The Flame Is Roses, The Smoke Is Briars

Only the images are real: the scraps of video-painting, each of them ripe with the power to recall a whole lost world, etched in patterns of firing and partially-firing neurons. These are the primary records of the brain, uncontaminated by verbiage and confabulation. Nothing else is real. Everyone says I remember it well, but everyone is lying. People who have the innate ability to know what is primary, people who can read and write in the code of that hidden fire, are rare and hard to find. Em was not a natural: her trained brain had to try hard. A huge, sleek, grey-brown beast, running low, filled the capture frame right now. A very minor river on the world's stage, but still, like all rivers, the embodiment of departure; of flowing away. A white egret rose, and settled again on the mud.

Rivers don't return, thought Em. Nobody returns. I came back, but I'm not the little girl who left -and hopefully a puzzled flush of emotion enhanced the P response: attention!

Tom was telling her a story.

"There was a once a kid who was utterly convinced she could read minds. Not always, but sometimes. She kept this totally secret."

"Wow. That would have taken its toll."

Away from the river's channel, dune grass bent to brush gold-grey sand. Em climbed out of a shifting hollow and there was the ocean, the cool long horizon-length of it, silver and blue and green, a silk scarf endlessly rolling, folding in on itself and rolling. Em sat down, took off her shoes and poured sand back onto sand. What else could she look at: offer to him? The shore was unexpectedly featureless, not a rock broke the tide. The sky was cloudless blank: brilliant sun dead overhead.

She was supposed to be sending him images, offering him her world. Screen-dumps. If you couldn't see anything, why would anyone want a sensorium phone, when you could talk face to face by cell? It had to be Em who did the sending, and Tom who did the receiving: nobody had yet figured out how to get anyone to receive, unless they had a weird brain to start with. So it was one way communication, and even so, nothing was happening. Em was a clumsy seeing-eye puppy, a Martian Rover failing to interface with Mission Control, using neuronal connections that didn't yet exist in her head. Like a new baby, attempting to grab a rattle. Baby flaps her little hands, connects with toy by accident, then figures out how to do it by method. It should work: nobody in neuro-technology ever went broke taking advice from Mother Nature. What market would there ever be, even if it worked like a dream, for a mind to mind phone that required sticking a worm in your eye? But there has to be an application. You don't get funding if you can't talk about an application.

Nothing, nothing, and more nothing from their all field trials, as yet. Lab conditions are deceptive, and faith is something you call truth until you've lost it.

"She grew up, she went to college, and then it was too much. She'd been a quiet girl, staying in the family circle. Among her peers she getting bombarded. She couldn't hide her distress. They sent her to a therapist, who decided there really was something unusual going on. The young woman ended up agreeing to be tested for genuine telepathy, and she came good."

"Fantastic for the Paranormal Research guys."

The silk scarf rolled over and over, bubbles roaring and sunlight scintillating. It was important to talk, behind closed lips: keep those pathways open. In some brain surgery it's vital that the patient remains conscious.

"Dynamite. So that meant a lot more, and tougher testing. She was taken apart, mentally and physically-"

"Ouch. Not literally."

"Not literally, and she wore it well. Then just when they were breaking out the champagne, something clicked . . . A stupid possibility that hadn't been checked. She heard voices, you see. It turned out she had fantastically acute hearing, to which she'd adapted unconsiously, she was completely unaware of it, and nobody knew. All her life she'd been picking up on people subvocalizing our thoughts, as we all do, unconsciously; not always but sometimes. That's how her mindreading worked. D'you know the punchline?"

"I missed the episode. Was this the original X Files? Or some other series?"

"No, Em, this was real life."

She felt a shock, a jolt on the graph-

"Okay, go on, hit me. What happened?"

"Mental breakdown. She went into fugue; never recovered. She may have killed herself in the end, I'm not sure. Ironic, huh? She'd managed to live with her secret burden, and bear the scientific scrutiny. She could take it, as long as she was a troubled superhero. When her weird power became a medical condition, shorn of the envelope of miracle, it was simply torture."

A tiny starburst in the corner of Em's eye warned that the signal had faded, not strong enough for what they were attempting. Like primitive cellphones, mind to mind was randomly flaky. They both sighed, maybe with relief.

"I was about to log off, anyway," he said. "Try and get some work done." Tom's work was not going well, he was blocked. Writer's block.

"How about later this afternoon, my time?"

"Fine, I guess. Call me."

Em licked the tip of her little finger, and applied it to the outer corner of her left eye. The worm, beckoned by chemical messengers in her saliva, slipped out obediently and clung to her skin, a bright fluorescent droplet, an exquisitely powerful piece of futuristic tech. But the worm itself was nothing. A cell phone you insert into your eye-socket, a "device" that creeps through bone to pick up phonemes from a centre in the brain, instead of picking up vibrations in the air . . . Not yet big business; maybe never. But the science Tom and Em were trying to do was something else. Worlds beyond.

Suddenly she realised (dumb scientist!) that she'd missed the point of Tom's story. She set the worm back in her eye at once and called her mother, who was also in New York; the instigator of all this. She got through but the boss was dismissive. Em was interrupting her busy day and Tom had left the building. Not that he was ever in the building. The experimental subject didn't need to be strapped down and hooked up, no electrodes thrust deep into the grey matter; and he didn't need a nursemaid. But at least Jane was in the same city.

"Mom, you're not listening. He told me a story about a pseudo-telepath who committed suicide. I'm certain he was talking about himself. I've had a feeling this was getting very rough on him. I'm frightened. He's a poet-"

"He's a grown man, Emily," said Jane, as if she was warning her daughter not to get too fond of a genetically engineered mouse. "He's not some clinically deranged freak, which makes a pleasant change! He's a highly respected writer who came to us as a volunteer, of his own free will, out of intellectual curiosity."

"That's the problem," said Em. "That's what I didn't get, but now I do."

"Darling, could this wait? I'm sure Tom is fine, and I have a meeting."

The tiny English lanes bewildered her; like falling into a tangled ball of yarn. As she drove back to the village she could see the spire of the wrapped church nearly the whole time: a shard of glittering diamond, sometimes ahead, sometimes on her left, other times on her right; even glimpsed behind her once, in the rear mirror. As if it couldn't decide where to settle: in the future or the past, or in some parallel universe. Luckily the hire car had good satnav.

Em was in England to observe an experiment that was not directly related to her field trials with Tom; which were ongoing, opportunistic. The archaeologists had sent her away when she arrived, advising her to visit the seaside. But the candy floss, donkey rides, fish and chips that Em thought she remembered must be elsewhere. In a theme park, probably . . . They'd made progress while she was gone. The giant isolation chamber, dulled from diamond to translucent grey by gathering clouds as Em left her car, was now peripheral. Final preparations for the descent had begun.

Ralph Dewey, a gaunt professor in a hairy tweed jacket, introduced her to the other "neuronauts" (Ralph liked that word) who'd be making the site-scan with him: Lesley Hall, high-profile Brit Science TV presenter, and i/space expert Chris Jones. Chris was someone Em knew well; whose views she didn't share. Small world. They smiled at each other with tight lips. Then Em had to be scanned, so they'd be able to "eliminate her from their inquiries", as Dewey jovially put it. She stood in a tiny booth like a bathtub on end, a makeshift prop for Dr Who -to be captured and copied, stripped down to the 0s and 1s, an Em-diagram of pure information.

The team fizzed with anticipation, fussing over last-minute details. Dewey showed Em the latest results that had been shaken out of the remote-sensing data. The present building was mainly early mediaeval, Eleventh to Twelfth century. The Void, detected deep under St Peter's Sanctuary, during work on the ancient foundations, was around three thousand years older . . .
Thickset shadows stood around her, projected in 3D from the remote imaging feed. Bowed under a weight of darkness they looked over her shoulders, brooding.

"You're sure it's a tomb?" asked Em, politely. She really didn't have a clue about prehistoric underground constructions.

"Almost certainly a Megalithic Portal Tomb! Though as yet there's no evidence of burials. It would have been covered by a mound back then, visible for great distances. That much we know, and that's all. Imagine burial rituals. Oracle consultation. No one has ever known: they had no written language, there are no inscriptions; no narrative images. This is fantastically important, Emily. An undisturbed Portal Tomb. We're on the brink of knowing. Not guessing, not constructing from inference, but knowing what went on in the most enigmatic of ancient European cultures. We'll be reading their minds!"

The Command Shack was linked to the church porch by a wobbly umbilical tube. Em left the team to their fussing and crossed over. The i/bits model of the church, a thousand years of 0s and 1s, danced on its flatbed at the west end of the nave. It was fascinating to see. Most of what the scan had detected was modern, of course: but there were pockets of survival. Wisps of the Eighteenth Century in the rooftree; Mediaeval prayer murmuring in a chapel alcove. Em thought of knapped flints, calcified sea urchins. Randomly resistant fragments, made of the same stuff as the dust that held them; turned up by the plough of the scanning field from a vast silt of information. The material of time and space; endlessly transformed; rearranged, transformed, rearranged, forever-

A skinny, fashionably scruffy post-doc called Flossy had come with her, and stood by Em, offering commentary. The incredible number crunching that had already been done, the still-puzzling anomalies. "It's just amazing," Flossy said. "The model was a test-bed for the Void scan, but we're leaving it here for a while. The public will have access."

"I hope they're interested. It's a shame i/bits on their own make such a poor recording medium. There must be way better history books in the local library."

Florence stared at her. "But it's super cool, isn't it? Hey, you have a head-worm. Gives a whole new meaning to the word tele-phone, doesn't it?"

Causing Em to smile thinly, nod wryly.

Nothing was due to happen for another hour or so: this time she sent herself away. Chris Jones, and jokes about telepathy phones, was a combination she didn't need. Leaving her car at the church she walked down to the village, and followed a finger-posted path across pasture.

The archaeologists didn't care. They had a powerful new tool for digging up the past and they were going to use it: like a stick, like a prod, to open the can, stir the jam. It didn't bother them at all that the science behind the new gadget said the past does not exist.

Journalists had asked Em the same questions until she gritted her teeth.

Is "Information Space" the final Theory of Everything?

Have we found the ultimate building blocks of the universe?

Doesn't it all sound a bit hippy-dippy? Like, everything is one, Man?

She'd learned, once-burned by derision, to answer as blandly as was humanly possible. The model seems to work, she would say. Already we're developing new technologies. We have gadgets based on i/space theory that could be ubiquitous as cellphones. As yet we can't be sure what it all means-

Sending images by head-worm was a joke to many. To Em it was huge. If what she did with Tom worked, it would prove that Many-Worlds Superposition was real.

Imagine the universe as a single, staggeringly convoluted object.

A diamond as big as the sum of all histories; as complex as the state of all states.

What, hanging in nothingness?

Hanging in nothing would never be an issue, Em would explain (two years ago, before she was burned). You're always inside, everything is always inside. This object is made of many, many times and spaces. Factor-in human consciousness; each mind a world. Think of the superposition as many, insanely many interpenetrating worlds. All folded into one, every bit of information in this geometry contiguous with every other . . .

If the MWS was a good model of reality, then tech-mediated "telepathy", sending the 0s and 1s of any given information, the stuff the universe is made of, from mind to mind, ought to be a no-brainer (excuse the pun). It should fall out of the equations.

But it didn't, not yet, and to some people that was a great excuse for-

Tom had picked up the moment she called, he was letting her bounce her frustrations off him. He was a good listener. On the far side of the meadow, at a barrier of battered iron railings, the grass path took a right angle turn: but there was a gate. It appeared to be unlocked. Em pushed and it shifted easily, rusted metal fitting a groove cut in dark leaf-litter; she went straight on.

"I'll never get on with the Brits. I left England with my mother, when I was a kid, in blissful ignorance of the impending divorce . . . My dad lives in France with his second family now: we get on fine, I don't see him. My parents didn't tell me, I didn't know, so forever I hear the accent and I feel betrayed-"

"I'll see your irrational racism and raise you. Listen, ever since 9/11, when I was right here, of course, if a guy who looks Arab comes towards me down the street, I flinch . . . A guy has a beard, he's Taliban. I'm not a good person, Em. I suck up all the shit on the daily news and add my own. That's what people buy from me. They've praised me and got all excited, for years, because I speak with an intellectual accent, through a tasty fat mouthful of everyone's shit-"

She'd invaded a landscaped garden: overgrown, desolate and enticing. She was probably trespassing, but birdsong beckoned onwards.

"Is that what your writer's block's about?"

"Yeah. I have a blocked toilet in my mouth-"

"You're just innately, brutally honest. It's what we hired you for."

"Hired? Did you say hired? I didn't know I was getting paid!"

"Ooops. Figure of speech, sorry."

They laughed together. Laughter arises differently from speech, so what they shared was not the sound but the feeling of laughter: it was beautiful.

"Tom, I wanted to tell you . . . You always knew, but I just realised today that what we're trying to do is awful. Terrifying. It could drive a person crazy, like you said. Dumb scientist, I missed the big picture. So, I wanted to say, if it's getting unbearable, if you've had enough of playing with fire-"

Immediately she could have kicked herself.

Silence from Tom. She passed through a tunnel of small, densely packed shrubs; into a rose garden. Climbers, once trained along the walls, had fallen and lay in Sleeping-Beauty sheaves. Specimen bushes, vividly in bloom, struggled with massed cohorts of briars. Suddenly she had an intense feeling of presence. Something was in this enclosed space with her, fugitive and enormous.

Shadows, shoulders bowed under the overwhelming, stood around her, and right where the knot of the visual cortex flares: she stared at flame-red roses and tasted almost, but if she even thought, almost, she knew: it's here, it's now -

It was gone.

Like a stitch coming undone, an adhesion ripping apart.

"Tom? Did something just happen?"

Nothing. She thought the connection had broken.

"No" he said at last, sounding very tired; sounding terminally disheartened. "Not a thing. What could be terrifying about this, Em? We're just talking. Collecting a lot of data on coming up empty. Sorry, but I'm logging off now."

Em headed back to St Peter's, pre-empting Ralph Dewey's summons: which reached her half-way acoss the buttercup-studded pasture. In the midst of the Command Shack's boundless excitement she couldn't stop herself from calling New York. She told her mother she was afraid Tom had decided to quit-

"He's done it," answered Jane, wearily. "He called me and quit, about ten minutes ago. Don't blame yourself, darling, I'm sure it wasn't your fault."

Based on the tone of Mom's voice, Em knew there was more. The moment in the rose garden repeated on her. She wanted to ask had there been a spike, a Wow spike? But she didn't, because Tom was gone, and they wouldn't be able to investigate the false positive. They'd have to start again, start hunting for another rare mind.

So it was true, she had lost him. Shock first, the pain would come later.

Professor Dewey was in front of her, beaming. "We're ready, Emily!"

The vertical shaft descended, through layer-cake strata of dark dirt and ancient builders' spoil, to a surprisingly large excavation. It quickly filled with bodies. The original entrance to the tomb had been located but would not be breached. The neuronauts would enter obliquely, through a narrow slit the archaeologists had opened between two of the upright slabs. Here in glaring lamplight at the bottom of the shaft, they donned cabled, goggled helmets. There was a reserve helmet, which Dewey offered to Em, but she turned it down. She'd have to take out her head-worm to get hooked up for the i/scan, and she was still hoping Tom would call her. To explain what he'd done; or at least to say goodbye.
One after another they crept and stooped into the virgin dark.

"We are about to make the dive," intoned Dewey (for the tv crew packed in the shaft-excavation). "These funky deep-sea diver helmets allow us to plunge into the depths of time. As we stand here our perceptions are virtually, so to speak, falling through the aeons, collecting data from four thousand years ago-"

What garbage, thought Em. Time doesn't exist in i/space, which is the only faint reason this "dive" stunt makes any kind of sense. Why doesn't he say so? The tomb was room-sized, roughly circular; the roof a huge table stone supported on five big irregular slabs. Packed earth between the stones. The air was fresh; the tomb was empty. Lamps on the scanning helmets showed a smooth, featureless earth floor; earth walls punctuated by the paler, rough slabs that showed no trace of marks or carving. If she reached up, Em could have touched the underside of the table.
The neuronauts moved around, their poses dictated by a helmet display mapping-grid Em couldn't see. They had an air of ritual awe, of absurd ceremony, as if they were already seeing their four thousand year old ghosts. Though it would take some heavy, heavy number crunching to win any "pure" Megalithic traces out of the data, of course. Em kept out of the way, almost struggling with laughter, and then something happened in her brain. Her hands moved, without conscious volition, completely out of her control.

"Oh my God, look!" shouted Lesley Hall. "Emily! She's covered in blood!"

"Fire!," howled Professor Dewey. "Oh, incredible! Sacrifical Fire!"

Em saw the flame-red petals that filled her outstretched open hands.

"Not fire," she gasped, astonished. "No, it's not fire, it's roses. I was looking at the roses-"

Next moment the sending was gone. Em just stood there, while the neuronauts went nuts, her mouth stretched by an enormous grin, her mind a silent babble of triumph. Roses indeed, made of fire indeed, a pattern of firing and partially-firing neurons, oh, what a gift he had sent her, but why the time lag? Was it a time lag? She had no idea. Something new to disentangle, never considered -

But who cares?
We did it!

The Brits, when Em managed to explain what had happened, were desperate to get her and her illicit device out of their tomb. But once the scan was done, and everyone was back on the surface, they reacted generously: breaking out their own champagne for the MWS breakthrough. Everyone was full of questions. How big was this? How much bigger than previous US successes with sending small bundles of i/bits across a lab? Em answered as vaguely as possible. Mom would kill her, if she blabbed before the debriefing. She escaped as soon as she could, and called Tom-

He picked up. "Hi Em. I guess your mother told you. I'm sorry."

"Told me what? I just wanted to say thank you for the roses."

Stunned silence reached her, echo of that brilliant explosion in her brain.

"You got them?"

"Just now! And wait, it's better, the Brits got them too. We're independently verified, by Chris Jones, among others! It's all there, on record!"

"My God! Fantastic! Em! That moment, you know the moment, I knew, that was it. That, or never, and you didn't get it, so . . . Hey, Em, you should've had some kind of 3D bio-printer. You could have fed it the i/bits, and had roses to put in a vase!"

"The i/space 3D bio-printer. Our next project, yeah, we'll make our fortunes. Tom, it's fantastic but it's only a measurement. A single measurement."

"Yeah, yeah. One small step. But you and I, we've entered the Information Space Age!"

"I'll be home in a day or two." She took the plunge. "How about meeting in the real?" They never had, not alone. "We could have a coffee?"

"In the real? That's a bold idea. But I don't like coffee."

"You can have skinny latte decaff with syrup. Or green tea. I won't judge."


Rain had come and gone. As she drove away from St Peter's, the ball-of-yarn lanes were awash and shining. She pulled up on the coast road to look out over restored saltmarsh; to the river's mouth and the dunes. The world shivered, it looked pixelated, unreal. Should she be afraid? This wasn't the first time a whole communications tech had sprung into being: born from some punishingly strange new science. You'd have had no transistors without quantum mechanics. Yet still she wondered, did we destroy a universe today? The place we lived in this morning is gone, that humungous, staggeringly convoluted object is folded differently now-

Is there a lag, will we wink out of existence?
But everything seemed fine, so she drove on.

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