Sarah kept grinning a smile of pure joy at the return of the prodigal um, delighting over the fresh image of it peacefully snoozing in its bed. As she poured the coffee in her poppy colored cup she remembered the little lights at the center of Sys’s palms. “What on earth was that?” she wondered.
“What on earth was what?” asked Seth through the interlink. Sarah was pleased that her mentor was awake so early and she eagerly shared the good news of um’s return, not forgetting to mention the puzzling details of the unexplained sleep cycle and the tiny sparkles in its palms.
“I couldn’t see it very well, I didn’t want to wake Sys up, but it looks like light to me,” the redhead continued.
“Hi, mom,” Sys interjected sheepishly from the doorway and then squeezed between the redhead and the counter to settle comfortably on the round upholstered bench that wrapped around the kitchen table. The upholstery fabric was soft and apricot colored and the gleam of the rising suns set it ablaze. The whole kitchen felt warmer all of a sudden and the coffee aroma filled it like an enticing whisper.
“Sweetie, I was worried sick! How was your trip? What did you find? Are you ok? What’s on your palms? Why were you sleeping?” Sarah unloaded her deluge of questions, taking um’s face in her hands and staring at it with great care to make sure it wasn’t damaged in any way.
“Mom, I’m fine,” Sys brushed off her motherly concerns. “Grown-ups,” she thought, “so overprotective, really!”
Sarah wanted to reply that Sys would find out for itself how parents worry about their children, but then realized that this might not be an issue for Sys’s race, after all um was the first of its kind, how could a human, even a motherly one, know how to give it this type of advice.
“I’m ok, really. Purple sends its best wishes,” Sys reassured her, trying to downplay the fact that its hands lit the room like a mobile laser show every time it moved them.
“Thanks, that’s very kind of them. Sys, what is THAT?” Sarah asked softly, pointing her finger at the luminous palms um was unsuccessfully trying to hide under the table.
“I don’t know, really, the immortals gave this to me,” um said tentatively.
“Can I see?” Sarah nudged gently.
Sys lifted her hands and turned her palms up; their radiant light amplified in the sunny kitchen. There was no pinpoint source of the luminous flux, it just seemed to emanate from um’s palms.
“Is it radiating heat too?” Seth asked from behind Sarah. The leader had let herself in through the kitchen door that led out into the fields. She was staring at Sys’s palms with intense curiosity.
“Not a lot,” Sarah answered.
“What does it do?” Seth asked um.
“I don’t know, I didn’t notice anything unusual,” Sys answered. As if directed um gently cupped its palms and held them facing each other about a foot apart like miniature acoustic mirrors. A low range hum buzzed between the hands and made the teakettle whistle. Sys moved the invisible center between her palms and the kettle slid abruptly on the stovetop, cantilevering precariously over the edge.
“I guess we’ve got ourselves a new energy source. Call Roberta, see if she can understand how it works and if we can replicate it. In the meantime, Sys, can you figure out how to control this ability and what else it can do?” she asked um, smiling encouragingly.
Sys jumped out of its chair and ran to show off to a sizable group of children who were gathered on the beach in one of their favorite hangout spots. It was almost time for school and everybody was very energetic after a good night’s sleep. Low hums, giggles and awed interjections punctuated the usual noises of the house flowing freely through the open window as Sarah was getting ready for matins. From said window she could see little objects fly gingerly through the air driven by an unseen force. She could also see Jimmy and Solomon, and Lily’s little cousin, Gemma, float in a prone position and spin slowly above the sand dunes and the other children’s heads like wobbly human propellers. Gemma, who was three, didn’t understand the phenomenon but seemed to be wildly entertained by this new game.
Seth approached the group all dressed up in her religious garb and looking more intimidating than ever. She was actually getting ready for the morning service, but since the children looked daunted by her appearance and thought she came over to check on their little gathering she didn’t want to let a good opportunity go to waste.
“Sys, put the children and the cat down!” she ordered, adding “Slowly!” as the living propellers started descending too fast. “Aren’t you guys late for school?” the leader’s transparent eyes flashed intensely over the gathering. The kids got up quickly and scattered into several groups according to their respective schedules. Nobody wanted to be on Seth’s bad side, it was one of those unwritten rules that got passed down from generation to generation in the school. Seth suppressed a smile and noticed that little Gemma was left behind in the commotion and was staring at her with an impish glimmer in her eyes and completely unimpressed by the leader’s imposing stance.
“Whee, plane, Gemma wheee!” she pleaded, cupping her little palms and trying to replicate Sys’s force field.
“Sorry, Gemma, we can’t play right now, Sys needs to go to school. Let’s go find your mommy, shall we?” Seth tried a diversion with little hope that the three year old would let go of her desire for the new game. Fortunately for her Gemma remembered she was hungry and mommy sounded like a great person to take care of that problem for her, so she stretched her little hand towards Seth, expecting the leader to walk her home.
“Sorry!” Seth uttered through the neural interlink. The comment created quite a stir in the congregation because Seth had come in half an hour late and disturbed the ceremony with extraneous remarks, both issues she normally chastised in others. The commotion slowly subsided, the prayer resumed.
Sister Joseph stared relentlessly at the leader who was as out of this world as usual during religious service and continued responding to the homily with the customary replies. The service ended and the sister, who had been fuming the entire time, directed her full verbal artillery towards the leader.
“Some of us give this institution the respect of showing up on time and prepared for service. One would wish that those in positions of authority cared enough to enforce the statutes, not defy them.” she uttered with a haughty demeanor.
“I apologize again, sister. It couldn’t be helped, I had to take Gemma home,” Seth said.
“I wish all of us had the privilege to trample the rules as we see fit,” sister Joseph continued, but was abruptly interrupted.
“Sister, can we talk about this some other time? Sys came back with a new energy source; sister Roberta, can you spend some time with um and try to put together the force field’s theoretical model?” Seth said.
“Sys is back?” Mary-Francis jumped with delight. “Oh, I bet Sarah must be overjoyed, she was so worried!” she continued.
“You are turning this entire generation into a bunch of sissies, so you know!” sister Joseph flew off the handle, irate. “If my parents doted on my every move like cat-brains does with her humanoid toy I’d still be home sucking on my thumb!”
“Don’t you always say you regretted coming here?” sister Novis teased.
“Don’t be facetious, sister! I’m sure Sarah’s parents would like some input into this conversation, why, with her leaving her home planet and all!” she continued, outraged.
Sarah had to admit that she didn’t fare much better in the permission asking department than her offspring and if um weren’t completely artificial she would have wondered about its genetic heritage and implications thereof, but Sys was not of her flesh, it was a beautifully radiant creature spun out of sugar whose subroutines played the roles of nerves and peptides and whose consciousness was an indivisible part of the immortal core.
“I am very happy um is back, sister,” Sarah answered sister Mary-Francis kindly. “It may not be my flesh and blood, but Sys is my child,” she almost apologized, too thankful for um’s return to get upset.
One doesn’t know if Roberta would have found the energy field’s theoretical model by herself (one only has to assume that she would have, considering history) but she didn’t even have time to begin the basic tests before the eager um recited the complete set of controlling equations directly into the mainframe, asking the computer to spit out a virtual model with operating instructions at the end of the process.
Sister Roberta didn’t want to look too impressed because she had rightfully earned the reputation of a genius for whom nothing was impossible, but she had to admit that Purple’s capabilities went so far beyond human limitations it would have been stupid to turn down the already processed knowledge for the dubious glory of reinventing the wheel.
Sys stood next to her, smiling and acting as if it had offered the sister a stick of gum, completely unmoved by the complexity and advanced technical knowledge required to generate this science presentation. Roberta wondered how come the um didn’t act superior, any human certainly would have. It was not that Sys didn’t have internal processes that acted very similar to human emotions, it loved its mother, was very protective of its school friends and could get happy or sad on occasion, but it had a seemingly infinite patience, an avid thirst for knowledge and a complete lack of ego which Roberta suspected had more to do with its Purple kinship than its human upbringing.
“I see the energy field is definitely strong enough to push us to hyperspace, what else can it do?” she asked Sys.
Sys didn’t answer but picked up a tin beaker between its cupped palms and slowly turned it into a plastic flower, a broccoli spear and finally a bubble of milk. Sys and Roberta stared at the milk ball for a while, the liquid acted as if floating in imponderability with the surface tension as its only container, a gooey ellipsoid spinning slowly around its slanted axis.
“Holy mercy!” Seth exclaimed, staring open mouthed at the willful transformation of matter. The leader seemed to be everywhere at the same time and never missed the important breakthroughs of their community. Her comments startled um, who lost its focus and allowed the milk to splash on the floor, subject to gravity again.
“How come it didn’t turn back into tin?” Seth asked. Um looked puzzled at the question, not understanding the logic.
“How are you doing this?” Sarah whispered from behind Seth.
“They’re the same sub-atomic components, I’m just reorganizing them,” um said simply, a bit bothered by the all the attention.
Roberta had regained her confidence and recognized some of the equations from way back when she fused materials together and pulled Jimmy from the beach. The theoretical model made perfect sense to her, of course, but all the other sisters who had gathered in the lab in the meantime were more befuddled by the equations themselves than the miraculous transformation of matter.
“Well, I guess we can all stop cultivating the fields now,” sister Joseph commented, for once not protesting but a little unsure of her footing. “We can make cat-brain’s toy here turn dirt into potatoes and we won’t ever have to worry for nothing.
Sarah smiled at the fine irony; they have been praying twice a day for almost two hundred years to a God who told them nothing was impossible and now everyone was confused by the fact that this promise was in fact true.
“I like cultivating the fields, it’s good exercise and something to look forward to every morning,” Sarah answered, still smiling. “Why waste a perfectly good miracle on something you can do for yourself?” she continued.
“At least we know there will be no more emergencies,” sister Mary-Francis commented.
“Unless something happens to the sugar toy,” sister Joseph replied. “We should make more of them, you know, to be on the safe side,” she said and the corner of her eye caught a glimpse of a very flushed Sarah who looked petrified with outrage.
“Yeah, yeah, it’s your child, blah, blah, insensitive, I know. Get over it!” sister Joseph said unfazed. “Seriously, shouldn’t we have more ums?” she turned to Seth.
“Should we make the next hundred look like Seth? She’d love that!” Sarah couldn’t help herself. Seth pinned her down with a grizzly glance but said nothing.
Humans are used to making difficult choices, usually between not so appetizing options, we grin and bear through the lesser indignity and life goes on. We freeze when offered an infinite number of wonderful possibilities, we don’t know what to do, or what to start with, or how to prioritize. This is what Sys’s new feature brought to the sisters: the agony of infinite choice and no limits. The group pushed and argued, bringing up things that needed done, things that would be nice to have, and some quite interesting bits with great entertainment value that the stricter sisters found unworthy of a religious order sworn to promote simplicity and self-restraint.
Sys and the other children were mostly oblivious to the important issues but found that the force came in handy with many games and group activities and since the grown-ups were so immersed in their own interests the kids took the opportunity to create a list of options of their own, a lot less structured but infinitely more clear in terms of what was to be done and when: whatever they felt like and right now.
Sys was thrilled to be the center of attention and she graciously attended to its friends’ requests by creating an unspecified number of pets of all varieties (cats, dogs and goldfish featured prominently on the list), a giant playground filled with things that spin, an ice cream and fudge fountain that flowed in an endlessly recycling loop, where one could flip through a vast selection of flavors with a touch of a finger, and a bouncy sand dune where the children could unload the enormous reserves of energy and hyperactivity that drove sister Joseph nuts.
When the grown-ups finally came out of their meeting they were flabbergasted by how much their peaceful little world had changed during their short absence. For all intents and purposes Sys had transformed the beach into the wonderful city of Oz, complete with a magic castle and mythical creatures.
“See? This is what happens when children receive no guidance. They go off into la-la land and waste time and resources on this…monstrosity!” sister Joseph screamed, shocked.
There was no response, the sisters were staring aghast at Children’s Land and words failed them. The little ones were excited beyond reason, no doubt in response to the unlimited amounts of sugary goodness they freely enjoyed. The bouncy dune was packed to capacity, throwing little giggling bodies in all directions like leptons in a particle accelerator. A low flying school of angel fish with gauzy wavering tails brushed past sister Joseph’s robe startling her and the latter almost stumbled over a fluffy rainbow bunny who jumped at her feet.
“I think we should put some ideas together, it looks like we’re behind schedule. What in heavens is this?” Seth gasped, picking up a furry creature with bat wings and a cute cat face. The creature changed color to match the leader’s outfit and its eye color shifted from green to lavender to color coordinate. It wrapped its sumptuously thick tail twice around itself and started to purr contentedly. It couldn’t have been larger than a persimmon and it fit in Seth’s palm with room to spare.
“Oh, that’s my pet, Gua!” Sys rushed forth. “I’m so glad you found her, I was looking everywhere, she’s so tiny she could get trampled over!” um continued.
The leader wanted to point out that Sys could fix its pet immediately if that were the case, but she thought that would be an insensitive comment.
“So you decided Gua would be a she?” the leader said instead.
“Yes, she needed to have a gender,” Sys replied.
Seth paused, uncomfortable.
“But, Sys, you don’t have a gender,” she questioned delicately.
“Of course I do, silly. I am an um,” Sys replied, very sure of itself. Um picked up its pet and ran as far as its legs would carry it to rejoin a group of kids who were finally starting to settle down.
“Everybody, can you please pay attention?” Seth raised her voice to be heard over the raucous. The noise slowly subsided.
“Sys, where is everything? I can’t figure out which way is up in these creative surroundings. Where is Sarah’s shop?” she asked with a slight amount of what sounded like panic in her voice.
Sys pointed to the apothecary which was at its expected location. Seth breathed a sigh of relief, then saw sister Joseph’s bitter stare and quickly recovered her wits.
“Sys, we need to talk before you make all these alterations, we can’t adapt to a landscape that changes all the time, we’ll all go mad,” the leader said in a warm and conciliatory tone; she didn’t want Sys to think it had done something wrong. “No, you don’t have to…” Seth started to protest, but by the end of the sentence the beach had reverted to its original state. The kids collectively groaned in protest.
“First comes the virtual reality, then comes the loony bin reality,” sister Joseph encouraged. “‘Cause stepping into a rainforest without warning wasn’t punishment enough,” she continued. Something in her tone made the leader fear for the sister’s sanity, so she wrapped up the discussion for the night.
“If this teaches us anything is that we should focus on what we want to accomplish, not on what is possible,” Seth pointed out to the silver lining.
“Yes, and in our case what we want to accomplish is a world full of, what is that creature, Sys?” she asked um, for a moment forgetting she was talking to a sugar toy.
“It’s a glyph,” Sys answered in a very natural tone.
“A world full of glyphs,” the sister completed her argument and was ready to depart when she realized it was almost seven and time for vespers. “Oh, Lord, two more hours with the lot of you! What have I done to deserve this!” she wailed. The other sisters picked themselves up in silence and they all headed towards the Prayer Hall.