The river’s outflow pushes us farther into the bay. It burbles softly against the hull of our boat, then settles to silence. What little water we can see around us undulates so subtly that we cannot be sure we see it at all; it could be a trick of our vision, an undercurrent in our thoughts, or empty space. It bears us rapidly, however, at several knots, and so smoothly that we feel we are flying.
I grip Vassal’s forearm for balance, tilt my head back, and look up. The great dome of stars above us is beginning to fade toward morning. Natives who lived on this coast in ancient times sang that the stars are we, birds of fire who soar above the sky and sing with voices of light, forging pathways for the spirit. To Vassal and me, those words ring true. On some nights, when we are out in our boat like this, gravity lets us go and we soar with the stars. We live in their dominion, as creatures of flame.
Tonight, however, we remain earthbound. In the years since I joined him, we have visited this river mouth, bay, and the sea beyond them thousands of times, on many days and some nights. We know our bearings here even in the dark. To our left, northeastward—Down East, as Mainers say—islands scatter. To our right, beside us, a few hundred feet distant, a beach stretches along our southward course. In a half mile it will turn from us and slant westward along the coast, toward distant cities: Portland, twenty miles away, then Boston and New York—“two of Maine’s southern communities,” Vassal calls them.
On clear nights like this, we see the faint glow of Portland on the western horizon, beyond the shore. Tonight from that direction a familiar sound enters our reverie. At first it is a whisper that we scarcely hear. I recall the first night we heard it, years ago. We could not identify it. Its source seemed near but we could not place it. Then we thought it might come from farther away, from the sky or the mainland. Still we could not place it. We tried to see it, or any hint of it, but we could not. Unlike tonight, the night was totally dark, overcast, with no moonlight leaking through the clouds. We sat there and listened, groping for explanation.
Then Vassal recognized it.
“Waves,” he said, “on the beach.”
It was the sound of low waves easing onto sand. On calm nights like tonight, the waves scarcely ripple from the sea. As they reach land, they rise up a few inches, turn like open hands, and then collapse, playing soft rhythms on the shore. Tonight we are drifting past them again. Their faint music lulls us. Then the beach swings away from us and we begin to drift out to sea. The sound fades. Soon we only imagine it, no longer hear. Finally, we forget it and drift thoughtless.
* * *
I resume worrying. In our cottage a few hours ago, shortly after midnight, Vassal commenced delivery of his invention. He sat at his computer and sent the command to Jimmy the Fairy. Jimmy and the rest of the Bigheads were waiting in their settlement in the woods fifty miles upriver. I envisioned them there, sitting on the carpets in their common room with their legs crossed, their laptop computers balanced on their knees, their mobile devices beside them. When the command came, they bent to their keyboards and with darting strokes of their stubby fingers sent a thousand more commands to distributors around the world.
That started it. So far, aside from Vassal and me, only Jimmy and his clan, and the Indians, know the scope of what Vassal has done. At this moment, as I stand here in the boat, I find myself doubting that anyone in our group is entirely sane. Vassal is not a worrier like me, but he, too, feels the enormity. He revealed that to me earlier tonight, soon after we began drifting.
He said to me, “What we’ve done feels huge, preposterously consequential, like we’re in some melodramatic movie. We’ve wanted to send my device to everyone, and let it happen out of our control. Now we’ve done that. You and I have thought we wouldn’t want to watch that develop. It’s not as if we’re doing this because we think the world needs changing and my invention can change things for the better, or because we want it to entertain us or make us rich. We just want whoever wants it to have it, to use however they will.
“I don’t know what you’re thinking now about watching what will happen, but my mind has changed. I’m thinking I’ll want to see that, especially all the adjusting people will do because of it, in their families, friendships, workplaces, public places, everywhere. That will be amazing.”
A little later he said to me, “It’s launched, Reverend Professor. Here on the river, you and I can’t see or hear anything about it, but it’s out there, beyond the horizon, in place after place, ready for people to turn it on.
“Think of the signals that are about to fly. They’ll be everywhere, millions of them. A storm of them will zip from sensors to receivers and person to person, like lightning that keeps striking. They’ll convey people’s wishes, concerns, desperation, fear, curiosity, ambitions, hopes. They’ll be big news, maybe the biggest ever. And we and our friends will have made them happen.”
“You know what you and I are in for, don’t you?“
He was looking down at me through the darkness. I could tell by the sound of his voice.
“People will struggle to understand. Many will flounder around, or just get excited. There’ll be a lot of speculation about what is happening and why, and about what may happen next. Some people will get upset and demonize us. Others will deify us, silly as that will be.
“As the person most responsible, I’ll be the object of most of that, but you’ll get your share. You’ll be portrayed as my sidekick, ally, assistant, accomplice, enabler, partner in crime, and who knows what else. Because you’re a woman, some people will call you a witch or a whore. They’ll say you’re evil and domineering, or they’ll characterize you as wily and seductive, an Eve in the Garden who just couldn’t lay off the apple. They may blame you for the whole mess just because you’re female and I’m not, while others will give you all the credit, for the same reason.
“That won’t last. People will realize that praising or blaming us or the government or anyone else won’t change what’s happening. They’ll discover that we’re irrelevant to their fates, and that they’ll have to cope with my invention on their own.
“Once all that begins, I’d like to tune in and watch. I suspect you will, too. At some point, we’ll get our fill and go on to something else, but until then it’ll be worth seeing.”
I was feeling the same about that. I was eager to sit with him and watch things develop. I would have to finish writing this book first, and send it off to be published, but that should not take me long. I should be done by sunrise or soon after.
Yesterday, we decided that during the first hours after launching his invention we should not stay at home waiting for it to reach its destinations. We would be too excited to sleep much, and as usual I would be fretting some. We decided to go out in the boat and float downriver. That would occupy us until the new day arrived. We might even manage to doze off, or at least rest up a little for what was ahead. Also, as always, I would bring my laptop. Perhaps I would get most of that writing done.
We realized soon after getting out here that neither of us would be able to sleep or rest. Nor have I written anything. Usually, whether here or ashore, I cannot keep my hands off my laptop for long, but tonight, when I have had every reason to open it up, I have not done so even once.
* * *
Earlier tonight in the cottage, when Vassal sent the command, I stood beside him with my hand on his shoulder. His muscles twitched as he typed. After his last keystroke, he stood up and turned to me. We hugged. As readers know who have seen me or pictures of me, I am a short woman, five feet tall. I do not come up to Vassal’s armpits. When we hug, his arms wrap around my head, shoulders, and back. He tucks me away beneath his wings. I feel buried.
My build is slight. My shoulders and hips are narrow, my butt flat, and my legs and torso slim. I have some belly in front, a softness protruding, but that is about all. When I grew to womanhood, my breasts and hips did not grow out much. My secondary sexual characteristics have always looked tertiary. There is nothing shapely and attractive about my appearance. Over the years, some men and a few women have felt otherwise, told me so, and acted accordingly, but for the most part there is nothing sexy about me except what is within me: my thoughts, feelings, and fantasies. My body is a sheath of skin and bones. There is scarcely enough flesh on me to pinch. I am a human yardstick, an asymmetrical match for Vassal’s phone pole.
Often when he wraps around me, he inadvertently clamps my hair and head to his stomach. I cannot move. I end up facing his shirt from a half-inch away. That does not hurt me. I could say something to him about it, but as usual I go along with whatever is happening. I am not a complainer. Besides, I bear some responsibility for getting pinned to him like that. I have allowed my hair to grow. It has become a pyramid of loose rings, with a base wider than my shoulders. The rings spill over each other, slipping and sliding. Each one is as thick as a finger, the color of wet iron rust. A boyfriend used to call me Onion Rings. More like Medusa, I thought. My hair is oily, glossy. It looks serpentine as it spreads past my neck and shoulders and curls over my ears and cheeks and down my forehead. It makes little snakes, and they do not just hang there; every time I move, they wiggle.
My pile of hair is all too easy for him to clamp. It also presents me with other complications. Because it shifts around, it gets tangled up in itself. I can hardly brush it, so mostly I do not. I just keep it clean and let it grow. Sometimes I push it around, tie it off or cut it, but only enough to allow myself to see. I let it hide most of my face. Maybe that reveals something about my point of view and my role as unobtrusive observer. It is analogous, perhaps, to Vassal’s self-effacing manner with his caps. (Could anyone care about this frivolous topic? Mom? Actually, there probably will be readers who want to know.)
Not that I lack spirit, or want to disappear. As may be evident, I do not lack self-esteem. I own a temper, too, though less than I did before I took this job of Vassal’s. Back then my hair was short. Assertive young lady professor that I was, I tried to make it stylish. I kept it trimmed on the sides, with a strong curl in front and a ducktail wedge in back, like the business end of an axe. Since joining with Vassal, I have calmed down about that and to some degree about everything else. I have learned to take things easier, so much that now I have both contributed to his explosion and made it my own. Despite my quibbling, I have been happy to do that, thrilled to, even though neither of us knows for certain what will come of it. I have remained content to stay with him, bearing my broad pyramid of hair, keeping on with our work.
* * *
When he and I hugged tonight, my face was pressed against his stomach, pinned there as I have described. But for once I barely noticed. My arms circled his waist as usual, but tighter. I clung to him, leaned into him, and cried. I rarely cry. This time I did not cry much, and not for long. I did not sob or convulse, or whine or peep. Only a few tears emerged, enough to wet my eyes. There were no spurts or dribbles, probably not enough moisture to make a damp spot on his shirt. I doubt he knew that I was crying, nor did I want him to. But I felt like crying, so I did.
We stood there. I am not sure we breathed. Then we both began to shudder from head to foot. I thought the house was shaking, and the ground beneath us: an earthquake! Vassal laughed, one of his snorts that sound like a shot. I jumped, alarmed. He chuckled, and spoke down into my hair.
“What price this madness, eh, Professor?”
His voice sounded hearty, resonant, and his speech rhythmic, iambic, as if he were onstage. He employs that style sometimes. It amuses us both, enlivens our solitude.
He continued mildly.
“Look at us. For a few seconds I thought there was an earthquake—a sign of God’s wrath, as if there could be such a god. But that’s not what’s happening. What’s happening is the gnawing of inwit, yours and mine. We are making a rough passage, with no end in sight. Soon everyone will experience it. They’ll realize that not all that’s ahead of them will be pretty. Before long there may be a whole lot of shaking like this going on. It could become quite a dance.”
* * *
He and I are departing a womb, with new nakedness upon us. So is everyone. Using his invention we will all spy on each other as much as we want. We will observe each other’s behavior and surmise each other’s thoughts and feelings. We will become familiar with anyone we wish, without that person’s knowledge or consent. There will be no place any of us can go to escape people’s attention, and no way to avoid it. Nothing will protect us: no technology; no masks or disguises; no manners, customs, or laws. Whether we like it or not, we will all be in the same boat, so to speak, exposed to whoever cares to look.
Marcel Proust wrote, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Today, thanks to Vassal, we are all acquiring new eyes, more literally than Proust meant. Vassal has given those eyes to everyone, and new ears, too, and wings with which to convey our eyes and ears into any space. The voyage will begin in the next few hours, as people find his invention and begin to use it.
What exactly can we expect? When it comes to the future there is only the present. Predicting the future serves less purpose than we think. Accurate prediction is an oxymoron; it is always too soon to know the details. Nevertheless, Vassal and I are curious about the future. Since his decision to release his invention, we have often thought about the consequences—he for the pleasure of it, I more out of worry. Some likely consequences appear delightful, others appalling. Most, we expect, will be neither.
At first, as he has said, some people will think they are victims, of him and perhaps of me. They will pass judgment on us. They may try to hold us responsible and want us to pay a price. I have worried that they may try to prosecute and imprison us, even assassinate or execute us. At the least, they may demand that we justify ourselves.
Those people will be as much victims of themselves as of anyone else. For a while, they will remain under the sway of their suddenly outmoded beliefs about conscience, responsibility, fairness, justice, and accountability. Such beliefs are social constructs, built upon standards that evolve, usually slowly. As his invention gets around, that evolution will become more abrupt. Many of those constructs will die out and, over time, be replaced. Meanwhile, any efforts to apply the old ones to him or me or anyone else will be increasingly fruitless.
* * *
Vassal could have released his invention decades ago. Victory and he explored that possibility. But amid the world’s concern, and their own, they decided not to. Now that he has brought it back and made it everyone’s, some of that concern will return. Its coming has worried me some, as I have described. But its coming also pleases us both. He feels benign about it, without guilt, and most of the time I feel that way, too. Nor does either of us feel subversive, criminal, or naughty, though from some people’s perspectives we are all three. Some people, no doubt, will believe that by releasing Vassal’s invention we have made a terrible mistake, that we have committed a grievous offense against the human prospect and the favorable course of the universe. By their lights, for a while, they will be right. But like everyone, they will have to get past that, and they will. Their lights will change.
We will shatter into flame
become different than we are
A little more than a year ago, as I have reported, Vassal and I thought we had completed our project. We had unpacked his history and set forth his saga in a series of volumes. We were ready to publish. But he felt troubled and did not know why. I felt the same, both in sympathy with him and on my own.
Our thoughts were shapeless. We could not articulate them. Had our decades of work exhausted us? Surely not. We had sailed along smoothly—even I, for the most part. In the course of my writing and art-making, I had experienced concerns, but not as often as I might have, and none had been too debilitating. Also, despite my devotion to the project, I had managed to not obsess about it unduly. We had kept our balance, and maintained a comfortable pace. Every day, we had taken time off to walk on the beach or up the road, or to go out in the boat, and to idle on the porch, the living room, and the kitchen. But now, at the project’s end, some difficulty had arisen within us. It puzzled us.
“We are like animals who sense a tsunami coming,” Vassal said. “We feel an instinct to run away from the coast, up into the hills. I don’t think that’s because we’re about to publish. There’s something bigger happening. I don’t know what it is.”
Our confusion lasted for several weeks. Then, one morning, Vassal figured it out. We were sitting in our usual places on the porch. He had lapsed into one of his silences. They had never been frequent, but had become more so.
He slapped the arm of his chair.
“I’ve got it.”
I heard new gravity in his voice, and none of his usual humor.
“My thinking has been evolving in ways I haven’t been aware of,” he said. “I don’t know how long that’s been going on—years, maybe. Then, this past month or two, as you know, I’ve felt something pushing at me, but I haven’t known what.
“Now, I’ve remembered the last time I felt like that. It was when I conceived my invention. I thought the pushing might be a medical problem, my hormones out of whack or something. Then one day I started getting ideas about a device I could invent. It was a fish at that point, my robotic minnow, not yet the fly. I imagined what it could be and what I would do with it. I started thinking about how to make it. I got excited.
“I began to work on it. I did a lot of thinking, researching, and experimenting. I developed new uses for various materials, circuitry, and mechanisms, and new ways of fabricating and testing. The result was groundbreaking, but there was nothing particularly groundbreaking about the steps I took. They were mostly new ways of using existing tools and techniques. It was sort of like Gutenberg adapting the wine press to make the printing press. Without violating anyone’s patents or proprietary rights, I built on work that I had done and other people had done. For several years I spent every free hour doing that. I loved it. It didn’t take much effort; it felt natural and instinctive. I stayed at it like a beaver chewing through a tree.
“That excitement has come to me again, and now I know what it’s about. I’ve realized that I’m no longer satisfied doing what you and I have been doing. We’ve been creating our account of what happened to me years ago, and describing what I’ve been thinking and doing since then. That’s all well and good. Some people will be interested in that. We should continue that, and no doubt we will. But all of that is a lot of blah-blah, a matter of assembling words and pictures to make books. Something else has come along that appeals to me much more. Maybe it should worry me, but it doesn’t. It’s an interesting idea, and it’s an obvious one now that I’m aware of it. Can you guess what it is?”
It was not obvious to me, but I could guess. He sensed that, and knew I would not answer his question. He reached from his chair to mine and put a hand on my forearm. In all our years working beside each other, he had never done that. I stopped typing and looked at him.
He was looking at me. His face was flushed, his brow furrowed, his eyes piercing, his lips parted like a wound. His hand squeezed my arm so hard that it hurt. I had never seen him so disturbed.
“Before you started working with me,” he said, “I abandoned every wish I ever had to use my invention or give it to other people. Since then, as you’ve seen, I have felt no desire to revive it. I have never even felt tempted. The idea has scarcely crossed my mind. Now, that has changed. The possibility of turning it loose is intriguing me.”
His grip on my arm eased.
“That’s what’s been bothering me. Do you think I’m crazy to consider it?”
My god. I closed my laptop and crossed my arms. Years before, as I have reported, I had believed that turning his invention loose, as he put it, would be wonderful, a blessing to humanity. Now, the idea terrified me. Was he joking? I had to reply. I turned toward him.
“Yes,” I said, loud enough to be heard. “You’re crazy. If you’re serious, you’re crazy.”
“Mm, could be,” he replied. “Why shouldn’t I, though?”
He was not joking. We began a dialogue. For almost a week, hours a day, we confronted his intrigue, as he had called it. We spoke with each other more than ever, discussing the pros and cons. We explored every aspect of it, and weighed every consideration. I have reported most of those here already, so I won’t repeat.
He was willing to talk, but did not seem fully engaged. I was afraid that he had made up his mind. I pressed him about it—I who am normally unassertive, whose inner dialogues suffice. I set forth consequences that I have described, a few of them positive but most of them negative: the difficulties that would come, the unhappiness, the traumas.
Then, late one afternoon, on the porch, at the end of the day’s discussions, he told me that he had decided.
“I can’t dispute the misgivings you’ve expressed,” he said. “They’re reasonable. Nonetheless, I’ve encountered no reason sufficient to stop me. I’ve arrived at ‘can do and will do’. It’s time to get started.”
I stood up, went into the kitchen, and sat at the table. I felt crushed. I almost wept. After a few minutes, however, I calmed down. As in all matters, I was not unsympathetic with Vassal’s point of view—just as, I felt, he was never unsympathetic with mine. If his decision had been mine to make, I might have decided as he did. I recalled Lao Tzu’s remark: “Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself?” Vassal’s decision had come of similar deliberation. He had thought about it for weeks, and probably considered it for years before that in ways he had been unaware of, as he said. I returned to the porch and sat beside him. He looked at me, concerned.
“I hope you’ll help me make it happen,” he said. “Will you?”
“That would be wonderful,” he said.
He pointed to my laptop, which lay closed in my lap.
“It looks like you and I have spent a gazillion hours writing what for most people is going to amount to a not very useful operating manual. That’s if they even bother to read it. They’ll be busy using my invention, or planning to use it, or worrying about how other people might be using it. All our work, the words I’ve spoken to you and everything you’ve created—all the history, biography, essays, illustrations, photographs—will become accessories to my bug. Not that we’ve wasted our time. Some people will read all that. It will satisfy their curiosity. And, for whatever it’s worth to them, it will deliver my unapologetic apologia for what I’ve done. But it won’t provide much useful instruction, and it won’t tell a comforting tale.”
He touched my forearm again.
“All of our effort over all these years, all that we’ve done, all that you’ve done, reduced to that. Are you disappointed?”
I was not disappointed. Working on our literary project had been its own reward. Also, I felt that I would find our new direction exciting, though frightening. If our prior work was to play only a minor role, so be it.
* * *
We implemented his decision. Within a week, he recreated from memory the technical documents necessary to produce his device. At the same time, we conducted planning sessions with Jimmy and his clan. We knew they would want to help. For years they had urged Vassal to release his invention to everyone. They had never given up persuading him. Now, their assistance would prove invaluable. After our years of isolation, they were far more knowledgeable about the outside world than we were. They were also well connected there; especially Jimmy, thanks to his career as a cultural analyst and commentator, but also the others. Most had done research for him, and many had served on his staff.
They advised us, guided us, and provided other practical help. First, Jimmy managed our secret fundraising, which to our delight they accomplished in just ten days. After that, eleven months ago, a team of them flew to Asia, where they managed our collaboration with the factories that have mass-produced the device for us. Then they hired the necessary shippers and importers, and began coordinating the delivery services that tonight have carried it to its final destinations.
Now, as I stand here in our boat, I am thinking about how those delivery services have gone about their work tonight. While Vassal and I have quietly drifted down the river and out to sea, awaiting the sunrise, they have rushed through communities everywhere. In every nation in the world, they have travelled through town and country in their vans and trucks; on their motorbikes and bicycles; on foot and horseback; even, some of them, on horse-drawn wagons and mule-drawn carts, and in small motorboats, pangas, and river barges; also, in several instances that Jimmy told us about, in dugout canoes. (“Do the people they’re delivering to have electricity?” we asked. “Yes, from generators in some cases, or small-scale hydropower or solar.”)
In our time zone and time zones to our west, where it is still night, the beams of our delivery crews’ headlights and flashlights have been streaming along waterways, bouncing along unlit roads, and zigzagging down city and suburban streets, reflecting from windows of homes and businesses. Their conveyances have sounded in the darkness, engines roaring or buzzing, undercarriages rattling and squeaking, wheels rolling. And in time zones to our east, where the sun has been up for a while, their activity has blended with the bustle of day, looking routine. Overall, the delivery of Vassal’s invention has been an astonishing piece of work by the Bigheads and their hires. A soft invasion, Jimmy has called it.
* * *
So far, our government protectors appear to have no idea what Vassal has done. Tonight, as usual when we go out in our boat, they followed a quarter mile behind us in their high-speed inflatable. We were not stealthy about departing. We knew they would follow us, and, as ever, we wanted them to, for our safety. We simply walked to our boat, stepped in, started the motor, and steered to midriver, where Vassal turned off the motor so we could drift the few miles to sea. Since then we have been hearing the chuff and rumble of their big outboard idling behind us.
They and their predecessors have been guarding Vassal for decades. He has welcomed their presence. Wary though he and I are of the government that employs them, we recognize that they are nice people doing a good job keeping would-be intruders away. That has allowed us to work with little fear of being pestered, abducted, murdered, or otherwise interfered with. We are grateful to them for that. Whenever we notice them looking our way through the trees, or when they are on the road or beach with us when we go walking, or when they follow us onto the river and out to sea as they are doing tonight, we wave to them. If they are near, we smile at them and say hello. We would chat with them, too, about weather or sports or whatever, but we have learned that they do not reply. When we say something to them, their mouths stiffen and they nod, nothing more. They never look us in the eye. They are not allowed to. They obey their orders and keep to their mission. We understand, and do not mind.
Tonight they are prepared as always. They are dressed in their fatigues and helmets, with their rifles, pistols, and mounted machine gun at the ready, and a shoulder-fired rocket launcher stowed where they can get it. They are loaded for battle, though battle has not come to Vassal since the guerilla assault years ago, which the world soon heard about (and which he described in his journal). That was before my time, when he was living with Victory upriver near the Bigheads. Since then, if there have been serious threats, neither he nor I have known it.
This excursion of ours appears as ordinary to our guards as the many others we have taken over the years, including dozens after dark, like this one. No doubt one of the guards has been watching us through night-vision goggles. Tonight, as always, he or she has seen nothing unusual. For the past few hours, however, Vassal and I have been expecting their commanders ashore to learn what we have done and alert them. Then they will speed up their launch, overtake us, and insist that we return with them to Vassal’s compound, for our protection. That has not happened yet, but it very well may.
I look astern toward them. I intend to wave to them through the darkness, as I sometimes do. They know that we know they can see us. The guard who is watching us will see me waving and tell the others.
I raise my hand to wave. Just then, a squeal tears through the air. It is an unearthly sound, coming from behind me, in front of our boat, away from our guards. Is something wrong? Are Vassal and I in danger? The squeal repeats four times, five, six, fading, moving away from us. Then I recognize the source: a seagull, such as we hear many times every day. I should have known right away. Good grief. A little on edge are you, Henrietta?
I feel Vassal turn to look.
“Aha,” he says. “The first words of the day. Common seagullese. Hard for us humans to translate, though.”
He raises his chin and declaims into the night, a thespian once again, playing to the balconies.
“Speak again, oracle! Say more! We want to understand you!”
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