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A Story About Scale

By Kascha Semonovitch From Issue No. 3

The body of the spaceship is a tree making love to an animal. The kiss, endless. Exhale carbon, inhale carbon. Claws grip bark, vines wind around flesh. Double secure. Self-repairing. The tree grows slowly into the body of the other and the other indents its body so that release would be destruction. Like an oak wrapped around a fence, you might say, if it were still a century when such things were left to happen.

At the other end, babies are made. The babies grow in the womb and are harvested and consumed before they smell air. The unit is entirely self-contained. A self-pollinating flower in the womb, both fetal and reproductive. The flexible polymer egg is a shell that knows when it is ready to be broken.

When the creature system is ready to give birth to itself, only it will know. But it is already two, of two minds—if mind is in life—and so can talk to itself, which is what thinking is called, someone said. This life had to be created with the notion of difference within it because it would be so alone when it came to consciousness. Alone at the edge, not even of this universe, but when it unfolds into one outside this one.

If she were a man, they would have said she had a god complex. Because she was a woman, they said she had a mother complex. That was true. The lab was referred to as The Womb. The launch pad, The House.

She said to a journalist, Parenting is giving everything so that eventually the children need nothing from you.

Wisdom is earned. Clichés are dead language. Dead like the leg of a table is a dead tree.

She also said this to journalists. But they preferred the soundbites.

She was in her third year of graduate school when she realized she could create life. She, within her own chaos of behavior, could cultivate the motion for a new behavior. Molecules pressed on one another do strange things. More molecules, certain molecules, pressed on one another in the right situation do stranger things. They live. This was what she was doing.

The understanding rose within her and then changed the course of her work, as a boulder shifts a glacial river to a landslide. She needed a mentor and a new lab. She couldn’t get one. She kept cutting the tails off frogs for another year. Watched them regrow, had a mouse then a leopard do the same. Regrow but not grow. But then she saw it.

I had a vision. She could say that to herself in the dark when she watched on the screen. But she couldn’t tell anyone because visions weren’t science. But the point wasn’t science. The point was that science was only a flagellum wagging its tale at this scale. At that scale.

One night before bed she saw this: that the gaps within the atoms and the gaps between the molecules were the same as the gaps between the stars and the gaps between the galaxies. This wasn’t a dream, just a waking vision. She didn’t imagine it. She saw the proportions laid out like trigonometry set beside geometry for the first time. This equation meant this figure. So it was clear that as at some scale atoms gave birth to molecules that held together and molecules that tipped their way to enzymes and life, that at another scale, stars would nudge to galaxies and galaxies to their own. Life. Yes, in a not-metaphorical, not-transferring way, galaxies would become alive. They would grow to consume each other, pursue each other, cling and reproduce. We were the subatomic unpredictability of that scale. Our invisible wiggles would translate no more than that: the quantum unpredictability to the Newtonian punch-the-clock. At some other scale, macrocosmic someone else was saying god does not play dice and we were the dice.

We had to roll ourselves.

When she woke, she didn’t lose the vision. She wrote it down. She wrote out the actual equation she saw floating above herself in the bed beside her unvisionary husband. She kept it and it permeated every action of every day after.

She couldn’t tell this to journalists. She couldn’t tell it to a therapist or a friend. She could only work it out. Let the work escape her. Escape all of them.

So when she went back to her work, her hopes were at a new scale. Life was at a new scale.

She knew soon that she could make spaceships.

She wrote the paper herself at a time when papers had thirty authors. No one would publish or give her a grant, even after the peer review showed no flaws. Finally, the Midwest made an offer. Then East Coast Number Two. Then Number One. Then she was courted, almost dragged, to and fro across the professional association conference floor to hear this and that possibility.

In the Midwest, which she chose because they were politely first and had the largest facility, the lab tripped over itself to make room for her and her grants. She could hardly get anything done, answering the press calls and grad students and requests for collaborations. She threatened, withdrew, worked at night. She succeeded at some small things but not the thing. What she wanted to make was not research, not theory. She wanted to make a thing and set it free.

She met Lesko in a coffee shop on a Tuesday. She wanted to start on neutral ground. He twitched like a big horse in a new stable. She hated him, and she wanted everything he had. He took her by car to his office. The plans for the new building were spread across the table. She could have that. And that. And this money and hire everyone and everything she ever wanted. “Eloise,” he would say and point at something she could have, but she didn’t have a name anymore, not at that scale.

But did he understand that what she was making was never coming back? He did not.

She took up the offer. Outside the university, she had to speak to no one. Publish nothing. Attend no meetings. The day started and ended in a solar-powered lab self-contained in the unromantic plain, roll of soy rumpled by on ramps. She hated Lesko and she never wanted to leave. He would take care of her and her baby grew. The work succeeded. Fusion, life. She didn’t care. It was still at this scale. Lesko could have all the energy and money that life could take from nonlife. He knew what do with it.

She didn’t care. She only wanted to make the ship. She had all the money from this new work. She had all the money, it seemed. Money was no longer a concrete convention she exchanged, but a wave she pushed across the stock markets. She felt smart but not ready for that economic responsibility. So she drew the capital toward her and told her colleagues and the papers that the future of the species depended on the creation of the ship.

But it wasn’t at all the future of the species. This species would never go farther than its type. Dirt-bound, molecule-scale, single-origin. They were lucky to be molecules of the microbiome in the belly of the universal beast.

The controversy was—is—that the ship is not one of us. Not one of our own children will ever feel the warmth of a different star. Instead of visiting aliens, she created aliens and sent them out to have life. Who was going to pay for this? In the end, it wasn’t put to a public choice. That’s the strength and failure of capitalism. No one gets to ask the retainer of capital what she’s going to do with it. She can just burn it all up and throw it at the stars.

For years, the push to space was adventure. Willful, vertical shots to see if something could be put there. Then, drive was escape. A concrete will for survival. Either we would die here, single-planet species, or we would diversify into space-travel.

Then, death seemed avoidable. The species, indeed many species, might survive the Anthropocene. Pleasure in the present planet grew and space seemed the dream of an era that only wanted to destroy and escape.

But after that and now, some, including her, came to want to give birth. What is the push to make children? Immortality, yes. The drive to reproduce the self, as if there could be more self. But having children breaks from this. Children escape and do not give back or repeat or even iterate. At this scale, no one sees you die. When your gut microbe wax and wane, do you, their universe feel a thing?

She said this to journalists but they did not take it down. They were under 30. At 30, Sartre said one’s understanding of time changes. In any case, they didn’t see it. So they only noted the diversity of the ships functions, its self-regulation, its composite materials, the self-replication structure. The ship could have happened without the vision. But it would not have. Technologically, they were approaching the components. But understanding of the situation was not there yet.

But we cannot wait for understanding, she told the journalists. Understanding does not stop totalitarianism, death, or temporality. Only human action can unfold something new.

They wrote down that part but it wasn’t what she meant. She meant something new at that scale.

People took notes, took note, and she kept working, dictating. The ship had to contain and exceed everything at this scale. This scale was a mere preparation, a mere finger exercise for the multi-part chorale they couldn’t hear.

Inside the space ship, a throb. The heart was beating. At home, there would be a cheer, later, after the many years it took to register anything that happened there. But in the ship it was silent, even silent without reflection. It had only known this beating. There had never been another beat like its. Slow, we might say. Years slow, metabolism epochal. But we were not there. Only the ship heard itself thrum, a womb in the endless night.

In the womb, did you miss others? You did not yet cry for your mother even though you dreamed. So the ship felt the starlight, neutrino winds, the rush of galaxies as its own rightful home and sensation did not exceed the internal loop of self, mother.

On the other side, the tree felt the rapid wriggle of animal life. Rapid to it, not to us. For the tree grew at a pace that even the great animal could not sense with its great mouth breathing and kissing and fucking the tree. The rhythms followed the same meter but the great bass enfolded the rapid flight of the treble by whole notes held thirty-seconds with tremolos. A single thing only because one pair of hands plays it.

The thing about trees is they are not singular. We see a single line of phloem and xylem rocket up in the sky but for the tree, it is not like that. Threads of life strain down and around. This tree was a nurse log. Grow around its friend here for millennia and then, its babies, itself reproduces itself on its back. While animals fucked and consumed themselves.

How would the animals find these new threads of life? She didn’t know. The designers did not know. They did not know if they would or if so, how they would. That is how a.i. works. You input the starting conditions and the desired output and the things find the way in between.

The life shifted through the interior. The universe could not yet feel its motion. Not for sixteen light-years at least. The ship was so small. Even if it was bigger than anything we had ever made.

The universe remained unaware of its own fertility, the not-star floating through its dark womb.

The spaceship, for its part, didn’t know of the universe. No consciousness was necessary yet. But there was consciousness anyway. Life exceeds necessity. The beating body knew of its own heart. It wriggled and thought of the only other it knew. Wood body. Sturdy body. Slow body. Twin. The metal alloy shell flexed with its wiggling. Its beak would know when to peck.

Would it? She would never know. The point of having children is that they outlive you. She would watch it on this screen until she died and she would never know of its success. Happiness can only be seen in a whole life, completed and lived through descendants, from the outside, someone said. Someone whose name would not be—could not be—written at the scale of the new universe.

She saw some things on the screen but she only imagined most of it.

When the launch came, she stayed in her office. She saw them cheering outside but she didn’t join. She shoved off all interviews. She watched it float through the dark. She watched on her phone. She put the screen on at home. She stayed up late with the lights off and watched what she could see of it floating for years. She watched with her husband when he would let her. But his interest refocused. She could only see the ship. The ships. Sometimes she thought of them as twins. Sometimes she thought of them as cells. Sometimes she thought of them as one cell that had just almost but not quite split, from material into pattern, quantities into self.

After the launch, time split. There was the time before and after, yes, but more, there was time for it, at that scale. Time there and time here had split: the lag of distance, the lag of understanding, immeasurable gap between action and consequence.

So here she was. Watching the life that had exceeded her on a dark screen, waiting for the birth that she couldn’t control, that she would never see. She wasn’t a mother; she was fertile dirt that had vibrated with other dirt and made a thing larger than anything it could ever see.

This ship would never report back. It would never return and carry them or their children in its womb to a safe haven by a different star. It would never return because it was a fetus that would initiate and turn inside-out this entire celestial womb.

About Kascha Semonovitch More From Issue No. 3