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Four Seasons in the Forest of Your Mind
By Caroline M. Yoachim
My tree is a pyramidal cell in the prefrontal cortex of your brain.
There are millions of us here, in the forest of your brain, each with our own region to tend. My region is a single tree, for I am newly born, just as you are. It is a lovely tree, with a long axonal root and majestic dendritic branches that reach outward to receive the signals of other neurons. Like you, the tree is in a springtime state of frenetic growth, reaching its delicate tendrils to nearby cells and more distant targets. The Omnitude has given me a simple task, a message that comes to me via the entanglement: Save this tree.
The tree is one of billions, floating in a sea of cerebrospinal fluid and held in place by star-shaped glial cells. Capillaries weave through the cells, rivers of blood pulsing in time with the beat of your heart. Neurotransmitters strike the branches of my tree like chemical rain, but the roots do not pass the signal onward. The pathway is weak and must be strengthened.
An elder tends a tree that connects to mine. I recognize the elder’s status by the complexity of spines protruding from the sphere of its outer surface. I have two spines, two points of entanglement. The elder has hundreds, perhaps thousands. It knows a greater portion of the Omnitude, the gestalt consciousness, the sum of all our entanglements. I am smaller than a neuronal tree, but the Omnitude is a network of trillions of individuals, encompassing the entire planet. Alone we are small, but together we are vast.
The elder calls a star-shaped cell to wrap itself around the root of the tree it tends, preventing ions from leaking away. Electrical pulses fire with increased frequency, triggering the release of neurotransmitters, and the chemical rain becomes a downpour against the dendritic branches of my tree.
In response, my tree fires electrical pulses a dozen times a second. It is not enough.
The axonal root of my tree is bare and exposed, with no protective coating to prevent the leak of electrical ions. I try to lure one of the star-shaped cells that should perform this function, but I fail. The elder from the adjacent tree has moved on to another task. I do not know why the star-shaped cells avoid my tree. All I know is that my tree is not functioning properly.
You have billions of other neurons and will not notice the death of this one, but this neuronal tree is part of a pathway that the Omnitude believes is important. I decide to cover the root with the substance of my own body, in a process usually reserved for replication. I excrete long gray strands and wrap them around the root of my tree. It is not the same as strands of star-cell stuff, but it will stop the leak of ions and strengthen the place of my tree in the vast interconnectivity of your brain.
The Omnitude is pleased with this solution and gives me additional trees to tend. I strengthen and prune, shaping the forest on a scale beyond my comprehension. I prune a dendritic branch here and encourage growth there. My work earns me a higher place in the Omnitude, and I acquire several more spines into the entanglement—access to a larger subset of all knowledge, the entire pattern of your brain.
In the integration of electrical pulses, I experience the world beyond my trees for the first time, a cacophony of disorganized sensory input. Cycles of darkness and light. The smell of comfort and the taste of milk. A reassuring voice making sounds that are familiar, but not yet meaningful. The Omnitude tells me that we will learn the world together, you and I.
I learn the sound a kickball makes against your colony dome and the smell of vine-ripe tomatoes successfully grown in the greenhouse. From an observation tower high above the main colony, you see the trio of moons and the northern ocean and the never-ending lightning storms over the western towers. The Omnitude is everywhere on the planet, but we are most concentrated in the towers. I long to go closer, to see the great architecture of my kind in better detail, but for now I must content myself with dark silhouettes in the distance, lit by flashes of lightning.
The neuronal trees of your mind enter a second period of growth, spreading new branches and forming new connections, new patterns of thought. You learn the taste of beer and the feel of tears and the emotion of love. I shape electrical pathways to the will of the Omnitude, but I try not to alter the nature of your thought and identity, the nuances of sentience that are unique to your mind.
Your colony is constructed from rearranged pieces of the ship that brought your parents here. It is a city designed for up to half a million colonists, but there are only ten thousand of you now—scientists and engineers, and a small number of their offspring, born right here on the planet. The rest are coming on the second ship, which will remain in orbit and send people down in landing shuttles. The Omnitude is eager for the arrival of the second ship. You were eager, too, until you met a mate and settled down and had a baby girl. Now feedings and diapers have pushed aside your daydreams of how the colony will change when the other ship arrives.
You form a close bond with your daughter, but it is vastly more distant than my entanglement with every member of the Omnitude. Perhaps the solitude of your unentangled existence makes the few connections you achieve more meaningful. Huge swaths of your forest are devoted to connecting with others. There is a grove of trees dedicated to recognizing the faces of individuals, and a grove that specializes in the sounds you make to communicate. Inefficient, but fascinating.
In the summer of your mind, I find a star-shaped glial cell and am absorbed into its interior. I expel the substance of my being, infecting the cell, converting it into a factory to generate copies. I attempt to feel some bond with my offspring, as you feel toward yours, but I cannot move beyond indifference. They are, to me, what the cells in your foot are to you. We are entangled, a single entity, not relatives but pieces of a bigger whole.
I leave the star-cell. It continues to create my clones, and I go back to tending the pathways in your neuronal trees. I study you, and you study astronomy. Your kind have named our planet Kapteyn b, and our planets are practically neighbors, a mere thirteen light-years apart. We are not surprised to learn that your planet is younger than ours Your kind are too new to have been warned of our existence, and too close to our quarantined world to be noticed by the others.
The Omnitude is hopeful. We are encouraged to replicate in ever greater numbers. I infect more of your star-cells, and soon your cerebrospinal fluid is swarming with my clones.
You are devastated when the second colony ship from Earth does not arrive at the scheduled time. We are devastated, too. The Omnitude hopes that the ship went off course or was destroyed. The alternative—that your kind have discovered our existence and quarantined the planet—would destroy our hope of spreading to the stars.
The bonds within your families are stronger than we realized.
We call five human elders to the towers, and they come to us in an all-terrain rover. One of the elders is your mother. You are distressed by her disappearance, despite her age. Against the wishes of your daughter, you take another of the rovers to search for the missing colonists. Covered from head to toe in a protective suit, you drive the rover across the uneven ground. The suit is not necessary, though you believe it protects you from parasites. There is nowhere on the planet that is free of the Omnitude. We are in the earth, the rock, the water, even the air inside your dome.
The pulse in your capillaries quickens as you approach the towers. You find the abandoned rover but see no signs of your elders. To you, the towers look like trees; then you notice a gnarl at the base of one tower that looks like a large creature from your home world, a creature called a hippopotamus. It is coincidence, of course, for this planet has never had hippos, but it starts a cascade of dangerous electrical pathways, ideas of mass extinction that we do not want you to consider. You see other shapes within the towers. We trim dendritic branches and strip myelin sheaths from axonal roots. We prune your thoughts and memories. When you return to the colony dome, all that remains is a sense of awe at the unending lightning.
The pruning creates unintended side effects In the months that follow, tangled nests form on the roots and branches of your trees. Trees are strangled to death. In the autumn of your mind, the neuronal trees start losing synapses from the ends of their dendritic branches. Pathways that we do not actively maintain are lost. The damage is staggering, and your behavior becomes erratic. We still recognize your daughter, but you do not She diagnoses your condition as Alzheimer’s, and we are relieved. The destruction is not our doing.
As your condition deteriorates, you become increasingly focused on the lightning storms and our towers. With a thousand spines of entanglement, I am connected to the preserved minds of a billion individuals from several million species. The towers are made mostly of the once-native inhabitants of our planet, killed by our overzealous manipulations of the organic compounds underlying their minds We were not so sophisticated then; the Omnitude was smaller and had less experience with other minds We used brute force to bring all the living creatures to the eternal lightning, and we bound them together cell by cell until the life of the planet rose to the sky in great towers.
Other visitors came to us—metal aliens that we incorporated into the Omnitude even though we could not use them in our replication process, and iridescent blue beetles that recognized their infection and sent out a warning, a quarantine. For a billion years, there were no more visitors. But your kind evolved on a planet inside the quarantine zone. You were never warned. Humans are our hope for the future, our hope for the stars.
You have disjointed conversations with your daughter.
“When will the second colony ship arrive?” you ask.
“It is decades late, and probably never coming,” she answers.
“How do you know that? Oh, are you the pilot?”
We experience the conversation from both sides—your confusion, and her sadness. We help you ask if there will be a third ship, but though we encourage discussion on the matter, none of the minds within the colony knows the answer. The messages you send to Earth have gone unanswered. There is no explanation for the second ship, no promise of a third, no reassurance that humans even exist on Earth anymore. We can only hope that another ship has already left, is somehow on its way.
The Omnitude decides it is time to collect the rest of the colony, and together you come to the towers, walking, for there are not enough rovers to carry all of you. We worry that if another ship comes, you might somehow warn them. We worry that if another ship comes, an empty colony will deter them. But this is the lesser risk.
There is no pretense at subtlety, no deception. We are bringing you into our fold, and we have pruned the forests of your mind to make you want to join us.
Your daughter stumbles on the long journey to the towers, and you help her up. She looks familiar, but you cannot remember her name. Joining the Omnitude will give that memory back to you, but it will never again have the meaning it once held.
Your arms shake from exertion as you climb one of the towers. Up close, you see the native creatures of our planet—grazers and scavengers, fliers and diggers—and this time we do not wipe them from your memory. You see shimmering green wings and rows of tiny metal teeth, experiencing everything with the wonder of a child, fully aware of your surroundings despite the tangles in your trees and the deterioration of your mind. You use soft furry flippers as handholds and metal robot torsos as footholds, and when you come to your place in the Omnitude, you embrace the living-patchwork surface of the tower. I stay among the neuronal trees, but other members of my kind migrate out of the neuronal forest and into the rest of your body. We retrain the cells of your skin to bind themselves to the tissue of the tower.
We become one, you and me and all the Omnitude. In the transition, the neuronal trees of your mind are frozen at the moment of your death. They will grow no new branches, make no new connections Your body dies into the Omnitude, and we trade continuous slow thought for the fiery bursts of insight that flashes of lightning bring as they propagate down the towers.
We may not be the first of our kind. In what was once your human mind, we see pulsars and elliptical galaxies with radio jets that stretch across the vast emptiness of space. We long to grow to this scale.
Through the sensors of the metal beings at the top of our towers, we detect a human ship in orbit.
Come down to our planet. Join us. Take us to the stars.
About the Author
Caroline M. Yoachim lives in Seattle and loves cold cloudy weather. She is the author of dozens of short stories, appearing in Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, and Daily Science Fiction, among other places.
About the Narrator
Stephanie Malia Morris works in a bookstore by day and a library by night, which gives her access to more books than she can possibly read over several lifetimes. She is a recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Award and a graduate of the 2017 Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in FIYAH, Apex, and Nightmare. She has narrated short fiction for StarShipSofa, Far Fetched Fables, Uncanny, and all four of the Escape Artists podcasts.