‘New Day Dawning’, Francesca Forrest

Illustrations © 2022 Toeken

 [ The Bloom, © 2022 Toeken ] “There it is,” exclaimed Winna. “There’s the Santa Marta bloom!” Thirty-five thousand feet down, a pinkish-brown smear drifted on blue waters of the Caribbean: Trichodesmium terrens, the novel cyanobacterium poisoning oceans worldwide and bringing hunger and economic chaos in its wake. Next to Winna, Tomás looked up from his tablet and out the window. Across the aisle their boss, Dr. Sengupta, was pointing out the bloom to the half-dozen assistant and associate researchers on his team.

“So that’s Terrible T, the enemy bringing us all together,” Tomás said. “Little does it realize it’s about to meet its doom.” He punctuated his prediction with a half-smile.

“You think so?” Winna said. It would be wonderful to believe that, but…

“Are you kidding? With a whole conference’s worth of crack teams like Dr. Sengupta’s convening to plot its defeat?”

Ah, sarcasm. It had to be: Tomás was the solo support staff for the junior researchers on Dr. Sengupta’s team and frequently regaled Winna with stories of their jostling egos, ambitions, and resentments.As Dr. Sengupta’s personal administrative assistant, Winna would miss out on all that drama if it wasn’t for Tomás. But if that remark was sarcastic, it meant Tomás hadn’t been serious about the imminent defeat of Terrible T either. Winna felt a familiar wave of embarrassment and frustration. She was always failing to recognize irony and sarcasm. At least Tomás didn’t make her feel like a freak for taking things seriously.

This time, he just laughed, a friendly sound. “I admit, if it was just up to our team, then I’d be putting money on Terrible T, but look.” He passed her his tablet, which was displaying the list of conference participants—research teams from around the world. He pointed to one, a highlighted participant: Káurë New Day, from the Solimões Sodality. Winna brightened.

“The Solimões Sodality! I love the Solimões Sodality.”

The Sodality’s against-the-odds story was so inspiring. Forty years ago the Magüta people of Amazonia had compelled Colombia, Brazil, and Peru to accept a new, sovereign nation-state encompassing Magüta ancestral land. The new state—the Solimões Sodality—had then had the audacity not only to maintain its independence but to become highly successful on the world stage. Sodality medical researchers had developed a low-tech means of neutralizing leishmaniasis parasites. Its eco-agricultural teams had come up with a quick-acting soil improvement regimen for depleted agricultural land. And much of the world was using the cheap, easy-to-assemble emergency shelter its inventors had developed for use after storms and flooding. And those were only the innovations Winna knew about. There were probably others.

Tomás merely laughed again.

Winna shot him a sidelong glance. “You don’t like the Sodality?”

“I mean, it’s a little hard to say I like a whole state, you know? Any country has its good points and its bad ones.”

“Once when Fielding caught me reading an article about the founders of the Sodality, she said something about a footballer, a con man, and a mercenary pulling one over on the world,” Winna said, getting angry all over again, remembering. Stupid, arrogant Fielding.

“Fielding’s a racist idiot. No one on the team likes her—she thinks Jansen does, but even he can’t stand her.”

A glow of satisfaction warmed Winna at Tomás’s words—followed by just a tinge of anxiety for Fielding. It was awful to be so unaware of everyone else’s feelings.

“Just because I’m not at the Winna tier of support for the Sodality doesn’t mean I’m on the Fielding tier,” Tomás continued. “For one thing, I’d never disrespect the founders of the Sodality.”

“I know—you’re nothing like Fielding.”

Tomás was more like Winna herself, Winna reflected, even if Tomás could do irony effortlessly and Winna couldn’t. Like her, he’d struggled to cobble together enough education and job references to land his position at the California All-Research Hub. Winna thought of her years before the CAR-Hub job—a childhood drifting across North America on the coattails of her father’s scams. Tomás had had it rough, too. She wasn’t clear on the details, but she knew he’d made his way solo from Colombia to California during his teens—from Santa Marta, in fact, if Winna remembered correctly. So this conference was a homecoming for him. She was about to say something to that effect, but Tomás spoke first, pointing to the name Káurë New Day again.

“The participant from the Solimões Sodality—it’s a colonial,” he said.

Winna’s eyes widened. Colonial humans were another, much less well-received, Sodality innovation: twelve H. sapiens functioning as a single being, with a single executive function (located where? in one of the bodies? Winna wasn’t sure) governing the input and analysis of all twelve constituents. Apparently creation of a colonial began prior to birth and involved intensive training throughout childhood. It was whispered that bioengineering was also involved, though that theory was hotly contested and none of the speculation was confirmed or denied by the Sodality itself. Colonials were considered a national treasure, and the details of their growth and development were a state secret. In much of the rest of the world, research into their creation and propagation was banned, but when it came to solving a problem like rampaging Terrible T, evidently the prodigious cognitive powers of a colonial were welcome.

“Ohhhh,” Winna breathed. “What you said before about Terrible T’s doom—if a colonial’s joining the conference, maybe we really will find a way to beat it. Maybe the colonial will arrive with a solution already in hand.” She handed the tablet back to Tomás.

He shook his head. “I doubt it. One thing about the Sodality: it doesn’t pass up an opportunity to toot its own horn. If Sodality researchers had already solved the problem of Terrible T, you can bet we’d have heard.”

Winna nodded absently, her thoughts elsewhere. What was it like to be a colonial? To be twelve minds, linked together—except that wasn’t how it was. It was just one mind, but with twelve bodies. The seeing power of twelve pairs of eyes—could it read and digest twelve different articles at once? And twelve pairs of ears, twelve mouths—could it carry on twelve conversations at once?

“I wonder if the organizers knew the Sodality was sending a colonial and just didn’t care, or if it was a surprise,” Tomás said. “Or maybe they deliberately asked for one. Deal-with-the-devil sort of thing. What do you think?”

“What?” Winna pulled herself out of her musings. Tomás was waiting on her answer. Was he asking for her speculation on the conference organizers’ views on colonials, or for her own? He’d said deal with the devil, which told her where his lay. Winna had never stopped to consider what her own feelings on the topic were. She tried to recall the pros and cons that people typically laid out.

Beginning descent; please make yourself comfortable with seatbelt fastened. The automated voice interrupted her reflection, and then Dr. Sengupta’s preemptory voice sounded in her earpiece.

“Winna, I’d like to go over the translator settings.”

“Sure, I can do that with you now,” Winna subvocalized, signaling to Tomás with a significance glance in Dr. Sengupta’s direction that she was now on duty. Tomás nodded and settled back in his seat.

Two hours later, Winna was watching entranced as colorful houses, trees with vivid yellow flowers (guayacán, Tomás told her), and distant mountains slipped past the windows of their hotel shuttle. The exterior walls of the marine research center that was hosting the conference were another feast for the eyes: an abstract pattern of squares of all sizes and colors, flashing here dark, here pale, against a background that undulated through shades of blue and green.

Winna remembered again that this was Tomás’s hometown. “Have things changed much?” she asked.

“I never saw any of this when I was a kid,” he said, an edge to his voice. “Orphanage was in a completely different part of town.”

Oh right: that was the other part of his story. Winna’s expression must have telegraphed her chagrin because Tomás’s tone lightened as he said, “Impressive building, though; hope we get some minutes to ourselves to look around.”

Inside the research center, support staff directed Dr. Sengupta’s team to auditorium seats reserved for them, and then, recognizing Winna and Tomás as fellow supports, beckoned them away for a quick run-through of access codes, location of physical necessities, and so on. Winna repeated the directions and information subvocally for her multipurpose to record; Tomás just nodded and thanked their hosts. Winna envied his memory.

A press of people delayed their return to the auditorium. Winna grabbed Tomás’s arm. “Is that the colonial, do you think?”

At the center of the crowd, filing one by one into the auditorium, was a group of people, all dressed in black and yellow, mixed in terms of gender and body types, but all of a similar age, and all wearing identical expressions, like a bank of screens all displaying the same image and message—one of serenity and confidence.

“That’s the colonial all right,” said Tomás, looking more grim than he had when Winna had pointed out Terrible T.

A shiver ran up Winna’s spine, but of excitement, not fear. An actual colonial.

At that moment Dr. Sengupta called to Winna—he was still having trouble with the auto-translate interface—and it was back to work. On the periphery of her attention, Winna caught the host’s welcoming phrases, which transitioned into statements about This Grave Danger and then to flattering words of welcome for the conference’s special participant, Káurë New Day. The screens around the auditorium flashed an image of a striking black-and-yellow bird, Cacicus cela—káurë in the Magüta tongue—for which the colonial was named.

When Winna glanced up next, one of the constituents of the colonial was stepping to the lectern, composed, smiling, probably no older than Winna’s own twenty-five years, judging from the close-ups of her face displayed on all the screens. Her badge said “Káurë One,” and Winna realized the other constituents of the colonial, seated in chairs on the dais behind the lectern, were similarly numbered—two through twelve.

“—delighted to be working with you, my esteemed colleagues,” the auto-translate piped into Winna’s ear. She switched it off so she could hear Káurë One’s own voice and the cadence of the unfamiliar sounds of the Magüta language. When chuckles bubbled up in the auditorium, Winna turned the auto-translate back on. At the lectern and on all the screens, Káurë One was smiling indulgently.

“You laugh because you feel implicated in an accusation of woolgathering or daydreaming, but that’s where the human mind draws its unduplicable strength—its ability to make spontaneous connections between things that computers can never dream of bringing together. And from those unexpected connections come unexpected solutions. That’s the advantage that a colonial human offers: intuitive leaps, combined with the analytic strength that comes from twelve brains working as one.”

The other attendees clapped politely.

Fielding leaned back in her seat and tapped the knee of Jansen. “Jans. Hey Jans. What do think a colonial does when it wants to get laid? Would hooking up with different parts of itself count as jerking off?”

“Hey Fielding, how about you shut up?” Jansen replied in crisp, Danish-inflected English. Fielding rolled her eyes and turned her attention back to the front of the room.

“—won’t be just an afternoon’s cruise. I know we’ve all seen T. terrens in the lab, and some of you will have seen it in the wild already, but I believe we’ll benefit from visiting the Santa Marta bloom together,” Káurë One was saying. “Equally important will be the tours around the city. I look forward to spending the afternoon with you in these two ways, both to better make your acquaintance and to collect varied inputs for our shared task.” She looked out at the audience, and so did the eleven other constituents of the colonial, all smiling. That was creepy—until Winna locked eyes with one of the eleven and received from them… an invitation? She inhaled slowly: she felt sure there was a scent to it, though her nose brought her nothing but hints of deodorants and detergents in the cooled and processed air.

Everyone in the auditorium was rising, gathering their things. Some headed down toward Káurë New Day, others made their way toward the exits.

“Do you want any of us to go on that cruise or one of the tours, Professor Sengupta?” asked Xin, another of Dr. Sengupta’s research fellows.

“No; we’re not getting involved in that nonsense,” said Dr. Sengupta. But his eyes lingered on Káurë New Day. “On second thought, you two should go,” he said abruptly, nodding at Winna and Tomás. “See what you can find out about the colonial—beyond the propaganda in the FAQ.”

(There was a FAQ? Hastily Winna called up the welcome packet on her multipurpose. Sure enough, there it was. Have questions about the Solimões Sodality colonial? This may help. But she couldn’t look at it now. Dr. Sengupta was waiting.)

“Yes sir,” she said.

Tomás murmured an assent as well.

The two of them made their way to the small group that had gathered around the colonial.

“Let’s see if we can get one of the members to come out with us instead of us joining one of the tours,” Tomás said. “I know the city. I can definitely show them things no one else will. For ‘varied inputs.’” This time Winna couldn’t miss the irony.

“Sure, if they’ll let us.”

“Hello. Are you two interested in exploring the city with me?”

One of the constituents of Káurë New Day was addressing them—her name tag indicated she was Káurë Eight. Her liveliness, the way she tilted her head and touched two fingers to her chin—these all matched Káurë One’s attitude and gestures. But Káurë Eight was more generously sized than Káurë One, and where Káurë One’s hair had been a black waterfall down her back, Káurë Eight’s hair was only just long enough to brush the hinge of her jaw.

“I’m Tomás Ramirez, and this is Winna LeBeau. We’d be happy to explore with you,” Tomás said, suddenly all politeness and gentility. “I spent my childhood in Santa Marta; I can show you areas even the organizers probably don’t know about.”

Káurë Eight’s smile deepened and broadened. “Wonderful. A pleasure to meet you both. Tomás, if you lead, Winna and I will follow.”

Winna and I. Winna blushed with pleasure and breathed in deeply, as if Káurë Eight carried her own atmosphere with her, gauzy with moisture, straight from the leafy fringes of the Solimões River.

The three of them watched as a sizable group of guests, including four constituents of Káurë New Day, boarded a shuttle bound for a vessel that would take them out to the Santa Marta T. terrens bloom. Other parties, including more constituents of Káurë New Day, were climbing into open-air minibuses for tours of city. Winna noticed that two constituents vanished back into research center.

Káurë Eight stared after the last departing minibus, eyes unfocused. Then she blinked, glanced at her companions.

“I don’t often spread out like this,” she said. “It feels a bit strange.”

“Do you see and hear everything that the others see and hear?” Winna asked, then winced inwardly. This was precisely the sort of question that was doubtless covered in the FAQ.

“There aren’t any ‘others’; there’s only just me,” Káurë Eight replied with a smile. “Just like there’s only one you, even though you’ve got ears, eyes, nose, arms, legs, and skin all noticing different things about the world.”

“Except our ears and eyes and so on can’t go up to people and introduce themselves,” Tomás said. “I can’t send my nose off to smell perfumes while my ears take in a concert somewhere. It’s different.”

Káurë Eight nodded. “It’s not a perfect analogy,” she acknowledged. “To answer the question, yes: I’m aware of everything all parts of me experience, although—”

“You can’t really operate when you’re spread out over kilometers and kilometers.” Tomás finished her sentence with the certainty of someone who had read the FAQ. “That’s why you have that thing.”

He pointed at the gold choker she wore. Winna remembered light glinting off something similar around Káurë One’s neck when Káurë One had addressed the auditorium.

“That’s right,” said Káurë Eight, as if to a clever student. Her fingers traced the branching pattern engraved on the choker. “This isn’t just adornment. Each one is set for the bioelectrical signature of the constituent that wears it—this one is set for Káurë Eight. It transmits on her frequency and receives on the frequencies of the other eleven.”

“Oh—you’re dependent on technology,” Winna said, disappointed. And yet was that fair? How much did she rely on her multipurpose—how much did everyone?

“Only when I’m spread out. Think of how you understand a friend’s state of mind when you’re with her. What you know from how she carries herself, from the sound of her voice and her movements, from the condition of her hair and skin, from her scent. How you communicate without words. Or think how a baby’s breathing and heartbeat aligns with a parent’s when they’re skin to skin. None of it can happen if you’re apart. We function better together—a healthy ecosystem.” Káurë Eight’s eyes went distant again, and an image flashed unbidden in Winna’s mind: ants carrying seeds to treetop nests and carefully tending them. In her mind’s eye the seeds cracked open to become lush-leaved epiphytic plants, droplets of water beading around their edges.

“Then why split up at all?” Tomás asked. During the conversation he’d directed them down the research center’s access road and to a public bus stop, and now they boarded a bus.

“Trade-offs,” Káurë Eight said with a smile. “It’s worth it, isn’t it, to lose some things, if you can gain others? Especially if”—she tapped the choker again—“you can find a way to compensate for the loss.”

Tomás’s itinerary involved two changes of bus, but eventually the three of them were walking along a dusty narrow lane, lined by small cinderblock houses painted fuchsia, turquoise, and marigold. The sun glared down, and they lingered in each of the puddles of shade provided by the spreading branches of slim trees that grew here and there along the lanes.

“All this looks new,” Tomás remarked. “When I was little, everything around here was broken down—people went crazy during the water riots, smashed things up. That’s more like it,” he said, pointing to a house with three good walls and a pile of rubble where the fourth should have been. “My big sister would find a place like this, nobody around to give us problems, and she’d spend the whole day doing brain stims. ‘You go play; I’ll buy us arepas after,’ she’d tell me. I always tried to find a way of getting on the roof, if there was one. It was like flying, even just sitting there, because you could see so far. I loved that. Want to try it?” He took a step toward the ruined house.

Was he kidding? Her father’s stunts all through Winna’s childhood had given her an allergy to this kind of behavior. She glanced uneasily at the woman standing in a doorway across the lane, watching them. A motorcycle carrying a man, a woman, and a tiny child passed them, kicking up clouds of white dust.

“Tomás. You’re not a little kid anymore,” she said.

“I know, I know. It wouldn’t be a good look for Dr. Sengupta if we ended up in jail. But I wanted to at least tell you about it,” he said, turning to Káurë Eight, “because I just know you haven’t had that experience. Alone and young and up so high you can practically feel your arms becoming wings.”

“No, but I’ve had other ones,” she replied. Tomás didn’t appear to hear.

“I loved being with my sister. I hated ending up at the orphanage.” He picked up his pace, heading back the way they had come. Somewhere near where they’d originally exited the bus, he slowed, studying the buildings (more houses, a restaurant, a grocery shop, an Evangelical storefront church) with a knitted brow.

“If you’re looking for Amiguitos Orphanage,” said Káurë Eight, “You won’t find it here anymore. It closed some years after you left.”

He gaped at her. “How did you—”

“You introduced yourself. You mentioned an orphanage.” She shrugged. “I simply researched relevant facts about you.”

Comprehension suffused Tomás’s face as he realized how Káurë Eight could accomplish such a thing. His expression hardened.

“Shall we get something to eat?” Káurë Eight suggested, looking purposefully at the restaurant. “And you can tell me more about your experiences at the orphanage. They were using the Sasaki-Silva Method. That’s what you didn’t like, isn’t it. That’s why you wanted time with me.”

Tomás gave a single nod.

Sasaki-Silva Method. It sounded familiar. Winna called up information on her multipurpose as they took seats outdoors in the shade of the restaurant’s awning. Tomás insisted that Winna and Káurë Eight try a local dish called cayeye, made from boiled and mashed green bananas.

“It says the Sasaki-Silva Method encouraged greater task orientation and cooperation among students and workers,” Winna said, looking up from her multipurpose, “using multisensory stimulation, biofeedback, and transmissions on neuroelectric frequencies.”

“Yeah, with everyone wearing receivers like what she’s got on—only less fancy. Imagine playing around with that stuff with a bunch of orphans. So sweet, so caring. Accountability? Informed consent? You don’t need that shit with orphans.” Tomás’s caustic tone drew a wary glance from the woman laying out their paper placemats and cutlery.

“You’ll be happy to learn that the orphanage was taken to court over that program. That’s why it closed,” Káurë Eight said.

“But the thinking’s still around. Case in point: yourself.”

Káurë Eight gave a little laugh. “Colonial humans weren’t developed for social control. There are much cheaper methods of obtaining that. It’s as I said at the opening remarks: we’re for enhanced problem solving. There’s no coercion involved.”

“That’s what they said at Amiguitos, too. And then they’d firehose you with their ‘guiding thoughts.’ ‘We’re so happy to have three good meals a day. We’re so happy to be with our friends. We’re so happy at Amiguitos.’” Tomás’s voice rose in a falsetto singsong. He grimaced. “I knew I’d rather have one meal a day and be with my sister in some falling-down house, even if she was lost in her own dream world. But I couldn’t escape the guiding thoughts. They were all around me and in my head. Took me some years to realize I could fight back—broadcast my own guiding thoughts. Let them see how it felt to be on the receiving end.”

A blast of cloying sweetness surged through Winna’s consciousness, stifling all thoughts and clamping down on her lungs. She gasped.

“Sorry! I’m sorry,” Tomás said. “I wanted her to feel it—wanted her to know how bad it is, but I don’t know how to target-send. It goes everywhere.”

Anger prickled along Winna’s nerves. “So I’m just collateral damage. Great.” Memories assailed her: seven years old and facing down angry men while her father hid in the cupboard space under the kitchen sink. Ten years old, shivering with her siblings by family car as her mother flung their belongings in the back while the bailiffs looked on and her father shifted from foot to foot, hands jammed into his pockets. And then just six months ago, the shame when her father’s arrest for peddling deadly vials of Terrible T provided clickbait headlines for weeks.

Not wanting to look at Tomás, Winna glanced down at the placemat. On it, hand-drawn mer-beings—human-shark chimeras, human-dolphin chimeras, human-ray chimeras—faced an enemy: Terrible T, drawn amoeba-like, with angry eyes and pseudopods resembling grabbing hands.

That was the battle they were here in Santa Marta for—not the one Tomás was fighting with Káurë Eight.

Káurë Eight is the body’s designation. The argument is with Káurë New Day.

Was that Winna’s own realization? She stole a glance at the colonial.

“You suffered a violation,” Káurë Eight—Káurë New Day—was saying to Tomás. “But we colonials don’t experience anything like that. We’re this way from birth: one mind, many bodies.”

“But it doesn’t have to be that way. Each part of you could be an independent person, only they’re—you’re—never given a choice. That’s even worse than Amiguitos.” Tomás’s voice was tremulous.

“No one gets a choice about the conditions they’re born into. And no, the individual bodies couldn’t be independent people—any more than your body could function without your brain. Early in the development of colonials, fanatics tried ‘freeing’ constituents. The constituents died.”

“So to create colonials, human beings are reduced to building blocks that can’t live on their own? That’s just wrong!”

 [ The colonial, © 2022 Toeken ] “You’re the one to decide that? You know what’s right for us? Like the people who put you in an orphanage knew what was right for you?” Káurë New Day’s voice was cold.

Tomás’s lips parted but no words emerged.

“That’s a different kind of thing,” he said at last.

Káurë New Day raised an eyebrow.

Winna traced the outline of the placemat’s Terrible T with a finger. “Why can’t you use your powers for good?” she murmured to it. She remembered her father swearing to her that his Terrible T remedy couldn’t have caused those deaths. “You’ll see, they’ll remember me as a savior in the end. That shit’s got powers,” he’d insisted.

Her father was such a nutjob. Winna’s jaw ached, and she realized she’d been clenching her teeth.

Winna looked up from the placemat to see the hostess smiling at her. Tomás and Káurë New Day had food in front of them, but the hostess hadn’t set down Winna’s meal. Her eyes were on the placemat and Winna’s finger, which was still resting on the fierce face of Terrible T. The woman said something, and not wanting to rely on her rudimentary Spanish, Winna flicked auto-translate on.

“You like it?” it supplied. “My daughter drew it.” The hostess beamed proudly.

“Sí, mucho,” Winna attempted, and the woman’s smile broadened.

A thought was trying to materialize in Winna’s mind, something about Terrible T and Káurë New Day both being colonial life forms—something important—but it wouldn’t come clear. Would having the power of twelve brains at her disposal bring it into focus? There was only one way to find out. She cleared her throat. Tomás and Káurë New Day looked her way.

“You said that choker was calibrated to Káurë Eight,” she said to the colonial. “What happens if someone like me puts it on? Could I share a thought with you—have you access it that way?”

She expected Tomás to explode at her, but he just sat there silently, lips pressed tight.

“That’s not the usual way you communicate,” the colonial replied. “Probably just telling me would be better.” She had that indulgent smile on her face, the one Káurë One had worn, making her introductory remarks. The blood rose to Winna’s cheeks.

“That’s the thing; I can’t quite—I have the beginnings of an idea, but I can’t quite pull it together. It’s not really at the words stage yet … It’s about Terrible T—T. terrens, I mean.” As if that would sell the proposal.

“Even if you put on the choker, you won’t experience being a colonial.”

It was only when Káurë New Day said this—so gently—that Winna recognized within herself this seedling wish.

“But you’re right that it would let us communicate more completely.” Káurë New Day paused. “It would be hard on the Káurë Eight constituent, though, because while you wore the choker, Káurë Eight would be cut off from the executive function.”

Winna inhaled sharply, remembering the fate of a constituent cut off from the whole. “Oh! I didn’t realize—I wasn’t thinking! I would never—forget I even asked.”

Káurë New Day laughed a little. “It’s not like you’re imagining. We learned from those early attacks. We’re more resilient now—autonomic systems in constituent bodies will continue even without connection to the executive function.” She shot a cool glance in Tomás’s direction. “Whether being in a persistent vegetative state can be called truly alive is another matter. But if it’s just a brief while…” She fiddled with the back of the choker, and something clicked.

“You’re playing it pretty fast and loose with this ‘constituent body,’” muttered Tomás. “Wonder how she’d feel about the risks you’re taking—if she were allowed a mind of her own.”

“I thought you wanted constituents to experience freedom from the whole,” Káurë New Day retorted. She held the choker out to Winna.

Winna carefully fastened it around her neck.

The world became incomprehensible. She heard a sigh and thud—and also felt the world swaying beneath her feet and a stiff wind heavy with a scent of decay. Flashes of sunlight on water. Directly ahead, the water was pinkish brown, and on the borders of that brown expanse floated the bodies of fish—but here were the golden walls of the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, and a tour guide speaking—but beneath her hands the smooth, cool surface of a work table and in her ears the voices of colleagues—was that Dr. Sengupta?—and a flood of other images, sounds—were they memories? Something else? Those ants, tending the seeds—no: ants in floodwaters, banding together, a living raft—keep the larvae above water! Keep the queen above water!

Winna stopped trying to make sense of anything, didn’t try to direct her half-formed thoughts outward, just flung open her mind and floated.

Until suddenly she was back at the restaurant, blinking, dizzy. She wasn’t wearing the choker anymore: Tomás had it in his hand. The Káurë Eight constituent was slumped over on the table, her nose millimeters from her plate of cayeye.

“Why’d you take it off me?” Winna demanded.

“You were getting ready to do it yourself!” Tomás protested. “You came over to this side of the table and unfastened it.”

It appeared to be true. Winna was indeed standing beside Káurë Eight instead of sitting across the table from her.

“Well then it must be time to put it back,” Winna said, a sense of foreboding rising inside her. “So let’s do that.” She reached for the choker, but Tomás raised his arm and stepped back, shaking his head.

Foreboding metamorphosed into panic.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Winna kept her voice low. The last thing they needed was for people realize something was up. “Put that back on her! You know this can’t end any good way otherwise. The colonial knows what’s going on. It knows where we are. There’ll be police heading here right now.” She took a step toward him. He took another step back, glanced at the restaurant building, and called out something in Spanish ending with “más agua.”

Their hostess jumped up from her seat by the door of the restaurant and hurried inside. She reappeared with a pitcher and hovered nearby, concern furrowing her brow, as Tomás put a hand on Káurë Eight’s shoulder and shook it lightly.

Káurë Eight’s eyes fluttered open—blank in a slack face—but she didn’t move. Tomás carefully lifted her upper body and leaned it back in her chair.

The hostess spoke a few words to Tomás, concerned. Winna took the opportunity to lunge for the choker—unsuccessfully. The hostess glanced from Tomás to Winna, alarmed. Tomás spoke in placating tones, and with evident reluctance, the woman moved away.

Tomás turned his attention to Káurë Eight.

“Here, have a drink.” He held a glass of water to her lips. She drank.

“You know this stunt’ll break up the conference,” Winna said in a furious whisper. “But I guess that doesn’t matter to you. I guess you don’t care about Terrible T causing famines and ecosystem collapse!”

“I do! I do care! But this is important, too,” Tomás shot back, without turning from Káurë Eight, whose expression was growing more and more anxious.

“Happy birthday as an individual!” Tomás said to her. “How do you feel? How does the world look to you?” Káurë Eight flinched minutely at each new sentence. Her head swung between hunched shoulders as if she were a turtle peering from its shell. Tears welled up in her eyes—and Winna felt her own eyes stinging in response. This forlorn creature was nothing like Káurë New Day. Even Tomás looked stricken. He squatted beside Káurë Eight’s seat.

“Are you able to speak?” he asked.

Her head drooped. A tear fell onto her placemat, spreading out like another bloom of Terrible T.

“You’ve got to stop, Tomás. She’s miserable,” Winna said.

Tomás bit his lip. “If we could just get her talking a little b—”

Winna made another grab for the choker, this time successfully yanking it from Tomás’s hand. Swiftly she snapped it in place around Káurë Eight’s neck. In a heartbeat the woman’s face cleared. Káurë New Day was back.

“Your ideas are good ones, Winna,” she said, completely ignoring Tomás and everything that had just happened. “The ants that form a raft in a flood—”

“Was that me? I thought all those rain forest images came from you.”

Káurë New Day looked quizzical. “No. Those are all your own. Maybe a nature documentary you watched when young? Something you were shown in school?”

Winna nodded, bemused by the mystery of her own mind. Káurë New Day continued, “The raft the ants form: it calls to mind T. terrens, doesn’t it? Other members of the Trichodesmium genus can exist both as individual organisms and as colonial ones.” Her eyes unfocused for a moment, then refocused to meet Winna’s. “So it could be that T. terrens has an individual form as well. Perhaps, like the ants with their raft, the colonial form is a response to a stress situation. It’s an avenue we can pursue at the conference.” Káurë New Day smiled, and Winna felt her gratitude and—was it possible?—admiration.

“It—It wasn’t really me—I couldn’t have gotten the idea out without your help,” she said.

“It was a good collaboration. We should do it again.”

Winna’s heart soared.

Then Káurë New Day turned to Tomás, who looked poised to flee but hadn’t.

“No one’s going to come after you,” she said. “That would only have happened if you kept the Káurë Eight constituent from reincorporating against her will.”

Tomás lifted his chin. “She didn’t have enough time to discover her will. She didn’t even have a chance to get over the shock of the separation.”

“Oh? And how long would that require? I suspect that unless she chose the way you wanted, you’d always say more time was needed. But it’s not a true choice if you only accept one answer.”

Tomás didn’t respond.

Presently Káurë New Day said, “The truth is, we’re always working on the balance between the executive function and constituent experience. The challenge you offered was a valuable one. Peace?”

Tomás dropped his gaze.

“I’m not done challenging,” he muttered.

“I understand,” said Káurë New Day. “But for now?”

“For now,” he conceded.

The three finished their meal and headed back to the research center.

© 2022 Francesca Forrest

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