Thin Forest was empty. Sometimes, upon entering, she would just catch a whisp of someone exiting the chamber. Maybe their coat whipping behind them as they left, maybe their shadow flickering a final farewell as they turned around the unseen corner. But that wasn’t the case today and Chika was glad that for once, Thin Forest was truly empty.
Every time she pictured it inside her minds’ eye, Thin Forest was something welcoming and beautiful. But once one walked into it, you realised that it was actually cold. It was uncomfortable and made you fidget, for by its nature, it demanded a response that was simultaneously traditional and inappropriate. For this is what it was: a chamber filled with clusters of poles reaching up to a false ceiling that reflected and refracted so that the columns looked as though they went up to infinity. Sometimes she would want to brush her fingertips in an almost romantic gesture against the wooden phalli but then she would remember that she was not in a film and that such gestures were at the very least unnecessary, if not plain stupid. You couldn’t make a film in Thin Forest.
Now she was alone it was time to complete her assignment. She could choose any husb that she wanted for there was no one else there. She plugged herself into the one furthest from the entrance, so that – or so she reasoned to herself – she could be the wisp of a figure when the next agent came in.
The earthquake started when she touched Thin Forest Core: the slight tremors that made her feet slip to maintain her centre of balance, the minute vibrations of her nerves against muscle tissue, the shuddering of bone against flesh. She wished she was one of those who had visions of the future, who heard voices and songs when they touched Thin Forest Core. The only sign she ever received from Thin Forest was that familiarly unpleasant sensation of falling that would suddenly wake you up in the middle of the night. She didn’t like the way it echoed through her dreams into her waking moments but she knew that was irrelevant. Thin Forest didn’t care. What was important was that she came.
Once the session was finished, she woke up, expecting to find herself lying on the floor or drifting in an ocean. Instead she was in the same position as she had been to begin with; standing upright and steady, plugged into the husb.
Chika disentangled her core from the machinery of Thin Forest and wondered what Thin Forest had taken from her this time. It was an impossible game for her – whilst she certainly wasn’t unintelligent (though she would be the first to admit she had her moments of incredible foolishness) she was not one of those great logicians who could unravel a mystery from the most meagre of clues. Still, sometimes she enjoyed wondering just what of her ideas, her insights that Thin Forest had plundered from her mind would end up travelling along the slipstream of the city’s Mindframe, mating with other slips of inspiration to be deposited in an unknown mindhive.
When she had first been assigned as an agent/node, she would search her memories to see if she could find any missing pieces, any gaps in her recollection until she realised that whatever had been taken would never be remembered to have existed at all. When one considered the matter of dreams, perhaps it was true that inspiration was the easiest thing to steal. How could one miss something that one couldn’t grasp? Certainly, she had never felt any different after Sharing with Thin Forest.
However, occasionally she liked to believe that somewhere out there was an Ownmeme, withdrawn and repackaged and distributed amongst some other nodes or perhaps simply used to deepen the medium of the zeitgeist-current. How else could she explain the sudden sensation of falling that she would sometimes experience when reading a random paper, a newsfeed; the same strange sensation that afflicted her when she plugged into Thin Forest. It was a key, she knew. It was her subconscious reclaiming a part that had once belonged to it. That is mine! it would shout and her chi would trip and fall from its high perch before righting itself again.
Chika found the primitive impulse amusing rather than disquieting. It made her laugh to think how slowly the homo sapiens’ soul-machinery had evolved when such of its kind had been the source of ever developing technologies, rapidly mutating programs and culture-spores, networks spreading and recoiling, guided only by chance and algorithm but on a scale so vast and so fast that it gave the appearance of soul-work. She would think of her younger sister as a toddler, her earliest phrases sentiments of ownership and warnings. “It is mine! That is mine!” She would call out over the silliest of things – a newly found sap-sap seed under the sofa, a slice of guava, a cheap gilt earring bereft of its twin – and with that declaration of ownership, a declaration of self and an implied threat to any who dared deny it.
Much like her toddler sister, Chika’s subconscious could threaten all it liked but it was powerless. That made Chika laugh at herself. What could it do when its own soul-machinery had been the one to give up what had once been hers? It could only remind, perhaps hoping to awaken some kind of guilt that would serve no purpose but lead only to madness. She had read enough Shakespeare to know that.
It was why she never liked asking those questions others asked at the evil of humanity. At tales of corruption and murder and theft and violence, they would ask “Why would they do this?” but she knew it was for the same reason her subconscious would rather she suffered angina than be at peace with its communal purpose. It was all the desperate cries of a primitive subconscious, yearning to be recognised as a self amongst many in its brief span before joining the void once more. A virtual self arising like a bubble from the membrane of a collective whole and then vanishing with a pop into the aether.
“It is mine! That is mine!”
Yes, yes, she wanted to console her poor little primitive subconscious. Yes, yes you are right it is yours. And now it is somebody else’s.
Sometimes she would dream that she was in the memecurrent. It was a bit of a cliche how she could only ever see it in her dreams, even though she knew from her training that she was always a part of it whether awake or asleep. Still, that was how it was. When she closed her eyes and fell into a deep sleep, she would split into two, the sleeper and the guard. The guard would watch over the sleeper and the sleeper would find rest, drifting in the dreamspace where mmuo roamed.
She dreamed that the memecurrent was a purple stream of a fluid thicker than water that tasted of lime. Sometimes she would get slowed down when her path was constricted sometimes she would get caught on a rock (who knew rocks existed in the memecurrent?), but other than that she would simply flow onwards and onwards.
She slept for most of the journey home. The metro was perfectly safe during the work-hours and she was fortunate that her parents lived in a suburb well cocooned by layers of surveillance and code. High above the glowing city of Lagos, it was impossible to hear the noise of the metropolis, impossible to smell the scents of ozone, garbage and suya meat but she didn’t miss it. When she had first become an agent, she had always walked back home, delighting in the beauty of her city, quickened by the shared experiences of agents like herself, the perceptions and sensations of their everyday lives translated into code, teaching the very brickwork how to see, how to feel, how to think. The walls’ flesh would bruise and fade as they absorbed the clouds of smog and diesel fumes that still erupted from the tech used by citizens too busy to care that their machinery was at least fifty years out of date and the houses, the ileogba, would slowly grow and wind their way around like creeper vines.
The newer ileogba were grown from seeds that sprouted plastic and ceramics as others sprouted trees, but these synthetic creatures were all twisted and bent according to their manmade DNA, formed into habitations and civic structures for rich and poor alike. Yet, there was only so much nature could do. Nurture enabled these seeded homes to grow in a manner more suitable for their environment and it was the nurture that those such as Chika provided. The memecurrent flowed through their circuitry alongside the like electric current, varying in intensity depending on the relative resistance.
Ah, how proud she was when she used to walk through the streets of La Gidis, Lagos her adopted city! These days she was more easily tired and the excitement of it all had worn off somewhat. She couldn’t help see her growing, sprawling city as an ungrateful adolescent rather than as a charmingly wilful child. Sometimes the tendrils from older ileogba would take root and sprout in formations quite unsuitable to live in – they had even created their own twisted sort of mangrove swamp along the banks of the Niger, if a mangrove swamp could have self lighting rooms, and strange apartments bloomed from spindly stems that grew upwards above tenements.
These mutants did not last long most of the time. They wore away, rotted and were ingested by other hungry buildings seeking nutrients to expand and grow. It could be a depressing sight: they reminded Chika of diseased skin and distorted laboratory hybrids, making her itch and shudder in disgust. That was why she tended to travel by metro these days. It was quicker, and Daddy would not be so worried.
There were times when visiting Thin Forest could be a pleasurable experience. When she was tired or a little bit sad, Chika would look to her appointments with a kind of relief, knowing that for however long she was needed, she could rest. It was the rest that did her good, she knew; Thin Forest was but the opportunity.
Walking down well trodden paths, observing the well seen sights of the streets and alleys she passed through almost every cycle to reach the agency allowed her to observe the minute changes build upon one another and transform into something altogether new. She liked seeing the creatures of habit, the people who went to the same restaurant for lunch, the couple who walked down the same road before parting for their respective offices. This algorithmic tribe of theirs, livememes who barely noticed each other even as they wandered through a shared geometry, was nonetheless a well woven cult, albeit a cult of happenstance.
Chika would miss them when she left for University. Whether her fellow cultees would notice her absence was a question she pondered from time to time. The young couple were too entranced with each other – and soon enough would be too repulsed by each other – to notice anything else than the charms of their beloved. There was a young man who frequently walked in the opposite direction to her who might remember her. He was always carrying his baby daughter who Chika had seen shift from a doddering wide eyed babbling mystic to a grinning, and sometimes screaming, bundle of delicious plumpness. With each encounter, as he became familiar with the otherwise solemn looking student who stalked her way towards him, sometimes he would stop for Chika to admire his little daughter, laughing, all flattered pride in wordless agreement with Chika’s soft calls of admiration. He once asked what it was that Chika studied and had put on an impressed expression when she had told him.
Could he be another agent/node? Another member of the memesystem that fed Lagos whole new paradigms to mangle and meld from the minds of its thinkers and dreamers. That was another question Chika liked to ask herself but it was fruitless, really. She was at a level too low to ever require contact with another agent – she knew that. It was why she could only meet Thin Forest at the centre rather than link up in the peace of her own home. Too lowly to be trusted with the machinery.
She liked to ponder such thoughts, to day dream hours away. They were but the sort of fancies she still affected, sometimes to her embarrassment. Nothing more, really, but the last of her baby-fat that would be shed to reveal the figure of a woman.
Did Thin Forest ever change? It never looked like it did, but surely it must have done. The plastic trees were capable of growing – she had once picked off a budding stem out of habit before realising she was not in the school playground – and certainly the software that made Thin Forest possible needed to be continually updated. Souls grew as bodies do, they always said. Surely, if true, that would hold the other way round as well.
One day, on one of those empty days, Chika would climb one of the synthetic trees and attempt to touch the sky. She would reach the glass ceiling and place her palm flat against it and push slightly, almost giggling as the glass – cool and aloof and concealing the promise of pain upon shattering – gave way slightly. Foolishly – and it would be very foolish for she would be several years older and a University student! – she would look to the floor and have to count and swallow her saliva before making her way down, tightly pressed against the moist ethyl bark.
But that would be then. For now she was content to admire the clack of newly heeled shoes against a polished floor and wonder at the elegance of the colours she had chosen to wear today, how well they set off her glowing skin. Her future daring was unimaginable to her now, for she had never yet tried to throw off her fear of heights.
Once within Thin Forest, she strung up the scanty apparatus, smiling as it probed deeper in a way that was almost shy in spite of the fact that it had been three years since her sessions first began and it had no reason to be so skittish. She embraced the unseen prison that swiftly encaged her mind, transforming her from agent into node, pushing her across the slanted boundary so that she fell, utterly one with the memecurrent and yet one with the node.
As always, with the end of the session, Chika disentangled herself from the machinery and strung it back into place. The back of her neck went cold as it did when there was someone behind her and so she turned, ready to smile at the first person she had ever seen within the heart of Thin Forest.
There was no one there.
There should have been though. It was in the way the trunks of Thin Forest shimmered about their middle, the way straight lines always bent slightly around the person they obscured.
But there was no one. There was not a sound – no footsteps, no rustling.
Not enough sleep, Chika thought to herself. And I didn’t eat enough for breakfast.
With relief, she picked up her bag and swung it round her shoulder. It was vital to report irregularities, changes in perception, illusions and foreign voices and that sort of thing, which made sense given the nature of Thin Forest machinery. You didn’t want ghosts in the memecurrent after all.
With hindsight, Chika would consider that an occasion she had been foolish not to do what she should have done. With more hindsight, she would be glad of it.
It was the essay that changed everything. As soon as she had read the abstract, the warning tremors stirred gently through her body. The earthquake hit in waves, making her head feel it had warped into a parallel universe and then suddenly returned to the present time. She felt as though the bed had been removed from beneath her, that initial jolt before the fall leaving her breathless and her heart racing.
When you entered Thin Forest, it was known that you would end up sharing a great deal more than could be easily expressed but essentially there was one simple truth to be known. Any connection went both ways at all times – a node could easily become a sink and vice versa.
In her training, Chika had been warned that ghosts could just as easily implant themselves into her mind as they could infect the memecurrent. They were generally harmless, the worst cases being things like memories that were obviously not your own. Easy enough to blow away, as one would a case of deja vu.
But, if it was possible for ghosts, the same held true for Ownmemes. Ownmemes once shared by Thin Forest were perfectly capable of reaching others within the network and there was nothing that could be done about it. And indeed, what would you want to do about it? That was how the hivemind worked. On some level, one simply had to trust Thin Forest and the assorted complicated intertwining algorithms that made up its soul and trust that it knew what was for the best.
And here she was, trusting. This paper, written by a Professor Anyanyebechi was hers, in some way, but precisely how was frustratingly difficult to say. Was it the sources, was it the central arguments, or just the kernel of an idea at the heart of it? It was of course impossible to know. Perhaps the sensation was just a ghost, an echo of a previous connection Thin Forest had created between their minds. The intuition, the knowledge that was not quite knowledge, welled up like pus within a boil.
She was both fascinated and disgusted by this new sensation. The shock at the intercourse of the hypothetical and the real resonated like a filthy swear word.
“I want to see,” she spoke out loud to herself. She got out of her bed and ran out of the house.
The streets seemed to clear before her as she ran to Thin Forest, the crowd parting to let her pass through. The idea was too good to lose. She needed to be fast, to get there before her courage ran out.
In her excitement, her hands had become clumsy and stupid. The cables and wires were trickier than usual, slipping through her fingers and falling against the husb. She draped the tendrils across her head, a webbed veil of tiny electrodes that crept about looking for the usual entrance points, and then forced herself into Thin Forest Core. Thin Forest hesitated as though shocked at her audacity, before letting her in.
For the first time Chika felt herself lost. It was not Thin Forest that had invited her in after all. She had gatecrashed one of the biggest hiveminds in West Africa but, unlike the Maleficent she must have appeared to the system, she had no great scheme in mind to match her grand entrance. All she wanted to do was to find her Ownmeme and then to find her. The Professor.
Chika ran. When she was almost too tired to carry on, wings sprouted from her back and lifted her up by a few inches so only the tips of her toes pushed against the ground. The memecurrent appeared ahead of her, fast flowing and smelling of fresh rain just as in her dreams. She took a few final steps and then leapt into the violet stream, piercing the surface of the fluid like a knife through soap. Down beneath she flew and then rose back up to the surface to breath.
There was only one way to go and that was to go with the river. Exhausted, she was happy to let the current take her to wherever it would. There was, after all, only one place is could take her to. So long as she kept her head above the water, she would be fine.
The memecurrent broadened as it continued onwards. Every now and then, she would dive beneath the surface and burst up through the surface, gasping. She might get caught in an eddy, twirled about by localised turbulent flows. How many agents had it taken to give Thin Forest a memory of water? A memory of a river that the hivemind could never swim in.
She lost count of the number of times she would dive beneath the surface. Each time she came up, she could feel a cool breeze brushing her cheek. After a particularly long dive she came up to breath only to bang her forehead against a rocky ceiling. Automatically she went back beneath the water, rubbing her head, checking for cut skin. Darkness came about her and she began to sink as though the memecurrent were flowing downwards to the centre of the Earth. Each time it took her longer and longer to push through the increasing weight of water and reach the surface to breath. Each time she could feel the ceiling get lower and lower, like a cave that was gradually constricting. Still the current flowed onwards. There was nothing to hold onto and her fingers were too slippery to grip the rocky outcrop. She felt the fluid enter her mouth and be vomited back out again into the teeming waters.
She was going to drown. There was no air above her and only water below. Chika began to sink and as she sank the pressure squeezed her ribcage, causing a nasty, prickly pain to radiate from her chest. A sudden blow from above and she was pinned, unable to float upwards again but still being dragged ever onwards by the current. Her teeth were clenched, her mouth was closed, her nostrils blocked to ensure no fluid would enter. Her head pounded, her ribs cut into her flesh. Spasms of pain tore through her mangled body which thrashed this way and that in the dark waters. Her defenses exploded as her diaphragm forced her lungs to exhale. With that, the fluid entered her mouth and her nose, filling up her gut, making her vomit and suck more of the liquid into her lungs.
Exhausted by the struggle, Chika’s body went limp. Only the current would carry her further. The pain gradually subsided until it was but a delicious throbbing that bore testament to her drowning. She lost the sensation of her toes and fingertips, then of her legs and her arms and then of everything but herself as she was dissolved into the memecurrent.
She could not even feel the pull of the current anymore. Floating aimlessly, with no limbs to swim with, no current to flow by, all she could feel was the darkness grow and transform into a warm, muffling cocoon. This, she realised, was Thin Forest Core.
“I just wanted to see,” she said. “That’s all.”
It was disorienting to feel and yet not feel oneself float and turn about, the sense of motion unjustified by the lack of reference points. Chika could feel the gentle hum of engines, always coming from somewhere behind her, yet at the same time there was a silence just like she imagined there would be at the bottom of the ocean. She knew there was no way out of Thin Forest Core now. There was no way to find the Professor who had written that paper with her inspiration. It was a shame, because she had always wanted to meet another agent, and to think she had connected with a mind like that was actually quite wonderful. She wondered what the Professor was doing now – was she giving a presentation at a seminar, debating with other academics on a panel? Maybe she was writing another paper, maybe she had taken another of Thin Forest’s memes.
At some point, she would have to go back, but for now she was too exhausted. She had run all the way to the centre, she had flown and swam and drowned in the memecurrent. For now Chika wanted to rest, wanted to sleep. Let Thin Forest do what it pleased, just as it always did. When the time would come, it would eject her and leave her to the world beyond Thin Forest.
Before her, from the murky depths of Thin Forest Core, there appeared a great eye that held her in its gaze. The eye was her guard. Was she asleep? Had she been asleep in her bed all this time? Yet, here she was awake and able to comprehend that there was a giant eye gazing unblinkingly at her.
“Welcome,” she said in her father’s tongue. “Would you mind waiting?”
The eye continued to stare at her and she would have laughed at its stupid gaze if she had had a mouth to laugh with. But she needed to sleep first.
As the great eye started to blink, the tremors began.