It was a window in the crudest possible sense: a solid pane of transparent alloy, set into the rear bulkhead. You couldn’t zoom it or resize it or lay a tactical false-color overlay across its surface. You couldn’t even turn it off, unless someone on the other side brought down the blast shield. It was a clear, impenetrable hole in the ship: a circular viewport into an alien terrarium where, out past the ghostly reflection of his own face, strange hyperbaric creatures built monstrous and incomprehensible edifices out of sand and coral.
Six of the monks were resting, suspended in medical cocoons like dormant grubs waiting out the winter. The others moved purposeful as ants across a background full of shadows and the looming shapes of half-built machinery: a jumbled cityscape of tanks and stacked ceramic superconductors and segments of pipe big enough to walk through. Brüks was pretty sure that the patchwork sphere coming together near the center of the hold was shaping up to be the fusion chamber.
Off to one side two of the Bicams huddled in whatever passed for conversation. A glistening gelatinous orb floated between them. They ended their communion as he watched; each in turn plunged hands into the sphere (water, Brüks realized: it’s just a blob of water) withdrew, dried off on a towel leashed to the bulkhead. Their eyes twinkled like green stars in the gloom.
How had Moore put it? Cognitive subspecies. But the Colonel didn’t get it. Neither did Leona; she’d shared her enthusiastic blindness with Brüks over breakfast that very morning, ticked off in hushed and reverent tones the snips and splices that had so improved her masters: No xenophobia, no confirmation biases, no Semmelweis reflex. They don’t suffer from scope insensitivity. They’re immune to the inattentional blindness and hyperbolic discounting. The Concorde Fallacy doesn’t even slow them down…
As if those were good things.
In a way, of course, they were. All those gut feelings that kept the breed alive, right or wrong, on the Pleistocene savannah— and they were wrong, so much of the time. Fossil feelings. Better off without them, once you’d outgrown the savannah and decided that Truth mattered after all. But humanity wasn’t defined by arms and legs and upright posture. Humanity evolved at the synapse as well as at the opposable thumb — and those gut feelings, right or wrong, were the very groundwork on which the whole damn clade had been built. Capuchins felt empathy. Chimps had an innate sense of fair play. You could look into the eyes of any cat or dog and see a connection there, a legacy of common subroutines and shared emotions.
The Bicamerals had cut away all that kinship in the name of something their stunted progenitors called Truth, and replaced it with — something else. They might look human, their cellular metabolism might lie dead on the Kleiber curve, but to merely call them a cognitive subspecies was denial to the point of delusion. The wiring in those skulls wasn’t even mammalian any more. A look into those sparkling eyes would show you nothing but—
Leona’s reflection bobbed upside-down next to his in the window. He turned as she reached past and unhooked her pressure suit from its alcove. “Hey.”
“Everything’s still on track?”
“More or less. I can’t keep track of all the parts but Beenish says we’ll be ready on time.”
His eyes wandered back to the window as she began to suit up. “I didn’t know,” he said, too quietly. As if afraid they’d hear him through the bulkhead.
“How they work. What they— are.”
“Really?” She paused, one leg halfway into the suit. “I would’ve thought the eyes’d be a giveaway.”
“I just assumed that was for night vision. Hell, I know people who retro fluorescent proteins as a fashion statement.”
“Yeah, now. Back in the day they were—”
“Diagnostic markers. I figured it out.” After wondering why a bioweapon targeted on Bicamerals would have its roots in a cure for cancer. “Doesn’t it bother you?”
The suit had swallowed her to the waist. “Why should it?”
“They— they’re tumors, Leona. Literally. Thinking tumors.”
“That’s a pretty gross oversimplication.”
“Maybe.” He wasn’t clear on the details. Hypomethylation, CpG islands, methylcytosine — black magic, all of it. The precise and deliberate rape of certain methylating groups to turn interneurons cancerous, just so: a hyperproliferation of dendrites, a synaptic superbloom that multiplied every circuit a thousandfold. It was no joyful Baptism, as far as Brüks could tell. There would be no ecstasy in that rebirth. It was a breakneck overgrowth of weedy electricity that nearly killed its initiates outright, pulled circuits with sixty million years of residency out by the roots.
Leona was right: the path was subtle and complex beyond human imagining, controlled with molecular precision, tamed by whatever drugs and dark arts the Bicams used to keep all that chaotic overgrowth from running rampant. But when all the rites and incantations had been spoken, when the deed had been done and the patient sewn up, it all came down to one thing:
They’d turned their brains into cancer.
“I was so worked up about Luckett.” Brüks shook his head at his own stupidity. “We just left him back there to die, you know, we left all of them— but he would have died anyway, wouldn’t he? As soon as he graduated. Every synapse that ever made him what he was, the cancer would eat it all and replace it with something…”
“Something better,” Leona said.
“That’s a matter of opinion.”
“You make it sound so horrible,” she said. “But you know, you’ve gone through pretty much the same thing yourself and you don’t seem any the worse for it.”
He imagined coming apart. He imagined every thread of conscious experience fraying and dissolving and being eaten away. He imagined dying, while the body lived on.
“I don’t think so,” he said.
“Sure you did. When you were a baby.” Leona laid a gloved hand on his shoulder. “We all start out with heads full of mush and random wiring; it’s the neural pruning afterward that shapes who we are. It’s like, like sculpture. You start with a block of granite, chip away the bits that don’t belong, end up with a work of art. The Bicams just start over with a bigger block.”
“But it’s not you!”
“Enough of it is.”
“Sure, the memories stick.” It was true enough. Some things were spared: thalamus and cerebellum, hippocampus and brain stem all left carefully unscathed by a holocaust with the most discriminating taste. “Something else is remembering them.”
“Perhaps.” She shrugged, a gesture barely visible under the suit. “If it’s God’s will.”
“Jesus Christ, Leona, will you stop saying that! You’re way too smart for this. There’s not the slightest shred of evidence—”
“Really.” Her voice hardened. “And what kind of evidence would be good enough for you, Dan? Voices in the clouds? Fiery letters in the sky proclaiming I Am The Lord Thy God You Insignificant Weasel? Would you believe then, or would you just chalk everything up to hoaxes and hallucinations?” She lowered the helmet over her head, yanked it counterclockwise until it clicked into place. His fisheye reflection slid bulging across her faceplate as she turned.
She paused, hand on the latch. Turned back. Her face faded back into view as she dialed down the reflectivity.
“Sorry. I get a little defensive sometimes. It’s just, you know. I’ve heard that argument a few times before.”
“What about you, Leona?” he asked softly.
“What about me?”
“You aspiring to the same fate?”
She eyed him sadly from the bowl of her helmet. “It’s not like you think. Really.” And passed on to some farther shore.