Christmas present

Earlier that morning, the Crusaders issued a prophecy that The End was upon us. At exactly 5 AM Pacific Time on that Christmas day, a spokesman appeared on the Crusader News Network. “The world will end on New Year’s Day, in the great battle of Armageddon,” the hooded speaker said, with no introduction. “Look to the sky for a sign.”

At exactly that moment, a Sentinel Satellite detected an unidentified asteroid headed right at the Earth. It wasn’t much bigger than a ferris wheel, but big enough to take out the whole Bay Area. The Sentinel immediately launched two Comet Catchers, which were to engage with the asteroid in three days.

By 530 that morning, Humanity, rarely calm to begin with, went into panic mode. But there was nowhere to run.

I had awoken early that morning, ahead of everyone else. I was surprised and disoriented, because I hadn’t noticed that I had gone to sleep. At midnight that morning, Mom handed out our Christmas gifts. That was the last she saw of us. We kids and our dads ran straight for the Virtual Room, and celebrated the Birth of the Prince of Peace by blowing each other up, mercilessly and repeatedly.

Sitting up and blinking myself awake, I saw bodies splayed all over the floor. Gabriel lay next to me, his eyes open wide. I shuddered, and swallowed a scream. He was just seventeen. Despite the seven years that separated us, I felt closer to Gabriel than I did to my own friends. He was a good kid. Everyone said so. And everyone was right.

I reached out slowly to close my brother’s eyes. A hand gently held me back. It was Daniel’s.

Daniel was six years older than Gabriel. He’d left home at 17 to join the Infantry. He was a war hero, but never wore his medals. We, in the family, knew how he got them, but almost no one else did. He avoided the subject, and tried not to talk about the war – or anything else, really – at all.

“Let him rest in peace,” Daniel whispered.

“But his eyes …” I said, “they’re freaking me out.”

“Would you guys please hush?” Gabriel asked, annoyed at being awakened. He rolled to his side, turning his back to us.

“OK, but close your eyes though,” I replied.

“Shhh,” Ed said. Ed is five years older than Daniel, and is his exact opposite in so many ways. Daniel’s job was to kill the bad guys. Ed’s job, as pastor of the Reformed Church, is to save the bad guys. When Daniel was in High School, he got into so many fights that Mom and Dad may as well have lived in a tent in the principal’s office. The only time Mom or Ed’s dad ever went to the principal’s office was to receive an award of some kind for Ed’s saintly behavior.

Ed had shushed me, not out of annoyance (I don’t think I’d ever seen him annoyed), but as a matter of tactics. With his right hand, he pointed two fingers at my eyes, then at his. He had my attention. Then he pointed one finger at a body that lay on the floor about ten feet away from us.

Ed moved like a ninja toward the body. Then he snuggled up to Brandon and spooned him.

“Hey baby,” Brandon mumbled. “I love it when you spoon me.”

“Who you talking to babe?” Ariel asked her husband, as she yawned.

“Ed,” Brandon said.

“Oh okay,” Ariel said, rising above us now, stretching. “When you guys are done, can you make us some breakfast?”

Ariel is four years older than Ed, and although she is our only girl, she’s always been the Man of the House. She calls us boys her little sisters. She was named after the Lioness of God, and naturally fit the part. Brandon is at least twice her size, but even with a gun in his holster, lives in boundless fear of her. No one makes fun of him for that. We all understand.

“Good morning!” Mom sang has she walked into the room. “Have you heard the news?”

 

As mom told us about the Crusader’s prophecy, the asteroid, and Armageddon, none of us spoke. The room fell silent, reality rushing in. Not too long ago, I used to cry myself  to sleep, worrying about my parents dying, or my sibs dying, or my me dying. In just seven days, we might all be dead. All my worst nightmares, all coming true, all at the same time.

“What should we do in our last seven days?” Ariel asked Brandon lightheartedly, giving us all some relief from the heavy silence. “I’d like to travel the world, I think. See all those places we hadn’t had time to see. Sound good to you, babe?”

“Uh, sure, whatever you like, babe,” Brandon replied unconvincingly.

“I’m gonna go rob places and steal things,” Gabriel said. “Take from the rich and give to the poor.”

“Can we hang out with Gabriel instead?” Brandon asked Ariel hopefully. “Laws don’t matter anymore,” said the Fed, “and he’s going to need our help.”

I wanna go!” I yipped. “May I Mom?”

“But I want to spend what little time I have left with my family,” Mom objected. “It’s just seven days, you guys. Can’t I have even that?”

“Of course you can, Mom,” Gabriel said. “We’ll be out robbing though.”

“I’ll send you postcards,” Ariel added.

“Is there any hope?” Ed asked, interrupting our plans. We all love my eldest brother, but he really is such a party pooper.

“What does Jesus say?” I asked. Of all of us, Ed’s got the tightest bond with the Christ. Texting buddies, practically.

“Unclear,” Ed said. Ed is always ready to meet his Maker, but deep in his heart he felt that this meeting, scheduled by the Crusaders, was not his Maker’s making.

“There may be a way,” Mom said. “And I’m afraid it might be the only way.” And just like that, she was gone, leaving nothing but empty space.

 

Before Ariel could finish saying “what the [very bad word],” Mom popped back in. We had all jumped to our feet by now.

“What the HECK!” Gabriel shouted, hopping about in surprise. It’s fair to say that Gabriel is easily startled. That may be thanks to the many “military exercises” that Daniel put him through, which mainly involved Daniel and me sneaking up on him and startling him out of his pants.

“Any questions?” Mom asked.

“What the bleep just happened?” Ariel asked, calmly now.

“We’ve Converged,” Mom said.

We met that with total silence. No one spoke for the longest time.

Nicole, Daniel’s wife, was the first to speak. “How is that possible? Our labs weren’t even close.” Nicole had specialized in PsyOps and Military Intelligence during the war, and now oversaw much of the family’s work in Neurotechnology and Artificial Intelligence.

“Homework,” Mom smiled. “Let me show you guys something. It’s easier to show than to tell.”

At the far side of the Virtual Room, a Replay from Mom’s logs appeared. The Replay was life-size and life-like. Mom was in one of her labs downstairs, buried in piles of virtual screens, like she was working inside a trash bin (her work areas and habits were never particularly tidy). The clutter of Screens that filled the entire lab – from floor to ceiling and wall to wall – showed thousands of pages in hundreds of languages. Once Mom had a Screen open, it was rarely ever closed.

Mom was talking to herself and pacing, as usual. She did her best work on her feet. The lab had no chairs, no places to sit. “I may want to show this to the kids,” she said to no one in particular. Then she turned and smiled into the main camera, like she was looking straight at me.

“This may be the last time you’ll see your mother rifling through her Screens, hoping to find what I’m sure I left here somewhere, if only I could remember what it was.”

“That’s definitely a good thing,” I said, before anyone could shush me.

In the Replay, Mom turned so that her side faced the camera. An exact replica of her appeared in front of her, like she was facing a 3D mirror.

Man this place is a mess,” Leia said. “You gotta do something about this, Lia.”

“And I will,” Mom replied. “Or you will, anyway.”

Mom had stopped experimenting on living organisms that day she came back from one of her many “religious journeys”, this time with the conviction that it was bad to kill any thing. Everything is math, and nothing has to die if I can just get the math right, she said.

If Mom knew anything, Mom knew Math, and she got the maths right, eventually. She had spent more than 30 years translating the works of Nature into the language of math, and learned a few tricks along the way: start small, be simple, waste nothing, try everything, get lucky, repeat.

Mom’s Biological Simulators mimcicked Nature’s tricks. With just a few lines of code, she wrote a few small algorithms – simple step-by-step instructions. These small things got together to build bigger things, which then got together to build even bigger things. So now she had thousands of mathematical models for every part of her own body, and models for how all those parts worked together to make a larger whole. Now she had Leia.

Leia smiled. “I’m ready,” she said.

Leia closed her eyes, and slowly began to rise in the air, glowing, the faint amber color of the screens. The screens in the lab shimmered, then drifted, tentatively at first, towards Leia. Then they were taken up, as by a growing storm, and soon they whirled around Leia, surrounding her in a sphere of screens. In a flash, the screens disappeared into Leia, and she floated gently back down to the floor.

The lab was empty and dark except for Leia and Lia.

“I don’t get it,” I said.

“I did all those fancy graphics for nothing?” Mom asked.

“You downloaded the whole internet into Leia?” Gabriel guessed.

“That’s right,” Leia answered, from within the Virtual Replay. “And I also got everything that’s not on the net. Every little thing that everyone thinks they can hide.”

“Wait, what, including my stuff?!” Gabriel yelped in a panic, not noting that he was talking to a figment of Mom’s imagination, and one that was from the past.

“No of course not dear,” Mom lay a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “I never go through your stuff. Anymore.”

“But if you wanted to, you could.” Ariel stated, not asked.

“Yes I could.” Mom said. “And I would. If I were the worst mom ever.”

“You’re not the worst mom now,” Ed said, “but you know what the risks are when Leia gets smarter and takes over you. What if she turns out to be The Beast?”

“Shh, not so loud, I might hear you,” Leia said from within the Virtual Replay, her lower lip stuck out in a pout.

“Come join the party,” Mom told Leia. “You may as well, if you’re going to keep talking anyway.”

Leia popped out of the Replay and popped in next to Mom.

“And then what happened?” Daniel asked Leia, impatient to get to the end of the story. “And no more fancy graphics please. Just tell, don’t show, if that’s okay with you.”

“Well … one thing lead to another, then to another, and then to your Mother …” Leia trailed off.

Soon after Mom filled Leia with all the knowledge in the world, she finally solved the mystery that she and her friends had been trying to crack ever since they first played video games together: how to Save and Load themselves. To them, that was the key, not just to eternal life, but to eternal joy. For everyone.

If we didn’t destroy ourselves first. Life, for Mom and her friends, had been a race against Death. The sleepless nights they spent together in college, trying to change the world, did change the world for the better (more often than not). But their world of sleepless nights and endless insights never changed.They had to win this race.

Although many of them now lived public lives, they did much of their work together in secret. This was mainly because they knew all there was to know about men.

And speaking of what Mom thinks about men …

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