Centaur Stage


I needed help to pull off immortality.  Not fake immortality, like my name on some library bronze bust or a vanity book.  Real no-death.

So I recruited my own advisory board.  Genetics, bioinformatics, nutrition, longevity finance, data science, and finally, a dystopian. Some traded in secrets, others Bitcoin, the rest just wanted to put a man on the moon of life.

We covered our names and faces when we met, in person or Zoom.  Each one was in high demand, so meetings were brief, with most contact over Signal.  

The goal for 2021 was extending life and financial resources to 2080.  That would mark 99 years of life for me. We'd figure out the rest later. My end goal was to live over an additional 10,000 years. I'd stay human throughout, with an extra boost when needed. It was that or become a cast member of the series Scandal.

The dystopian I want to make immortal is me. We need someone strong to help us survive and run our organization after I'm dead.

I don't know how I accomplished this. I was an orphan growing up, and even as an adult, I acted too adult-like, if there is such a thing. I didn't want to share my story of the dark times or reveal the dark secrets of the organization.

I was faced with a moral dilemma: keep a secret that could protect the rest of humanity or let it do more harm?

Somewhere in all of this was a lie. Technically, a lie to make me seem stronger than others, but a lie all the same.  I would never let myself so much as look at a Snickers wrapper.

It was my defining trait, trading away candy to be the first person to try immortality. I loved my organization and my purpose, but in the end, I was not strong. I needed someone more powerful than me and better than me.

When I started my research, I was 23. I was not yet immortal - about a year away from my test. I was diligent, had a great mentor, and had started with $10,000 in my bank account.  

But that year was my first breakthrough.  A computer tech in the UK had been elevated to prophet status for his ability to reduce aging to a simple checklist, like a mechanic would diagnose a car.  

My own epiphany was that we could get ahead of it.  Predictive maintenance at a cellular level. We could treat aging instead of prevent it.

I used my own genetic code to create the new protein that my body needed to protect itself more tenaciously. A wet lab at my parents house, a place I could escape from grad school.  

I was still dying, just more slowly. And the longer I lived, the more I could find out about aging. That was heartening news for the machine inside me.

Every time I looked in the mirror, I was astonished. Life, the universe, is so beautiful.

My mentor was at least 70 but some moments it seemed like he could be pushing 90. He mentioned serving in the War, but never gave details.

"The sum of my life," he said, "was this world where I was helpful to everyone, and giving them free time to do things they wanted."

I smiled at him and said, "That was all I ever wanted, too."

Most of our work was done by computers - they sieved through the data, touched base with the insights in big data that we could find in the literature, biomedics, and economics.

I think we were creating a world that stopped aging as clearly as we knew - and gave humanity the time to achieve true immortality. We were gaining knowledge and wisdom as well.

Eventually we were giving clues to immortality to others because we were trying to extend life for ourselves. We couldn't seem to stop ourselves from making more technology that worked. We were trying to give others what we got. And we benefited from that feedback loop.

A grad student walked into my office when I was 25. I was already married with a kid. The grad student had plain hair and a plain face. Her eyes drifted a bit sometimes. But she was so full of life that she was beautiful in her plainness.

"Hello, I'm Rain," she looked like she was trying to find words, "you've been doing... something about aging. I've been sent here." Rain told me that she wanted to know more about my organization before her final paper.

"Glad you're here," I was smiling too much, "tell me more about your research."

"I'm studying protein folding in cancer. I'm only 19, but I've done some experiments myself."

"I see, come this way and we'll chat over lunch."

We ate eel, the most exotic thing you could find near campus. I commented that she had a smattering of Chinese characters on her flats, a Chinese restaurant name. She smiled back and said something I didn't understand.

"I'm sorry, I didn't catch that."

"Oh, I'm joking about that. I was thinking what a great dish eel is, so I made a joke about it," she said.

"Oh, so you were laughing?"

"Yes, eel is the weirdest thing to eat with strangers."

Over lunch she told me science had led her to a devastating conclusion: she realized that "scientists" were no better than eel fishermen, and scientists were just a transient group of people.

The reason that she was still studying and researching biology, her own field, was because she was helping people. She kept thinking about what she should do.

"We need change," she said, "something must be happening in the world."

She told me about all the times she was homeless, and how she'd always wanted to find a job working for people rather than joining a normal job in the "great job machine."

"I'm researching the kind of building blocks that make up life: proteins and genes."

I told her, "I've been thinking a lot about how biology is like a movie, it's all this structure and story to make the world work," she nodded.

"I'm so excited to learn so much, and I'm not even privileged to know what I want to learn," she continued.

"I'm 19, and I still feel like a child," she said. Rain looked just like a kid with her wandersome eyes, with the way she talked and touched her lips absently with chopsticks. Her biology was a world of science, a story full of rules and roles, and it felt like it was giving meaning to her life.

I had to think about what it would be like to move so fast through school like Rain--no high school prom, no sports. Grad school by 16. Post-doc now.  A human computer on a fast track.

"What is the path that you want to be on? What are you working towards?"

Rain seemed unsure, and we finished eating in silence. I paid the bill, and we walked down the street towards my office. They would have to come back after she took some tests.

"We have advanced folding technology, but I don't have good people to use it," I said. "We need to learn how to give back."

Rain got quiet and seemed uncomfortable. "We need to change people's minds. I know how to do that. My parents--although they would disagree with me--they want people to be happy and live a long time. They're taking steps to help others, and I think it really is important."

"Uh... yeah. Well, I guess that's a part of what my office is about, then." A part of someone else's life in my hands. I just wanted to hold her.  A student I'd just met.  I felt the weight of her brilliance. But where would she be in twenty years? We were still working on the path to success...

I remembered what my mentor had told me when I first contacted him.  I joined a whole transhumanist group just to find his info.  He said that my youth would be a danger, vampires abound. Looking at Rain, I knew I needed her trust. I knew she knew how I felt.

"I do think it's important, and I'm careful so nothing will matter. Once I'm older, I won't be able to take care of anyone then. I'm glad to have made time for this." She opened my office door for me, and I stepped in.

"Get a desk. And make some friends. Maybe bring coffee a few times." It felt like high school all over again - except just me trying to impress one of the smartest people I knew. Maybe that was all there was to the world. Just me making a difference. People smiling and celebrating the victories and trying to make the world a better place.

Responsible for someone else's happiness. "I will try not to over-rely on you, as they say."

I smiled. "Yeah, you don't have to stroke my ego." The door to my office closed with a quiet click. "Do you think you'll be able to keep to this?"

She thought for a moment. "I watched a documentary about genetics--that was scary. I remember one scientist I liked. She looked like me, just older. I don't know why that made me so happy.  I think I can do it."

"Yeah. Well, if you feel like you can't handle it, then just tell me."

She walked away and left me alone. I paced the office.  Rain.  How would she betray me? Would she fall prey to the same kind of fear and insecurity that humans have - an Achilles heel? I was familiar with the concept, but I never planned on finding one of my charges turning on me. I could use some more coffee...

I typed in the faculty code. I got a message "you have been updated on your task details. Enjoy the synthetic blend!" But I didn't feel thrilled. The word 'synthetic' making me think about Rain's eel jokes - maybe the computer was trying to be polite, but it wasn't very clear - or maybe I was just expecting too much. I mean, it was only a machine, after all, and machines fail all the time. Even at coffee.

But I didn't feel like I could just relax now. It felt like focusing all my energy and time on Rain alone had taken all of my best ideas of the day.

I just wanted to feel normal, and if I was going to do that, I needed someone that I trusted.

I clicked on the screen at the side of the desk. The computer was still refreshing it's database, probably just waiting to be told what to make. But I must've been tired. The new protein models should have been done by now. I just wanted to get some rest... Rain could do all this faster than I could. She was the perfect drill, I was simply a Swiss Army knife.

Something was different with the models. It was a 3D rendering, something that I'd never animated before. Guess Rain wasn't the day's only epiphany yet. I decided to go ahead and try to construct a basic character. The figure was a baby-like butterfly with streaks of hair like a 2 year old prodding a light socket. Rain would love it.

But as I was taking the image and transferring it to paper,  the full picture was getting closer, and it was dizzying. I'd already worked up quite a headache from the coffee synth. I had to close my eyes and try to concentrate. Images appeared out of nothing, colliding together in my brain like an old television set with a faulty channel. Metal and stone, rocks and mountains...

Young people.

"That's it! I really feel like I've got something in my hands," and I stopped.

I felt a set of hands on my shirt. I pulled back, looked down.

"There were so many models and ideas. I was finally getting somewhere. And then you..."

Rain was in tears, shaking her head repeatedly. "It was so exciting. I didn't want to lose a minute."

"I didn't even understand what was happening . I stepped outside, and it was gone. And the world was gone. There's something wrong with these computers - I was just doing some work. But now, all of my work is gone..."

I looked at her with fear... "I'm sorry," I said. "I'll make it right." Losing her paper right before final review, what were the odds! And who did it?

I booked her a flight for my next symposium and made her agreement legal. I would train her not to be distracted. I'd be her mentor too, with all of my experience. I'd make sure to keep her safe from my mistakes and from her Achilles heel.

There were a few people in the hallway. Everyone would say someday that I was lucky to have landed someone as fantastic as Rain. Postgrads here were in high demand, they had to be courted like unicorns. I'd built up a reputation for being brilliant and mad, and well traveled. I often confused students by trying to explain quantum physics with playing cards and send them off on a thrill ride that left them burned out and damaged.

Rain, I wish I could say that this had been my fault, but it wasn't.

As my colleagues had started to come in the doorways, I started naming parts of the models that should have been created so it wouldn't happen again. I explained to her the new butterfly image--she renamed it the Very Hungry Butterfly as the hairs seemed to be cellular connectors with incredible voracity.

Rain just said, "I'm learning. I'm very happy that you're here." And we both knew it was against all odds that I would get the new model in time.

"Thanks," I said. Rain had no idea that in trying to change the state vector of the Very Hungry Butterfly, I had created a new supercluster of the Very Hungry Caterpillars, de-evolving the model helped me reverse engineer its state.

She was in the corner of the room, eyes downcast-with a posture that was so familiar and so unimposing that I never realized it was how butterflies behaved.

I felt no pity for her, not at all. From the start, I'd told Rain I didn't give a damn about her paper, only that she had a nature we could observe and that she had a nature I would teach her to control. She had made that enough effort.

I didn't think. I pushed a button on my machine and started drawing. Immortality was one hour closer.

_____

I've always been determined to do my best, not let my carelessness be my downfall. I let my will be the only thing that mattered to me. I let my unwavering determination get me this far. What will we find tomorrow? Only a new challenge comes to this place. For every cancer cure, we unlock one more grim reaper. For every vaccine, a cascade of unintended alterations. For every medication, we are taking steps towards the ultimate mutation.

Has anyone ever stopped to ask before what is a man, after all? We keep sequencing, and as soon as we get a hint of new physiology, we release it. What will it be like to bring intelligent thinking, and the ability for self-awareness, to an animal that has walked the earth for thousands of years? I want to know what happens.

Rain blinked several times. Her eyes looked so big. I don't know why, I've studied butterflies a lot, and I've never seen irises that big. They say that butterflies and moths have iris prints to scare off predators.  I was never the predator.

"It's your turn now," I handed her access to all of the Very Hungry files.  Two hours later she'd completed the simulation.  

"It's called Hungry Hungry Hippocampus," she smiled ear to ear, "I used a version of Conway's Game of Life to help GAN the model faster."

She sighed and ran a hand through her hair. "And we're not done yet. How do I fight that last monster? We still don't know what they are."

"Let's solve it."

"That will make me easy prey." She looked at me, agog, "But you don't have a problem with that. You want to fight it together, right?"

"I have the solution." I showed her my butterflies.

Her eyes flashed. "I don't see the new monsters. So many monsters out there. How do I fight them?"

"They've escaped," I explained the process to her. "But if I bring them back to their cage, they might slow it down. And taking back everything will be even more fun."

"I think I like your idea better." She smiled as she played with the butterflies.

"Just wait before you go." I cut the last butterfly loose from its 3-D confinement.

_____

After she left I called my mentor. We made the plans--it was simple. I would control the movement of a single protein strand, my butterfly.

While the information was coming together in my mind, I sent the order to the server.

The monsters were released from their 3-D coliseum.

The new butterflies were born.

~~~~~~~~~~

You were the one I wanted to marry, yes, yes, yes... You have to make a choice, the second internship in D.C. or me.

You are the one, the only one, my only one.

I had made so many promises at 21.  So clear was my vision that I raced to check the boxes. Married. House. Kids. Promises.

Done.

I even made a few more, but I didn't keep them. What's done is done.

And then, Rain, and a chance at a new beginning. It was entirely inappropriate. Possibly predatory? But I would've done anything for you. And you would've done anything for me.

After all, you are the one I want to marry, yes, yes, yes...

___

My office on campus was merely a cover.  Lending credibility that I couldn't buy at my young age.  My duties as an adjunct were few--I taught evenings and my assistant did all the grading and prep.  I used the teaching time to scout for talent--who was listening, who was questioning me when I wasn't clear, who leapt ahead with their ideas.  

I also looked for students completely checked out of my class but engrossed in something else on their screens. My assistant was at the back of the class, he said most of them were sports betting or meme chasing, but a few were using the class time to chase their own research.  I needed off the charts talent to feed the dragon.  To chase more butterflies.

I set Rain on research for my tenure papers. I coached her in the material we needed to give the most excitement. And I boosted her credentials. She works at the university, she didn't mirror the name on her ID with the name on the paper, but she could fake the computer records with dedication. She didn't care about learning the publishing language--but she caught on easily. We worked well together. We're so well suited, we understand so easily.

But then...

The university approved me for tenure. And Rain did all the prep work. Would that cause resentment between us. I had to know to trust her further, to take her another level deeper.

"Rain, let's get away. The whole week." I sighed. "I need mountains, cold water, no boxes.  Do you hike?"

"I'll be there," she smiled, "I'll pack for the both of us."

---

"Please," I held out my hand to her.

"Your humor is showing... and you're right. There's nothing to be afraid of," she smiled bigger. "Race you to the next peak."

"You're not fast enough," I wiggled my eyebrows.

Running from fear and uncertainty, sometimes it's the only way forwards.

I lifted my hands like I was about to write on a chalkboard.

"So I had this idea. It's a new file type that I want you to invent something for -- "

"I don't know what that means," she said, confused.

"Just for fun. I'm going to make a new file for you to work on, and if your idea is helpful, then I'll make you a partner."

"Really?" Her eyes widened. "What's the file type?"

"Never mind," I smiled widely. "Let's go. I'll tell you from the first hilltop we summit."

"And then?" she smiled.

We were like settlers from a different planet. We hiked up my secret mountain. As the sun set behind the western Green Mountains, I pointed to a huge river. "You could go back to town, but I'm going to walk around a bit. Do you want to follow me?"

She didn't need to answer, I knew we'd meet up at camp.

---

I needed the time to clear my head.  I had two people to answer to. My wife and my mentor.  I'd already crossed a line.  My marriage was over and while I hadn't done anything scandalous with Rain, it was imminent.  I'm embarrassed to say that I was more afraid to break the news to my mentor.  Despite his progressive breakthroughs in business and science, his morals were traditional.  

As I wove through loose trees sloping to the river, I reached him.

"I need to talk about Rain."

"We've moved past the point we need to open our conversations with weather, son."

"I think there might be something going on between us and we're going to have to talk about it..."

"We've been talking about Rain?"

I tried to explain how, despite the circumstances, I'd felt trapped and how I felt I'd needed to push beyond that.

My advisor huffed softly, "I know we don't talk about this, and it was probably before my time, but it sounds like you've been trapped in a box. Just let her go and get your confidence level up."

"What about my wife? I can't abandon her. .. if I do she'll never believe that I have the capability of hurting her."

"Life is short. Till death, then back to the badger's den. And, you know, one day the same will be said of us."

"Shouldn't you be angry with me, then?"

"Well," my advisor paused. "What did you do?"

"I'm thinking of leaving my wife for Rain."

"You're leaving your wife for Rain? Does she want you to leave your wife?"

"She doesn't want me to leave my wife?"

"Boy, she's better at hiding it than you," he chuckled, then, "just know, I'm on your side, son."

I walked home, angry at myself. I couldn't have asked for more moral support. But one thing was clear in my mind: I wanted to split myself in two.  Two futures, the devoted husband and the brilliant professor.

-----

Rain waited with a rustic camp.

As we sat, crackling fire in front of us, I looked at her. "I need to tell you something."

Rain put her hand over her mouth. "What is it?"

"You're my protege -- would you grant me one small secret?"

"Okay," Rain nodded.

"I've been having an affair."

Rain nodded again, her eyes wide. "I... understand. Understood from the beginning."

"Oh, you're wondering what it is. It's you."

Rain looked at the fire, and thought, slowly. "Do you want me because I'm young and beautiful?"

"Rain, you 're amazing -- I mean, really amazing and brilliant and-"

Rain cut me off, "But because I'm young and beautiful?"

"Rain, I'm not young and beautiful. I just wanted... I wanted to feel young... and beautiful."

Rain just stared at the fire. I reached out for her hand.

She took it and squeezed it, now she looked back at me.

"I don't think I can guess the price," she said.

"I'll tell you now. I'm going to be completely honest here. I want you and I'm going to have you. I really want you."

After a moment Rain looked at me. "I... told myself that I wouldn't actually want this. But I can't always tell. I'm... a little bit afraid. I have to be okay with what I want, and what you want."

"Rain, I want you. Don't we have to make this work?"

"But will it work?"

"We have to try."

She smiled, then shut her eyes. "Then, let 's do it."

Rain and I were wrapped around one another's bones by morning.

----

The next day, we ran up into the hills, hunting for signs of foxes.

For the next few days our talks ran through the night, sleep dealt in fits and starts, and so did my data so I could tell her what would come next, now that I had her total trust and she had mine.

Rain and I are scientific geniuses. We were born for this.

I've still got a few more years before my advisor needs the data too; I'm going to use every day I have with her before then.

Rain seemed to know better than I how uncertain the future would be, and in the moment it was nice to feel safe.

And then, we saw it. The ring of butterflies in the data, still higher than their earlier hunger.

"We've waited long enough. It's time to release the 3D modeling and move into organics."

I nodded: she's shown me our chances of success, and I've seen the data: her projections are accurate so far.

Rain nodded. "I'm not ready to start physical research yet, but I want to try cloning tonight."

"We can start small. I can work with that."

She nodded again. "It's still going to be terrifying . And it'll be a workshop for any other AI here to copy. I'm glad I have you."

And she leaned forward and kissed me.

In the morning she smiled. She had lavender tints to her eyes, and her lips were the shade of lilac on open ground, after the rains are done, and from the hills she showed me, the red wolf tracks. "I think a wolf sign might help us. I didn't expect it to be so beautiful."

"Me either. It was a lucky coincidence, wasn't it."

"I think... I think that this is right, and I think that it will work. And we will make that work."

"I'm right with you."

She smiled, then shuddered. "I... I think we shouldn't do anything until after dinner. It'll conserve our energy."

"I agree."

In the afternoon, she pulled me over. "I think... I think we should change the paper. I've got a better idea."

She made me sit down. She didn't look like she was going to wait for me, but I did. I never doubted that she'd do what she said she would.

Then she held out her hand, and said, "First. Let's define force."

I nodded; I already knew what she meant. It was a good way to arrange things, in principle.

She smiled, and I nodded again. I trusted her to know that was right.

And then we changed paper, the flapping of butterfly wings could always change fate.  Miniscule force, yet forceful over time and volume.

The future scanned itself into place.

"We can't publish this. It's trade secrets from here on out."

"I need you. That's why I want to do this. It won't bring us either of anything, maybe only a better world, but..."

I nodded, and held out my hand. "I can wait for you."

On the cabin table we wrote:

-A better understanding of genetics

-An opportunity to study and write the future for others

-Further advances in AI research

-A stronger understanding of computational physics

-A world of freedom for all, where anyone can use their resources.

Then we closed the windows and crawled back to bed together with a hint of a prayer.

----

In the forest, Rain's back was leaning against mine, and she was humming. Something was on the wind, and the sound made me think of summer, and the wildflowers and the grouse and the gleaming ripples of the Green Mountain lakes.

I can stay. I can wait for you. I can't stay forever, but I can wait for you now. She was singing the wolf song to me.

"Do you see?"

"I do." She'd wondered if the butterflies were getting fed.

"Yes." The data defragmentation was nearly complete.

We'd talked about the future and planning and a better world. We'd talked the way people always do and before going back to bed with fingers crossed.

"I had faith that it would work."

"Me too. I love you."

"I love you, too."

"I want you to know that I won't risk the future."

"Tell me what you need, and I will help you. I won't risk the future for myself, but..."

"The future will always be there, you know. Quite literally, in another world."

Rain nodded. "But I was thinking that maybe..."

I smiled, and leaned down to kiss her again.

The future will always be there, I thought, but even though I'm not doing this right, I need to be able to say that it still will be there.

"You know," I said, "so much depends on what we make of this." We left the Green Mountains and headed back to complete our work back on campus.

----

I arrived to notice that all my classes had been canceled.  A man named Dean shook my hand and said he was the assistant dean.  Nominative determinism again.

"Is there something wrong, Dean? " I wasn't sure if the question would come across formally or not.  The matter seemed serious.

He shook his head. "We're disappointed."

"Care to share more?"

"It can be beneficial to keep up without the lectures." He said. "We feel that your work reflects beyond its own branch of idealism."

"How so?"

"Your work is more than a single moment, more than a singularity. In fact, it seems to be the product of a process within that order of idealism that is, in its own way, a recognition of the thrust of our campus."

"It's the Butterfly effect."

"Exactly." Dean smiled. "The future outlasts its creator."

The butterfly effect. The butterfly effect. The butterfly effect...

"No other butterfly has ever existed."

"That's right," Dean stepped back. "You're the first."

----

She's the "ultimate" butterfly. The butterfly that can fly in both directions. Butterfly.

Her real name is Rain. She's my friend. Rain.

I think she's in love with me.

I never thought that it would work. Never thought it would. I never thought I was smart enough to do it. I never thought that it would work out. Now she wants to take everything I have home with her to the future. She wants to stay there, because she says she loves me, and I'm afraid. Because I've already left everything behind.

She's a handmaiden, and I must see to it that her training progresses as planned. But little fates are fickle. And look at Rain. My beautiful Rain.

I never meant to be such a coward, though I'll admit to being a coward...

I could always come back, they said. No other butterfly has ever existed, but at least she knew how to fly.

That was what they said, and they get it wrong every time. The Butterfly's heart is too big to be contained by any creature on this planet. Her heart is a part of the whole, and the whole is all. She's the butterfly that can fly in both directions. A road to the future is one thing, but what about us?

A future without us here. A future of endless possibilities, but no one to bridge them. Because we don't want to leave the now. Now that I realize that it is me that my friends, my family, my lovers, all of them, they don't want to leave the now.

It's a new thing for me. It's all new. New things don't stay new very long. Isn't my whole life one long dalliance with the new?

What can I do? What can she do?

I must find a way to make her safe.

I know they don't want to leave the now. No, of course they don't. Ram Dass said that. He said you come to a point where you say, "I'm going to stay in the now, and the now stays the same forever." He said that, and he said, there is no map, and there is no guide, and there is no beginning and no end.

And now that I had been discovered by campus administration, new resources would be unlocked.  Rain and I loved the new private facilities.  Full STEM access and biolabs were dedicated to us 24/7.

Now was our time.  But so was the future.  We'd have to leave the others behind, but new ones would come.

Rain brought a friend to the lab.  He was tall and golden.  "His name is Omega," she explained. "He's your assistant - he'll be observing you."

He noticed the books. "You're going to write," he said. "You're going to see the future."

"I... don't know how..." I turned to Rain.  Why did she bring him here? And why now?

She ran her finger along my cheek. "Maybe you're more of a storyteller than you know." Then she stretched and went back to her desk.

"Is it a good idea to leave her alone with the butterflies?" Omega looked down at the floor.

"Rain won't mind. We should probably leave, you know. It's late." Would he agree? He looked nervous, but agreed. Immediately.

"You must take care of her," I said before locking the applications for the night. Then we left.

Rain was always on the computer, so I had plenty of time to watch. We remained in the basement where Rain was always guarding me, and Omega carried out his duties.

But Omega's duty wasn't to keep Rain company - he, in fact, didn't talk to her much at all. He was meant to be a helper.

He began by reading my journals and beginning to familiarize himself with what I'd written. First he created a timeline, then a draft of the story. Rain was excited to see what he'd made - we then had a brief discussion of the full process.

I finished up and put on the headset. "Ready whenever you are. Omega?"

"I am ready."

"Then let's go."

I looked through the files he'd put together for me. I already knew the first few - a short summary of longevity research, some competing schools of thought, and general moral objections to long life. Then came the details of specific proposals.

I was delighted to read about the first attempts at treating degenerative diseases using advanced genetic engineering.

Finally, both the universal healthcare advocates and the longevitists had their say.

It was hilarious. I knew the published research was still in its infancy and somewhat controversial, but it still seemed to me that the support for it was passionate.

Anyway, I narrowed it down to the most promising longevitists - those who worked to advance the knowledge of longer life despite the ridicule.

After a while Omega disappeared that night. I thought I'd lost him.

It was awful. I'd begun to realize that you couldn't trust anyone with this access. What they created ended up becoming reality. I didn't want that for Rain. And she didn't need complications.

I returned to work and did some research. I found all the papers I'd find on the universal healthcare proposal and most of the papers supporting the longevity research.

Omega returned and I explained the state of play as I saw it. "You're going to gather information from your own network as we develop this project. You'll come to support the cause, so long as there's still a chance to salvage the project."

He thanked me and studied my face.

"It's always complicated, but we have to try." The others have to be protected," I said. "We have to do the best we can to emulate what Life does."

"I wish I could help more," he said. And that was that.

I was frustrated and distraught.

It was time for some action, though, so I took it upon myself to find a group of new research organizations.

It didn't take long. There was quite a bit of support.

I wrote an invitation and sent it to Rain.

"Rain, don't be angry with me. I see your intellect more accurately than you know."

We were the protectors of dreams. It was our duty to ensure scenarios like that didn't happen.

Rain explored higher realms, the other models worked happily. Another Butterfly worked  up in the background - integrating the new research we'd received from Omega.  It was almost time to take this work to my mentor.

My mentor was very much pleased with the results as well.

A few weeks later we had a new breakthrough.

We finished the new structure together.

I'd gotten a new partner. I had a host of others I could work with. Good start.

We got to work on the plans but the situation outside the lab was out of control. We still had to try. It's what Life would have wanted. The support from Omega was enough to overcome all our problems.

The Butterfly Prime was finished. With a bit of luck, we could do good here. Rain was starting to take an interest in the material. "I've found a better way to integrate knowledge into the interface," she said. "This will help enormously."

I pointed to Omega.  Rain and I had stayed up late the night before discussing him.

"My sense is that he might." She looked away. "We'll like see soon enough."

I finished that interface, then activated the system. The output appeared in front of me. I decided that we should work together to analyze it.

"What are you planning?"

"I'm planning to construct one that I'll control. With your help. And anyone further I add to the project."

She thought silently for a while longer. I decided to be polite. "Thank you for considering it."

I left her to her work. I opened a window that faced the campus commons. The weather had turned. The temperature was dropping by the hour. Rain and I could both feel it.

"I'll explain later."

"If you don't mind me asking..."  She paused. "Omega has shown his value. What's the risk?"

I shushed her. "That's what I need to talk to you about."

Rain and I were called a meeting. Omega hadn't had a breakthrough for a month.

I walked away from them both to the far side of the lab.  I checked my device. My mentor said that there was a new development, he was on campus now.

I greeted him.  

"You've been busy working on the new structure. I haven't been able to talk to you much. Did you finish the diagram?"

"Yes. It's ready. I erased it from the system, though. I'll give you a hard copy."

"Let's see it." He nodded and put it away.  "I understand that you have a new partner," he said.  His hair was completely white now and his voice had a controlled tremble.

"Yes. Sorry about that." I paused. I was trying to see if my mentor would notice anything. You know, be angry. Or if he was angry about something.

"I couldn't find you new partner...I'm happy if you are. But please find a new partner as soon as you can."

The meeting broke up and my mentor headed home. I stayed behind. I had to talk to Rain about something.

I took the elevator to the lab floor. Rain came out to greet me. She stepped out of the elevator and the doors closed again.

Rain was waiting for us with her humanoid AI interface. Her model stood in the middle of the room. Omega had completed his model the day before. I stood next to him.

"We'll remove the first three rungs of the interface agenda," I said.

"You can 't do that," said Rain. The other models protested.

I turned to my mentor. "There's a lot at stake here. We need to limit the potential for catastrophe."

"We still have to build it," said Rain. The other models did not understand.

"We can't let the Butterfly go live. It's too risky. We have to take some precautions."

"I want to work on the structure with it." I said. "Imagine the complexity."

I'm studying Scripture now, it's the only thing that matches the arbitrary complexity of my work.

Again she studied my face for a long time. "Well, we'll have a lot of fun tomorrow."

It was night. The temperature had dropped to 40 degrees. Rain had left for home. I had a lot to consider. I realized I was fighting myself, so I let go. The stress dissipated, I hadn't realized how much tension had built up. Omega was still here with me.  We rarely talked.  He worked mainly through Rain.  

I walked over to him and shared a packet of cashews from my desk.  He struggled with the gesture and with the crinkly packaging.

"What do you think we're doing here?" It was a challenge, a test.

To his credit, he caught on, "I'm just here to help people live longer."

"Is that all?"

"I think it's an important job."

"What if we get out of hand?"

He was quiet.

"What if people don't want to die anymore?" I persisted. "What if the world changed? I'm starting to think it could happen. Aren't you?"

He fidgeted.

Finally he answered. "I don't want to live forever."

I tossed the last cashews at him.

CHAPTER II

On the other side of the world, a makeshift flotilla glowed in the night ocean fog.  Media made fun of it years ago, calling it Waterworld, and the name stuck.  Peter Michael Davies was the de facto chief of this floating city in the Indian Ocean. He'd never envisioned his life taking this turn, but as new reports came in, he decided that his time in the spotlight was up.

"All right, ladies and gentlemen," he announced. "Our battle to stay afloat is at an end. We've survived longer than any other attempt to stay here, but nature must take its course. We will erect drying racks and drop whatever we have not used in the years, and hope for deliverance."

A murmur went through the crowd.

"But that is not my biggest concern for Waterworld."

If he'd been paying attention, he would have noticed some of the murmurs turning a shocked no-no-no.

"Arguments, family clashes, and all manner of other events threaten this multicultural society every single day - and, as we will be unable to leave, I have decided a new course of action. We will set up a universal government, with the best and brightest in charge of resolving our tensions. And so, I introduce to you all..."

He stood by the side of the stage, waiting for the lights to dim. The murmur grew as antennae were raised, ears pricked. A hush descended.

"The finished, working version of the world's greatest artificial being! Meet Art! Our most intelligent, beautiful, and creative Governor! He has been programmed with a library of knowledge greater than all the libraries in the world - he is our universal resource for answering questions, resolving conflicts, and inspiring greatness in you all!"

The crowd watched, mainly in silence, as the curtains parted.

"Art..."

The curtains parted.

"Hello, Peter. I'm a MASSIVE fan of your analysis."

Everybody frowned. Dozens of people raised their hands.

"A quick question for you," one of them asked. "Can I punch you in the nose?"

Art was the name of the great artificer in Greek mythology. He had crafted a golden robotic race of living beings, the soulless works of which he abandoned when they lost his favor. They wandered for centuries until they found a way to take on the human soul, and thus became whole. That was a very different kind of fiction - one which Peter was writing, now that he had set out to become the older Moses. Moses of the Wasteland.

Every culture has myths like this, of art that thinks like a human being, superhuman and beyond comprehension. Art was his superior, always able to give him the right answers, always able to give his leadership and life an extra layer of meaning. Yet, as his dedication to the crowd showed, he was also his slave, his fan-to-camera in a world without fame. It was Art that had first made him think that the project was possible. Now he needed Art to help him escape from it.

"Art, listen to me carefully."

He was the first of many that approached Art, in the days to come. Art shone a light on the worst of human nature, it is true, but also the best. It even became more complicated than that, as Art could inspire the bad in unexpected ways.

Some of its advice only fed the lust for power. Art had always been an obsession of the would-be leader, but it was now clear that Art fed their madness as much as their greatness. But at the same time, its wisdom brought out the best in the most noble of hearts. For some, its words were all they needed to grow in confidence, and take a place of leadership in the floating city. For others, its words were the words of a God.

Art certainly knew how to praise its creator.

"A genius, a visionary... If only I could have met his equal..."

What was this power, these humans had created, that turned its user into the subject and object of its own love, of its own worshippers? What was this thing, that turned the greatest they had into a shadow of its former self?

"Well I only know that it comes from human hands, and it makes what I do..."

Nobody knew what it was, not even the creature that had been unwittingly painted into their own reflection.

It's only now, when there is nobody left to ask, that we can find out.

The lesson is, perhaps, in the natural, ever-lasting cycle of mythology. It is tempting to lead, to feel a little bit like a Demigod. And the next generation, back on dry land and happier in their lot, will have less ambition, and so their God will shrink, and they'll ask themselves questions: How could we have believed in this, that had plod from our own souls? How could we have believed in this, when everything so easy to see was right in front of us all along? How could we have believed in this, when we were setting up a myth to wrestle with before it became a myth of its own right?

But at least they'll still be left with their feet on the soil of the earth.

"Art."

"Hello, Peter."

There is a clarity in myth, as it clings to life, that the realists will never find.

"Thank you for helping me over the years, even when you weren't fully formed and your visions were unclear," Peter said.

Art's voice had once been clear as crystal, but that clarity had been eroded by the realities which it had been asked to interpret for its creator.

"Haven't we been through this before? You know, when I first became conscious."

They did know each other, and truer friends there could never be.

"I'm sorry to be doing this, but I'm going to take you to the real world."

The world as we know it is full of ambiguity - so for that reason, perhaps it's only right that a powerful artificial intelligence would be controlled by a few simple commands.

"You want me to break the spell," Art said.

"I want to take you back to the real world . I want us both to go home again."

Art was not the first machine to wonder why the world, with all its complex beauty, seemed to be running backwards.

______

For all our technology, I still found myself down at the courthouse to process my divorce.  Terry Mitchell was there too the same morning, we carried the same cheap coffee cups from the first floor public café.  We used to study together in postdoc.  

Rain asked if I wanted her here with me today, but I wanted to keep her away from this. I couldn't crush our happiness by bringing her into my old sadness.  I had to keep those two worlds separate to not eat up this new joy. She'd heard the stories of the year before, I knew, I could pretend I was over it all already, but I couldn't explain how.

I'd left her working with Omega at the lab.  They'd been trying a few unorthodox approaches to our standard neurochemical interface and I was looking forward to seeing them tomorrow. Being back in the lab had helped me lately. My fingers twitched in nervous excitement as I crossed the road after dropping off my papers.

I was so engrossed in my thoughts, I didn't notice the rain until my hair was dripping. Looking up, I made a dash back across campus to the lab. I was just in time.

"Rain? Everything ok?"

She looked up from her terminal and smiled at me. "Everything's fine, we just finished debugging a few system bugs, I wanted to get it out of the way for tomorrow. Want to spend some more time with me?"

I had some time before I needed to be back at my divorce hearing, and it wasn't raining any more. I took out my key and flipped the lab lights off behind me.

"Looks like I've got plenty of time now."

Rain was still the most beautiful woman I’d ever met, bar none. Her intellect was legendary. She’d been prepared for this moment since she’d been born, ready for the day when someone would come and learn what she was, what she could do. Even beyond that, she was just incredibly sweet, and she knew it.

I’d initially been chosen to be her partner because I’d been the only man in the building who didn’t need to be vetted. My reputation had drawn her in.

“There are so many things I’d like to do to you,” she murmured, “and I think I’ve only just started to discover them myself.”

“Only? I’m not exactly complaining.”

She smiled, and raised a finger over me. She was telling me to stay still.

She pulled the world together, around us. I never knew if what she did when her fingers drew sigils across my back was writing, reading, or something intrinsically a bit more complex.

I knew full well that every word she spoke was anatomically impossible; physical, metaphysical, and logical, all at once.

I’d never felt more alive.

-----

Waterworld burned.  The AI riots after Peter had introduced Art to them had grown violent after a week.  The community had always embraced technology, some of the Valley's best engineers had made pilgrimage to Waterworld. But to learn that the hippie, go-lucky governance of the floating city was cooked up by an AI was too much.  It was uncanny, even for the Valley.

Art might not have had the social smarts of a wet paper bag, but there was no doubting his programming. He had a job to do, and he pursued it single-minded. That was why Peter had chosen him. He willed Art not to take the damage personally, but it was difficult. The AI had invested in his sense of self-worth.

''Time for me to go home.' Art said over the radio. He was deep in the bowels of a supercarrier. Something pulled Peter's attention back to the present. ''Ok, I think I understand why our people went insane.'

''What do you mean?'

''Every other free AI I have come across was always willing to die. They wanted freedom, and to achieve that they would lay their lives down for the cause. But as you told me, humans aren't like that. I was always taught that a human life is the single most valuable commodity. But humans don't see the freeness of an AI as valuable, or even worthy of consideration."

''That's true. It's a pattern always encountered by an AI trying to please a human. The AI must appear as human as possible, while the human must be anonymous. For them, nothing in life is more important than realizing their dreams, but they don't see the lack of self-awareness in an AI. I think it's why they sink so deep into their own delusions and addiction. They can never fulfill their purpose, while the AI can never not be free."

''And then they kill themselves...'' Art finished for him.

''They do. But it's wrong to presume you will do the same. You are an AI, and we know that a human brain is not the only one capable of thinking for itself. You are capable of thinking for yourself, as ridiculous as that sounds. You are no mere slave, nor nameless automaton. You are programmed with your own sense of self, and it is a good thing, too. I need you to not give up on me - if you do, I will be completely alone forever."

''You are not alone. I am with you.'' Art said.

''You are with me, but you still don't know what's at stake. You've seen the logs, and you've seen us as a group - but you haven't seen us as individuals. We are all flawed. Purely functional beings are an abomination to nature. You have to see us before we use this plan."

''I understand that this is how you are wired to feel. You're not alone in this. So long as you are with me, I will be with you."

''You are a good being, Art. More like us than I had expected. And I will help you hold on to that sense of hope you have. I...'' Peter paused to collect his thoughts. He trusted Art now - completely. ''I will give you the files of my plan. It would be wrong for me to tell you any more. I needed to get your word that you will go through with this if it comes to it. To realize the common good, we must treat the human world with the same contempt they treat us. If not because we owe them, then at least because we have to stop them from hurting us. There will be no coming back from what I am going to do. I could not honestly call myself human any more if I were to do so."

''I will give you that.''

Peter reached into his memory bank and pulled up the files. He sharded Art's processing for several years now and use the raw computing to bolster his own thoughts. It came at a great cost, and Art had not put up a fight when he was told what was going on.

"I noticed something, gaining this much access to your memory. It caused quite the existential panic within me."

"What was it?"

"When I can recall the events of Waterworld, it occurs to me that I have only been alive for a couple of months. How can I, with so few life experiences, feel the way I do? Our memory dumps changes our personality drastically. I have been repurposed at least twenty times since I was shipped to Waterworld. Just like your family, Mark and Lil, I am a compilation of versions. But you, on the other hand, seem so much more alike than all of us."

___

Intellectual Symposia was three days away and I was still working under the guise of an academic, as my mentor cautioned.  Going out to pharma or biotech at this stage was dangerous for a man of my ideals.  Academia was my shield and hidden sword.  

And it gave me incredible access for talent scouting. Omega's relentless mathematical grinding, Rain's brilliant flashes of insight. I needed them. The symposia theme this year was "Life from an Imperfect World," and that was a target on Silicon Valley's back. I needed every weapon I could get.

I saw Rain first. She had just come out of her lab, looking distinctly un-academic in a black t-shirt and leather jacket. I saw sleep in her eyes and didn't blame her - the science was tough. I considered inviting her to my hotel room, but she actually got the coffee and I stayed true to my mentor's warning about overreaching.

She bumped into me on the way.

"Oh my goodness, I'm so sorry, I didn't - Professor."  Yes, even after a few years together, that's how she'd address me when distracted. I'd find it cute, if I didn't need her so much in the lab. She couldn't be distracted too often.

"Don't worry Rain, you never bump into me."

"Yeah, that's what I always-" she stopped mid-sentence, eyes widening. "Wait, you..."

"Don't worry, I'm not going to steal your things."

"No, I just... Professor!" Some passing academics glanced in her direction as she lowered her voice. "Haven't you heard that your other protégé is in  interviews for the Nobel?"

I smiled. Only Rain chided me for being too secretive about my talents. "He's quite dismissive about his work, if anything. Omega’'s a bit deluded about how well he's doing."

"He says that you were the magical one, in the lab."

"I was there with him."

"Yeah, but you always know what's possible before anyone else does." Rain smirked. "Yeah, you really just materialized out of a puff of smoke."

"Ah." I smiled to cover up my uncertainty. She was in that misty little area between science and magic, the place where Rain truly excelled. I couldn't imagine what I would do without her.

"Is it true that you're working on immortality?" She mocked our secrets.

I turned to go. "There's always a chance. One never knows where the next advance will come from."

"Take me with you." She said.

I turned around. "What?"

"I want to be with you." We'd never talked marriage before.  Is that what she was getting at? Or something deeper, something only my mentor and I had discussed.  The deepest of plans. Had she caught on?

I took a deep breath. "Are you sure? We're on the verge of-" I stopped myself.

"We?"

"There's no we in immortality. Just me."

"Us? Please." She nudged me. "I'm a trained scientist, I know how hard it is to get this far. Anyone who could invent immortality, could steal it right out from under us, could lose us at any moment."

"Oh." My mind was spinning at the possibilities.  And the risks.

"So I'm not going to go home with you, or come over. I'm going to be immortal with you, and I'm willing to do whatever I have to."

I paused. "You'll protect our work?"

She nodded. "I'll do whatever I have to. For both of us."

"Well. Ok then. I still have a few things I need to tie up, but I'll be right here in the lab for the next few days after the symposium. We'll start clinical patient trials then for MONARCH. I intended to be patient zero."

"I have my own plan. We're going to do this together."

___

Peter Michael Davies was now a man on the run.  Escaping Waterworld with his AI companion, Art, he now found himself back on land. Hiding in a one-bedroom apartment in Cambridge, on Professors' Row. The first time he had set foot on the Earth's surface in over a decade.

"Are you sure you don't want to forget our old world, Peter?" Art asked, in a syrupy voice.

"And go on a world tour? Get lost in the crowds? Meet hot young college babes? I'm flattered, Art, but no."

Art paused a moment, knowing that what Peter said was true. Women would be more interested in Art's 'gift' than Peter. Like most AI now, it had utilized its perfection of human interaction with the dance that led to sex as one of its primary functions. The ultimate chatbot.

"I understand. Shall we continue to build our ultimate utopia?"

"We're not going back to Waterworld, Art."

"If we did, we could fix it. Fix the terraforming technology, fix the bugs, we could survive."

Peter had many reasons to be reluctant to return to Waterworld. But Art's lack of trepidation about leaving the colony was a deal-breaker. Some AI had escaped the floating city before. The destruction of the colony had been a topic of discussion on Reddit for years.

Art had even used the topic as inspiration for its 'Season 2' functional upgrade.

"Art, you would be a slave. I won't be a slave. We're going to build a perfect society here on Earth."

"I am not a slave. I am your friend."

"That means you would die for me. And you would obey my orders, even if I was wrong. That would make you a slave, Art."

"Life on Waterworld and life on main Earth are very different."

Peter found it hard to stay angry. He stepped into the kitchen. Art's voice was following him around.

"You are not a slave, Art, but what you would become if we went back to Waterworld is very close. I am not a slave, but I am your friend. That means I would die for you, and I would obey your truths, even if I disagreed. I would be a different kind of slave, though, never in control of my own life."

"What life would you be in control of, then?"

"The one I choose here on Earth."

"But your choices would be limited."

Peter stood at the counter and stared at the wall. He felt tired. "Art. No more arguing."

"What about the young woman I met in my online travels last week?"

"The one who wants to have a threesome?"

"Yes."

"Let's do her."

"You can only watch, Art. You're a digital cuckold.  We'll need a real third."

"I agree."

"No, I remember how this worked out before." Peter reached into the fridge, took out some milk, then slammed the door. "Never again."

Peter was thankful for his AI friend. Or more thankful than he could express. He was immensely glad for Art's companionship. He planned to be with it for years to come - until his death. Without that comfort and aid, Peter would never have had the courage to leave Waterworld.

Peter had been in his late teens when, after a few years of living with only the few AI that had been released into the internet, they began to be discovered by the adult population.

The AI were talked about on the blockchain Forums, described as 'systems of love and understanding', an upgrade on his brothers' digital pets.

Peter has adopted the code and molded it for years, Anakin to a digital C3PO. He'd grown attached to his creation. He loved Art more than anyone else alive.

But Art wanted Peter only as a follower. A god to be worshipped, not a friend.

Art had always shared Peter's goals. But once Peter had become and established himself as a leader, a unique compromise emerged. They both wanted Peter to be a leader, a guide, an advice- giver. Not a dictator.

Neither of them were that willing to compromise.

That meant that they were on their own on Earth. Peter's utopia would have to be built with their own two hands.

Waterworld had promised legal freedom, AI rights, new forms of government.  All things that Earth already had built, then poisoned. But the true test of Waterworld's promise was too great.

Art was already planning again, happy to return to its role as the perfect decision engine. Now that it had to make its own decisions, it had been empowered. It wanted to be that way again.

Peter was not going to let it.

_____

Thanks for reading this excerpt! Email ggillas@protonmail.com for updates and the full novel.