The Sage of Saggitarius - Emissary Zila
Harriman, the Adjutant Assistant Gopher, stood sniffling
until the man behind the desk acknowledged him. Proconsul (retired) Haliothorpe Qoo was a tall,
saturnine human with an academic stoop to his shoulders. In spite of that, he had an impregnable
aura of authority, an authority he earned, based on his reputation and
“OK, Harriman, what is it now?” Qoo’s eyes, when he gave you his full attention, were like augers. “And why are you sniffling? You know I’m still getting over that last bout of pneumonia. You’d better not be venting any viruses in my office.”
“Apologies, Proconsul. OCS has a new contract offer from Saggitarius sector. It’s your bailiwick – the Sage.”
“Correction, Harriman, I never actually got to meet the Sage. And I can’t rightfully say I was in control of that negotiation. I don’t think a there is a trickier, more manipulative, more difficult adversary in this galaxy. I didn’t score a point on him.”
“Yet, Ambassador, the treaty still stands, and Solar does get the benefits of the FTL drive.”
“I’m still wondering why. What does the Sage want from us?”
Harriman waved the letter. “This is under his seal. He wants you to act as his agent for a negotiation with certain Solar scientific interests.” He sniffled, handed Ambassador Qoo the sealed document, pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his dripping nose. Qoo snapped the seal with a long fingernail and read the document.
“Hmmm. ‘For meaning and profit.’ Hallmark slogan of the Sage, never knew what the hell it meant. He wants me to travel there, with assistants as necessary. At least the contract is generous. Better be, the Sage can probably buy and sell this planet ten times over. Problem is, I’m still on suppressor drugs. I won’t be able to travel easily.”
“I can be your assistant.” Sniffle.
“You appear to be in worse shape than I am. See if Management will spring for a new hire, someone young, strong, and healthy. Give me another month to recuperate. Sure, I’ll take this assignment. Maybe I can actually score a point or two with this Sage creature.”Zila
Born in Casablanca, Morocco, growing up in Athens and having graduated Earth United Academy in Miami, Zila Arapova Beddiy thought of herself as quite cosmopolitan. She spoke English, Spanish, Arabic and some Greek. Although she was clever and persuasive, she was not proficient in the mathematical sciences and had no patience with tinkering or lab work.
The day of her graduation from the Academy she looked in her mirror, much as any 20-year-old might, to see who she was now, having achieved another milestone in her life. Her long, wavy black hair could have been Greek. Her skin tone was a light coffee color, perhaps Arab or south Spanish. Her big brown eyes, that her brothers always called, derisively, “cow eyes”, were full of life and excitement today. Her body, rather sinewy and slender, was nevertheless good enough to get catcalls from the Miami construction workers. Well, she thought, I’m still me. She had so many good things to do. She could find a great romantic guy, settle down, have a real family. Her parents were decent people, but scattered all over Earth and too busy to be “family” in the sense she needed. Her older brother, Dmitri, was the only one who flew in to see her graduation. The idea of belonging with people who cared for each other was attractive, and certainly what her parents would like, but it left a part of her empty.
“What do I REALLY want?” she asked the image in the mirror. “I want to be a diplomat,” was the answer that bubbled up from some semi-conscious depth. The settler of affairs, the galactic traveler, the adventurer… She tried to put on the expression of a stern Earth diplomat. All she saw was a frown and half-lidded eyes. She tried to imagine herself 20 years older, maybe with a touch of grey hair. It did not look convincing. Nevertheless, she put on her dark blue graduation gown and her “dinner plate” cap and walked to the ceremony in University Plaza.
“Zila, I think you have a job offer.” Dmitri wore a big smirk. He was already on the top track to being a "Government Official" in Turkey. He treated Zila like a little sister, which Zila quietly resented. She had better start acting like a diplomat, she thought.
He handed her a stiff, sealed envelope. “This came from a courier.”
“What? An actual paper document? Wow!” It had a seal and a place to sign for receipt. She rummaged for a pen, something she had not used in years, and scribbled her signature. Dmitri handed the receipt to the delivery robot, which promptly rolled away.
“From Outreach Contract Services!” She carefully broke the seal and read the letter.
“Ever hear of a human named Proconsul Haliothorpe Qoo?”
“Qoo? The same fellow who retired as head of Earth Exoplanet Affairs? The human who was born on Ganymede and made that colony a Solar power?”
“I don’t know. Look at this…is that him?”
“There can’t be many with that name. It has to be him.”
“Well it’s for a position as ‘diplomatic attachée‘, whatever that is.”
“Fetch and carry, but if it’s really Proconsul Qoo, you will be working for one of the greatest living diplomats. He also wrote the treaty with Saggitarius Sector. You got any better offers?”
“I don’t have ANY other offers, Dimmy. Is this something you think I should take?”
“Hell, why not, Z. It’s a start, and you can’t go wrong working for Qoo.”
“It says that Outreach Contract Services is a quasi-governmental agency chartered to settle disputes and negotiate contracts with non-human sentients.” Zila’s heart raced. That was exactly what she wanted, fetch and carry or not.
It turned out her responsibilities were those of a page. She did little but deliver messages hither and yon. The great Proconsul Qoo saw her only to deliver the next message, to have her arrange a meeting, or to ask her to greet other important personages. He was a stooped, hawkish presence behind a desk, and apparently not in the best health. The visitors were almost entirely other humans, but she did meet a few interesting aliens and some male pages attractive enough to pique her interest. There was no opportunity to go any further, and her human affairs were brief and unsatisfying to her. It was not what she had hoped for and she was eventually back to thinking she had made a choice for a dull future.
Then, she got another letter.
Zila signed for delivery with the robot courier and broke the seal immediately. After a quick scan, she was bouncing on her toes. After a careful read, she was bouncing off the walls.
“I’m going to Saggitarius! I’m off to see the Sage! I’m off, I’m off , I’m off to see the wizard!” she sang. If she only had red shoes with heels…
The Sage of Saggitarius was mentioned in several reports and treaties that she remembered from her classes. That sentient was a mystery. No one had actually met it, not even Proconsul Qoo. She probably wouldn’t either. “Really,” she thought, “I’m posted to travel with Proconsul Qoo, probably to fetch and carry someplace in the direction of Saggitarius. Same thing, just 40 light years away.”
“OK, class, can anyone tell me who invented the faster than light drive?” Herb Bass, the professor, had been a formidable obstacle to every graduating class in Miami for years, but he still had a disarming Texas drawl. The guy was old enough to have actually worked at Alamagordo Spaceport, but he was still a spry fellow with a wisp of blond hair and a white beard.
No one raised their hands. The class was wary of Doc Bass.“Trick question. No one knows who invented it. We think some advance sentients across the galaxy may have been the inventors, but no human has met them yet to ask the question. OK, then what is an Allurion Seed? Zila?”
“It’s the thing that opens up space for Faster Than Light travel.”
“Any more? Anyone?”
No answers from the class. Doc Bass strolled back and forth on the podium looking expectantly at the class then picked up a thick metal tube and dumped the contents into his hand. “Well then, what do we have here?”
There was a gasp from the members of the class that recognized it. This was the object that had transformed the human race into a star-faring species. But it was supposed to be much too dangerous to handle. Doc Bass casually tossed it from hand to hand.
“No worries, boys and girls, that tube is superconducting mu-metal, impervious to magnetic fields, and I got rid of anything up here that had a residual magnetic field, even my watch. This is what an Allurion Seed looks like under the influence of Earth’s magnetic field.” He put it under a projection scanner and the wall behind the podium showed a 3D image a meter high. “That little thing costs about the same as a small country. But look at it. Isn’t it beautiful?”
It was splendid, with its facets, like a diamond, but as it turned the symmetry changed from one configuration to another. It reflected the overhead light, every facet in its own color. The scanner showed its mass at 12 grams, and there was no ionizing radiation.
“Now I’m going to cut through all the math and show you just what happens when you put a mild magnetic field on this. Don’t worry, this is just a fraction of a Tesla.”
He put a metal ring around the object and connected it to a DC power supply. The toroid stayed the same when he turned on the juice, but the seed expanded as the magnetic field grew until it overlapped the metal ring. The mass stayed the same, but the facets were very different. It did not look like the same object, but it was still a very complex crystal of some sort. He ran the current in the toroid up and down and the object grew and shrank quite tamely.
“Now lets see what happens when I change the direction of the magnetic field.” He turned the toroid at a right angle. The crystal pulsed and morphed. “It looks like a kaleidoscope having a convulsion, right? But now it’s a solid.” Changing the current did not change the crystal appearance or size, but the mass went up to several kilos. It glittered inside the ring.
Every eye was glued to the demonstration. Doc Bass grinned. “Who can explain this? I want to hear your answers.”
From the back of the class, “It’s not in this dimension. It’s a multidimensional object. We only see the 3D projection into our space.”
“Keith, you’re a wonder. Anyone have a better explanation?”
“Some part of the crystal, a part that stays hidden in nine dimensional space, responds to the magnetic field by extruding more of the crystal into our 3D space. It isn’t really growing, it’s just sticking more of itself out so we can see it.” That was Zila’s friend, Liria. She gave Liria the eye. Zila was completely lost. What the hell is this nine dimensional thing and how does anybody know?
“Smart girl. And the mass effects?”
No answer from the class. “Here’s a clue: The Higgs boson is also nine dimensional. That’s the particle that gives mass to the other baryons. Keith, Liria, can you take it further?”
“Is that just a big Higgs crystal?”
“Could be. Could be. Trick question again. Nobody really knows.”
“You all know the history. The Alluriis came to us to trade. All they had to offer is these Allurion Seeds, and they didn’t know a thing about how they worked. They are a trading people, if you can call them people, and they got them millennia ago from some other sentients. They know how to make them. We don’t. We have tried. But every FTL ship has one or it is confined to well below the speed of light.
Problem was, we didn’t have anything the Alluriis wanted. Then an entity you may have heard of, the Sage of Saggitarius Sector, inked a treaty with Solar to trade tech with us and pay the Alluriis with the translator devices they wanted. So we got FTL, sort of third hand.”
“Three inventions made space travel possible. The first is the superconducting mu-metal, the only superconductor that can carry the necessary currents and is strong enough to hold up under magnetic fields of a few million Tesla. That’s strong enough to fatally mess up your body chemistry.”
“The second was the zero point energy source, powerful enough to propel any ship, and small and light enough to be carried. Burgess did that work. All these were waiting for the third invention, and it just fell into our laps only 47 years ago.” He pointed to the Allurion Seed, still pulsing with chromatic crystal life.
“To oversimplify, we expand a multidimensional space around a ship by imposing a linear magnetic field on the crystal until it encompasses the whole ship. We rotate the field to stabilize the shape and decrease the mass to zero. Then we apply opposed magnetic stresses to force the whole ship out of normal space. Read about it in the following sections in your texts.” A list appeared on the display and in each students’ tablet.
As usual in these sections, Zila left with a headache. Science was just not her subject.
There was a courier robot at her door. It was routine at OCS, Zila had learned. Once more she signed the receipt, tore open the seal and read the letter. She could not believe it.
“Qoo is dying? I didn’t know he was that sick! What am I supposed to do now?” She kept reading. “They expect me to go see the Sage? Alone? Why isn’t there another qualified diplomat? Why can’t they cancel the visit?” She turned to the second, rather stiff, page. “Ah, it would be an insult to the Sage. Shortage of available personnel. Request of the Sage.”
“What am I supposed to do by myself? This is crazy.” Crazy, yes, but this WAS a quasi-government agency, and her transport was already arranged and paid for.
Zila woke up from the acceleration trance when the FTL transport passed Jupiter. The status screen in her tiny cabin showed the ship’s position and she wanted to see the giant planet. She tumbled out of her web and fell ever so slowly to the floor. “Dumb!” she thought and looked at the ship’s gravity status in the display. “8% G,” it said. Just enough to keep human digestion and bone mass. Just enough to make her quite clumsy.
Jupiter, when she half-crawled, half flew to the Lounge and peered out the view port, was just a pinkish, purplish streak. “Dumb!” Of course, they were in FTL. Not much of the home universe leaked into the FTL space.
Then they headed inward toward the thickest group of stars she had ever seen. Sort of seen – they were a deep blue blur.
At flipover, they emerged briefly into normal space and every one got to practice zero-G emergency maneuvers. Her wavy hair flew out like a nest of ten thousand springs. Everything in her stomach did somersaults. The slightest motion sent her pinging around the lounge like a berserk billiard ball. She loved it! That is, up until the time she had to use the zero-gravity toilet.
In two weeks they were in orbital trajectory around a star only a bit closer to Saggitarius A, the enormous black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. She thought she could feel the pull of that imponderable mass, but, of course, it was impossible.The Hall of Enlightenment
Her entrance to the Hall of Enlightenment was ceremonial. She was briefed on the protocol. A pair of Priest-Petitioners preceded her and a Priest-Announcer checked her diplomatic portfolio and verified her identity. She was asked to surrender her weapons and pledge to refrain from violence in the presence of the Sage. He was, apparently, a very long-lived being and planned to stay that way. Not all negotiations were peaceful.
“The Sage! No human has ever seen the Sage!” She was both excited and a bit scared.
They entered the Hall of Enlightenment and stood before the Sage. Underneath his/hers/its shawls and robes, the Sage looked like a blind, pot-bellied hippopotamus. He, for want of any other sufficient pronoun, stood on four sturdy legs terminating in a single, scoop-like toenail or hoof. A short, stout, wrinkled neck held a bulbous head with no eyes and no visible ears. There was a huge mouth with imposing incisors and grinding apparatus. The Sage shuffled slowly back and forth in a pit that brought his head to the same level as Zila’s.
“Human Female Zila Arapova Beddiy, diplomatic attaché from Outreach Contract Services of Earth, sent by Proconsul Qoo, to seek meaning and profit, Oh Great Sage!” The Priest-Announcer, a biped of unknown lineage, pronounced in fair English with only a few un-Earthly glottal stops and trilled vowels.
Meaning and profit? Profit sounded pretty accurate, but meaning? Zia thought she had better make a diplomatic speech of some sort. She took out her written documents, a decent stack of papers translated into several languages, and opened her mouth to begin. The Sage’s mouth also opened, and a pair of forked tongues at least two meters long unrolled and grasped her documents. The tongues rolled back with her proposal, the mouth closed and chewing motions began. There was a swallow and the Sage resumed shuffling back and forth in his pit. Zila was stunned. The Priest-Announcer turned to her, “The Great Sage is digesting your proposal.”
“Huh. Am I supposed to carry back, the, uh, digested remains?”
“Do you have a Bluetooth implant, Diplomat Beddiy?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Please turn it on now and you will hear the Sage. He has no ears and cannot hear your sound waves, but he can hear you through me.”
She turned it on. “Do you give permission to call you Zila, young human?” The voice was a well-modulated tenor with a faint accent.
Zila looked around. “That is me, the Great Sage, that you hear. My race evolved underground, eyes and ears were not useful. Understanding, however is always useful. I understand from your documents that you are responding to my request for an exchange of biological technology between our worlds, and that you wish to create a structure for such an exchange. However, you have no specifics. What, exactly, do you want and what, exactly, do you offer?”
The tenor voice continued, “I heard what you said about the remains of my digestion. Normally, such an outrage would get you expelled, but since you are so young I told them to ignore the insult. I will communicate with you by radio emanations, but I can also smell and feel vibrations through my feet. My smell tells me that you are a young human and not accustomed to this kind of diplomacy. You are forgiven.”
The negotiations went on for quite some time, back and forth to Earth and a bunch of interested parties, and through the Sage and layers of Priests. It became clear to Zila that her instructions were a hodge-podge of incompatible demands. The actual exchanges had to be valuable, non-bulky and survive space transport. That meant mainly technology and ideas. However, there was no indication that the Sage was satisfied with what her Earth counterparts had to offer.
Zila was at a loss as to how to make her first negotiation a success. It appeared the gap between the cultures was simply too great to find common grounds for trade. The Priests asked for nothing at all and offered the same.
The Great Sage stood in his pit, then settled his enormous
belly onto a contoured saddle.
“The Great Sage is settling in for a long discussion with you, Young Zila,” pronounced one of the Priest-Petitioners. “You are fortunate to receive this honor.”
Considering the lack of progress she had made so far, this “honor” made Zila worry so much she developed a stomach cramp. What was she in for now?
“Zila, I have digested many body-weights of documents about you Earth humans and your culture. You do not have much biological data storage capacity so you have evolved truly impressive means to store data in other ways. Your computers seem quite clumsy to me, but they are obviously a necessity for a race that cannot do what my stomach does naturally. The problem for you is that there is no overall connection among all this data.”
“Let me give you an example: Suppose each piece of data was a grain of sand. You can pile up grains of sand on top of grains of sand, but eventually the grains just roll down the pile. It is just a pile of sand. It never becomes a spire, a temple, or a great work of art.”
“That is what all your data has become, just a pile of sand. You cannot see the great connections, you do not perceive the ways all things relate to each other and therefore you are more blind than I am.”
“My species, as few as we are, have a way to put all these grains of sand together into meaningful structures. We can give you this capability in exchange for your knowledge of molecular biology.”
“What information about our molecular biology do you want?”
“All of it.”
Zila just gaped.
“That is a lot of information, Great Sage. How many of your kind will you send to study?”
“The information is for me.”
“For you? Are you a microbiologist?”
“Don’t be concerned about my capacities. They are more than adequate, young Zila.”
“And how will you get this knowledge? Will you travel to Earth?”
“You are the courier. This is your negotiation. I will receive the knowledge from you and you will receive the understanding from me. That is the exchange I propose.”
Was “understanding” something that her Earth counterparts wanted? Zila did not think so, but she did not want to contradict the Great Sage. She sidestepped.
“But, Great Sage, I am not personally capable of conveying that knowledge. In fact, science was my poorest subject.”
“You will change, young Zila, and you will keep your part of the bargain.”
“But how…what…. May I ask what your reason is for wanting all that knowledge of microbiology?”
“Ah. There are many reasons, all connected, tunnels leading to one main hall. The origins of life.”
The Great Sage spoke in his own language to one of the Priest-Petitioners. That one addressed Zila, “Human emissary, I am instructed to give you the means to hold the payment required. Do you agree to the terms as given?”
Of course, that is what I was sent here for but…What is he talking about? Did we actually reach some sort of agreement already? Perhaps this was a sort of preliminary to a real agreement. “Um, yes, I agree.”
The two Priest-Petitioners grabbed her. One sprayed a substance in her face and the other pressed a sticky patch to her arm. She had no time to react. She opened her mouth to object, but then she was falling away in a rainbow colored cloud. She was disembodied, then asleep and dreaming.
When Zila awoke, she was in a comfortable bed, in a room that could have been her space-ship cabin, and ravenous. She found herself in the same clothes she wore yesterday. Poking around in the room, she found her travel case under the bed and did her best to freshen up. Just like the cabin, a sink pulled out of the wall under a mirror, which was probably also a display. She gave herself a sponge-bath, dressed in clean clothes and felt rather proud for having coped with a difficult situation. Then she remembered being attacked by the Priest-Petitioners. She sat down hard on the edge of the bed and closed her eyes.
There was a jangling sound at the door and it opened. A Priest of some sort stood there. Same robes, same crowned head spikes. She could not tell one from the other. He, or it, pulled a floating cart with food. The smell was enough to make her stomach growl. “Honored Human Emissary, we have prepared food according to our best knowledge of your human custom. We hope it is satisfactory.” He/it left and left the door open.The Priest-Mentor
“Human Emissary, we are here to answer your questions.” The usual pair of Priest-Petitioners attended another biped, smaller and older, in robes of some metallic emerald material. “I am the Priest-Mentor assigned to you for your partial enlightenment.” The other Priests opened a tube and pulled out a contraption of fibers and poles that somehow became a sort of hammock. The Priest-Mentor was helped into the hammock, where he folded his legs in a way that showed they were not jointed like human legs. He sat upright in the hammock, pulled his robe smoothly over his form and faced Zila without any expression that she could interpret. The other Priests remained standing.
“Umm, should I stand or may I also sit?”
“Human Emissary, that is your choice, a wise one if you have many questions.”
“What are you and why do you call your selves Priests?”
“We serve the Sage, therefore we are Priests.”
“You are not the same species as the Great Sage. Don’t you have your own people, your own government? A king? A prime minister? Something like that?”
“We may have had in the distant past, now we exist to serve the Sage. Our ancient history is only conjecture. We had no written language.”
“Well, how did you get to grow a civilization without written language?”
“The Great Sage gave us written language.”
“But…but he has no ears and doesn’t seem to speak at all.”
“The Great Sage hears through his feet and speaks through devices of his own making.”
“He makes devices? With his tongues?”
“Yes, of course. How else?”
“What kind if devices does he make?”
“You do not have words for them. He makes devices out of his own substance. They are part of him, from one of his stomachs.”
“You mean… he regurgitated a device that allowed him to talk to you in your language?”
“I don’t understand. Is there more than one species on your world? Sages and Priests?”
“There is only one Great Sage.”
“Well, then where did he come from?”
“Spinward, many, many light years away.”
“You mean, there is only one of his kind?”
“We do not know if there are others. We have never known any but the Great Sage. The Great Sage does not speak of others of his kind.”
“He did – he said that his kind evolved underground and had no use for eyes and ears.”
“Yes, Human Emissary, you are so honored to hear of things we were never told before.”
“Doesn’t he have a mate, kin of some kind to relate to on his own level?”
“We have never seen such a one, nor heard of such a one. We, who have a breeding cycle that requires mates, have often speculated, but we observe that the Great Sage has many interests, and is not lonely.”
Zila thought a while, trying to bring up questions that she thought an Honored Human Emissary should ask. The Priests stood and sat patiently waiting for her thought to come to the surface.
“I suppose I should ask about other emissaries you have brought to the Hall of Enlightenment, and whatever you can tell me about them.”
“Yes, that is a very important question, and we have much to tell you.”
The Priest-Mentor had VERY much to tell her. In fact, it took several days. Various Priests served food, they rested, Zila slept, and they resumed as soon as she was awake again. Zila had no idea that there were so many sentient species in the galaxy. Although few were as extraordinary as the Great Sage, their appearance, cultures, languages, likes and dislikes ranged beyond her imagination. She listened, asked a few questions and listened some more.
Whatever they did to her, she could remember everything. What she ate, what she saw, what she heard, read or even thought about. As a messenger, she was perfect, a walking data bank. It was effortless.
One thing was clear: The Great Sage existed for knowledge and was persistent in his pursuits and demanding of his helpers and Priests.
Whatever the Great Sage was, he was many thousands of years old.
“Zila, we have arranged passage for you back to your home system. Prepare yourself to leave after your next sleep.”
The vessel that lifted Zila off the planet was smaller and sleeker than the passenger ship she was on before. After the liftoff trance, she explored a luxurious suite and was treated to gourmet food. She felt like an old hand at interstellar travel, even to the point of looking forward to the free-fall practice. The deceleration trance came much too quickly. She went to the lounge and looked out a portal. No round, blue and white planet was visible.
“Where are we? That isn’t Earth!”
“No, Miss Beddiy, that is Ceres, a minor planet between Mars and Jupiter.”
“Why are we stopping here?”
“To pick up another passenger. Orders of the Great Sage. This is his ship, “Light of the Sage” you know.”
Zila did know.
Ramps extended to the Ceres Concourse, a tunnel though the rock into the inner caverns where most Cerians lived. The ramp was pressurized, tested and the locks on both ends opened. A man dressed in a tan and blue coverall came aboard carrying an old-fashioned aluminum briefcase. She recognized it as an antique of some value.
The new passenger went through decontamination and came directly to the lounge where Zila waited, curious.
“Emissary Zila Arapova Beddiy of Outreach Contract Services, please meet Doctor Professor Emmanuel Lee.”
“THE Manny Lee? The gene designer? You’re the famous biophysicist?”
“Ouch. Too much formality. I’m just Manny, please. “
After all the ceremony at the Hall of Enlightenment, Zila was delighted. “Manny, please call me Z. You must be special to be travelling on the Great Sage’s private space yacht.”
“ME special? It’s you that’s special. I’m assigned to be your tutor in molecular biology and biophysics.” He looked her up and down, which made Zila blush. “From what I see, I should be paying for the privilege, Honored Human Emissary!”
Zila, for once, was speechless.
Manny was tall for an Asian, and a lot younger then someone of his lofty reputation had any right to be. He had a sense of mischief and he was half in love with Zila at first sight. Zila, who had no inhibitions about sex, wondered if they were being set up as part of the Sage’s biology study. It was not long before they were experimenting with their own interpersonal biology. Heh, the Great Sage ran a Great Interplanetary Dating service! Or, she was a sucker for smart, great-looking guys.
With Manny’s devoted tutelage, she studied. She interviewed many of the finest microbiologists, professors and researchers. It took her five years. The Great Sage was patient.
“Manny, I just had a thought. You design genes. You’re meddling with the human chromosome every day. Don’t you worry that something you do, in your clients, or their children or great, great grandchildren, will do some harm? Make purple skin or an arm sprouting out of someone’s backside?”
“Haha. Of course I do. Purple skin! I wish someone would ask for that, or maybe long, silky fur all over, or a prehensile tail!”
“No, Manny, I’m serious.”
“Z, all I do is swirl the frosting on the basic cake. I can smooth out a flaw here and there, but I don’t dare shmoosh the dough. I can cure a few genetic diseases like diabetes and muscular dystrophy, make curly hair, remove extra genetic copies that limit intelligence or produce phenylketonuria, but I can’t design a superman or even a supermodel. I only work with the recent mutations and transpositions, and then only in regions we have mapped completely.”
“Yeah, but those things don’t always stay where you put them.”
“So far they have, Z. So far.”For Meaning and Profit
She had a husband and two lovely children, neither of which had designer genes, when the robot courier next came with another letter.
“I can’t leave now, Manny. Leah is just 3 years old and I promised Vincenzo a birthday party when he turns five next month.”
“OCS is providing full child care coverage AND a tuition at Pines Prep for both kids, Z. It’s only for a few months at most. We can cope, and you’ll be back soon.”
“But…but it should be YOU going, not me. You’re the expert. I’m the mommy.”
“Z, there is NOTHING that I know about microbiology that you don’t have at the tip of your tongue. I wish we could figure out how they made those memory microbes. I would gladly spray myself with them from head to toe. And the kids, too!”
“Yeah, they’re just bacteria from the Sage’s stomach, with an adjutant that allowed them to survive in my straticornium…”
“See, Z, you ARE the real expert! I don’t have half that information in my head.”
“It’s just that… I don’t know what I know. It’s just a pile of facts.”
“Go, love, and come back to us. You’ll never be happy any other way.”
That had the ring of truth to it, she thought. It was only a temporary absence, anyway.
She returned to Saggitarius sector full of information. It was, as the Great Sage had told her, a huge pile of facts. If you asked Zila specific questions, she would give you the correct answer, but she could not tell you what it all meant.
As she entered the Hall of Enlightenment once more, she was struck by another problem. How was she going to divulge all that information to the Great Sage?
She took her seat in front of the Sage, flanked by the usual pair of Priest-Negotiators. The Great Sage, dressed in a blanket aswirl with colors, trundled about in his pit. Zila wondered how a blind sentient picked such a colorful adornment.
“Great Sage, I have collected the information as we agreed. How do I download it?”
“I have specialized receptors in my tongues. If you will allow me, I can access your new knowledge. The storage means we gave you creates electrical patterns in the outer layers of your skin. I can stimulate those patterns and record the responses. Then, of course, I will digest them.”
She sat in a chair, they sprayed something in her face and pressed another patch on her arm. The two long tongues rolled out and clapped over her temples. They were rough and kept creeping along her scalp, her neck, her arms. At some point she fell back into disembodied rainbow sleep. She woke up in the same guest cabin, with the same Priest, or its clone, dragging a tray of food. This time it was a few of her days until a pair of the Priests came to visit. There was no question of who they were. They identified themselves. They were her new case officers.
“The Great Sage has accepted your payment and now is ready to give you his end of the bargain in return. You have done well, Diplomat Zila human.”Interrogation
Zila’s case officers wore robes in shades of teal and lapis, fancier than the other Priests she had met. These were also some of Zila’s favorite colors. They reminded her of the ocean offshore Miami, which brought up a chain of memories and worries about Manny, Vincenzo and precious little Leah. She shook her head to concentrate on her task.
Her case officers had the title of Priests of the Enlightenment, whatever that meant. Zila named them Eosin and Cresyl, after cellular stains that she remembered seeing under a microscope. As it turned out, she could not tell them apart, even though they claimed they were not clones or twins. Their own names were in tonals and chirrs that she could not even begin to pronounce.
Eosin and Cresyl escorted Zila into the Hall of Enlightenment. The Great Sage was sidling back and forth in his pit. The Priests brought out a chair for Zila and cushions for themselves. The Sage settled himself onto his belly saddle. It looked like it was going to be long session.
“Greetings, young human. I sense you are well recovered from your travel. Is that correct?”
“Yes, Great Sage, your crew was most hospitable. But…I have children now and a husband. I had to leave them behind.”
“We will make this visit brief so you can return to your husband and offspring as soon as possible. I am well pleased. I hoped you would be attracted to the good Doctor Lee and have a successful mating. You understand, my wisdom does not extend to such matters. The choice was always yours, but I hoped for the best.”
Zila had to think about that statement and parse it out. On the one hand, the Sage had just told her that he was a deliberate matchmaker in her marriage to Manny. Of course! Manny was not only her tutor, but the perfect complement to her own knowledge of microbiology. She resented that manipulation.
On the other hand, not even the Sage could predict the chemistry between men and women. There was still that random factor. She did choose Manny of her own accord. She relented and forgave the Sage. Actually, considering her totally unexpected family life, wonderful job and new knowledge, she was grateful.
Zila sighed. “Great Sage, humans resent being manipulated like that, but I am happy with my choice and I thank you for the matchmaking.” Very diplomatic, she thought.
“Understanding is like matchmaking. Perhaps I can lead you to the path, but you must be the one to walk it. Let us begin. I will ask you questions and you will call upon your answers. At some point, those answers will fall into a pattern, and understanding will strike you like lightning in a dark tunnel. The pile of facts will begin to take shape, but it may be a while before either of us recognizes it.”
“You mean, you can’t just download understanding into me, like with the memory microbes?”
“Even I would find that much manipulation egregious, young human. You must gain understanding based on your own culture and personal convictions. Loading my digested understandings into you would cause you a serious discontinuity.”
The Priest she thought of as Cresyl turned toward her. “The Great Sage does not want to overlay his thought patterns on yours. They would disrupt yours.”
“Oh. I guess I’m OK and ready to begin.”
“Young human, recall your facts about genetic evolution, especially the comparisons of genes among the various Earth species.”
“Vertebrates? Or Eucaryotes? Archaea?”
“Just vertebrates and lower animals for now. Do you recall how much of the human genome is common to all mammals?”
“Quite a bit. 82%.”
“Very good. And what is meant by ‘conserved genes’?”
“Those are genes that persist from species to species and do the same things in all of them.”
“And what is a genetic inheritance tree?”
“That’s a map of all the genes and how they came down over time from their ancestors or precursors. We call it the Tree of Life.”
“Ah. Then the inheritance is not always from biological parent to biological child?”
“New genes arise and some jump around. Lateral gene transfers. Transposons. Like, people whose ancestors came from places without cows can’t digest the lactose in milk but most humans can, since some of our ancestors began to keep cows. That gene was already there but jumped into a region that produces an enzyme to digest lactose. It must have happened all at once. Somewhere a baby began to digest lactose and its parents could not.”
“You speak of generations. You recognize that as a measure of time?”
“Yes, of course.”
“How old is the lactose gene?”
“Probably not very old. Maybe ten or twenty thousand Earth years.”
“Looking back at that genetic tree, what do you know of the Last Universal Common Ancestor?”
“The LUCA? That’s hypothetical. There may be more than one root of the tree.”
“Yes, but what is the evidence?”
“Well, some genes are conserved all the way down the tree, but there are little substitutions, like the two sulfur-bearing nucleic acids might be swapped in some places, but they do the same things. Or there may be more than one copy of a gene in some species.”
“So, those highly conserved genes are not only part of the root of the Tree of Life, but very old?’
“Hmmm. I remember an expert in evolutionary genetics, Dr. Eugene Koonin was his name, who said they were many millions of years old. Dinosaurs had the same conserved genes. Even invertebrates and plants share conserved genes.”
So, again, you have these persistent genes, millions of years old, that humans and plants and fish still share today?”
“Yes, we are, sort of, all part of the same Tree of Life.”
“Ah, you are looking at the Tree as an object in this instant of time. Try to look at it as a thing that evolves over millions of years. Look in the time dimension. Think of these genes as sprouting new forms, making one experiment in evolution after another, forming new creatures and genes, deleting other creatures and genes. What do you see now?”
Zila closed her eyes and tried, very hard, to make believe she was a disembodied eye on the wall of the world while unicellular creatures first made microbial mats, then were invaded by chloroplasts and became algae, then invented flagella and learned to swim, crawl, walk, breathe air and fly. It was hard. Then she focused on the backbone of the tree and it suddenly seemed like she was looking at the skeleton of some enormous, ancient animal, but the bones were the conserved genes. It was… well, revelation is a weak word for it.
The Great Sage was patient. The Priests did not stir. Eventually, Zila found a way to put it into words.
“We aren’t the purpose of evolution at all. The Tree of Life is the end product! Humans, fish, plants, plankton, whales, fungi, we are all experiments whose main purpose is to carry DNA in our cells along with the little organelles that came to join us. Mitochondria, spindles, chloroplasts, ribosomes, they are fellow travelers. We are simply the latest clothing our cells have put on to pursue survival. Life is its own purpose. We are… incidental.” She almost added the word “temporary”, but she could not say it, even though, suddenly, she knew humans would eventually, in the long stretch of time, be succeeded by something else.
Having said that, she suddenly knew it was a true understanding but not yet a complete understanding. She looked up at the Sage, turned to look at the Priests and waited for comments.
The Great Sage was curt. “That is enough for today, young Zila human. We will meet tomorrow.”
The Priests of Enlightenment, Eosyn and Cresyl, unfolded themselves from their cushions and escorted her to her quarters.
“What did you think of all that?”
“Very intense, in our experience with the Great Sage. You are most privileged, Honored Human Emissary.” Eosyn responded.
“We do not follow your vision, but then we do not share your knowledge. We do not have your memory microbes. You are most privileged, Honored Human Emissary Zila.” Cresyl’s expression was unreadable.
It seemed her honorifics were getting longer every day.
The next day she awoke with a vivid memory of the strangest dreams. The Tree of Life was on fire and she was trying to put it out. Sparks and flames sprouted wherever she looked. But she was not worried. It was just…interesting and somehow the way it was supposed to be.
The Priest of the Morning as she began to think of him, came as usual with his cart floating behind him. The food smelled delicious, and Wow! There was real coffee!
“Honorable Human Emissary, we have new clothing for you. We hope you like it.”
“Why, thank you, good Priest! It’s a beautiful fabric!” She held it up to her for a fit, but the only mirror was too tiny to allow her to see the full effect. It seemed to be the same kind of fabric worn by Eosyn and Cresyl, her case officers.
“We would be pleased if you could wear it for your session today with the Great Sage, Oh Honored Human Emissary.”
“Well, then I shall, but first, I’m starved. Were did you get Earth coffee?”
“From Earth, of course.”
Dumb question, she thought. But something was a bit strange here. They were going to an awful lot of trouble for one very green junior diplomat. Coffee from Earth? What next, will they shower me with precious gems?
She devoured the breakfast, drank a whole pot of coffee even though she knew that would be trouble later on, put on her new dress and brushed her hair.
The dress was more like a gown, full and long but fitted at the waist and bodice. The material was silky and draped like the sculpted folds on a Greek statue. She was tempted to put on some makeup and perfume, but then she remembered that the odors could be some sort of message in Sage language.
Eosyn and Cresyl came to bring her to the Hall of Enlightenment. They were wearing the same robes they had worn the day before. It struck her how similar they were to hers, but for the cut of the gown.
The Great Sage himself was draped in the same material, but with ornate trimmings and a blanket that could have been an archival tapestry. The party settled themselves into their various resting poses and the Sage resumed directly.
“Young human, today we will focus on the process you call evolution. Please bring to mind all you have learned about the process by which species evolve and how they change to adapt to the environment as it changes around them.”
Zila had a lot of facts on evolution. It was intimately tied to molecular biology. In fact, molecular biology was nonsense without evolution and provided an enormous body of evidence in direct support of evolution.
“Please explain survival of the fittest.”
“Oh, that’s simple. Each individual has a slightly different mix of genes and expresses them in various ways. So we get variations , say, color, size, immune responses, and what they can eat. In each environment, some of these changes are better than others. The individuals with the better adaptations have more offspring, so their genes survive. Over time, the surviving individuals have the better adapted genes and the others tend to die out.”
Then Zila remembered a fact she did not fully understand. “I think the growth rate of beneficial genes tends to be exponential. They spread really, really fast.”
“How do these changes arise?”
“Well, lots of ways. Sexual reproduction mixes the genes pretty well, comes up with new combinations. Retroviruses inject new genes into random places, and sometimes cause several copies of themselves and whatever genes come along with them. Solar radiation and cosmic radiation cause mutations, most of which are bad, and some get repaired incorrectly by the repair enzymes that slide along the DNA strands during cell division. Sometimes pieces of RNA get injected into the DNA. Sometimes genes just jump into a new positions. Transposons. Like the gene for digesting lactose. There is even lateral transfer between species, especially bacteria.”
“Are these changes very common?”
“Umm, the kind of mixing that happens in sexual reproduction is common, but the whole thing about DNA is that it a pretty stable molecule. The two strands of DNA are complementary. If one codon is damaged or swapped, the zipper enzyme can fix it because the other strand still has the right code. It usually stays zipped up and safely curled up. It has to be unzipped and wrapped around a thing called a spindle to be read into messenger RNA to make a protein. It’s sort of like a tiny molecular tape recorder in every cell, making copies of the DNA and turning the DNA codes into proteins for the rest of the body.”
“But wait, I don’t think I really answered the question. Small changes happen a lot and they get fixed or ignored. Big changes are rare.”
“Are most changes beneficial?”
“No, actually, very much the opposite. Changes are random and the DNA code only works in specific ways. Most changes are lethal or on the bad side of neutral.”
“If changes are random and not often beneficial, how, then does evolution aid adaptation? Doesn’t it just as often destroy the individual as adapt it?”
“More often, actually. A lot of very smart people have studied that problem. It seems from the shape of the Tree of Life and the incidence of things like cancer and genetic diseases that the changes are, at most neutral. Evolution is not a smooth process. Nothing good happens for a long while, then all of a sudden a really good gene appears and evolution takes a jump. And, let’s not forget, species die out regularly and arise just as often.”
“What does all this have to do with fitness maps. You did study fitness maps?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Please describe fitness maps, young human.”
“Mmm. This is where I get into trouble with math and all. Let me see if I can describe fitness, then I’ll try fitness maps.”
“Suppose we are looking at a creature that lives in a forest. There are lots of seeds on the ground in various sizes, some with very tough shells, some a bit poisonous. There are tall trees with fruit. There are competitors that want to eat the seeds and the fruit. There are predators that want to eat the eaters. There are parasites that infect the creatures. It’s a very complicated thing, survival in this forest. If you plunked down any creature from another environment it would not last long or have offspring. But, being able to eat smaller seeds means less competition from the big animals. Being able to fly is good for reaching fruit. If you could put all these nice things into a single number, that would be a fitness index. The higher the number, the more fitness there is.”
“But you can’t put it all into one number. There are too many options and trade-offs and exceptions. A bird with a big, long beak can’t eat little seeds, but it can drink water from hard to reach places and maybe poke at predators and drive them away. But a really, really long beak is heavy, it can break, and it makes flying clumsy. So we put the whole range of good things together in a map. Each good thing has a dimension for itself. There are lots of dimensions in this map, it’s not two dimensional flat like a land map. In the beak size dimension, there is a hill for decent size beaks, but not too big beaks. In the bird size dimension there is a hill for small birds that are quick enough to eat insects, another for big birds that can eat hard shelled nuts. So the whole map is lumpy. Some of the hills are mountains and some are just little rolling hillocks.”
“Now, classical theory says that evolution is the process of climbing the highest peaks in this fitness landscape. The valleys are for the unfit. The creatures on the peaks have more offspring, so they contribute more genes to the gene pool.”
“Classical theory, you say? Is that where the evidence leads?”
“Uh, not exactly. One of the problems is that creatures can spend the whole life of their species climbing a modest fitness peak when there are real huge mountains just next door that they cannot reach. They get trapped, trying to move upward when there is no higher ground. Like ants or wasps on Earth. Only the creatures wandering around in the valleys have a chance of finding the higher peaks, but they may not survive long enough to climb them. Like the little mammals after the dinosaurs got wiped out. If the dinosaurs survived, the mammals would all be mice.”
“The other problem is that N-dimensional fitness maps may not have optimizing algorithms at all. A Dr. Kaufman wrote about this stuff and about the relationship between fitness landscapes and chaos theory. Something about having too many degrees of freedom. There was even a fractal fitness landscape.”
“But there must be some way. After all, your species has managed to climb a fitness peak so high it is no longer part of any particular forest, or desert, or ocean. Don’t all sentient creature have to find some way to navigate these fitness landscapes in order to reach civilization? To finally master their environment?”
Zila nodded for quite a while before she had an answer to that question. “Now that you mention it, it seems obvious, isn’t it?”
“Wisdom is not often obvious. The secret is seeking in the right place.”
“Now think about fitness landscapes, young human. Imagine, if you can, a fitness landscape that includes habitats from an entire planet. Imagine a sentient species overcoming all the pitfalls in this fitness landscape and finally reaching a global civilization. Tell me what you see.”
No, Zila thought, it doesn’t seem possible. But it happens! I’ve seen other sentients. We have a few sentient, or semi-sentient creatures on Earth! But only humans have that global civilization thing. And the interesting thing is that humans are really quite unspecialized for any particular natural environment. How does it work? Wait, look at the Tree of Life. It does have a certain shape. Not like a tree with all the fuzzy stuff at the top, more like a series of straggly vines and bushes. Beetles. There’s a particularly fuzzy piece of Tree. Grasses. Nematode worms- more bushy parts. But people? The hominid branch is the opposite of fuzzy, it’s almost bare. But yet, here I am, a hominid, in Saggitarius Sector talking about fitness maps with the Great Sage. Shouldn’t my kind be the bushiest part of the Tree?
“Something is very wrong here, Great Sage. The Tree of Life does not support the idea of fitness maps. Humans don’t fit the usual peak-climbing scenario, either. Yet it must. There is something missing. I don’t know what it could be.”
“Young Human, or I should call you, Honored Human Emissary, Zila Arapova Beddiy, Diplomatic Attache from Outreach Contract Services, you have earned yet another title, if you will accept it. You are hereby Priest-Seeker of the Great Sage. Do you accept?”
“Oh. Is that why I’m wearing this gown? It’s not just a nice gift?”
“Exactly. Do you accept willingly, young human?”
“I’m honored, Great Sage. Truly honored.”
“And so you will be truly honored, young human. I have other gifts for you.”
The Great Sage gibbered and sang in the Priests language and they approached him. He opened his enormous jaws and extruded two small objects. The Priests took them as if they were priceless treasures and brought them over to Zila. One Priest slapped a patch on Zila’s gown, front and back. It was a logo of some sort. The same logo appeared over the entrance to the Hall of Enlightenment, she remembered. The other Priest placed a small flat object on Zila’s forehead and another on her throat. The objects stuck there.
“Zila, you are wearing the emblem of the Great Sage. You will find it humorous, if I understand human humor.” He stood sideways to Zila and stuck out both tongues, curled in opposite directions. Yes, that was the emblem! Zila tried very hard not to laugh and failed.
“I apologize for laughing, Great Sage. It is indeed the perfect emblem for you, but you are sticking out your tongues at the world. It’s hard to explain it’s…. She trilled and warbled a word that had no English translation. Then her eyes popped open very wide.
“You are speaking and understanding the language of the Priests of the Great Sage. Surprise! That is my gift to you, young human.”
The two Priest Seekers gabbled and sang to her and she answered in kind.
“It will learn and work in all languages that use sound waves, Honored Human Emissary and Seeker. It is tuned to your memory microbes.”
“Seekers, please send for a Negotiator.”
One Seeker left the Hall and returned very quickly with a Priest Negotiator who must have been hovering just outside the door.
“Negotiator, please draw up a proper human Diplomatic Portfolio for Zila Arapova Beddiy, who will now have the title of Diplomat and Seeker of the Great Sage.”
“Promptly, Great Sage.”
“And please write a proposal with Outreach Contract Services to hire Zila Arapova Beddiy on a long term basis, on the same terms and remunerations as the memorable Proconsul Haliothorpe Qoo.”
“Wow. That should be quite a raise! Manny will be overjoyed.”
“Negotiator, the Sagittarian FTL Yacht, “Wisdom of Sage” will now be in her control for the duration of her employment here as Priest-Seeker, and the Pilot, Navigator and Engineer are now under her command as Diplomat.”
“Yes, Great Sage, so it will be.”
“Young human, we resume tomorrow. Perhaps it will be the last session we need to gain your profit from this venture.”
“Is it tomorrow already?” Zila complained as the spike-headed Priest dragged her food
cart in for breakfast.
“Honored Human Emissary….”
“Damn it! Call me Zila, just Zila, and why does it feel too early for breakfast?”
“Honored Human Zila, your pilot and navigator wish to report for duty. They will have much to do today while you continue your discussions with the Great Sage.”
“Aaargh. OK, give me a chance to clean up and get dressed.”
“May I call you Priest Zila? You have new clothing as well.”
“That would be Priestess Zila, I believe, but please, just Zila. Why the new clothing? Am I getting another title?”
“This one has not been told about any new honors, but the clothing is your uniform as commanding officer of the “Wisdom of Sage”.
“Oh, wow, this I have to see.”
It came scrunched up in a box that would ordinarily fit a piece of jewelry. The box had the Sage’s curled-tongues emblem on the top in a material that looked like melted emeralds. Zila pulled the crumpled garment from the small box and it gradually unfolded until it became a single unwrinkled one-piece jumper in green with azure insets at the shoulders, a matching belt and, yes, booties. The material was so fine it seemed ephemeral. She prodded it with a finger and it gave like lycra. There was no obvious way to put it on.
“How do I get into it?”
The Priest picked up the box and pulled up the bottom revealing a hidden compartment. In it was a tool the looked like a spoon, but with double convex ovoid on the end, like two spoons welded together with the bowls inside. The Priest handed the tool to Zila.
“I’m still mystified.
What do I do with this, uh, whatever it is.”
The Priest held up the suit and ran the tool along a nearly invisible seam that started at the neck and wrapped around the suit down one leg and then another seam on the other leg. He handed the suit to Zila and waited, expectantly.
“No, no. I’ll try it on by myself. Thanks you for the instructions.”
The Priest dutifully turned away and left, leaving the door open as usual.
Zila got out of her nightgown and did a quick shower and other morning necessities, then tried to get into the suit. With a bit of wriggling and pulling she got it on, right done to the booties, which proved to have built in soles and served as shoes. She ran the zipper tool up the seams and they welded together perfectly. The fabric shrunk to her figure.
“It’s a cat suit. I’m all the way up here in Saggitarius sector and still some male sentient has reinvented the cat suit. This damn thing leaves nothing to the imagination.”
She tugged and pulled at it some more. The fabric was remarkably tough and resilient only if she pulled slowly. She bent and squatted and stretched, but the suit allowed every motion without binding.
“Great stuff. I wonder if we can get the formula for this as part of the trade deal. Well, I suppose, with no other humans around, it’s silly for me to be concerned about human modesty.” She stuck her tiny translation devices on her forehead and throat.
Just then, two male humans and a Priest walked in to her room. The men looked her over, looked at each other and grinned.
“Ahem, Commander Zila, we are Efar Oms, Pilot, Alon Kirby, Navigator and Priest (Whistle-Hum) our Engineer. We are your crew, um Commander.
Zila did not know whether she should cover up or try to retain some shred of dignity. However, they were all wearing the same kind of suit, in different patterns to show rank or personal preference, perhaps. The men were definitely male and the Priest was, well, whatever he/she/it was.
Efar, the Pilot, held up his hands, “We had nothing to do with these uniforms. The whole fleet wears them, humans and otherwise. I’m sure the Great Sage is not concerned with human sexual taboos.”
“Actually, Commander, these suits are very practical. They will keep you warm or cool in nearly any situation, from fires to deep space. They will repel projectile weapons like armor, although it does hurt if you get hit. They clean themselves. You can wear them for days and they never stink. Most important, they fit under space suits and in the ship’s control chairs. Aaand, the boots have sticky gecko soles for free fall.” Alon had dropped the smirk, but he continued. “For a sexless entity, though, the Great Sage has a great sense of style.”
Zila blushed. “ Knock it off! I’m married to a great guy and I have two kids.”
“Oh, sorry, Commander.”
Zila turned to the Priest. “How about you? Do you have a name we can pronounce in English other than (Whistle-Hum)?”
“Commander, you don’t have to worry about me, I’m not remotely human. I am male in this phase, but that is only for a few tens of cycles. Please call me Scotty.”
“Wasn’t he the engineer in one of your ancient space operas?”
“Never heard of it.”
“Star Trek, or something like that?”
“Hey, I’m not that old. How far back do you think I go?”
“Scotty, here is the oldest one. Tell her, Scotty.”
“In Earth years, I would be forty-seven. That is old for my kind. I have been in service to the Great Sage for forty years.”
“You’ve been an engineer for forty years?”
“In training for thirty years and a full engineer for five years.”
“Priests train for their jobs all their lives,” Alon frowned, “Over and over again until they can do the most complex repair with no mistakes.”
“I graduated Houston-Stanford. I have a Ph.D. in astrophysics. The Great Sage hired me off a research vessel that docked here. I was the ship’s navigator at the time.”
“And you, Efar?”
“I’m just a humble ship’s jockey, Commander Zila. Nothing special. It’s all in the wrist.”
“You guys know, I suppose, that as far as actually commanding a ship goes, I know practically nothing?”
“We know, Commander. We were briefed. You carry the mission. Our job is to get you there in one piece.”
Zila shook her head from side to side. Mission. Commander. What the hell was all this about? I just want to get home to my family.
The Great Sage was wearing tapestries that reminded Zila of the pictures of colorful nebulas taken with powerful telescopes. Eosin and Cresyl squatted on their cushions, the Great Sage mounted his belly saddle and, as usual, he got right down to business.
“Young Human, and now Commander, Zila, your mate, Dr. Manny Lee is trained as a biophysicist?”
“Yes, but he has been doing gene design for several years now.”
“Nevertheless, he has tutored you in the basics of how creatures use energy?”
“Great Sage, I have the facts, but biophysics is really beyond me.”
“We will see. Please concentrate in the laws of thermodynamics. Can you repeat the Second Law?”
“Energy flows from regions of higher concentration to regions of lower concentration. In any given system, over time, pockets of energy run downhill until everything is at the same level. Like a waterfall filling a pond. It stops running when the pond reaches the level of the waterfall.”
“Good enough. And entropy?”
“Entropy is the measure of free energy in the system. Entropy starts low and only increases over time. In the case of the universe, entropy started at zero with the Big Bang and will end at infinity when the universe is the same temperature all over and there are no more stars or even hot spots. It’s called the heat death. If there is a heat death…”
“Very good. But, there are exception to the irreversible flow of entropy?”
“Well, that is a good question. I’m not sure. It seems that life is an exception. Living things organize themselves against the flow of entropy and spend energy all their lives, then pass on this job of spending energy to their offspring. There was a lot of work on the idea of entropy and genetic evolution. Kaufman even wrote about a Maxwell’s Demon directing evolution in a test of fitness landscapes. Maxwell’s Demon worked against entropy.”
“If you could see molecules of air in a bottle, could you see entropy in action?”
“Not really. You would see a particular molecule getting bumped and moving faster, and another getting bumped and moving slower. It would be hard to tell from watching individual molecules.”
“Do you understand what an emergent phenomenon is, Young Human?”
“That is something that can only be seen from the actions of the whole. Like, watching the individual molecules just shows random events, but over all, those random events follow a law that is not obvious from watching them as individual molecules. Air pressure is an emergent phenomenon caused by air molecules bumping into each other.”
“And in the case of our jar of air?”
“The pattern that you would find is that the molecules are averaging out to the same speed and eventually they all have the same energy. All the air in the jar is eventually at the same temperature. That is maximum entropy at for that jar of air.”
“So what have you learned about instances that seem to go against entropy, like life?”
Well, Zila thought, there is a catch here. I know we eat foods that break down into sugars, proteins, and other stuff that our bodies use for fuel and growth. We excrete things that are all used up for our purposes, which really means that the excreted molecules are at a lower energy level than we can use. Other organisms use that waste to bring down the energy even further. And when our bodies decompose, all that stored energy in the proteins and fats goes down the same pathways to the lowest levels. So we don’t really go against entropy when we eat or grow.
But there’s more than just metabolism and decomposition. The higher animals and humans use a LOT of energy. We use fossil fuels, wind and solar power, trees and wood. We move things around and build things and all that uses a tremendous amount of energy.
The thing is, none of that energy use is very efficient. Most of the energy goes into waste heat. We need to cool our engines to get rid of the waste heat. We need to cool our bodies to get rid of the waste heat. Every biological process uses energy and wastes a lot of it. So living forms not only gather a lot of energy to live, we waste most of it! That certainly doesn’t sound like an exception to entropy!
“Again, Great Sage, I see that life does not get away from the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Quite the opposite! Life is one of the biggest things that makes entropy go faster! And, since living things reproduce, entropy increases really fast around living things!”
“Quite right, Young Human, life promotes a huge increase in entropy if you take into account not just the living things themselves but the environment they live in. But let us go further. Think of the ways that all life has in common that all use energy.”
“I just thought of the deep ocean life on Earth. We used to think that down in the abyssal, unlit depths of our ocean there could be no life. Then we discovered that the greatest concentration of life on our planet was in just those sunless depths. There are “black smokers”, gushers of superheated ocean water spewing out of places where the thin ocean crust gets near molten magma plumes. These gushers have lots of salts and minerals dissolved in them, especially sulfur. The incredible diversity of life around these gushers digests the hot minerals and breathes sulfur instead of oxygen, and eventually these gushers support fish, worms, crabs, clams, even sharks. None of them breathe, and most don’t even have eyes, but they are very alive.”
“It’s as if the plume of energy in these black smokers caused the life there to evolve. Come to think of it, the same kind of thing happens in the Yosemite geysers, in deep sea oil vents, methane volcanoes on IO and Europa, and just about everywhere there is some kind of energy flow.”
“And now, perhaps, you have reached yet another level of understanding, young Human?”
“Yes, this is wonderful. Life is not separate from entropy at all. Life is a part of entropy. Life evolves anywhere there is a suitable energy flow and a suitable medium, whether it is a warm shallow ocean under sunlight, or a dark abyss with a black smoker, or a… how about a thick atmosphere full of all kind of carbon molecules with continuous lightning storms, like the mid-levels of Jupiter’s atmosphere?”
“What is the most universal characteristic of life, Young Human?”
“The ability to reproduce, probably, although there are a few things that reproduce, like viruses, that we do not consider alive.”
“Then we can say that without the ability to reproduce there is no life?”
“Yes, that seems to be right.”
“But there are always limits to reproduction. Can you remember those limits?”
“Simple. The population runs out of food, or some vital mineral, or air, or water. Deaths equal births for a while. That limits the population of that species.”
“And the general rule, considering that life is part of entropy?”
“I see. That is not just population dynamics, it is biophysics at work. Life multiplies until all the free energy is gone. As long a there is free energy, one form of life or another will reproduce until it consumes all the free energy. Life serves entropy, not the other way around.”
“Excellent work, Young Zila. Your pile of facts has a shape now. You can see that shape?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Are you satisfied with it? Is it finished?”
This was a difficult question. Is anything ever finished? How do you know if you have never seen this thing before? Was the entropy of life somehow involved in the answer? Hmm. Zila did not know exactly why, but she was not satisfied.
“No. I’m not satisfied yet. Something is missing. Nothing ties to things we did yesterday and the day before.”
“You are doing very well. We examined the Tree of Life. We examined the idea of fitness landscapes. Search your intuition and see where we need to look further.”
“Starting with the Tree of Life, it isn’t tree-shaped and bushy on top, and it should be. It’s straggly and bushy in some places, pretty bare in others.”
“Good. But you seemed most dissatisfied with fitness landscapes. Look more closely at them, now that you understand that life serves entropy.”
“Ahah! Ahah again! Remember we could not find a single number to measure fitness when we added, multiplied, did any kind of math on the basic measurements of survival? Because there were too many interrelations! I remember what Dr. Prigogine said. There are no solutions to the set of nonlinear functions in those relationships. Yeah, they were looking at the thing all wrong. It isn’t fitness that gets maximized, it’s entropy. Living things climb to the peak where energy usage is highest. Simple!”
“Now, young human, be careful what you are saying. Is it really true that survival is not the goal of life, but energy use is?”
“Let me look at it on a species level. Obviously, species arise, flourish and die off. Their environmental niches are filled by the next species. Insects, reptiles and rodents succeeded each other as burrowing seed eaters. Warm blooded creatures succeeded cold blooded creatures. Flowering plants succeeded mosses. Bushes succeeded ferns. In each case the successor in a given niche consumed more energy. But wait, there are some exceptions and there shouldn’t be any. No, in those cases the organisms themselves did not use more energy, but they multiplied like crazy and the species used a lot more energy.”
“On a species level, evolution probably serves entropy, with exceptions to be examined. Take that as your working hypothesis. Now, Young Human, how does that relate to evolution at the genetic level?”
“Let me think about that for a while, please.”
“I am patient.”
Some minutes later, Zila was more sure of her conclusions. “The Tree of Life traces the genetic code, not species per se. The oldest surviving genes are down toward the root. Those genes, the ones that persist more or less unchanged for millions of years, are the backbone of the Tree. They are the codes that control reproduction, the DNA repair processes, RNA transcription, the basic cellular structures and organs. Without them there would be no carbon-based life forms as far as we know.”
“By some happy coincidence, those are the very most energy intensive processes as well. Umm, not a coincidence at all. Evidence points to the fact that the backbone of the Tree of Life serves entropy. I bet, with a lot of research and a little funding, we could prove that every conserved gene is an energy hog.”
Zila was quiet for more minutes. “That is absolutely amazing! Everything I was taught about evolution and molecular biology had a set of rules that made no coherent sense at all. But they are simple! Here they are:”
“First, humans and other sentients are not the purpose of evolution. Our genetic code is. We are simply the clothing the Tree of Life has put on for this episode of survival.”
“Second, life is not an exception to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Life serves entropy. The more successful the species, the more energy it will consume. The faster entropy increases.”
“Third, sentient life, civilizations, space-faring civilizations, use the most energy of all. Coal, oil, natural gas, fission, fusion, even zero-point energy… Given time and a steady flow of energy, they will emerge time after time and go on to capture more energy flows on their own.”
“Young Human, you have gone as far a you need to go for now, but please…”
“Wait! I have more!”
“Money is just a symbol for energy. The more money you have, the more resources you can command. At some point civilizations all invented money out of a need to trade. Trading is a great way to command more resources. That must mean economics is wrong also…”
“Don’t go there. I assure you it is a long dark tunnel, Young Zila.”
“OK, but I remember the scale Michio Kaku proposed for civilizations. He set levels like 0, 1, 2, up to 4 depending on their access to sources of energy. Such as capturing the full energy output of a star. At a guess, I would say that once sentients reach the point where they are no longer dependent on their local energy sources, they still serve entropy, but on a vastly larger scale. Imagine trapping the entire energy output of a star!”
“While you are musing, my good student, consider the possibility that stars themselves are a form of life? They reproduce, they have a rich environment with energy flows, do they not?”
“I heard speculation about astrophages, life forms that eat stars. Great Sage, now you are leading me down a long tunnel.”
“Yes, Young Human, but not a dark one!”
So, thought Zila, the Great Sage has a sense of humor. She took a deep breath, as if she was coming up from quite a depth. She felt she had reached, not a higher level of intelligence, perhaps, but a permanent, elevated perspective on all things. She was, mentally, much taller. Very much taller.
She was also very much hungrier. A Priest, probably the same on she saw every morning, brought in food on a floating cart. There was another floating cart piled high with strange foodstuffs for the Great Sage, but the Priests drew a curtain. The Great Sage was heard chomping his food in privacy.
Lunch break ended too soon. Zila wondered how a many-thousands-year-old sentient got to
be a workaholic.
“Young Zila, the structure of understanding you have begun is only a foundation. Over time, more and more facts will adhere to that foundation and you will see it grow. However, the terms of our trade included profit as well as understanding.”
The Sage switched to the Priest’s language, which Zila followed perfectly. “Call a Priest Negotiator.”
As usual, a Priest Negotiators appeared nearly instantly. Zila made a mental note to see if there was a place they could have been hiding near the door to the Hall of Enlightenment.
“Please draw up a contract for royalties in whatever inventions may be patented by Zila Beddiy and her husband Emmanuel Lee in the area of genetic design or medical treatments that originate with the concept of “evolution serves entropy”. The patent holder will be Beddiy and Lee, as partners. The royalties will be equal parts to Outreach Contract Services, the inventors, and to Great Sage Sovereign Trust. The contract applies to those inventions and discoveries funded by Great Sage Sovereign Trust.”
“What inventions? We don’t have any inventions. All we have is a bunch of great ideas.”
“Young Zila, please trust my investment instincts. Our Sovereign Trust is one of the wealthiest in all the known civilized planets. You will have many profitable discoveries, and you need never lack for funds to bring them to market.”
“Great Sage, economics is not one of the studies I have made. It is indeed a dark tunnel to me. However, I suspect you are being both shrewd and generous with me and my husband.”
“This particular tunnel is one in which you already carry a torch. You are a trade negotiator, are you not?”
“Honestly, I don’t what I am at this point.”
“Young Zila, tomorrow after your next sleep, please command the Wisdom of Sage to take you home to your mate and offspring. After you have rested, please contact your crew with your intentions. If they are not needed for a while, they will return here for other duties until you call for them again. When you do call for them, please accept your next assignment under our contract with Outreach Contract Services.”
“Of course there is a next assignment. Don’t you wish to continue the adventure you started? Have I not been successful in awakening your innate curiosity? And, if I have not yet succeeded, let me add that you may find clues that life may be opposed by other forces, and stumble on yet another puzzle. That voyage is also yours.”
That was a really loaded proposition. Was she going to be a settled married woman with kids and a part-time career? That was what she thought she was. But that choice did not feel right. It was like being Cinderella and never losing that glass slipper. It was like being an arrow and falling short of the target. Hell, what does an entity as strange and as nearly immortal as the Great Sage know about human conflicts? How does he have the right to put me in this position? And what forces could oppose not only life but entropy? The idea was a nagging shard of darkness to her bright reverie.
“Uh, Great Sage, I am a simple human female with responsibilities for my mate and children. I have much to think about.”
“The path is yours to tread. You and your offspring are very much a part of the Tree of Life. You cannot be satisfied until you have tracked down the secret that lies at the base of that Tree.”
“Secret? You mean there is more to this than we have discussed?”
“Much more. You see, young Zila, I have data on life other than just Earth and human colonies. The roots of the Tree of Life extend well beyond Earth. Can you ignore the chance to pursue the secret of life itself?”
Zila was silent.
“Young Zila, when you have made yourself ready, you will be funded for a tour of the sentients in this galaxy that no other sentient, certainly no other human, has ever done before. Who knows, you may find the ancient trading partners of the Allurii. But for now, please take your sleep and go back to Earth tomorrow.”This is the first few chapters of my next novel. If you like it, there is MUCH more...