hung motionless in the still sky. She couldn't find the hole in the rocks. She sat shivering on the shore, waiting to wake up.
The next day was Saturday. Shopping and movies, friends and late night. Not today. She lay in bed until noon, wide awake, staring at the ceiling, thinking, wondering. Building.
When the idea was finished, she was filled with a burning excitement. It had to be done! It had to be done now! It took an hour, maybe two, to put together the proposal, and five minutes to zap it off to her network of friends email-linked across the world.
It's a world that's more than capable, she thought, of supporting life. That's what it's here for, after all, this little speck of warmth and damp that twirls through the void. That's what we're here for.
It didn't take long for the replies to crystallize. Yes, they said. Be delighted. Have the resources, have the time, would be a wonderful thing. Send the files. All that remained, she thought, was to get Fungus a safe home in real life--and the marine boys in the aquarium would love him. Quite an attraction, really. A real live cybersquid. Come see.
She couldn't sleep at all that night. She paced around the apartment, logging on, watching the world of her dream come alive. The cold water channel through the rocks grew wider. Her little Fungus world had been copied, distributed; it lived in Vancouver now, and London, and Bombay, and Amsterdam. Each pool connected, each slightly different, each coming to life in the fertile soil of a thousand processors, a million disks, dead silicon and metal oxide recombining in patterns, in a new world.
And then everything was ready. Fungus would have his world, a world much larger and stranger than his little inland sea. Who knows what might join him there?
Then it was Sunday. She rested.
Rupert Goodwins (RupertGo@aol.com) Ex-chief planner of the Tongan manned mission to Mars, international jewel thief and mild-mannered reporter, Rupert Goodwins writes about computers by day and behaves oddly at night. He lives in London, a large post-imperial city set in an alluvial clay bowl, but doesn't worry about it.
InterText stories written by Rupert Goodwins: "Little Acorn" (v6n4), "Fade Out, Mrs. Bewley" (v6n5), "Neon Sea Dreams" (v7n4), "The Year Before Sleep" (v8n1), "Amo, Mensa!" (v8n5).
"Neon Sea Dreams" is dedicated to Deirdre C., for inspiring this and other silliness.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 7, Number 4 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1997 Rupert Goodwins.