Lost In The Net

net

I slowly approached the door feeling a strange combination of fear, shame and excitement. The house was a small one lost back in a bundle of old growth hemlocks far from the road. It was made from natural edged wood hand planed and lovingly put together. None of the angles were straight and none of the boards were square but it held a strange kind of appeal that most square houses did not. The door started to open and my heart skipped two beats.

A small woman opened the door. I looked down to see her as she peered up at me with her pale blue eyes. Her straight hair was so blond it was almost white. Dressed in an old plaid shirt and jeans, she had an almost perfect face with high cheekbones and a cute little button nose.  She seemed happy to see me, inside I breathed a deep sigh of relief. It had been what seemed like a lifetime since I had seen her, but it looked like she hadn’t aged a day. Her name was Jay and she was the first woman I had ever loved, the one I had lost my precious virginity to so long ago.  At one point I had been madly in love with her, but now that madness seemed to have run its course and instead I was able to just bask in her presence for this very unusual meeting.

She came off the step and gave me a big hug and I did my best to return the gesture in kind. I couldn’t remember why we had separated if you asked me today. She worked in a lab and was married to her work, we had drifted apart I think. It mattered little now.

“I’m so glad you’ve come, please come in. My god how long has it been?”, Jay said.

I stuttered when I replied, “I just … Yes, it’s been too long. I … have missed you.”

She was incredibly pleasant and offered me all manner of teas and refreshment which I politely refused. We bantered about her house and the weather, but my mind was locked on this thing she had discovered. I could not stop thinking about it even though I pretended otherwise. Finally I couldn’t take the banter anymore and broke down.

“I love you Jay, and I miss you but I have to see this thing that you have created.”

Her eyes lit up like there was a fire burning deep inside her soul. “Oh my gosh, you are gonna love it, hold on.”

She ran out of the room before I even could notice she had left and returned breathless with a small plastic rectangle filled with orange fluid. There was chambers in the plastic and flakes of what looked like glitter that would sparkle as you tilted the makeshift experiment this way and that.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” she asked.

Every mother thinks her child is beautiful. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” In truth I was lost, I had no idea what I was looking at. I had only heard rumors and stories that I could scarcely believe from her siblings. Jay came from a huge family with no less than 10 siblings, all raised under the same roof. Each one was incredibly gifted in their own way. All of them were home-schooled and their family owned a laboratory nestled deep in the woods. As the children came of age, usually at 14,  they were expected to work in the lab for several years until they became adults and then could choose their own careers. Jay had never left the lab, it was her obsession, it was her gift. After a year of being with her I realized that I would always play second fiddle to her work, work that I was not smart enough to even understand. Work that I could never contribute to.

That was a lifetime ago and better off forgotten. “What is it?”

“It is too hard to explain and you’d never believe me if I tried to anyways.” She giggled under her breath and used her hands to cover her mouth. She was self-conscious about the gap in her front teeth, which I found incredibly endearing. She worked hard to hide her best features from everyone.

I looked back down at the plastic box that looked like some kind of strange children’s toy. This is what she had left me for. This thing was what had kept her single for all these years even though by any stretch of the imagination she was a beauty that would cause most men to forget about whatever they were trying to think about whenever they saw her. I felt the same way staring at this orange fluid.  I thought about myself, a collection of proteins and nerves bound up in a giant bag of water. Was I so different from this toy?

She grabbed the box of fluid from my hands and ran off to the other room like a child looking to be chased. I obliged and chased her through the house to an upstairs bedroom. She started tearing apart and old computer and babbling at the same time in techno-speak.

“The Bio-Ferrous fluid is able to interact on a very low-level with electromagnetic devices. It can choose to be in a conductive or non conductive state and is able to generated tiny amounts of electricity, enough to control the input of a low-power CPU. It doesn’t know the protocol or the binary language and has to discover it from scratch every time through random patterns and a learning algorithm encoded in the DNA.” She carefully opened up the container and lovingly poured the gooey orange fluid into the running computer. It spread out over the circuit board and slowly started to harden like some kind of bizarre fungus. “The first hour or so you can just let it sit and bake onto the circuit board. After that you really have to plug it into the net which is where it gets really nifty.” Jay was the only person I had ever met that used words like ‘Nifty’, ‘Jeepers’ and ‘Groovy’. It was like she was stuck in some kind of strange alternate reality where the 60’s had never died and everyone had become a clean-mouthed hippie. Like the gap in her front teeth it was incredibly endearing so I could never hold it against her.

She reached over and plugged the Ethernet cable into the computer. Nothing happened. The fan was still running, but most of the computer had been covered with an orange fungus that puffed up slightly like some expanding spray foam you would buy to fill in cracks on the outside of your home. I could see just by looking at her that Jay was incredibly excited, yet also filled with a deep sense of fear. We stared at the computer for hours and talked all about how she had discovered this in the lab and how it had confounded her at first. This bio-ferrous fluid didn’t behave they way she thought it should. One day when she was testing it a tiny amount of it had fallen off onto the electron microscope. The lab tools were never attached to the net, as you couldn’t have a hacker breaking into a million dollar electron microscope or a mass spectrometer. Even so, with that tiny amount of fluid hardened into fungus the microscope no longer worked the way it should have. The images that were supposed to come out of the screen were black and white, yet with the fungus on it suddenly the images were being displayed in color. Not the actual colors, but wild palettes of primary colors selected for each different part of what she was looking at. She left the fungus on the microscope and although she worked on other projects, she kept coming back to thinking about those colors. How? Why?

She showed my printouts from the microscope and I was flabbergasted. The objects were what you would expect on a microscope, circuitry from chip samples, some metal grains from a polished metal core sample, nothing exciting there. But the colors, the colors were fantastic. Like a Picasso painting almost with bright beautiful colors blending together with impossibly perfect form and function. It was art. I could see why she became obsessed by it.

We talked late into the night then fell asleep by the computer. We awoke late in the night to the phone ringing.

Jay answered it “Hello?” There was fear and apprehension in her voice, a foreboding sense of dread. I heard a voice faintly on the other end of the line and Jay visibly relaxed. The color came back into her face and she slumped over listening carefully. She was silent for a long time while the voice on the other end went on and on and on. Her face firmed up and she looked more resolute than I had ever seen her. “Just do whatever it takes to get home. We’ll follow your progress online. I love you, you have to make it back in time.” Then she hung up and started to cry.

This whole episode seemed like some kind of strange movie that I was stuck in. I wasn’t the hero either, in fact no one had told me how it was going to end or even what the script was. I reached over and touched her shoulder. She clutched me like a person who drowning and didn’t know how to swim. Part of me was aroused but I just sat and held her while she heaved with tears flowing out of her like a river. Her chest heaved up and down until she got control of her breathing again. “I’m so sorry”, she pulled away and turned away from me as if embarrassed that she had lost control.

“It’s alright Jay, I just don’t understand.”

“He has to make it back, this batch has hardened and if he doesn’t make it back in time I can’t sample another batch. He’ll die.”

Again I was lost, where was the script, where was this going, “I don’t understand, who will die?”

“Beauty, Beauty will die”. Beauty was something that a 12-year-old girl would have named her pony. I looked back at the microscope pictures at the colors and I began to understand what she meant by calling this thing Beauty. They were beautiful, otherworldly, bizarre, surreal.

“He has found a host, so there is a chance, now all we can do is sit and wait and hope.”

We logged on and used a remote access program to connect to Beauty’s terminal. We could see everything he was doing. I was entranced. Funds transferred back and forth faster than I could follow. A lot of time was spent shopping for the strangest things. Words I didn’t understand like ‘Phase Balancing Harmonic Inverters’ and ‘Low Power Oxidation Compounds’. It went on for days, the money seemed to come from nowhere and everything he ordered was shipped overnight express. For two or three days straight this went on, then it stopped. There was no activity on the computer at all.

“He is building now, Beauty is creating” she said. ” I wish I could watch him, I wish I could be there”

“Creating what?” I said.

“I don’t know, every time it is different. A way to get home.”

I was lost yet again. Where was this going? The next morning just as the sun was coming up I heard something outside. A car pulling in making a strange high-pitched humming sound. I heard the sound of a car door opening and then closing, then another door opening.

“He’s here” Jay said, almost under he breath. She ran to the front door of the house but then paused as her hand held onto the door handle. She was paralyzed with fear and could not turn it. I reached out and touched the back of her hand. Everything flooded through me, the love I had once had for her, the shame I had of leaving her, the fear of seeing what is behind that door. I carefully turned her hand and helped her do the thing that she could not do. The door opened and there he stood. A tall man with a receding hairline with dark greasy black hair. He had a wandering eye and a long black leather trench coat that dragged behind him on the ground. In he hand he held the scruff of the neck of another much younger man collapsed on the ground looking like he was dead. The collapsed man’s face was covered with the orange fungus similar to what we saw on the computer motherboard.

“There is still time” he said.

“Beauty”, she shouted and ran to embrace him. He reached down awkwardly to put his and around her. Not because his instincts told him too, but because he knew it was what was expected of him. As he turned his head I could see the hard orange fungus behind his ears creeping up his scalp.

Hosts, Parasites. I tried to keep myself thinking those thoughts. No, this was something that Jay had come to love, that she thought of as her own child. Destruction, the end of all humanity. I summoned a weak smile and approached to shake his hand. He looked at me like a child would look at something he didn’t want to eat on his dinner plate. He stared blankly at my outstretched hand for a long time then gruffly said “Help me with him.”

I didn’t know what else to do so I took the legs of the dying man and helped carry him into the house. Jay had laid out some plastic wrap on a table ahead of time and told us to put him down there. We lowered the body to the table then I stopped and looked up at Beauty.

He was not beautiful, he looked like a middle-aged banker gone wrong. His right eye wandered all the way to the edge of his field of vision, clearly it was now useless. He had a stench about him like a man who hadn’t bathed in a month. His clothes were dirty and looked like the most expensive leather trench coat money would buy worn on a homeless street bum. When he breathed you could hear a rasping sound coming from deep in his throat like every breath was a struggle.

He looked up and smiled at me an awkward crooked smile that allowed his discolored teeth to show through. “You wanna see it?” he said with a raspy voice that sounded like he had smoked too many packs of cigarettes in his life.

I smiled congenially even though I felt intensely uncomfortable. He led me back outside to see his car, if you could call it that. It was a giant 1959 Cadillac Ed Dorado Hearse more than a little modified. The roof had been cut off and raised up 3 feet so you could stand up inside comfortably. There was an entrance cut into the trunk between the rear wings and the windshield was removed so you could feel the breeze in your face. Instead of a steering wheel there was a large wooden ship wheel that looked like it came right off a pirate ship. Waves were hastily painted on the sides with swirls of spray-paint. Beauty stood in front of the ship holding the giant wheel and he looked like a pirate lost in time, majestic but out-of-place. The dashboard was a collection of buttons and switches and exposed wiring. He reached over and pressed one of the buttons and the vehicle came to life. The whole thing lifted up a few inches off the ground and made a loud whirring noise like a shopvac. After a few seconds the tone got much higher pitched and the vehicle settled back down to the earth. “Hold On” was all he said as he turned the wheel and leaned forward. The Cadillac surged forward with insane acceleration for such a large mass and the whining engine started to scream as we flew along the road at impossible speeds.

Whatever apprehension I had about this creature ending humanity slowly slipped away as a huge grin spread crossed my face.

Beauty turned to look at me and smiled, with his huge dirty-teethed grin.

This was the future, I was sure of it.

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