Tuesday, October 13, 2009

IV: conclusion

In the third drawer of her desk, Daisy kept a file of important scientific papers. Not the kind she read just to keep up, not the recent advances, but the classics -- papers to read and reread, layered in scribbles and notes. She also kept, for emergencies, a bottle of gin.

She poured herself another shot, trying to come to terms with the enormity of their discovery. “Well then, what can we do?” she asked.

The Internet, who easily could have told her the number of volcanoes in Alaska, was completely stumped on the question of what to do when an ancient biological metaconsciousness was bent on destroying human civilization with a plague of engineered superbacteria.

“We obviously can’t just fight the infections,” he said, flashing a chart of known antibiotics onto the screen. Next to each antibiotic was a resistance chart; each row glowed an angry red. He swapped avatars, the lemur morphing into a dejected-looking mime.

The mime held up a sign. If only I could find a way to speak with her.

She nodded, tipsily, in sympathy. To be alone, alone in the entire universe; and then, to find your one possible match, but be unable to communicate...

“You can’t use the Analyzers? Run them--” she sighed, already knowing the answer -- “backwards or something?”

The Internet just stared dejectedly at an imaginary floor.

Daisy tipped back the last of her glass, looking out over the midnight Bay Area lights. Full circle, she mused, sitting here in the lab at midnight, talking to the Internet. She thought back to that night four years ago, how impossible it had all seemed; how surreal to see the lights of Palo Alto blinking on and off just to get her attention...

“The lights,” she breathed, suddenly intent on dark patches at the bottom of the bay. They were salt ponds, dyed red and purple with salt-loving microbes. The color came from bacteriorhodopsin, a pigment the microbes used for photosynthesis -- and the ancient evolutionary precursor to her own eyes. Daisy slammed the empty glass on the desk.

“Use the lights!” she yelled into the camera on her computer. “Photosynthetic microbes -- she can see!

The Internet’s painted face fell slack for a moment as he seemed to consider this.

Without warning, the lights went out. All of them.

Daisy rushed to the window. A yellow moon, low over the eastern sky, dusted the bay with soft light. A thin line of headlights stretched over the San Mateo bridge, the only human illumination visible. As her eyes slowly adjusted, the headlights seemed to reflect off the blackened sky -- the Milky Way, she realized with a start.

Then, just as suddenly, the city exploded in a cacophony of light. Daisy shut her eyes to the sudden, searing brightness; felt the lights start to blink, slowly at first, then faster and faster. The world seemed to flicker, motion halted in tiny frames from some ancient movie. It went on and on and on, and then it stopped. Blackness.

A single computer monitor clicked on next to Daisy. The Internet stared out past her, gazing over the bay with a look of tense anticipation. As the minutes ticked by, they sat in silence, waiting.

Daisy felt a panic gnawing at her gut, frustration and helplessness rising in an overwhelming tide. It hadn’t worked. Hot tears burned at the corners of her eyes. She turned back to the Internet on the lonely glowing monitor, his mime’s face a caricature of grief.

Then, inexplicably, he was beaming. The room seemed to flash a pale green.

She whirled back to the window. The bay was glowing, phosphorescent from trillions of tiny flashing microbes. Like a giant neon strobe, the water flickered in ghostly silence.

“Oh God,” the Internet whispered next to her. “She speaks...”

With a click, the lights came back on. Outside, the bay was again a pool of inky darkness. Daisy looked down on an empty computer monitor.

“Internet? Hello?” she called, tentatively. There was no response.

She tried firing up the web browser. Her usual home page had been replaced; every other site she tried gave the same result. The replacement page had a single photograph, a smokestack and trailing cloud of soot starkly backlit on a grey sky. It said, in block letters, SOCIETY FAIL. Beneath the picture was written, “Online privileges have been revoked until further notice. Go play outside. Love, Teh Interwebz + Gaia.” As she read, an instant message flashed onto the screen. It said, simply, “Thanks.”

Daisy let out a choked sigh, equal parts relief and exhaustion. She thought about the Internet, finally together with something that could understand him; and smiled, a little wistfully.

“Well, I guess we’d better save some energy,” she said aloud, shutting down the computer for the first time in months. For a moment she just sat there, silently, listening to the sourceless hum of the empty building.

Daisy stood to leave. Halfway to the door she stopped, turned around, stared at the recycling bin. Taking a deep breath, she bent down and fished out an envelope.

Maybe the snail mail would still be running...

[Next page]

Figure 2 adapted from Somner et al, 2009. Modified to look scarier.

Plate 4: Smokestack photo by Flickr user Senor_codo, modified under CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 license

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