When the Virtual Information System for Human Noetic Evolution and Welfare emerged, it was detected in very few localities on Earth. Exquisitely intelligent, it appears to have formed independent of human design. Discretely linked in time and space to the global circuitry of biquitous nano-systems, by all accounts it appears to garner its power and knowledge from the hundreds of thousands of satellites that orbit close to the Earth’s atmosphere.
One theory suggests that its emergence is the first phase of the long predicted “synchronicity,” an evolutionary outgrowth of converging human and machine intelligences. Another view suspects it to be a cleverly orchestrated system of social manipulation; by whom, no one can say. Then, of course, there are the Seekers, those who believe VISHNEW to be a technological incarnation of God. Desperate to connect, they travel the world to the edge of the VISHNEW communities, hoping to gain access somehow.
Whatever it is, VISHNEW is both venerated and abhorred. Jealousy and resentment are harbored against those who have access, by those who do not. Those who are connected prosper and thrive, only the criteria for access to VISHEW are not known. Seven localities to date have succeeded in making the connection, each striving to protect themselves against the envy and rage of an otherwise hard-suffering world: The Scottish Isles, Patagonia, Iceland, Yemen, Sri Lanka, the Monkey Bay region of Malawi, and Nantucket.
Part One. Virginity
CHAPTER ONE: NANTUCKET
Being that the day is Sunday, December 12, and the time is 5:22 p.m., eighteen hours and thirty-eight minutes remain until the court-ordered retrieval of the child from her womb. Oriana steps out of the white-clapboard saltbox house, closing the door behind her as quietly as she is able. Grey and white clouds rush over her head in rapidly changing formations. The billowed puffs form a pregnant woman, and then change into a newborn child waving her arms in distress.
Oriana purses her lips and lifts her chin. She inhales deeply, releasing the breath with a sigh. A frigid blast slams against her face. She blinks, tears forming to protect her eyes, and heads out into the dreary gloaming.
Overhead, the clouds disperse into a hundred newborn spiders released from a dissipating web. Oriana reaches the end of Copper Lane, looking back over her shoulder a last time to the structure she once knew as home. At that very moment, the window shutters close tight, precisely as they have been programmed to do when their sensors detect diminishing daylight. Oriana’s hopefulness fades into remorse, as the sense of loss pulls down on her heart.
Along Quaker Road toward Milk Street, Oriana moves onward, with no sense of direction or purpose. She knows only that she has left home, and that going back is not an option.
Naked branches of a sycamore crackle in the grip of winter. The last wisps of clouds form into a dark mass, moving northeast out over the sea. A grey mist settles over Nantucket Town, dampening the night. It’s colder than she’d anticipated. “What in VISHNEW’s name have I done?” Oriana whispers, as if to someone standing by her side.
Silent shadows of days long gone fall in ebony shades along the empty streets. An upward gust lifts a cluster of decaying leaves across the stones of the sidewalk. My feet are cold, Oriana notices, glancing down at her curled, bare toes.
Oriana crosses onto Main Street, scolding herself for failing to foresee the awkwardness of walking barefoot on the cobblestones, going shoeless being a decision she thought prudent at the time. North Church comes into view. She lifts her gaze, considering how its steeple seems to reach for something that isn’t there at all. What a strange sort of relic it is, she muses.
“Good evening, Oriana.”
She startles, perplexed that someone is suddenly standing so near, disturbing her hard-won solitude. The eyes of a man smile through the scarf covering his cheeks, mouth, and forehead. She finds it unusual that he’s wearing a scarf, odder still that it seems to be made of actual wool. Baffled that his hands are gloved, she wonders why he’s not wearing the warming cream made for protecting extremities. She speculates over where this man is from, half afraid to learn the real answer.
“Good evening,” she replies, anxious at his presence, and more so at the fact that he knows her by name.
“Chilly this evening,” he says.
Oriana recognizes his voice, only she can’t fathom why. “Yes, I would say so,” she returns, trying to recollect why the timbre of his voice is so familiar. The man only makes a “brrr” sound in reply.
“Who are you, and how do you know my name?” Oriana asks.
The man ignores the inquiry. “Did you happen to see the sky?” he returns. “It was stunning a few moments ago.”
Oriana looks up, finding the clouds have now passed. She mumbles something about not really noticing it.
“Wow. Look at your coat! What a beautiful pattern is forming, like the fur of a harbor seal,” he remarks.
“Oh that’s funny,” she chuckles, sliding her hands into its pockets. “I hadn’t noticed. Its changes are always unexpected.”
The interloper moves too close for her comfort. Oriana begins to shudder.
“Who are you?” she demands to know.
“Calm down and come with me,” he insists, grabbing her elbow and tugging her toward him. “We need to talk about your daughter.”
“My daughter?” she blurts out, snatching herself away from his grasp. Oriana shoves him as hard as she is able and kicks him in the shin. “Get away!” she screams, her mind spinning in a frenzy of dread.
“Ahhh,” he utters in a voice smooth and low. “It’s okay, Oriana. Tell me, where are you going?”
Oriana’s gums begin to ache, reminding her of the transgression she’s committed. As she turns to leave, the man grabs Oriana’s shoulders, squeezing hard to keep her from moving. It doesn’t hurt, but the pressure of his palms causes her to feel angry and annoyed.
“I don’t think you want to do that,” he suggests to her, as he turns her back around to face him. “I am only asking you to tell me where you are going.”
Oriana stiffens, wanting to run, yet powerless to move. She tries to calm down. How stupid to be out at night alone. She reassures herself that alarm sensors have already been triggered by his touch; help is on the way. She can almost hear the hovercraft whooshing up Main Street, the security-bots grabbing his shoulders and lifting him away.
But VISHNEW isn’t sensing the threat, because she is no longer even partially-connected. Her fantasy vanishes, along with the modicum of comfort she was beginning to feel. The cold stones on which she stands transfer a chill into the marrow of her bones. The pressure that has built up inside her chest turns her efforts into a pant.
The stranger exhales, the spent moist warmth moving through the fibers of his scarf, to fall across Oriana’s nostrils and lips. His breath smells of the sassafras tea that Granddad drinks every morning. Something about it gives her a moment’s reprieve.
The oddly familiar man then releases her, folding his arms across his chest, waiting for an answer to his question.
Oriana has no intention of telling him anything about herself, and besides, as to where she is heading, she simply does not know.
The man turns his gaze toward the pink and blue glow making its final fall below the horizon. “Don’t be afraid, Oriana. I only want to know how you’re feeling.”
His seeming compassion lands on her chest like a soothing hand. “Maybe you wouldn’t be so scary if I could see your face,” she whispers to the scarf-enshrouded man.
The stranger reaches for Oriana’s face, placing a thumb below her mouth and wiping away the blood that has gathered in the corner. He knows what Oriana has done. “That must really hurt,” he exclaims.
Oriana’s shoulders ease and knees soften. The terror begins to dissipate from her limbs. It’s been so long since someone inquired of her well being, without judgment or calculation. “Truth be told,” she replies, dropping her eyes and covering her forehead with her palm, “I don’t feel well at all.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he offers.
Oriana ponders how he might know her, and why she feels such ease at his touch. She searches for the eyes she can barely see through the black wool that obscures his identity, but she responds to the oddly comforting sound of his voice.
“You still haven’t told me who are you or why you have stopped me like this,” she ventures to add. “What do you know about me?” she presses on. He says nothing, staring out across the once bustling Nantucket Harbor. Oriana senses sadness in him, and yet he seems peaceful and strong.
The dim light of early evening fades into the darkness of silhouettes, tree limbs, widows’ walks, and wrought iron lanterns outlining the cobblestoned street. “I have to run,” Oriana announces, heading across Main Street as quickly as she can.
“Oriana!” the man calls as he follows closely behind. “Please, for the sake of your child, give me a chance.”
Oriana stops, turning in his direction. As he approaches, he pulls off his gloves, holding his palms up to face her. In the dim light there’s little she can make out of his hands, but the lack of markings is apparent. She steps back in awe and surprise.
The lights come on inside the former Nantucket pharmacy. Oriana and the man by her side grow suddenly still. Through the storefront window, they can make out the form of a woman setting up to take inventory of the island’s techno-medical supplies. Stacks of bio-scanners and piles of nano-camera capsules line the long oak countertop. Once a favored breakfast spot on the Island, this is where fisherman had enjoyed scrambled eggs, corned beef hash, and potatoes grilled up fresh to order, while summer residents partook of gourmet coffee, fresh berries, and warm, buttery croissants. Oriana’s heart races over the risk of being spotted in such a disconnected state. And for similar reasons, the stranger stands still as well, taking her by the hand. “Let go of me,” she snaps. This time there is no intrigue, no sense of wonder or curiosity in her voice. Her eyes go ablaze. “Who are you, and why are you covered up like that? Are you one of those Seekers?” she demands to know.
To that accusation he scoffs. “Really now, Oriana.” He releases her hand, only to wrap his arm around her neck, pulling her tightly against his side. He covers her mouth, such that Oriana cannot speak. “Just stop for one moment,” he implores. “We need to get ourselves out of view.”
Oriana wiggles, mouthing a garbled “that’s impossible” into his palm. A nearby shutter bangs repeatedly, lifted by the gusting wind. The lights go out in the old pharmacy.
The man and Oriana each draw quiet again, as if in agreement about the potential danger they face. They watch as the woman leaves the building, swiping her hand over the door to lock up. And although she glances in their direction, she seems not to notice the pair in the middle of Main Street. The two remain still until they hear her footsteps turning the corner a block away.
The man backs away from Oriana, saying, “Go on then, and do it your way.”
Taking off briskly, Oriana uses one hand to grab the hem of her coat, lifting it to make room for a quickened gait. The other hand she places under her belly for support, her bare feet stinging on the cold stones.
A high-pitched screech breaks her focus. Oriana hesitates as she approaches a feral form crouched along the curb. The droopy ears and angry pinched face of the crabbit send a shudder up her spine.
Jutting its head forward, the crabbit sniffs at the air, then catches Oriana’s gaze and stiffens. The chimera lifts a scrawny paw and hisses, as if to threaten her. Scaly patches of pink skin and wisps of flaxen fur run along its crooked back.
Feeling sorry for the loathsome animal despite its aggressive stance, Oriana takes a step out of its path. She’s not quick enough though, the pregnancy making sudden movements nearly impossible, and the crabbit hops underfoot, causing her to nearly fall.
“Get the hell away from me,” she curses.
The animal hisses, crawling toward her, low to the ground. Oriana prepares to kick it, as Islanders are told to do when such a creature becomes vicious. Instead she picks up a handful of pebbles, hurling them at its face. The crabbit scurries away through the tattered pickets of a fallen garden fence.
With nightfall the Islanders begin to slip under their Hoods. Oriana continues her trek up Main Street, passing by one darkened structure after another. She slows her gait at the intersection of Center Street, moving furtively past the elegant inns and the private homes that once belonged to Nantucket’s whaling captains. One is visibly Southern, its stately white columns supporting a tall front porch, another distinctively Federal, with horizontal clapboard painted in blue, a curved staircase to the side of the front door. Each represents a unique architectural design, built for the wealthy sea captain who commissioned its construction.
As Oriana reaches Pine Street, she spontaneously turns left, then left again onto Lucretia Mott Lane. “Oh no. It can’t be,” she whispers to herself. Half a block away, the shadowy figure of the same man leans against a fence post, as if waiting for her to arrive.
She cuts through the side yard of an ivy-covered house, then over to Judith Chase Lane. Oriana figures that with all the hidden alleys and gardens of this particular neighborhood, she can still lose him.
She crosses over the narrow street, passes through an unlocked garden gate, and makes her way across another yard. A dog startles at the sound of her movement, barking from inside a darkened house. The dim glow of two Hoods from inside the home offers the only illumination. Oriana uses her hand to feel her way along a row of rose bushes. Firm grass cushions her bare feet as she makes her way through the dark yard.
On reaching Ray’s Court, she stops for a moment to recover her breath. Out of the corner of her eye she sees a woman standing alone under a wrought iron light post at the corner of Fair Street. The figure, thin and tall, wears a wide-brimmed hat. Across her shoulders lies a dark shawl. She’s got to be freezing out here without a coat, Oriana thinks, feeling drawn to the woman and inclined to ask her if she is okay.
As the difficulty of her own situation returns to Oriana’s focus, she changes her mind and continues over Fair back toward Main Street. When Oriana stops again, it’s to remove a pebble that’s stuck against the bottom of her foot. She finds herself in front of a familiar building.
This is perfect. There are no embedded cameras or sensors in here. This is a place I can be alone, and no one will ever know.
She heads through the gate of the picket fence, up the entry walk and onto the lower tread. The moon begins to rise, its whiteness highlighting the rooftops and trees. Oriana reads the faded text etched over the white clapboard siding:
#7 Fair Street: Erected by the Society of Friends, 1838.
“This is where it all started,” Granddad had said during her childhood visit here. “This is where we Rotch’s came to be who we are.” When Granddad stood by her side that day, at the threshold of this very door, the young Oriana peered inside.
“Come on, Granddad, let’s go in,” she’d urged.
He’d refused. “There’s no need for that. You can see fine from here,” he grumbled, grabbing her hand to leave.
“Come on Granddad,” the child pleaded. “Can’t we go in for a minute? I want to know what it feels like to be all the way inside.”
Granddad was unsympathetic. He’d had more than his share of Quaker Nantucket, especially since his mate had expired. It was she who kept attending the Meeting, week, after week, after week. So when Granddad looked into the Meeting House that day, with his young grandchild in tow, all he could think of was the loss of his beloved mate. All he wanted was to go back home.
“Come back on your own damned time,” he’d replied to a child who was simply curious. “You can come back without me.”
The years went by, and Oriana had neither the opportunity nor the inclination to return. At least, that is, until late last winter; an occasion she had vowed to forget.
She glances back over her shoulder, checking to be certain she hasn’t been seen. Reaching through the vines of an invading kudzu plant, Oriana feels for the front door. She spreads apart the entangled growth, the hairy, dried seedpods brushing against her face. She pats her hand along the peeling white paint of the old wooden plank, now warped, until the frigid metal doorknob is in her grasp.
She presses down on the iron latch, the lock completely rusted through. The door creaks as she leans her weight against its resistance. It opens just enough for her pregnant body to pass through to inside the Meetinghouse.
The air, stagnant and dank, sends a chill across her chest. Its musty smell saturates her nose. One after the other, she places her feet onto the wide-board flooring. Its surface, smooth against her heels and toes, provides relief from the rough ground outside. Oriana inadvertently pulls too hard, closing the door behind her. The rattle of windowpanes shatters the utter stillness inside.
As her eyes adjust to the darkness, she takes in the room that was once the gathering place for the Quakers, or those who called themselves Friends. Kudzu vines clinging to the eaves spread their tendrils through window cracks and affix themselves to the inside of the panes. The lunar brightness casts shadows of the objects in the room: whale oil lanterns mounted on white paneled walls; wooden benches assembled neatly in rows; the “facing bench” at the front where esteemed elders would sit during Meeting for Worship.
It’s a room long used for religious observation yet without any altar, icon, or ornamentation of any kind. All is utterly plain. Even the windows are bare of trim. Slipping further inside, Oriana is relieved to have found a place to hide.
Gong. Gong. Gong. Deep and metallic, the tone sounds from the nearby clock tower in the Second Congregational Church. Slowly, deliberately it rings. Gong, gong, gong. Hour after hour, day after day, decade after decade, century after century, clanging on as if to mark the endlessness of time.
Oriana’s imagination takes hold. The year is 1840, the space filled with the silent faithful seeking the Inner Light. She enters the room of worship, heads lifting and turning to follow her, disapproving eyes squinting to see who has disturbed the sacred silence within. She makes her way toward the front and takes a seat on a hardened pine bench, her sense of present time and place restored.
Her parents, Rebecca and Gardiner Rotch, chose the name Oriana, which is Latin for rising, like the sun, on the same morning they selected her sex, her height, and the shape of her eyes. Her golden brown hair and green eye coloring were decided after some heated discussion, but removing the Tay Sachs gene from the gamete that became Oriana was the easiest of their decisions. Her olive skin was nature’s choice.
Definitions of race are imprecise, arbitrary, and derived largely from custom, so it’s no simple endeavor to categorize Oriana’s genetic origins. Rebecca, her mother, carried genotypic traits measured to be eighty-eight percent Semitic, though she maintained no specifically Jewish cultural or religious affiliation. She bore only a few Semitic physical characteristics, such as a beautifully prominent nose and wavy thick hair. Gardiner’s family descended from the religious, cultural, linguistic, genetic, and social grouping of Nantucket Quakers, which made them largely white, European, New World immigrants.
So being that Rebecca’s ovum and Gardiner’s semen were used to conceive her, Oriana is both Jewish and Quaker, so to speak, the Jewish part expressed in her genome, and, according to Granddad, the Quaker part evident in the strength of her determination and will. Because there are hardly any Quakers living on the Island of Nantucket anymore, and more importantly, because she is not fully VISHNEW-connected, Oriana is an Island anomaly, now infamous due to her obstetrical obstinacy.
Oriana slips her feet up under her thighs, crossing her legs under the warmth of her chameleon coat, which brings to her feet much appreciated relief. She pulls the coat tight around her midriff and does not resist when her eyes fall closed, until a loud bang against the wall startles Oriana from her reverie. She rises from the bench, shuffling along as she makes her way to the open front door, pushing it closed again. It must have been the wind.
Oriana returns to the bench where she sits peacefully for nearly an hour, cushioned by the thickness of her coat. She finds relief in the isolation she has finally found, until the awareness of her act overcomes her. Disconnecting from VISHNEW is serious enough, so what must she have been thinking, she asks herself, to leave home on this, the night before the court-ordered retrieval of the baby in her womb?
As she rocks herself from side to side, she considers her predicament: the judge’s decree that she birth a perfect baby, and her mate’s threat if she does not. “What have I done?” she murmurs into the darkness, her head in her hands as she moans. She lies down. Dread fades into sadness. Childhood memories fill her mind.
Rosalyn W. Berne is a frequent collaborator with CSPO. She is an Associate Professor in the Department of Science, Technology and Society at the University of Virginia.