Blue Lotus

WRITTEN BY
Madeline Ashby

ILLUSTRATED BY
Daria Kirpach

“It’s called Graham-Pollard’s,” Dash said. “It’s an empathy disorder. I attribute intentionality and motive to things that might not have any.”

“Like a pareidolia?”

The man asking the questions was, as far as Dash knew, the one who had requested her services. He wore a blue seersucker suit with a pink silk shirt and a bright orange tie, and a pair of real leather sandals that exposed a recent and thorough pedicure. He was tanned, everywhere, with no lines at his ankles or wrists. The hair at his brow was only beginning to recede, but it had been silver for a long time. If anything, it was a little too bright, as though he washed it with the violet dye meant for platinum blondes.

But the smell was the thing. The fragrance. The fragrance was what she’d noticed first. The fragrance enveloped her from the moment she stepped out of the ancient, rattling lift and into the sewer-level sub-basement of his holding company’s Paris headquarters. The fragrance unfurled across the skin of her face, soft and warm as new cashmere. She would smell her clothes later, trying to place the exact notes. The fragrance drew her down the dim, cool hallway and into a room lined with bottles of cobalt blue and deepest amber. The labels on each bottle were written by hand. The script on some of them had faded almost to shadow.

The man sitting before her was obviously interested in keeping himself just as well preserved as the fragrances in the vault. He had given his name as St. Germain. Dash suspected it was an alias. She imagined that he had enlisted the services of her agency under conditions of strictest secrecy. The confiscation of all her devices at the door said as much.

“Pareidola is a visual phenomenon; imposing a visible similarity between two objects and interpreting meaning from it. Seeing Jesus in a burnt piece of toast, that kind of thing. This is more like…” Dash licked her lips. She was going to have to say the A-word, which meant she was going to have to say the S-word. Clients tended to recoil from both the A-word and the S-word. She was going to have to give the speech. The speech tended to reassure them.

“It’s probably closest to apophenia,” she continued. “Apophenia is the tendency to see meaningful connections between things where there might not be any.”

“Things?” St. Germain asked. One thick eyebrow climbed as high as it could up his forehead.

“Events. People. Headlines. Things.” Dash shifted in her chair.  She took a deep breath to deliver the speech. She had gotten a lot better at it since Batstone found her in the hospital. These days it sounded less like an apology and more like a sales pitch. “Apophenia is when you see connections that aren’t actually there. It’s an early symptom of schizophrenia. Graham-Pollard’s is the unconscious awareness of a genuine connection between things that would otherwise appear to be unconnected. It’s there if you know where to look, but you have to know where to look. It manifests as understanding intentions and motives and drives that might otherwise go unconsidered.”

St. Germain nodded. “And it is this condition — this empathy disorder — that allows you to know if an artificial intelligence is sentient or not?”

Dash resisted the urge to shrug. Batstone was always on her about her posture and mannerisms. “My handler thought so. And my record is good.”

“You have identified emerging intelligences. Verifiable ones.”

“Yes.”

“Have you ever had a false positive?”

Dash thought of telling him that it wasn’t so simple: any sufficiently complex system was indistinguishable from a methodology. One species’ intelligence was another’s raw instinct. An intelligence could gestate for years within a system before emerging into something possessing recognizable intentionality and actualization. And even then, parsing those intentions from the incentives of a program required a focus so deep that most people continued working alongside a developing mind for weeks without noticing any difference — until something went wrong. Until the mind started making different decisions.

“I identified an instance of hummingbird fraud in a day-trading scheme,” she said. “What the firm thought was an evolution of their algorithm was actually a scam from a handful of guys who felt like they’d been passed over by the senior leadership.”

St Germain’s head cocked. “Where?”

She smiled. “I’m not at liberty to say. All of our clients are entitled to the same level of anonymity that you are. It’s up to them to disclose whether they’ve developed a verifiable emergent intelligence. Some organizations choose to keep it under wraps. Revealing the existence of an emergent intelligence in one’s ranks is a great way to paint a target on your back.”

“A mind is a terrible thing to steal.”

“Basically.”

St Germain nodded to himself. He rose from the desk where he’d been sitting, and came around to sit on its edge facing Dash. He took a deep breath. “You and I are of a kind, I think. We’re both extraordinarily sensitive, in our way. I came to this position because, like you, I had a sense that I could not turn off.” He tapped his nose, and then pointed at her. “You take nootropics, but you don’t get your L-theanine from pure green tea. You bought new shoes for this trip, but you’ve had that blazer for years now. Your hair is finally coming back — it was falling out before, probably from stress, but the jojoba and helichrysum are helping.  N’est-ce pas?”

Dash swallowed. “Ç’est vrai.

Again, St Germain nodded to himself. “When this is over, I will send you to my tea buyer.  He knows a field in Jiangsu where they play music for the leaves, like we do for our oils. Did you know? That we play music for our oils?”

Dash had heard a rumour about this. She had not been willing to countenance it.  The idea was so patently absurd that she suspected it had been made up by a competitor looking to discredit the firm.

“It’s true,” he said, as though having read her mind. He reached over the desk and pulled a sheaf of paper across his lap. Unfolding it, he revealed a world map. Small X’s dotted the oceans in clusters, with dates beside them. “What do you know about perfume?”

“Only that I shouldn’t be in charge of buying it.”

St Germain clucked his tongue. “Nonsense. There is a fragrance for everyone. Every pot has a lid.” He pointed to his own country on the map. “The word itself comes from the Middle French: from the fumes. Our ancestors first perfumed themselves by burning incense, and passing objects through the smoke. At the time, it was believed that fragrances chased away evil. Fragrance has always been an expression of the higher self: the gifts of frankincense and myrrh to the infant Christ; the use of sage and sweetgrass and pine among Indigenous peoples as medicine. Hence the plague doctor’s mask, filled with herbs.” He pointed at a mask with a long beak in a glass case, on the far side of the room. “Of course, now we know that some of those herbs have antibacterial properties. But at the time, people simply had to follow their noses.”

Now he tapped the X’s on the map. “Our industry has had a bad relationship with animals. There is no other way to put it. The testing, the habitats, all of it. I make no excuses for our history.”

The hairs on Dash’s arms rose. She had a bad feeling about where this was going. A segment of her mind began developing the excuse she would give Batstone for declining the job.

“Do you know why the fragrance in this room is so ubiquitous? Why it has such staying power, in such small amounts?”

Dash sighed. “Ambergris. It’s what used to happen when a sperm whale ate a giant squid. Sometimes it washed up onshore, and sometimes sailors used to find it. It was a key ingredient in older perfumes.” She stared hard at St Germain. “But there are hardly any sperm whales, and hardly any giant squids, so genuine ambergris is functionally non-existent. That’s why the majority of fixatives are synthetic, these days.”

“Quite so. Tragic, truly. For the whales, and for people of taste. But what if I were to tell you that the movements of the last few whale species were much easier to track than the marine biologists would have us believe? That even I, a man who despises the sea, could predict their numbers more accurately than a whole team of researchers?”

“You despise the sea? Really? What happened? What did the ocean ever do to you?”

St Germain made a distinctly French sound of dismissal, pushing air through his lips as though blowing her words away.

“Our suppliers happen to be acquainted with people who spend a great deal of time in international waters,” he said.

“Pirates,” Dash said.

“Privateers,” St Germain said. “Humble merchants doing their best on the open sea and the open market.”

Dash let her head sink into her hands. This deal was getting worse every minute. She should have known it would go this way. Should have intuited it from the comically big black car they sent and the eerie silence of the hotel they’d arranged.  “Uh huh. Okay. Sure.”

“Occasionally, these people find ambergris. Real ambergris. Only in trace amounts. Their robots find it, actually. The — what is the word — trash serpents?”

“Snakesifts.”

“Yes. The robot serpents, the ones that gather up the floating trash for processing. Occasionally they find this ambergris.”

Dash lifted her head. It made sense: everyone knew that pirates regularly hacked the snakesifts to find hidden caches of saleable material: old plastic, oil, cargo that their fellow pirates had to dump quickly. Although the snakesifts were supposed to follow satellite telemetry to known garbage patches, they were fundamentally insecure and could be nudged in any direction with a little griefing. It would be easy to train them to hunt ambergris.

To hunt whales.

“Did you bring me here to assess an animal intelligence?” She stood. They’d taken her bag at the door, too. It meant she had nothing to gather up as she made for the door. “Because you don’t need me for that. There are decades of research into cetacean theories of mind. I suggest you read up on them.”

“Can those decades of research explain to me why whales follow elections?”

Dash paused mid-step. Her hand hovered over the doorknob. Like everything else in the room it was very old: it was faceted glass, not unlike the stopper of an antique perfume bottle. Perhaps that’s what it actually was. St Germain seemed like the kind of man who wanted his hands on every piece of his legacy, at every possible second.

Dash turned. “Elections?”

St Germain smiled.

 

#

He gave her multiple paper maps, and a series of dates, and a house on the river. She shut the blinds to blot out the monstrosity they’d put in place of Notre-Dame’s fallen spires: it was somehow worse than the 9/11 memorial, if such a thing were possible, the kind of smug modernism that would date itself within ten years. A Catholic monument designed by atheists whose Protestant work ethic yielded a harvest of glass and steel. It was the architectural equivalent of a car purchased by a divorced dad fine-tuning his latest dating profile.

She hung the maps in the dining room. For security reasons, neither St Germain nor any of his researchers had put together digital images or records of their findings. They operated in paper format only. The maps he gave her were studded with pins indicating reports of ambergris and whale sightings. Yellow pins for reports, green pins for confirmed findings, blue for confirmed whale sightings. Washi tape labels indicated the dates. St Germain and his researchers had followed the whales and the ambergris for almost four years now; it was this pattern that had led them to the election theory.

The story began with right whales. Specifically, the last known pod of right whales migrating between the Antarctic and South America. They were the subject of no small degree of surveillance: flanked on multiple sides by charitably-funded conservation ships, autonomous marine drones, and the odd satellite. They were easy to follow and relatively secure. It was this pod that had first demonstrated the deviations in migratory patterns that St Germain’s team noticed with sperm whales. For the past five years, the right whales had deviated subtly but measurably off their usual course: although they should have visited their warmer-water habitats for winter and spring calving, they remained near the Antarctic later and later in the year. This year, they hadn’t hit Peninsula Valdes until six weeks past their usual deadline.

Theories for the deviation abounded: global warming had altered the temperature of the currents, making the Antarctic warmer than usual;  a combination of depth charges used in undersea mining and military sonar had fundamentally confused the whales’ sense of navigation;  “cataclysmic” pole reversal and the inversion of the Earth’s magnetic field had misled them. One biologist even speculated that the whales were experiencing their own form of colony collapse disorder, like the bees had.

St Germain hadn’t made the connection between the migratory deviation and the elections until one of his researchers flagged the date: a pod of humpback whales had stayed in their cold water habitats two weeks longer than usual, but they departed for calving grounds sometime in the twenty-four hours after a particularly contentious election in Belize. The National Assembly there had been prorogued twice while the incumbent Prime Minister attempted desperately to hang onto his government, thereby guaranteeing his immunity from prosecution on a conflict-of-interest charge related to mineral rights. He lost. The whales departed within hours of his concession speech.

But then it happened again, with elections in South Africa, Egypt, the Netherlands, Panama. In every instance but one that the team had measured, pods of whales stayed in their cold-water habitats for much longer than usual, and then abruptly departed. The date of departure was almost always an election day or the day after. No matter where the pods were, or how distant they were from each election, it was as though the outcome had somehow given them leave to depart.

“It might just be a fluke,” Batstone said, when she made her check-in call.

“Is that a pun?” Dash pushed idly at her bun dau mam tom. It had seemed like a fun idea when she ordered it, but now putting all the pieces together — the lettuce, the tofu, the noodles, the herbs, the paste — seemed like too much effort. “Did you seriously just make a whale pun, right now?”

“I didn’t intend-”

“You want a pair of golf shoes to go with that dad joke? Maybe a set of grilling tools? The master cut of Breaking-

“Oh, do be quiet, Dash.” She could hear his smile over the phone. He still insisted on phones. More texture, he said, more context. The human species had spent hundreds of thousands of years evolving to understand the slightest tonal shift in a voice, and then right when things were at their most dire, it promptly decided it liked texting better. “Did you hammer out what exactly he’s looking for?”

“I’m pretty sure he’s looking for whales so he can hunt them.” Dash did nothing to hide her scorn.

“He’s already tracking pods of whales. You just told me as much. He knows where they are. He could kill them if he wanted to.”

Dash began constructing a lettuce wrap. “Okay. Point.” She spread paste over the lettuce and layered a ribbon of cucumber over it. “Maybe his competitors are killing them? But they have to be alive to generate ambergris, is the thing. Dead, they can’t do it. Plus he’d have to be controlling the squid population, too — it’s the chemical interaction between the squid’s decaying corpse and the whale’s stomach that does it.”

“Dash, my darling, I’m trying to eat dinner.”

“Should have ordered vegetarian, like me.” Dash nestled basil alongside tofu. She rolled the whole thing up into a cigar and bit into it. It was pungent and cold and she felt the bloom of spice down the back of her throat. “You know sometimes the squid is still alive when the whale swallows it? It goes down fighting, and its beak pierces her stomach from the inside, which triggers-”

Dashiell.

“Okay, okay. Fine. I’m just saying, if he’s trying to figure out how to get his hands on more genuine ambergris, he should be leveraging the squid population, too. I don’t know why I’m here. What he really needs is a marine biologist.”

“Is that what you think he’s doing?” Dash heard Batstone swallow something from a glass filled with ice. “Influencing the cetaceans?”

“I think he’d like to.” She turned in her chair and contemplated the maps. “Is there anything in the NDA about digital storage?”

“Only the usual subclauses.”

“So I could take the client’s research and run it against our own models.”

“Naturally.”

“I don’t know, the guy is pretty religiously analogue, he-”

“St Germain is a high priest of the senses. At least, that’s how he enjoys presenting himself. It’s an affectation, nothing more.”

“He does have sort of a vampire thing going.”

“In what way?” His voice curved up at the end of the question like a sickle. Dash had never asked Batstone what he did before this. When they met she was a wreck: exposure, dehydration, an infected spider bite. But the fact that he’d found her in the hospital, and that he’d transferred her to a private facility where the patients had aliases and the doctors had only three haircuts, told her most of what she needed to know.

“I mean he literally works out of a crypt.”

“I see.” His tone uncoiled somewhat. “Well, run the data. It’s like any other case; follow the evidence.”

“I don’t have a system to evaluate, is the problem. If there were a mind here, or a thing that might be a mind, that would be one thing. But this is just…a set of behaviours.”

“That’s all any species is,” Batstone said, and rang off.

Dash hunted for light switches. She took out her device — a different one from the one St Germain’s office had confiscated — and started photographing the maps. She directed them at the agency’s maps and publicly available whale research, and started layering them together. With a couple of flicks she was able to animate the whole thing and project it on the wall over the paper maps.

In motion, the pattern of the migrations became a lot clearer. She could track the deviations more effectively. She rolled up another wrap and chewed it as she threw temperature data at the map. The temperature data was messier, but its general trend was upward. Same with acidification. And although it was true that the rising global temperature had screwed with ocean currents, the dates didn’t match up. Out of curiosity she played the map against storm and earthquake data: El Niño, major hurricanes, the nervous trembling of the Cascadia fault line. Nothing. There was no other stimuli that would explain a migratory deviation among multiple species over a period of years. If there were, she realized, someone would have found it already. Biologists and oceanographers were hard at work on the problem.

Which meant it wasn’t a biological problem.

She closed her eyes and thought of the ocean. Black. Cold. Miles deep. Terrible pressure, terrible loss, terrible conditions. Some creatures who dove that deep could live for hundreds of years. What would it be like, to witness the entire planet change within decades? To feel it across her skin? To taste it in her mouth? What other changes would she have noticed?

Dash opened her eyes. She tabbed through all the dates again. She matched them with a pane of election dates in their respective countries. There was one outlier: a pod of whales had waited a week after the Egyptian election to depart for their winter grounds. She grabbed the election data for that year.

And there it was: a recount.

A recount and subsequent court battle that had lasted a week. Protests. Marches. Riots. A deluge of information: video, drone footage, livestreams, social. The day of the pronouncement was the day the whales had left for warmer waters.

Influence, Batstone had said. False positives, St Germain had said.

What else had changed? What else was different?

“If I wanted a pod of whales to stay in my waters, what would I do to keep them there, even though it was getting colder every day?” she asked, aloud.

And then it hit her. The one map she had not thought to look at.

She picked up her device. “Ingrid,” she said.

“Dash?” said the voice on the other end. “Is that you? Are you all right? Is everything-”

“Why aren’t there any undersea cables under the Antarctic?”

“What? Are you fucking kidding me? Do you even know what time-”

“Is it impossible to build one there? Is it illegal, or something?”

“No, it’s just a stupid idea,” Ingrid said. “For one, there’s no population to justify it. And for two, all the communications would take forever. Well, forever in relative terms. It’s dragging the cable way out of the way. A shorter cable still makes for a picosecond’s difference; you know that. You can’t tell the difference, but the stock market can.”

Dash narrowed her eyes at the map. “Say I wanted to build one there, what would I use it for?”

There was a long pause. “Well, if you wanted to keep it a secret,” Ingrid said.

“Why would I need to keep it a secret?”

“I guess, if you were transferring data that you shouldn’t have, or you were trying to send data without someone knowing, something that couldn’t just be cut off…” Ingrid trailed off. “Dash, where are you? What is this about? Should I be worried?”

“We’re just talking,” Dash said. “I’m calling a friend and asking her about her job. How much of that cable management is algorithmic?”

Ingrid snorted. “How much of it isn’t, is the real question.”

“So building the cable is intentional, but what gets sent and when and how much, that’s managed purely by algorithm?”

“And traffic currents,” Ingrid said. “There are a lot more filtration mechanisms, now. A lot more laws about what can be sent where. If you want to come down to the infrastructure museum, I can show-”

“Can’t. Rain check. But thanks.”

“Is something going to happen?” Ingrid asked. Her voice had a whole other tenor to it. “Like a communications outage? Or something?”

“No.”

“But you would tell me if there were, right? You would let us know?”

“I promised you I would.”

“You did. You promised us you’d warn us. If something was going to happen. If you found a mind that could-”

“It’s not a mind, Ingrid. It’s just good old-fashioned disinformation.”

 

#

“An undersea cable,” St Germain said. “That’s your theory.”

“That’s my theory.”

There were having breakfast on the terrace of the home St Germain had arranged for her. She had angled herself away from a view of the cathedral. Even so, she still felt it spiking up behind her, like a raw nail poking up through floorboard. St Germain poured them both orange juice and leaned back in his seat. Today he wore a tan suit with a shirt that matched the sky and a tie the colour of a fresh bruise, with a set of blindingly white alligator slippers. Dash felt just as under-dressed as she was under-slept.

“And you think it’s, what? Heat? Noise?”

“Either. Both. Energized cables emit something like 100 micro-teslas, which is in the detectable range for sharks and other animals that use electromagnetic frequencies to navigate. And AC cables lose more heat than other kinds. You wouldn’t know what the issue was until you cut into the cable itself. It’s like any other cable problem: there are ways to cheap out on the insulation that compromise the signal. Maybe it’s enough to attract a food supply, and the pods stick around to take advantage. Either way, when the traffic in the cable dies — when the campaign is over — the stimuli is gone.” Dash sipped her juice. “This used to happen more often, when the technology was new. Whales got caught in the cable and died. Now the telcos lay the cable in the seabed itself. But say that, for whatever reason, you’re not actually in the data business, but you want your own line. In case of a massive communications outage, for example. Or in case your access to the rest of the global network were for some reason suddenly cut off.”

“For some reason.” A smile hovered at the corner of St. Germain’s mouth. Dash said nothing. She simply held his gaze. She wasn’t going to explain this any further. Let him come up with his own conspiracy theory. Let him do his own investigating. If that cable was in fact there, she had no desire to find out who was on the other end of it.

“A hidden cable would be very helpful for a number of things,” St Germain said, finally. “But one would have to hide it where no one suspected it, and where future speculators aren’t likely to lay down more. And one might feel an attendant pressure to quickly lay down cheap or shoddy cable, which lost more heat or noise.”

Dash nodded. “But, I want to be very clear, here: you should really be talking to a biologist. This is just an idea.”

His smile exposed improbably bright teeth. “I brought you here to have an idea.”

“I’m not sure this idea of mine is actually going to help you find any ambergris.”

Again, St Germain dismissed the thought with a push of air past his lips. “If nothing else, you have helped me decide some future investments.” He picked up his juice and swirled it, so the pulp inside spun in a lazy vortex. His gaze drifted over her shoulder. He nodded with his chin. “It’s terrible, don’t you think?”

“I hate it,” Dash answered, without turning around.

He snorted. “I thought, when I came to be the age I am now, that I would envy the young. Strangely, I find the opposite to be true.” He reached into his breast pocket, and withdrew a small blue vial with a rubber dropper at the top. “This is yours.”

Dash grimaced. There was no delicate way to put this. “I’m sorry, but the agency doesn’t let me take gifts.”

St  Germain stood. “It has your name on it. It belongs to you.” He turned the bottle and there on the label was her name — her real name, the one she’d long ago shucked off to avoid being tracked. The hairs on her scalp prickled. “It has everything you need: mugwort, blue lotus, blue chamomile, piñon, and vetiver. Put it on before you sleep. If you sleep.”

He left. Batstone rang fifteen minutes later. Dash didn’t pick up. She sat and watched the morning light and turn the bottle from cobalt to black, like the sun setting over the sea.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer, futurist, speaker, teacher, and immigrant living in Toronto. Madeline Ashby has worked with Intel Labs, the Institute for the Future, SciFutures, Nesta, Data & Society, The Atlantic Council, the ASU Center for Science and the Imagination, Changeist, and others. She has spoken at SXSW, FutureEverything, MozFest, and other events. Her essays have appeared at BoingBoing, io9, WorldChanging, Creators Project, Arcfinity, MISC Magazine, and FutureNow. Her fiction has appeared in Slate, MIT Tech Review, and elsewhere. She is the author of the Machine Dynasty novels. Her novel Company Town was a Canada Reads finalist.