The egg of the gorgonoid is, of course, not smooth. Unlike a hen’s egg, its surface texture is noticeably uneven. Under its reddish, leather skin bulge what look like thick cords, distantly reminiscent of fingers. Flexible, multiply jointed fingers, entwined—or, rather, squeezed into a fist.
But what can those “fingers” be?
None other than embryo of the gorgonoid itself.
For the gorgonoid is made up of two “cables.” One forms itself into a ring; the other wraps round it in a spiral, as if combining with itself. Young gorgonoids that have just broken out of their shells are pale and striped with red. Their colouring is like the peppermint candies you can buy at any city kiosk.
In the mature gorgonoid, the stripes darken. It develops a great lidless eyeball whose iris is blood-red.
I spoke of a leather skin, but that is, of course, not an accurate description. In fact, it is completely erroneous. It is simply, you understand, that the eggshell looks like leather. It isn’t actually leather, of course, or chitin, or plaster. Or any other known material. Note: It is not made of any material at all. These creatures are not organic, but neither are they inorganic. For gorgonoids are immaterial, mathematical beings. They are visible, all the same: They move, couple, and multiply on our computer terminals. Their kin persist on our monitor screens, and their progeny mature to adulthood in a few seconds. But how they exist, how—if at all—they live, is a different question entirely. The gorgonoid is merely and exclusively what it looks like—as far as we know.
But what have I said; am I not now contradicting myself? Didn’t I say that the eggshell of the gorgonoid looks like leather, but is not leather? There is some inconsistency here, something that troubles me. Perhaps I should have said: The gorgonoid appears to be only that which it appears to be. What it really is, one hardly dares attempt to say.
Not everything that is visible is material. Gorgonoids are visible but immaterial creatures. In that respect, they belong in the same category as all images and dreams, although they are not located only in an individual mind. We, on the other hand, are visible and material. In addition, there exists matter that is invisible, as astrophysicists have shown. They believe that the entire universe is full of such cold, dark mass, that there is infinitely more of it than of visible matter. Frail filaments of visible matter glimmer amid the darkness . . .
But about that which is both invisible and immaterial, they too know nothing. It is completely unattainable, uncategorisable. It is not merely unknown; it is unknowable. We cannot sense creatures of such a category, but that is no reason to dispute their existence—if not for us.
• • • •
Besides the gorgonoid, I have had the opportunity to trace the development of the tubanide, the pacmantis, and the lissajoune. The tubanide looks a little like certain ammonites of the Mesozoic era. It is a mathematical model for Nipponites mirabiles, which live in a sea of ammonia.
The spherical figures of the lissajoune have charmed me most. Whenever we wish, the precise flower-spheres of the lissajoune blossom forth on our terminals. They grow in irregular spirals, in which the outline of each figure eventually returns to its starting¬ point. The curve is always closed, unless irrational numbers come into play. And that happens extremely seldom.
Oh how dazzlingly beautiful is the odourless geometry of the lissajoune! Its beauty is not natural beauty, but the flawless logical enchantment of abstract necessity, with which nothing human or material can compare. And yet these figures are merely simulations of material life and natural growth.
And that is what most people in the institute thought: that the gorgonoid, the pacmantis, and the lissajoune were nothing more than models simulating atomic structures. But there were others who believed that, if they were not already alive, they were in the process of stepping across the threshold that separates existence from life.
“Would you like to be like them?” Rolf, the other assistant, asked me once.
“What do you mean? Like them in what sense?”
“Without free will,” Rolf said. “They never have to make a choice. That is a great advantage. Everything they do, they have to do. And they never want anything other than what they do.”
“You amaze me,” I said to Rolf. “You don’t really think they want and don’t want? And that there could exist intention that is bound?”
“I mean,” Rolf said, “that for them action and intention are the same thing.”
“That they lack internal contradiction, unlike us, you mean? But perhaps, still, they feel as if they make choices . . .”
He shrugged his shoulders, and left. His words affected me deeply.
I remembered once looking at a dark hawkmoth lying on a pine-trunk. I asked myself, then, how the hawkmoth knows how to make the right choice. Why does it always choose a trunk covered in dark bark, and not, for example, a pale birch? Does it know what colour it is?
The hawkmoth cannot see itself, but we can. Nevertheless, it always makes the right choice, but human beings do not. Why is that which we call instinct more accurate than that which we call reason? In its flawlessness, the perfection of its life, the gorgonoid—to which we have granted neither inborn instinct nor the possibility of rationality—is more like the hawkmoth than ourselves.
But we, the reason we lose our way so often is that we are freer to err, and because we watch ourselves instead of what lies ahead.
Certainly there were moments when I should have liked to have exchanged my life for that of the gorgonoid, or, even better, the lissajoune, in order to be as flawless, precise and beautiful as they.
And another reason why I should have liked to be like them is that they could at any moment—true, the moment was defined by us, but this they could hardly have known—cease to exist, and then come back just the same as before. We were not allowed to pause for breath, we had to live without stopping. Sleep was not real absence, it was not enough. Everything continued through the nights: The stream of images was ceaseless, it merely took place in different surroundings, without need of eyes or light. And when the night was over and we returned to our desks, we were not quite the same creatures who had left in the evening, for even our dreams changed us. And our changes were always irreversible, whereas they could start again from the beginning—or from the exact point at which they had left off.
How I should have loved to go away, even for a moment, if it could have been done by pressing a key, to come back later. But for us there was no temporary death, whereas the gorgonoid—when the glow of the monitor was extinguished—ceased to exist in the place where it was, but without going anywhere else.
Inconceivable that something that has existed in some place can no longer exist in any place. How can we help asking, when someone dies, “Where has he gone?”
The gorgonoid does not fall ill, age, or necessarily ever die. Such are the privileges of creatures that do not live in the flesh or in time. They can be transferred to other programs and be copied endlessly.
But was it certain that, outside the program, the gorgonoid did not have its own independent existence, did not continue its existence there in precisely the same way as it had lived on our screens up to that point, with the sole difference that now we could no longer perceive it?
“What do you think, Rolf, are they animals?” I asked once, as the project was beginning to near its conclusion.
“Don’t animals have bodies? Mass?” he said. “They are not animals or plants, because they don’t really have bodies. You can’t touch them.”
“Is that your criterion for an animal? That you can touch it?”
They looked three-dimensional, but of course they were not. Our understanding was that their life was “apparent” life, it was completely superficial. They were objects, no more than objects, at any rate that’s what it—yes, appeared to be.
I couldn’t have lived the “apparent” life of the gorgonoid, even if I had wanted to. And that was because I wasn’t “internally consistent,” for I had a quality that the gorgonoids only appeared to have—the state of materiality, a state of intentionality, self, and freedom that had spread inseparably through matter, had dissolved into it. It was this that kept the visible in existence, that gave it a recognisable form, discrete and relatively permanent. It was a state of choice that allowed changes of direction, but only of place, never of time.
Would I really have exchanged my life for theirs? Would I have given up my materiality, my fleeting moment, for their disembodied seclusion, static even in its mutability?
• • • •
What gave us the right to consider their life to be a mere shadow-existence, pictures in a magic lantern? Our life differed from theirs in that that we loved, hated, feared, and pitied—and were conscious of the events of our own existence. When we were no longer conscious of them, there was little to differentiate between our lives and their existence.
There were times when I began to have the terrifying feeling that, in some ways, I was becoming like them. It felt as though the things that made my life human were beginning to wither and shrivel.
During that winter, when I was spending my days in the company of the gorgonoids, I came home to his cold gaze, or did not see him at all. He spent his time in the town, in rooms I did not know, with people I did not know. I did not know which was worse: that I waited for him and he did not come home, or that he came home and it was as if there was nobody there. There was no connection. I looked at him as I looked at the gorgonoids, but he never looked at me. It was as though he was as unconscious of my existence as they were. And when I, too, ceased to look at him, we lived in separate programs.
My life began to thin out strangely, to empty as if from the inside. I began to become detached, abstracted. I still had a body, and my body had mass, but I was conscious of its existence only momentarily. This state of affairs was not visible from outside. If someone had examined my existence as I examined the gorgonoids, they would not have noticed any difference. But for as long as I myself was conscious of it, I was not a gorgonoid, I only resembled one.
I had a body and a voice, but I did not touch anyone with my body, and no one touched me.
And my voice fell silent, even though I, too, desired to shout the ancient words: “My God, if you exist, save my soul, if I have a soul.”
• • • •
Gorgonoids always stay in their own world. They cannot approach us, and we cannot approach them.
For we do not associate with each other. We only program them; we are their gods. And they know as little of us as we know of our gods. But although we created the program, we cannot completely predict what they will do at a given moment. And they know nothing of our power and our weaknesses, for we do not inhabit the same time or the same space. At the moment when something in their world changes, they perhaps receive a hint of our existence; as if two-dimensional creatures were to see a ball sink through their surface-world, and then disappear.
Is there any interaction? I am asking a straightforward question: In what sense do they exist? In what sense do they live? The gorgonoid, the tubanide, the pacmantis, and the lissajoune. These statistical animals that can only be seen. That are only two-¬dimensional, even though they appear three-dimensional.
Did I say “only”? It is unclear in what sense they fail to be three-dimensional. For even if we cannot measure the mass of the gorgonoid, we are able to calculate its volume. And I was unable to rid myself of the following question, however irrelevant it seemed in regard to the institute’s project: Can behaviour exist without consciousness? Does the gorgonoid believe that it can influence its individual life in the same way as we do? And is there any way of proving that it does, or does not?
If someone asks, is it alive, what does he really mean? And I do ask. I ask, does it exist for itself? Because I believe that only that is true life. If it has no consciousness, but only an abstract and superficial reality, I do not consider it to be alive. It may be true, but it does not live. In that case, it is merely an object and—objectively!—it exists. And exists much more clearly and unequivocally than myself, who can never prove the existence of my internal reality and whose exterior form can easily be destroyed, but never transferred. But it is not alive. No, that I deny it.
“You can’t,” Rolf said. “How can you dictate that artificial reality is less real than physical reality?”
“Life is not a spectacle,” I said.
• • • •
Gorgonoids always stay in their own world. People always stay in the human world. They cannot function without creatures of the same species. But even a solitary gorgonoid is still a gorgonoid, while a person stripped of all relationships is no longer a person. His life resides in them.
Gorgonoids! Tubanides! Lissajounes! Nipponites mirabiles! In some ways we were like them, and in others—I thought—even more mechanical than they, like inorganic objects.
But did they have even the slightest possibility of dreaming of choice as we do, day after day, again and again, and as we would continue to do even if it were conclusively proved that any chance of choice was over, and that it had never really existed? That was where humanity lay—not in freedom itself, but in the dream of freedom.
I still say that I wish to raise my hand and step out—in that direction! And I raise my hand and take a step. Not knowing whether I have done so because I wish it, or because my will happens to be in harmony with what I must do.
I still ask: In what sense do we exist? We, who are both visible and invisible? What level of reality do we represent? Is it always the same, or does it sometimes shift, without our realising it?
How independent, and how dependent, are we?
And how can we ever cease to exist?