In terms of things and content, that’s an expansion operation that could potentially go on forever.
Q: What does the ‘B’ in Benoit B Mandelbrot stand for?
A: Benoit B Mandelbrot
The following is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress. The narrator—who, as a hobby, enjoys flying drones—learns about the existence of a particular dog, one that he immediately understands is the reincarnation of his recently deceased friend, Frank Exit. The narrator then steals the dog from its eleven-year-old owner (who is not entirely as she initially appears). The dog subsequently surprises the narrator and makes a daring escape...
After I lost the dog on the highway, that is, after I lost Frank, I flew my drone around in widening ever-panicking gyres until my battery died and the drone went crashing onto the sidewalk. I didn’t even bother to retrieve it but got in the van and, rather numb, drove home, parked, went into the kitchen for a glass of water, sat down on the couch, and then wept into my hands. So close… and yet so far away, I kept repeating to myself.
Faraway, So Close! was a title I’d loved for a movie I barely remembered by a director I thought brilliant but often uneven. It was the title that haunted me the most. And I had these wandering thoughts of the phrase’s provenance simultaneous with a grief at losing my friend twice, both times absurdly and suddenly, and yet both times truly and painfully.
Then there was a loud knock on the door, which creaked open.
The girl I’d punched in the stomach was standing in the doorway. Beside her was a suitcase and in her arms were the battered remains of my abandoned drone.
“H-h-how did you find me?” I stammered.
“I told you I was much smarter than you,” she said.
“I lost the dog,” I admitted.
“I know,” she said, entering my apartment and closing the door behind her. “Listen. We don’t have much time. Can you repair this thing and do you have an infrared camera?”
“We need night vision. Do you have—”
“Get going and I’ll explain,” she said.
I got off the couch and began looking for my tools. There was something precise and formidable about the girl that made me listen to her. “How old are you?” I asked.
“Upside down elevens,” she said.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“You can call me Donna Winters,” she said.
A few hours later, Donna and I are parked outside a nondescript office building. Donna has explained that this is the lab where Jerome and Ramona work. Who were not actually her parents but rather the head technicians for an international robotics company run by a reclusive and mysterious woman named Doctor Y.
The good doctor was working on a special kind of AI that anticipates your needs, and, of which, so claims Donna, the dog is a prototype. The program is turning out to work all too well, as the robots not only seem to anticipate when you want companionship or a beverage or the stereo turned on but quickly evolved to discover and emulate that which you most longed for—a desire perhaps unconscious, secret even from yourself—a desire which in most people turns out to be the recovery of the dead. This, though I’m not sure if I entirely believe or trust her explanation, is why, according to Donna, I thought the dog was the reincarnation of my deceased friend, Frank Exit.
“That’s impossible,” I say.
“Of course it isn’t,” Donna replies.
And now we are about to embark on a plan to recover the dog. “Here’s the plan,” Donna says while we are sitting in the van, beginning her paragraph of exposition. “They know me in there so I can get past the initial security. I’ll go in with the drone in my backpack. The drone is equipped now with an infrared camera and an assortment of smoke bombs. I’ll release the drone into a vent and then set off a fire alarm. You’ll fly the drone following this route through unlit ductwork, which will avoid the security cameras and take you to Ramona’s office, where is kept a remote tracker for the robot dog. Ramona and Jerome don’t know yet the dog is missing so they won’t have secured or used the tracker. While you fly, you will release these smoke bombs, which, with the activation of the fire alarm, will cause security to evacuate the building. In the commotion, I will walk out and you will fly the drone out with the robot dog tracker, and then we’ll meet back here and begin our quest for the dog.”
I nod my assent and Donna gets out of the van. I put on my gloves and goggles and prepare for her signal to launch the drone. We communicate through our earbuds and cellphones. Everything happens exactly as Donna had described it almost without a hitch—excepting that the robot tracker had somehow been extra-secured in a spotlit vitrine with electrified glass and laser tripwires, however, we manage to clear these impediments with some fast-on-our-feet improvisation. Also at the last moment, the company’s security goons seem to have identified Donna as a suspect because she has to sprint the last yards to the van with the recovered drone in her hands yelling at me to “Drive! Drive! Drive!”
But before that, as Donna walks into the building, past the initial security, she says to me over the phone, “What is identity, really? I mean how do we derive our sense of self and, despite every indication of its contingent and influx and temporary nature, why do we insist so fundamentally on its integrity, durability, and independence? What’s more, why do we think that this illusory self has any agency whatsoever?”
“Because you are a child,” I say, “I will indulge this line of inquiry, which I too have, I admit, dabbled in, but it is fundamentally an unknowable and unanswerable problem—except, that is, in the realization that all one can quote bear witness to, or, quote have faith in, is but this flashing instant in which one finds oneself with all its observable details and all its swirling concurrent and storming vectors.”
“Don’t be condescending, old man,” Donna says. “The fundamental questions are of course evergreen and their unanswerability mark their ground as equal to young and ancient alike.”
“Fair,” I say, “but have you ever considered—”
“One moment,” Donna says, “I’m pulling the fire alarm in five four three two…” and this is followed by a loud clanging. I activate the drone, take flight, and release the first array of smoke bombs.
Donna then says:
For the longest time I did not know who my parents were but I remember a few blurry faces and a house way out in the country. But that’s all I really remember. My personal history is an inky pool from which swim up only a handful of details, in clumps. All I know is a few months ago, one morning, I found myself living with Jerome and Ramona in a house in New Jersey on a cul de sac. I woke up and my body already knew a routine: get up, brush teeth, prepare for school where my teacher’s name was Ms. Patel and my friends’ names were: Nancy, Rihanna, Soobin, and Milo. I remembered nothing but everything was familiar.
When I went downstairs that first morning, Ramona greeted me with scrambled tofu and toast and I recalled, without thinking about it, that our family was vegan. Also, that we weren’t a family in the actual sense but as an implied illusion to the outside community in which our goal was to blend in.
We sat down to breakfast and Ramona said, “You’re going to feel a little discombobulated at first. Doctor Y has set you up here for your own safety. My name is Ramona and this is Jerome. We work for Doctor Y on the Fulfillment Project. Your memory will come back eventually, but Doctor Y took the precaution of suppressing any incriminating detail. As you can see, this shows you enthusiastically agreeing to this temporary memory suppression…” And then Ramona presented a short video of myself repeatedly and convincingly pleading directly to the camera—that is, directly with my future self—that the amnesia was a necessary security protocol and declaring clearly that I’d made a very informed consent to the procedure.
I’ve only recently began to remember specifics, Donna continues. They come unbidden and aren’t always reliable, as in dreams, yet I know also that there’s a truth in these memories, a shifting or unstable truth, but a truth nonetheless. For instance, I have two mothers. At first I wasn’t sure if one of the women in my dreams was an aunt or even an older sibling, but now I realize I was conceived via in vitro fertilization and that my parents are Maude Edith Eaton and Doctor Y. Don’t be too alarmed that Doctor Y is my mother. How else would I have known enough to get us this far. Or why even would I have invited you on this trip at all if Doctor Y wasn’t my mother or for the fact that I need you as our goals happen to align. We both want to find the dog, who by chance will also lead me to my mother.
After a brief pause, during which I continue to fly the drone through angled ductwork, Donna then continues and I listen to her voice in my ear. She says:
There are many kinds of amnesia. There’s the temporary, manufactured amnesia that Doctor Y has somehow contrived in me so as to forget the location of her hideout and key details of her technology. That’s a rather specialized amnesia, but there are more common kinds. There’s the fact we cannot recall ourselves in early childhood. So-called “infantile amnesia” is true of our entire species: our first memories are around four—some will profess a little earlier or later. We recall almost nothing before this age yet if you test a four-year old, she clearly can remember things from her past.
As a poignant example I can tell you that my mother, Maude Eaton, I now know died when I was three years old. Don’t be sorry. I don’t grieve for her, at least not in the traditional sense. She died early enough that I don’t remember her. But I do think her death might have motivated or influenced the direction of Doctor Y’s research.
Still, it was something of a shock to remember. I was in the playground when it happened. For some inexplicable reason, my friends had begun to ostracize me. They scream that I have cooties or some variant thereof, and each recess had become a hell where they taunt me and force me to chase them. It’s a game I pretend to be a part of, but this isn’t true. It is their game, and I am but a live element of it but not included as a player. I don’t know why my friends Rhianna and Soobin and Milo have turned against me but they have.
In the middle of recess one day, when they say I am diseased, unwanted, when they taunt me and say, “Look out! Don’t let Donna touch you. She’s got cooties! She’s got AIDS! She’s got cancer! She’s got the Black Death!!” instead of chasing them that day and pretending to participate and laugh, I realize I’m exhausted by the playacting, of pretending my excommunication is voluntary, is a mutually agreed-upon contract for our whole entertainment, of pretending I’m having fun. And I walk off. They don’t come after me. They don’t ask after me. They let me go with their infamously cruel indifference. And I walk the perimeter of the asphalt and abruptly stop under a rimless basketball backboard, put a bare hand onto its cold metal post, and then—I suddenly remember: My mother is dead. Maude is dead. I don’t recall her or any real memory of her holding me or feeding me or singing to me. I don’t remember her at all, except in a mediated way, through a photograph or through another’s—Doctor Y’s, for example—memory of her. But at that moment on the playground I remember what I’d known but forgotten. My mother is dead. I grew dizzy but my hand on the pole kept me up.
Later, when I’m driving the van, after we’ve put a couple of hundred miles between us and the lab, I pick up this thread of conversation where we’d left off, and I turn to Donna and say, “Sometimes I wonder if the things we so chiefly use as markers for identity aren’t in fact the least fundamental. Ideas of race or class or tribe may be true for political and social movements but, on closer inspection, these categories turn out to be only the flimsiest and unimportant of costumes. And things like: one’s sense of humor, the choices of friends one keeps, how we organize our approach to crisis—these are more durable and fundamental aspects of our identity than the tribal ones, than ethnic culture or political persuasion or aesthetic camp… But then again I guess this also could be called false dichotomous thinking, an argument along the lines of nature-versus-nurture, and similar counter arguments could quickly be manufactured. ...So it’s hard to say, but the thing that I feel is a bedrock part of my identity now is something that happened relatively recently, or at least not in childhood. It began maybe ten years ago, and I think not uncoincidentally was something that bonded me profoundly with my friend Frank.”
“What was it?” Donna asks.
“We inhabited inanimate objects together.”
“Well, not at first,” I say. “It has to do with video games. I first got to know Frank through work. We were both freelancers and sometimes a big corpo would hire a bunch of us, and I started recognizing him at different sites. Since we found we both enjoyed working together, we’d start pairing up for jobs or bidding on them together. And so, naturally it seemed, we also began hanging out.
“Around then I had gotten into the habit of playing Climate Change, which is a virtual reality video game where you are one of variously weaponized cyborgs playing on one of an infinite number of generated island landscapes. Every time you would fire your weapon, the island you were on would lose a slight bit of mass, which, in the physics of the game world, would have the effect of the island sinking ever so slightly. Your goal, as I understood it, was to kill or capture your opponents before the island disappeared. What’s more, if held in captivity long enough and by feeding them the glory-energy you earned with each kill, the labor of your captured opponents could be harnessed to create slight bits of mass to add back to the island.”
It was a very addictive game, I continued. The dream was to be the ruler of an enormous island with all your opponents either slaughtered or captured. But usually we would spawn into a randomly chosen landscape and find not a powerful Midas to topple but rather a ferocious battle to engage in, one where all the combatants would eventually drown above a disappeared island just to eventually respawn in yet another similarly ending battle on yet another doomed island, a neverending cycle. The political and environmental metaphor was only too obvious, and the sophomoric irony of the gameplay I’m afraid only made it that much more enjoyable for us.
One day Frank came over and saw my gaming rig: a full room devoted to virtual reality with a levitating cage, weather machine, multiplayer goggles and suits. He’d never seen one before. Can I play? he immediately asked.
Of course! I said. I was only too happy and grateful for the chance to play with someone, so to speak, in real life. Right away it was a blast. I mean it was very exciting. Because it wasn’t just me talking or texting to an anonymous teammate I’d randomly been paired with but rather it was a notable someone, a person I could feel and hear in the room—though “feel” and “hear” were of course mediated acts by the software and the outfits. Nevertheless it felt different, more unique.
We spawned into one of my favorite landscapes, a series of ruined castles whose dungeons and moats had already lost these identities to become uncanny aquariums and canyons. As outfitted cyborgs, we could continue the battle (for a limited time) underwater and had as well various methods—jets and propellers and fins and ballasts—for aquatic navigation. The level of our air tanks glowed in a green bar on our screens before shortening to a threatening yellow rectangle and then a blinking squat red square.
We began on a high turret and I beckoned Frank over to peer though one of its huge crenels. From there we saw the unlikely span of several hundred meters of castle architecture rising out of an infinite obsidian sea, both the granite walls and the great ocean opalescent with planed and glinting reflections.
“Phaiting!” I texted him—and then leapt off the tower into the sea. Even as I tumbled through the air, I split my screen to watch also from Frank’s POV and so saw him look around and, at first, hesitate. But then he gathered his courage and took a few steps back and he too jumped off the edge. I knew he was hearing and feeling the exhilarating rush of wind from his twenty story drop and then, a few seconds later, the sweet crunch of his suit and the weather machine simulating the impact into the water. He turned to me and I saw his big grin as well as my own mirrored in the splitscreen.
Wow, he said.
Yep, I said.
We swam through a burst drawbridge into the lower floors of the castle. Approaching a large ballroom we saw the flashes and heard the water-muffled explosions of battle. I checked our oxygen levels and we exchanged nods. Even though this was my billionth time playing, I felt a trickle of sweat run down the collar of my suit. I was both excited and slightly nervous. I wanted to impress Frank.
As expected from his various trainings, Frank was a natural—though of course there were idiosyncrasies of both the game and my rig to become accustomed to. Nonetheless it felt great entering into the pitch with him. He demonstrated a wicked accuracy and quickly racked up several kills in the room before I signaled that it was time to jet up to the surface.
There, I let my guard down and was tackled by a player who had been hiding behind a column. She was without weapons so must have recently escaped one of the prisons and had been waiting in ambush in order to quickly pick up some weaponry. She and I were locked into a life-and-death grapple, splashing around the room, which was slowly being flooded. She’d obviously bought an expensive Brazilian Jiu Jitsu enhancement (or was just well trained) and had almost choked me into unconsciousness before Frank—who had surfaced moments after me but smartly, quietly—took her out with a carefully aimed paralysis dart. “I think she’ll make a great captive,’ I wheezed out as I showed Frank how to teleport her into our designated prison factory.
This is great, Frank said, a moment later, after I’d caught my breath.
Yeah, I said. Isn’t it?
That day we spent several hours playing. And from then on Frank was hooked. We had work and all of life’s obligations of course, but every chance we got we’d game. In the beginning it was always these first-person shooter games. Occasionally we’d try a racing or a hand-to-hand combat or a spaceship, but those first few years we always went back to games like Climate Change. Shooters. Where we tromped through different but in fact very similar terrains holding different but very similar weapons to look around different but very similar corners in order to annihilate—usually in bloody and explosive fashion—the virtual bodies of randos and baddies, which were from our point of view, very much redundant terms.
A few years into our habit however, Frank came over and said he’d learned about a different kind of game.
It was called Avant Gardener and, despite a great skepticism at first, we downloaded it and began to play.
“What kind of game is it?” I’d asked.
“It’s a gardener simulator,” he’d said.
“What?” I’d said.
“You are a gardener,” he explained.
“And you garden.”
“Yeah. You get to garden any kind of garden you wish.”
“Any kind of garden.”
“Yeah. And the details are incredibly crisp. Everything is diamond pixeled, all hyper-rendered and almost each master viewpoint is hand composed.”
Frank’s understanding of the technical specifications had long ago eclipsed mine, but I got his general drift. I looked at him quizzically and stammered, “You’re saying, the point of, I’m not sure I, the idea is… We pretend to garden?”
“Yes. But any garden you like.”
“We’re gardeners,” I repeated.
“Just puttering around in the dirt.”
“Any kind of dirt you can imagine.”
“And that’s it?”
“There are enhancements,” Frank said.
I perked up. “What kind?”
“You can speed up time. You can choose to control the weather or let the simulation mirror the exact conditions of any location on earth.”
“Oh,” I said, not very impressed.
“Let’s try it.”
“Oh come on.”
“Oh okay,” I said.
It took me awhile for me to appreciate the game. At first I found it dull, or thought I did, as it was repetitive and, despite the game’s impressive attention to detail, still clearly a virtual landscape and so seemed, at first, a shadow if not a mockery of the real.
But over time I started to get into it. I liked especially to manipulate the weather but only slightly from actual recorded conditions. I’d turn day into night and garden in the cooler temperatures under a full moon. Or, I’d order up a sweet breeze and strategically position a cloud to block direct sun on just my position. Little accomodations like this were a godsend, though Frank, in his garden just a worldseam over, (we could talk to each other as if we were in the same room, which we were, even if his was a peony farm in China and mine was a lettuce crop in Alaska) was a relative purist and would not deviate from the actual, mirrored condition of wherever in the world his garden was supposed to be located. And instead of speeding up time, as I would, to see ranunculus bloom or vines rise across a trellis, he would just create a different garden on the other side of the world so that he always had something to tend to and something beautiful to observe or something hitting its peak to harvest.
But we didn’t really master the game until several months later when Frank introduced a chemical element to it. He’d read about online and tracked down special “peripherals.” These were custom-made, game-specific psychoactives that hacked the nervous system. He’d mentioned them one day and I shrugged, but then the following week he said he had them.
“What’s it called?” I asked, eyeing the drug. I was relatively inexperienced and doubtful about these pharmaceutical enhancements.
“Final Boss,” Frank said, placing the gummy worm into my palm.
I looked at the gelatinous, green and yellow creature in my hand. Then I looked up to meet Frank’s eye. “Well,” I said, smiling a little because I trusted him and because we seemed to always have fun together, “Let’s garden,” and I popped the worm into my mouth.
An hour later Frank and I were sitting back to back across a worldseam. His side’s firmament consisted of a velvet night pinpricked by thousands of stars over a cactus garden outside of Oaxaca. From where I was sitting, I looked over a bright spring day where light dappled a marsh pond in a faithful reproduction of Okayama’s Kōraku-en.
“Wow,” I said.
“Yeah,” Frank said.
I looked over on his side and saw a small red flower atop a fat, round succulent. I got up and stared at it. As I was watching it, the flower, which became over a matter of seconds suddenly the most striking and vulnerable and intricate constellation I’d ever seen, then seemed to move. The flower fluttered and then folded over and over, as if the most mesmerizing Mandelbrot zoom. And then, I fell into it.
“What do you mean?” Donna asked.
“Dunno,” I said. And I tried to explain myself and said that the sensation was one of falling into the flower and then somehow in the course of the tumble, a metamorphosis occurred, and I merged with it. So that in the next moment I became the flower.
“That’s some real hippy shit,” Donna said.
“Yeah,” I said.
I don’t know how long Frank and I spent that way. At the time, I’d forgotten about him, but he later explained that he’d had a similar experience with a smooth pebble he’d found next to his foot.
The whole was a unique experience of timelessness and ego dissolution, of simple integrated Being flowing like a heavy, molten river through a framing gate. No sense of “I” or “thou” existed, only the haptic sensation of a flower poised on a cactus in the desert night air, continuously breathing, and also that of one’s helpless duty as an integrated instance of an infinite unfolding.
“Good drugs, you’re saying,” said Donna.
“Yeah,” I admitted to the eleven-year old.
That day, Frank and I were sitting in my living room, coming down from the trip and sipping mineral water, forever changed and bonded. We would talk over, review, and even repeat the experience several more times—but it was that initial trip that marked us brothers forever. We had become close through hours of battle and candified, cartoonish representations of violence in immersive shooter games, but it would take a spiritual wedding officiated by a gummy worm and a gardening simulator to interweave and weld our mercurial soul-substance so unforgettably, so utterly.
And eventually Frank and I learned—perhaps the game taught this to us—about another way to play the game. We learned to play without the computers or psychedelics. We thought of this as the Final Final Boss.
Following up an intuition, Frank helped me box up my equipment and we emptied out the room.
All that was left were a couple of chairs and a table. One of us would bring in something—a pepper shaker or an oak tree twig or a piece of pumice or a borsalino hat. And Frank and I would meditate on these and eventually we found we could—without the game or the drugs—become one with them together. It’s funny to say, but some of my fondest and best memories not only of our friendship but of my life are the times we would sit together around a tissue box or an oyster shell or a shard of broken beer bottle. We’d let go enough to feel the frozen dance of our mutual atoms interwoven and popping and winking in a cosmic rhythm with these objects, each other, and all of creation.
And the thing is. I loved meeting the Final Final Boss with Frank. It was not sexual or related to power or any kind of worldly goal. But it was by far the most intimate experience I’ve ever had with another person: this coupled samadhi of object-becoming. I think of the experience as a crucial part of my sense of self. Which I guess is why I’m so bereft. Since Frank’s death I haven’t even tried. I can’t. I haven’t even ingested a drug or looked at a gaming rig. I miss him too much. I realize I can’t do it. I can’t meet the Final Final Boss. I don’t want to without Frank, I said to Donna, the girl with whom I was hunting a robot dog so that she could be reunited with her mother and I could be with Frank again.