By CJ Paget
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
Bishop Mayer isn't sure what he expected
Professor Hemington to be, but this pretty, red-headed woman dressed in
jeans, t-shirt and gardening gloves, definitely isn't it.
"Bishop," she says, "welcome. I don't quite know why you're here?"
"Just Sarah," says Hemington, "I've left that world behind me."
"Well," says Mayer, scanning his gaze around the idyllic retreat; the renovated manor house, the well- tended grounds, gardens, vineyards and fields. "I'm here as... well normally, I'd be called a visitator." He's always believed honesty is the best policy.
"Ah, is that what they're calling it now?" Hemington's mouth quirks up at one corner, "Well, this is... unexpected."
"I'm a bishop, not a Spanish cardinal," says Mayer, smiling back.
"Oh, you could have said the line," says Hemington. "Spoilsport. So, I take it that we're now officially a cult?"
"No, but your members have relatives and friends, some of whom are concerned. They want an outsider to visit, to set their minds at rest. It's very good of you to allow this visit. I have no real jurisdiction here, you could have said 'no'."
"Oh, you are quite welcome. We've nothing to hide," says Hemington, indicating they should walk to the manor house with a wave of her hand.
Falling into step beside her Mayer says, "I was sorry to read about your family."
Hemington makes a dismissive noise, like the past is a small thing. "Time is a great healer," she says.
"You've said it was a major influence on your thought though, losing a husband and a child so close together?"
"Yes, bang-bang, one after the other, though of course, Sophia wasn't quick. It makes you think, doesn't it?"
What does it make you think?   Mayer wonders. As they walk he watches how the people they pass respond to Hemington. One wire-thin young man with a lot of facial piercings, purple hair, and a t-shirt with a startlingly rude word emblazoned on it, waves, grins and says "Hey, Sarah." Another dumpier, older fellow with the pony-tail-and-goatee-beard uniform of the I.T. crowd, affords them only a nod and a grunt, most of his attention clearly being focused inwards. There's no sign of the deference one usually expects towards cult leaders. He also notices that the young man, for all his surface cheeriness, has scars on his wrists, done the 'right way'. But that might mean anything or nothing; they could be false, purely cosmetic, after all, if he's prepared to fill his face with metalwork, what else might be fashionable?
Learning nothing from observation, Mayer asks, "You never thought of remarrying, starting anew?"
"No. I'm past such things. I'll bring no more children into this world."
"You've built this community instead?"
"Not really," says Hemington, "I'm not a leader. We all just came together mutually."
"To what purpose?"
"Each to their own. Art, science, or just escape from worldly pain."
"It certainly is very peaceful here," says Mayer. "I've rarely encountered such silence." There's not even birdsong to disturb the warm summer air. "How many members do you have?"
"Thirty or so. It varies, people are always dropping in or out."
"But you're hardly the typical hippie commune," says Mayer. He points to small, airborne, fixed-wing shapes in the distance. The sound of whirring engines ripples the otherwise still air as they fly endless sorties from a little ground station. There's a tank of something at the station; the robot planes are filling up from it and spraying it on the fields. "Those drones, invented here, were they not?"
"Yes, by Akash. Boy's toys. The idea was obvious really, he just made it happen. Solar powered, made out of cheap, off-the shelf-parts, give them a mission profile and leave them to get on with it. Swords into ploughshares, Bishop. Akash used to work on military drones, before coming here."
"Something like that could revolutionise agriculture. Crop dusting carrying water from rivers and oases. Could be a big help to the world's poor."
"No," says Hemington. "That's what Akash hoped for, but if that reasoning were valid the potato would have been a great benefit to the Irish peasants. Instead, it just allowed them to be pushed ever deeper into a subsistence lifestyle. These 'feed the world' breakthroughs never help the world's poor. It'll make the food on our supermarket shelves cheaper and cheaper, but that will be thrown away uneaten."
"That's a somewhat bleak world-view," says Mayer. He's sure Professor Hemington's hiding something, but what? The name of the daughter, 'Sofia' might point to a Gnostic influence; not something people can be burnt for anymore, thank God, but still something that he's expected to seek out and report.
"Here we try to see the world as it is, and deal with that," says Hemington. Mayer feels she's selecting her words with great care, considering the position of each one before laying them down like stones in a game of go. She holds the door for him as they enter the house. Within they have to pause to allow the passage of a young woman, dressed in a white lab-coat and carrying a rack of test-tubes. She looks old enough to be Mayer's daughter, were it not for her dark skin. She pays neither of them any heed, but sweeps by and into the depths of the house, the lab-coat billowing behind her.
"You've attracted some great minds to this place." says Mayer. "I'm told there's been some exceptional work done here, particularly scientific work."
"Small science," says Hemington, in a way that implies some concealed joke. "We have some inspired dabblers, myself included, and the environment is conducive to thought and reflection. Shall we go up to the balcony? You can see more of the community from up there." She leads the way up a curving staircase.
"But still," says Mayer. "These are not the kind of people one normally expects to be attracted to new religious movements?"
Looking down from the balcony, Mayer sees an arrangement of large rocks in a sea of gravel. "Ah," he says, "a Zen garden. I must say, I always find them a little sterile."
"But you must admit they're tranquil," says Hemington. "I'm sure it will come as no surprise to you that we're influenced by a mix of western and eastern thought."
"Do you believe in some higher power?" asks Mayer. "Something beyond this world?"
The answer surprises him. He tries not to show it. "A creator?"
"Doesn't that jar a little with your previous life as a biologist?"
"You can have a creator and still have evolution, bishop. The two are not incompatible. But yes, evolution never worked for me, though for a time I tried very hard to believe in a world without purpose or intent."
"That must have felt terribly empty?"
"You think?" says Hemington. There's a hint of smug amusement in her eyes, like she has some secret knowledge. "But I couldn't commit to Darwinism. My father was a big man. He made things. Sometimes he broke things too. It was inevitable that I would come to see my world as engineered. Then, in my mid twenties, I had a personal experience of the transcendent."
Mayer leans forwards a little, betraying his interest. "You were spoken to? Touched? Contacted in some way?" This might be the thing he's looking for.
"Yes, but I won't speak of it," says Hemington. "It's private. Most of
us here have had some kind of experience, but we don't speak of them.
I'm not some prophetess who claims secret knowledge or a hotline to the
divine. Nothing is discussed here that cannot be measured by experiment
and analyzed by rational debate."
"Oh," says Mayer, deflating back into his chair. "Still, I've believed all my life, but never been given a personal sign. I should envy you."
"No, you shouldn't," says Hemington.
"Ah but I'd like to *know*. I have faith, of course, but I'd like to *know*. As for 'rational debate' people have been debating for centuries, and gotten nowhere."
"Only because they fear the one, obvious and inescapable conclusion," says Hemington.
Ah, now we come to it thinks Mayer, licking his lips with anticipation. "Which is?"
"By His works shall ye know Him," says Hemington, looking out over the dry garden and the fields beyond. "That's why I took up biology."
"You were looking for God?"
"Yes, and I found him. I assume you are familiar with the first of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths?"
"Yes. 'Life is suffering'."
"Indeed. Do you know, Bishop, that contrary to popular prejudice, most of the natural world is very badly designed. Bad wiring and plumbing, and poorly written software. Nature abounds with egregious errors. Standard theology is a tale that requires God to be an idiot, a fumbler, and amateur. I can't accept that conclusion, could you?"
"Well, I've never really thought about that," says Mayer.
"Did you know that there's a species of beautiful blue butterfly whose grubs can, by scent and sound, fool red ants into thinking they are actually ant grubs?"
"Uh, no," says Mayer, disturbed by this sudden change in conversational direction when he's so close to his goal, "but you were saying about God?"
"The ants carry the intruder into their home, and put it in their nursery with their children. Those helpless children are then eaten, one by one. Once the intruder's grown fat enough to pupate into a butterfly it starts posing as a queen. It leaves the nest escorted by its adoring ant fools. They will protect it, even at the cost of their own lives, until its wings dry out and it can fly away, leaving them with nothing."
"And?" says Mayer.
"And this system was designed."
"Oh, it could easily have evolved, that's been demonstrated in simulation. But I don't believe it did, and the question is, what are the consequences if it didn't? But, I've not finished my story, because the butterfly is not top of this food chain. There's an ichneumon wasp that can somehow tell if a nest has been invaded, and enters the nest itself. It sprays the ants with an agent that causes them to attack each other, leaving it free to seek out the butterfly larva. The wasp injects the larva with eggs, which eventually hatch inside and eat the larva from within."
"Well, there's some justice in that, is there not?" says Mayer. "He who lives by the sword?"
"And when a male lion, having driven off another male and taken over his pride of females, seeks out and kills all the cubs sired by that previous father, is that justice too? Or when the alpha-female among meerkats does the same to any offspring born to another female in the group? Nature is full of this wicked cruelty, but it didn't evolve, it was designed this way, willed this way."
Mayer shrugs and says, "The ways of the Lord are hard to understand."
"No they're not. They're simple, once you find the courage to face the truth. All these things in nature are only hard to explain if you keep trying to insist that this is the best of all possible worlds. Once you realise that this is the worst of all possible worlds, and has been designed to be, everything fits neatly into place."
Mayer laughs nervously, "That's... uh... an extreme viewpoint. There's much in this world that's good. Things could be a lot worse than this?"
"Oh, you mean good things like love, and hope?"
"Well, no. They're part of the system. Without such things, we would be better off. Without hope, we would suffer no disappointments. Without love, we could not be betrayed. These things exist precisely to make the pain hurt more. Creatures can adapt to constant pain, they can block it out, they can handle it. To maximise their suffering you have to undermine those responses. Hope lets them recover, so you can destroy them over and over again. This world has been designed to be as perfectly and exquisitely cruel as it is. You couldn't build it any better for that purpose. You might think you could, but you'd be wrong."
"You blame God for what happened to your daughter?"
"Are you a Darwinist, Bishop?"
"Well, that's complicated-"
"If you reject evolution, then you have to accept that He, and I'm sure it is a 'He', designed that virus that slowly killed my daughter. You have to admit that He built it in His workshop for precisely that purpose. That's why I never prayed for her. I wouldn't plead. I won't appease Hitler. I know evil when I see it, and evil must be opposed."
"Are you saying you believe God himself is evil?"
"Yes. We, and all of the living world, are like those robots built by spotty-faced young men to fight in televised tournaments. We tear and claw at each other for His entertainment. That's why there's so much bad design in nature; it's only bad design if you misunderstand its purpose. Once you realise that we are all pain machines, built to suffer, then you see that we are, each and every one of us, perfect."
"And everyone here believes this?"
"Believes? No. Here we have no use for faith. We have the proof. We are surrounded by it. We *know*."
"I see," says Mayer, warily. He's encountered this kind of thing before, people who believe the world is a false creation, a trap created by a cruel, evil Demiurge. The true world, ruled by the true god, lies elsewhere, usually in the next life. "Is this why you've been so vocal in support of assisted dying?" he asks.
Sarah Hemington shrugs. "Yes. In any relationship or situation, the only true freedom is the choice to leave it. Once you lose that, you've lost all your freedoms."
"So, you consider that this world and its creator are wicked, and that we achieve release through death, into the glory of the next life?"
Hemington's brow creases. "What? No. That's ridiculous. There's not one shred of evidence for that. This world is all there is for us. If a boy pulls the wings off insects, it doesn't mean the insects get a blissful afterlife to make up for it. The only hope or improvement that any of us believe in, is the blessed release of oblivion."
No, he's not seen this before, he's never studied or heard of any heresy as dismal as the one Hemington's just laid out. "But you haven't gone that route yourself?" he asks.
"You are familiar, of course, with the Mahayana Buddhist concept of the Bodhisattva?"
"One who forgoes liberation themselves, to help others reach that goal?"
Bishop Mayer sets down his glass. It makes a loud 'clink' in the silence. The only sound comes from the solar-powered drones as they buzz the brown fields, flight after flight. Eventually he asks, "What are they spraying on the fields, Sarah?"
Mayer opens his mouth, but discovers he has nothing to say to that.
"It's surprisingly ineffective," says Professor Hemington, "life keeps coming back. It's built to fight, to cling to the pain, even when you're trying to help free it. But we've been working on some new, vastly more effective agents. It's a small meaningless gesture really, but one has to start small. Those tiny souls out in the fields, they cannot think clearly enough to free themselves from this bondage. Someone has to do that for them."
"And, what of larger souls?"
Sarah Hemington's gaze is as calm and lifeless as the gravel of the Zen garden below. "They present a larger technical challenge."
"But you're not... working on that, are you?" says Mayer, remembering the girl with the test-tubes.
"Of course we are," says Hemington, "it's our duty."
Mayer sits there in the silent stillness, in which the birds do not sing, the crickets do not chirp, and Sarah Hemington's sky-blue eyes do not blink or waver. The only sound is the distant whirr of the aerial drones spraying death on the fields. The irrational fear grips him that he cannot move, that the silence holds him like a physical force, and for a moment he's afraid to try. But then he says "Um, yes, well. I think I should go."
"Yes. I'm sure you've got things to do. Reports to write."
"Well, thank you for your time," says Mayer, rising and backing away from the table. "and the wine, it was really excellent. I'll find my own way out."
He expects something, the doors to be locked, people to be blocking his path, something. Surely they won't let him leave with what he now knows? But there's nothing. He jogs down the stairs as fast as dignity will allow, all his attention focused on the bright light streaming through the front doors below.
He collides with the black girl in the lab-coat, running sideways into her and making her squeak with surprise, making her drop something. Glass shatters. They both look down at the floor. Smashed test-tubes lie between them, their multi-colored contents bleeding together.
With Hemington's mention of 'new, vastly more effective agents' fresh in his mind, Mayer assumes the worst. With a wail of terror he flees.
"Hey, are you alright?" the test-tubes girl calls after him, but he's through the door and sprinting as best he can in his cassock. His crunching foot-falls are eerily loud on the gravel path. In the stillness, he expects to hear the crack of a gunshot, or perhaps the approaching drone of one of those robot planes. But there's nothing, nothing comes between him and the gates, and the car waiting beyond. His driver, Michael, stands leaning against it, smoking a cigarette as Mayer descends upon him shouting "Start the car! This place is a madhouse! Start the bloody car!"
Sarah Hemington lifts the glass to the
sunlight almost reverently. If you know what to look for, you can see
the micro-capsules floating in the remaining liquid, or stuck to the
side of the glass where the wine has flowed as
it was sipped. The protein sheaths will already be breaking down under
the assault of the bishop's stomach acids, releasing their nanotech
payload. Before the car has gone forty miles the tiny bots will have
replicated themselves a million fold, surfing his bloodstream to the
surface. They'll anesthetize the flesh at the break-out point, so that
he'll only feel a tickle as they exit from his scalp. His hair will hide
the small exit wound, from which they'll leave in a blur of tiny, tiny
mechanical wings, one every few seconds so as not to be noticeable.
Michael, the driver, might feel a bite, slap at his neck, and then
forget about it. By the time they get to the airport, they'll both be
emitting. In the check-in queue, in the crowded airport lounge, in
duty-free and in those damn security examinations, they'll be emitting.
Beside them will stand people getting on planes for Rio, New York,
Paris, Doha, London, Bangkok, Sydney, Shenzhen. When they land, the
cabin crew will be telling connecting passengers the procedure for
flying to further destinations. Then that same crew will pick up fresh
passengers, and fly back.
And all those people will have pets, livestock, they'll come into contact with birds and fish and all that walks or flies or crawls. The nanotech isn't species specific. It would be chauvinist to only think of humanity. In the deep sea and deep earth there will be those that can't be reached. But you can never help everybody.
Someone will notice something sooner or later of course, but it'll be taken as an oddity, a one off. Everyone will get up the next day, find nothing changed, and forget about it.
Four months, four months of spreading, measuring time by the gentle pull of the sun and moon on tiny gravimeters, counting neap tides so as to be synchronized everywhere. Then the tiny machines move onto phase two.
Sarah Hemington puts her mouth to the glass, and throws the remaining wine down her throat.