Saturday, 11 March 2017

iGod, Chapter 6: Amazing Plants

The long strokes of Splinter’s tongue made a rhythmic, sopping sound. It was perfectly content, licking the bloodstains on its forelegs. ‘You evil murderer’, said Lex when he pulled his dog to his laboratory table. Lex had done a search for mammals with a similar shape as Splinter’s prey, but so far he had not found a match. No single animal, other than human babies perhaps, had the unusually large size of the head compared to the rest of the body and other than bats, he found no mammals with wings.

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A new set of clothes laid on his ClothingHelp, slightly smarter than usual with a freshly ironed shirt and tight trousers. His ClothingHelp, being synchronized with his diary, was usually right in its choice, but now Lex felt this outfit was a bit too over-dressed. After all, it was just a dinner with his neighbor, no big deal. He did not want Diana to think that he expected anything more. On the other hand it could also be impolite to be underdressed in his jeans and eternal T-shirt. ‘Okay, I follow your advice’, Lex spoke out loud in his empty apartment.

He still had time before seven. He quickly zoomed in on ‘Breaking News’. In the city of New Delhi, half of the inhabitants of a home for elderly people had died a mysterious death. So far the Inspection had not found a virus or bacteria or any other obvious cause of their death. It was a conundrum how 156 people could have died within 12 hours, and how 164 clients did not have any health problems at all. The city had appointed a commission to investigate this mystery. More news would follow later.
Then Lex checked a job vacancy. Although he was utterly chanceless with his profile (healthy, young, trained graduated biologist) he still needed to do a minimum of one application per six weeks in order to keep his BaseSalary at this level. Last week, he had made a short video. So far he had not received a rejection and he started to hope that his application might even been considered for this job. He sent a message to the Human Resource officer to ask about the follow-up procedure. The OpportunityBot answered that his application was not known. ‘But I uploaded my video on Thursday, at 3 pm!’ He sent the activity log as proof. ‘I am sorry to hear that. We have not, I repeat NOT received your video.’ ‘I can resend my video’, Lex said. ‘Application date is closed. Sorry for any inconvenience. Good luck next time’, the OpportunityBot concluded the session.
‘Damn!’ Lex yelled and he pushed a chair against the table and he breathed heavily.
He was completely sure that he sent his video – a kid could perform this task blindfolded. How could it be that they had not received his application? He looked up the contact details of the university ombudsman, but when he started to state his formal complaint, he already knew he would never win his argument against a bot and he quit this screen, too.

Lex switched the projection off. He removed old leaves from his plants and cleaned the glass tubes that he had used to fill them with bacteria and plant material. The contact with the plants immediately eased his mind and he started to breathe normally again.
In the experiment that was interrupted by the power outage, Lex had taken material from the Forsythia to transfer the bright yellow color to the bacteria. He had done similar tests in the university laboratory, a couple of years ago. Due to the power failure the experiment could not proceed. During the simple task of cleaning the tools, Lex suddenly shouted, softly but enthusiastically: ‘Yes!’ and even made a miniscule jump in the air. ‘Yes, yes, yes!’

It occurred to Lex that the combination of bacteria and plants might actually be a way out to the immobility of plant communication. In his quest for speed, he had looked for possibilities to transport the plants. He thought about plant pots on wheels, pushed by robots or transported by drones – that kind of solutions. This was the wrong route! The answer had been in his hands all the time. Why did he see it only now! He rubbed his hands and paced around his laboratory table.

Man, he was thrilled! This intellectual excitement was better than having sex, or consuming drugs! It was rare, but he has had a handful of such insightful moments before. It was like he had opened a door he had previously overlooked, and suddenly he could see ten or twenty new doors behind that door. These doors had been there behind the closed door all along, but he had not been able to see them before. Now that this one was open, there were many new possibilities waiting for him! Splinter joined Lex in his delight and toddled in small circles around Lex’ feet, looking upwards to his boss with his head askew, with the same posture when he received his meals.

Bacteria cover tiny distances when they move by themselves. However, if their travel is airborne, or in water or with the help of animals, for example on the skin of the hands of people, they can travel huge distances. If these bacteria could then start or stop the plant communication… Lex wanted to dictate his theory to his SmartHouseProgram like he usually did, but suddenly he remembered the ‘no device’ imperative that Seldon had introduced. He took his tablet and scribbled down his assumptions, logical links and conclusions. However, he decided to add also meaningless formulas and notes in between to obfuscate his true interests. Incidentally he asked his SmartHouseProgram to project a scientific publication or to import a hologram of parts of a molecule, but he made sure that he also asked for publications and DNA structures and genomes that were totally off-topic. He looked up articles and he went through unpublished reports of experiments. The whole exercise was sheer happiness. Oh man, Seldon would be so amazed tomorrow! Now he only had to dive into the issue how…

‘Hi neighbor, you are welcome…’ a message on his personal device from Diana. It was half past 7 already.
Oh my dear, how could I miss my appointment! ‘On my way! Well, almost!’
He went up the stairs to Diana’s apartment. She lived on the seventh floor.
‘Thanks for texting me. I was in the middle of something.’
‘19.35 is still seven-ish – I would say’, Diana helped him with the greeting. Lex was happy that he had changed his clothes to smart casual, since his neighbor was also dressed to the occasion, in a sporty though smart grey dress. Her makeup was light, used with the intention that it was all-natural, much to his approval. He could now admit to himself that he had feared he would meet the sexless office-Diana.

‘Should I remove my shoes?’ Lex asked since he had noticed she walked bare feet.
‘Whatever feels good to you.’
This was not a very specific instruction. After an instance of doubt, Lex decided to take off his shoes. Diana invited him to her kitchen table. Her apartment was slightly smaller than his. She had those typical things that were supposed to make homes cozy: projections of landscapes, a rug and curtains. She had even set the table, with two proper plates, cutlery and two fancy glasses. Since he had left his parent’s home, he had never dined like this.

It occurred to Lex that he should have brought something for dinner, like flowers or alcohol or chocolate. ‘Too little too late,’ his internal headmaster reprimanded him.
‘So I wanted to order an alcohol dispenser, but I did not know what would blend in best with the meal – what do you recommend? Then I order it right away’, Lex bluffed.
‘You mean you forgot to buy me something? Don’t worry. It is good enough you are here’, Diana laughed. She took an alcohol dispenser from her kitchen sink and waited for instructions how he liked his alcohol best. He did not dare to order the way he usually consumed alcohol: the highest percentage possible in the taste of gin or whiskey. He did not drink alcohol on a daily base, but if he did so, he was a result-drinker. Now he chose a modest permillage in the taste of wine.

‘How is your drone doing?’ Lex asked.
‘It is perfect now, thanks. You did an excellent job. For a biologist, you are pretty handy with drones, aren’t you?’
‘I am even better with plants.’
Diana hummed and poured two glasses with wine-tasting alcohol.
‘I saw you are a lawyer, or prosecutor, I forgot, sorry. I am not familiar with these labels in your field – for you it is worlds apart probably.’
Lex and Diana toasted with their glasses.
‘I once were, first a lawyer and then a prosecutor, indeed. These services have been fully robotized. Now I am working in a home for the elderly.’ She said it blank, without expression. Lex found it hard to read Diana’s face. ‘And what kind of work do you do?’
‘Paid or unpaid?’ Lex asked.
‘Work is no longer defined by payment, I would say. I did not ask who your boss is, did I?’ Diana laughed.
‘The easy answer is I work with plants.’
‘Ok. And you want me to ask what the difficult answer is?’
‘Hmm, not really. I like this dispenser Blend. Is it a BordeauxBlend? If I am not mistaken, I taste scents and flavors of cassis, blackberry, dark cherry, vanilla, black cherry, coffee bean, spice and even some licorice’, said Lex.

 ‘Did you learn the wine guide by heart or is it your way of conversation on a first date?’
Lex did not know what to answer and he filled the silence with another gulp of his wine.
‘This is a good time to serve dinner, I guess.’ Diana went to her sink and the plates were nicely presented, with five different compartments for the macro- and micronutrients.
He was very happy to see that she poured more drinks for them. Lex tried to make eye contact, but Diana avoided his gaze.
‘So now I would like to order some alcohol for the after party.’
‘In case there will be an after party.’
Lex ordered an alcohol dispenser in single malt quality, to be delivered within the hour.

‘Plants,’ Diana reminded him of the initial conversation.
‘Yes, I do experiments with plants. I am still not entirely sure whether my plant experiments qualify as dinner subject.’
‘Check it out.’
‘What I currently do is to transpose qualities of plants, let’s say illumination, color, fragrance, on to bacteria. So far I have failed unnecessarily and grandiosely, thanks to EnergyAmsterdam’s power outages.’ Lex took a bite of his food. It tasted even worse than the meals he prepared himself.
‘Okay – this transfer of certain traits of plants and flowers to bacteria has been done before. What is your interest in all this?’
‘The real reason is that I just like to putter around in my home laboratory and solve problems that I invented in the first place. I once read a book on career choices. In that book, two types of people were described. The first one likes to be a dancer. This kind of person has a clear-cut image of what ‘being a dancer’ entails and dreams of being a famous dancer, one day. The other type does not mind about the image of being a dancer, she just loves the actual act of dancing. She dances every day, before an audience or without anyone. I am more of the second type. I am a biologist, currently without a regular employment.’
Diana was somewhat disappointed.
Lex did not dear to mention that the reason behind his experiments was to develop an alternative communication system – afraid that her SmartHouseProgram would pick up more of the conversation than desirable. Lex described some of the successful transmissions of plant characteristics to bacteria he had already realized. She had listened carefully and asked several questions, no single stupid one. Diana poured another round of wine for both of them.
‘And why do I think that there is more to it than just tinkering with your tubes and infrared heating beam?’
She looked at him, and now he saw her grey-blue eyes. He felt pinpricks in the tips of his fingers.
‘Fair question but really, I am afraid I will not know when to stop the nerdy nitty gritty once I have started. Please, now it is your turn.’
‘To tell what?’
‘Well, anything.’
Lex tried to think of suitable questions and topics. There was a short silence.
‘How is your work?’ Lex attempted to reboot the conversation.
‘I have a double degree in psychology and law. I used to prosecute international political villains in the International Court of Justice in The Hague. I worked with the brightest people. And now, I am reduced to a pair of hands, washing and feeding the elderly who are fading away. So, what do you want me to say about my current job?’ Diana laughed shrilly and Lex felt she was even a bit hostile towards him.

At that moment he received a message that the delivery drone would soon reach the apartment.
‘Excuse me for a moment, I have to collect my order.’ Lex went down the stairs in his socks, slipped on the smooth steps, fell, and hurt himself. He returned with empty hands and looked desolate. In the meantime, Diana had cleaned up the dinner table.
‘The dispenser was delivered directly to my apartment window. I paid for it.’ Diana said. Lex felt bad. ‘How much do I owe you?’

‘Shall we have a drink?’ Lex pointed at the parcel..
‘Sorry, I have a maddening headache. I hoped it would go away after a few pills, but it still plows my skull. I guess I should have cancelled this dinner. I am sorry’, Diana said.
She pushed him gently to the doorstep. ‘We can have a drink of the single malt another time.’
‘Ok. Get well soon’, Lex said somewhat dazed.

When Lex came home it was not even eight o’clock. Undoubtedly, this was his quickest and probably worst date ever. He waited for Splinter to come up to him, but his dog ignored him, too. He took one of his own tumblers and poured himself a single malt from his own dispenser, sitting at the laboratory table. He filled the glass up to the edge. Only then he realized he had forgotten, in all the consternation, to feed his dog.
‘Come here boy’, and he filled Splinter’s manger.
Of all unresolved puzzles, the irrational behavior of his neighbor was the most annoying. Why did she invite him first and then send him away like a schoolboy? Did he say anything wrong? Did he smell? He sniffed his armpits. Or perhaps she really suffered from a headache.

He had no lust to engage in something and decided to consume the news. First the rates of the currencies, shares, and raw materials were shown. The price of water per gallon showed a remarkably steep increase, which was good news for water-exporting countries like the Netherlands or Sweden. Then the program reported. Probably 62 passengers, the pilot, co-pilot and 2 stewards were killed, this 6th of April. The exact number had yet to be confirmed. No terrorist organization had claimed this crash, but a terrorist attack was likely, they said. The negotiations for the Global Summit on Energy for the 21st century were just ahead. The main issue was the trade and registration of CO2 emissions in the fight against climate change. It seemed to Lex that the opponents of the new carbon tax largely outnumbered the politicians, who wanted to push it through.
Lex tried to find an overview of the terrorist attacks in the past 40 years, but that was not available. He looked up the facts and figures from different sources, combined the data in one longitudinal overview. The assaults had increased steeply, just like he had expected. In fact the number of incidents had quadrupled in the last year. Looking at the number of victims, there was even a factor of 10.
He ordered the SmartHouseProgram to close the news and to open MultiLayer. Judged by the meager results, the wines and whiskey started to kick in.

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Novel by Willemijn Dick, inspired and introduced by Dirk Helbing
License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND)

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