10 Jan 2004

The Voyage of the Spud Barge - an inverse odyssey

A gray afternoon. Ringworm, our stainless steel spudbarge, prepares to leave the docks and set out on the Kulumbya River with our valuable potato payload - an offering to the people of the North, in the land of Swedge. We have gathered specimens from the most fertile farmland in the country. Potatoes are a delicacy in the cool swampland of Swedge. If they are pleased by our gift, they may accept the terms of our proposed info-trade. We offer our machine language for their derivative of X with respect to Y. That's our holy grail. It maddens our scientants: How did they do it? How did they derive X while respecting Y's integrity? With all our sophisticated simulacrums, we've never managed to excrete an X out of the mesh and into the throng of perception without offending Y. That’s when we lose the whole scenario. Well the Swedgians know how to keep it alive. They've done it, but they can't run it. They need our efficient programming to set X's child loose on the world and make Y a happy grandfather. If X's derivative is to be released, it will need a physical avatar. Then the engineering of the prophecy will be complete, and the flange that is our waking nightmare will disappear into a transparent eclipse - a perfect harmony of history and future, fact and fiction, being and nothingness, duality and singularity and anything else that decides to unify.
But there is tension between the Swedgians and us. The wars are long over, but there is still distrust. Will they work together with our people to raise an eschaton, as we once raised barns together in the cold, ashy aftermath of the nuclear fires, before we exiled their tribe? It's really anyone's guess.
Nevertheless, there is optimism among the townspeople who have come to see us off. An ageless lounge-act from the Shindig Tavern has shuffled outdoors to play for the occasion. The guitarist is a co-condiment on mustard slathered chords, heavy huffing jazz, drunk with extended harmony, 9ths, 11ths, 13ths, chordal exponents poking dents in the jejune minds of the shore spectators. A light rain has come but the band plays on with shivering gusto.
Polly Alloy joins me on the pier. She'll help us decipher the alchemical mumbo-jumbo the Swedgians are sure to  hit us with, assuming we're granted access to their recursion formulae. This woman is amazing - she can turn metaphysics into technology. She drew a straw golden triangular connection between three disparate yet subtly related historical facts: the blank phalanx the Zen warriors of Oregoni faced us with during the second battle at the Spokhan ruins, the mysterious Totem-Pear carved by the now unrecognizable mutants of the Nevada deserts, and the great granite obelisk of the Canado-American tundra, which is said to be too large to have been erected by even the old ones. They were all extremes - points - yins, yangs, and yongs, of an aesthetic unit. When fed into our crypto-digihallucino-oratronicle crackhead with a sublime myopia filter, the prepositions made a superfractal pattern containing subsets of all individual aesthetics, from galactic level to molecular, to atomic, to quantum. No one had ever seen a galaxy spinning synesthetically before. The view was astounding. It put people in their place - comfortable and hip places, millions of them, and each unique vantages, platforms of groovy gravity. Units of chaos, ready and willing to contribute a new verse to the song. Thus began a communal performance art piece of unprecedented scale (even with all surviving historical records of the old world taken into account). It began with a jaunty barroom singalong about a hod carrier coming back from the dead in non-zombie form and turned into a brawl some time around 9:00 PM, further diversifying into gang battles, political revolutions, music scenes, snake-oil upstarts, and occult revivals. In tandem with this project, arabesque studies advanced considerably, leading to all sorts of new technologies. And they say Miss Alloy was the seed of all that, so if anyone can crack open the iron doors of the crypt below the Swedgian skull orchard, it's her.
I look at her fondly. There's a little envy there. And okay, maybe some lust. Yes, I'm the “captain”, but I'm really just the navigator, and how fucking hard is it to navigate a river anyway? And these modern boats practically sail themselves. But I was chosen by Prince Mackie o'Velly for this mission because of my courage, and I'm just a little proud of this, even if most people think that courage is overkill, for a mostly diplomatic mission, like this.
I see a sparkle in the canthus of Polly's left eye and a piece of lime in her hair. She's been hitting the hard sno-cones. I suggested that she stay out of the Shindig the night before we set off. But would she listen? Of course not. She's got to party hard with her friends (I wish I was one of them) her last night in Teflon. Well, she must've popped a hangover-killer, because she seems pepped up enough.
We're almost ready to board the spudbarge. An entire army division is at the edge of the cliff. They fire an eighteen gun salute. I thought that was reserved for funerals of dead soldiers but I'm not really sure - I enlisted with the navy as quick as I could to escape the infantry draft during our last war with Swedge. Never saw much action though.
We're ready to disembark. Polly and I step aboard the metal grate of the boat's deck while hundreds wave goodbye and cheer. There is a feeling of excitement and anticipation - a sense of being pulled forward. We know the eschaton is near. The pieces are falling into place. Our ancestors were confused and aimless. Sad that it took a nuclear apocalypse (just another apocalypse in a long chain of them) to catalyze our orientation to the concrescence. But now there is momentum. With each new discovery there is an accompanying cultural event that no prophet or pundit anticipated, and with each new event, there is a multiplication of faith, and an amplification of purpose. The certainty of translingual gnosis grows in our minds like the primordial prototype of a new organ becoming organism becoming being becoming blank and beyond ___.
But it's still a treacherous landscape. When uncertainties do show, they seem to counterbalance our smug moments of faith in the intensity of their disillusionment. I had a dream last night. I had successfully steered our barge around an outcropping of jagged rocks - my reflexes were sharper than ever - only to find that ten feet ahead, the river dropped into a bottomless abyss. It haunts me, as I turn the key to start the boat's engine. It's not easy being the agent of this, whatever it is. I can't be as certain as those celebrating shore-folks, waiting for the final act to unfold. I know there’s no script to follow.
We've gotten well past Teflon now. The loud hum of the engine is no longer noticed. Our small crew is silent. There's not much to do at my station right now, so I've taken out one of the experimental laser-rifles given to us by the army and am looking at the shore through the scope. The design is elegant, the metal polished, a high contrast to the grungy utilitarian gear they mostly produce. I haven't fired a weapon since basic training, and certainly not one of these. I pull the trigger, and am surprised to see the apple I’m aiming at, which hangs from a tree half a mile away, instantly vaporize.
“Holy shit - lucky shot,” I say.
“Intuitive weaponry”, Polly murmurs. “It knows what you're aiming for through intelligent topographical analysis and GPS relay, so it instigates a localized chaos stream - quantum causality through micro-perturbations in the weather system. You know, the old butterfly flap. And presto - your target just happens to be on target - or your gun just happens to be in the right place at the right time. View it either way you like. Unless you’re a total spaz, you can expect around 85% accuracy.”
“Oh. Of course,” I reply, completely baffled. I tried to get myself up to speed on all this quantum stuff several years ago when the first breakthroughs were being made, but it was hopeless. And it was spooky too - the idea that the new machines, or “gears of the arabesque” as Polly called them, were manipulating “relevant” events through intuitively calculated nano-propulsion - amazingly subtle molecular re-arrangements (the utmost delicacy for lethal ends) that would create just the right critical mass to make a minor alteration in the future and the space-time coordinates of objects concerned - an alteration desirable to the user who hadn't even formed his own intentions yet! It got even more complicated when a rival user of the technology was involved, but there had only been limited experience with that yet, and Polly admitted that the equations governing these encounters were beyond the grasp of her best number-crunchers.
Strange days, I think. We live with the grandfather paradox. Fucking around with time gives me a headache. It has ruined many minds. We've yet to develop a therapy - too much new stuff to discover - pace too reckless - I wonder if Polly takes a lot of aspirin?
“Hydromorphone,” she answers.
“Oh right,” I say. “I forgot, you can read minds.”
“Only occasionally,” she says. “I'm not omniscient or anything. But getting closer every day.” She smiles while gazing out at the rocky shore. We're in this paradox together. I've learned to jive with many of the realities of this paradigm. It helps to think aesthetically, and let go of some of the will - not all of it - it's a tricky balancing act ~ tilde approximation and squiggly edges of infallibility. And from there, the things we know but can't say. Or can I... say...
“Wait, did you say the lasergun reads data from a GPS relay?” I ask.
“You mean the old-ones' satellites are still up there? It isn't a myth?”
“Oh no. Not only are they not a myth, they've been re-linked to, and retro-fitted to our computers. Most of our equipment is now more sophisticated than the old dudes’ hardware ever got before the apocalypse - it's just that society hasn't really caught up yet. We're working on the infrastructure, but you know – New York wasn’t built in a day.”

“But it was destroyed in one,” says Augustuze, sitting casually on the spud mound behind us, chomping on an artichoke.
I nod at Polly’s words, unable to say anything. I can only gaze, stupidly. She is humble though. She is religious, and moderately ascetic like most of the clerics - except when it comes to drugs - like most of the clerics.
My thoughts are interrupted by the unmistakable sound of an exploding goat, followed by the panicked bleating of a dispersing herd. Several crew members have gotten into the laser-rifle crate and are now shooting up a cattle range on somebody's farm across the river.
“Stop that!” I yell at them. “Those aren't toys.”
“Aw, they're just goats,” protests Shlawn, the stocky mechanic, eyes barely visible below the downturned brim of his gray cap.
Polly turns to me. “You shot an apple,” she says. “That's a living thing, just as a goat is. Just because one is animate and the other is not, doesn't make the former higher on the hierarchy.”
“Fuckin-a,” says Augustuze, the burly trade-merchant, with a mouthful of vegetable.
“I'd have thought a brain would factor in there somewhere, but... I dunno. I guess y'all are pantheists now or something,” I say to Polly, vaguely contrite.
“Not exactly,” she replies. “It's a subset. I'll explain later. In the meantime, I suggest you save the beams of your chaos streams for more menacing targets than grazing livestock.”
I nod and shroud the men with a stern glower.
“What about potatoes?” Shlawn asks, regarding the spuds piled behind the wall of the cargo area which takes up the bulk of the barge. “Are they alive?”
“Do you even have to ask?” Augustuze says angrily while protectively stroking a single spud in his hand. This display is magnetic. All eyes turn to the tan object which stands out in wordless significance and seems to glow with internal luminescence. For one dilated moment, this potato is the focal point of the universe.
There is no further discussion. The laser rifles are put back in their crate.
“I'm itchy,” says lanky Filtur, one of Shlawn's buddies, who is standing guard at port with a carbine. “I don't like this country air.”
“Me neither,” whines Shlawn. “It doesn't taste right. And it stings my cankers.”
“Goddamn babies! What kind of soldiers are you?” I say.
“The comic relief kind?” Filtur says with a snicker.
“I'm a techie,” Shlawn says.
“When you're on my barge, you're in my platoon,” I tell him.
“Whatever,” he says. I've heard this bleak dismissal many times from him and his like. It's the ultimate weapon of the dull-witted. I have no retort.
“Relief from what?” Polly ponders, gazing out at the Moire Mountains that mark the border between Teflon province and the wilds of the Pazeli jungles. The Pazeli jungles are quite different than the equatorial forests and they're springing up in parallel pace to the technological and aesthetic progress of our society. We don't know why. This mystery occupies lots of Polly's leisure time. She's hypothesized that it's a gaian reflex to the rainforest burning that is occurring in the dark continent to the south. The worrisome neo-humanists are torching dense foliage at a fantastic rate, perhaps in a desperate response to the powerful tools we’ve developed. We know they’ve sent spies. They’re scared. They’re certain they must develop – spread – it’s all they know how to do. Their one emissary did not sign the empire-ban treaty twenty years ago, and their imperialistic envelopment of the land and its many cultures continues unabated, sending many refugees our way - with conflicting stories.

At the rate our technology is progressing, we'll be more than ready for them if they reach our borders, as numerous as they may be. Hell, do they control the GPS satellites? We can chart their every movement if we want. We can check the alibi of an accused chicken thief in a mountain village. We can extrapolate his thieving career from the incident. We just haven't got around to this stuff yet. Too much to do, too little time. Too few people. Our nation numbers a little under forty thousand. And anyway, espionage is so pedestrian compared with the sublime and psychologically sophisticated tasks that beckon to us from the algorithms of arabesque exploration.
Polly is the only one on this spudbarge who has come into contact with the Swedgians. She ran away from home at the age of twelve, found her way, through the minefields (no one knows how) to their country, gained their confidence, and took initiation. This, during a period when such actions were considered high treason, and a capital offense. She came back under the pretense of being a double agent - then wrote a book about the experience, which was published in the year 097, one month after the first armistice. She claims that the encounter profoundly altered her understanding. Some scoff at this, but virtually everyone agrees that nobody who has seen the Swedgians has returned the same. Nothing can prepare us, they say. “Expect the unexpected”. I'll try.
“It’ll be more than a simple info-trade,” says Polly, catching my thoughts once again. “It will be a defining moment. It always is, with them. Those people, they’re perma-kindling for perception. You'll see clearer, and you'll see more, and forever after. You'll lose, like the Tao trough, and you'll gain, like the peak amplitude of the novelty wave in the post singularity inversion. It modulates noisily, but it modulates with PURPOSE.”
She winks at me, and although I find her words nearly impenetrable, her facial gesture says everything in kinetic synesthetic calisthenics ~ yes, I get it. Her physical gestalt is truly a sublime extension of her mind. I feel an openness in her presence. I feel chaste and corrupted at once. She is a window to the nexus of humanity. She could be a cultmaster if she wanted to be. She could be Medusa or Aphrodite – I don’t know and I don’t care – her mind shines so bright, it distracts from the body. How had those Swedgians changed her? Could all of us get the charm? What could lie ahead for our expedition? My heart, something's happening with my heart, like it's leaping or something. Adventure and infatuation and synergy. I feel so... ill. I lean over the side of the barge and hurl my half-digested breakfast into the river. A quick and total purge. I feel so much better now. Less religious, but that seems necessary. And there’s work to be done. It’s time to check the nav screen.
And yet…
I’m entranced with a spot of puke. It's dribbling from the railing down the side of the boat. It’s orange and brown, and glittering in a shaft of sunlight. Its texture is mildly chunky. It spills down the barge wall in a slow smear. It’s beautiful. I can’t look away. It finally plops onto a piece of driftwood that happens to be passing by, like a ship abandoner successfully reaching a lifeboat. I watch it nestle in the round rut of the bark surface as a perfect circle before disappearing behind the boat. It’s extraordinary. The image won't fade.
It’s necessary perception, I think. One day, the recollection of the image will influence a decision, probably unconsciously. For now I carry it around in my head like an as-yet-unneeded item in an RPG character’s inventory.
The image has triggered sparkling trills of color in the water, flute toot trills flitter in the air or is that birds? Can't tell where sound ends and vision begins and/or vice versa. The square root of the crew is a cubed captain staggering out from the railing toward the main deck, out of body but back inagain finnegan watching a snail trail of faulty food fraught with paradoxes slide across the steel stained surface like a tide, examining the tiles, the ridges are ridicule, yes I’m alright, but I feel a bit dizzy, and I don’t feel so alright after all, and the whole barge belches as all crew dance puppets for synesthetic captain’s amusement, Polly? I’ve cracked up hard, I think I’m going to faint, ain’t it funny sometimes? Shlawn? What are you doing with that pipe wrench? Help, I’m falling or something, dizzzzy, vice grip, leave me alone, I mean, uh… treat me with cotton gloves, woah, fuck me, Polly, uh, Swedge ledge off the edge, where am I, who am I, gimme rest phrase please musical trill frill no fuckin frills oh what the hell? What the hell. period. places people faces people.

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