Please enjoy “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”, by Kathleen Ann Goonan, a novelette inspired by an illustration from Richard Anderson.
“Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” is part of a three-story series curated by senior Tor Books editor David G. Hartwell. All three are based on a singular piece of art by Richard Anderson and will be released for free on Tor.com.
This novelette was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Tor Books editor David Hartwell.
I hear her on the radio, while I’m in the bathroom drying my hair.
It’s about seven in the morning, and the forecast promises another dim, drizzly winter day. I’m an animal rights lawyer in Washington. I hate my job, I love my job, you get the picture. I’m happily married to Dan, a government employee, and we have a three-year-old daughter, Kara. He’s just left to drop her off at school.
The roar of hot air obscures every other radio word. When my mother speaks—“We demand legal recognition for all living creatures”—I drop my hair dryer. It clatters on the tile floor. I turn up the radio and listen, stunned.
My mother died twenty-five years ago.
Yet I hear my mother’s beloved voice: “. . . and humans practice deliberate cross-speciation, mingling plant and animal DNA for commercial gain. We therefore demand the right to accept or reject technological changes to our fundamental being.”
First come swift, crazy suppositions: she’s not really dead; this is a recording. Then it hits me, quite literally, in a flash, like slap upside the head. It’s Meitner, and she is an African Grey Parrot.
“From space, I see the Earth below me. I see the broad outlines of rain forests, where my kin flock; oceans where others of us school, and plains where herds run headlong . . .”
But it is like hearing the dead speak, and I am correspondingly chilled. When Mom died, Meitner vanished into the cloudy reaches of Kauai’s rain forest mountains, blended with her flock. I was just a little girl, as lonely as Meitner must have been, even though my father was close at hand. He was suffering too—withdrawn, grumpy. Unavailable, as they say.
Meitner could have consoled me. She did not.
The anger I’d had as a child resurfaces. I visualize smashing the mirror with the hair dryer, for an instant. The intensity of the impulse surprises me.
I feel betrayed. It had been easier to think that Meitner had died, though that too was as painful as any animal’s loss, the mystery of a vanishing. Funny to expect so much of a parrot, but Meitner is more than a parrot, and less than a parrot.
I sink to the cold tile floor, cross my legs, bow my head, and drink in my mother’s rich, low voice for a few more seconds before a male announcer interrupts the flowing words.
“Meitner, the African Grey Parrot you have just heard speaking, was a celebrity at one time. She disappeared after the death of her trainer, Dr. Jean Woodward, twenty-five years ago. As we piece together her story, we find that it is long and complicated. Presently, she is part of an experiment.
“Meitner is in a specially modified space suit, on a scientific mission in what has been dubbed the Stinger Ship. It looks like a massive jellyfish, complete with tentacles. But instead of stinging, these are life-support tentacles that allow people, and now, apparently, parrots, to float free in space. For those of you who have not been keeping up, this ship, which has been decades in the building, is scheduled to leave Earth’s orbit soon.
“We have gotten word that an entire flock of parrots will be dropped from the ship in specially made suits that allow parrots to operate jet packs, radios, and computers. All the parrots are enhanced in various ways, and their brain activities are being measured in real time. In fact, according to their spokesperson, the data being gathered is related to the mathematical abilities from which flocking behavior emerges. This information may lead to many breakthroughs, including—and it does sound far-fetched—space-time travel.”
Meitner’s words recede, and I recall my mother’s real voice telling bedtime stories, all of them merged in my memory into a single narrative of cloudy jungle, infused with the thrill of finding her African Grey Parrot and of the knowledge she hoped her studies might lead to. When I was a little girl, I imagined I had been with her on that trip. Like Meitner, I became part of her, so much so that her story is like a well-worn stone with strata exposed by the rush, the power, of time.
Mom was a postdoc when she tracked down Meitner.
She knew that animal activists had liberated Meitner and other animals from a Cairo lab, run by someone known internationally as Dr. Moreau. WikiLeaks had published some of Moreau’s research, in which it seemed clear that chimps, Grey Parrots, and porpoises injected with experimental neuroplasticity drugs were in captivity.
It was also clear that human DNA was part of their makeup.
The activists ran their standard operation, which, as usual, was in the news after the fact. They turned off the electricity, posted fake surveillance videos showing everything as normal, herded all the humans into a bus, evacuated every animal to an appropriate environment, and incinerated all records. A few bits left behind on the Internet are all anyone ever knew about the experiments. It was discovered that the lab had been established by a wealthy man, who died five years before the dramatic rescue. The original project was framed as an exploration of the possibilities and limits of rapid transpeciism with an eye to expanding human capabilities and lifespan. After the founder died, the project segued into a drug-development mill. Elephant poachers, charged with procuring a calf, tipped off authorities anonymously when they felt underpaid. No one knew what had happened to the animals, but once my mother heard about the parrot, she began sleuthing, getting closer to the secret heart of the activist organization, until she made the connection that changed our lives.
“After a year of feints and parries,” my mother would begin, at that magical hour on our Kauai ridgetop when I was tucked into bed and the smell of wild ginger filled the room, “I was in a small plane that landed with a big bounce on a short runway that looked like a river from the air because of the rain. When I climbed down from the plane, the wind whipped up my poncho and I was soaked in the first minute.”
Meitner was always in the bedroom, perched behind my mother on the old rocking chair from the Big Island that Tutu, my grandmother, gave us, eyes closed, listening and waiting, soothed as if on a bough moved by wind.
Mom’s calm, measured words and soothing voice were always tinged with humor, as if she might laugh at any moment at her younger self, so intrepid and, perhaps, lacking good judgment. “I could hardly see because of the rain, but a short, dark woman yelled ‘Bienvenu!’ out the window of a beat-up Land Rover almost hidden by the brush, under a huge baobab tree. When I got to the car, she flung open the passenger door and said, ‘Hurry inside, hurry inside!’ She had a round face and a big smile. She said, ‘Call me Belinda.’ It wasn’t her real name; that was part of the plan. I thrust my pack inside and slid into the seat. She shifted into first gear and rocketed down a mud-dirt road. I had no idea how she could see. The wipers didn’t work at all. I held onto the sissy bar for dear life.”
Sometimes Meitner sidled back and forth on the top of the chair, head bobbing, barely able to contain her excitement at this, her own story. Sometimes she just listened, as if contemplating.
“Belinda said, ‘How was your trip?’ She looked at me for a long time, a huge grin lighting her face. I wanted to scream, ‘Keep your eyes on the road!’ but I didn’t want to distract her. I settled for ‘Interesting.’
“It was a horrible, rough, eight-hour-long ride. I started out feeling like an intrepid explorer, but pretty soon I realized that I was pretty low on the Martha Gellhorn scale—she’s a writer, honey. We drove over huge cloudy mountains. Like here. We got stuck behind big trucks and Belinda would get out and yell at them. We finally got to a place way back of nowhere, a house with a stone floor and big heavy beams, mostly open. Belinda took me to a tiny bedroom with high, open louvered windows and a bed covered with mosquito netting. The room was full of a beautiful smell that I wanted to inhale forever. I asked Belinda, ‘What’s that smell?’”
At that point I’d always say, “Wild ginger! Just like here.”
“Right,” Mom would say. “I fell onto that lovely bed, just for a minute, and didn’t wake until the next morning. The howler monkeys screamed all night, though.”
“Just like here,” Meitner and I would say, then laugh.
My mother said that she chatted with Belinda for two days, but she knew that Belinda was really giving her the final test. Mom’s background, her experience, her plans, were just what the activists wanted. She was perfect.
Finally, she met Meitner. This was the place in the story where Meitner always got excited. She’d flutter from the chair to the bed and back again, muttering in low, rapid French.
“Belinda said that I might want to take a walk down to the river. The man who brought Meitner was tall and thin. He had blue-ebony skin. He was nervous and left quickly.
“I picked up the big plastic parrot carrier that he left on the bank under the banana trees. What did you say, Meitner?”
Meitner raised her head, whistled, and imitated the sound of a car engine and some phone tones. Then she said, in a really cranky man’s voice, “Où allons nous?”
My cue to translate: “Where are we going?”
My mother responded, “Right! And what did I say?”
Meitner would say, “‘Maison.’ Home.”
And home—my future home—was where she would soon meet John Kalani, my father.
I am on a Kauai ridgetop, monitoring the feed from the Stinger ship, when I hear Jean’s voice, but after an instant’s shock, I realize that it is Meitner. Our former family member, up on that ship, with some kind of plan.
Awe, puzzlement, delight, dark loss, and emotions beyond the reach of the most nuanced languages stop my mind. A blast of cool wind brings a spatter of rain and then, for an instant, parts the clouds so that I see the steep range of cliffs, one behind the other, vanishing from deep green to blue, lavender, gray. Jean’s voice. A brilliant parrot. A murder. All long ago, and yet as close, in my mind, as yesterday.
The day I met Dr. Jean Woodward, she stepped from a rented Jeep into my backyard as I watched from my lanai. Her red hair glinted in the sun as she retrieved a cage containing her African Grey Parrot, Meitner, from the back of the Jeep.
I’m a Hilo boy who went to Silicon Valley by way of Cal Tech and got big, as they say. I made a lot of money on software and bought a chunk of rain forest on the island of Kauai.
An acquaintance from Cal Tech sent me Dr. Woodward’s proposal. She was searching for a habitat for an extraordinary parrot she had acquired. As it happened, there was a flock of African Greys in my backyard—a range of the steepest, rainiest mountains on the earth. Years ago, someone brought a flock of Greys to Kauai, illegally, as is the case with most of the fauna and flora in the Hawaiian Islands. So we have quite a population of non-indigenous creatures here—monkeys, aforesaid African Grey Parrots, other kinds of parrots, macaws—you name it, someone smuggled one in and let it go.
I’d read about the liberation of the lab animals a while back. All of the animals had vanished, but Dr. Woodward tracked down the parrot.
“Since all records were destroyed, I’m not sure how old she was when I got her,” Jean had told me over the phone a week earlier. “Or, when she got me.” That was the first time I heard Jean’s low, burbling chuckle. “I could almost hear her thinking how lucky she was to get such a pliable custodian. I know that she was at least three, because that’s when the iris turns from pale gray to yellow. Her language skills are amazing for a gray parrot of any age.” Her voice became fervent. “I want to help her discover who—or what—she is. I want all of her abilities to—unfold, just as they do in any living creature. I think she might be a bridge between us and other animals—or, at least, between us and parrots. Parrots and humans share speech-related genes and genetically expressed neural pathways. She needs a strong human presence in order to manifest her humanity. But she also needs the environment of a parrot in the wild. No one knows what might happen in Meitner’s instance. I want to be there when she needs human interaction and let her have distance when she needs to be a bird. Her wings have always been clipped, but I think that the development of innate parrot-intelligences are just as linked to the use of wings as the development of human intelligence is linked to use of the hands. It seems plausible that learning flocking behavior in flight is analogous to humans learning to navigate and explore their world, I . . .”
But she had me the second she said “flocking behavior.” That’s what I do—work on mathematical models of flocking behavior, synchronous movement that displays rules of spacing, momentum, direction, and individual choice that we observe in the movement of groups of birds, fish, insects, herds, and even, some claim, humans in social environments, both physical and in thought and opinion. That’s how I made my fortune. So, when I look back, it all seems inevitable.
Now I know that Jean dreamed of illuminating the nature of consciousness through a series of carefully articulated projects that she was busily mapping out when she acquired Meitner.
That first morning, I waved, shouted “Aloha!” and hurried through my wild yard to shake Jean’s hand. When I picked up the bird carrier I was startled to hear a man’s voice, cursing in French. I set the cage on the lanai; it was too unwieldy to carry on the hike to see Meitner’s possible new digs. As Jean and I passed through my orchid-laced yard and reached the trailhead, the curses blessedly receded.
Jean wanted to build a communication bridge between humans and other species. This intrigued me. I worked on making computers seem like humans, so that they might, perhaps, be a home for human minds at some point. She wanted to go in the opposite direction. She had a vision of all living creatures being increasingly connected through biology. She wanted all creatures to be able to selectively incorporate the biological richnesses of other species.
The many vectors and implications of flocking behavior were our Venn diagram overlap.
Her thesis was that birds, who navigate rapidly in three dimensions, have mathematical abilities that exceed those of humans. Flocking—or schooling, or swarming—adds another layer of complexity. Therefore, to develop optimally, Meitner needed to learn to flock.
The social aspects of flocking seem as important as the spatial aspects. Parrots and other social animals converse with intent. As the feral Wild Boy of Aveyron revealed so long ago, in a situation it would be unethical to repeat, sociality delayed is sociality denied. Jean’s desperation about time-related developmental doors closing came through in the proposal.
As far as I could tell, the woman lived on a shoestring—hand to mouth, grant to grant. But she seemed happy, despite her unemphasized but obvious lack of funds. I had money coming out of my ears. The idea of helping her out in this good cause gave me kind of a do-gooder feeling. I often thought I should do something good. Maybe, I thought, this is it.
The minute she stepped onto the narrow trail, where lush tropical forest pressed in on both sides and gusts of wind brought spatters of rain that soaked us, she began to talk. “We live parallel lives with animals. We co-evolved, and yet we’re so insular. We’re impacting their habitats, killing them, and we have so much to learn from them. If people only understood what it means—”
“What what means?”
And so it began, with her following closely behind and me hanging on her every word, tossing back interruptions like small stones—or bread crumbs. I found that instead of rising to the bait when I needled her every three minutes—a bad habit that upset most people—she always responded with patience. I liked that. Soon I realized that for her these were opportunities; teachable moments. I’m smart, sure, but socially and emotionally I’m in the stone age. Knowing that never changed my behavior, and it may be the reason I spend most of my time with computers. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
Jean said, “Every species has niche-evolved skills, ways of interpreting the environment. Our senses and our skills evolved for survival. The species that have survived are descended from the wariest, so we don’t intermingle. We can’t. We might kill or be killed. But we’re just learning what human consciousness is, and that it isn’t the only form of consciousness. We have so much to learn from each other! For instance, I think that mathematics could be enriched by a native model of flocking behavior.”
“We actually do flock,” I offered. “We flock with our minds. In opinions, ideas, art, science. We test, we keep our distance, we draw together, we change our theories en masse, engage in political movements, have revolutions.”
“Hmmm,” she allowed. “Yeah. Language is like that—emergent. Emergence is cooperation of things of unlike kinds. Lewes said that in 1870s. I think.”
If there’s anything I know a lot about, it’s emergence. G. H. Lewes, a philosopher, had coined the term and defined it, as this increasingly remarkable woman had just pointed out. Emergence is self-organized and unpredictable. It tickles and delights the human mind (while it may dismay politicians or those who make financial predictions) because of its propensity to spring from events, properties, social currents, whatever, that would seem unconnected, almost as if their sheer unlikeness has drawn them together and created new energy.
“A lot of things were shakin’ back in the nineteenth century, that’s for sure, I said.” I’d heard the term “emergent” applied to language, and perhaps her surprising perspicacity jolted this sardonic, dismissive response out of me—suddenly, she was on my turf.
“Well, blow it off if you want.” Her voice was low, strong, and sure, and in it I heard a shrug.
“I’m trying to have a conversation. With you it’s—well, having a conversation with you seems to be an exercise in emergence. According to your definition—‘things of unlike kinds.’ Or Lewes’ definition.”
She laughed, then the sound of her footsteps paused for a second. “Oh! What’s that smell?”
“Awapuhi kuahiwi. Ginger. So . . . what do you think you’ll learn? You’ve said that you think Meitner is unique.”
“I think every brain is unique, but mostly in small ways. She may be unique in large ways. And I don’t know what I’ll learn. That’s the point. I guess I’m just curious.”
Entranced would have been a better word. As was I—not with Meitner, but with Jean.
And that name! Lise Meitner was the physicist who confirmed that nuclear fission was possible. In the late forties, she was called “The Mother of the Atomic Bomb,” a title she hated. Deeply pacifist, she had turned down an invitation to work on the Manhattan project, and had earlier risked her career during World War I when she turned down the opportunity to work with her mentor, Otto Hahn, on developing ever more potent poison gas. Instead, to fill out her mandatory war-effort dance card, she went to the German front and used the new technology of X-rays to diagnose the shattered bones of German troops.
When I joked about laying such a heavy mantle on a mere bird, as we huffed up the steep, slippery ridge and rain forest gave way to views of the canyon and the blue Pacific, Jean bridled. I’d say that’s when I first began to fall in love with her, but that’s not true—that began to happen when I read her visionary proposal, though I didn’t realize it. I could tell, then, that she played a long game. Her vision of the possible shone like an isolated, sharp, brilliant ellipse of sun far out on an otherwise stormy sea, and I admired that. I prefer the long game as well. What I’m doing might not ever bear fruit, but it’s a worthy and fascinating goal. Or obsession.
The trail to the hale—the semi-traditional Hawaiian house I’d offered for her use for her study—steepened on the knife-edge of a ridge. Wild goat country. I yelled over my shoulder, “Her name—like Einstein, the parrot? The parrot is funny—why not, um, Lucille Ball? Or Julie Andrews. The parrot can sing, right?”
I heard Jean’s slogging footsteps stop, and I turned to look down at her. Her face red (she was slightly overweight, sunburnt, and not in very good shape), she was sitting on a rock, apparently unfazed by the sheer drop behind her. She unhooked her water bottle from her belt and took a long gulp. Her chin-length red hair stuck to her cheeks.
I got the feeling she’d heard that jibe before, and thought, I’m in for it now. It was a careless remark. I’d taken Dr. Woodward seriously enough to offer her some support for her endeavor, so I’m sure the tone was unexpected.
She stared out a tiny triangular patch of Pacific Ocean, far below at the end of a widening valley. Finally she said, “Lise Meitner’s extraordinary gifts were invisible to the society she lived in—Vienna in 1900. It was illegal—illegal!—for girls to attend school after eighth grade.” Despite a gust of cool wind, her face flushed deep pink. “She had to get a tutor—”
“I know,” I told her, a bit nettled. I’d just read Meitner’s most recent biography. “She got her doctorate in physics, went to Berlin, pretty quickly became part of the in-crowd in theoretical physics. Bohr, Einstein, all those guys.”
“Right. All those guys.” But she smiled. “Anyway, sure, I guess it’s pretentious, but it fits. We have no idea what she’s capable of. We have no idea what any animal really thinks, or any other human, for that matter. Parrot Meitner has had some kind of—well, let’s be positive, and call it enhancement, although it might just be damage. I don’t know if you read the whole proposal and background.”
I had. “I know that these parrots can talk, but do they really understand what they’re saying?”
She stood. “How much farther?” She passed me and pushed on in silence for a few minutes, then yelled over her shoulder, “They can spell phonetically. They can formulate situation-appropriate questions. They can add and subtract.” She turned and faced me. “Think of how you might meet an alien, and although your minds and worlds might be very different, you might strive to establish a bridge of mutually understood testable hypotheses about what you are each thinking. Language is a model, and it is also a reduction, a focal point.”
“But their brains are so tiny—”
She pivoted, put on a surprising burst of speed, and disappeared around a switchback. When I caught up, she was sitting on the platform of the hale swinging her legs over an abyss, with the sunlit, verdant valley a mile below. Rain swept across the tightly woven roof, yielding rainbows all around us.
The heiau was here when I bought the property. It’s about thirty feet long and fifteen feet wide. Heavy posts rise from the platform. Above the worn, old, koa plank floor there is a gap of about ten feet before the steep peaked roof rises toward its apex. Bamboo mats, rolled up on the sides, can be dropped down for walls. A few damp futons still complete the ambiance.
Her hair, drying in the wind, flared out around her head. She looked like a different person; a goddess, almost. The flock of Greys rose from a nearby banyan tree.
She grinned. “I’ll take it.”
Jean’s life work began. Meitner’s first words in English were “I hate you,” followed quickly by “I love you.” Like any child, she meant both.
Twelve years passed. We were having our annual Mele Kalikimaka party. Big doin’s. A ten-minute shower threaded cliffs with silver waterfalls that wavered with every gust of wind. The sun was low in the sky and would soon dive straight into the sea, bringing swift equatorial night. Good smells came from the kitchen.
My friends and neighbors from near and far had come to celebrate Christmas. My ohana—mother, grandmother, brothers and sister, nieces and nephews, transported from the Big Island by helicopter and running mad riot—spilled through the house and onto the broad veranda with its long, lava-rock wall where Jean and I displayed our art and artifacts. A few old friends from Cal Tech were in attendance
As was Meitner.
Elegantly dressed, as usual, in gray feathers and red tail, and celebrity, she held forth as if she were human and not a Grey Parrot.
She had not been surprised when she first saw herself in the mirror, as Alex, the most famous Grey Parrot had been. Her need to socialize with other parrots—so she would not see herself as wholly human—was why she had ended up here, why I fell in love with Jean, and why we had Leilani, now ten and hobnobbing with the guests as easily as Meitner.
Methodically teaching Meitner human speech via a program developed by experts in education and neurology (human and avian) was not an end in itself. It was only a way to help Jean communicate with Meitner. Once that happened, once Meitner was truly accomplished in English and brought out her French curses only when she was extremely irritated, which was about once every hour, the real work began. When it became clear that the parrot understood and could use metaphor and complex linguistic constructions, the world was at Jean’s feet. Jean’s, and Meitner’s.
I sidled up to one of my friends, an astronomer from the Big Island, as he chatted with the parrot, whose fluid, lovely voice mirrored Jean’s. Exactly. Jean’s accent, inflections, even that lovely low chuckle.
They were talking about dynamic topology—flocking—an emergent behavior around which I developed related software used by many governments.
Leilani, a thin, brown, sparkling girl with long black hair, was showing her cousins her favorite painting, a copy of Gauguin’s “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” The metaphysical painting of 1897 shows lightly clothed Tahitians in various life stages.
“Look,” Leilani said to her cousin, Jake, as she pointed to an old woman crouched in the corner of the painting. “There’s Tutu.”
“Ugh!” Jake, eleven, recoiled. “Tutu is prettier than that!” He turned his stare to the bare breasts of a young woman.
In the painting, a fanciful, fictional Polynesian idol overlooks the people in the foreground. I imagined that Leilani liked the painting because she was always asking about the life of her ancestors in the old days. Perhaps she believed it might have been like the scene depicted in the painting, though we had etchings and photographs that showed the real thing.
Meitner was on Leilani’s leather shoulder perch, as usual, and attended to the painting quite closely. She often studied it, and I wondered if her mind encompassed the wider implications of the questions that make up the title—particularly since, being a hybrid of human and parrot, she was the living embodiment of where we might all be going.
But maybe she just liked looking at the tropical foliage in the painting.
Leilani and Meitner were classmates. In fact, they spent all their time together—sisters, of a sort—and they sometimes squabbled, as sisters do. The true dimensions of their relationship were unknown to me; I only witnessed dynamics, behaviors that looked like love, anger, apologies, wild play, and quiet, shared concentration. Jean brought in tremendously gifted educators on a regular basis. They waited in line to work with Meitner, to carry out their research. As a result, Leilani zipped through subjects that most high schoolers might have a hard time mastering. Like Meitner, she was good at calculus and trigonometry. She loved biology. She was on a soccer team, a debate team, and played a mean ukulele. We dropped her off at her cousins’ houses regularly, and they visited us here. We read, sang, watched movies, and played a lot of card games. Poker, for instance. Leilani and Meitner could take the house anywhere.
I grabbed my astronomer friend by the elbow. “Hugh, take a look at my new painting. Just hung it today.” I herded several people toward “The Stinger Ship.” Leilani leaped and danced ahead of us, Meitner fluttering to cling to her perch, and stopped in front of the painting, a proud smile on her face.
“You’ve heard about the latest private space venture?”
“Yes! Great concept.” Hugh’s broad face crinkled in an enthusiastic smile.
“Jean and I bought stock.”
He laughed. “Bound to pay off when your grandchildren are old.”
“Oh, some of the early spinoffs are already paying dividends. The brightest and the best are working on it. Anyway, this artist painted a picture based on it.”
Holding drinks, we examined it. A gigantic dome of a space ship with a cylinder hanging from its underside revealed a slice of the planet behind it. The domed shape and the tentacles that tethered human figures to the ship gave the ship its nickname.
Two figures were foregrounded. One was a space suit attached to the enormous ship with a tether. Another figure hung in space beneath the floating suit.
Hugh squinted at the second figure. “Ah. This man is naked. See the detail?” He leaned closer, gestured with his drink.
I clearly saw a human calf. A foot.
Hugh said, “He’s dead. Or, after a minute out there, he would be.” A tentacle—a life-support tube, I imagined—floated in the foreground. It ended at the edge of the picture without connecting to anything. Perhaps it was out of the frame of the picture.
Or perhaps it had been cut.
I edged closer. “Wow. You’re right. Wouldn’t he burst?”
“No. But there’s a question here. A story. Is it an accident? Suicide? Murder? Execution?”
Leilani craned her neck to take a closer look. Meitner moved her head back and forth like a metronome, examining; listening. I felt a bit uncomfortable, as we had shielded both of them from television mayhem and violent video games. I always thought that Leilani would learn about the adult world in immediate, graphic terms, soon enough.
Like now. I wished that I had looked more closely at the picture before having it hung.
“I’m thinking it’s murder,” said Hugh.
“Murder?” asked Meitner, cocking her head to one side.
“When one human kills another.”
The parrot shifted back and forth uneasily on Leilani’s shoulder. “Why would they do that?” The fluency of her speech never ceased to amaze me. Or everyone else, for that matter.
Hugh said, shifting swiftly and irritatingly into professorial mode, “Rage. Jealousy. Or, if they have thought things through—this is called murder in the first degree—they might plan things so that it doesn’t look like a murder. They might do this to get money, or to hide something that the dead person knew. They might try to make it look like an accident, or suicide—”
Meitner rested her small gray head, briefly, against Leilani’s ear. I saw a little crease between Leilani’s large brown eyes. My girl said, “Why would anyone kill themselves?”
“I don’t know,” I said, quite honestly. Someday I would tell her that my brother committed suicide, but this was not the moment.
She persisted. “Why would anyone kill someone else?”
“People don’t do it very often,” I lied, thinking of war. “It’s a crime. People who do it go to jail.”
Hugh snorted. “Sometimes.”
Meitner’s feathers stood out suddenly. “I don’t like being human.” As she flew down the wide veranda and soared into the night, her strange, jarring cry bit into me like a knife.
After a moment of silence, all I could think of to say to Leilani was, “Let’s see what your mother is doing.”
A week later we found Jean’s doorless Jeep at the bottom of a deep crevasse. She was dead. The cause of death was internal injuries caused by the crash. Her face was badly damaged, but the coroner said she was pretty sure that Jean’s face and neck were bitten by birds. Not one bird, but many.
I was too sick to even think about what might have happened.
I waited for Meitner to show up so that I could ask her questions, but she did not.
The parrot flock was wild and protected. We could not trap or kill them.
Which was a good thing for them.
In the beginning, it was all so beautiful. It remained beautiful for twelve years. After that, it was a dread horror that brought out all that was worst in me. My lovely girl grew up in the company of her tutu and cousins, because I turned sour when Jean died and I carried the secret of her death inside me, for reasons I never quite understood.
Now, when I hear Jean’s voice on my pod demanding rights for animals as I monitor the Stinger news channel in the hale where our life together began, I immediately grasp what it’s about.
I turn on the video that is streaming from the ship with which I have become so deeply involved after that initial, distant investment. But I quickly turn off the visual screen. It’s jarring and heartbreaking to hear Jean’s voice, her syntax and accent, but see a parrot’s head, beak, and eye.
“I am here in several capacities.
“Most of you are amazed that I can talk. There is a story in that, which I will tell you.
“But before that, I am here as spokesperson—yes, I am a person—to offer an invitation to participate in an international mathematical ballet. This is a ballet planned in conjunction with Psittacus and Company, one of the many corporations sponsoring the Stinger Ship, to celebrate the Stinger’s completion and departure.
“Many of you already have the neuroplasticity enhancement that will allow you to do so; it is P-493, manufactured by Psittacus and Company, updated a week ago. Psittacus and Company is making a temporary dose of this drug available on demand. Directions about obtaining it will follow. Participation is, of course, entirely voluntary. It is fully compatible with all neuroplasticity drugs manufactured by other companies; it has been extensively tested for years and is fully certified for use by the International Agency for Neuroplasticity and Genetic Modification. Participants will be encouraged to be at particular places at particular times, which will follow dawn around the Earth, beginning on the island of Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands, in one week. You will need special 4-D earbuds, which will be provided, and a special bracelet, which will transmit information, accept your feedback movements, and create a dance based on the flocking capabilities bestowed by P-493. We anticipate that this will be a joyous occasion.
“This is the part of this announcement that is most important to me. I am taking this opportunity to demand certain legal rights for my fellow creatures. The legal document has been prepared and will be released soon, but I will describe it briefly and follow that description with my story. Psittacus and Company is not a party to this demand; I am doing it as an individual.
“Non-humans—all flora and fauna—are presently treated as beings with no real agency, as robots, slaves, toys, experimental subjects, nuisances, food.
“As living individuals, we outnumber humans a billionfold. To those of you aware of how I was created, who think that we parrots have been given the gift of speech by magnanimous humans, I tell you no. We have had speech for eons. All of us non-human creatures communicate with one another and with our environment, and many have evolved communication systems that could be called speech—semiotic in nature, couched in context. We are scientists, observing the environment. We collect data. We calculate and make decisions based on that data. Some of us build. Some of us farm. Some of us hunt. Some of us use tools. All of us communicate. Some of us live solitary lives. Some of us are eusocial.
“Most of us try to avoid you, but some of us are born or trapped into servitude. We parrots can serve as a bridge, spreading this message species to species where communication pathways overlap.”
I am musing on the fact that Meitner’s creators were testing the effects of genetic enhancement and neuroplasticity extensions, and that, twenty-five years later, like most people, I sport some of those enhancements, and many newer ones as well, when transmission ceases.
I realize, in the silence, rather surprised, that Meitner is talking about Jean’s message. Her vision.
Being realized, perhaps, after all these years.
Something else is apparent to me, as well. Meitner once said: “My dreams are geometries of flight.” I did not understand at that time that her spatial dynamics were quite as unique as they are. It is something I have learned in the past few years by reading her papers. I think about those geometries in the context of the “experiment” the announcer mentioned.
A thrill runs through me.
Chased instantly by dread. As soon as I hear Meitner say that she is going to tell her story I know: I have to call Leilani and tell her.
Before Meitner does.
Hands, fire, speech, memory, stories. My mother taught me that evolutionary grammar of humanity.
Meitner can talk. She always could tell a good story. I’ll bet she could start a fire, too. Without hands. She sounds angry, imperious. On my television, her yellow eye stares at the camera as she tells the world what she wants. I decide that she would be a bang-up lawyer, too. A dull, sad ache flares in my chest as I watch her, but it has nothing to do with her words, which are splendid.
“These are my demands: One: Significant funds, their purpose specifically delineated in my document after much research, must be dedicated to enhancing interspecies communication. Two: All animals must henceforth be regarded, legally, as sentient beings entitled to inalienable rights under international law: to wit, the right to an environment in which they can each reach their full potential, the right to live a peaceful, non-threatened life, the right to legal representation, the right to education if desired. The right to sample trans-species enhancement and changes and accept or reject them. The right to freedom from enslavement to researchers or any other human being. The right to form contractual relationships. The right to . . .” My mother’s voice trills on, as soothing and as reasonable as the million times I had heard her cajole, smooth, manipulate Meitner through tantrums and the constant negotiations of our shared childhood. Oh, amazing.
I admire her. Meitner has fast-forwarded through eons of moral, philosophical, and legal thought and synthesized them into what is probably a compelling document, except for one fact: As a parrot, she has no legal standing.
The last time I saw her was the night of my mother’s funeral.
We hiked up the trail past the hale, winding higher and higher up the road until we reached the ridgetop, where we each tossed a handful of my mother’s ashes to the wind. Wind blasted up from the valley. People leap off to hang glide there, falling and rising on complicated currents of air. The legend is that you can lean into the wind and it will stand you up again on the ridge.
Mom’s ashes blew back into my face. I felt my hair and found it greasy, full of grit. It was strangely comforting.
That evening, the house was full. A few uncles sat by the fireplace playing slack-key and talking story about my mother as the sweet smell of wild ginger gusted through the house, borne on the evening trade wind. Our whole ohana filled the house with food, warmth, stories, hugs. Everyone wore white. Our dark skins and slow-moving white dresses and shirts seemed to glow as we floated like moths across the huge, candlelit lanai. I gazed at the full moon, thinking about my mother. I felt as if she was giving me a message, in round, mysterious moonlight, but I didn’t know what it was. Tears on my father’s face sparkled as my aunties hugged him tight. Soon, they all joined in singing the old, old songs and chants.
I wandered off and sat in the long, broad hallway where my parents kept ancient koa bowls, stone ko’i used to carve canoes, my great-great-great-grandmother’s surfboard, and their art. I looked at my favorite painting, the one that asks Where Are We Going, and I wondered where my mother had gone.
Then I saw Meitner, perched on the back of a koa bench, staring at the Stinger Ship painting.
I ran toward her. I was crying. I wanted to hear her voice, my mother’s voice. I wanted her wings to be arms, her beak a mouth to kiss me.
She spread her gray wings and flew. I followed her out to the vast, cantilevered lanai that hung over the deep, verdant valleys of my childhood. “Meitie!”
She vanished into the night.
I never heard her voice again, though I thought that every Grey Parrot I spotted might be her until I saw their lack of her distinguishing red face-blotch. And up at the hale where I lived, sleeping on the futon, before my father sent me to Hilo, none ever spoke to me.
I snap out of my memories when Meitner’s voice vanishes. After some dead air, a woman’s calm voice says, “Excuse us while we deal with some technical problems.” Some bland music comes on.
Dad calls. He looks old, much older than he did at Christmas. “Are you watching?”
“I’m completely surprised that the parrots are there.”
“I am too.”
“Sure, you are, but I’m surprised because I’ve been working on code for the ship for some time and I haven’t heard about this experiment. It seems that I should have known. I may have told you about my work.”
“Yes, you talked about it at Christmas.” The same kind of thing he’d worked on his whole life, of course, with total intensity and concentration. For years he had been living either in a shack hidden in the pines on his secluded bit of public—but hard-to-access—North Shore beach, or in the hale roughing it, talking to no one. Connected, of course, but a hermit. I worry about him, but what can I do? I’m sure he’s had various neuroplasticity enhancements. I have too, but just little things. “You’re working on some kind of human-machine interface, right?”
“Kind of. Anyway, of course, Stinger is a huge enterprise, so I guess it’s not that surprising. Everything is compartmentalized.”
I don’t say that he is a compartment unto himself, but I’m afraid he hears me think it. Instead I say, “It must have been expensive to get the parrots up there. Specially built suits?”
“Psittacus and Company have a lot of money, and plan to make more with this publicity.” Silence, then, “Leilani, there is something I need say. It will be hard. I’m sorry, but I have to tell you.”
“Meitner may have killed your mother.”
I jump to my feet. “What?”
He tells me a horrible story.
“I don’t believe it! That’s ridiculous!
“It’s not.” He is using his old reasonable-father voice. “She disappeared after that. Remember?”
“Of course I remember!” I say, instantly regretting my cross tone. “But I don’t see how you can . . . even think! She loved Mom!” I walk to the kitchen to freshen my coffee, put the cup down on a table, walk to the patio door and open it, taking deep breaths of freezing air. Rain pelts my face.
“I know this is hard for you. But Meitner is a bird. Her relationship with your mother was . . . confusing. Your mother agonized about it all the time, wondered if she was doing the right things, worried about what might happen to Meitner. She thought of Meitner as a victim. A bird that—”
“She’s a person!”
He continues. “Your mother always worried that it was a lot to lay on a bird, or any other creature. Meitner often seemed . . . disturbed, and hateful. Like a human child can seem, sometimes, but . . .”
“No, no, no.” I’m crying.
“I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have told you. But . . . I didn’t want you to hear it from anyone but me.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s Meitner’s story, Leilani. I have a feeling that she is getting ready to tell it. It’s what made her what she is. I never told you, but she was at the University of Hawaii for a while, and at Cal Tech . . .”
“You knew she was alive? And you didn’t tell me?”
“Some friends told me. I knew that she wanted to keep a low profile. That was fine with me.”
“But—you thought she’d done this horrible thing! How could you just—”
“Out of respect for your mother, Leilani. Meitner has been doing interesting things, some interesting mathematical work.”
“On quantum nonlocality.”
“Einstein called it ‘spooky action at a distance.’ Meitner’s work on it is potentially game-changing, and—”
I cut him off. “But why didn’t you say anything? Weren’t you afraid she might kill somebody else?”
Dad sighs. “Of course. At first. But I didn’t know that she was out and about until five years ago. She could have been dead for all I knew, and I wasn’t aware of any similar cases, which would probably have made the news. Those that know her now seem to think—” He stops talking again for a moment but before I can ask Who knew her? he says in a rush, “I just heard that she was innovative and original, and that seemed to be what your mother wanted, what she tried to do. She wanted to give Meitner the power to do whatever she was capable of doing. What matters is that this is your mother’s dream. All the work she did—I wish she were alive to see this!” He pauses, probably thinking of the same irony I’m thinking of. “But . . . I’m calling for another reason, too. You need to help her with her legal demands. And you have to help her get her story told. They’ve interrupted Meitner’s broadcast for a reason. They consider her a threat of some kind.”
I’m really puzzled. “What can I do?”
“You’re a lawyer. An animal rights lawyer. You can get her a hearing in court.”
Bless his heart. He seems to be overestimating my influence, my expertise. “What court?”
“What do you mean, what court? You defend dogs on death row. You defend monkeys used in experiments. What court do you go to then?”
“Dad, calm down. Calm down. Whatever court has jurisdiction. That’s where we take the case. But she’s in space. There’s no court in space.”
“There’s a World Court. In The Hague.”
“Dad, I . . .” I falter. I was brought up never to say I can’t. I think hard and fast. “Individuals can’t bring cases. But they sometimes hear cases from groups.”
“This is a group.”
“This is Meitner. This is a parrot. Everyone can see she’s a parrot.”
“She has human DNA. People can hear that she’s person, damn it! Didn’t you say the same thing just ten minutes ago? But she’s also a bird. Don’t you belong to some kind of international group that defends the rights of animals?
“Animal Defense International, yes.”
“Well? Do something! I’m afraid this Psittacus Company might kill her.”
“I thought you said they stood to make a lot of money.”
“They might if whatever they’re planning goes off without a hitch. I think she used them to gain this platform, and they used her to sell their enhancement. It’s politics. It’s sausage-making. But I’m worried. They might be afraid now that she’s making demands. Bad publicity. Can you imagine the sheer cost of litigating what she’s talking about? The pressure from all kinds of quarters to get Psittacus to shut her up? There could easily be an accident.”
My mind does a dizzy emotional flip back to the painting, the one Meitner was looking at when I last saw her. “Yes,” I say. I remember, too, her love of Where Are We Going?
I wonder where she is going. Where she wants us to go.
He says, “We have to make sure that Meitner lives.” He picks up steam. “That she gets her dance done! For your mother! For her! Hell, maybe even for all of us!”
I don’t think I’ve ever heard him so worked up. “Okay. My brain is functioning now. Let me make some calls.”
“I’ll make some calls too, through my Stinger network. Maybe I can get her back on the air. So to speak.”
I kind of move in slow motion, although I make things happen very quickly. All of my years of animal advocacy scholarship kicks in, all the people I’ve met. Cases come to mind. I call three people while I email six more. Within minutes, I realize that everyone I know is on Meitner’s side. It’s the case they’ve been waiting for. It sets off a chain reaction. Small guns call big guns and big guns call Psittacus. I forward information as it is requested and as I find it—proof, for instance, that Meitner has human DNA. The argument is removed from me as those with far more expertise and power take over. For two hours I monitor email, read rapid-fire injunctions, and bite my nails.
Then I get a call from an unknown number. A man says “Is this Leilani Kalani?”
“Who is this?” I ask, impatient to get back to my anxiety.
“Meitner would like to speak to you. She wants to know if you will accept the call.”
If I would accept! I think with a rush of eagerness, but then I muffle the speaker as I burst into great, hoarse sobs that startle me.
“Hello?” the man says, his voice distant, coming from arm’s length. “Hello?”
I realize, with a great jolt, that I do not want to talk to her.
“Just a minute,” I manage, and go away from the phone, back onto the patio, and bow my head in the cold, cold rain.
I am surprised to find myself thinking in large, colored blocks of feeling, which I must maneuver with all my strength. Pull! on the yellow cube of anger. Push! on the slippery purple sphere of sorrow, which grows to huge size and howls at me, as I howled at my father earlier, No! No! No!
This is how I thought when I was a child, I remember, and that knowledge is like an electric current, connecting me to a world of overpowering feelings that I’d forgotten that I ever had.
And it’s Meitner waiting for me: all that I’d lost forever when my mother died; a world waiting to be restored. Or to submerge me.
I grip the railing, gulp frigid air. I work on my shaky breathing until it is deep and calm, the colored shapes shrink, and I am a grown-up again, but newly, sharply aware of the power of my childhood.
I slide open the door and slip back inside, rub my wet hands on the back of the couch, and pick up the phone. “Hello?”
“Leilani?” says Meitner, says my mother’s voice, says the being who may have killed my mother, the only living soul with whom I share so much, and who vanished so completely. I bite my tongue; I clench my fist, I say with a sob despite all that, “Meitie.”
I remember to breathe deeply as I listen for her voice, but slow tears slide down my face. The lovely voice; the cadences of speech that say Mother, Mother, Mother.
She speaks again, finally. “Leilani, I am sorry.”
What I have to say comes out in a shout, demanding and raw. “Why did you leave me?”
She speaks slowly, but without hesitation. “I was sad. I was afraid. Afraid of what I might bring to you. I am a bird. I can fly. I did so. It was the easiest thing to do. I was trying to leave behind all human feelings. They were too strong.”
“I . . . understand that. Human feelings are sometimes too strong for me too.” I swallow hard. “But what happened? Tell me why you were afraid. I need to know.”
“I will talk about all that, I promise you, when I’m back on the air. If they allow me to speak. They handled me rather roughly.” I hear the nervousness in her voice. “I’m not sure that I can say it twice.”
“Did you kill Mother?” I use my strong, interrogatory lawyer’s voice, glad that I have that tool. Without it, I would be incoherent.
In the long silence that follows, the unthinkable scenarios generated by my father’s brief speech fill my vision. If I could, I would reach across space and strangle Meitner, grab her gray neck and twist it. Let them kill her, I think. Let them! Ranked against that impulse is my father’s reserve, his eagerness to let something that he wouldn’t tell me about, some promise, some link with Mom, unfold.
“No,” Meitner says quietly, but with force. “I did not. I am very sorry if John thinks so, and sorry that you even need to ask, but I understand why. It’s actually very complicated. It goes to the heart of what I want to say.”
As I struggle to respond, her voice, almost a whisper, with an edge of happiness that is her, not my mother, comes through my phone, piercing the dark space of my listening, of my thinking, of my deep sorrow.
She says, “You are my sister, as truly as any sister could be. You are the only sister I will ever have. You shared your childhood with me. I am so grateful to Jean for giving me that. Your mother gave me my life, just as she gave you your life. When I was a child with you, the horror of the lab was fresh. You were my salvation. Leilani, I was not much older than you, confused, a child, but I stayed away from you out of what I can only call love. And that love propelled me through the horrible years that followed.”
My world whirls back around. I know Meitner. I know her through ten shared years of the deepest life I will ever know, through quarrels, pranks, laughter, and play, and I believe that what she says is true.
I feel a rush of regret for lost years, pain at our human creations. And strange joy because the word sister completes me, like hearing music I never knew existed. Sister. Yes. My only sister.
“Ms. Kalani? Meitner?” The man’s voice is crisp; official.
“Yes,” we both say, Meitner, I can tell, as irritated as I am.
“Psittacus and Company has agreed to allow Meitner to resume talking.”
Suddenly, that means nothing to me. I want to hold onto this moment. Perhaps what she has to say will destroy this fragile restoration of a part of my life that has long been dead, dead without me even realizing what was gone.
“It can wait a minute,” says Meitner.
“This is valuable time,” the man warns.
“Go away,” she says, and the man is silent.
“Leilani,” she says, “What I am going to say is troubling and painful. It will be difficult for me to say, and difficult for you to hear. But it touches on issues that all of us are going to have to think about, to confront. I hope to make that task easier by facilitating more communication—a special kind of communication—among us all. I am so happy—so deeply glad—that I have finally been able to talk to you. I am happier than you will ever know. I believe that your legal expertise will be invaluable in the effort I will outline.”
“I hope so,” I say.
“Meitner?” the man’s voice breaks in.
“I love you, sister,” I say.
“I love you,” she replies.
Video is restored. I watch Meitner’s big yellow eye, her hooked beak, and think, What Are We? Evolution fast-forwards right before my eyes and rings in my ears and in my brain as she tells the story of her life.
“This is my story. I appreciate the opportunity to tell it. I think that it will be instructive.
“I mourn my companion, Dr. Jean Woodward. When she died, I went mad with grief. I left the human world; I returned to the wild in Kauai.
“As some of you might know, the vehicle through which human DNA was inserted into me was a virus. Because of the viral vehicle, human DNA was transmitted to the parrots in Kauai with whom I flocked.
“Some of those parrots attacked Jean as she was driving to town. Her Jeep went off the road and she died. I have always blamed myself. I had told them how humans behaved, and had lately told them that humans sometimes committed murder. Perhaps they were angry at her for changing them, even though it was not really her who did so.
“I left my flock. They were not like me; they did not have my intense human socialization. I hated them. I realized that I was alone—not like anyone or anything else in the world. New. It was a frightening realization. I didn’t know where I was going.
“It’s easy to fly into the baggage compartment of a plane. I went to other islands. I spent years studying humans. I watched them through their windows; perched on trees overlooking their lanais. I listened. I never spoke. There are plenty of tropical birds in Hawaii, so I did not stand out. I therefore had the opportunity of eavesdropping on hundreds of families. I studied five or six families at a time, moving between their homes. I particularly sought out card players, for I could see all of their hands and understand their distinct strategies, and observe how they expressed themselves by showing and by not showing. I watched their televisions. I heard their arguments. I watched them make love. I saw them express love and generosity to one another. I heard them lie. Many living creatures lie, but I saw intricate, painful lies, with hurtful consequences that might ring through generations.
“I never spoke. If I had never spoken, Jean would not have died. Something about knowing that kept me from being able to speak, even when I wanted to.
“During that time I was learning about myself, about what this human part of me was. My parrot companions acted in a monstrous way, a way that was human, with hatred and revenge, but they had no moral imperative not to do so. They had a parrot culture, not a human culture developed and modified through eons. They were angry. They had emotions they did not know how to control. I realized that the entire time I lived with my human family I had been extremely isolated. I had known few other people, and learned that my family was unusual—deeply respectful, kind, adventurous, and loving. But not like most human families.
“Finally, I was able to make peace with myself. I understood that who and what I was, although unique, and a mystery, was not my fault. I was created without a context. I returned to my flock on Kauai again and again over the years—the plane ride from Honolulu takes about an hour, and I stayed for months at a time or more—and tried to help them with their humanity, as they tried to help me in being a parrot. Over those twenty years or so we became settled; we grew; we learned to appreciate our human side, as diverse and wild as any other animal’s deep being.
“The other side of my life took place in a different context, but each side of me promoted growth of the other in a seesaw pattern. The day I finally spoke again it was a surprise to me and to the mathematician at the University of Hawaii I had chosen to live with. I did so after watching many of her lectures, which sang to me. She thought about many of the things I thought about, and it was with relief that I learned the language of mathematics. I felt that I was truly home at last. She promised to keep our relationship a secret. I did not desire to become famous. I did not want to be studied ever again. Eventually, I became a ghost faculty member—a name that only a few humans could connect with a visage. Together, and separately, she and I wrote papers about emergence. My name is on those papers; I am L. Meitner. My work became more influential, and because I was never seen, there was a mystique about me. Some thought I might be an AI, or impaired in some unsightly way, or physically challenged. They wondered about my gender. Now that mystery is laid to rest—I am a female parrot with human DNA.
“I have always wanted to do Jean justice. She had a vision, and without her, I would have none. I saw the indignities visited upon the beings on the planet without human speech. I saw the casual violence, the lack of respect for our homes, for our food sources, for our offspring. I began to experience a sense of mission. Most non-humans have specific missions having to do with survival but I realized that, having the gift of speech, I had a wider responsibility. I understand other species, probably, as little as you do, but I do know that they have interior lives and that they deserve rights as living beings.
“My document and demands have been transmitted to those who can bring this case forward. I have already heard of massive international support, and I know that there are those who are, inevitably, against it. I thank those of you who are helping.
“To illustrate Dr. Woodward’s vision, we plan to offer you a flocking ballet. It is a work of art that has mathematical underpinnings. It will be a spontaneous event performed by prepared minds on the Winter Solstice, beginning on Kauai, Jean’s home. All of you on Earth can participate.
“This is her life’s work.
“And mine. Soon, perhaps, it will be yours, the work of all of you, for in a flock, there is no set leader.
“We take turns.”
There was enough time for all of us to get to Kauai for the Winter Solstice; the dance.
I’ve taken the update; my husband has not.
Kara, our daughter, was here only a few months ago, but that is a long time for a toddler. Everything is new, and she is delighted with the surf, from which I grab her, the mountain, where she wisely shies from heights, with the ancient banyan tree by the hale, where she plays hide-and-seek among its many trunks, as I did with my mother. The deep sadness I carried within me for so long has lifted. The world seems as new for me as it is for Kala, charged with hope.
In the end, it was the power of social media that helped sway Psittacus, though the legal system can take some credit in setting the terms and conditions of Meitner’s freedom to speak. The world wanted to hear Meitner. Psittacus stock seesawed wildly during those hours, a fluctuation directly based on online supposition and conjecture. Now, it’s going great guns.
The whole ohana is here, some ready for the dance, with their updates, their bracelets. Lots of Dad’s friends flew to Lihue and were helicoptered in. They are a strange collection of academics, carpenters, plumbers, programmers, businesspeople, and old neighbors from his days in California and on the Big Island. Most everyone he knows.
Meitner’s mathematician is here, too. She is a tiny, vivacious Thai woman—quick and thin, with long, silver hair. I am intimidated by her brilliant reputation, but her smile and her hug wipe all that away in an instant. She says, “Meitner has told me a lot about you,” and we fall into a long, healing conversation about my sister and the years during which she was lost to me.
Despite such outbreaks of serious, quiet discussion, there is a festive air. People are gathering all over the world in parks, stadiums, and living rooms, and it seems that many animals are behaving differently as well, though that angle is pooh-poohed by the media. Still, there is news of the same communication bracelets we wear having been dropped, in pellet form, over great swathes of wild areas, which has caused environmentalist uproar. My father has an odd glint in his eyes and something like joy on his face.
Many of us rise in the dark for Zen meditation at the hale, and then we wait for dawn. The lovely cacophony of parrots, macaws—a sliding, whooping, trilling music—fills my mind, taking me back to my childhood.
They stop vocalizing, as if cut off by a switch.
In that deep silence, a ray of sunlight shoots over the ridge. My father, listening to his earpiece, says, “The parrots have dropped.”
But I know without his saying so. We all do, and we rise.
Parrot music bursts forth once more, but I gradually realize that I am hearing a new kind of speech, which I also hear as music.
My movements are beyond thought. Perhaps they are like flight. My feeling is one of pure delight in an odd sort of work.
My father says, “Oh.” He is the only person who speaks the entire time, as we human-parrots dance the mathematics of nonlocal emergence.
That was the last time he spoke. And that was the instant the ship vanished, to everyone’s astonishment, except, perhaps, his.
And that was when something new emerged.
I’ve seen the parrot ballet, of course, many times now. I know that Meitner said, “Emergent Nonlocality: Going Home,” and then movement began.
Because I experienced it, and still do, I am endlessly fascinated by watching Meitner’s flock perform, in space, their three-dimensional dance of Meitner’s proof, ten short pages of symbols that they make real. That reality moves, via our communication bracelets, into us and into other living creatures.
Like others, I study the first movements of humans and other creatures around the Earth that sunrise as we dance the pattern, which, once begun, continues to emerge in science, behaviors, art, politics, policies, and law.
But I am an amateur in this study, where others are serious, and brilliant. To me it is simply beautiful.
All living creatures have one goal, communicated, understood, and shared on a broad bandwith: the survival of all of us. With joy.
My father still spends all his time at the hale or on the beach. He is completely functional and appears to be thinking. He just does not speak, not in words, not in writing. But he speaks in other ways.
He writes code: a form of speech, but not one I can cipher. I have not found anyone who really can, though I have been told both that it is gibberish and that it is profound. No one can say what its purpose might be, so it is probably art. In my opinion, art is communication on a spectacular range of wavelengths.
I believe his art describes the strange new place he inhabits now, which I think is wherever that ship is. His mind is nonlocal, in two places at once, two places that communicate, part of the human-machine world he sought to create his entire life. Like art, it is its own purpose.
I visit him every few months, between stretches at The Hague where my family now lives and where I work on litigation and legislation with international teams of lawyers, ethicists, and scientists. When I need respite from the Pandora’s box we have opened, I am drawn home to the place I hid from for so many years, and to my father.
I seek him at the hale, climbing that haunting, lightswept trail limned with bracts of wild ginger. Or I look for him at the beach, where waves pound their infinite dance and the blue Pacific stretches half the world before me, charged with lives I can now protect, lives that interact with mine in a new dimension that is like an ineluctable flavor, a previously impossible shape, or a tone that infuses all of my senses. I am immeasurably enriched; deeply changed.
My father smiles at me quite often. His eyes glow with intense peace.
“Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” copyright © 2014 by Kathleen Ann Goonan
Art copyright © 2014 by Richard Anderson