Life Luminescent

My initial misgiving tingled like an electric current, nothing too painful, but enough to wake you, which it did.  There were some gasps from others waking; a child cried out, looking to the right a little girl was pointing out the window, she seemed upset.  I looked to the left out my window, the shadow of a purple veil dissipated into a dark blue night, stars reappeared.

As we descended on San Francisco there was an apparent absence of bright lights, the city glowed like soft bioluminescence, maybe early morning haze.  Having spent a month at the Primate Research Institute in Japan on Koshima island, researching the Japanese macaques, I remember an early morning blue-green glow on the water’s edge, marine plankton. The city glow was very similar.

There was an urban myth surrounding the Japanese macaques, the Hundred Monkey Effect, though discredited I was obliged to look into it.  Observations claimed the monkeys learnt to wash sweet potatoes with the behavior spreading to other monkeys, ricocheting to a hundred and spreading like wild fire.  Surprisingly, and to the story’s credit, I learnt that something did occur, unambiguously with the young monkeys, but at a leisurely rate and not to the extent of it being sudden.  Doing journalistic field work for National Geographic wasn’t always sterile fact gathering, popular legends would always lend a flavor to any story.  Japanese macaques were very intelligent, matrilineal, and known to develop different accents similar to humans, so they made for a great story.  Anything to do with animal intelligence drew me in like a moth to a flame, the macaques were no exception.

The wheels of the Boeing 777 touched the runway like giant bumper cars knocking into each other.  It felt like my life, with each change came a resounding bump in my soul, reminding me of a shifting gear as I switched lanes.  I was really looking forward to San Francisco, however, this next stage in my work bordered on a moral dilemma.

I met John while in Japan researching my next assignment on Cephalopod intelligence.  John, an assistant professor from La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia, was visiting another assistant professor at Tokushima University, Tokushima, Japan.  Both of them were on the steering committee of the Cephalopod Sequencing Consortium.  We ended up dating, something I hadn’t done for God knows how long.  It was another of those resounding bumps in my life, this one just happened to miff me a bit more than usual—once I learnt he was married.

On his last day in Japan, together over breakfast, he acknowledged his sin and apologized.  I was attracted to him, but I wasn’t in love with him, in the long term committed way one falls in love, so I would survive; just another bump along life’s highway.  Besides, I was married to my work.

We arranged to meet in San Francisco the following month, I wasn’t going to miss this.  An event dinner planned beside the giant Kelp Forest exhibit in the Ocean’s Edge Galleries at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a meeting between the Octopus Integrating Project Consortium and the Cephalopod Sequencing Consortium, marking their baptism in fire; a truly controversial integration to build the world’s first advanced genetically enhanced, organic, artificial intelligence.  My head spun with the thought of what they were planning to do.  If ever there was a moral dilemma, creating a machine from a natural life form should be categorized as one.  No, I wasn’t going to miss this.

Our stay in customs was long delayed due to a possible virus alert.  A score of doctors and specialists checked each passenger individually, we had to fill in a personal questionnaire and wait till our families or acquaintances were contacted.  The emphasis from the airport staff to stay calm no matter what we saw was stressed over and over again, leaving us with a strong tinge of suspicion.

After leaving customs an unusual amount of clatter greeted our exodus.  I looked around to see who the celebrity was we had been flying with.  Surprisingly, there wasn’t one.  A large crowd had gathered, they were pointing in our direction and waving.  Looking around I saw the other passengers nervously wave back, so I waved back too, though I wasn’t sure why.  There was something unusual about them, looking at them and then at the passengers I had arrived with, I noticed our clothes differed substantially in a plethora of style and color.  Had fashion in the States undergone some radical change?  There seemed to be a lack of individuality in their clothes.  Strange fabrics whose texture looked analogous, as if they had all shopped from the same store.  But it wasn’t a bad thing, it felt more natural than what I was wearing, as if it had been grown to be worn.

Hovering above the crowd were a number of placards with names, I looked for mine till I saw a placard with Kaira Winters, John was supposed to be meeting me here. Waving I saw John and walked over, he seemed oddly different, how could he have changed so much in a month.  Receding hairline, and tinted silver hair!  Abruptly, a giant whirring insect flew straight into my path and stopped to hover in front of my face.  It was a damselfly, I recognized its magnificent blue bulbous eyes and turquoise textured body, but here in the airport terminal?

“Mrs. Winters, how are you feeling?”  There was a man wearing a name tag, a reporter, associated with the damselfly, it was a drone, but it looked so real.  John moved between us before I could reply and embraced me.  He seemed in a state of shock.

“Kaira, I’m sorry, but for the first time in my life I’m truly lost for words.”

He looked as though he had just seen a ghost, which was not an understatement.  In the course of time I would learn why the crew and passengers of ANA Flight 008 would become the most talked about flight in history.

As we walked through the international terminal I looked out and caught a glimpse of the Boeing 777 I had arrived on.  It was literally drowning with teams of technicians and drones, my attention however was drawn to a smaller black and white plane parked beside it, just behind the nose and along the fuselage it read Airbus Hybrid-Electric, it looked like a giant manta ray.

“That’s the new Airbus, it just made its maiden flight from Europe, it uses electric propulsion.  Advances in fuel cells and new revolutionary batteries have been a game changer, thanks to a lot of breakthroughs and incentives,” John stated, while keeping his eyes on me.

I paused to look at one of the shop front windows while still in the terminal, the designs displayed in the window were highlighted with smart devices incorporated into the very fabric.  Ads emphasized sharing your feelings and thoughts with the world, another read the culture of individualism is dead.  So, the trends were social.  One final glance at the signs on the entrance to the store read Clothing Recycler Inside, another read Bio-Fabricator, fabrics made to order.  Well, that will work.

John took me in and had a new outfit made up for me, which I was able to preview on a holographic imager displaying yours truly before I made the purchase.  I was shocked to see the fabrics were grown from microbial cultures, still they felt and looked fantastic on me.  My old clothes were recycled and I was offered a discount on the new.  John wouldn’t let me pay, emphasizing that I couldn’t use cash anyhow.  Using a combination of hand and face input he paid.

“I really need a coffee,” I implored.

John laughed, “I think we could both do with one.”

“Organic, please.”

“They all serve organic, Kaira.”

It was over coffee that my mind began to clear, John went over the events that brought about his shock at seeing me.  Making it clear why John looked twenty years older, the fact being he was twenty years older and I hadn’t aged a day.

I should have panicked, but I felt animated, I was a stranger in my own world.  I felt oddly young again, and eager to learn what had transpired in the twenty years I had missed.

Beginning with John I was not all that surprised he had separated. After my disappearance he had been devastated with my supposed death and his marriage deteriorated.  He hadn’t married again.

“The coffee’s great,” I mentioned, after a long silence between us.

“Papua New Guinea coffee, Western Highlands.  I did some field work in my younger days for a paper I was writing on local fresh water fish, after catching native specimens in my net I’d take a coffee break, after tasting their coffee I was hooked for life.”

“The event dinner!”

“What?”  For a moment John seemed bewildered, then he smiled.  “Oh my, you just arrived, you’re here for the meeting of the consortiums.”

I nodded, feeling extraneous for some reason.  All these events had transpired and I was never here, I was unconnected and now I had connected again, but there was this great chasm between the world and me.  A void of twenty years.

I felt John studying me, he took my hand and squeezed it.

“You’re going to need a guide, you’ve some catching up to do.”

Daybreak encroached as we left the airport, I paused to watch the strange lighting in the airport and outside dim as the sun’s rays appeared.

“Bioluminescent light, enormous savings on energy and liberating on the environment.  An added benefit is they also work as information conduits—biology has certainly taken the lead in science lately.”

“Living organisms?” I queried.

“Yes, similar to plankton, but with added bonuses and tweaks, and the removal of weak traits in the DNA.”

“You’re a part of this, aren’t you?  These breakthroughs?”

“I lead one of the teams, yes.”

They made their way to the taxi stand, a small fleet of taxis were lined up beside the curb, but there were no drivers.

“Autonomous taxis?” I asked.

“All cars are self-driving electric.  If you want to see an internal combustion driven vehicle, we can probably see some at The Exploratorium.  Museums are the only places where you’ll find them.”

“I don’t mind, I prefer to be driven than have to drive.”

John led me past the taxis, I noticed all the taxis had rooftop solar cells.  We climbed up a flight of stairs to another external platform where there were more people waiting.

“Where are we going?”

“You’re late for a meeting, twenty years late.  Driving will take too long.”

On the far end of the platform there were four more taxis mounted atop individual landing pads, these were not autonomous electric cars, but two seat taxi drones.

“We’re flying?”

“No,”—John laughed— “still too slow, you fly only when you have no other choice in reaching your destination via public transport.  We’re using public transport, Kaira.”

A sleek pod shaped train made a quiet appearance on the platform, contrasting a half black and half pastoral mural glass like surface, there were no windows, no driver.  An infinity logo followed by XP-7 marked its origins to the Hyperloop.

Invisible side doors slid open and we boarded.  Once seated the doors closed and the pod moved forward, a strange whishing sound, hardly audible, could be heard masked by music playing, while external images of San Francisco were displayed on the side walls as windows.  Recorded and edited by drones that had once followed the path we were taking now.  One could almost imagine we were flying.  Overhead breaking news was being broadcast—lost ANA Flight 008 reappears over San Francisco after 20 years, the missing passengers return.  Bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase “Dead Man Walking.”  An image of me and the other passengers appeared, with John thankfully leading me away.

Five stops and just over fifteen minutes later we had crossed a distance of over a hundred miles and disembarked near Monterey Bay Aquarium to the sound of Jefferson Starship, “Somebody to Love.”

“What day is it?” I asked John.

“Sunday, why?”

“And it’s June 28, right?  What year?”

“Yes, and it’s 2037.”

“It was Thursday then, when I arrived, but didn’t, and then I did, here now!”

I started to cry.  I suppose I should have cried earlier while at the airport once I realized what was happening.  But culture shock does that to you, it leaves you numb and frustrated; whereas time shock, well that’s a whole new ball game isn’t it, it leaves you dumb and awed, crying comes later.

John helped me dry my eyes.  “I need to show you something.”  He held me by my arm while carrying my backpack in his other hand.  We turned left and followed the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail till we reached the tree lined entrance to the Hopkins Marine Station, the gate was closed with a Private Property sign.  John opened the gate and we walked up the pathway.

“Are we avoiding the crowds?”

“Glad to see your humor is back.”

We entered one of the buildings, which was alongside the coast, passed a small reception area, which was closed, and down a flight of stairs to a very large sea tank area, naturally lit by long bioluminescent tubes running along the ceiling.

“Good morning, Athena.”

I looked around to see who John was talking to.  The long tubes above my head began to change color, streams of red and dark brown, tinged with blue and green raced across.

“Good morning, John,” a female voice echoed from above.  I noticed the small black speakers on the wall.

“I hope we haven’t disturbed your rest, I know we’re closed on Sunday, but I have someone here I’d like you to meet.”

The luminescent currents were racing back and forward in white and yellow.

“I thought I saw you on the news, is this Kaira?” said Athena.

“Yes, it is.”  John turned to me.  “Kaira, I’d like you to meet Athena.”

The largest tank in the centre of the room began to glow in a pale eburnean mist, revealing a large outcrop of gray, black rocks in its centre.  From within a shadowy cave entrance a giant pacific octopus rose slowly and came forward to greet us.

“You must be joking, Athena is an octopus?”  I realized my mouth was open but I just couldn’t get around to closing it.  John squeezed my hand, trying to alleviate my fears.

“Here, let’s sit down near her tank.”  Together we sat on a fixed bench beside Athena’s tank.

“After the consortiums met twenty years ago a lot of projects kicked off, most ended abysmally, however, over time we started to make a little headway.  Eventually, we were able to secure funding from public support, which actually believed in our work.  More funding followed, first from privately backed institutions and finally from the government, all of them had a lot to gain from what we were doing.”

“A talking octopus!  OK, I have to admit it’s really… I think the word is pioneering, but how is Athena going to change, let alone benefit humanity?”

John grinned, remaining silent for a moment as we both watched Athena pressing her arms and body against the glass.  I noticed a change, her body’s skin became thorny red as did a succession of red filaments, permeating through the luminescent tubes above.

“She’s excited, she doesn’t usually get visitors on Sunday.”

“It’s fun to finally meet you, Kaira,” Athena’s synthesized voice sounded out in excitement.

“Thank you, Athena, it’s amazing to meet you too.”  I couldn’t believe I was actually talking to an octopus.  I turned to John for an explanation.

“We knew there was a problem, the consortium meeting twenty years ago spelled it out, silicon chips could no longer keep pace with Moore’s law. We were slowing down, we’d need a revolution in processing power to usher in the robotic age and we were running out of options.  We needed robots to perform complex tasks and the processors were lagging, society was fixated with social networks and smart phones, and were content; but it was a dead end.

“The consortiums made progress with the cephalopods.  Gene sequencing was making strides, we were learning a lot.  Only in the retina of the eye its vision was beyond panoramic, they could see with their skin, it was like being covered in eyes.  Neurons were not only in the brain, but in the entire body.  The entire body was a brain!  Sixteen hundred suckers, with thousands of chemoreceptors on each sucker.  They could regenerate up to a third of a lost arm in six weeks, and this is only what we started with.  This is something we could work with, something that could be a game changer.

“What followed next was simply astounding, the Cephalopod Sequencing Consortium worked on genetically enhancing what we already had, but there were limitations, as with any living organism.  We were faced with two; short lifespans and dementia, we fixed both.  Increasing their lifespan four-fold and removing the faulty dementia gene.  This worked well for the octopus, but it also translated well over to humans.  After the clinical trials dementia became an illness we only read about in history books.”

I remained silent, allowing John to reach the end.  I was afraid to think where this might be going.

“The Octopus Integrating Project Consortium would work on building the infrastructure, the robot if you like.  Graphene didn’t hold well as a replacement for silicon twenty years ago.  You see, semiconductors are defined by their ability to turn off and on, I’m referring to those zeros and ones.”  John checked to see if I was following his train of thought.

“Graphene being a semi-metal cannot be turned off.  Though that has changed, we finally found a way.  Irrespective, what we did get from graphene occurred over twenty years ago from a laboratory that was experimenting on rats, they made a batch of graphene-based gel, which was used as a scaffold for spinal-cord injuries—yes, the rats were able to walk again.”

I watched Athena as she sank to the bottom of the tank and remained motionless.

“To say we took it a step further might be considered an understatement.  We built a genetically enhanced organic robot.  Our model being the octopus.”

So, that’s what all this was about, that’s what they did in the last twenty years.  I needed to ask what it amounted to, where would such robots be used.  John only needed to show me how the world had changed, but I had a feeling I knew.  Life had taken the helm again, it could handle more complex tasks, millions of years of evolution and our ability to eventually break down its codes brought about a new age, the age of organic machines.

There was a lot I still needed to learn, but I had time and a new life.  I would need to grow into this new world, adapt to its culture and this unimaginable change, with life leading the way—I let it sink in.

We left the Hopkins Marine Station and returned to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, our table was waiting.

John had reserved a table at the Ocean’s Edge Galleries beside the Kelp Forest, a magnificent view of the kelps stretching up through the water to the sunlight above.  I felt as though the future had brought me back and it only took twenty years.

“Well, I finally made it.”

Originally written in 2017


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