Bewildering Stories

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City Life

part 1

by Jason Rizos

We are wrapping ourselves around a cosmic end point of some sort... It beckons across the dimensions, it throws an enormous shadow over the enterprise of human history... We are about to witness the freeing of life from the chrysalis of matter. — Terrence McKenna

Setting down a circuit board like a corncob picked over, Vincent unlocked his apartment door, peered into the dark hallway beyond. The man from the electric company had come about his utility bill. The bill had arrived last week all zeros, and knowing this was not exactly a mistake, Vincent anticipated this visit from the Power Company. Don, the Connector, was dusty and unclean from crawling about the city’s carapace. His mustache looked like bare wires fallen from his head.

At first Vincent might have mistaken him for a mannequin left behind by some mischievous interloper, complete with frozen smile and unblinking eyes. Don, it seemed, was losing his humanity. His former animus, now an integration of the city’s own design. Not gone completely, Don scratched his ear with a screwdriver and lifted a small package towards the open doorway. “Weeeell...” he droned. “I’ll be. You’re the same guy I met at the café, didn’t I? Then I must be calling you Mr. Kilby, then.” He had a peculiar tone and a rigid posture. Vincent knew he would regret speaking to Don at the café.

Don was experiencing what so many other citizens were experiencing. A crisis of humanity. A diminishing essence of being. Vincent did not speak much to the citizens. Of course, he was certain now that this visit was unrelated to the electricity bill. He opened the door.

“I have this delivery, that is all.” Don said. About the size of a small brick, the package was impossibly heavy. The dot-matrix address label led Vincent to one conclusion: Automated. Vincent smirked. So the city herself had sent him a gift.

Vincent turned to thank Don, and he began seeing him as a certain friend. He found it remarkable the way circumstances lead to such encounters as these. Don crept back down the hall, his attention given to a sophisticated electrical device, used to trace problematic telephone conduits.

“Excuse me, Don.” Vincent called out to him, feeling he were a bit rude. After all, he thought, why not? Their encounter at the café was brief. But Don had lifted his device towards the ceiling. It reminded Vincent of a condensed version of his childhood speak-and-spell until the sides opened up to reveal spinning silver antennae. These antennae crept timidly toward the ceiling. Silvery, supple fingers diagnosed the state of the wall. Oscillating lights began tracking around this device as if had at once found something of intrigue behind plaster and mortar.

“What is this you are doing, Don?” Vincent asked.

“Somebody has been fiddling with the cables in these walls.”

“What? Why? Are they broken?”

“It’s not enough that they are broke, because sure enough they are. It’s just that some bugger out there is playing games with the telephones in the apartment. It’s a wonder they work at all. I wouldn’t have caught it if my radiospectron weren’t on. That means I’ve got to get going on this pronto. Code Enforcements is gonna get all bent up over this one.”

Vincent hurried to his kitchen and set the paper package in the center of his stainless steel workbench. He reached for his spectacles, a custom-built apparatus, consisting of several steel levers that trained myriad lenses over one or both of his eyes. The levers and frame seemed hastily assembled, a dark gray metal intersected with shiny patches of solder.

With a pair of forceps and a 5x magnification, Vincent picked apart clear plastic tape and cardboard. Inside a leaf of clear bubble-wrap, he found a cylindrical gold object, about the size of a pine cone. Vincent’s recent research on electrical engineering revealed the object as a heavy-duty line coupler, solid 24-carat gold, weighing almost eight pounds. An unlikely gift, the intended purpose was for use with high amperage transformers, found only in power plants.

As he could see from the total lack of blemish, this particular coupler had never seen a day of linking gig-watt generators. His eyes, already made enormous behind magnification lenses, flashed brightly, his heart swelled with a joy and rapture like never before because for the first time in his life, he was loved. The city was alive, and his feelings toward it would no longer go unrequited. The utility bill was no mistake – something was becoming, all around him.

Vincent wore the gold coupler around his neck on a thick brass chain. If he were so inclined, he would have proudly told people about it, he would have told them that gold is the most conductive of metals. That gold is better suited for electrical current than any others but unfortunately hoarded by people interested only in its simple beauty. Fitting, Vincent thought, that the same material would return to shape those who forged it, here at the advent of a new age of enlightenment.

Decades prior, Vincent’s father plotted a system of mechanics that would sew the seeds of future artificial intelligence. The University never even asked that he leave his ancient basement, his outmoded equipment. For two decades he never set a foot from his own property, seldom moved from his basement laboratory. They fully understood the potential value of his work in physics. He held eight patents by the time of his death at age 58. Vincent was only seventeen years of age.

Contrary to his agoraphobic father, Vincent spent his childhood days immersed in the fourteen-acre wilderness surrounding his home. He lined the walls of his room with rocks and twigs, referring to them as his samples. He knew each of them as distinctly as one would know a close friend of family member, though he kept rapport with neither. His father’s death had no bearing upon him; perhaps if his father had spent time conveying the meaning of death, the evanescence of being — only then could Vincent have formed his own personal feelings towards an absence of a father — after a life spent much the same way. His mother knew, as a mother should, how much Vincent’s research meant to him.

This persistence was the only thing keeping his mother from throwing out dozens and dozens of these samples, rocks and twigs mostly, while Vincent was away at school. She could see in him a natural scientist, methodical and practical. She remembered as early as age four, as he playfully poured fluids from beaker to beaker, as his father towered over him, articulating his own creations.

Vincent focused his attentions on his Pacific Northwest habitat. He mapped every tree in the temperate rain forest surrounding his eastern Washington home. He plotted grids, tracked local species and extrapolated populations. First, Vincent discovered a canny order in the patterns among the trees, curling branches of leaves, a kaleidoscope of fractals. A mathematical design behind the oaks, less obvious in the cedar and maple. He understood the basic rules that dictated common structures in nature. But he disliked the notion of a ‘rule’ of nature, that nature was a static entity, a simple yin forever chasing an opposing yang, eternally engaged in a hopeless, futile motion. Vincent envisioned a linear aspect to natural systems, an ultimate goal. But he could not find it.

Then one summer afternoon, while contemplating a fairy ring circle of mushrooms, Vincent reached the end of his wilderness investigations. Just as when he reached the final page of a scientific text, he simply closed the cover and he left his backyard wilderness forever. He traveled over five hundred miles west to rent a small apartment in the city of Seattle.

He had not come to study plants and animals; that was known to him. Instead, he studied the synthetic environment wholly created by mankind. Vincent unpacked the entirety of his chemistry lab; stereomicroscope, chromatography kit, condensation apparatus, mass spectrometer and centrifuge. He pulled his spectacles onto his head, adjusted the black leather strap behind his ears. He fit tiny speakers into his ears that monitored a tall microphone upon a pole, connected to a digital recorder, and stepped into the bustling downtown sidewalks of Seattle at rush hour.

The infrastructure of the city at once captivated Vincent. A series of simple computations could explain the architecture — which Vincent found charmingly rudimentary — akin to the honeycomb paper hexagons of a beehive. Like all natural phenomena, the streets and sidewalks demonstrated pure utility, yet all of these were subject to the same sorrowful components of mathematical entropy. Sometimes this natural encroachment presented itself in a web of cracks on a stucco edifice, other times in the oil-swirls and dust of thinning tires left behind by automobiles. The reach of chaos and time eventually unraveled everything to its constituent dust.

Though the cycle seemed a bit futile, Vincent believed that one could transcend this endless cycle, this idea of immortality was the sole aim of all of nature — namely — its herald flagship humanity. As an astute specimen of humanity’s utmost apex, Vincent kept his apartment clean and bare, his wardrobe only cotton, gray and austere. His refrigerator contained only two items, a thick paste consisting of concentrated soy protein, lecithin, L-threonine, glutamine and cellulose. The second a dilution of water, electrolytes, sodium and trace minerals.

The entire premises of his home hosted an assortment of bubbling chemicals. Solvents and tinctures digested bits of concrete, pavement, plaster and fiberglass. In one particular experiment, snack foods. A cheese-puff dissolved in a green liquid. A cupcake spun in a centrifuge. As much as plaster and concrete, these too were the essential components of the city.

Vincent pried and picked what he could from the environment. He brought them home and hypothesized about his notion of an accelerated rate of evolution, a speciation burst. A period of sudden and rapid change, not unlike the advent of mammals. Or the Industrial Revolution. The people of the city – the city, were together becoming something corporeal, something alive. Something entirely separate and unique to this world, a sublimation of mass vortices, a confluence of is-ness, creating an entity of the city alone, the city itself.

The day he first understood the city for what it was becoming, Vincent was enjoying a cup of coffee at one of the many cafés that Seattle prided itself upon. Now four months into his stay, Vincent still appreciated anonymity in the city. Though he visited the café almost daily, nobody ever bothered him with conversation; nobody recognized his face. Though grown over with a heavy beard, this was still more than he could say of his home town. He was for all practical purposes an invisible observer.

At the far end of the counter, Vincent was rigorously studying Modeling Patterns in the Natural World when he felt a tugging at his ankle. No ordinary brush; he recognized a strange insect squirm that he had felt before, when crawling among the trees, in the thick of the summer heat, when the entire forest seemed alive with an energy of life at its annual zenith. Drawn into a kind of fugue-state by this sensation slowly squeezing his leg, Vincent closed his eyes as a network of soft threads weaved around his ankle and up his thigh.

He felt his leg enveloped in a terrific yet gentle grasp. In the darkness of his mind he could see colors; blue, red, purple, green, yellow, a sea of sinewy muscle beneath a flesh of concrete. A beauty, a Venus without form. The suddenness of this vision brought with it fright, Vincent opened his eyes and looked to the floor.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2004 by Jason Rizos

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