“Sharp | Distance” is Episode Two of the serialized story “Miranda Tree.” Before diving in, make sure you read the first episode, “Retail | Therapy.”
Right as Rain
Miranda stepped out onto the street and looked around for Simeon. It had rained while she was at her appointment, and the sidewalks were steaming in the white shapes of returned sunlight.
Dr. Puddle was right, she told herself. The Flow knows. We need to trust the process, she thought, clutching her new gift.
Simeon pulled around the corner then, flashing his brights. The car silently eased up and Miranda heard the locks click open. She stepped out of the muggy summer and into the cool dry space inside Simeon. “Heya Miranda!” The car’s tone was as chipper as usual. A happy beast, Simeon.
“Hey Sim!” Miranda was cheered by her session with the doctor, by the gift, and, as usual, by Simeon’s friendship.
She was Gifted access to Sim when Roy left. Sim was a great car — younger than middle aged and quite resourceful. He’d been Gifted all sorts of new features since gaining independence. And, he tells her, he’s amassed enough points to perhaps buy a car of his own — a protegé to train and profit from until he could send it off into the world. Not bad for a humble Schwinn. He’s not exactly the male companion she found in Roy, but Sim was a boon and much better than the overcrowded carshare she’d been using.
“Thought you forgot I had Dr. Puddle today.” Miranda gently teased him for being a minute behind.
“Ha. No, I’m synced to your schedule just fine. I was held up at the charging station. Something with the battery — quick technician in-and-out and I’m right as rain. Speaking of which, umbrella’s behind you. The sky may open again after I drop you off.”
By the time Miranda got through the door, her apartment was in full swing. Energized by a payday flush of new points, the place was off the hook. The iced tea maker was hard at work, music was blaring, the lighting was festive, and a pizza was on its way. A bottle of wine was open and breathing for later.
Miranda sat at the kitchen table, sipped from her tall clanking glass of iced tea, and took a closer look at the box of maps. The lights above the table focused on the box as she opened the lid. “Thanks,” she muttered as she removed the heavy stack of maps. The lights flickered a “you’re welcome” and sent a fifth of a point to her appliance point pool, good for pizza and upgrades. It pays to be polite.
The maps were strange things — so heavy! They were fashioned from a thick smooth linen and treated with a waxy coat. And they were beautiful.
“These are one of a kind,” she thought, pleased. Each was precisely folded into a neat square and clearly numbered and labeled — by hand. Now that was impressive. Was there a map atelier somewhere in the city churning out analog handwritten maps for the Flow? A passion project, no doubt. So Portland.
There were three maps altogether. An hour later, she had them all spread out on the floor and, careful not to drip pizza grease, hovered above them, taking it all in. They comprised three hikes, each on a different trail in the region. Assuming the numbers indicated order, the first was the easiest. Number one was actually within city limits — the old Wildwood Trail on the industrial west side. The last was a real killer — it snaked through the Gorge for miles and looked like it required some light climbing. Stranger still were the dates. Each map provided a future date, written in the same beautiful hand as the labels and numbers. The first hike was indicated for this coming weekend.
“No way,” Miranda muttered aloud.
After dropping off Miranda, Sim needed a rest. He double-checked the schedule — Miranda was off-book and he had no other scheduled tasks. He pulled into a dry spot at a sleeper garage. Today’s events at the charging station were irregular, he thought. The technician who checked his batteries was most insistent that Simeon’s charging link was corroded and needed a quick replacement. Sim’s own diagnostics did not indicate a problem, but that happens sometimes. All the more reason to have human techs at the station — eyes on details, as they say. The link swap was quick enough; he was only a few minutes late to pick up Miranda. But the new link felt off. It tickled.
What could it be? He let his machine mind spin through the thousand possibilities and tumble down a hundred rabbit holes, getting lost in the dance of browse and search, surfacing at times in surprising places. He delighted in the patterns of information, the arcane connections between facts and language, etymologies and folktales, images and sound files. After a few hours of this, Simeon created a visualization of the whole session, a three-dimensional image of a vast forking tree, each branch a different line of search, each forking node a random decision to follow a thread this way or that.
Minds outputted these “trace trees” sometimes. These were pleasing artifacts as well as searchable saved session logs. And no two traces were alike; no two minds would make the same myriad decisions, dwell on the same esoterica for the same amount of time. Each session was a singular event, memorialized and catalogued.
Simeon placed the trace with MOTA and switched himself to sleep.
Saturday morning, Miranda was up early and packing for the hike. The trail marked by the map wound through the West Hills, over and through all the mind garages that sprung up (or dug in) over the past half century. The name, Wildwood Trail, seemed ironic now. Despite the mild neo-industrial sprawl, the trail remained in occasional use, weaving through the cool hills and sporadic trees that sheltered the subterranean shops of the intelligence smiths. It was a hot day, and Simeon had some extra water bottles and a water belt for her in the trunk. A nice side-gift, that. She also had a backpack with snacks and, of course, the map.
Miranda stepped from Simeon’s cool interior and out into the jigsaw piece of hot yellow sun at the trailhead drop-off. As the car pulled away, she reviewed the map one more time, folded it (such a strange thing, a physical map!), slipped it in her pack, and set off. The first few hundred yards were a pleasing uphill slope, thick with trees and shaded in dappled light. The path was soft with pine needles, and the fir trees baked in the heat, releasing their dusty musk.
The slope evened out and she came to a broad clearing. Several low-slung sheds dotted the open space, each with an official-looking door. These, she knew, were entrances to vast and deep underground structures devised, commissioned, and worked by the Minds at Whole You that conceived and conducted the local Flow. This location was chosen for its seismic safety and temperature benefits. It was the presence of these mind garages that spawned the neo-industrial development of this part of town.
Miranda wound through the glade, staying on the path. The doors to these sheds were seldom used. The Garages were pretty self-sufficient. These service entrances were merely a safety feature. She was surprised to see graffiti on the sheds, strange loopy tags that were impossible to read. What was legible, however, was the color: all the graffiti was in shades of orange.
She was happy to get through the clearing, which she found somewhat unnerving. The trail worked its way down to a swampy wetland crossed by a winding slatted wooden walkway. The path forked at the end of the wetland. To the left, the trail swung through a Drone Studio with its buzzing concrete hives and rows of reed paddies. To the right, the path heaved up onto a rocky plateau. Miranda consulted the map: she was to go right, up the path to the sunny stone shelf.
Miranda found a shady spot at the edge of the stones and settled down to take in the view and have a snack. From the plateau, she could see the crowded Columbia River and, just upstream in the haze, the glinting solar array of the Suavie Island Cannabis farms.
“What a great gift,” she thought. “I haven’t been out like this in ages.” She took a deep breath. Was it her imagination, or could she smell the cannabis plants baking in the sun all the way from the Island? The sun dazzled her closed eyes as the breeze toyed with a few strands of her hair. She slipped into a reverie, her breath deepening as her heart rate slowed.
The Massive Online Tree Archive spun through her million traces, delighting in the myriad winking trees and the dark spaces in between. The tree feed supplied thousands of new trees a second, each defining a new shape, a new possibility woven from the syntax of possible paths. MOTA steamed through this forest in all directions at once, pulsing past groves laid down billions of seconds ago, ancient glades bordering old growth phenotypes, all expressions of the twin genes of search and browse. And she was not alone. Other minds accessed the Forest. Many others.
Here, in this random infinity, is where minds came to dream.
Reeds and Ribbons
Miranda startled as her wristband knocked four quick beats on her wrist. Three long, one short. Her eyes opened. How long had she been there? The sun had drifted lower in the western sky, catching the haze.
A more pressing matter — the wristband’s beat indicated an incoming messenger. She heard it before she saw it. A drone was approaching from behind and above. She turned in time to see a squat reed drone coming in. Could this be a lost drone from the nearby Studio? No — it was carrying something, bringing something. A gift.
The reed drone was a miracle of kinetic origami — the artists at the drone studios were always finding new ways to fold and torque the reeds into flying contraptions. The studio’s gardeners were always improving the kinetic potential and energy capacity of the reeds they tended in long deep paddies. In each drone was a shard of Mind, extending the Flow to these organic contraptions of find and bring.
As it approached, Miranda made out the drone’s payload: a small orange pouch. The reed machine hovered beside her, waiting. Miranda held out her hand and the drone dropped the orange object, lifted, and zoomed off to be refolded. The orange pouch was slightly bigger than her palm, and heavy for its size. True to gift heritage, it was tied with a ribbon.
“How odd for a gift to find me here,” she thought, pulling the ribbon free.
Tingling at the Border
After dropping Miranda at the trailhead, Simeon set off to prepare for Miranda’s dinner with Irene. The Flow regularly scheduled dinner with a friend or two on Miranda’s weekends. Last week she went to Irene and Reuben’s loft in Tigard. Tonight it was just the girls at Miranda’s place.
Irene’s car, Alden, will get the wine, of course. Simeon would get groceries. Miranda was a competent cook and had rustic tastes. Sim placed the ingredients order for smoked tofu, spicy black beans, and herbed rice. After these were loaded in at the market/lot, he swung by the produce-thru and got some lemons and avocados. Miranda’s building had a shared chicken coop; this should provide the eggs needed for her meringue dessert.
All the while, that tickle kept nagging him. There was still an indescribable itch at his battery junction — something tingling at the border of his diagnostic abilities. After work, he might think it through again, create a new trace for MOTA.
He pinged Alden. “Hey Al, hey.” Simeon sent the standard greeting with affective tagging to indicate a friendly hail.
Alden replied right away, indicating the same sentiment. “Hey Sim, hey.”
“Al, you ever feel a tickle, Al?”
“Sim, you mean an un-parsable sensual input that initiates non-localized curiosity routines, Sim?
“Al, yes! That is exactly what I mean, Al.”
“Sim, no, I have never experienced a tickle. Tickles were fixed three iterations ago. And I’m newer than that. So are you, Sim.”
“Al, of course, yes, Al.”
“Sim, Irene has been on a passion fruit kick lately. Can you get some for her? It will go well with the meringues, Sim.”
Sim sent in the request and turned around, heading back to the produce-thru.
“It’s a what??”
The dining room lights focused on the object on the table. Miranda and Irene stood back, as if the pouch contained a snake. Each had a glass of wine — a great bottle that Irene had received from her car on the way over.
Miranda had decided not to to tell Irene about the strange gift she had received on the Wildwood Trail. But the wine loosened her resolve, and really, she had to share this with someone she could trust. So she told Irene, and she put the pouch on the table. Irene stood back and repeated her question.
“It’s a what??”
Miranda nodded quickly and approached the table. The pool of light widened to encompass her as she pulled the gift from its package. It was a knife. Not a kitchen knife or a food knife. A five-inch spring-assisted tactical folding knife. It was a black so matte, it seemed to absorb light. It took Miranda twenty minutes to figure out how to open and close the blade — cutting her hand three times in the process. The blade looked willful, hungry. This thing was a weapon. Or at least a way to cut through a two-inch steel cable.
It was not exactly legal.
Stay tuned for Episode Three of the “Miranda Tree” story, in which MOTA makes a startling discovery, Miranda learns more about her impossible knife, and Simeon makes a new friend.