The Day We Went Up to the Woods
“Next year we should teach the fuckin’ trees to dance!” Drunk as he and all the other docents had been, Raine couldn’t remember which of them came up with the idea, but he liked it. Can’t shake it, he grinned as he threaded around the trees and through the crowd toward his post. The turnout was mind-boggling!
Everyone at the birthday party for the forest wore brightly colored, holographic party hats with rotating beacons, identifying them and their affiliations. There were partygoers from Dow and Bayer; from UBC, MIT, the Smithsonian, Greenpeace, The New Guardian, and Field and Stream. Music streamed and streamers stretched between the light standards along Thacker Mountain Road; from party central on the plateau-like mountaintop, down the winding access road to the old golf course where the citizens of Hope were already gathering for the fireworks.
Inhaling deeply, Raine Naidu kept walking toward his assigned group of guests, displeased that the smell from the shallow sea of mulch and cedar shavings overwhelmed the grass-and-coconut scent of the trees themselves. Usually he felt at home among the trees; but today, this was a different place. Grateful as he was – as everyone on the team was – for the enthusiastic response to the party invitations, the sheer number of strangers walking in his forest seemed almost a travesty.
The grounds were seldom open to the public, but since Dad was head of the project, Raine and his brother Snowe had been free to go to the woods whenever they wanted. Awareness of the lifeforce that thrummed through every trunk and branch made Raine feel more alive.
Spacers had spread the branches as they’d grown, keeping the height of the tallest trees to little more than six or seven metres; with heavily bearded branches growing low to the ground in every direction. From the viewpoint tower beside the parking lot, the evenly spaced trees looked like a surrealist cross between Angkor Wat and an apple orchard.
The only biologists he could pick out in the crowd were ones who had worked here or who had helped out with various bio-engineering challenges. He knew a few more of the computer scientists, some from the BioGrid Project, a few from school and a surprising number from tech-conferences; and of course, he recognized a number of high-profile alumnae – since he’d grown up watching everyone toady to them. He recognized a few of the more well-known journos from their news feeds; as well as several models, actors and athletes who supported environmental causes.
As a gust of mountain air blew a wave of woodchips over the toes of Raine’s now earth brown Chameleoboots, a young Asian woman at the forward edge of the group wrapped a long, loosely woven, sunflower-coloured sarape around herself. “I should have brought a warmer jacket.” Beneath her frown, a smile that verged on warmth and a glimpse of silky fabric and tantalizing shadows.
The audience, having been herded into small crowds down the steep hillside all the way to the shore of Kawakaw Lake, gasped collectively as giant “candles” flickered to life in front of them; flames burning atop wicks the size of human thumbs, the crimson-coloured one beside Raine bright enough to cast its glow on faces shaded by the forest’s thick canopy. The woman in yellow took a few steps closer, extended her palms to the flame and opened her mouth as though she’d just tasted ambrosia. Raine found himself staring at her even as a cascade of aerial rootlets unfurled like rappel ropes from the lower branches throughout the forest. On a cue audible to only to him and the other docents, Raine lifted his hands above his head to get his group’s attention and announced, “Good afternoon, everyone. I’m here to explain everything that’s going on around you.”
When he pulled his gaze away from her and turned himself over to his internal prompter to commence delivery of the streaming script, he didn’t even know which part of the introduction he was at until the words started coming out of his mouth.
“Welcome to the BioGrid. You’ve probably heard the Ficus Polaris trees referred to by their popular moniker, ‘arctic stranglers,’ which was adapted from the common name of the parent varietal known as ‘strangler figs.’ In the wild, their seeds are carried by wind and birds into the leaves and upper branches of neighbouring forests. Their aerial roots grow quickly, dropping down to anchor the strangler saplings; in the process, often cutting off the roots of the host trees; stealing their nutrients; and ultimately killing them. Despite the challenge of bio-engineering them to thrive in our northern climate, Indian Banyans were chosen for this project because of their fast growth, amazingly complex and prolific root networks, and their aerial roots that are up to ten meters long, extremely flexible and very strong. The genetic enhancements have made this already robust and adaptable species infinitely hardier and more versatile than the original banyans. After winter-proofing and fireproofing the trees, scientists focused on finding ways to promote growth and add new potentialities. Snake DNA was used to weave and transform the bast layer beneath the pliable bark into a complex musculature, the resulting motility enabling their rootlets to function as arms and hands. Although they do lose flexibility as they mature, new shoots sprout and lengthen every growing season. While these motile limbs are under the direct control of individual trees, their root networks are interwoven and interconnected just beneath the soil, enabling the entire BioGrid to work together to perform complex tasks.” As the scripted words came out of Raine’s mouth, hundreds of rootlets reached out and worked in unison to pinch out all the flames.
After a moment, the flames sprang back to life and the docents explained, “The biology team is working on increasing the size of the root hairs to make the limbs even more useful and versatile. And the aerial rootlets aren’t the only appendages they can move independently.”
The earth between the trees began to undulate, as lace-like fans of interwoven root hairs rose up from beneath the woodchips. Like living wire sculptures, the fans warped and waved; working together to produce breezes that rustled leaves and eventually created tiny wind-streams so intense and perfectly directed that they actually blew the candles out.
Instead of watching the demonstration, Raine was still fixated on the young journalist, whose name, according to her beacon, was Freda Zhang. Her current wide-eyed look reflected the sense of wonder he himself had felt since coming home and seeing the “tricks” his dad had taught the trees to do. The flames were relit and again the trees extinguished them, this time smothering them with their fire-resistant leaves while Raine finished his monologue. “As you see, in this forest, fire is not a threat the trees need to worry about. We hope to see you all at the 4 pm Presentation and Q & A in the Pinnacle Conference Room on the top floor of the BioGrid Building. Set your alerts, because it will be starting exactly forty-one minutes from now.” As audience members applauded, chatting excitedly among themselves,
Freda Zhang approached Raine. Her small round face combined features he would individually find unappealing – a large scimitar nose with widely spaced crescent-moon eyes and a tiny, pouty mouth – into an ensemble that was much more than the sum of its parts. When she spoke, he was conscious of his racing pulse.
“Raine Naidu? I gather you are related to Dr. Naidu?”
Dad had developed such comprehensive privacy filters around his family and the project that simple relationships could be hard to confirm. At school, having discovered how many girls are drawn to a man of mystery, Raine enjoyed being an enigma. In this case, however…
“I’m his son,” Raine found himself boasting, something he usually struggled not to do. “I came home to help with the launch and Dad was short of docents, so I volunteered.”
“You did a good job.”
“Thank you, but with the embedded script and the drama coach it wasn’t rocket science.”
“Which drama coach did you use?”
“You should try someone older, more authority, maybe Brad Pitt.” “He’s too lite.”
“Have you heard the Eco-Docs he did for Save the Seas? Talk about gravitas.”
Raine frowned. “You think I could pull off something like that?”
“Maybe. You were really good.”
As he leaned in to ask, “What did you think of the demonstration itself ?” “Mind-boggling.”
“With all the public skepticism about the project, we wanted to leave expectations in the dust,” he said. Computer technology having long since moved into the clouds, a system so rooted to the Earth seemed almost quaint. “This is way beyond anything I expected,” she said, gesturing expansively.
“I can’t stay for the presentation, so I’m hoping you’ll be kind enough to grant me an interview before I leave.”
“When you leaving?” He’d just been running a bunch of pickup lines through his head and she had literally saved him from coming out with a clumsy attempt at glibness along the lines of, “How would you like a tasty exclusive story?”
“I need to be on the road in the next few hours.”
“Then…yeah, sure!” he found himself blurting before gathering his wits and trying to re-establish his cool. “I was heading over to the house. You can walk with me. Too bad you can’t stay longer. Dad’s planning to swing by after the presentation. You could talk to him directly, probably ask him some questions I can’t answer.”
“Maybe I can shuffle some appointments and stay an extra hour or two.” “Great! Maybe you can have dinner with us. I’ve been called the Nijinsky of the barbeque.”
Somebody stop me, he thought with a roll of his eyes. How had something that sounded so suave in his head come out sounding so dorky and asinine? “You’re trying too hard,” his friend Katya would tell him now. “Be genuine.” His wingwoman had helped him meet his last two girlfriends and he inadvertently introduced her to her wife. Without Katya’s guidance he felt out of his depth.
“Is that some special kind of barbeque?”
“Person who called me that loved ballet. Nijinsky was her hero. And she….”
He took a step toward her, despite her attempt to wave him back, “Careful of the A/V cloud!”
Although it was much like walking into a spiderweb, he refrained from swatting at it and doing further damage to the delicate nano-cameras and mics. His face grew warm as he mumbled apologies.
“It’s not the end of the world,” she laughed, reaching out to brush and pluck A/V fibres from his eyebrows and beard so heavy at twenty that it started growing back before he got his Depil back in its case every morning.
“I’ve been known to get too animated and do it myself.” She touched the jewel-like unit she wore like a glowing sapphire broach on her sweater and the cloud retracted. “I have two spare clouds in my bag! And it’s just an interview, so I won’t need 360 coverage.”
“Where do you live?” “Tsawwassen.”
“Tsawwassen, B.C.?” No Tsawwassen, Ukraine, idiot. He rolled his eyes at his own awkwardness. “Like just down the highway?”
“Over two hours. It’s a drive.”
They talked about the BioGrid for the rest of the half hour walk to his house, starting with Raine’s question, “How much do you know?”
“I just received the media kit on the drive here,” she said. “To be honest, I was reading rather than watching or listening to it because I was previewing the new album by Jacquie T at the same time. Music’s more of a focus than science on my show and there’s way too much going on in the Lower Mainland this weekend.”
“Okay then.” He did a quick mental search and retrieve. “Check your inbox. I just sent you some background.”
“Oh, thanks.” She took his hand, holding it up as she confided, “I tend to walk into things when I try to watch docs or read while walking.”
“No reading required. Just a couple of Some-Arise caps of the presentation,” said Raine, smiling as she nodded to acknowledge receipt of the modules. “When you open them, they become resident so you can refer back as you need them.”
“Oh,” she said with an apologetic frown. “Then I guess we don’t even need to hold hands.”
“Probably should,” Raine confided. “The revelations can be quite dizzying.” She laughed. “I already know about the problems that derailed the project in the early days. We did a forensic review on it back in first year Media Studies. My favourite part of the course. That’s part of the reason your press release caught my attention.”
“Why would they teach about the BioGrid Project in a media course?”
“A textbook example of the press getting ahead of itself. When the project was unveiled, the BioGrid was a huge deal, everywhere, on every medium – this massive biological computer and its data bank with the total knowledge of humankind programmed into it? Infinite storage that would increase as the forest continued to grow? The potential had the news-nets frothing at the mouth until the whispers about the problems started. When it came out that the BioGrid was completely indifferent to human affairs and had shut down all communication with us, it put a full stop to everything. The project was over. There was no more story after that.”
“Dr. Higgins managed to suppress it for awhile,” Raine acknowledged, “It never occurred to anyone, that an entity as passive as a tree could have a mind of its own.”
“A forest you mean.”
“The forest is made up of trees. They may be networked together, but they live and die as individuals within the system. That’s how Dad finally managed to get through to them. Appealing to the individual trees; recruiting them one at a time, convincing them to upload the human personality matrices. The real story is just beginning! This is it.”
“Maybe,” Freda grinned, “but the media was pretty badly burnt. You’re on the curriculum! Think about that.”
“That’s why Dad laid low until he could convince everyone that the problem had been overcome. When the university told him last summer they were going to pull the plug on the project, he realized he couldn’t hold off on the news until the new matrices were up and running. Do you think today’s demonstration changed any minds?”
“Well, it changed mine. Then again, I’m not…um…necessarily your target audience.” He allowed himself to be soothed by Freda’s hopeful, trusting smile.
“What do you mean?” he asked, as he sent instructions through his Privacomm to open the gate.
She let go of his hand as they entered the grounds of the house. “Y’know, the entertainment focus of my show. Wow. Nice habs! Mountain view from your front steps.” She spread her arms to the horizon and took a deep breath. “You grew up here?!”
“Ever since Dad took over the job from Dr. Higgins. My brother Snowe got into skiing. But I had to do a lot of catching up at school.”
“What do you mean, catching up?”
Two steps inside the front door, Freda stopped and stared up at the huge painting high up on the three metre wall. “So, it’s true!”
He followed her gaze, trying to imagine seeing the dramatic knife painting for the first time. Two metres wide and four high, a female figure manifested from a cascade of icicles in hues of blue and falling leaves in primary reds and yellows. He looked back at Freda as the holo overlay kicked in and the figure stepped into the air in front of the ‘canvas,’ lifting the microphone to lips of glistening crimson as she opened her mouth to sing. The animation was based on the original painting hanging in the Musee de Musique in Montreal of the last concert she ever performed.
“What did you mean, it’s true?” Raine asked.
“Doctor Veejay Naidu really did knock up the queen of Afro-Electrika.” She stared at Raine, eyes so wide she looked almost overwhelmed as her A/V array rose like steam, settling around her head and shoulders. “I’ve been trying to confirm this for years.”
“This is what you’re really here for? When you asked me for the interview? Before you even came to Hope? You made me believe you were here to write a piece about the BioGrid, when you’re really just some kind of…paparazzi.” She shook her head, “I never lied to you. I’m a serious journalist. And I plan to write a very good story about the BioGrid. It’s just that my story will have a slightly different perspective than everyone else’s. That is if you’ll still talk to me.”
Raine regarded her for a long moment; thought about asking her to leave. What would Dad do? Take advantage of the added publicity? I guess if there ever was a time….
“Aja Kongo is one of my heroes. My biggest inspiration for what I do. There was nothing about you in any of the official records. How could information so significant be kept from the media?”
“Information security was Dad’s specialty early in his career. He has a…” he paused to find the right word, “…meticulous nature. So, how did you track us down?”
“The famous video she made from her deathbed. The part where she said ‘goodbye to sleet and rain and snow,’ that’s not what I heard. I never believed it was a metaphor for life and the seasons like everyone thought. It was actually a goodbye to her family. Vee and Raine and Snowe. Telling you how much she loved you and missed you. I found a reference to someone named Raine Naidu in her entourage during her African tour. Found out that you have a brother named Snowe and your father’s name was Veejay. The pieces weren’t hard to put together. That was a month ago. I guess everyone else had stopped looking.”
Raine hardly ever thought about that video, made after the quarantine trapped her in Burundi. Closing his eyes could not block out the memory of Mom propped into an upright position, joints already frozen at the elbows; a crusty whiteness claiming half of her face, making it hard for her to speak as she appealed to her fans for support. “In North America, an outbreak like this might kill ten or twenty people, but in Continental Africa, each and every instance kills an average of 5,000 people. Please help us correct this imbalance and get the resources…”
Shaking off the lingering deathbed images, Raine said. “Mom and Dad hated the limelight for different reasons – but just as passionately. So, she never talked about her previous life.” He paused, looking Freda in the eye again. “We never existed.”
“Well, you do now. You can’t make me not know it, so the story will break one way or another. I’m offering you the chance to…control the context. If anything, the BioGrid will get way more attention because of the…peculiar human interest angle.”
She had thought it all out. Looking at her gazing up at him, illuminated beatifically in the hidden tracklights; her A/V cloud surrounding her like an oversized halo, Raine found himself still eager to talk with her. “You have to promise to give the BioGrid equal billing…”
“Absolutely!” The look on her face as she came up the steps was dreamy and distant. “Moon Eyes” was both the name of Aja Kongo’s biggest hit and an expression she used so frequently her children’s eyes rolled back in their heads when they heard it. Freda was looking at him with moon eyes.
He opened the door to the main house. “C’mon then.”
But by the time Freda reached the landing, her dreamy look was replaced by the pitiless gaze of a reporter who was going to get whatever story she decided to pursue. Raine’s attraction to her only increased with each new facet revealed.
The lights in the kitchen were solar-powered and brighter than the sunshine coming in the skylights as the sun dipped behind the mountains. The auto-fragrance smelled strongly of oranges, a sure sign that the garbage needed taking out. After hanging up her sarape, he sat down beside her at the breakfast bar in the kitchen and she asked her first question of the newly framed interview. “Your mom and dad were similar; both from immigrant families. Both brilliant in their chosen fields. You think that’s what brought them together?”
“All I could see was how different they were; my dad fixated on always making the most rational choice, and Mom with her need to open every door, explore every possibility. They loved each other passionately and hated each other completely.”
“Aja Kongo was known for her confrontational style. Was she like that at home, with her family?”
“I was a sickly child, my memories from that time are more like clips from a fever dream than genuine recall. A montage of images. Probably no more real or vivid than your own memories of her.”
“Some of them must be real.”
He grinned and shared, “She used to sleepwalk. I remember waking up one time she flicked on my bedroom light in the middle of the night. Waved her arms around and shouted something like, ‘you boys get down off the walls.’” I remember she was wearing this shiny white nightgown that practically glowed against her dark skin. Though she wasn’t really all that dark. She used to tell my dad, ‘They call me black and you brown, but you’re at least three shades darker than me!’ It’s true. And Snowe and I both look more like him than her.”
Freda shrugged, “I think you look a lot like your mom. God knows where you both got those emerald green eyes.”
“Mom had her DNA done. Twenty-eight percent Kongo; bit of Yoruba and Shona; all the rest European, Thirty-eight percent Belgian, six percent German, three percent Dutch. It’s crazy. As opposed to my Dad who’s something like eighty-six percent Tamil.”
“You didn’t happen to inherit your Mom’s ability to sing?”
Is that where she’s going with this? He nodded. “That dream ended when I had a music teacher who suggested dropping out of choir and taking up an instrument.”
“Yeah! Joined the math club…learned to play a mean slide rule.”
“Slide rule.” Seeing no glimmer of understanding, he explained, “A gadget people once used to do math calculations. I don’t think they make them anymore. They don’t make noise, so public performances would be a bit dull. Too bad. I practiced my patter. Here’s a little number I’ve been calculating.”
When she snickered at his joke, he laughed with her.
Freda cocked her head and regarded him from a new angle. “So, if you have to pick a trait you’ve inherited from your mom, what would you choose?”
“I’m not being stubborn or evasive when I say, I don’t remember her that well. By the time I was a teenager, she had all but vanished from my life. I loved her…and she was a huge, huge influence on me and in my life, but my dad was my real parent. And however great Mom’s music was, the work that Dad has done – is still doing – is ultimately more important.”
“A lot of people would argue.”
Perplexed, Raine said, “’Cause we’re talking apples and oranges. To you as an individual, Mom’s work may mean the world. But to us, as a species…I mean…Dad is looking for the key to immortality. And he may have found it.”
“He must have loved her though.”
“Excuse me,” Raine scowled. “How is that relevant?”
“The painting hanging over your entranceway, that’s a pretty big statement. Welcome to Aja Kongo. She was clearly an important part of your dad’s life. How do you think she’s influenced him and his work?”
It was something Raine had never really thought about. After a moment of tongue-tied silence, Raine just said, “You’ll have to ask him.”
She grinned. “Okay then, what has she meant to you?” Again, perplexed, he finally shrugged.
“Everything ties together,” she urged. “All part of the same story.”
“It’s not, really,” Raine argued, “because I can tell you everything you need to know about the BioGrid Project without mentioning Mom.”
“Not as long as I’m the one doing the interview.”
With a shake of his head, he silently conceded. It wasn’t long before he was telling her things he never really talked about with anyone. “I wasn’t a healthy kid. Caught every bug that came along. When I was nine, I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. It was considered pretty treatable even back then. But the c. auris outbreaks were messing with the medical infrastructure. I needed transfusions big time, and the fucking hospitals were afraid to give them to me. I got lots of modified artificial blood – antifungals, antibacterials, you name it, but kept getting sicker. I was told all this, don’t remember any of this first hand, cause I was so sick, right? But I put the pieces together later from photos, vid, heresay; Grandma Nyembo was probably madder at Mom than anybody. But she had lots of stories about Mom, growing up in Etobicoke. And when Snowe and I were little, Auntie Hanna, Mom’s little sister, had lots of stories too. She lived with us in Calgary and spent six months on the road with Mom. And even though lots of the memories weren’t really mine, they feel like mine. Like real memories!” Freda put her hand on his forearm. He was tired of talking about himself, of having no real answers to her questions and trying to dredge up something interesting to say. He turned to her, looking into her eyes and asking earnestly. “What about you? Did you grow up healthy?”
“Healthy. Happy. Curious. Really curious, because everyone else’s life seemed bigger and more interesting than mine. Like yours.”
“Mine was the kind of interesting you don’t want.”
“But you did recover. Clearly!” She failed to repress an embarrassed laugh, “I’m so observant, yah? I’m sorry your recovery wasn’t easy.”
Impressed how she had turned the conversation straight back at him, Raine swallowed laboriously and continued. “Surviving the chemo was hard. With the fungal infection on top of it, everyone was sure they were gonna lose me. Mom used to say I must have made friends with death itself. Convinced the darkness not to take me.
“Ah. That’s where the song came from,” she looked equally fascinated and delighted. “’Besties’ is my favourite song of all time.”
“There you go. And it’s about me.” He grinned, not self-conscious until after he’d said it. But now, the look in her eyes made everything a little more complicated; a gaze glazed with reflected worship. Raine realized in that instant that if he wanted Freda, he just had to make a move.
His gut felt hollow with fear. Would it be unethical to take advantage of the ace he had suddenly found up his sleeve? It wasn’t, like, his reason for going after her, but it certainly helped with his self-confidence. He couldn’t recall ever wanting anyone more. It was so far beyond horniness that Raine was certain no one had ever described this state before. It took an instant to register that she was talking to him. Again? Still? Listen!
“…lyrics never actually mention you.” Freda’s laugh was a tinkling chime. “But the metaphor’s intact. Being besties with Death, so that Death will have mercy on you. What did your dad think of that?”
Raine shrugged. “He was working on a more sure-fire approach. Designing personality matrices to keep me alive, even if I died.”
“So, clearly, your parents were still together at the time?”
“I think that was the beginning of the end. My condition put a lot of stress on them. My brother said he hated being at home because it was the saddest place on Earth. He said the silence at dinner was so loud, he could almost hear it. That’s why he got into sports. He almost made the Canadian Olympic volleyball team. Did you find that out in your research? And it was all because of me too.”
“They were united in their grief,” he said. “Or in some cases, desperation to get away from me.”
Freda shook her head. “You mean the sadness of losing you.”
“Yeah, maybe. Drove my mom away just like it did Snowe. But Dad stayed with me. Even though he wasn’t raised in the Indian culture and didn’t have any real family to speak of, he always said dedication to family was ingrained in him.”
Freda nodded. “Because he was orphaned when his parents died in the Sleepless City riots and raised as an only child by the Indo-Canadian couple that adopted him.”
“Wow. How on Earth did you dig that up? Maybe you know some things about him that even I don’t.” He grinned at how pleased she looked with herself. “Anyway, you’re right. His new mom died when he was young, and his dad was his benefactor and role model. Tatta Abhishek was the most noble and well-meaning man I ever met. It’s too bad he couldn’t have kids of his own. May he have many in his next life. At any rate, in this life, he practically lived at my bedside after Mom left.”
“Where is he now?”
“Died. Of cancer. Two years after I recovered. I think he truly believed he had traded his life for mine.”
“What do you think?”
“He sort of embraced the role of tragic figure. Involuntary outsider. He was a sad man. And it was the sadness that killed him. It might have killed my dad too if I’d left. That’s what Tatta said.
“My illness had taken over both their lives. Imagine how much more amazing music Mom could have made if she hadn’t been chained to my bed all those years. But she finally got away from me.”
“Your parents’ breakup wasn’t your fault,” said Freda. “Its perfectly normal to respond with that sort of displacement though; putting yourself into the storyline where you don’t really belong. It’s narcissism, really – we’re seldom as instrumental to a process like that as we think. You brought out her honesty, courage, strength. Without your inspiration she may not have become…”
Something snapped inside of him, and his voice rose into another register, “Became what? A drug addict? A cheat? A coward; running from her responsibilities? A martyr for a culture she was never even really a part of ? Do you know she had never been to Africa until her career took off ?”
“Is that what you really think of her?”
He breathed deeply, letting the sounds seep in through the ensuing silence. Birdsong from the bush at the side door, an electric hum from somewhere, a distant lawn mower. “I guess not.”
Freda waited for him to elaborate, and finally he did. “There were aspects of your hero that no one ever acknowledges. You want to know my clearest real memory of her? I was lying in bed and Mom was singing to me. Me thinking the song was just for me and she was making up the words as she looked into my eyes.” Raine nodded. “I sat up to hug her and she put her hands on either side of my face and placed it back onto the pillow. But when she leaned in, I heard this tinny little male voice saying that she was making the song too maudlin and that the chorus should come back in sooner and the tempo pick up and I realized she had her headset on and someone else was talking to her. Then she stood up, saying ‘No, no, this is the heart of the song.’ And I remember her backing out of the room, making apologetic kissy faces as while I clung to her hand, then pulling away, stepping out into the hall to talk to this other person. And I remember feeling angry and jealous, realizing she hadn’t really been singing to me, but to this man I didn’t even know; choosing him over me. Over all of us.”
Freda didn’t break the silence for the longest time, when she whispered, “Wow. Parents can be so oblivious. But you do know that the song really was about you, though. For you? Right?”
Raine nodded. “I may have inspired it. But that’s all. She used me.” “You don’t think she loved you?”
“If she really loved me, I’d have been a bigger part of her life. Oh. I have another memory. Sorta the same time. Don’t know if it happened the same day. But I remember sneaking out of bed and down the hall pushing an IV stand with a squeaky wheel. Standing at her studio door and listening as she told the person on the line how much she loved him. I knew it wasn’t Dad. I remember her saying to him, “I’m trapped. I can’t do the things I need to do from here.”
“You caught a tiny fragment of her conversation and you’ve spent the past ten years trying to fill in the blanks. Maybe she fought to keep you and lost.
It’s not fair for you to make assumptions based on how your parents break- up made you feel.”
“It was my dependence on her that pushed her over the edge. She couldn’t be answerable to me twenty-four/seven and have the life she wanted. It’s a good thing for all the music lovers in the world that she chose her music. I get that.” His eyes burned as he said it. He closed them to collect himself, willing the sadness away as he thought about Freda and opened his eyes to look at her here in the moment with him; thrown into soft focus through his bleary- eyed gaze; filling his grasp, his need, with her small, soft hand. Squeezing it gently, he forced a smile. “What you’re saying, I hear you. I’m just telling you how it felt for me.”
“Have you ever talked to your brother about it?”
“I’ve tried, but he doesn’t give a fuck. He’s the King of I Don’t Give a Fuck.” At any rate – these are not things I’ve ever talked about with him; ever wanted to shout from the rooftops. They’re conversations I can barely have with myself. And now I’ve blabbed them to the world.”
“I am truly sorry.” Freda said.
Raine said. “Gimme something back. Tell me something real about Freda Zhang. Then maybe I’ll forgive you.”
She stopped chewing her lip and pulled her hand away. “Okay. My dad is a very private person, a control freak. I’ve talked about things on my show that have embarrassed him. Humiliated him, he says. Silly things about growing up, or about his bathroom habits, or even my bathroom habits. He always thinks people are judging him.”
“How about your mom? Is she still around?”
Freda nodded. “Mom doesn’t say much about anything. She…what’s the word…defers to everyone else. She’s not assertive; at all. I love her to death but she’s one of the meekest people I’ve ever known. If she has opinions, she doesn’t share them with anyone.”
“Of course, she has opinions,” said Raine.
“You haven’t met my mom.” Freda laughed. “Your turn again. When your dad was building the personality matrixes, did your mom play any part in that process?”
Raine shook his head. “None. Zero. She hated it; didn’t think it was possible to build a personality matrix of me that would feel like it captured any of my soul. To give Dad credit, he tried to address her concerns; built some algorithms that would allow the quantum computer at UBC to extrapolate and model my inner life. Made it part of my template.”
“What is this template?”
“The whole goal of the project was to give the BioGrid a more human perspective. And he tried to build in some aspects designed to find our prana. In Chinese culture, it’s called chi.”
“Did it work? Did your dad capture your prana in his matrix?”
“Not according to Mom. She thought the process was too hard on me. I was still pretty sick. It did go on for weeks – gathering and inputting this huge range of seemingly random stuff, like results of questionnaires and Rorschach tests and EEGs. My reactions to a huge range of stimuli. Dad argued that it gave me a sense of purpose. Something to live for. But he left the decision up to me. I wanted to keep going. Since it really did coincide with my recovery, she went along with it. “Mom avoided the BioGrid, so she had no direct influence on anything.”
Freda leaned toward him with a tiny smile and said softly, “You can’t put them in separate silos; ignore the influence they had on one another.”
“When Mom met the matrix version of me, she declared the whole experiment a failure; said it wasn’t anything like me. It creeped her the fuck out, but in the end, she didn’t think something so intrinsically inhuman had the capacity to contain my spirit or essence.”
Freda frowned and got an elsewhere look in her eyes, mumbling, “Your dad seemed to agree with her assessment. In the press kit he referred to the early matrices as ‘inert data,’ with no ‘sense-of-being’ holding it together? She quoted directly from the Some-Arise fragment. “All thirty-two of the original matrices lost coherence within the first five years and were completely subsumed by year eight. Attempts to re-upload the matrices failed.”
“All technically true,” said Raine, “but it sounds way worse than it was. As each matrix was absorbed, whatever human values it contained became a part of the system absorbing it. The goal of the matrices was to give the AIs a more human perspective, and they did that! When Dr. Higgins left the project, the BioGrid was incontrovertibly arboreal.”
“Whoa,” laughed Freda, “Say that five times fast and the duck will come down and give you a magic egg.”
“What?” asked Raine, totally derailed.
“Another discovery from my media course. Groucho Marx. I get what you’re saying but keep throwing words like that around and I’ll have like one listener left by the end of the interview.”
“Yeah, yeah. Point made. Do you want a beer?” He let her choose from the four microbrews in the fridge and sat back down and said, “In the beginning, the trees had no use for human concerns. They just wanted to be trees. Uploading the matrices may not have made them human, but it at least gave them a way to relate to us, made them willing to talk to us. Convinced them there might be some value in that. And if those crappy old matrices did all that, imagine what the new ones will do. I’ll actually be inside the BioGrid when it happens. The data will be more raw and organic. They’re basically just making a copy of me, with all my memories and feelings. Should have far greater integrity. Projections show virtually no deterioration, unless something comes at us out of the blue.”
“Which has never happened before, right?”
“The unexpected.” And then she kissed him. Raine had kissed a fair number of girls in his life. Some of those kisses had been tentative or clumsy, some self conscious, rehearsed, practiced, or skilled. Some had been prim and arid; others deeply intimate. But Freda’s kiss was of a whole different order; soft and hot and full of dizzying…what was it? Intimacy. Lost in the scent of her, it occurred to him that her cloud was still on.
He couldn’t help but wonder if he had inadvertently sucked in a bouquet of those nanoscopic cameras and microphones. Would they keep working in his lungs and sinuses? Now we go to our gut cam where you can actually hear the fluttering of the butterfies. As his stomach rumbled, he started to laugh.
Bemused, Freda looked into his eyes and demanded, “How was that funny?”
Laughing harder despite his best efforts, he shook his head and tried to think of an excuse; any excuse to help him avoid pissing off the most amazing woman he’d ever met.
Her grumpy face turned into a hesitant smile and her voice screeched, “What?”
“Nothing. I’m sorry. Guess you just make me nervous.” He slid his fingers along her jawline from her chin to her ear, guiding her face gently back to his. Another giggle almost escaped as he asked, “Your cloud is turned off now, right?”
It vanished from his peripheral vision as their lips touched for the second time. He couldn’t exactly hear angels singing, but reasoned that if angels were real, that’s exactly what they would be doing.
This time, it was Freda who pulled back. “I’m sorry. We’re getting way off course. We still have work to do.” She pushed him gently away. “I believe I was trying to show you that we should always be prepared for the unexpected.”
“You’re such a girl scout,” he grinned.
“Soooo,” she said, collecting her thoughts despite Raine’s best efforts, “what if the new matrices don’t retain their integrity either?”
Well, that was a downer.
He let the question settle and clarify. It wasn’t as though it hadn’t occurred to him; he’d simply refused to entertain it. “The BioGrid will become even more human with each one of us it consumes until it eventually becomes us. The process turns from overt influence to symbiosis. It could take a year or hundreds of years to become what it will become. It’s an adventure…an amazing adventure that I get to experience first hand.”
“No you won’t?”
“What do you mean?”
“Even if the experiment is one hundred percent successful, the you that becomes part of the BioGrid won’t be this you.” She pinched a bit of skin just above his clavicle, hard enough to make him yelp.
“But a version of me will.”
“While the original stays here on Earth, with me."
She closed her eyes, “That’s not how I meant it.”
“It’s what you said, though.”
This time it was Freda who was giggling. “I just meant….”
“I know,” he said as he came in for another kiss. “But it’s all open to interpretation, now isn’t it?”
After another, thirty, or forty-five seconds, she broke away. “We’ll never get finished here.”
“Mmmm,” he said.
“No mmmm. What if your dad comes in?” Raine sighed deeply. “I suppose.”
They went on like that until dark. He never managed to get another kiss, but did divert her into talking more about herself. It seemed she loved animation in all its permutations and was astonished when he confessed to never seeing Roger Rabbit.
“It is like fifty years old!” he said.
“But it’s a classic. And it’s required viewing for anyone who wants to go out with me.”
“In that case, want to watch it tonight?”
“We’re working. And, holy cow, it’s late.” His Privacomm told him it was
8:47 pm. “Past dinner time. Dad should have been home hours ago. Maybe he got lured into an interview too. I should give him a call and find out what his plans are. And then get dinner started.”
She unpinned the purple brooch, and took a box out of her purse that was exactly the same royal hue and held it aloft. “Meet my editor. I call him Mr. Jameson. That’s from Spiderman.”
When Raine shrugged, she slapped him on the shoulder. “Just wait till you see my comic book collection. Anyway, while you call your dad and start dinner, I thought I’d put up a small introductory print piece and trailer for the interview.”
Raine expected he’d be hard to reach but was surprised to find Dad’s alert panel turned off completely. Not taking calls? Maybe in a private session. Raine checked the updates and saw that he’d had been fielding calls from a company called LivTech. Interested in adapting the Humatrix technology even before the press conference, Raine could well imagine them making a final desperate bid.
Raine extended a tentative interrupt only to discover that Dad wasn’t on a call at all. Turning off his comm made no sense on a night like this. Sometimes Dad blocked all access like this when he was with his girlfriend, Andrea.
“Nope. Left him at the auditorium,” said Andrea. “He was going to drop by the lab and then go home.”
Raine’s call to the lab got routed to security. After an exchange of pleasantries, the security chief, Taryn, explained, “Yeah, half the team is up there. Some kind of solar flare alert.”
“The BioGrid’s immune to flares,” said Raine.
Taryn shrugged. “As far as we know. But the computers in the lab and operations centre aren’t.”
“The shields are state of the art and there’s a…” Dad’s double beep sounded. “Oh, here he is now….”
Before Taryn said, “Okay,” Dad’s voice came overtop. “Sorry, son. Meant to call you, but there is a bit of panic going on here. Three big flares in just two hours. This has no precedent. We cannot take chances. Battening the hatches. I may not make it home. I believe someone has ordered pizza here if you want to join us. There’s champagne. It’s a celebration and a panic at the same time.”
“Would it be okay if I brought someone with me?”
“Ohhhh. who?” Dad seldom beat around the bush.
“A reporter that I met at the demonstration….”
“Oh. That’s too bad. The Op Centre hasn’t been reporter-proofed. It’s not a chance we can take, son.” He was so apologetic Raine felt guilty for putting him on the spot. He also figured that now was not a good time to confess bringing the reporter to the house through the front door and opening a whole new can of worms. On the other hand, if Aja Kongo could help boost the frequency about the project, he might begrudgingly view it as a good thing.
“It’s alright, Dad. You can meet her later I hope.”
“Her, yes, definitely. But I won’t be home tonight. Is she staying in town?” “Maybe. I don’t know.”
“Ohhhh. It’s like that.” His inflection was suggestive. “Well, not like that. At least not yet,” Raine grinned.
“Perhaps you can bring her with you for the upload tomorrow. The lab is better set up for public scrutiny that the OC.”
“So, we’re still planning to do it?”
“To be truthful, I don’t know. The last of the three big flares was two hours ago. Some satellites have gone down, but we’re stable as ever. The emergency has most likely passed. We’re just waiting for the solar activity to subside. But some are saying this is just the calm before the real storm.”
Raine nodded. “Guess I’ll see you tomorrow then.”
Dad smiled. “The pizza is here. Oh, my. I work with such greedy pigs. We can keep one other apprised. Yes?”
Raine had left Freda at the gaming computer in the VR room. Rather than interrupt to update her on the upload situation, he turned on the patio lights and started dinner.
“All done?” he asked when she came downstairs, twenty minutes later. “Mostly. Got the trailer and intro up on the site but I can’t finish ‘til after
I talk to your dad. And I need to go to the bathroom. Can you maybe point me in the right direction?”
“It’s right here behind the stairs. Dad’s not home yet.” He nodded at her open laptop, “Mind if I check out your piece?”
“That’s why I do it,” she said as she closed the door behind her.
He grinned at the tagline on her landing page. “Come and hang with Freda Zhang.” The graphics were in English and Chinese. Her headline, “Birthday Bash for the World’s Biggest Bioengineered Trees,” was fun, and her feed was great. Her patter began with a who’s who of attendees – and a basic primer on the BioGrid Project for anyone who didn’t know or had long forgotten. She quoted the well-known line from Time Magazine, “Not just blowing leaves here, the BC BioGrid Project is blowing minds – by growing minds….” Her teaser was amusing, “Everyone’s heard of the Ficus Polaris – most likely by their popular name, the Arctic Strangler.” Her breezy delivery turned more serious. “Although the project hasn’t been in the news for a few years, the Journal of AI Research once heralded it as ‘The most audacious and important experiment in the field.’
“If you heard rumours that the project had been abandoned, you’ll be as surprised as I was to discover that the project is not only still on track but going stronger than ever. They had a party at the BioGrid building at UBC’s western campus in the city of Hope, where it seems that the trees have reached the legal age of nineteen. That’s right. The Arctic Stranglers can now legally drink alcohol and drive cars. And those aren’t the only surprises in store. Join me on Tuesday for my exclusive interview with Raine Naidu, son of BioGrid Team Leader Dr. Veejay Naidu and discover the secret connection between the BioGrid and the Queen of Afro-Electronica, Aja Kongo. Discover why these trees might be shakin’ with an Afrobeat.”
Raine looked up her influencer ranking on his own privacomm. 604 – a relative heavyweight in a market the size of the Pacific Northwest. No, hold on. That was her area code. And her rank within that area code was actually…hmmm, eighty-six? Yes! A genuine heavyweight in her category. Raine grinned. On CelebraDoppler, he saw that she had considerable range, with TOP100 status as far away as Calgary and Portland. He scanned the menu to see if she shared personal information in general or hookups in particular, dimming the screen as she came back into the room.
“Did you like my story?”
“You got all the facts right. I like your humour. Your style. It’s fun to read and look at. So I guess, that’s a yeah. I liked it a lot.”
Since Freda had taken off the brooch, he was more at ease during dinner, even as he confessed that his dad wasn’t coming home. He invited to come to the lab.
“Damn I have a lunch interview with Jackie T in North Van. Can I get a rain check?”
“You’re not going home tonight, though, are you? We have a spare room.” “Oh, the old spare room trick,” she said with raise of a brow and curl of a lip. Raine had no idea who she was imitating, but it was sexy in a kind of silly way.
She talked him into putting on some of his mom’s music, and he delighted her by playing an early demo that she had changed up before sending it to the record company. Songs she had never otherwise recorded or played in public were being piped straight into their PAs. Freda was over the moon.
When he went to get a second bottle of wine, she followed him into the house, ambushing him when he came back from the wine cellar.
Having once set off a girlfriend’s sexual assault implant by accident because they were both drunk, made him a bit skittish. “Are your SAIs turned off ?”
“They’re on manual,” she said. “Are yours?”
Rather than admit he didn’t have any, he just murmured, “Mmm-hmm.” She was looking at him with the moon eyes she’d worn at the bottom of the stairs when they came in. Again, it occurred to him that she might only be here right now because he was the son of her idol and for a second, he felt a wee bit guilty for taking advantage of that. When she kissed him again, all the guilt melted away and soon they were sprawled, half-dressed on the couch.
The song on his Privacomm shouted in Mom’s voice. “Don’t try sliding that past me. You think that I can’t see, what you’re getting up to?” Raine jumped like he’d just sat on a pin and his eyes opened wide as he declared. “I think we should turn Mom off !” They laughed and pulled apart, Freda’s invisible zip was undone, the swollen nipple of one breast peeking out the gap.
Even though Dad wasn’t due home, Freda said, “Let’s go find a room with a door.”
As he led her to his room, Freda put on the new Jackie T album she’d been talking about. It was good, which was fortunate, because the rhythms helped define what would surely become one of the most unforgettable nights of his life. While they made love, he imagined he could feel her heartbeat pounding in perfect time with his as their bodies measured bars and time changes.
Two orgasms later, she lay in his arms, asking, “How will it work? Will the BioGrid converse with you? Like two people talking? Or will it be like something has taken over your PA? Or will it be more collaborative? Or what?”
“What? Well, no…er, yeah. I guess. It was designed to access our actual memories and opinions. That’s how it gathers the data. In six hours rather than six weeks. Dad would have told me if it was uncomfortable or invasive. He says it’s less like the BioGrid being in your head than your head being in the BioGrid. But at the end, I’ll be there, forever. Or a version of me, anyway. Tomorrow morning I become immortal.”
Freda was nodding. “That is pretty cool. Even if the “you” that’s still here won’t ever experience that.”
“And the Raine that’s there won’t get to experience you.”
“He’ll remember me though right? In a way, I’ll be immortalized along with you.”
He smiled at the realization that she was right, this would likely be his most intense and vivid memory.
Raine leaned in and looked her in the eye. “If you could come tomorrow, maybe I could talk Dad into uploading you along with me.”
“How long do these trees live?” He shrugged, “Up to 2000 years.”
“We’ve known each other for less than a day and you want me to spend eternity with you? It’s nice, but I’m not sure I’m up for that kind of commitment just yet. Maybe you should ask me again in six months. Besides, I doubt if your dad would be willing to do that, even if he could fit me in, and even if I was totally comfortable with it.”
She hooked her fingers into the thick velcro pad of his almost day old beard and guided him in for another kiss. “So for now, let’s make sure your memories are worth saving.”
“Haven’t we done that already?”
“That was just the warm up,” she growled.
At 9 am when he was ready to set off, Raine called his dad at work. Dad said, “There’s been little flares all night. Like the sun has acid reflux bad as me. Shouldn’t have had pepperoni on that pizza.”
“Do you want me to bring your pills?”
“Sure. But I’m better now. I’ve been sleeping sitting up. Might try lying down for a real nap before you get here, so don’t be shy about waking me up.” Freda was in the bathroom in just a bra and thong panties, putting on make-up when Dad signed off.
Coming up behind her, Raine’s heart beat a little faster when she smiled at him in the mirror and a whole lot faster when she backed up and wriggled her amazing round bootie against him.
“I have to go,” he said.
“Wouldn’t it be more fun to come?” she murmured, as she turned, maintaining as much body contact as possible, and kissed him. “Again?”
“I don’t have time,” he said.
“How much time do we need?” she said, unzipping his pants.
“I really shouldn’t,” he said, even while sliding his hand between her legs. How could he still feel so passionate and wide awake after doing this all night? He grinned recklessly as he pulled aside the filmy fabric of her panties. Watching her face in the mirror as he penetrated her, as their moans and cries echoed in the tiny bathroom, took the passion to a whole new level.
Kissing her neck and shoulders as his erection softened inside of her, he thought; If I stay here for two minutes more, it will turn into another ten minutes and I really will show up late for the upload! “We have to get dressed. I have to go.”
Within two minutes they were out the door and five minutes later, he was kissing Freda goodbye as she dropped him off at the base of the stairs to the Bio-Systems Building, which was built in tiers up Thacker Mountain to the spire of the broadcast tower that connected the BioGrid to the world at large. Snowe’s film-studies friends who had come to visit last summer had called them the Potemkin Stairs, which they really did resemble. But they were also the playground of Raine’s childhood where he and his brother spent countless hours pretending to climb to an Elven cloud palace, or even more exciting, a giant pyramid, where a god-like mummy waited at the top to challenge them. As he stared at the gate long after Freda had driven out through it, his new cochlear implant chimed. Instead of delivering the expected censure for being late the voice of his newly customized Priva-comm Assistant, Sophie, said warmly, “The BioGrid Lab regrets that they are running behind schedule.
Please revise your appointment time to 10:25.”
He thought of calling Freda and asking her to come back. But she’d be halfway to the highway by now. By the time she parked, they’d be back where they began.
With time to kill, he didn’t have to take the elevator straight up to the lab. He could walk the ramp through the winding tunnels and stop for coffee. Maybe buy one of those little silver souvenir trees for Freda. But she’d probably consider them tacky. And they were fucking expensive.
He took a deep breath and began to climb.
Raine was daydreaming of Freda as he finished the arduous climb to the vast courtyard of the Earth Sciences Wing just in time to hear people gasp and see them gaze into a vacillating neon blue sky – where after a final halation, a ring of fire burst from the belly of the Sun, shading from golden to white in a millisecond. The colour leached out of everything as the world became overexposed and clouds vaporized in the brightening air.
He shut his eyes against the unbearable glare and reopened them to a grey-white blur. He could still make out shapes as he stumbled toward the building’s entrance. The unnatural silence that had fallen over everything erupted into pandemonium; the world filled with cries of bewilderment and outrage, animals howling, vehicles crashing, footsteps running, the scream of a cargo train braking suddenly. A number of sirens whooped before immediately going silent. Arms outstretched, Raine kept walking, even as his destination faded to black.
Blind, he stumbled toward the entryway, his stomach lurching with each step. He flinched as though the building was about to fall on him when he stepped into shadows and the ambient temperature suddenly dropped.
“What is happening?” he shouted at his PrivaComm as his shins slammed into concrete and he toppled, arms outstretched, fingers plunging into soil as branches scratched his face. He pushed himself upright, rolling over to sit on the edge of the planter, where he turned his head from side to side trying to see through or look around the inky curtain that had fallen over everything. Dirt adhered to the sweat on his face and he wiped his trembling fingers on his pants before reaching up to rub his eyes. He blinked and blinked again to no avail. His Privacomm implant chimed weakly several times, and he could faintly hear some sort of recorded announcement in a male voice. “Due to unexpected circumstances communication to all subscribers is being temporarily suspended. Service will be restored…” it promised, even as the voice drowned in a sea of static. Within seconds even that quieted.
His legs were shaking, as he climbed back to his feet.
Hearing the exchange of two women struggling to open a doorway, he walked toward them, feeling a momentary elation when he got inside. He’d expected it to be cooler here, but it wasn’t. There was no hum of air- conditioning, no ringing phones, no escalators. Just the voices of people, moaning, shouting praying and crying.