Friday, September 14, 2007

The Mark of a Genius by Nina Munteanu

Many of us have experienced some kind of bullying, whether in school or the playground or later even in the work place. I remember being pushed, unprovoked, into the bushes by a gang of ruffians back in elementary school. It's always the one who is different, stands out in some way, and usually alone who winds up being targeted. Those memories, often painful or just embarrassing and enfuriating as in my case, can shape how we deal with difficult situations and potential bullying in our current lives. Sometimes we respond with angry tirade; but sadly we usually respond with silence.
I offer a story I wrote that touches on this subject. My story, "The Mark of a Genius" was first appeared in Scifi Dimensions and will be included in a collection of my short stories, entitled "Natural Selection" through Pixl Press (an Imprint of Starfire World Syndicate).



The Mark of a Genius

“I’m Jorge,” he extended his hand.
Mitch accepted his firm handshake as excitement surged up her face. She’d noticed his dignified face earlier in the crowded room of strangers and his gaze had briefly met hers then strayed away, somehow disappointing her. She was used to men looking at her. Since she was seventeen boys had undressed her with their eyes. But this man’s glancing stare betrayed a kind of recognition that sent her heart pumping in her throat with a fearful thrill: could he be one too?
[SAM], she’d sent her thought wave to her AI-partner. [Find out everything you can on the person I’m watching].
[OKAY, MITCH], SAM had replied in her head.
Mitch had caught furtive glimpses of the stranger as he wandered among the other guests then lost sight of him. She’d boldly searched the room, unconsciously straightening her dress only to flinch when she found him standing in front of her with an enigmatic smile.
“You’re Mitch, aren’t you?” he said in a pleasant tenor’s voice, his handsome lean face radiating a disquieting calm.
“Michelin,” she corrected rather tartly, fighting down her rising defensiveness; no one called her Mitch except her best friend.

“Your boss pointed you out to me earlier,” he explained, drawing 
her to a more secluded corner of the room. “First time to one of these, Michelin?” He waved his hand to the room.

“Yes,” she said, irked at herself for blushing. Was it so obvious? Kraken had insisted that she accompany him to this fancy outer-city party. She’d come just to please her new boss and worn the only good dress she owned.
Jorge tipped his head sideways and a network of lines radiated from his sudden blue eyes. “Kraken calls you a genius, but I know you’re just a veemeld.”
Her heart slammed and she bristled, eyes involuntarily darting around to make sure no one overheard his accusation. Now she knew why she’d been repelled and attracted to him at the same time. She’d guessed right earlier: he was a veemeld too. A rude one.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly, offering a conciliatory smile. “I didn’t mean to insult you. I’m also a veemeld. You hide it well. I didn’t sense you.”
And why should he? she thought peevishly. She’d taught SAM, her AI-partner, to keep her isolated from the AI-core, effectively blocking her thoughts from other veemelds. And Jorge was polite, not intrusive like that scruffy vagrant boy, Dexter, she’d run into earlier today near her shack in the inner-city. The little creep had followed her home again and when she’d turned to glare at him his thoughts burst into hers like the groping hands of an inexperienced lover. He’d plowed right into her mind, blundered into the front door of her brain with the excitement of sensing another veemeld’s energy field. Jorge had only flirted in a back alley of her mind, gently probing via their respective AI-partners. He’d guessed the rest.
“Your avatar is? . . .” Jorge trailed, obviously hoping she’d provide the answer.
Mitch gave him a crooked smile and obliged, “SAM. My AI-entity’s called SAM.”
Jorge’s eyes sparkled. “Ah.” He looked impressed. “Short for Samantha?”
“Smart Analog Machine.”
“Ah.” He nodded. “SAM has quite a reputation in the core. I should have known it was ‘you’.”
There followed a moment of silence, which neither offered to break. Jorge lost his smile, his mind elsewhere, as Mitch brushed chestnut hair from her face. Then Jorge leaned closer, his eyes penetrating, and confided, “It’s lonely being a veemeld, isn’t it.”
Her face flared. Unable to meet his probing eyes, Michelin dropped her gaze. She found herself staring down her cleavage past her black silk dress to her long bare legs and thinking that her dress was too tight and too short. Was he coming on to her?

“They treat us more like tools than people,” Jorge went on in her silence. Michelin looked up into his sad eyes. “When I announced that I was a veemeld in school, the other students harassed me. My bosses use me like a commodity to be traded or disposed of.” He exhaled slowly and ran his long fingers through his gray hair. “When researchers developed the AI-core and the technology to use it, they had no idea that only point five percent of the population could veemeld with it.”
“Actually, it’s 0.2%”
“Ah.” He smiled wryly. “But it is rather sad, isn’t it, how it all turned out,” he continued with a thoughtful expression. “Scientists have now proven that just through the act of veemelding, we improve our cognition, memory and learning, particularly our ability to respond to changing environmental information. We do it through activation--”
“Of theta rhythm in the hippocampus. Yes, I know. We use the high-frequency tetanic pulses generated by the AI-core to activate a particular phase of theta rhythm during veemeld.”
Jorge nodded enthusiastically. “Every part of the brain that’s enhanced in veemelds is involved in theta rhythm: the brain stem that transmits signals to the septum, which then activates TR in the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex. While normal people rely on REM sleep to activate theta rhythm, veemelds have it on all the time. Remarkable, isn’t it?” He slipped his elegant hands into his pockets. “Your whole body is a symphony of rhythms, a vehicle of spontaneous, persistent synchrony. Fireflies talk with light; planets speak through the force of gravity; heart cells share electric currents. We . . . .” His eyes fired with emotion. “Imagine what humanity could be if we all connected like a single autopoietic system in a kind of synchronal dance.”
Mitch shrugged. She didn’t usually have time for dreamers . . . and Jorge was obviously a dreamer. She indulged him anyway: “autopoietic?”
Jorge smiled like he’d won a prize: her attentive ear, she supposed. “I’m talking about the whole of our society behaving and evolving in a self-organized, adaptive way. We already do this ― veemelds, that is. Have been long before the AI-technology came along.”
She gave him a skeptical half-smile. “People ‘veemelding’ without the AI-core?”
“Proof is all around us, Michelin, in the independent formulation of calculus by Newton and Leibniz or the theory of the evolution of species by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Then there’s McFadden and Pocket independently but simultaneously theorizing that electromagnetic fields are the seat of our consciousness. Multiple independent discoveries have increased in society a thousand-fold since the nineteenth century. Did you know that? The reason is obvious: the fabric of our society is evolving into a neural network, learning, interacting and sharing toward the achievement of a common zeitgeist.”
Mitch folded her arms across her chest. “That doesn’t prove the existence of veemelds.”
Jorge’s eyes lit to her challenge. “Well, there are two schools of thought on multiple independent discoveries: that it’s a function of either social context or the qualities of the individuals making the discovery such as inventive genius. I think it’s both. I think most of our geniuses were frustrated veemelds waiting for a better vehicle to tap into ― the quantum electromagnetic waves of the AI-core ― but they made due with humanity’s subtle autopoietic system instead.”
Mitch caught herself smirking. Jorge hadn’t struck her as arrogant; yet he was suggesting that every genius from Newton to Einstein was a veemeld! But she couldn’t help thinking his premise elegant. Scientists had figured out that the unique genetic makeup of veemelds provided them with, among other things, a slightly different electromagnetic field arrangement, one better suited to sending and receiving non-local fields outside their bodies. Which explained why veemelds, alone, could . . . well, veemeld.
As though he were reading her thoughts, Jorge went on, “When McFadden and Pocket simultaneously but independently proposed the theory of a localized electromagnetic field as the seat of consciousness a hundred years ago, they had no idea what Pandora’s Box they’d opened. We now know that there are so many different kinds of energy fields with differing frequency and waveform surrounding our brains and our entire bodies and connecting us to the rest of the planet and universe, like―”
“Static and pulsed EM, quantum-vacuum fields, gravitational fields and cosmic and particle-mediated fields to name a few,” Mitch leapt in, not to be outdone. She was Kraken’s “genius” after all.
Jorgen nodded with a thoughtful smile. “I thought that perhaps all humans ― veemelds and non-veemelds ―could eventually communicate as we are meant to ― as a single autopoietic system, through the subtle force fields that embrace all life and non-living entities of our planet and universe. Imagine a world where there’s no war because we all communicate and understand one another.”
How na├»ve he was! “You’re suggesting that geniuses ― veemelds―” She fought down a sneer. “―are simply more in tune with cosmic forces so they can tap into? . . .” she trailed with a shrug.
“―The web of our greater consciousness,” he finished for her, quite serious. “The autopoietic network of our humanity . . . waves of consciousness.”
“Waves of consciousness,” she repeated, finding it hard to hide the jeering tone that crept into her voice. “A new kind of energy field? Surfing the consciousness wave? . . .” She felt a sarcastic smile tugging at her lips.
“Far-fetched, you think?” His eyes gripped hers. “It’s not so different from what we already know is true. EM-mediated consciousness, for instance, and non-localized wave propagation. Researchers have long known about the phenomenon of ‘collective effect,’ Michelin. The synchronicity of multicellular organisms and societies of insects are good examples of ‘collective consciousness’, and ‘social facilitation.’ Either way, we’re the key. Veemelds. We’re the nodes of the human network. I’m convinced that all humans are capable of it. They just need to be taught. By us.” He smiled wistfully. Then he exhaled and the fire in his eyes died. “Just a dream, I suppose.” Jorge stroked his jaw pensively. “If anything we’re growing more isolated and distrustful.”
His words resonated in her gut and she dropped her gaze to the floor again. It was a wonderful dream nevertheless.
Jorge pursed his lips, letting his gaze stray for a moment to a distant place. When he refocused on her, his eyes glinted and his voice took on an edge. “They fear us, Michelin, what we can do: talk to machines in our heads. Run the city. The luddites have turned that fear to hatred. They’re terrified by our unique connection with the AI-community. We’re dangerous freaks to them. Genetic monsters. Cyborgs . . . .”

Machine-sluts . . . .
“We have no mark to show what we are,” Jorge went on, “so we can choose to hide in our anonymity. The luddites would like to change that. Brand us with some visible mark. That’s one of the reasons I formed the Veemeld Alliance. Do you know about us?”
“Yes,” she said guardedly.
“But you haven’t joined us.” Jorge looked puzzled. He pulled out a durable card and pressed it warmly in her hand. “We’re having a meeting tonight, in fact. At my place.” Then his eyes glowed like a warm camp fire. “I’d like to be a friend.” His sincere expression drew her in. “A real friend.”
Longing swelled up her throat and made her swallow convulsively. She knew what he meant: a friend who knew what she was.
He tilted his head and gazed at her with intense curiosity. “You don’t have any friends, Michelin. Yet you’ve lived here for a year, the longest time you’ve stayed in one place.”
Mitch jerked her hand out of his and clenched her jaw. That wasn’t true, she fumed. She had Nancy, after all. Her best friend . . . She thought again . . . Nancy didn’t know she was a veemeld. If Nancy did, would she still be Mitch’s friend? Mitch had long ago learned to move rather than face the consequences of intimacy. Her gaze darted around the room, looking for Kraken.
Jorge continued in a soft voice, “Veemelds can be fiercely independent and secretive. Whenever we conceal something of ourselves we choose to become slaves to our secret.”
She knew he meant her.
“It’s only together in open solidarity that we can overcome the prejudice — the fear and hatred — against us. Perhaps we can teach them that they don’t need to fear us.” His eyes grew intense and she fought the urge to back away. “Michelin, we need you.” He drew closer to her and she recoiled. “Our community needs you. You’re intelligent and . . . very attractive. You’d make an excellent spokesperson for us. With your help we could take charge of our destiny and move the human race forward to embrace a harmony of diversity. Everyone needs a friend, Michelin. Including you.”
Mitch felt anger heat her face. She didn’t need his solidarity or his friendship. She’d done just fine on her own up to now. She gave Jorge back his card. “I’m sorry but I’m not interested in joining your alliance. I’m happy just being an Icarian.”
He blinked several times then stuttered, his voice rising a pitch, “But, how can you say that? You can never be just an Icarian—”
“Because I’m a . . . genius?” she scoffed and brushed past him. “Good day.”
She glimpsed his crestfallen face as she walked briskly to the other side of the room where Kraken stood, talking to another man. Kraken leered down at her and enveloped her in his arm like a possession. She felt a hollow in the pit of her stomach.
Mitch excused herself early from the party and took the tube-jet home. She watched the amber emergency lights strobe past her as the tube-jet dove into the darkness of the tunnel. She saw Jorge’s kind face in her mind and found herself thinking about that miserable day when the girls at school discovered what she was . . . .
~~~~
Eager to make a good impression on her new school friend, Mitch was helping Abbie who struggled with her Ecology 101 lesson. They shared a holo-module at the Ed-Center and Abbie turned from the holo-com to Mitch, seated beside her. “Here’s my answer to his question on the principals of Icarian ecology,” she confided. “ ‘Ecosystems develop through natural selection from generally chaotic, pioneer stages toward stable ordered stages which maintain a dynamic equilibrium through internal forces’.”
“No, Abbie, that thinking’s a hundred years out of date. Ecosystems function and change under stable chaos, naturally cycling through destructive and building phases through changing variables—”
“Nonsense!” a gruff voice scolded. Michelin flinched and looked up at the teacher who towered over her. She fought from cowering under his glare. “You’re quoting heretical theories, young woman!”
She looked into his nostrils and focused on the dark hairs inside as she said in a shaky voice, “But I read—”
“Read!” he cut her off. Several other students peered round their cubicles. “More like cheated by slutting with your AI friends for information.” The teacher leaned over her and his small eyes narrowed. “I won’t have you disrupting my class. We don’t cater to veemeld brats.” He sneered to her look of horror. He’d just given her away. “Yes, I know what you are,” he ended menacingly. He stalked away as gawking faces ducked behind the cubicles.
During break Mitch was looking for Abbie in the school mall when a classmate collided into her.
“Out of my way, veemeld!” The girl snarled.
Mitch backed away. “I’m not a veemeld,” she lied.
“Yes you are.” The girl sneered. “I heard the teacher.” Several other girls closed in on her, forming a ring.
“Veemeld! Veemeld!” they chanted, shoving her until she fell to the ground. “AI slut—”
Mitch scrambled up in angry defense. “I’m not a vee—”
A fist struck her on the mouth, splitting her lip. “Veemeld slut!”
Her lip pounded and she tasted blood. The girls pressed against her, their faces distorted with hatred. They pummeled her as the chant resumed. “Veemeld! Veemeld!” Voices built, echoing like a mantra, to the increasing rhythm of their blows. Mitch tucked her head down and raised both arms to protect her face and chest, taking the blows with her shoulders and back.
“Hey!” A teacher approached. The girls scattered like flies disturbed from a carcass. Mitch fled in the opposite direction, glancing back. “Yes, you! Stop!” The teacher shouted at her. She rushed into the closest bathroom and, finding an empty cubicle, slid in and slammed the door shut. She slumped on the toilet, elbows on her knees, and cradled her head in her hands, rocking and sobbing, and hearing the hum of those cursed AI machines in her head. She was getting tired of moving . . . .
~~~~
Mitch was the only one who got out at the inner-city station. She inhaled the familiar stink of urine, stale liquor and rotting garbage as she picked her way past shiny pools of spit and pies of dried vomit to the stairway that led outside. Mitch bolted the stairs two by two to the exit and flung open the door. She took in a deep inhale of fresh air and shivered in the bracing cool air. Wrapping her bare arms around her waist for warmth, she headed home at a brisk pace and watched the long jerking shadow of herself that the pale moon threw ahead of her. She found herself stealing glances at the dozens of bivouacs that littered the street: eclectic shacks, built out of scrap from discarded droids, abandoned furniture, even parts of an old tube-jet, and cemented with the detritus of urban fast-living. Her shack wasn’t much better but it was home . . . for now. This was the roughest part of town. Hell, she’d lived in worse places. One just had to be smart and careful—
She’d just turned a corner to the shortcut she normally took when her stomach clenched at the sound of grunts, shouting and malicious laughter that drifted up the dark alley. Heart pulsing up her throat, Mitch stole forward. When she emerged from the alley into a courtyard, she saw five teenage boys beating a younger boy—Oh, no . . . unmistakable, the chaotic hair and the rags he wore: it was Dexter, the young veemeld who kept following her home.
He must have caught her emotional surge because his head jerked round and he looked right at her even though she was still hidden in the shadows of the alley. [Please! Help me!] came his outburst.
Mitch threw her gaze around in search of another bystander. No luck. The place was empty save the boy’s attackers and her. Mitch gripped her lower lip in her teeth, feeling a surge of adrenalin. Dexter was too young and feral to command respect from the AI-community, but she was another matter. She squared her shoulders then stepped out into the light and shouted in a commanding voice, “Stop that now!”
The boys halted and stared at her. She caught several lecherous grins and pulled down on her short dress. Dexter whimpered on the ground and the leader, a square-faced boy with spiked hair pointed down at him. “He’s a freaking veemeld!” he said as though it fully explained their actions. “Stay out of it, lady.”
“I meant it,” she said and marched toward them, hands balled at her sides. “Stop right now! You’re hurting him!”
“What’s it to you?” The leader spat out. It suddenly dawned on him: “You’re one too, aren’t you? A fucking freak.”
“No way, Russ,” one of the other boys interjected, licking his lips. “She’s too luscious to be a veemeld.” Several of the other boys agreed.
She could slink out of there, Mitch thought. Like all the times before, they didn’t want to believe she was a veemeld; she could take advantage of her beauty and retreat back into the shadows. They probably wouldn’t kill Dexter. She could let him fend for himself, like she’d fended for herself all these years . . . .
Then her eyes flickered over Dexter’s cowering form, head tucked in and both arms raised to protect his face and chest. She fired back, “Yes!” she practically gasped the word and felt the terrifying exhilaration of unburdening herself. “I am.” The words surged up her throat like an electric charge, burning all the way up: “I’m a veemeld too!”
A few boys moaned in disappointment, scanning her covetously. “What a waste of good babe meat,” one of them sighed.
The leader sneered as she resumed her advance. “Once we’re finished here, you’ll have your turn,” he said. The other boys followed with enthusiastic noises. “Grab the AI-slut!” he commanded, pointing to her. Two boys dashed for her with churlish grins.
Mitch fought from recoiling but halted. “I’m sorry, but you won’t be doing that either,” she said.
The two boys sniggered.
Mitch clenched her teeth but stood her ground.
[SAM], she sent her thought wave to her AI-companion. [Instruct the security system of Liv-Building E-29 to dispose of the five boys causing crimes, beta 050 and 051. Visual through my retina].
[OKAY, MITCH], SAM responded inside her head. Instantly, several ports on the building swiveled and discharged a concussion laser beam at the five boys, instantly stunning them. They crumpled to the ground in unison like a strangely choreographed macabre ballet. The two who’d rushed her tumbled a meter from her. Mitch side-stepped them and rushed to Dexter, who lay curled up in a fetal position, entwined with limp arms and legs. As she bent over him, Mitch continued her thought to SAM: [instruct security druids of Region E to collect these five hoodlums and put them into the cooler. They can use my visual for the crime record].

[OKAY, MITCH. THEY’RE ON THEIR WAY].
[Thanks, SAM]. Mitch touched Dexter and he flinched. “It’s okay,” she said in a gentle voice. “You’re safe now.”
He looked up, wide-eyed through a bloody and dirt-smeared face. Suddenly realizing what had happened, Dexter cracked a big grin, revealing a bloody mouth, which didn’t seem to concern him anymore. “You did it, didn’t you? You got the AIs to blast ‘em, didn’t you? I knew you were a veemeld. That was awesome …”
She realized that she didn’t need to answer his steady stream of questions and exclamations. “Come on.” She helped him to his feet. “Can you get up? I’ll take you to my place and clean you up. Looks like you’ve got a few nasty cuts.”
They left the courtyard for her shack as the city’s security droids arrived. When they entered her place, Mitch pulled out her first aid kit, sat Dexter down by the sink in the bathroom and gently washed his mouth before applying some antiseptic healing gel.
“Looks like they were trying to shut you up,” she observed with a wry smile, thinking of how he’d poked his mind where he had no business being.
“Yeah,” Dexter said. “I keep telling everyone I’m a veemeld.”
Mitch snorted. “Why on Earth would you do that?” She snapped the first aid kit shut and leaned against the sink to give him a long hard look. “You don’t look dumb. So, why do you tell everyone? You’re just looking for trouble, Dexter.”
“No. Just a real friend. Someone who’ll like me for what I am.”
“And you’re willing to get beat up time and time again to find that person?”
He nodded and gave her a goofy smile despite his puffy split lip. “I found you.”
Mitch felt a strange mixture of emotions swell into her throat. “Come on,” she finally said. “I know someone who wants to meet you, then. A whole community.”
~~~~
When Jorge opened the door he gasped. “What a surprise!” He beamed with undisguised pleasure, glancing from Mitch to Dexter. “Come in, come in!” He swung the door open for them to enter. A dozen or so people pursuing desultory conversation were already seated in comfortable chairs in Jorge’s livingroom. The meeting must have started already, Mitch observed.
She waved her hand at the boy. “This is Dexter. He’s a veemeld too. Like us,” she ended with a half-smile. “I told him he’d find a few genuine friends here.”
Jorge nodded with enthusiastic approval. “I’m sure he will. Hello, Dexter.”
Jorge was about to introduce both of them to the other veemelds in the room, when Mitch touched his arm. “And,” she added in a lowered voice, “I’ve reconsidered what you asked. I’d like to try being a spokesperson for veemelds. . . .”
She noticed that the room was suddenly quiet and everyone was looking at her.
“Thank you, Michelin,” Jorge said, taking her hand and pressing it between his two.
She pressed back. “You can all me Mitch,” she said, her smile opening to a broad grin.
The Mark of a Genius first appeared in ScifiDimensions.



Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.

9 comments:

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Bullying is a tough thing, Nina. Many of us have gone through it at school.

Bob Johnson said...

Beautiful story, just awesome!

sfgirl said...

Thanks for your comments. Yes, bullying has and likely will always be with us. Driven by fear, I think...like a lot of things, I'm afraid (pardon the bad pun... :)

kathleenmaher said...

Excellent story, Nina. The psychological and physical damage suffered by the victim is vivid, and as documented elsewhere, often indelible. Sometimes when I'm reading cautions for parents re: children, an article will mention how allowing a child to act as the bully stunts him or her.
An adult bully attacking a child is so vicious I can't quite work up sympathy for the bully, though in familial relations I guess I have, with effort and time.

sfgirl said...

That's a tough one, Kathleen...You're farther along on that one (e.g. sympathy for the adult bully) than I am. Bullying of children by adults is one of the most appalling things we can do as a species. It is like stomping on life.

joel said...

Wonderful story.

So many of us feel different in some way. We want to be recognized and loved for our uniqueness, not for pretending to be just like everyone else.

sfgirl said...

Thanks, Joel. It's something I feel strongly about. I really think that bullying is a physical manifestation of fear...fear of those who are different and who can make a difference. On a nationwide scale one could draw the parallel with imperialism and intervention...With the exception, perhaps of the French, we do not celebrate our uniqueness as individuals overly...(particularly in our schools, where it is most important).

x said...

Great story. Thanks for inviting me to read it. I came across this related news story:

http://www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2007/09/18/pink-tshirts-students.html?

x said...

sorry try here