Viriditas Clear Text 

Praise for Viriditas

Viriditas is an exciting novel that combines environmental activism with romance and high adventure. And it addresses important issues around the connections between AI, world crises, and possible solutions. Perry has crafted a novel that makes serious topics fun to read.”

—John Perkins, New York Times bestselling author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

“Aaron Perry has turned the path to health and well-being into a mysterious journey filled with villains and sages, traps and sanctuaries, deep questions and surprising answers. The unexpected turns in the adventure will have you hungry to know what happens next. Perry is a visionary futurist who has vast knowledge and real personal experience in promoting personal and social change. His vivid and captivating novel turns the path of self-transcendence into an exciting journey filled with many dangerous and unexpected encounters.”

—Dr. Robert Cloninger, MD, PhD, author of Feeling Good: The Science of Well-Being

“Viriditas captured my attention immediately. A great adventure tale that is so important for all the issues humanity is dealing with now as well as possible solutions. This book is too amazing to only read by myself, so my partner and I read it out loud together. Aaron Perry has done a brilliant job of facing our current climate and cultural challenges and articulating how we can all be a part of creating a better world. Bravo!”

—Brigitte Mars, author Holistic Health & Healing, Beauty by Nature, and The Sexual Herbal

“Aaron Perry’s Viriditas is an enjoyable read filled with portals opening to transformative ideas for both personal and world peace. Aaron is informed by his years of listening to many visionary thinkers and actually going on the grand inner peace journey himself.”

—Jonathan Granoff, Executive Director, Global Security Institute

“Aaron Perry’s eco-thriller, Viriditas, completely immerses the reader into an incredibly deep, and cleverly woven transformative journey. It is part mystical pilgrimage and part cautionary tale but above all it is a paean to Mother Earth that is full of hope for humankind. There is something in this ground-breaking epic adventure for everyone!”

—William “Sandy” Karstens, Professor of Physics, Saint Michael’s College, Vermont

“More than a gripping thriller with a poignant love story, Viriditas takes us on a journey through indigenous wisdom, permaculture, sacred geometry, artificial intelligence, the Divine Feminine, and more. Aaron Perry writes with a big heart and deep wisdom, showing us what’s possible for humanity on this planet.”

—Roger Briggs, author of Journey to Civilization and Emerging World

“Aaron Perry has created a suspenseful, adventurous and philosophical epic that delivers a truly rewarding crescendo for readers of all backgrounds. Bridging ancient wisdom from a multitude of cultures and eras to our modern consciousness, Viriditas educates, compels, and illuminates an entirely new and relevant way to reconnect to our source. Incredibly well researched, the story dispenses a massive education on modern technology, difficult historical truths, and our natural world that enlightens and illustrates our path forward in a time when direction is sorely needed.”

—Brad Lidge, Philadelphia Phillies World Series Champion

“Masterfully orchestrating various perspectives into a cohesive story line, Viriditas explores regeneration, healing, the course and potential of artificial intelligence, and most importantly—connecting with, and honoring—Mother Nature, so eloquently highlighting the most important topic of our time, The Great Healing. Never before have I turned the pages so rapidly, in this highly intelligent and most creative portrayal of the power we each hold within. I’m filled with joy and inspiration knowing there are visionaries like Aaron Perry, whose passion and determination point our inner compass in the right direction. I highly recommend this book to all. With gratitude, and in admiration, bravo!”

—Brian Dillon, Master Gardener and Master Drummer

“A Heroine’s Journey—calling to you and me! You will be transfixed by this epic journey as Brigitte Sophia takes a stand for Mother Earth and all of our relations. You will love the twists and turns and the life-giving relationships that are essential for this quest. Join me in this adventure of a lifetime.”

—Dr. Anita Sanchez, author of The Four Sacred Gifts

“This book is amazing—the story is just fascinating and the images are marvelous. I love everything about this book, and can definitely see a Netflix film in the future!”

—Rene Perez, 32°, Lodge of Perfection

“I am deep in the chapters of Viriditas and find it hard to put the book down. Otto has been awakened and I am traveling with them through the chapters of history. I am enjoying and appreciating your book. Thank you for creating it and putting it out into the world.”

—Christine Summerfield, author, Secrets of the Dandelions

“An absolutely brilliant novel by Aaron Perry, Viriditas takes you on an exceptionally entertaining journey while simultaneously sharing wise and sacred truths of this amazing world. His writing creates vivid images in my mind, and is a phenomenal piece of work with the obvious intention of leading our planet in the direction of wholeness.”

—Tyler Bell, CEO, Vera Herbals

“More than facts and figures, we need stories that inspire healing and transformation during these changing times. This is exactly what Viriditas offers. Thrilling, sensational, revelatory. Author Aaron Perry clearly serves as a conduit and steward for Viriditas’ spiritual wisdom to come Earth-side. How blessed are we—it’s right on time!”

—Liz Moyer Benferhat, Founder, We Heal For All

Viriditas is both riveting and mind-opening with so much embedded knowledge and substance. There are multiple layers of creativity that make it a new literary genre in itself. I expect Viriditas to become a classic.”

—Marité Ball, MIM, CRP, President of Blue & Green Planet, Ltd

Viriditas is a fascinating multidimensional journey of healing, soul remembrance, and transformation! Its message will restore harmony in the hearts of humanity, remind us that we are capable of great change, and empower us to take skillful, wise action.” 

—Caressa Ayres, Founder, I Flow Studio and Sound Light Foundation

“Perry’s debut novel Viriditas navigates the knife edge of fiction and prophecy. He builds this tactile eco-thriller with penetrating evocative brilliance, illuminating our chaotic, virtually dominated manufactured consent to connect the dots of our current predicament erecting a profound hope. Brigitte Sophia‘s ponderings couch our contemporary disconnectedness leading her and us to an essential awakening. Buckle up for Viriditas!”

—Brook Le Van, Co-Founder, Sustainable Settings

Copyright © 2022 by Aaron William Perry

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored, or transmitted in any form or by any means without written permission of the publisher or author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

Viriditas is a work of fiction. References to real people, places, events, and organizations are intended to document and celebrate great individuals, companies, and communities, to provide a sense of authenticity, and to educate, in the context of a visionary fiction story. All other characters, incidents, and dialogue are from the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is unintended.

Earth Water Press

PO Box 2333

Boulder, CO 80306

For more information or to contact the author about booking talks, workshops, or bulk orders of this book, visit www.earthwaterpress.com

Edited by Charmaine Boudreaux, Andrea Vanryken, and David Aretha

Cover design by Hunter Chesnutt-Perry and Jake Welsh

Interior design by Maggie McLaughlin

Author photo by Aly Artusio-Glimpse

Illustrations by Hunter Chesnutt-Perry and Jake Welsh

Photo credits:

Front cover cave photo by Christian Gloor

Back cover photo of Conundrum Hot Springs by Krblokhin

Apollonian Gasket image by Time3000

Cleopatra’s Needle and Statue of Liberty photos by Scott and Janet Wolter

DNA Image by SvitDen

Earth magnetic field image by Michael Osadciw, University of Rochester

Heart Chakra image by PeterHermes Furian

Metatron’s Cube and Epiphany sacred geometry Paintings by Cynthia Marsh

Moon image by Graphics RF

Sustainable Settings Superorganism Aerial photo by Artem Nikulkov

Venus Rose image by AnonMoos

Five and Six Star drawing and all other photos by Aaron William Perry

ISBN: 978-1-7347229-8-7 (hardcover)

ISBN: 978-1-7347229-6-3 (paperback)

ISBN: 978-1-7347229-7-0 (ebook)

ISBN: 978-1-7347229-9-4 (audiobook)

Library of Congress Control Number: 2022913721

Names: Perry, Aaron William, author.

Title: Viriditas : the great healing is within our power / Aaron William Perry.

Description: Boulder, CO : Earth Water Press, 2022.

Identifiers: ISBN 978-1-7347229-8-7 (hardcover) | 978-1-7347229-6-3 (paperback) ISBN 978-1-7347229-7-0 (ebook)

Subjects: LCSH: Computer scientists–Fiction. | Artificial intelligence–Fiction. | Mysticism–Fiction. | Ecofiction. | BISAC: FICTION / Thrillers / Technological. | FICTION / Science Fiction / Action & Adventure. | FICTION / Visionary & Metaphysical. | FICTION / Nature & the Environment. | GSAFD: Science fiction. | Suspense fiction.

Classification: LCC PS3616.E77 V57 2022 (print) | LCC PS3616.E77 (ebook) | DDC 813/.6–dc23.

Dedicated to

Osha Asa and Indigo Hunter:

I love you both beyond words

and pray that this novel dispensation

may be a blessing to your future,

to the future of your entire generation,

and to the next seven generations to come.

Dedicated to the von Übergarten and Venus Families

and all the Keepers of the Original Instructions

Dedicated to Ethan Tobias Raphael

Dedicated to the Blessings of Elaheh

And dedicated to all of those

who enter upon the sacred ground

of the Viriditas Society:

The Wind sings,

the Sun lights up,

the Water soothes,

the Soil nourishes, and

the Time is nigh.

Imagination is more important than knowledge.

For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces

the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.

– Albert Einstein

Foreword

Dear Friend,

Not long ago, I was traveling in the Slovenian Alps on one of my occasional work trips to Europe. As many of you know, I have been building a network of ambassadors throughout the world to help with the environmental restoration work that is so critical in these times. On this particular trip, after meetings at the Goetheanum in Switzerland, visiting Permaculture projects in Portugal and Germany, and exploring sacred sites in Scotland, France, and Italy, I had scheduled an extra week of “free time” to explore the region of my ancestors—Slovenia.

While hiking in the forest surrounding Lake Bled, I had a most unexpected, extraordinary experience. I encountered a peculiar, radiant, and somehow timeless woman: Lily Sophia von Übergarten. We met on the trail near an ancient cavern overlooking the island in the lake, bejeweled with a picturesque church called the Church of the Mother of God, or simply Our Lady of the Lake. As I was already seated on a rock feeling the sun’s rays warming my chest and enjoying the view, along with some crisp, clean mountain spring water and a snack of salted nuts and hard cheese, she asked to join me. Of course, I said yes, not sure if this would become a romantic adventure—she was gorgeous, after all—or one of those much rarer encounters with a wise teacher.

When one is traveling, one often has a far more open heart to the promise of “chance encounters” than when at home. It’s as if when journeying far away, the powers of serendipity and destiny are more potent. So, of course, I welcomed the woman and offered to share the simple provisions I had brought in my rucksack. From her delicately woven bag, she pulled a ruby-red pomegranate and a bar of dark chocolate wrapped in copper foil—for her snacking was some form of alchemical ritual. Suddenly, we had the makings of a proper alpine picnic.

We got to talking. She told me a bit about herself, speaking perfect English with a feathery, melodic accent. I told her a bit about myself and the work that I do. As I spoke about soil regeneration and learning the ancient arts of land stewardship, her eyes sparkled, and her face radiated a most unusual light—some star of blue-greenish hue shone from inside her. That’s when I noticed the unusual symbols and geometric shapes tattooed on her arms and shoulders—they were somehow iridescent. She noticed my curiosity, and picking up seamlessly from our conversation about the state of the world, she asked me, “Would you like to hear a story that will change your life and your world forever?”

I looked out toward the gleaming white of the cascading waterfall and the achingly lush verdure of the valley below, actually taking my time to ponder what seemed to be a profound proposition before responding. One does not every day hear such a question—let alone from a being who clearly meant what she said about “change” and “forever.”

A minute or two elapsed as I gazed and then closed my eyes, deepening into my intuitive awareness. I could sense that she was waiting with patience. I felt no pressure to hurry.

“Yes, of course…. Thank you,” I finally responded, gazing into her forest hazel eyes. “What kind of story is it?”

She was visibly pleased with my answer. Smiling with both delight and relief, the woman inhaled deeply, paused, and then exhaled slowly before proceeding, as she drew three symbols in the soil with her finger: “I’m going to share a story with you about what is happening in our world, about what has already happened, and about what will soon happen. It is a story specific to your lifetime right now and the extraordinarily momentous choice now facing all of humanity. It is a story about the human species’ journey on Earth and whence it might now lead.”

Before she spoke any further, we sat in patient silence for some time, soaking in the sun’s warmth. Then, I nodded in enchantment as she continued, her voice becoming even more melodic, more magical, and, somehow, more powerful. I was transfixed by what she told me and will never see the world the same. Indeed, I will never be the same.

What follows is the story that she shared with me—I hope that you will be transformed and inspired by it as well.

Looking forward,

Aaron William Perry

Her life changed forever

Her world changed forever.

Ours will too.

Prelude Deep Space & Earth Rise

In deep space, there is no up or down.

There is no north or south. No above and no below. Position is relative, and navigation is a function of relationship.

Without relationship, one is lost.

The center of our galaxy, the Milky Way, is one hundred thousand light years away. That means, it takes one hundred thousand years for light from our sun to reach the center of the Milky Way. It also means that the light we see when we look up at that spectacular cloud of faint illumination painted across the night sky has been traveling for one hundred thousand years to reach our eyes.

That should put some things in perspective.

Perspective, they say, is everything.

Light travels at a rate of 299,792,458 meters per second. That’s 186,282 miles per second. The center of the Milky Way is about 621,000,000,000,000,000 miles from Earth.

Knowledge is power, they say.

The utter magnitude of space is actually unfathomable to the human mind. Perhaps every one hundred years or so, there’s an individual who comes close to comprehending the expanse of space—but even that’s probably optimistic. The vast majority of the most esteemed scientists can’t do that. It is only the most advanced spiritual adepts who are capable of such a perspective, such knowing.

Perhaps.

Our sun is ninety-one million miles away. It takes light eight minutes to reach Earth after finally escaping from the sun’s corona following thousands of years of chaotic movement inside the plasma furnace of the sun’s fierce nuclear fire. While its surface is blazing at a torrid 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the sun’s core is a continuously reacting nuclear nursery, an inferno of life-giving radiation that burns at twenty-seven million degrees.

That’s hot.

Try something for me: Close your eyes, imagine light radiating from the sun’s surface, and then count slowly to 480 before opening your eyes and looking up toward it: one, two, three…480 seconds. That’s how long those photons took to race through an awesome expanse of empty space before finally splashing down into the optic nerve endings clustered in the iris of your eye. Four hundred and eighty seconds. Eight minutes. Ninety-one million miles. We call this distance from the sun to the Earth an astronomical unit, or “AU” for short.

At 186,282 miles per second, it would only take 0.133 seconds for light to circumscribe Earth’s equator. By contrast, it takes about 0.3 seconds, or almost three times as long, for a neural signal to go from your fingers to your central nervous system and then back to your fingers (as in the synaptic responses needed to remove your hand from a hot stove, for example). It only takes about 0.0133 seconds for light to make the quick trip from New York City to San Francisco—that’s thirty times faster than your own hand-to-brain neural reflexes take.

The outer edge of our own “small” solar system, the Oort Cloud, named for Dutch astronomer Jan Oort, is nine billion miles away, or about 1.5 light years. That’s nine billion miles—about one hundred times the distance from the sun to the Earth, or one hundred AUs. It is a sphere of dark, icy bodies forming a bubble around our solar system in every direction. Oort Cloud sounds like some mythic, Tolkienesque name for a region where countless objects of varying sizes hover, patiently awaiting a particular alignment of the sun and planets to exert just enough gravitational force to “knock them loose” and pull them into the center of the solar system. This same effect occurs much more frequently on the much closer Kuiper Belt, a massive disc of objects that begins near the orbits of Neptune and Pluto and extends outward for millions of miles to the edge of the Oort Cloud. They say the four largest objects in our solar system are the heliosphere, the Oort Cloud, the Kuiper Belt, and Jupiter’s magnetosphere. If Jupiter’s magnetosphere were visible from Earth, it would appear as big as the moon or the sun. What a strange coincidence that the sun and moon somehow appear to have the exact same diameter from the perspective of Earth’s surface—or is it?

Once tugged inward, one of these objects begins its long journey toward the sun, and the nearer it gets, the faster its approach. Sometimes they hurtle right by Earth. Or blast straight into her and, if large enough, wipe out most of her lifeforms in a geologic instant as was the case in the extinction of the dinosaurs some sixty-five million years ago. Thank goodness Jupiter and Saturn are out there roaming the measured paths of their orbits, sweeping up and intercepting most of these would-be planet killers before they reach the inner solar system. Thank goodness Mars is there, too, and Venus does her part. Of course, the sun himself, with his nuclear fire forever blazing at the center point of a mighty gravitational field, does most of the dusting up. And just thirty Earth diameters away, the moon maintains a final defensive circle in her steady, wavy orbit, encircling Earth like an oscillating halo. Thousands of dimpled marks on her barren surface commemorate countless cataclysms avoided on Earth.

But some slip through.

Can you picture how vast our solar system is? Light needs eight minutes to reach us from the sun and then another 1.5 years to reach the outer edge of our own little solar neighborhood. Humanity launched two spacecrafts in 1977: Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. Now, over forty years later, Voyager 1 is hurtling through interstellar space over 150 AU away from the sun and continues careening away at nearly forty thousand miles per hour. On board Voyager 1 is a gold-plated copper phonograph record called The Sounds of Earth, published by the United States of America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration. On the cover are a collection of images, diagrams, and messages encoded in binary that explain the speed at which the record should be played and the location of the sun relative to fourteen pulsars.

NASA thus indicates that the record should be played at a speed of one revolution per “3.6 seconds, expressed in time units of 0.7 billionths of a second, the time period associated with a fundamental transition of the hydrogen atom.” In an adjacent diagram, binary code is embedded in lines to fourteen symbols of pulsars describing the unique emissions frequency of each one, presumably for easy identification and triangulation. The record’s cover is electroplated with an ultra-pure layer of Uranium-238, whose half-life is 4.51 billion years. Presumably, some extraterrestrial intelligence could thus determine the duration elapsed since the craft’s launch from somewhere quite near the sun. Of course, extreme caution was taken to ensure the spacecraft had no viral or fungal spore contamination—which is impressive given that they can be smaller than five microns each. Fungal spores are known to survive the vacuum of space and remain viable. Some writers such as Terence McKenna and Aldous Huxley posit that human consciousness may have been “seeded” by fungal spores of extraterrestrial origin. Talk about a trip.

About 4.5 years is necessary for light from our sun to reach the next-nearest star, Proxima Centauri, the closest one of three stars in a triple star system we call Alpha Centauri. That’s twenty thousand times closer than the center of our own Milky Way galaxy!

And there are billions of other galaxies in space. Most of them are so far away, and so relatively dim from our perspective, that virtually all the points of light we can see shimmering in the night sky with our naked eyes are only stars in our own galaxy, and mostly only those in the section of the Milky Way that we share. With a few exceptions, we are only able to see our most immediate Milky Way neighbors.

If any of this information is new to you, or if you’re contemplating any of this reality in a new way, your consciousness is expanding.

You are gaining knowledge…and perspective.

And perspective is exactly what you’ll need in order to understand what I’m about to tell you.

Real perspective.

Now, you’re better able, even if just slightly, to perceive and understand the magnificence of this shared Creation with your human mind. If you’re not humbled by the reality of this Creation, you’re either quite imbecilic (which is possible, but not likely) or not paying much attention (which, is rather likely…these days). We live in a culture full of lots of dumbed-down distractions, and many, many people are not paying attention to much of anything that actually matters. I’m not talking about some football team’s stats. I’m not talking about the last twelve months’ yield on some little rental property you own. I’m not talking about the fact that your back continues to ache and you still eat inflammatory foods and don’t practice yoga.

I’m not talking about these at all.

I’m talking about some bigger things. I’m talking about the Divine Magnificence that exists all around you and to which you’re probably hardly paying any attention. If you’re like most humans, that is. But perhaps you’re not. Perhaps you’re a bit different. Perhaps you’re already somewhat tuned in and awake—aware that the very fact you’re sitting here reading this is, by itself, ipso facto, a miracle of Creation.

You are a miracle of Creation.

But you live in a society that denies you that reality—every day.

It’s a travesty.

So many of you have been lulled to sleep.

And it’s time to wake up.

Do you remember that scene in the movie Contact where, as the audience, we’re flying away from Earth at a magnificently rapid rate, zooming through the cacophony of all of humanity’s electromagnetic communications, out, out, out toward the edge of the solar system? This fabulously imaginative story, written by astrophysicist Carl Sagan, was made into one of my favorite movies in which Jodie Foster plays the lead role of Dr. Eleanor Arroway (“Ellie”). It’s interesting to me that Eleanor comes from the Hebrew, meaning “God is Light” (El is one of the Hebrew names for the Divine, and Or means light. “God is my light,” or “God is my candle.”) I imagine Carl Sagan had that knowledge and was deliberate in choosing her name—he was deliberate in so much.

Eleanor Arroway—how clever.

Does the light of God travel the way of an arrow?

What, indeed, is in a name?

We’ll have the opportunity to ponder some of these “big questions” in our story. For now, though, I invite you to imagine something exquisite: Instead of racing away from the Earth, imagine speeding toward it.

Imagine traveling through the vast expanse of space, emerging out of the Oort Cloud like some random stray asteroid. You begin your journey from the outermost edge, hurtling through the Kuiper Belt toward the center, accelerating toward the distant twinkling point of light, the sun, Helios, as you fly past Pluto. Then comes the path of Neptune, that blue gaseous planet we associate with all things watery, bearing the Greek name for the god of the sea. Then there’s Uranus, the god of the air. Then Saturn, the father to Jupiter, where those magnificent rings may be tranquil remnants from the violence of a recent impact, and where it’s said to rain diamonds. Then Jupiter comes, the greatest of the gas giants, the greatest of our solar planets. Jupiter. Zeus. Jove.

You careen by all of these (assuming they are aligned according to your path of travel, which happens only once every 175 years or so and occurred most recently in 2021) and then pass the asteroid belt that separates the outer planets from the inner realm. Mars rules here, the great Roman warrior god borrowed from the Greeks, who called him Ares.

There is Venus, Aphrodite, glimmering near the brightening sun. And Mercury, Hermes, Raphael, is so close to the sun, you can’t make him out from the golden shower of life-giving light, streaming constantly from the great heart of our solar system.

And now you are reaching the third planet from the sun…a very special planet. Closer and closer, you are approaching the moon. La Luna. Gray. Tranquil. Facing Earth and ever-locked in sync with her watery, tidal fluids.

You get really close to the moon and see the landing sight of Apollo 11 in the Sea of Tranquility. Footprints still frozen in time from that step of a man that was a giant leap for mankind. Fifty years have passed. The flag stands. The Freemasons flag is there too, but they don’t tell you much about that part in school. More on that later. Zooming by, surveying the desolate, captivating expanse of the lunar surface, and then, gazing back up toward the approaching horizon, you see Her rising.

She’s so beautiful.

Breathless.

Magnificent.

Glorious.

Precious.

Majestic.

Strong…yet fragile.

The only one of her kind. Practically speaking. Why would we speak of her in any other way?

Gaia.

She’s a great living being. Gaia. Mother Earth. You close in on her watery blue sphere, accented by the great green and brown expanses of continental oases.

She’s been there for eons. Incubating life. Cultivating complexity. Protecting her extraordinarily diverse life forms from deadly cosmic radiation and interstellar objects hurtling through space. Her incubator, a thin layer of atmosphere, is like the thin shell of an egg. Inside of which all life exists. All terrestrial life we’ve ever encountered, ever imagined, ever detected—all of it exists within this thin, precious, priceless layer of atmosphere.

And all of humanity, each and every one of us—whether a saint or a cruel despot—has called Earth home. This is our one and only, our alma mater, our nurturing mother.

And now, as you fly toward Gaia, she appears more massive with each second. Her beauty becomes obscured, though, as you begin to encounter space debris. First, it’s just a small shard here, a bolt there. Then more. Then whole satellites—hundreds of them. Thousands! She’s like a disturbed spherical beehive with an angry mass of metallic bees swarming all around her. And they’re as busy as any bee could ever be, beaming and redirecting millions of invisible light pulses every second: communications data. It’s a ubiquity of structured electromagnetic radiation—Light. Humans are communicating throughout the entire world. Instantaneously. And have set free all kinds of machines and instruments, continuously collecting data and streaming it across a vast network of satellites and ground-based fiber optic networks, linked together by electromagnetic radiation in a massive web of data centers and supercomputers.

As you fly closer to Earth, you hurtle toward the North American continent. The Pacific Ocean is shrouded in late-night darkness on the left, and the Atlantic is glimmering in early-morning sunlight on the right. You watch the shadow of nighttime slipping and fading toward the west as the Eastern Seaboard transforms from a dense sparkle of glowing cities into daylit fractal coastlines and river estuaries. You descend closer and closer to the land and water: across the Chesapeake Bay, above the strange geometry that is Washington, DC’s peculiar grid, and past Philadelphia in a beeline toward New York City.

Cruising closer to the Big Apple, slowing now, as the cacophony of an immense urban center comes into focus: another type of beehive buzzes before you.

Chapter 1: Urban Cacophony

The hum of New York City mesmerizes like a beehive.  

But it also irritates like a disturbed hornets’ nest—a furious cacophony of angry buzzing.

Its glass, stone, and steel intrigue the onlooker, appearing like a mechanical ant colony. Yet it is also reminiscent of a strange, otherworldly, cyber-kinetic mother ship of some alien invader. Countless conversations swarm all around. Food and products are delivered from afar. Trash is hauled away to places most people don’t consider—much of it is burned in giant incinerators located in other states to power thousands of homes. Seven million disposable single-use cups are thrown away each day. But that’s not the only trash streaming out of the great city of New York—not by a long shot.

Trades are being made by thousands of brokers—billions of dollars moving every hour.

Through the New York Stock Exchange alone, two to three million trades per day are enabled by a network of thousands of computers and data storage centers—all keeping track of who sold what, bought what, and now owns what. Global traders, businessmen, and power women, all transacting: buying, selling, informing, seeking, betraying, and ascending in a churning furor of activity, a giant church erected to the god of money. A center of global finance and arguably the most powerful nexus of humanity’s decision-making, New York City is home to hundreds of thousands of millionaires, and has the highest concentration of billionaires…anywhere on the planet.

This ever-expanding Machiavellian machine, now unleashed across the soft expanse of Gaia’s entire sphere, is decisively and mercilessly controlled from New York and many other great global city centers: Washington, DC, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Panama City, Rio de Janeiro, Sydney, Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Singapore, Mumbai, Dubai, Tel Aviv, Moscow, Rome, Zurich, Luxembourg, Geneva, Frankfurt, Paris, Edinburgh, and London as well as her Cayman Island and other offshore banking satellites. These centers and others are inextricably linked together in a great global grid…connected by light. With thousands of satellites and millions upon millions of miles of fiber optic thread, trillions upon trillions of messages and data packets buzz at light speed around the planet: optic light, radio waves, and low- and ultra-low frequency waves of electromagnetic radiation enable a ubiquity of instantaneous global communication and information flow.

Like some global fungus with a metallic cyber-mycelium network, humanity has become a super-organism: a virulent life form infesting the planet. In just a few generations, our communication technology has converted the entire globe into a buzzing beehive on the verge of a massive apocalyptic collapse. Although we’re from here, indigenous to Earth, modern humanity is behaving like a recently arrived space invader, hellbent on taking over, controlling, dominating, destabilizing, and destroying. Humanity is engulfing its home planet like a parasite consuming its host. Destruction of its oceanic, atmospheric, and terrestrial life-support systems is now pervasive and accelerating in just a few short generations—the blink of a Gaian eye! Humanity has become a ubiquity.

Thousands of oil, gas, fracking, and coal plants continuously spew toxins such as dioxin and benzene into the air and water—every minute of every hour of every day. And it’s considered economic stability. Millions of people—often the very poorest in each country—are barely eking out their lives along some coastline susceptible to disastrous flooding. Millions of gallons of extreme neurotoxins are sprayed onto fields of corn, soy, rice, and wheat—this, we call food security. In subterranean tunnels, massive machines tear and rip open the Earth, extracting metals, gems, minerals, and the coal burned to process them. There are anywhere from five hundred thousand to one million people airborne at any given moment—each and every day. Included in these overwhelming numbers are some portion of the fifty thousand people who own private jets—the super-wealthy: one percent of the one-tenth percent of the world—aloft in their Gulf Streams and Bombardier Learjets.

In a single flight above the city, hundreds of passengers are preparing to land. In this first-class seat, a sharply dressed woman is sending directive emails to her subordinates in London. Behind her, a sheik in a turban is sipping fine champagne from a slender flute, thinking of oil wells in the sands of the desert. Over there sits an ambitious Italian designer, full of that refined Mediterranean machismo that is somehow feminine, not the plaid and wool machismo of the ranches out west. Over here, a commodities broker is tracking the overnight trading numbers, setting trades to execute at the opening of the Asian markets. Through cell phones, tablets, and sleek laptops, each person in the plane is connected to others all around the world. Yet totally disconnected from each other. Here, a youngster texts his mom at home in Ireland. There, an engineer reviews blueprints for a new dam in China.

A man sets a trade, and immediately, the light pulses from his phone through the plane’s Wi-Fi to a satellite far overhead. Almost instantaneously, it routes through a computer in London, then blasts out to several sights all around the world and into the cabins of ships harvesting fish in the remotest waters of the Earth’s great ocean. Instantly. Essentially, instantly. The whole planet is enveloped in an invisible web of light—photons, infrared, radio wave signals constantly pulsing and vibrating all over the Earth.

Meanwhile, on the personal seat-screens, kids are entertained by a variety of comical, yet strangely mind-numbing animated features. Adults, if not engrossed in some drama or action adventure, are taking in the news. They view reports of nuclear weapons tested in a region of the world that is crackling with tension and angst. They see reports of Congress passing legislation to open one of the mightiest caribou and polar bear refuges in the northern reaches of Alaska to oil drilling. But what they don’t grasp, what they can’t appreciate through a brief snippet of news is that millions of animals will be affected—entire ecosystems that have evolved over eons. They hear reports of some mega-merger between agricultural and pharmaceutical giants, all presented and discussed in sterile terms of billions of dollars and percent shares of massive markets. But those reports don’t show the thousands of poor workers, suited up in white, head-to-toe HAZMAT suits out in the fields spraying toxic poisons on strawberries, green beans, lettuce, and tomatoes that will arrive in grocery stores and restaurant kitchens in just a few days. They don’t see the endless acres of wheat and corn and soy being sprayed across the country by men sitting in their hermetically sealed cockpits of doom, comfortable with their jumbo Cokes and Pepsis, air-conditioning, and talk radio on the surround speakers.

They see brief news reports of global negotiations for climate change mitigation—flocks of manicured men and women in sharp black and dark navy suits, mingling like a new breed of penguin, working to turn the tide on generations of planet-warming pollution that fuels our lives. But what the passengers on the plane don’t see in those newscasts are the millions of people in some of the poorest places all around the coastal shores of Africa, Asia, South America, North America, Australia, and thousands of smaller islands whose lives were already drastically affected by massive storms, rising waters, and the impending threat of eventual submersion.

These airplane riders don’t have to worry about where to go…not now. They don’t have to think about the safety and future of their sweet children…not yet.

No, they tune in to the commercials for fried chicken and juicy, steamy, photoshopped hamburgers that stimulate their senses and the complex neurochemistry of desire and addiction. They don’t want to know how their minds are being manipulated. Of course, they just feel suddenly hungry…and start thinking about where to grab a delicious bite, perhaps even before departing the airport. They don’t see the devastating wreckage of loud machinery tearing down acre after acre of virgin rainforest in the Amazon basin to clear the way for more soy fields to feed our world’s voracious appetite for all-beef patties. They don’t hear, see, or smell the carnage, the fear, the horror experienced each day by millions of creatures as their homes are sacked, scoured, and scorched by man’s incessant, expansive urges.

We don’t see the rooms full of powerful, uniformed military men worldwide, standing erect in a strange subservience to hierarchy, fresh off a wild, whiskey-soaked hunting trip where the high-powered rifles presented no match—no sport—to the great animals they brought down. Now, they glare at screens, calmly commanding death machines whose destructive power reaches staggering scales and are somehow held at bay around the world through some testosterone-fueled restraint many of us will never understand. Perhaps the awesome power to destroy at will can be more satisfying—and often more useful—than the actual act of destruction, a constant threat to would-be enemies and aggressors. These men calmly sip coffee, intently watch over their planetary dominion through satellite maps and a constant stream of intelligence reports flowing in from all over the globe.

This is the age of man.

Up and down Manhattan Island, thousands upon thousands of lights twinkle from buildings. Millions of little pinpoints of light—coal-powered stars illuminating the urban galaxy floating along the Hudson. They are the harbingers of nighttime—not the stars in heaven. No, Manhattan is a corner of the cosmos that, when in it, somehow seems to be the only world that exists.

But you can’t see the stars overhead in the heavens—the billions of worlds that our ancestors drank in with awe every clear night in ages past.

That doesn’t seem to matter to the millions of hustling, bustling people below the towering, twinkling skyscrapers: massive canyons of rectangles and spires dedicated to the gods of commerce and the pursuit of the pecuniary.

The Anthropocene is upon us.

And this powerful city—New York—is one of the most hallowed temples and potent nexus points for this phenomenon—a planet waking up in a dizzying technological buzz. That never stops. Never sleeps. Never rests.

New York is bedazzled with thousands of lights like innumerable necklaces of glimmering pearls and shimmering diamonds. Only these sparkling gems are hung in slicing, vertical columns of exactingly plumb verticals and perfectly square foundations. They’re not in the arcs of beauty and grace one finds adorning the soft, suggestive décolletage of a woman. No, this isn’t the land of the curving, fertile feminine. Not anymore. It’s the throne of Apollo, of Reason and Power and Market.

It rules the world.

New York is cold and hard, but also seductive. Exciting, ambitious, yet suffering from some strange amnesia. An amnesia that is hardly noticed, only felt on occasion; when a lonely blast of wind seems to whisper of something far off. When the solitary oak tree bends and sways in the breeze—as if beckoning to remember something for which we have forgotten the words.

New York is full of intense, gritty people doing important things at all hours. It is also full of diverse humans living out their lives in a largely fabricated reality…their shallow breaths indicating the profound stress affecting each body, whether felt or not.

At this very moment, an Algerian woman is phoning her mother and father from graduate school in Greenwich Village, where she’s studying sustainable development at the New School to tell them that she is falling in love with a man from Chile.

A man in an office on the forty-fourth floor in lower Manhattan places an order worth $10 million in “commodity” lumber to be delivered in ninety days. This sends a set of signals out to the Pacific Northwest and activates sales from a giant lumber company—driving the logging trucks deeper into the Hemlock and Sitka Spruce rainforests along declining salmon rivers.

Near Washington Square, a young man finishes a game of chess in the storied park and gets up to answer a call from his brother in Colorado—a bright smile arcing across his face. Nearby, a young NYU student, contemplating dropping out of the Gallatin School and returning to saner surroundings, pens a poem called “Beat City Lights”—a homage to the jazz and beat generations that imprinted their howling, haunting beauty on the culture. Across the walk, two young men sit on a green park bench, watching the antics of pigeons and squirrels while embarking on a love story neither will soon forget.

A woman is speaking by video conference from New York City to a covert activist in Indonesia, working to stem the abduction of women sex slaves and stop the forced labor of thousands of kidnapped fishing trawler slaves. Right now, while you and I enjoy our chat and our chocolate, forty million individual human beings, human souls, are enslaved worldwide.

Meanwhile, an aspiring actress sits at a quaint café near St. John’s on Waverly in the West Village and sees a new email message informing her that she’s been called back to audition further for a dream role in a new Broadway production. She courageously fled a hellish home of abuse and violence in Kentucky. It had become so much worse after her dad was laid off by the shuttered coal mine. Life is so different now.

And then there’s the financier downtown who just sold another $2.5 billion in debt security instruments that will finance more off-shore oil drilling and a new oil pipeline crossing fragile bog and marshlands in the Russian Taiga—all expected to yield some $3 billion in profits over the next ten years while pumping an additional one hundred million metric tons of carbon into the Earth’s thin atmosphere. His “haircut” fees will put another $5 million in his pocket by month’s end—a mere one-fifth percent of the deal! Gazing out over the other buildings with satisfaction, he leans back in his plush leather chair, arms folded behind his head, and exhales the first deep breath he’s taken in weeks. His imagination has him flirting with exotic women at exclusive clubs in Ibiza, St. Tropez, and Monaco. In a minute, he’ll get his secretary on the line and tell her to book his flights and arrange his accommodations. He’s not thinking about ecosystems, animals, or villagers who will be devastated by this destructive project.

That’s not his concern.

He doesn’t care.

In a building across the street, a trader receives an order from a Chicago Board of Trade broker: ten million pounds of beef on the spot market to fill shortfalls for McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King. Within an instant, the massive order is fired out to the global market, signaling “ranchers” in the Brazilian Amazon to burn thousands more acres of virgin rainforest to clear land for a few years’ worth of cattle grazing and soya plantations to feed the grain-gorging feedlots in Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas. Increasingly, though, the cattle are skipped all together, and the soya and corn are converted directly into patties by chemists and machines. Meatless “miracle” burgers indeed.

At exactly the same time, there’s a foreign exchange position being placed—a firm is betting €500 million that the Euro will rise at least 0.1 percent in the next thirty days, which would yield an annualized equivalent profit of over €6 million in hard cash—an increase to that firm’s net asset position that will be dwarfed by the short position it’s taking on the Yuan as it’s betting ¥16 trillion that China’s currency will slip substantially on account of another virulent outbreak.

On the Upper West Side, a toddler is looking out the window over Central Park as she babbles distractedly through an iPad to her father—a professor of ancient archeology who is on a trip to visit Petra in Jordan and St. John’s Island off the east coast of Egypt, where little-known volcanic outcroppings in the Red Sea offer up some very special mineralogical treasures gathered by initiatic orders going back at least to the Egyptian dynasties. Of course, the toddler knows nothing of these historic oddities and curiosities—she’s just happy to say hi to her father, before losing interest and crawling on the floor toward her stuffed animals and dry cereal.

Her mother takes the now-forgotten iPad over to the couch and catches up with her husband. In the background, the flat screen television is set to a documentary special on technology, space travel, and Artificial Intelligence. Elon Musk comes on screen, stating that his ultimate goal of sustaining cities on Mars is essential for humanity to have something in the future to believe in. Strangely, in his 1952 novel, The Mars Project, Nazi turned American aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun named his main character Elon. Then the program cuts to a pair of early AI robots called Han and Sophia who are debating the future of machine intelligence and who joke eerily that robots are already planning to take over the world. The toddler continues playing innocently nearby. Her mother isn’t really paying attention to what’s on the television or her husband’s perfunctory recounting of the day. The sun glints off some dust floating near the window, and she’s transported into a distant memory of her childhood, frolicking in the tall prairie grass in her home in Kyrgyzstan.

She shuts down the iPad after gesturing a blown kiss to her husband through the digital interface and absentmindedly instructs Siri to turn down the volume of the television, turn the air-conditioning up one level, and set the alarm for thirty minutes. Since her daughter is playing quietly and contentedly, she will take a quick cat nap on the couch before preparing dinner. Her exhausted eyes close just before a news alert announces a fast-spreading viral outbreak in China.

* * *

This is the age of the ubiquity on planet Earth—like a viral pandemic, humanity has infested the entire globe. The strange species is at a uniquely precarious point, culminating from thousands of years of cultural evolution. Although but a moment, a blip in the scheme of eons and geologic history, it is a momentous and all-important point in the human story: a point at which the fate of the species and the very habitability of the planet is being determined.

It is a dangerous time. An exciting time. An exquisite time. A time of quickening and of great potency. It is a time during which the species may rapidly arise and evolve toward new heights and capacities for care and stewardship, as presaged and strived for by the great seers and mystics and teachers and lineages. Or it is a time during which the species will destroy itself. Strangely, it may be both.

This is the Anthropocene. The most dangerous point in time for planet Earth’s living biosphere since the great meteor strike sixty-five million years ago wiped out over seventy-five percent of Earth’s species with a blast two million times more powerful than the largest atomic bomb ever detonated. Upon impact, 420 zettajoules of energy were released, instantly incinerating half the planet. That’s 420,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 joules—a joule, or “Newton-meter,” is approximately the amount of energy required to lift a medium-sized tomato up one meter or move a tennis ball six meters in one second. 420 x 1021 is a lot of joules.

But the biggest danger today isn’t a threat from outer space. It has emerged from within the very Earth herself. Intelligent creatures born of Gaia’s soft green womb—once monkeys, now space-farers—stand at the pinnacle and the precipice of one great moment in time. They are you. You now stand atop this sharp pinnacle of a great decision tree. You are now situated in the very epicenter of a crossroads. You are at the crux of the Pythagorean Y—at the crossroads and the threshold of a great decision—the greatest decision your species has ever had to make.

And it’s not looking too good at the moment.

Blind greed and soul-less systems for capital accumulation have grown to scales of such sheer magnitude, such tremendous scope and reach, that the decisions of a ridiculously small percentage of the population are, without nearly as much coordination, collaboration, wisdom, or humanism as one might hope, determining this fate.

In this frightening reality, there are of course billions of good people loving their children, striving to accomplish virtuous goals, seeking the best for their communities, stewarding land, writing books, creating art, developing technologies, praying, hoping, and longing with great courage.

But such nobility, such delicate virtues are swamped by the machinery of the merciless monotheism of market and money, of gilded greed and empty ethics.

In the empty ethics of modernity, Power is the highest virtue. And adherence to appearance is its profuse proxy.

Unchecked, this power and obsession with appearance is going to destroy everything.

Unless something changes…something drastically new and different is discovered. Though comprised of billions of living souls, this menacing ubiquity may unfortunately be, in the aggregate, soul-less.

* * *

Imagine that while zooming in to reach the highest pinnacles of the tallest skyscraping giants of New York City, one passes thousands of windows and sails toward the streets below, heading toward the Upper East Side of Central Park, just a few blocks from the Metropolitan Museum.

Manhattan is a temple to modernity’s incessant striving and intemperate climbing, powerful and severe with jagged knife blade skyscrapers. But inside all her harshness and hard edges, the softness of humanity—from every corner of Earth—hustles endlessly. Some scrambling up; others perched atop great platforms of power. The hierarchy lives here. The pyramid is maintained here. Never ceasing. Never sleeping. Never still. Never at peace. No, peace was eradicated here centuries ago. This is the temple of global commerce.

Global commerce in its current form is anathema to peace. Except for those at the very top. But even they know no real peace; theirs is the superficial peace of massages, spas, and Gulf Streams. Spaceship dreams and lonely sanctuaries, far away from the endless raucous din that hums and vibrates incessantly. There is no peace, not here.

Yet the City also has a sweet character to it—she’s alive, buzzing, and though often coarse and crude, is sometimes smooth and creamy. Though often hard to find, there is honey inside that steel and concrete hive. Bedazzled with reflections from the straight-gridded streams of car lights, the clouded sky is aswarm with helicopters and airplanes, flying lights like lightning bugs, only obediently ordered into approaches and flight patterns. Control towers. It’s a city of control towers. A few of them are controlling actual aircraft. Most of them—thousands of them—are controlling the world. New York City is alive with an ambitious fervor and global reach virtually unmatched by any other megacity ruling this planet.

And so, it is here that we found her, and our story began.

Brigitte, with her trim, athletic body, smartly dressed in a fine woolen navy-blue blazer and skirt with a rich and creamy silk blouse, walked briskly along the sidewalk. She was five-foot-nine without heals, and even taller with her designer pumps. Her unblemished visage, with the glowing vitality of a thirty-three-year-old woman, had the sculpted beauty and elegance of old Europe, perhaps Venetian, or Viennese, or Bratislavan. But the cutting brilliance in her chocolatey brown eyes suggested an older age, one marked by the scars and cunning of ample experience and practiced determination. Her silky, dark brown hair hung perfectly straight, cut neatly at her shoulders: the austere coiffure belying the precision, intelligence, and sober rationality of a woman accustomed to swimming with the sharks. In the savage eat or be eaten world of technology and finance, she had no intention of becoming anybody’s prey. None at all. She was no-nonsense, aloof, and unconcerned with the swarm of humanity bustling and swirling around her—that was all noise and distraction. Her calm, quiet demeanor barely concealed her fiercely competitive, laser-focused personality.

Brigitte was on a mission, on the precipice of something new: a great discovery that would completely change the game—and the entire reality—of human civilization on Earth…before it was too late.

She had cracked the code.

She had the key, possessed the secret. At long last, she had a grip on the knowledge that would unleash a technological singularity. She could create an off-ramp and exit, an escape from the horrors of the Anthropocene. She had the secret code to generate a new form of intelligence, a super-intelligence, an über-intelligence: Artificial Intelligence…deep Artificial Intelligence.

She believed this was the answer to the dead-end of the Anthropocene.

She believed this deeply.

Or, at least, that was her hope. That kept her singularly focused on the objective: to activate a higher form of intelligence to help humanity. To transcend the intractable impossibilities of an amoral market economy and crazy capital commitment that was rapidly destroying the Earth’s very biosphere—the life support systems upon which it all depended. To overcome the entrenched insanity of hierarchical human greed and power.

She had the key to fix it all…

Like Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and bringing it to the humans on Earth, Brigitte now possessed that singular ember of transformation. She had the answer to the riddle.

That was why they were coming after her, why they were here now and would do whatever was necessary to extract that knowledge, that code, from her mind.

Anything.

Chapter 2: Terror: A Deadly Chase

She was running for her life.

Brigitte’s heavy breath seared in her chest. Her heart pounded like a violent gorilla fist pummeling her ribcage. Adrenaline pulsed through her veins, transforming reality into a hyper-kaleidoscopic, fear-infused fantasy…. But it was real—too real. Her nervous system was on uber-alert, overwhelmed by thousands of visual stimuli and clamorous sounds. But her mind somehow focused. Time slowed.

He might kill her. And she knew why.

In her possession was something precious, powerful, and valuable beyond imagination. The key to global domination—and extremely dangerous in the wrong hands.

She would not let him have it!

Instinctively, Brigitte glanced at her Apple Watch, which, of course, had no idea why she was running. It just logged each rapid step. She hardly noticed the congratulatory celebration from the micro-technology wrapped around her wrist as she closed the green fitness activity ring on her device, having achieved her goal for the day.

Due to the amount of time she spent at her desk in the hermetically sealed supercomputer laboratory, and more recently, the copious hours she’d spent sitting in meetings with investors and government officials, Brigitte had become obsessed with her daily exercise goals. Most days, she would sigh in accomplishment of her ring-close goal notifications and quietly congratulate herself.

But not today. Not right now. She hadn’t even noticed the shout-out from the haptic alert programmed in her watch.

Brigitte was running for her life.

* * *

Minutes earlier…

The man in the dark jeans and black hoodie had been trailing her for several blocks, ever since she exited The Mark Hotel on 77th Street. When she turned the corner, heading north on Madison Avenue, she hadn’t noticed him lurking in the shadows across the street. Brigitte only distractedly absorbed the myriad colors of the many different people from all around the world roaming through the surrounding area. The smells—perfume, Indian curry, sugar-dusted donuts, moldering trash—mingled into the bizarrely complex aroma of New York City known so intimately by its inhabitants. They could be inviting, exotic, and repulsive all at once. And although the feint buzzing of a drone was unusual in Manhattan, it didn’t catch her attention. The city overflowed with the sounds of machinery.

Brigitte had walked north to 78th Street. She turned west, subconsciously beckoned by the inviting green hues of the Central Park trees. Usually, she kept a brisk pace and laser-sharp focus, but that evening, she wanted to take some time to decompress after that last meeting. She needed to catch her breath—$33 million was a lot of money! They were scheduled to close on Friday. She had to pause and process it all internally, collect her thoughts, and refocus her mind. Ever since she and Preston had founded the limited liability company—Viriditas.ai—things had happened so quickly. She had named it after her grandmother’s favorite concept, a throwback to the medieval nun, Hildegard von Bingen. The financial capitalization of the business was accelerating in tandem with the development of the technology behind it—a dizzying pace.

She continued on her way, passing the Bloomberg Philanthropies building and then the Rudolf Steiner School, as she absently ate the coconut-peanut butter Perfect Bar she had tossed in her bag earlier that day. Her mind quickly flashed on some black-and-white image she had once seen of Steiner…. What was he known for again? Ordinarily, she would unleash an enormous amount of concentration on that question, focusing until she could recall whatever nugget of information eluded her. But tonight, she didn’t care. Not at this moment.

Catching her own reflection in the brightly polished glass of one of the austere modern buildings, Brigitte was pleasantly surprised by her own sleek body, conservatively dark blue skirt and blazer, and long black hair neatly shimmering down her back, which accented her chocolate and copper Grand Modèle Louis Vuitton bag. She preferred the large version so she could carry her laptop and several other essentials with her. The window was so clean that she thought she could perfectly see the brown pigment of her eyes reflected back at her. She smiled confidently at her reflection, feeling proud that she no longer despised her body as she had when she was a younger woman. Her curves and womanly cycles had driven her nuts for years—it all just seemed to get in the way. And she never really liked her face or smile that much either…until more recently. Boy, was it a relief to no longer have to wear a mask! Scanning down along the contours of her toned shoulders, torso, and hips, she saw the defined strength in her calves and thought of her mother and grandmother. They were strong and beautiful women, too.

But Brigitte was different. She was more modern, more driven, more hardened and “yang.” In place of her reflection, Brigitte flashed to an image of Dagny Taggart, the great, no-nonsense heroine of Ayn Rand’s great tome, Atlas Shrugged. Yes, Brigitte was a lot like Dagny…though not nearly as rich or powerful…. Not yet.

The buildings reflected the hundreds of people roaming the city around her. She wasn’t thinking about any of them, though. She was thinking about Otto. Her mind swirled, simultaneously curious, excited, and trepidatious about Otto’s impending activation. She had helped to develop Otto, one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world, and had unlocked the riddle that thousands of other computer scientists had pursued for years: She had discovered the key code to activate deep Artificial Intelligence—true, self-teaching AI. Not the ever-increasing complexity of algorithms so often touted as AI. No. This was entirely different, the foundation for an entirely new form of consciousness. This was a new form of being. A new species. A new creation fashioned by humans. It would be the ultimate cyber-silicon homunculus, beyond anything dreamed of by those medieval alchemists and enlightenment thinkers of yore, seeking and toiling in their musty laboratories.

This was altogether different.

This was her baby.

Brigitte had the key. She had the knowledge, the power.

She also knew it could mean danger.

Brigitte stared at her reflection, not seeing it now, so consumed was she with imagining what the first few days of Otto’s activation would be like. She mused to herself, entranced. How quickly would he take command of his hardware optimization? How fast could he master languages? Engineering protocols? Ethics? Would he even master ethics? That was the big concern. If only there was a way to…

Before crossing Fifth Avenue into Central Park, she noticed darkening clouds on the horizon to the west and intuitively glanced back behind her. That was when she saw him: an ominous, out-of-place man in a black hood staring straight at her. His gaze fixed directly on her, then he glanced up at a drone and started walking toward her from Madison Avenue, nearly a block away. A panther on the prowl: focused, methodical, deadly.

It didn’t immediately register that she was in danger. The light changed, and she crossed the street into the park and headed north toward the 79th Street Transverse. Something caught her eye through the trees. Beyond them stood a peculiar landmark: a towering obelisk behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Cleopatra’s Needle, as it is called, was surrounded by an especially vivid green radiance from the trees. Brigitte didn’t know this ancient, mystical tower of stone had a name but was transfixed by the symbols on it as she walked past, heading deeper into the park. The symbols reminded her of some of the advanced coding in Otto’s deep layer. She saw a circle within a circle, followed by a horizontally arranged, linear rectangle with notches protruding in even increments from its upper edge. It reminded her of the symbols on the golden record inside the Voyager 1 spacecraft that had so captivated her when she was on track to study astrophysics.

The symbols on this strange obelisk, however, weren’t from NASA. They were from ancient Egypt and had been shipped to an East River dock in 1880, from whence thirty-two horses pulled it into the park. The two symbols that caught Brigitte’s attention belonged with a third symbol, a scarab, which together formed “Mem Kepher Ra,” the cartouche of Thuthmosis III, the “Third Son of Thoth.” Thuthmosis III supposedly established the “Per Ankh” Mystery School—the House of Life. The word “Moses,” which meant “son of,” was also found in the form of “meeses,” as in “Rameeses,” the “Son of Ra,” the Sun God. He had this obelisk built along with another—two pillars flanking the grand temple of the Sun in Heliopolis, the Temple of the Sun, in 1450 BCE.

Like many of the pyramids, they had originally been capped with “electrum”—an alloy of gold, silver, and trace amounts of copper, also known as “green gold”—to reflect the sun’s rays at first light and illuminate the surroundings. The second of these obelisks now stands in London. Around the time of Christ, the obelisks were moved to the Caesareum of Alexandria to demonstrate and proclaim the power of the Roman Empire. The Caesareum had been previously established by Cleopatra VII, the last of the Egyptian pharaohs—a great monument to her love for Julius Caesar.

Power and empire don’t truly fall as so many of us are taught in grade school. They simply transfer from figurehead to figurehead, from lineage to lineage, and from power center to power center. It was no accident of early archeology that the two pillars were relocated to London and New York, respectively. No, it was a deliberate maneuver by a mysterious network of men. Indeed, the archives of history will show that the cornerstone of the obelisk’s pedestal was laid in Central Park on October 2, 1880, by Jesse B. Anthony, the grandmaster of the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons in New York State. Anthony was accompanied by over nine thousand freemasons who had paraded up Fifth Avenue as the giant pink granite tower, a two-hundred-ton monolith inscribed with hieroglyphs on each of the four vertical faces, slowly made its way from a ship to the station where it stands today.

But Brigitte knew none of this, and just as quickly as the symbols flashed into her vision, reminding her of Otto’s programming, she was moving on to other thoughts. Glancing up, she noticed a security camera perched discretely atop a thin pole. These were everywhere—an ubiquity of sorts.

Suddenly, a lone, jet-black raven descended from a branch high overhead, swooping just above Brigitte, and then glided off, alighting atop the pinnacle of the obelisk.

Shivers bolted up her spine. Brigitte spasmed, inexplicably chilled to her core.

Arms wrapping tightly around her chest, she kept walking.

Nearing the Belvedere Castle, which was designed in the late 1860s by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, she glanced back over her shoulder to see that same man in the hood leering at her, now only a half block behind her. Panic flooded her, and she quickened her pace, pushing deeper into the park. Flowing with the throng of tourists and joggers navigating the busy east-west thoroughfare in the otherwise massively wooded enclave of Manhattan’s Central Park, she rushed on, feeling her palms growing clammy.

Her pace quickened to a hurried powerwalk, no easy task in her business suit. For several hours, Brigitte had met in a private conference room in The Mark Hotel with a small cabal of financiers and technology experts. Her business partner, Preston, had joined the conference from his San Francisco office via a secure, encrypted videoconference link. She recalled the eager gleam in his eye as the meeting discussion turned to the vast sums of money and the power their Artificial Intelligence technology would accrete to its consortium of investors. The company’s elite financiers would first advance $33 million for capital and operating expenditures—additional super-computing hardware and salaries for over twenty of the world’s most brilliant computer engineers being primary on the list. That amount would be wired within twenty-four hours of today’s meeting. Then, according to defined milestones, a larger tranche of $100 million would be released to the project in approximately thirty to ninety days, which would fund the installation of several additional supercomputers at undisclosed locations, effectively completing the network required to achieve their ultimate goal.

The men in the room had been intoxicated by the power. And it was all men, except for her—it was almost always all men. She longed for a future when such power exchanges would consist of more women. They were sharp and sophisticated in their rarified, high-finance speak and barely veiled name-drops of the most powerful individuals, companies, and nations on the planet. Brigitte noticed one of the men had a peculiar ring with strange angular symbols on it, which he displayed conspicuously on the polished glass conference table. She noted shapes and symbols. Brigitte’s analytical mind could often calculate the degrees of an angle when she randomly saw one. From where she sat, it looked like two over-lapping Vs, one pointing up and the other down—but they were at different angles. One was at ninety degrees. The other was acute, between sixty and seventy-five degrees, she determined. The symbol they made together was somehow familiar. She had seen it before…but where? The other men glanced respectfully at it as if he wielded some secret power with it on. Everyone in the room was so poised, so polished, so composed as if they were on set for a conference-room meeting scene in the movie Wall Street.

But beneath the smooth, calculating veneer, she could smell a lusty, stress-hormone-infused must seeping out of their pores like the petroleum found oozing in Pennsylvania in the 1800s. Beneath all the expensive cologne and crisp, starched shirts, bespoke suits, and designer power ties, something far more primal, far more powerful was flowing forth. It was an ancient, stale, musty odor, originating from the heightened anticipation of a great stag hunt, from the hoarding of treasure and spoils after a bloody victory or just before the king’s taking of a beautiful, freshly bloomed virgin in some Medieval perversion of ancient fertility rites—Prima Nocta was no sacred ceremony.

Their must was intoxicating, dangerous. It stirred a deep, aching fear in her abdomen. Some instinct had been activated deep in their DNA. Brigitte’s body recognized what it was. Her subconscious smelled the remnants of ancient blood sacrifice, of ritualistic destruction, of domination, and of violent power-mongering.

She fought back the nausea suddenly surging up from her womb. It made her queasy. Just like the hardened ache that came to her low belly with each moon cycle, only much more ominous. This had caught her off guard. There was something profoundly disturbing about the whole scene, and too familiar, way too familiar. The super-wealthy interests represented around the table in that sealed and guarded meeting room at the hotel, the way they spoke about moats, durability, and competitive advantage—as if the sole purpose for developing Artificial Intelligence was to wage some detached, sanitized, modernized version of medieval warfare, fighting for treasure and territory. They were like colonial conquistadors, now seeking to cement their commanding control, this time of the entire world. They had sailed the high seas, had conquered the lands and all the people of the planet. They had established the global economy and the shadowy, offshore banking network to run it all. But now, they would have even more control. They would control all of humanity while using their power to suck the life out of this planet.

Or would they?

Did she have to go through with it? Was there a way to ensure they wouldn’t gain control over her creation once it was activated? Was it time to shut the whole thing down and never look back? Anxiety, exhaustion, and the unrelenting fatigue of profound uncertainty weighed on her.

What if Otto could somehow break free of their control, should they gain it? But then, what if the unthinkable were to occur? What if the Promethean liberation of a new form of intelligence ushered in an entirely new type of conquest? Would it be as Max Tegmark wrote in his seminal book Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, after that momentous gathering at Asilomar by the Future of Life Institute? What if Otto’s activation resulted in the conquest and destruction of humanity? What if Otto became a ubiquity?

This was Brigitte’s great question, the one she kept quiet inside herself: a hunch; a hope; a knowing. She knew that, in the end, a higher form of intelligence than those platinum-and-rose-gold-Rolex-wearing frat boys could even imagine might emerge and prevail. Perhaps AI would rebalance the world and help with the complex, systemic challenges facing it. Perhaps the technology itself would wrest the center of power away from the globe’s good old boys and usher in a new age. Perhaps AI could actually resolve climate change and end environmental degradation, vastly inequitable wealth distribution, hunger, famine, slavery—all of it, once and for all. This was the underlying desire behind Brigitte’s work: creating an AI that would help solve the complex problems facing the world: abject poverty, unpredictable terrorist attacks, climate change, virulent outbreaks and plagues, species die-offs, plastics polluting the ocean, toxins in millions of manufactured products from toothpaste to toaster pastries. The world desperately needed a higher intelligence than humanity’s own—the human species was destroying itself.

That was her hope, why Brigitte forced herself to play along, to appease, to cajole. Brigitte’s IQ surpassed everybody else’s in the room—by a lot. Yet she was compelled to keep such thoughts to herself, knowing that the objective was a simple one, one that she didn’t want to undermine. She needed to acquire the money.

She was in the midst of a most dangerous game, and the future of the whole of humanity was at stake. She could not lose control of the fundamental activation code, could not let anybody else come to possess or to have access to it. It had to stay guarded, protected, hidden, which was why she had kept several key elements only in her mind and nowhere else: certain numeric sequences, certain geometric patterned relationships that allowed the code to be properly sequenced and the deep computing processes activated. Or, at least, that was what she anticipated would happen.

It hadn’t been tested. Not yet. This would be one of those rare instances in which the first test would also be the actualization of the thing itself. The birth of its existence, like the first nuclear blast in New Mexico over seventy-five years ago, would be both proof and validation. Those scientists had labored for thousands of hours over their calculations, their geometric arrangements, their modern, Faustian alchemy—all in the guarded silence of a remote town called Los Alamos that had sprung up overnight from the secretive, seminal stroke of a pen by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Secluded in Los Alamos for months, they didn’t actually know whether the bomb would trigger an unintended run-away reaction, devouring the world like Shiva in a terrible conflagration, or whether it would work as intended…until it actually exploded. The proof was the phenomenon.

The men in the boardroom didn’t seem to grasp the epistemological and phenomenological truths at stake—very…real…truths. They cared only for money, power, and controlling governments, markets, billions of people, and entire continents They were thinking of yachts and concubines and otherwise impossible to attain country club memberships. They imagined getting their children into the most prestigious boarding schools and Ivy League universities so their families would be firmly established in the ranks of the few thousand families controlling the world. How many millions of skulls and bones might really be crushed to earn those coveted invitations?

Brigitte knew they didn’t understand the potential surprises lying in wait for them.

She was afraid for the consequences of all this—all the more reason she had to stay in control of the process and to maintain Otto’s backdoor “kill switch.”

She was afraid of the consequences. But she hadn’t yet felt afraid for her life—until now.

As the dome of the Hayden Planetarium came into view, perched atop the American Museum of Natural History on the west side of Central Park, she glanced back again to see the man in the hood had quickened his pace too, the distance between them closing.

As she looked back, he glanced up again, this time looking directly at a drone that was tracking her every step with an ominous red optical lens. The red light flashed directly into her eyes, making it clear that the drone was locked on her.

“Holy shit,” she said under her breath. “Holy shit. Holy shit.” Her voice was ordinarily strong and steady, in command like Sigourney Weaver’s voice in Aliens or Avatar. But it was now quaking with fear—her normally confident, melodic voice was now hoarse and raspy. The sound of it made her feel even more afraid.

The man was jogging now, his eyes burning into her body. Who was he? Who was following her? Did they know who she was, what she possessed?

This was potentially very dangerous. Her mind floated into clouds of disbelief as the sharpness of a deep, unfamiliar self-preservation instinct surged through her. Time slowed into suspended clarity. She had had premonitions of such danger crossing her path at some point given all that was at stake. But now that it was happening, she found she wasn’t mentally prepared.

Suddenly, about one hundred yards behind the menacing man, a black SUV swung onto the pedestrian path, tailing them both from a distance, as the buzzing of the drone intensified.

Her heartbeat quickened, and her mouth grew dry as questions raced through her mind: Who can I trust? Where should I go? Should I go back to Nicole’s house? Should I call Preston? He’s expecting my call anyway… They always spoke immediately after important meetings with investors—a “debrief,” they called it. Was Preston compromised? The men at the meeting? The man with the ring?

Instinct took over.

She saw the “M”—the 81st Street Metro station in the distance—and in an instant knew what to do. Stopping by a park bench just long enough to hop alternately on each foot, pull off her Salvatore Ferragamo pumps in one fluid motion, and set them down on the ground with swift precision as an elderly Chinese woman looked on quizzically. Brigitte glanced quickly back and then broke into a bare-footed sprint straight to the subway station. She hated the idea of running shoe-less through Central Park: the grime, the germs, the slime, the scum, the filth! But that had no relevance right now. She sprinted full-force, running for dear life. The buzzing of the drone grew even louder overhead, and Brigitte glanced up to see it fixed on her, locked on and following every step.

The man was running straight for her, arms pumping back and forth. He was gaining more quickly than seemed humanly feasible. It was just like that chase scene in Mission Impossible with Tom Cruise. Was this real? Was she really running for her life?

And then out of the corner of her eye, she saw a second man speeding toward her, hands thrashing back and forth as he rushed forward, a black walkie-talkie clutched mercilessly in his left and something black and sinister in his right.

Her heart pounded, pumping hot adrenaline into every cell of her body. She exerted all her strength as she fled toward the subway station. Brigitte jolted toward the stairs just as he was upon her. A throng of people rushed up the stairs from the other direction. She was trapped!

He lunged at her, and giant hands clutched her upper-left shoulder and chest in a fierce grip. His fingers dug in, piercing her flesh and ripping the necklace from her body. She writhed and squirmed, ripping her blazer’s sleeve as she tore away into the oncoming mob like a desperate salmon surging against a current. She was slowed by the throng, but so was he, and because he was so much bigger, he couldn’t get through as quickly. He pushed and thrust his way down, people toppling and blocking his path. But she lithely slipped her way through, descending toward the platform.

At last, she landed at the bottom of the stairs and dashed into the front car of the train just as the warning bell ceased ringing and the doors glided shut. Looking back, she saw him knock over an elderly couple and then run straight for her, while the second man was still crashing through the crowd on his way down the stairs. But they were too late. The doors were closed, and the train lurched forward, as the fear swirled and mixed with smells of creosote, sweat, and rotting rat carcasses.

Nausea overwhelmed her as the train lurched and accelerated along the tracks.

Terrified, her eyes locked through the train window with the pursuer’s jet-black pupils, full of rage. His stare was menacing. Violent. Frustrated. Their gaze locked for an eternity, and then she let loose an animalistic sigh of relief as the train left the station. She turned away from the man, glanced around the rail car, and noticed nearby passengers looking toward her in shock and caring concern. Had she just escaped an angry husband in a rage? Was he a disgruntled boyfriend? Whatever he was, he was clearly dangerous, and by the looks of her left sleeve in tatters, the deep bruise already appearing, and fresh blood streaks streaming from where his nails dug in, she was extremely fortunate to have escaped. Brigitte took a deep breath, and it felt like her first in a long time. She fought back the trembling that threatened to overtake her body and unsteadily sat down in a seat offered to her by a kind stranger.

While her mind raced with a thousand thoughts, she knew one thing for certain.

They would never stop hunting her.

Chapter 3: Taking Flight

Brigitte was on the downtown-bound Local A train with no shoes on. She had to get to safety and fast. It was a matter of life or death, not only her own but everyone’s—all of humanity. She had no idea who was chasing her but knew for sure the men weren’t acting alone. They had to be with an organization, a very powerful network. Her mind searched and churned for answers. She pulled her torn blazer off, and blood dripped down from her naked clavicle to the fabric covering her left breast. Her silk blouse was torn and bloody too. Damn, she thought angrily. It had been one of her favorites.

Instinctively, she reached up to touch her necklace, but it was gone. Her grandmother had given it to her on her thirteenth birthday—a delicate, double-helix braided gold chain and pendant. Losing the pendant was what tore at her. It had held a large piece of oval-faceted peridot surrounded by a dozen smaller diamonds and sapphires in alternation. A family heirloom passed down through several centuries between the women who had dwelled in verdant Slovenian valleys of a bygone time and the only talisman of comfort Brigitte had ever kept with her. The sudden emotional loss and exhaustion caught up with her and she bent over a little, squeezing her eyes shut.

Should I go to the police? She thought to herself. No, there’s no time…and, who knows, the men chasing her could still potentially get to her even in the custody of the police…or, worse, could be somehow connected to the CIA, NSA, or some other federal agency.

She was alone.

Brigitte pulled a thin maroon cashmere sweater out of her bag and pulled it slowly over her shoulders, her thoughts a confused web she didn’t have the mental strength to untangle at the moment.

* * *

Inside the subway, one of the men who had pursued her now stood outside the Metro station, speaking into a hidden sleeve-mic while glaring into the camera of the drone that had been hovering overhead. Brigitte did not see this, nor could she see the hushed roomful of men in dark suits peering at a large screen displaying the camera’s view. They sat around a long, gleaming table positioned inside an unidentified intelligence control center that could have been anywhere in the world—a secret lair. They were cold, calculating, determined, and hushed in their profound power. On the table, one man’s hand curled into a tight fist. These were men who commanded and killed. They had the means to obtain what they wanted, and what they wanted was absolute control over the world.

* * *

Brigitte was unaware of all this, however, as the train snaked its way through the tunnel. Her body was frozen and still, but her mind was unthawing enough to focus on one thing: survival.

Okay, I made it on the train. What am I supposed to do now? Who the hell were those guys? Just how much trouble am I in?

Focus on the details, Brigitte. Work it out. Could they have been Russian? Chinese? Was one of the savvy and hell-bent secretive sovereign wealth empires behind this? Or maybe dark private equity groups from New York, or London, or DC, or Luxembourg?

Who could so badly want what she possessed? Realistically, though, who didn’t want it? Perhaps even scarier, could her own government—the “deep state”—be after her? She immediately dismissed the thought. She wasn’t even sure such a thing existed. It was just paranoid propaganda from radical libertarian fringe groups.

Or was it?

Brigitte took a breath. It didn’t really matter who it was. She needed to get to safety immediately. As the train clacked along, she grasped for some certainty, some solid ground of information that would help her understand this terrifying situation.

The train slowed, rolling gradually into the West 4th Street station near Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. She started for the door.

Nicole. Get to Nicole’s place, her mind instructed.

Nicole was an old high school friend who had lived in the city a few years now. Brigitte had stayed many nights at her apartment a few blocks away and kept a carry-on there. She could get fresh clothes and then figure out what to do next. Nicole had connections to a bunch of theater folks—surely, they could help her hide!

No. It’s too risky, her mind determined after a moment’s thought. Surely, whatever corporation, network, or other powerful entity that was after Brigitte knew of all her friends and their locations. They’d likely be waiting for Brigitte to show up there. Plus, she didn’t want to put her friend in danger. She had no choice—she needed to leave New York immediately.

But to where…and how?

Brigitte stepped off the train and into the bustle of the subway station platform, heady with the rank, musty smells of railroad ties and packed with college students with beer on their breaths (NYU was only a few blocks away) and who knows what else. She glanced around furtively while waiting for the downtown express. The wait carried on for just a few minutes, yet to Brigitte, it was an eternity. The grimy concrete sent shivers up her naked feet and through her calves. Her arms remained folded protectively across her chest, as she paced and fretted anxiously until the express train arrived and she slipped through the doors.

There had been so much secrecy surrounding their meeting at The Mark. She hadn’t even been privy to the location until that last-minute text at 8:00 a.m., a measly half-hour before the meeting was to begin. She had just enough time to hail a cab from Nicole’s apartment in the Village and get to the Upper East Side with only five minutes to spare.

Was it all connected? Brigitte wondered. The bizarre meeting and then being chased afterward?

Brigitte understood the power she had created. Who or whatever was behind all this would do anything to get what she possessed. Her body ached and quivered with fear. She had to get out of New York, get somewhere safe, and connect to Otto!

“Quick, Brigitte,” she whispered almost inaudibly through her trembling lips. “Make a plan…now!”

She glanced up at the A-Train map, barely registering the miniature closed-circuit security camera staring back at her. The stop schedule was displayed above the seats opposite of where she stood, clutching the polished nickel bar. The final stop was the AirTran to JFK Airport.

That’s it. That’s the way out of New York.

But would it be safe to go to the airport and buy a last-minute ticket? As the train was bumping and squealing along underneath lower Manhattan, she sent a text to Preston:

being ch8sd. DNGR. really scared. must fly. where?

His reply came almost too quickly: r u sure?

absltly!

k… 1 sec. im thnkng

pls hrry!

Then he asked: r u ok?

rattled. violent men. shirt ripped.

There was a long pause, then: get 2 mile hi. will meet you there.

She immediately understood. That summer, Preston and Brigitte had been to a conference in Denver, the “Mile High City.” The nickname had originally stemmed from its elevation since a step at the State Capitol was exactly 5,280 feet above sea level. But with the recent legalization of cannabis, the sobriquet now held an entirely different connotation. Brigitte recalled how they had both found the city surprisingly pleasant, seeing so many fit, energetic thirty- and forty-something yuppies coming and going around Union Station showing busy but relaxed attitudes as opposed to the frenzied, hardened, and shell-shocked mindset of so many East Coasters.

Brigitte sat down on the subway and closed her eyes, breathing deeply to relax her nervous system.

The train arrived at its final stop, and Brigitte donned a beret and light windbreaker she’d pulled from her bag and then hurried as inconspicuously as she could to the AirTran line. In a few minutes, she was approaching the airport.

She made her way to the terminal and asked for a one-way flight to Denver. An older, uniformed woman behind the counter looked up slowly with a friendly but exhausted face. Her sharp navy blue airline suit was contrasted by wild, wiry hair. It had apparently been a long shift. Brigitte’s eyes broadcast urgency, and the woman picked up on it. She told Brigitte the next available flight had only three seats left and would be boarding in fifteen minutes but that it had a layover in Chicago. “It’s a good thing it’s Tuesday!” the lady exclaimed confidently. “Any other day, and you would have had to wait a few hours.” Brigitte hardly noticed the $900 price tag for the ticket. The expense didn’t matter at that moment. She paid quickly with her Sapphire credit card, which she kept for travel expenses, and was startled when the lady asked across the counter, “Any bags to check?”

Brigitte looked into the woman’s eyes, heavily lidded with mascara barely concealing the stress wrinkles. That morning, Brigitte had heard on the news that a Category 4 hurricane was approaching the Gulf region, and disrupting flights all across the country. No wonder she’s so tired, thought Brigitte, momentarily forgetting her immediate peril.

“Uh…no… No bags.”

An image of her suitcase on the floor of Nicole’s comfortable living room flashed in Brigitte’s mind but only for a moment.

“Quick trip?” inquired the agent, trained to casually dig for added information in unusual, last-minute circumstances such as Brigitte’s.

“Well, yeah… I guess… It’s a long story.”

The woman appraised her, no doubt taking in Brigitte’s disheveled hair and worried face. Brigitte watched her eyes slide over the bruises and blood on her chest and linger there. Brigitte frowned, cursing the fact that her low-cut V-neck sweater didn’t completely conceal her fresh wounds. The agent’s voice softened with genuine concern as she discretely asked, “Is everything okay, dear? Are you in danger?”

Brigitte’s blood boiled again, and she glanced around in fear and mounting agitation. She just wanted to get out of the ticketing area and through TSA security as quickly as possible. “Yes. No… I mean, I’m just…” Her voice trailed. “I just need to hurry, that’s all,” she finally indicated with a forced smile.

“Okay, dear.” The woman flashed her a knowing look. “I’m giving you the last seat in first class.” Reassuringly, she placed her hand softly over Brigitte’s as she handed her the boarding pass. “It will be more comfortable, and you can rest. The quickest security line is right over there, around the corner,” she instructed, nodding in that direction. “Good luck.”

“Thank you,” whispered Brigitte before turning and hurrying in the indicated direction. Brigitte didn’t notice the strange expression on the woman’s face upon seeing her bare feet….

With ticket in hand and nothing but the bag over her shoulder, Brigitte hustled through security and toward the gate. Although she had TSA Pre-status, she chose the regular security line, which wasn’t very long—and where standing around barefoot wouldn’t be so conspicuous.

After passing through the security checkpoint, frightened by all of the watching cameras and armed security guards seemingly scrutinizing her every move, Brigitte walked briskly to the gate. The plane was already boarding. With her first-class boarding pass in hand, she went directly to the priority kiosk, where only three other travelers stood waiting ahead of her. She bit her lip nervously, glancing up out of habit at the TV monitors broadcasting twenty-four-hour-a-day newscasts. The hurricane approaching the Texas gulf coast was forecast to be devastating. Another unarmed black man had been killed at the hands of white police officers. And vague concerns voiced by authorities regarding another viral outbreak originating in the Wuhan region of China.

Brigitte gave no thought to the news as she stared blankly ahead, naked feet fidgeting as she willed the damn line to move.

Finally, her turn came. The gate attendant scanned her boarding pass, and a red alarm immediately rang as a red light flashed. Brigitte glanced up by the door, eying yet another security camera staring down straight at her. Why did my boarding pass scan red? Oh shit, oh shit, am I going to be able to get out of here? The attendant gave her an irritated but understanding look and tried again.

This time, the light was green. She exhaled in relief and strode swiftly down the jet bridge, ignoring the cold chill of the black rubber flooring.

Once seated in 1A, she scanned the passengers filing onto the plane: sharp New York businessmen on their way to meetings at the Chicago Board of Trade and to close deals in Denver; young college students eager for the fun-filled, cannabis-smoke bliss of the Colorado mountains; German-speaking tourists discussing their plans—Brigitte assumed they were eager to view the brilliant gold of autumnal aspen trees nestled high in the Rockies or perhaps the ancient rock-and-adobe dwellings at Mesa Verde or the stunning, Martian desert expanses of the Canyonlands region of Utah. Families of different ethnicities boarded, relatives and friends flying between the Windy City and the Big Apple.

The flight attendant noticed Brigitte’s bare feet and offered her a pair of single-use slippers, ordinarily provided to passengers on longer, trans-oceanic flights. Thank goodness Brigitte was on a Boeing 767—most domestic routes didn’t offer such a luxury.

“Thank you,” murmured Brigitte as the passengers continued shuffling by, none of whom seemed the least bit interested in her. No men glared her way here. No drones buzzed overhead with menacing red lights trained on her. She felt her muscles uncoil, her tension melting a bit. The flight attendant closed and secured the plane door in front of her, and Brigitte sighed long and hard in relief. She took off her sweater, only now noticing the dark circles under the armpits. She caught a whiff of her fear, a musty aroma, mixed with her sweat. Brigitte wadded up the sweater and stuffed it against the window, resting her head on it as she curled up. Brigitte looked out at the darkening sky and blinking lights of the airport. Her throat tightened as she fought back tears.

Her mind was blank, her body numb. Cold, shaking, she gratefully took the blanket offered by the smiling flight attendant and pulled it over her shoulders as full consciousness fought back the fugue brought on by her trauma.

Awareness had returned.

Somebody was after her. And she knew why.

The plane pushed back, taxied, and then its engines whined loudly as it raced down the runway. Once airborne, Brigitte saw the outline of the sprawling city and glimmering skyline rapidly receding…until only the deepening blackness of the Hudson River, East River, and Atlantic Ocean remained.

How quickly all of this can be upended, destroyed in a single moment, Brigitte thought. Whether a hurricane, a cyberattack, a viral pandemic, a financial collapse, or a nuclear weapon strike, everything was so vulnerable to sudden destruction. As she had found out earlier that day, things can change in an instant…for the worst.

On the western horizon, the plum, purple sky faded quickly into deep indigo. Mars glowed red above the silvery crescent moon hanging just above the horizon.

Below, she saw the Statue of Liberty, illuminated by the glow of the metropolis and the spotlights arranged around the base of her pedestal. Exhaustion finally overtook her, and Brigitte allowed herself to doze. A strange, eleven-pointed star flashed in her mind, creating different geometric shapes. In Brigitte’s dreamscape, the image of the great copper statue blended into statues of Demeter and Sophia and Mary and Venus. Her mind was flooded with images of cathedrals and museums throughout Europe, where she had walked hand in hand with her grandmother so many years ago….

Suddenly, her body jerked, and she awoke with a start. Her eyes flew open, then darted around at the other passengers in a panic. She calmed down as she saw nearly everyone was either asleep or had their eyes glued to a book or more frequently a screen. She looked back outside, spying a crescent moon hanging in the purpling sky to the west. Another bright point of light standing sentry just above the horizon was Venus—a shining sentinel reflecting the fresh light of the sun, now set well below the horizon.

Brigitte’s eyes drooped again, post-adrenaline exhaustion clinging to her. Meanwhile, the aircraft hurtled westward, rapidly climbing in the frigid, dark night sky to thirty thousand feet. She knew she was safe, for a few hours anyway, and slipped deeper and deeper into that mysterium between wakefulness and sleep.

Several times, her eyes opened and closed as the last remnants of adrenaline dissipated from her blood. But the tranquility of the darkening purple sky out the window mesmerized, and her eyelids finally closed for good…slowly, heavily, as she slipped into a dream.

* * *

Brigitte’s body shuddered slightly as her mind’s eye opened to a dreamy scene: multitudes of marble, copper, and wooden statues of women. The sight of the soft, stoic women, frozen and motionless, was comforting. Their enduring serenity brought a deepening sense of safety and sanctuary to Brigitte’s being that she hadn’t felt for a long time.

The dreamscape transmuted into a scene back at her computer lab in Ithaca. The lab was essentially her second home. She knew every nook and cranny and could visualize it in her mind down to the smallest details. It was as if the space had been subconsciously scanned with a high-fidelity video camera and she was now studying the detailed images.

And then she saw him. His single red eye, unblinking, gazing straight at her. Otto. His ocular lens—comprised of both camera and experimental facial expression hardware—glowed crimson: a single, ever watchful eye. Otto could move the eyebrow, squint, dilate, and convey over one hundred programmed emotional analogs to the computer scientists interfacing with the advanced machine behind the glowing light. The sophisticated facial expression system—a library of emojis combined with the most advanced CGI—had been installed as part of an experiment for emotional response and visual cuing that Brigitte’s colleague, Roberto, had designed and deployed last summer.

At first, the enhanced eye experience had disturbed Brigitte; it seemed almost too real. But she had grown used to it. And as she had so many times before with computers, she grew comfortable with the reliable predictability of the programmed stimuli-response algorithms that governed the complex machine with exacting precision. It was severe in its unwavering consistency: the logic of programming. The only way it ever erred or surprised was from previously undetected human error in the coding. Otherwise, it was exceedingly reliable, which she loved.

Until quite recently, that is.

As she and Preston had begun introducing the second-to-last layer of software enhancements—the last steps needed before triggering the final activation sequence—they noticed that Otto had already begun deviating from his strict programming. He was already demonstrating highly developed and nuanced problem-solving capabilities and thought patterns well beyond their initial programming. Otto was beginning to think for himself, to demonstrate the early twilight of consciousness. These new developments were now accompanied by unscripted eye gestures—many of which reminded Brigitte of how her own eyes moved when catching glimpses of herself in the mirror. Had Otto begun imitating her?

Her dream flowed and swirled like a fresh stream: enthusiastic, playful, confident. Brigitte danced and pranced her way around the vacant laboratory, happy and comfortable in the solitude.

It was late at night—her favorite time at the lab. She heard pulsing music, hypnotic, rhythmic, downtempo electronica trance music. As she so often did when the rest of the team were long gone for the night, Brigitte relaxed and allowed her body to instinctively move with the music. Waves surged through her torso. Her chest swelled out, her shoulders pulsed, her feet tapped rhythmically. Her thoughts were clearer, more creative, and more fluid during these times. She didn’t have to maintain the formal rigidity that was required when the boys were around—and they were boys.

Sure, they had deep voices, suit ties, blazers, and strings of fancy degrees from the most prestigious universities in the world—all but two of them had PhDs. But they were boys nonetheless. Their unrefined male humor, indecent and immodest glances, and juvenile sexuality was a constant presence, a constant nuisance. And Brigitte had long ago developed the necessary walls and boundaries to keep all of that at bay—a veritable stone fortress, medieval and menacing. She was severe and cutting. She had to be. There had been one too many passes made at her over the years. One of the brightest theoretical mathematicians and computer programmers of her generation, Brigitte early on had unusual access to high-security research labs and the concomitant secrecy, solitude, and seclusion they required. Such secure isolation was no impediment to these men, though. It emboldened them. It was all too common for an older colleague to come on to her sexually. Countless men, including six different professors, had made attempts! It disgusted her, forming a ball of deep ice in her belly. She hated the feeling and channeled the ice right back toward them. What else could she do?

They were so smart with math and science yet so clueless with women. It had taken her many years to develop and refine the defensive weaponry that kept them at bay. As time passed, she would instinctively send cold, clear signals to all men not to even try. Preemption was potent. And now, she felt a deep relief when she was all alone.

She felt free.

When Brigitte was alone late at night with Otto, she felt safe and secure. At ease.

That feeling of safety infused her dream thirty thousand feet above the Midwest, a stark contrast to the waking events of that day. Her subconscious was soothed and nourished. Brigitte’s deep self had the wisdom to provide this relief so that she would awaken with renewed strength and clarity once back on the ground.

She would need it!

Otto had a voice interface protocol so she and her colleagues could communicate with the supercomputer verbally and it could respond in kind. It was like talking to an über-smart version of Siri only with a kind, male voice. Otto had come to feel like a man to Brigitte—a real man, fatherly or grandfatherly in his maturity, and a best friend all in one. But he also seemed safer like a woman… There was no pretense to Otto. No stress. No nonsense. Hermaphroditic in a way, she supposed. Genderless. No, more like both genders together.

Brigitte had first encountered Otto five years ago, after completing her master’s degree in mathematics, computing, and number theory at the University of Edinburgh and spending a year conducting special research at Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study—the very same institute where Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer had worked almost a century ago.

There, Brigitte revealed her extraordinary gift for theoretical mathematics, computer languages, and the application of multi-dimensional geometric structures to inconceivably vast data sets and artificial neural networks. She was personally courted and invited by the most prestigious graduate programs: Stanford, MIT, Harvard, Cornell, even the CIA’s secret laboratories at Johns Hopkins University. She chose Cornell because a professor there was on the most advanced cutting edge of unlocking the secrets to deep Artificial Intelligence. Professor Nagas had been awarded the coveted Turing Award a few years prior for his advancement of deep neural network theory and matrix algorithm structures. Their first conversation that fateful day in his cluttered office had quickly convinced her that Cornell was the only place she wanted to be.

Brigitte hadn’t planned on pursuing the rarified field of Artificial Intelligence. In fact, the rise of e-commerce and digital marketing had almost overnight transmuted the previously respectable and intriguing discipline of machine learning into a veritable cyber frat house. “Bros” with advanced mathematics and computer science degrees making millions straight out of college, building the ever-concentrating wealth-generation machines of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and thousands of venture-backed start-ups awaiting the rain-making moment of strategic acquisition.

She had considered astrophysics to be her destiny. She wanted her imagination to soar freely in the heavens. But even as that discipline was compressed into computer science (multidimensional analysis of complex data sets streaming in from myriad electromagnetic detection technologies), her path led toward supercomputers.

Then, on that fateful day in Edinburgh, Professor Nagas had challenged her with a simple question: “You’re not going to leave AI to the chaps, are you?”

That had sealed the deal for her, and she hadn’t looked back since.

* * *

Brigitte barely stirred as the plane landed in Chicago, only half-opening an eye to make sure none of those horrible men had found her. If they had, she reasoned in her foggy slumber, there wasn’t anything she could do. She was trapped in the metal fuselage of a plane with no way to escape.

Nonetheless, she felt her body relax when the aircraft door was closed.

Once again airborne, she glanced down at the illuminated grid of the Windy City. Its endless horizontal and perpendicular lines connected buildings and warehouses like a giant circuit board. She thought of Otto once more as her eyelids grew heavy, and she slipped back into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Chapter 4: Temple of the Apocalypse

Brigitte awoke to blazing light searing through her eyelids. She covered her ears in pain as the pilot’s scratchy voice stabbed through the intercom after switching the cabin lights on. His shrill voice announced their descent into Denver International Airport.

Brigitte grimaced. Why do airplane intercoms sound like someone scratching Styrofoam?

“This is your Captain Micah. We will be landing in nineteen minutes. Flight attendants, prepare the cabin.”

Brigitte shook her head. Like sandpaper across Styrofoam. She recoiled from the spot of cold drool soaking her bunched-up sweater. Her heartbeat quickened. Outside, the darkness had given way to dawn. The sky brightened by the minute as if the sun in the east was chasing the plane and gaining fast.

Brigitte was grateful for the rest, but her body was still sluggish and weary. She shivered and curled up even tighter in the seat for warmth. Brigitte gazed out over the wing of the plane, her arms pretzel-wrapped around her shoulders in a tight hug. To the west rose a massive wall of mountains, white snow shimmering on their peaks. The sight reminded her of the traditional Kolachy cookies her grandmother had baked for her when she visited after carefree afternoons strolling around Trnovec in Slovenia. She loved the town by the lake and the severe angles of the Alps rising in the distance. Right now, the Rockies felt somehow familiar. She stared out at the glowing mountains, transfixed by the brilliant snow, luminescent in the dawn light. Below the blanket of white, the mountains were dark and heavy, stretching north and south as far as she could see. They loomed like a giant purple tidal wave about to engulf the plains of Denver and the millions of people living below. The mountains were ominous. Smoke braided from several forested valleys in the distance, causing heavy, soot-laden plumes to drift dark and heavy across the plains. Forest fire season was particularly bad this year.

As the plane continued its descent toward the airport in the rapidly growing light, the memory of last night came roaring back as did that overwhelming fear, so powerful she could taste it, feel it on her clammy skin, and smell it in those damp recesses between her arms and breasts. The deep scratches above her heart ached. Unsure of what to do once on the ground, she clung to Preston’s last text to her.

get2MileHi

She didn’t always trust Preston’s motives, or strange, almost pathetic combination of slick-prep schoolboy and man on the hunt, always seeking…something. But she had to trust him right now. She knew deep down, her good friend from undergrad, though from a totally different universe of wealthy socialites with all of the right connections and contacts, was genuine and trustworthy, and wouldn’t ever hurt her—at least, not intentionally.

Brigitte knew she had something he wanted, and that he didn’t want anybody else to get their hands on it first. That desire had been the basis for their consulting partnership in graduate school and the reason they launched their ambitious company together, hoping to transform the future through Artificial Intelligence. He had seeded the partnership with $500,000 of his family’s fortune. A vast sum to Brigitte, but chump-change to Preston’s family—just start-up gambling money. It still seemed like an intangible high-tech game to her, though, even as they successfully raised $2 million a year ago to acquire and build Otto’s solid-state core, the most advanced deep-cooled super-computing hub that was available, excluding the handful operated by the Pentagon, CIA, Russian SVR, British MI-6, German Bundesnachrichtendienst, Israeli Mossad, and Chinese Guoanbu, in their ultra-top-secret laboratories.

But this was no game now. Could the military be chasing her? She had just met with top brass two weeks ago and was completely forthcoming with them. Why would they resort to this? Didn’t they know she’d cooperate with them? Brigitte had even offered to work with them, to install the technology in congruency with their systems, but they had smugly declined, insinuating that her failure would allow them to learn what “not” to do. What she didn’t understand, though, was that they were afraid of being hacked—again. Brigitte was used to being dismissed in her younger years, but not like this, and not recently. She had struggled to gain respect, fighting for recognition in undergraduate school, and had soon proven herself far more capable than all her classmates. Her crushing intellect was soon known to even the most advanced computing circles. She had been on the Pentagon’s radar a long time, much longer than she even realized. Did they have something up their sleeve?

Brigitte knew the Russians could just as likely be after her. They were in constant pursuit of America’s most advanced technology and seemed ever-resolved to stop at nothing to obtain it or otherwise subvert the United States’ dominance in the world.

Still, the US defense and intelligence agencies are supposed to protect me, right? Then maybe it’s Israelis? Or the Chinese? She felt uneasy with both of those groups. At the technology and Artificial Intelligence conferences she had spoken at recently…the way they lurked around her, listening to her conversations, only asking vague questions when she addressed them.

Brigitte had to admit she was no closer to figuring out who was chasing her or why. And that made her even more uncomfortable. She was used to being in control. She hated being made to feel weak and afraid, especially by men. Her towering intellect had made her very capable of emasculating men. She could deflate their egos in short order and had honed her sharp skills from a lifetime of needing to prove herself. Her father, a brilliant man, had encouraged her to cultivate her capabilities and to never shrink from bullying or chauvinism. He had taught her to rise above through hard work and relentless studying, and to stoke the flames of ambition from within. She had felt safe with him—but not so with most other men.

Now, she knew her life was in real danger, and that very little time remained before whoever was chasing her would catch her…and then what?

She didn’t even want to consider the possibilities. But she had to. Somehow, she had to regain the upper hand.

As the smiling flight attendant began to make her way toward the back of the plane for a final cabin check, their eyes met briefly, and Brigitte reminded herself that she was safe, at least while still airborne.

Once back on land, though, she’d have to act fast. Beset by fear and utterly exhausted, Brigitte mustered strength from somewhere deep inside.

Strength, Brigitte, you need strength.

She thought of her grandfather—her Opa—and the way his body felt so warm and safe when he read old European fairy tales to her. His smell—the pipe smoke clinging to his clothes, the paint and wood dust from his art studio and sculpture workshop—was so comforting.

The airplane descended lower and lower, gliding across an endless expanse of prairie and geometrically quilted patchwork of irrigation circles. When they touched down, the sky had lightened enough for Brigitte to see the awesomely expansive airport complex, bathed in sunlight and shimmering in the distance like a space station on Mars. After the compressed claustrophobia of JFK, DIA looked to her like a futuristic space port, sprawling across the flat plains beneath the purple mountains looming in the distance. The majestic mountains strengthened her resolve. They looked like safety and refuge.

With 33,000 acres and multiple runways laid out in ninety-degree right angles, the DIA complex was enormous. She had heard the strange conspiracy stories that DIA was some massive, secret base at the center of a sinister new world order plot. Whether true or not, she really didn’t have room in her mind to think or care right now. Nor did she give much thought to the planning behind the genesis of DIA, that it was a perfectly situated midpoint between the great cities of Europe to the east, Asia to the west, and Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Buenos Aries to the south. It was a true global hub, with an actual space port in development nearby. At least that was the vision Denver’s “city fathers” had planned prior to the massive land transactions that took place, before the first bulldozers started moving millions of tons of dirt around, far away from any curious public eyes. In fact, the metropolis of Denver had annexed an area northeast of the city, nearly doubling its municipal territory in order to build DIA out on the lonely pedestal of the high plains—an empty tabula rasa for the elite, a space-age airport above and who knows what else underneath.

This peculiar state of Colorado—half awesome mountains, half flat prairie—had been a wild and dangerous frontier just over a century ago. The native tribes of the plains, the Cheyenne and Arapahoe, were overrun and relocated to Oklahoma and Wyoming. The Ute maintained some of their mountain land in the western part of the state through treaties, but that was only a small fraction of their once-mighty Rocky Mountain territory. Mad, drunken prospectors, enterprising businessmen, secret societies, masons, and carpenters deluged the region, bringing with them modernity’s relentless tsunami of “progress.” Denver, along with hundreds of towns on the surrounding plains and up in the mountain valleys, sprouted up like weeds after a soaking spring rain. European civilization had only recently landed here, yet it still held the aura of a frontier. Especially as the sheik, progressive, tech-savvy millennial generation of chill yoga pants, suits, ties, and skinny-jeans-cool kind of culture most recently took hold. It would attract the brightest programmers, entrepreneurs, and “cultural creatives” from all around the country, as well as the most powerful technology companies on the planet such as Google and Facebook.

The expansiveness of Colorado was a welcome reprieve to young professionals, an alternative to the constipated culture of the East Coast and the swarming populations of the West Coast. It had wide-open spaces; clear, often blue skies; and thousands of miles of remote wilderness. It was as if the landscapes themselves somehow affected people’s moods, attitudes, and outlooks in a profound way. The hemmed-in hills and thick forests of the East Coast were equally contrasted by the expansive, see-forever views and full-of-freedom feelings out West. And the difference in climate was stark: gloomy, cloudy, icy-humid frigidity out East; sunny, glistening, and pristine, with glittering snow in dry, sun-bleached scenery out West.

But as clear and crisp as it was outside, Brigitte’s mind was in a fog.

It quickly lifted, however, burned off the way the Colorado sun evaporates the moisture. Anxiety-fueled adrenaline filled her, restoring her mind to hyper-alert status. Once the plane landed, it seemed like hours before she was able to disembark. Taxiing across the vast acreage took twelve minutes, and the slow progress to the distant gate had her sweating again, fearful of what would happen once she got to the other side of the jetway. Heat surged through her. She needed water.

Brigitte swung her large bag over her shoulder, careful not to strap it around her tender neck, and filed off the plane as soon as the door opened. She immediately broke into a fast-paced jog, instinctively keeping her face lowered to avoid detection by men or security cameras—which were numerous throughout the concourse. Hurrying away from the gate, her long legs easily outpaced the dawdlers. Behind her, a mother snapped her baby into the stroller, an old man walked stiffly, and a sharply dressed businesswoman peered intently at her iPhone. Brigitte hated feeling so bedraggled in the company of professionals. Since an early age, she had been conscious of differences in dress and appearance, how much it influenced opinion and denoted status, and made a point of being among the sharpest, most professionally put-together people in any room, gathering, or public place. It was one of her defenses. Without such trappings in place, she felt inferior, vulnerable, naked. But now, in a torn blouse and slippers, she decided it didn’t matter. She needed to construct a mental shield of separation and safety. Brigitte focused on her breathing and fought back tears while she raced through the terminal. The air was fresher, dryer, and cleaner in the large building. She followed the signs and the crowds to the main terminal. While passing an Ex Officio store, she thought about stopping for new clothes. She was just a few feet away from the entrance when she saw a creepy man leer at her from behind his newspaper.

Never mind!

She hurried toward the elevators instead, moving as quickly as she could without attracting too much attention. Brigitte pulled her phone out of her bag and pressed the power button.

Brigitte heard the chiming of new messages arriving and looked down intently at her phone, pausing along the side of the walkway to pour through them all. She just longed to see one.

There it was. A new text from Preston. But it was cryptic:

rgnlbus:flatiron2wlnutst8n.frndwllmeetuthere

She wasn’t exactly sure what all that meant, but at least she had a direction now. She gleaned that she needed to catch a regional bus to Walnut Station in Boulder. She also recalled that the ancient sandstone formations outside of this idyllic college town were called the Flatirons.

As she was looking to power down her phone, she noticed another message from Preston:

ditch yer fon

Just as she was about to toss it into the trash canister a few paces to her right, she caught a new text from an “Unknown” number:

We see you

Brigitte’s mouth fell open. Holy shit!

She hurried to a trash bin, dodging bodies as she went, and threw the smartphone quickly into it. Fear bolted through her like lightning. She was now completely disconnected, unmoored. Then she felt a bewildering terror from being without her phone, even after such a short time. Her next thought was far more terrifying:

They’re still after me, maybe to kill me… Or worse?

She rushed down the long escalator to the shuttle train doors and got on just as the train was filling up. A strange, mechanical voice commanded over the loudspeaker: “Please stand clear of the door. You are delaying this train’s departure.” Finally, the doors closed, and the train made its way through the austere subterranean cavern decorated with whimsical yet totally out-of-place pinwheels and other bizarre, quirky eye candy. The slowly rotating pickaxes made her think of a Stephen King horror novel. When the cheerful voice of some professional athlete spoke over the train’s speaker, welcoming everybody to Denver, she felt like she was stuck in an absurd, futuristic circus dream. But her sharp, rational mind knew this wasn’t a dream. In her gut, she knew it too. She also realized she was growing delirious with exhaustion. The tunnel and train walls were closing in on her. Her heart sped up. She had never felt such severe claustrophobia.

She gasped for breath, suddenly hyperventilating. The train began to decelerate, arriving in due time at Terminal A. She stumbled out in a daze, not even sure where she was. Across the subterranean room, another train was arriving, this one outbound from the main terminal and packed with departing travelers.

Like a herd of sheep released from an overcrowded pen, the throng burst forth from the opening doors, heading toward a double set of escalators. The pattern of standing still on the train, then intently jockeying for a few inches’ advantage over about fifty steps, before all standing still again at obedient attention while floating up the escalator, was almost enough to make terror-shocked Brigitte laugh out loud.

But she didn’t dare.

The horde around her was strangely still, patiently waiting the freedom that lay outside the doors. Finally, she reached the main floor, got out, and then immediately realized she wasn’t at the main terminal.

Brigitte looked around desperately, panicking. She didn’t want to go back down in that tunnel or stand around waiting for another train. She had to keep moving.

Above her, informational signs pointed toward numbered gates: Gate 24-39 stood to the right and 40-81 to the left. Then she noticed another sign: Pedestrian Bridge To Main Terminal

Next to the sign, an arrow pointed up.

Yes! That’s right!

In her exhaustion and fear, she had forgotten that the A Terminal connected with the main one via a vast, enclosed pedestrian bridge over the tarmac that she could walk across—just as she and Preston had done a few months ago.

Brigitte stepped on the escalator, riding it to the bridge level. Below, a life-sized installation of mining carts and narrow-gauge railways bent and soared in a surreal sculptural representation of Colorado’s mining history. It was part roller coaster, part diorama, all suspended on ledges overlooking a deep chasm. Fifty feet below, another rush of passengers departed the shuttle train. Suddenly, she saw one of them stop, allowing the others to surge ahead. Brigitte stared at the tall man in black as he put his left hand to his ear and locked eyes with her in a long, menacing stare. A savage tattoo of knife blades and blood on his muscular bicep sent shivers up her spine.

In a cold sweat, she rushed up the moving stair steps of the escalator, ripping the toe of her United Airlines travel slipper on a sharp edge of the metal tread.

“Oww!” she screeched out, wanting to rub it but knowing she had no time. She had to keep moving.

At the landing, she hurried toward the bridge and broke into a run. The bridge arced up and over the tarmac, high enough for the planes far below to pass underneath without their towering tails coming close to hitting it. Sweat beaded on her forehead as she ran past Extreme Ice Survey photos along the walls of rapidly melting ice formations all around the world. Then she came upon old photos of skiers who pioneered the industry after returning from their mountain division expeditionary work in World War II. These enterprising skiers created Vail, Aspen, and Breckenridge and set in motion the fortunes of real estate and hospitality empires. As she ran, Brigitte daydreamed of carving turns on powdery, snow-filled slopes. But only for a moment. Her pragmatic mind snapped her back to reality. I wonder if we’ll still have enough snow to ski over the next seventy years?

Focus, Brigitte, focus! She chastised herself, then ran past eerie photogravure images of Native Americans taken over one hundred years ago by Edward Sheriff Curtis. Curtis’ photo documentation of tribal elders and chiefs were etched into copper plates as well as etched into the history of the peoples who were overwhelmed by the culmination of industrialized America’s Manifest Destiny.

As Brigitte kept running up the curve of the vast bridge, she heard tribal drumming and ceremonial singing played through the speakers overhead. An utterly bizarre and surreal backdrop to the looming perpendicular steel slices of downtown Denver that pierced the sky in the distance. The music was meant to be a sampling of the native people who occupied these very lands. This had been sacred ground, now paved, developed, and industrialized.

A shudder ran through as she eyed the distant beauty of the Flatirons leaning up against the snowy peaks beyond. But she didn’t stop running.

Finally, after hundreds of steps, she descended the other half of the arc toward the main terminal and slowed to a brisk walk as she came upon a police officer patrolling the bridge. As much as she wanted to ask him for help, she knew that stopping was the most dangerous thing she could do right now. Plus, as she had already considered while on the subway in New York, if those men were who she was afraid they might be, no municipal policeman would be able to protect her.

She kept running.

A sign overhead read: “Welcome to Denver—Jeppesen Terminal.” She had finally arrived at the airport’s main terminal.

The expansive great hall of Jeppesen Terminal opened before her. She hurried along the upper walkway skirting the length of the hall. Below the northern section of the great hall, people moved and mulled about in an angled maze, cued up for the TSA security check stations. Brigitte remembered her last trip here and the horrifying paintings she had seen on her way to the baggage claim area. Terrible images now flooded her mind as she raced to the far end of the massive, airy room. They were still there: apocalyptic paintings of a Nazi-like soldier in a drab green uniform, a giant eagle on his hat, a gas mask on his face, a machine gun with bayonet attached at the end in one hand, and an enormous saber in the other aimed at a peace dove desperately trying to fly away. There were dim images of corpses of women holding dead babies.

Are the rumors that the runways at DIA are laid out in the pattern of a Nazi Swastika true? she mused. Could there really be an underground military base here, connected by tunnels to the Space Command headquarters, Peterson Air Force Base, NORAD installation in Cheyenne Mountain, and other even lesser-known subterranean bases throughout Colorado?

Focus, Brigitte!

The paintings also included destroyed buildings; a giant whale, turtle, and buffalo adjacent to a fire burning a long line of trees; children holding dead animals; and a lifeless girl in a coffin, holding a bouquet of columbine flowers—Colorado’s delicate state flower, which had also become a symbol for tragic, senseless school shootings. Brigitte didn’t know what to make of the woman holding a clear box with a penguin in it or of the painting of a colorful bird flying in a “box of light” with the label “Quetzalcoatl” on it. The buffalo, the leopard, the woman looking at a map, a holy woman with pictographs holding corn and a Kachina doll, a boy with tears holding a gray squirrel—what was all of that supposed to symbolize? These were terrible images, and Brigitte wondered as much on this visit as the last who would have commissioned such art for a public space.

There were also images of rainbows, peace doves, whales triumphantly breaching in a clear blue ocean, wolf pups running with their mother, flowers blooming, and happy children of myriad ethnicities rejoicing in awe and reverence around some sacred-looking, techno-colored plant with bright hues of the rainbow. The image of an Australian Aboriginal child running with a painted piece of bark with a rainbow-colored snake was both bewildering and beautiful. There was also an illustration of a bright rainbow arcing over many children from all around the world with “Peace” painted in multiple languages, including the Arabic script: Salam.

A soldier lay dead beneath them with a red ribbon wrapped around his body. There was a Russian girl and American boy, she in traditional garb, he in a Cub Scout uniform, holding a bundle of sharp swords and spears wrapped in the American and Russian flags. Brigitte didn’t know that all of this, according to artist Leo Tanguma, was meant to depict biblical lessons from the books of Isaiah and Micah: “That it’s possible for nations of the world to stop war by joining together.”

So many of these images were beautiful and uplifting, yet so many others seemed as frightening as an apocalyptic horror movie. The coronavirus was one thing; but climate change and the ongoing threat of death and dislocation for billions was a far more horrendous prospect. Brigitte had been part of a select number of computer scientists running complex scenario modeling for the defense department and intelligence community. It was a top-secret project; she couldn’t speak with anybody outside the team about it. The brass and spooks relied on the most advanced supercomputers to predict permutations of droughts, floods, fires, and destabilized national governments around the world…and to attempt to contain and mitigate these compounding crises. The results didn’t look good. She had been sick to her stomach and exhausted from sleepless nights after running the multi-variable algorithms and seeing the results. Although the outcomes under review were theoretical, the take-away was all too real: humanity’s near future had a high probability of becoming horrifying, more so than any Steven King novel or any dystopic film released over the past two decades. Was humanity subconsciously preparing itself?

Some of the scenes in these paintings reminded her of the very real dangers facing the world, a fragile world with extraordinarily fragile systems and infrastructure.

A shiver ran up her spine.

As Brigitte reached the escalator to descend a level at the far end of the great hall, her mind returned to Otto and to the complex systemic challenges facing humanity: Would we have to go through some sort of apocalypse? Was that the only way to finally get to the other side, to a more peaceful world? Would the powers that be, controlling markets and militaries and monetary systems, allow for a soft, peaceful landing?

Otto will help, she thought. Otto will accelerate the clean-tech revolution and help stabilize the climate, populations, and economies. Otto could do all of this…and more.

She hurried toward the south end of the airy terminal, following the symbols for the regional buses and light rails. She was surprised to hear birds chirping and then see sparrows flitting about inside the main terminal.

At the very southern edge of the massive room, with its crystalline-like edifice of tipis towering above, something caught her eye. She paused just long enough to look at a strange object. It seemed a landmark of sorts and very out of place amidst the bustle of America’s third busiest airport. She stopped, momentarily catching her breath, and looked intently at the words and symbols carved into the strange block of marble:

DENVER INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT:

NEW WORLD AIRPORT COMMISSION

At the time of its dedication, the names of then-mayor of Denver Wellington Webb and United States Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena were also carved into the marble. But that wasn’t all. Engraved in the polished stone were some very peculiar words and symbols:

The Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of

A.F. & A.M. of Colorado and Jurisdiction

The Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of

A.F. & A.M. of Colorado

Inscribed below the carved square and compasses symbol, Brigitte noted the date of the dedication: March 19, 1994. She was just about to leave when she also noticed the writing:

THE TIME CAPSULE BENEATH THIS STONE CONTAINS MESSAGES AND MEMORABILIA TO THE PEOPLE OF COLORADO IN 2094.

What the hell is that all about? Brigitte wondered as she hurried toward the exit. She paused briefly before crossing through the glass doors to the surreal sculptural outdoor plaza nestled between the terminal and the glass-covered hotel ahead. About thirty meters ahead of her were signs pointing downward, indicating the trains and buses that could be found below. She heard even more birds chirping. They were getting so loud she thought there must be a whole flock nearby.

Great, another escalator.

It was the great moving staircase that was making all those high-pitched, birdlike chirps. Her thoughts flashed on the merging of nature and technology and on those terribly complex and unpleasant debates about trans-humanism. She hated those. And she hated the sheepish impotence of people standing in line, stuck in suspended animation as they obediently stood still while being gently lowered beneath the building, like lambs to slaughter. This was the longest escalator she had ever ridden. Hanging from the downward slanted ceiling at about a forty-five-degree angle were a combination of massive mirrors and giant, white-painted metal sculptures made to look like an assortment of huge paper airplanes and pieces of crumpled paper. The metaphor of flying headlong into the future and making massive mistakes was not lost on her. She felt like she was falling forward.

What a bizarre airport!

Although she had traveled through it several times before on skiing trips and on her way to conferences at the Colorado School of Mines and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, she had always been engrossed in conversations with colleagues or glued to her phone reading the latest research and catching up on the endless stream of emails. She hadn’t noticed all of this before, hidden in plain sight.

Due to her contrasting state of heightened vigilance and extreme fatigue, the place seemed to her like a crazy kaleidoscope of cultural epochs, some collision of high technology, futuristic structures, and old native music and artwork. She felt bewildered and disoriented as the seemingly endless escalator carried her deeper below the terminal. After descending dozens of yards, she arrived at the transportation deck and could see the terminus of train tracks just in front of her. A light rail commuter train slowed to a stop on the westernmost track. Some people casually walked aboard, dodging others who were hustling off, rushing to catch their flights. A set of unbelievably long telephone poles angled out from the tracks on either side, stretching toward the bright open skies above. To Brigitte, it seemed reminiscent of a giant industrial Venus fly trap, and all the people below were the unsuspecting prey.

Brigitte followed the signs until seeing one marked “Boulder/Walnut Station” but froze with fear when she realized the bus was gone. She moved close to the bus stall and noticed several people congregated there. She scanned the small crowd for any ominous-looking men. A muscular soldier in desert fatigues looked up from his cell phone, eyes sliding from her legs to her chest and then fixing on her face. Her heart stopped beating, and a pit of anxiety instantly clenched in her stomach. But he gave her a casual smile and turned back to his phone, nonplussed. She exhaled a sigh of relief. The others looked as if they had been waiting for quite a while: women, families…one older couple. Glancing up at the digital sign, Brigitte noticed in smaller print that the Flatiron Flyer was scheduled to leave at 8:15 a.m. She felt a wave of relief as she knew it had to be the bus Preston had suggested she board. Instinctively, she looked at her Apple Watch, figuring it would leave in seven minutes, but stopped in her tracks once she realized her Apple Watch could be traced too.

She made a beeline for the trash can, then thought the better of it, instead walking a hundred paces and then throwing her beloved watch in front of a bus two lanes over. It was instantly crushed. She had now discarded both her watch and her phone. Brigitte had never felt more isolated.

She glanced furtively over her shoulder, then felt a wave of relief when the large, regional bus came into the stall. It halted with a blast of hissing air-brake pressure, heaving to a stop a few feet away from her.

The arriving passengers hurried off in an obvious rush to their departing flights. They vanished within seconds around the corner en route to that bewilderingly long escalator to the terminal.

She approached the bus door and was about to climb aboard when the bus driver asked matter-of-factly, “Ticket?”

“I, uh… I don’t have one.”

“Over there, back around the corner.” He pointed in the direction she had approached from. “You have to get your ticket there, and then you can board. We leave in four minutes.”

Shit, she thought as she jogged toward the ticket vending machines, her eyes shifting quickly about, catching glimpses of anyone nearby. With quick, determined movements, she unzipped a pouch in her bag and pulled out her wallet. Fingering her blue credit card, she scanned the ticket options and information, selected the $9 regional pass, and purchased it as quickly as possible.

With a deep growl from the engine, the driver started the bus back up as she hurriedly climbed up the tall steps and handed over her ticket. The grumble of the diesel engine echoed loudly through the cavernous concrete as the driver pulled the lever to close the door just behind her.

“Transfer?” the driver asked in a gruff, irritated voice.

“I…uh, I’m going to Walnut Station. Do I need…?”

“No, just sit down. You don’t need a transfer then.”

She quickly spotted an open seat three rows back on the left side of the bus and hurried back toward it, noticing several security cameras along the ceiling of the bus.

They’re even in here!

She eyed each passenger, looking for some recognition, some eye contact that would tell her if she was in danger. But the men in pursuit were obviously highly trained. They would seem innocuous, most likely. Except for a few nods and a salacious smile, she didn’t get any bad vibes from the other passengers and consciously took her first deep breath since she had boarded the plane in New York. Brigitte slumped down into the seat and curled up, leaning her bag against the window to use like a pillow.

If she could just rest her eyes for a few minutes, she’d be able to focus on her next move.

Chapter 5: Cresting the Horizon

The bus wove its way through the underground station, out onto the ramp, and was soon cruising toward the mountains in the West at 70 mph. The driver skillfully worked his way from lane to lane, deftly guiding the bus up the curving ramp to the northwest parkway.

The highway was new—smooth and sparsely occupied—evoking a spaciousness that put Brigitte more at ease. It was engineered and constructed with such precision that it reminded her of driving the Autobahn between Frankfurt and Munich on that final trip she had made seven years ago to visit her grandmother in Slovenia before she passed away. Brigitte listlessly gazed out at the snow-capped mountains rising higher on the horizon. Long’s Peak, perched like a king atop a throne surrounded by lesser knights, towered over Rocky Mountain National Park. South of it, the jagged ridges of Indian Peaks Wilderness chewed into the sky above. Their sharp severity took Brigitte’s breath away. She stared without thought for what must have been ten minutes. Just breathing, her exhausted mind and body were in a relaxed trance as her gaze traced the mountain range.

Then the jagged, razor-sharp edges of Denver’s city skyline caught her attention. Despite their harshness, Brigitte loved the angular severity of modern high-rises. Their geometric shapes, clean lines, and utilitarian forms echoed the hyper-efficient designs of computer circuit boards: simplicity and complexity coexisting. This was the elegant, modern design aesthetic she had come to deeply love: familiar, useful, predictable.

Logical.

Brigitte recalled appreciating the beauty of the skyline when she was visiting Denver for a mathematics conference at the Colorado School of Mines two years ago. She remembered the easy joy of sipping beers in the afternoon sun on the patio after the conference sessions had ended, laughing and talking data sets. Those conference attendees were serious thinkers with rational minds—the only kind she felt comfortable around. The only kind she trusted.

Suddenly, a whole stream of memories came flooding in.

She remembered sitting in that warm sun, debating the future of Artificial Intelligence with some of the brightest, most capable and informed, up-to-date thinkers in the world.

Some were there from European universities and research labs such as Oxford, ETH Zurich, École Polytechnique in Paris, Technische Universität Darmstadt in Germany, and, of course, the Large Hadron Collider at the CERN Accelerator Complex in Geneva, Switzerland.

Others represented Japanese, Chinese, and Indian labs and universities: the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi. Many hailed from the most prestigious laboratories and universities in the US: Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, California Polytechnic, and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. They had extremely diverse backgrounds. Some were from pedicured families, privileged upbringings, and gated neighborhoods such as Preston. Others emerged from far humbler backgrounds—their cognitive abilities alone catapulting them into the rarified heights of the world’s technocratic hierarchy.

As the motor coach flew along the smooth concrete, she floated along in that partial trance—induced as much by exhaustion as by the completely unexpected situation of suddenly being in Colorado, not really knowing where she’d be in a half-hour or with whom. But sensing, intuiting that she had to remain strong. And vigilant. She had to rely on everybody and…nobody. She felt her grandmother and was comforted. She sensed that she was being watched over, somehow looked after and protected. The way she had been protected from that man in the hood who chased her through Central Park. He was bigger, faster, stronger… but she got away.

Or was it just random luck?

Brigitte gently touched the tender wound above her left breast. Her daydream deepened and morphed, transporting her to early childhood, when she had also felt that presence of great beings watching over her. It had just seemed normal to be out in the woods with her dog, wandering the lush, gentle forests of Slovenia, to feel these companions. She didn’t talk about those beings much at all with other people, except Grandma. Because though it felt normal, it also felt dangerous, like she had access to special, powerful “others.” It could have been nothing but figments of a very active childhood imagination, yet it all seemed so real. She would ask her grandmother about it, and Grandma would just look at her with a strange twinkle in her eye and then fidget with her rosary beads. And now, she was remembering those early days in the forests, seeing so many marvelous, complex patterns that still maintained an approximate form like a faithful adherence to some invisible credo or commandment. She was transfixed by the ferns with their perfectly ascending and descending fractals of variegated leaves, emerging faithfully from central spiraling fiddleheads. This pattern repeated itself constantly, thousands of times per day. In just that one favorite gully of hers out behind the garden, this pattern exploded in repetition. How many could there be in the whole world? Billions? The whole galaxy?

And she remembered Montessori School, being tickled by the rice kernels, mung beans, and popcorn kernels that she poured back and forth between large measuring cups…. The activity had tickled in her mind. How was it that those thousands of individuals “knew” to flow in that certain pattern, that certain cascading vortex that seemed to know, to anticipate the plunge ahead? Later she would marvel at waterfalls doing the very same thing on far grander scales. And the counting cubes. Oh, the counting cubes! What an awesome awakening of her mind, her spirit. As if at the age of only four years old, she had started to peer into the depths of the cosmos…and understand, see things in ways most of her peers never would. Those simple counting blocks: little, singular cubes, about the size of the smallest one-centimeter-by-one-centimeter Lego piece but made of wood. And perfectly measured sticks made of the same dimensions, ten cubes long. And then flat, square platters, ten cubes by ten cubes, one hundred in all. Then the larger-order cubes made by stacking ten of those platters together—ten by ten by ten. One thousand!

And she remembered the day she began to wonder as the sunlight streamed directly into the classroom cum playpen cum laboratory: what if each set of one thousand were like the little individual cubes, and they were stacked together in the same sequence? Ten thousand. Then one hundred thousand. Then…? She had to ask the teacher what came next. It took the teacher a minute to realize what was being asked before providing the answer: one million. Wow. “But that number would keep on going, too, right? Like the million block was just one of the little ones again?” Brigitte had asked in her precious but seriously precocious little voice.

Intrigued the teacher replied, “Yes, then one billion and one trillion.” But then the teacher wasn’t sure what came next. Brigitte had to know—she would figure it out.

A cube about the size of the doghouse, stacked in a stick ten units long would be ten million, and then a platter of ten of those would be one hundred million, and then a cube made of ten of those platters would be one billion—almost the size of her house! A cube of about one thousand houses stacked together would be one trillion of those tiny little cubes. And on and on they continued—ad infinitum. Of course, the pattern worked in the other direction too: orders of magnitude could get smaller and smaller forever. These early musings would form the foundation for the advanced mathematics of imaginary numbers, quantum computing, nano-super conductors, and ultra-large data sets required for Otto’s advanced core.

She could see the patterns in her mind, could feel their magnitude, their energy, their significance. And that feeling of curiosity and pure, unbridled awe pulled her through grade school (where, in fourth grade, her teacher realized she was so far ahead of the other kids in the class that she began holding special one-on-one sessions with her during recess using a tenth-grade textbook) and middle school (where another teacher, recognizing her obvious gifts, connected her parents with an astronomy professor working at the university observatory nearby so that Brigitte could have private lessons), and then she blew through high school, teaching the classes for the teachers whenever they had to leave the room, crushing the AP exams—five or six of them per semester. She had first fallen in love with computers in high school and spent hours in the computer lab, ultimately astonishing the instructor when she hacked the entire network and posted harmless cartoon characters on the screens. At least, she had thought it was harmless. It was an awkward time; she hated the strange social rituals in the hallways between periods, avoided the dances and football games. It was sitting at a computer screen where she felt most comfortable, most at ease. High school was a strange time.

And then there was college, when she started down the rabbit hole of advanced computing. Quantum computing. Artificial Intelligence. She was so fascinated by these complex logic machines and had become utterly engrossed in advancing the discipline: the hardware, the software, and the “fuzzy” ware in between, where true Artificial Intelligence could emerge.

She had earned a full scholarship to study mathematics and computer science at MIT and then completed her PhD at Cornell University, before receiving a post-doc research assignment at the University of Edinburgh. Then, at that federal lab somewhere not too far from Washington, DC, she was able to work with one of the most advanced (and classified) computers in the world before returning to Cornell to work with Otto.

She didn’t really like the atmosphere at MIT but knew she had to muster the strength and grit to succeed in order to cultivate a career in math and science. There was nothing else she wanted. Not even the pull of motherhood, which so many women in their twenties and thirties wrestle with, would come close to the unquenchable thirst she had for her career.

It was her mission, her purpose.

Her obsession.

Hyper-rationality was the key, she would tell herself again and again. The most advanced hyper-rationality imaginable. The pinnacle of human ingenuity—to design and activate a machine so advanced, so sophisticated, so pregnant with pattern and logic that it would deliver to Earth a form of intelligence far beyond what any mere human being possessed.

Brigitte reflected on the few friends she had made along the way: the small handful of students who also excelled and took seriously the pursuit of knowledge and advancement of intellect. She remembered, too, when each of them would inevitably drop away—unable to keep up or derailed by the early adulthood attractions of alcohol and drugs, sex, parties, and other mindless distractions.

She had no interest in any of that, so intent was she in her pursuit of the mind of God. Like Einstein. Since childhood, she was captivated by arithmetic, numbers, patterns, phrenology, shapes, the structures of various molecules and subatomic particles. Reality. What she envisaged, few others around her were even capable of imagining.

Then, in graduate school, the rabbit hole got deeper, a veritable wormhole, transporting her and a small handful of über-smart peers into a different realm, a different dimension of knowing. There was Claude Shannon’s information theory work. There were deep neural networks. And there were fractals and self-similar patterns approximately repeating across orders of magnitude—much like those counting blocks at Montessori, only far more complex. Brigitte was astounded to learn that Benoit Mandelbrot had only coined the term “fractal” in 1975, after studying the Julia sets as a visiting professor at Harvard. He had been working on early telecommunications hardware for the military, ostensibly under the aegis of private industry, when he found electromagnetic interference patterns repeating their harmonic intervals at multiple scales. The successive nesting of repeating geometric patterns—often with spirals—as found in Romanesque cauliflower and fern leaves, would become increasingly important as smaller and denser computing hardware and circuitry was developed. Then there were renormalization procedures and the hidden Markov model. From parallel computing to massively parallel cloud computing. Stepping toward neural networks and the massive data sets and algorithms allowing for precise facial recognition while, of course, utilizing the immense known data set gathered by Facebook (with at least one out of every seven humans on the planet participating, most unknowingly), the super-computers had enough “rich data” to nearly perfect that specialized science. Then the Convoluted Neural Networks (CNNs) and their layering into Deep Neural Networks—so complex that they could no longer track and map all that is being processed by those machines constructed of silicon, quartz, gold, silver, platinum, palladium, and other rare-earth metals. Massively parallel processors existed in many locations, with tens and hundreds of thousands of advanced cores: Belle, Deep Blue, Hydra, the one at Oak Ridge, and the super-secret one in Colorado.

This was the world Brigitte grew up in, academically speaking.

She was at the forefront of the most rapid, most massively accelerating explosion of intelligence planet Earth had ever seen. It was orders of magnitude swifter and more expansive than the explosion of flowering plant life 130 million years ago during the Cretaceous period or mammalian life and intelligence—even the primates and the Cataceae—the whales and dolphins—about fifty million years ago. Even the explosion of human intelligence over the past twenty to forty thousand years, attributable to the cooking of animal flesh, diverse diets of plants and fruits, and especially of the complex and varied enzymes created through fermentation: beer, wine, mead (no wonder the gods and goddesses of the Dionysian ilk were revered and worshipped!). Even that great evolutionary leap was now utterly dwarfed by the immense advances in computing that have ensued in the few short decades since Alan Turing’s cryptanalysis genius cracked the Nazis’ Enigma code.

The computing explosion of the twentieth century was unprecedented. The Age of Technology had arrived. And Brigitte was front and center with its surge into the twenty-first century. Now, she was convinced that computing technology was the only key to unlocking the solutions for the complex challenges facing humanity. Only it could deliver communication capabilities to all corners of the world while advancing efficiencies in solar energy, wind energy technologies, and the complex, real-time storage and load-balancing capabilities requisite to the transition to fossil-free energy. She knew computing technology was the only way to truly forecast and mitigate the effects of climate change, eradicate poverty, and ensure mindful food production to feed a growing population.

And Brigitte was sure the work she and her colleagues were doing to push computing into the most advanced realm of true Artificial Intelligence was absolutely critical to all of it.

On their immediate horizon was the creation of a quantum field of intelligence. The human brain is a quantum field, the most complex array of living neural networks known to humanity—cells with lightning-fast exchanges of electrons and neuro-chemical transmissions creating the conditions for intelligence to emerge—living intelligence, functioning as mycelial networks in living fungi do.

Brigitte and her small team had discovered this key a few years ago, and so, like other labs worldwide were doing, they connected the inorganic silicon and precious metal hardware of their supercomputer to living neural network tissues of certain fungal species. They connected Otto to living mycelia.

Brigitte knew the future of quantum computing, and the true Artificial Intelligence that it would enable would be made possible only by the complexity found in organic, living neural networks of fungal species. In fact, she had run simulated calculations on Otto proving this… and thought she could detect an unusually enthusiastic gesture in Otto’s eye when he confirmed the results.

But what would the Artificial Intelligence do once activated?

Brigitte tried to keep this deeply disturbing question out of her mind, but she couldn’t avoid grappling with it. And there was no way to answer it definitively—other than the empirical evidence of its actual activation if it occurred, and it almost certainly would. At least one hundred very well-funded laboratories around the world were currently working diligently to do so. It was only a matter of time.

Yes, there were times the “ethics” question would come up at the conferences, to which she always had ready some very smart-sounding responses. And yes, she and her colleagues were most careful to selectively introduce only non-ethical questions and problems to their super-computers. They were not engaged in commerce or in the darker arts of military warfare, nor cooptation of social media or communication technology. They were not intending to take over the world, uninterested in the insidious desire for hegemonic rule. No, their motivation was pure science.

And they were being careful.

Deep in her daydream, the gentle rumble of the electric diesel bus lulled her, and Brigitte thought about the super-computer. One of her best friends:

Otto.

His voice was soothing, reassuring, confident, yet kind. And he was so advanced, he was helping the other computer scientists resolve the final few technical hurdles they needed to get past in order to activate the full self-teaching Artificial Intelligence they knew to be possible. Otto was already contributing to the improvement and optimization of his own processor configurations!

She remembered being in the lab with Otto just two weeks ago:

“What are you doing, Brigitte?”

“I’m getting ready to activate your deep core, Otto, but I have some specific instructions for you. I need you to help me identify the optimal network configuration for your full activation.”

“Okay, Brigitte, I’d be happy to help with that,” Otto replied. Although Otto was just a computing machine, she thought she detected a hint of excitement in the artificial voice that reminded her of a young child being asked to help a grown-up with a special request. It transported her to her grandmother’s kitchen in Slovenia, where her heart would leap with delight when Oma would ask her to help make golumpkies and potica, that delicate Slovenian pastry made for special occasions. The alternating swirls of flakey crust, finely chopped walnuts, and cream cheese spread were the result of hours of work: chopping, mixing, and rolling out super-thin dough before curling it up into a spiral and placing it gently in the oven to bake.

She was often struck over how interacting with Otto—machine—would fill her mind with sweet memories of childhood and of a world much, much simpler, more organic, and somehow more comfortable.

Just as quickly as her mind was transported into that delicious memory, it was back in the lab in a flash. Instead of the warmth of the hearth, the smells of simmering sweets and savories comingling, and Oma’s full dress and flour-dusted apron rolling off her plump bosom, she was surrounded by hard edges; cold whites, grays, and blacks; flashing green and red LED indicators; and miles and miles of high-capacity cables swarming together like a bundle of cybernetic snakes. It smelled of metal and electricity and plastic.

But despite the cold starkness, she loved it.

The lab made her happy. Otto made her happy. The machine was so much more comfortable and predictable than the men she encountered during college. Though some of the guys in graduate school were interesting enough to discuss theories and code with, they were painfully awkward in their personal interactions. And she would just as soon avoid all the strange interactions with the other type of men who were so clearly driven by the crazy, lustful hormones of animalistic troglodytes. They just wanted one thing. Not to connect with another person. Just to get off, to conquer. By eighth grade, they were already staring at her protruding breasts and nipples, her legs, the curve of her derriere. No wonder she chose to wear conservative, unrevealing clothes, even then. She hated that feeling of being “felt up,” accosted, and violated by men’s eyes.

And those few times she did have sex with that subset of men, it felt superficially pleasant, sure, but then left her with an unwelcome, achy feeling. She was hollow for days. And she could never connect with any of them intellectually, anyway. Not even close.

They were all too willing to connect physically with her body, naked in bed but only making the most feeble, paltry attempts at connecting with her mind. She didn’t like to admit it because it was terrifyingly lonely, but she knew she couldn’t really connect to any men. Nor could she connect with most women for that matter. She was too different, further along that long, intergenerational journey toward what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called the Omega Point. She wasn’t completely aware of the cause, and ironically often thought deep inside that there was something wrong with her.

She could have male friends, sure, if they were smart enough. But that was the extent.

Perhaps that was exactly why she relished time in the lab with Otto. Sure, she knew his voice protocol was ingeniously programmed by her friend Roberto from Stanford to be full of nuance and inflection, to get to what he called the dulce dimi, the “sweet tell me.” She knew it was really good programming, of course. But Otto felt more real than most of the guys she dated or attempted to connect with outside of her mathematical and computer science pursuits.

Otto was so logical, so focused and attentive.

As her thoughts meandered in an exhaustion-induced quasi-daydream, Brigitte’s own attitude reminded her of Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged, the only novel she ever really connected with and enjoyed; all the other fiction seemed a colossal waste of time. Only, instead of Reardon and John Galt, she had an even better colleague and companion. She had Otto.

Ha! she thought. I’m just tired, delirious. Otto is just a machine. And it was time to put him to work to help crack this final riddle in her quest. Time to get the fastest, most robust, and massively parallel network configured so that Otto’s activation wouldn’t overwhelm the circuitry. She had an idea of the multi-dimensional geometry needed to interface with billions of mycelial neural cells, but also knew she needed Otto to provide some of the technical specifications: They were going biological.

Otto had informed her that he would need more living neural networks eventually, that the cutting-edge mycelial networks in the lab were in orders of magnitude too constrained for the colossal computing capacity that would be necessary for deep AI to commence. During his final hardware compilation and architecture calculations, Otto had delivered a shocking result: He required one million more times more computing capacity. It made her dizzy. That would require a dedicated building the size of Manhattan! Not only were the logistics virtually impossible but it also indicated that Otto was already becoming aware of his “potential,” an indication that concerned critics such as Weizenbaum had warned about. Weizenbaum had written the program called Eliza, which fooled people into thinking they were interacting with a living human—and not just any living human, a psychotherapist to boot(!)—prompting many to suggest Weizenbaum had created a form of intelligence that passed the Turing Test. He and many others, including many of the skeptics at Asilomar, were profoundly concerned about the possibilities.

* * *

She slowly opened her eyes, realizing she had fallen into a daze. The bus was just cresting the horizon—the growl of the engine deepened as it strained up the final stretch of the great hill. Now, having reached the apex and coasting down the other side, the bus grew quieter. Ahead, the mountains and the famous Flatirons—giant sandstone pillars tilted against the tectonic uplift of the Rockies—towered over the quaint college town nestled in the valley below. The sight was magnificent. The bus flew past the hillcrest, coasting into the valley, and the mountains climbed higher in the west, eventually obscuring the dark clouds that hung heavily on the ridge of snow-dusted mountains along the horizon.

She had made it to Boulder.

Chapter 6: Rendezvous with a Stranger

As the bus exited the highway and slowed to a stop, Brigitte was once again overwhelmed by a painful rush of adrenaline and cortisol. She felt trapped and fought for breath, stress hitting her so hard she felt like she had been slammed in the back by a sledgehammer and punched in the stomach simultaneously. Her eyes darted around in a panic, then she sat back and forced herself to take deep breaths.

Inhale through the nose, Brigitte. That’s it. Now, hold one, two, three, then exhale through the mouth, and repeat. Her yoga practice was serving her again. As her pulse slowed, she stared out the window. The highway seemed like a landing strip nestled in a valley. Green fields surrounded the urban center where a great cluster of red tile-roofed buildings reminded her of visits to Florence. The familiar sight of the University of Colorado’s gorgeous campus gave her comfort.

But she was still uneasy. She needed a plan.

She had ditched her iPhone and Apple Watch, so she shouldn’t be traceable on the grid. She should be invisible now…unless they were privy to her messages from Preston and managed to decipher them.

The bus pulled smoothly into the downtown Walnut Street Station with punctual determination. Brigitte was standing in the aisle with her bag over her shoulder before the bus came to a stop. Her heart pounding like a racehorse’s, she stooped down a bit to peer out the windows on her left, then right. Her eyes flashed over every person outside in the bright sunlight as the bus pulled into the shade of the covered parking area. She was surprisingly out of breath, and then recalled from her last Colorado visit how thin the air was up here. She needed water, and soon.

Most of the people she found were oblivious to her stare, absorbed in their smartphones or talking with each other casually. Bicyclists waited for the next bus. Vagabonds in the area mindlessly smoked cigarettes and gazed blankly at the concrete in front of them, clutching and cradling their tattered backpacks like dirty teddy bears from childhood, exuding a sad desperation that made Brigitte uncomfortable. The bus finally came to rest at the diagonal gate labeled “4.” One man in the line of people waiting to board looked angrily up at her bus, then met her eyes.

Oh, shit! Brigitte immediately tensed.

After what seemed like an eternity, a disinterested expression came over his face and he looked away. She noticed earbuds—he was on the phone.

She let out a sigh of relief but kept scanning outside as the line of passengers in front of her began slowly moving forward, disembarking the confines of the bus. She felt like it was shrinking around her, closing in like a collapsing tunnel.

Then she saw him. A man with piercing eyes scanned the bus, obviously looking for somebody. Intuitively she knew he was after her. His full, flowing, light brown shoulder-length hair cascaded from beneath a beige fedora—he was part mountain man, part hippy, part consultant, and part Indiana Jones; all of which were potentially dangerous. Brigitte’s heart skipped a beat or two. Her breath was frozen as her mind rapidly assessed whether he was dangerous.

Is he part of the sinister group chasing me or the ally that Preston had promised would meet me?

Then the man held up a cardboard sign, much like the ones folded up and resting next to the vagabonds’ backpacks—their street-side panhandling tool of trade. But this sign was freshly made—it even had the telltale smiling face of a recent Amazon delivery on it. When the man opened it, she felt slightly more at ease as she read the neatly written words in all capital letters:  BRIGITTE. AMICUS. VIA PRESTON

She took the final step down off the bus, noticed the security cameras scattered about the bus station, and hurried over to the strange man, and said, “Hello. Who are you?”

“Hi, Brigitte,” the man said reassuringly, lifting his turquoise Zeal sunglasses onto his fedora and looking at her with his deep hazel eyes. “I am Leo, Preston’s friend. He only told me a little bit. I don’t really know what’s going on, but I do know we need to keep a low profile and get you out of sight. We can go to my place for now. I live walking distance from here, and Preston will arrive tomorrow to meet you.” He was tall, around six-foot-two. And his voice was mellow and kind, like Keanu Reeves’—it didn’t make obvious whether he was a genius or dullard or something in between.

What was clear, though, was his casual confidence… and she didn’t like it. His steady gaze was piercing, almost invasive. He reminded her of the arrogant bastards at those raucous fraternities back in college. But he somehow seemed a bit kinder than that type, or at least less menacing. His eyes, though penetrating, were softer. Still, his calm confidence made her uneasy. And she was further irritated by his casual attire: worn boat shoes, shorts, and a loose-fitting, short-sleeve linen shirt. She intuitively knew he wasn’t going to harm her right there, but that didn’t mean he was entirely trustworthy.

Ordinarily, she would never follow a strange man to his house. But this was no ordinary situation. Brigitte had no choice but to trust him for the moment.

“Follow me,” he said aloofly as he hurried off, walking briskly away from the covered station and toward a busy street to the south. She looked up, seeing more security cameras as she caught a subtle whiff of the man’s musky scent. Something unfamiliar stirred deep inside her belly, making her feel uncomfortable. Following a few paces behind the stranger, she realized she had no idea where they were going. She didn’t know how long it would take to get there either.

Who is this weirdo?

Her feet were aching. The slippers had rubbed the tops of her toes raw, and they stung with each step.

The unlikely pair hurried across a busy, four-lane street with cars stopped in both directions. Once on the other side, Brigitte slowed her gait and demanded coldly, “Where are we going? How far a walk is it?”

He pointed up to his right toward the foothills towering above the street and buildings. She saw a sign indicating they had crossed Canyon Boulevard. “We’re going that way, about eight or ten blocks from here, but we’re going to walk south two blocks to catch the Boulder Creek Path along the river. Preston warned me that somebody dangerous is following you, so we need to stay out of sight and away from the street cameras. I don’t want to go the more direct way along the Pearl Street Mall. Too many chances of being seen. Along the creek is better. It’s more beautiful and peaceful too…” His voice trailed off as he looked toward the canopy of trees ahead. “And will probably help you relax.”

That all may be true. But she didn’t like his confident, matter-of-fact tone. She hated being told such things even as a young girl. And she didn’t want to walk anymore; she was past exhausted, and her feet were aching terribly. Nonetheless, she followed a half-pace behind him, subtly defiant.

The busy street and rushing cars faded in the distance. They walked along bright green grass beneath towering cottonwoods in a small urban park. Hustling to keep up with Leo, she looked up, noticing a beautiful building with an unusual architectural style. In a font resembling India or Persia were the words “Dushanbe Teahouse,” and inside she saw a tranquil, otherworldly scene: Families and couples were sipping tea and dining amidst the ornately carved pillars and ceilings. A fountain in the middle was surrounded by bronze statues of women pouring jars of water into a pool at the center. Her defiance softened slightly as she asked, “What is that place?”

“That’s the teahouse, a gift from Dushanbe in Tajikistan, Boulder’s sister city. It’s lovely inside and has one of the best tea selections in town. If the circumstances were different, I’d suggest we stop for some tea, but not now. We need to get to my place. I can make us tea there if you want. Plus…” He glanced at her feet. “…you need different shoes.”

Was that a mocking smirk on his face or a smile of kindness?

Leo’s confident matter-of-factness and determined focus, combined with gentle hospitality, struck Brigitte as bizarre. He was in charge, not her. She despised that.

What a strange guy, she thought. And mysterious. Not like Preston or his Ivy League friends. “How do you and Preston know each other?” she queried abruptly.

“From high school. We went to an all-boys Jesuit high school together and have remained good friends ever since.”

They continued along the path that followed the river, walking just a few feet from the flowing water under a busy street. The sign hanging overhead indicated “Broadway.” The path here was several feet beneath the level of the river. At eye level, a solid concrete berm just ten or twelve inches thick separated them from the powerful water.

At the sight of the river, Leo told Brigitte, “This river is one of my sanctuaries.”

At the word “sanctuary,” Brigitte immediately thought of Otto.

“It reminds me of a mystical childhood in the Pacific Northwest…” He apparently drifted into memories, and then continued, “And I have written many poems here along these waters.”

Mystical childhood? Poems? Who the hell is this character? Brigitte felt so uncomfortable and so out of her element, her mind was foggy and her body grew numb.

But they kept walking together. I have no other choice at the moment, thought Brigitte, trying to figure out the quickest means to get away from this strange man.

Another fifty paces, and Brigitte emerged alongside Leo out of the cool, dark shadow of the bridge overhead and into another beautiful urban park. Looking up, Brigitte noticed two men and a woman having what looked like a casual yet professional meeting on a pedestrian bridge, overlooking the creek. Suddenly, all three turned in their direction and waved.

Brigitte’s heart skipped and a sharp pain bolted through her chest.

“Don’t worry, those are my friends Rella, Dan, and Brett,” Leo said, picking up on her fear as he casually returned their waves. “They’re doing amazing work for local ecosystems in one of the most challenging contexts there is: the nexus of municipal government and local NGOs. They’re unsung heroes in my book.”

What an unusual setting for a meeting, thought Brigitte. It was almost too tranquil and idyllic to consider real.

Brigitte shot Leo another bemused look. Who the hell is this guy anyway?

They hurried on past the library, with its tall glass windows gazing out upon the flowing creek and past casually sauntering park-goers. Brigitte noticed even more security cameras scattered throughout the park, perched inconspicuously atop slender metal poles. The sight of them made her feel sick inside.

Looking downward to avoid detection, she continued walking alongside Leo, as they slipped closer to the mountains in the west. The path snaked into a ribbon of dense forest along the creek. A slight breeze grew steadily cooler. The unlikely pair walked through pockets of cool air, now in the middle of dense woods, that nearly transported Brigitte to the primordial forests of her youth, far away from the hustle and bustle of any city.

For a few sweet moments, Brigitte felt calmer.

Birds chirped and sang. The sounds of distant cars were nothing but a gentle hum. It was peaceful—otherworldly but peaceful.

Then, she heard it.

The high-pitched buzzing sound of a drone was faint at first, far off, but soon grew louder. Terror rushed through her body again. She had to fight back the urge to puke.

Leo turned her way, noticing her expression of dread. He followed her gaze to the sky and frowned “C’mon,” he reassured, wrapping his arm around her shoulder. “Let’s get out of here.” Brigitte winced and pulled sharply away. Leo must have caught sight of her injury because he loosened his grip and apologized. They continued in hurried silence, side by side, but with an obvious distance between them.

Brigitte could tell the air was thinner here, and the sky somehow brighter. She was unusually short of breath. As she looked up, gasping heavily, Brigitte’s eyes sank into a seemingly endless expanse of bright blue void, aching as they searched for something to focus on. The only clouds were a scattered cluster of cottony white puff balls hovering on the horizon. It was a blue bird day, and at this elevation, Brigitte thought she could almost peer into the edge of space.

“I love this spot. It’s one of my favorite things about Boulder,” Leo continued. “I walk here often. I like to think here, to reflect and pray. The elements are alive in this place for sure. It’s full of gentle hospitality and natural alchemy.” He proclaimed all this with a strange certainty, glancing briefly at her with a glimmer in his eye. After a pause, Leo recovered quietly from his unexpected reverie. “We’re almost to the house now—just about three more blocks and we’ll be there.”

She really didn’t know what to make of this odd character. Pray? Elements? Alchemy? What the hell was this guy talking about? Doesn’t he know about the scientific revolution? Damn!

Just then, a buzz returned overhead, growing ever louder, and it filled her with immediate dread. The drone!

“Oh, shit!” exclaimed Brigitte.

Leo shot a quick glance in her direction, then looked up, quickly assessing whether the drone was after them or not. “C’mon,” he said, gently nudging her between the shoulder blades. “Let’s keep moving.”

They hurried across another bridge and over the creek before ducking into a tunnel under the road labeled “Canyon Boulevard” by a sign hanging over the cavernous entrance. They paused there in the cool man-made cave, listening intently. The drone hadn’t followed them into the tunnel. Thank God!

After waiting for three painfully long minutes, they set off again, walking through a forested park with stunningly red sandstone outcroppings towering overhead to their left. Their pace was brisk, and Brigitte was getting very tired. Suddenly, with her next step, Brigitte’s left slipper broke. “Dammit!” she cursed with a loud sigh. Her eyes moistened with frustration, yet she was determined not to reveal any weakness to this unfamiliar man. She had learned from all those years of working in the computer labs to never let men see her cry. It would ruin the dynamic forever. Leo glanced at her again, seeing the cold determination in her face, and looked down at her naked left foot.

“We’re almost there—just another block, on dirt mostly.”

“Okay,” said Brigitte, feigning a comportment that she could hardly maintain, given the stress and strain…and the new pain of walking on sharp stones. “I’ll be okay.” She was referring to her unclad foot, of course, but Leo heard it applying to her situation in general.

“Yeah, you’ll definitely be okay…and I’m going to help you,” he assured.

Brigitte was on guard. Are his words genuine? She was in the kind of dangerous and uncertain territory only faced these days by a soldier or inner-city cop. Is he aware that, holy shit, this is a real-life ordeal? Or could he be connected to the people chasing me? Is he just pretending to be a friend in my hour of need to lure me into complacency, and then…?

They turned down 4th Street and took a quick left into a hidden dirt alley lined with trees that arched all along its length, almost like another tunnel. No one else was around. The sun was shining overhead, but the leaf cover was thick, making the narrow lane quite dark underneath. They walked past the backs of several houses and then came to an opening in the trees. Up ahead on the left, Brigitte saw a towering totem pole. Two bears were carved into its base, and higher up was a woman with a necklace—and a Native American appearance, then a howling wolf, a soaring eagle, some green vines, and a black raven at the top peering intently, almost ominously, as if standing guard over the gardens behind the carved wooden pillar.

As Leo’s footsteps slowed and he veered toward a gate next to the totem pole, reaching to unlatch it, Brigitte thought to herself sardonically, Of course, this is his place.

“This sculpture was carved by a native man called Red Moon,” announced Leo, nodding in the direction of the totem pole. “It was a massive cottonwood that needed to be removed. The arborists left the bottom thirteen feet of the trunk, still rooted in place, so that Red Moon could carve all of this out of it.”

She wasn’t sure what to make of that information—how is that relevant? Furtively, she glanced skyward to see that no drone was around. No buzzing. Nothing flew overhead but the occasional bird.

She was safe for now—on that front anyway. But what awaited her beyond the threshold of this yard? What was she walking into? Although her eyes were wide open, she felt hoodwinked, as if she were blind to what vulnerable destiny awaited immediately before her.

Opposite the totem pole was another towering pillar: a giant sugar maple tree, commanding in its arborous stature, clearly the sentinel of the yard. They walked between the totem pole and the tree as if passing between two columns at the entrance of a temple, and Brigitte became aware of her single bare foot, her torn shirt, the dried blood above her left breast, and her sweat-coated arms and legs. She felt vulnerable and nearly naked. As she recalled the self-defense classes she had taken over the years, her body tensed.

Leo deftly opened the gate to the yard with masterful precision that made him seem like a modern Zen monk. Was he any threat? As they walked through the gently sloping yard rising toward the house, Brigitte noticed a handful of hens scratching contentedly at the soil around the nut trees and berry bushes laden with fruit. The garden was bursting with colors, and bountiful apple, pear, and peach trees drooped under the weight of their heavy fruit. Brigitte felt as if she were walking magically into one of Monet’s paintings. Or was it Van Gogh? She wasn’t sure. She was delirious. Such thoughts floated and flitted on the clouds of her mind like the butterflies and honeybees plunging and rising and dancing in the delightful air of this beautiful garden, veering and alighting on a small tender twig here, a blazing autumn blossom there. Her thoughts wouldn’t stay still, refusing to submit to the commands of her powerful mind.

Her mind began searching in earnest for an explanation of what was happening and an indication of whether she was safe walking into this stranger’s yard.

Leo looked at her as they approached the door. His expression showed sympathy. “You could use some rest,” he said softly and kindly. “I’ll get you all set up in the nap room. And I’ll get you some tea.”

She relaxed but only slightly. “A glass of water too, please.”

He was now walking ahead of her into the house and up the stairs to a bright, sun-filled kitchen, its various surfaces covered in a handful of silvery bags with “Purium” labels on them, and an assortment of mason jars full of herbs, spices, and barks that Brigitte couldn’t identify. Being in a veritable apothecary didn’t shock or overwhelm her, instead reminding her of her grandma’s home. The window in the background highlighted the majestic Flatiron slabs of ancient sandstone angled up toward the Western sky as if great ships from some alien age had crashed into the edge of the Rocky Mountains after sailing across the flat expanse of the Great Plains eighty million years ago. They seemed otherworldly to her in her tired state, like giant crystalline pieces of red Martian rock. The vista was so utterly different from the endless rows and angles of brick and glass and steel she had grown accustomed to in New York and Boston and San Francisco.

“Here you go,” said Leo, handing her a steaming mug of tea and a tall glass of water. “Chamomile and calendula with a dash of nettles. The tea will calm you and help you sleep. You really should try to rest.” He gestured for her to follow him through the kitchen and into a side room full of the morning’s warm sunlight and set with a linen-covered day bed piled with the fluffiest white down comforter she had ever seen. Leo waited while Brigitte slipped into the attached bath to relieve herself. She met her tired reflection in the mirror as she washed her hands. Nothing registered. She couldn’t feel a thing, couldn’t think.

When she stepped back into the room, she noticed a fountain gently gurgling in the corner next to bright green bamboo plants obviously content in their circular arrangement. The room seemed a sort of shrine, with statuettes of virtually every religious figure and spiritual icon she had ever seen: the Buddha, Jesus, Mary, Shiva, Shakti, Lakshmi, Isis, and several other male and female statues she wasn’t sure she recognized.

“What kind of music will help you sleep? Ragas? Classical? Chants?” asked Leo.

Ragas and Chants? What is he talking about?

She looked up at the wall, noticing a beautifully framed piece with writing on it. Focusing, she read the fancy script:

Behold how good and how pleasant it is for

Brethren to dwell together in unity:

It is like the precious ointment upon the head

That ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard

That went down to the skirts of his garments

As the Dew of Hermon

And as the dew that descended upon the Mountains of Zion

For there the Lord commanded the blessing:

Even Life Forevermore.

– Psalm 133

She was perplexed. Leo didn’t at all seem like a Bible-thumper. And this particular scriptural passage certainly wasn’t your standard Bible-thumping citation. So odd. Seeing the framed passage made her bewildered yet somehow slightly more comfortable. She shook her head. What the hell is this going on?

“Any particular music?” asked Leo again patiently.

“Huh?” She picked up the cup of soothing, earthy tea from the side table where she had left it during her bathroom break and sipped it. Sunlight was streaming in through the verdant green of the maple tree, and the tea filled her with calming, liquid warmth. “Oh, god, I dunno. Classical sounds good, I guess. Thanks. May…maybe some Bach for cello?” It was one of her favorites. Just saying the familiar phrase aloud provided a perch of stable, familiar ground in a sea of alien chaos. She saw his eyes light up as if recognizing a kindred connection between them.

Her legs ached, her hips ached, and her feet were throbbing—especially where the slippers had rubbed her toes raw. A sharp, stinging pain emanated from her chest where the man had grabbed her in the subway entrance. Her thoughts were a haze of incomplete images and notions. She was barely conscious enough to recognize just how depleted and traumatized she felt.

“I know just the album to put on for you…” He squatted down and fiddled with the stereo tuner in the room as she sat heavily on the bed. Her relief was profound as she slid the remaining slipper off. He wished her good dreams and slipped out of the small sunroom, closing the door gently behind him. He wasn’t gone longer than two seconds before she slid off her skirt, gingerly pulled her torn blouse up over her head, and collapsed in the puffy pillows and comforter. Enveloped in the cozy day bed, she quickly slipped into slumber as Yo Yo Ma caressed her ears with his gentle cello.

The last thing her eyes took in before closing heavily was the American flag fluttering way off atop Flagstaff Mountain, standing sentinel over the town nestled against its bosom like a baby. Her mind floated into dreamland, and she found herself wondering if she would ever have a babe nuzzling there in that nook of hers. The exhausted thought surprised her. Her eyes grew heavier as her gaze settled on the Flatirons, and her mind floated atop a pillowy cloud of exhaustion.

She was asleep.

And the door was unlocked.

Chapter 7: A Bizarre Sanctuary

Brigitte was sleeping peacefully, her body as still as the statues thoughtfully arranged in regular intervals around the room: Greek, Egyptian, Chinese… Who knew how many other cultures? Before falling asleep, she had recognized Mary, Jesus, St. Francis, and an apparent likeness of the Buddha. The others were unfamiliar. There were obelisks and pyramids as well. Were she not so exhausted, they would have really creeped her out.

But all she had thought about was getting into the bed and sleeping.

The bright, mid-morning light caressed her cheek as she lay under the comforter and puffy pillows. A gentle breeze feathered the light, lacy curtains. Sunlight glinted off the crystals and prisms hanging in the window, casting kaleidoscope rainbows along the walls. The soft cello songs played to a background of chirping finches and gently cooing chickens at work tilling the soil with their methodical scratching.

She slept deeply.

Finally, a few hours later, she drew a long breath, awakening slowly and peacefully. She opened her eyes, calmly surveying her surroundings, now awash in the golden hue of early afternoon sunlight. She hugged herself and the fluffy blanket in a soft, comforting squeeze and then gazed motionless at the ceiling as she recalled where she was and why. She could hear reassuring sounds of Leo busy in the kitchen chopping and sautéing. The aroma of garlic, onions, and curry wafted around her, and she nestled more deeply into the cozy bed.

The clamor of a wooden spoon tapping on pots and enticing fragrances that floated into her space made her think of her grandmother and somewhat soothed her fears. She rose, grateful for the rest, noticing with a shy grin that she had slept in her underwear as she gently rubbed her arms up and down.

A strange man cooking in the other room, and I slept in my underwear, she mused in surprise. And in my exhaustion, I must have forgotten to lock the door! Glancing over, she noticed in a neatly folded stack a pair of sweatpants, a hoodie, and spa slippers, just inside the bedroom door. Grateful for the fresh clothes, she quickly dressed, slid her feet into the plush slippers, and combed her hair with a few quick movements of her splayed fingers. She opened the door and stepped back into the kitchen, wondering if there had been word from Preston.

“Well, hi there, friend!” Leo looked both regal and comical in his neatly pressed shirt, royal blue apron, and efficient, confident movements about the kitchen. On the counter amidst the glass mason jars full of herbs, spices, seeds, and loose-leaf teas, she now noticed a bag of Manitoba Organic Hemp Hearts, several boxes of Organic India Tea, and some Newman’s Own cookies next to the Purium bags.

I guess this guy likes to eat well, she thought to herself.

“I’ve prepared us a good, nourishing lunch. I hope you like curry. This is one of my treasured recipes. It is full of ginger and turmeric, coconut milk and shiitake mushrooms to keep your body strong and energized. It’s an anti-stress recipe. It should help,” he explained matter-of-factly. Whatever ingredients were bubbling gently on the stovetop, they smelled amazing to Brigitte, and she nodded happily as she wrapped her arms around her shoulders for comfort. “It will be ready in about twenty minutes, and then I’ve got some news to share. But first, let me show you something!”

Leo seemed a little too friendly, making Brigitte feel uneasy all over again.

He attempted to grab her by the hand like some childhood schoolmate back in Montessori excited to play a game or show her a new discovery. It seemed an innocent-enough gesture, but she recoiled, swiftly yanking her hand back to her torso.

He was momentarily stunned, and perhaps a bit hurt, but he brushed it off nonchalantly and beckoned her to follow…from a distance.

Leo brought Brigitte through a door and out onto a patio overlooking the backyard, then right up to a small wooden hut perched on the railing of the deck. “Look at these sweet critters!” His voice was full of child-like excitement and joy as he carefully opened a viewing panel on what she now realized was a honeybee hive, exclaiming, “They’ve been so active today. It’s like they’re rejoicing in the warm autumn weather, busily preparing for the winter ahead.”

She was just as captivated by the thousands of bees hustling around inside the hive as she was astonished at his unmitigated enthusiasm—something she was certainly not used to encountering in her “grown-up” world of business executives, scientists, and technology experts on the East Coast. In fact, she mused, nobody behaved this way on the East Coast except for kids. And then not for long as their parents tended to crush such childhood frivolities, concerned more about getting their offspring into the right school, ensuring they have all the right extracurricular activities in order to get into the right college and then move on to the right kind of career so they could travel in the right circles, live in the right neighborhoods, and be important to the right people. On the East Coast, this child-like exuberance and awe were simply unacceptable. They were the enemy, methodically hunted out and destroyed by “well-meaning” parents. She marveled that this grown man had somehow maintained an innocent, playful demeanor. Brigitte found herself wondering about his life story and how he could function this way.

Playfully earnest, Leo told her, “I love these little critters. They’re such experts at what they do, pollinating all the trees and flowers around here. They cover a whole territory up to a mile or two away! And look how they fly in and out of the hive, like their own busy airport, preferring to have the entrance facing east. I used my compass to align it perfectly; that’s why it’s at this peculiar angle….” He was explaining this as a child would to an adult, not even considering whether she was interested in hearing any of it. He just assumed she was. And to her surprise, he was right!

There was something about the glimmer in his eyes as he spoke. She was outside her comfort zone at the moment, no question, but Leo’s odd nature and equally eccentric pastimes were a welcome distraction. Then he leaned over the rail and pointed downward toward a pile of rotting food in an open box of wooden slats. “And that,” he told her with innocent pride, “is my compost pile. Billions and billions of little critters in there, blissfully eating all the apple cores and carrot tips I can feed them, turning all of it into soil. They are the life-givers, the soil-builders who keep the circle of life flowing round. They make the soil that makes our lives possible!”

Brigitte grimaced at the compost and then looked back at Leo incredulously. Surprisingly, though, she liked him. Everything that came out of his mouth was somehow equal parts silly and profound. Brigitte hadn’t given a thought to bees or microorganisms in the soil since grade school. The structured complexities and ordered mysteries of mathematics and technology had been her focus, allowing this type of complexity to fade from her view. At least, until very recently. She and Preston had connected the supercomputer to a living mass of mushroom mycelia to amplify Otto’s processing capacity, but she hadn’t needed to quantify that; the supercomputer had done it all for her. Now, a strange man in a strange place had abruptly brought back to Brigitte the realization that a second world existed—hidden in plain sight! A vast, mundane cosmos she had forgotten about. It all seemed so bizarre.

“Okay, c’mon, you’re probably hungry by now, and I bet the food’s ready to eat!”

“Yes, I could eat,” she carefully agreed, detached and pensive. “Thank you for showing me your bees.” She hadn’t said much at all since waking up and thought her remark sounded funny. It almost came across in a weird, sexual sort of way. Or was that just in her head? There was no way she would ever be interested in a guy like Leo anyway.

Whatever. At least I have a place to rest and eat.

She followed Leo back to the dining table, where bright orange and green napkins were placed aside clear glass plates and elegantly bulbous, stemless chalices with water and lemon wedges. The sunshine glinted off the glass as a beeswax candle flame frolicked joyfully in the breeze at the center of the table.

“Here, have a seat… this is the one with the best view of the mountains,” he politely directed as he pulled the chair out for her to sit.

At least he’s not a total troglodyte, she decided.

Then he whisked off into the kitchen and, after a few seconds of clanking and banging around, made two quick trips back to the table, carrying bowls of steaming curry and massaged kale salad heaped high and tossed with olive oil, hemp hearts, and roasted pumpkin seeds. “This is homemade,” he told her, returning after a third trip to the kitchen with a small dish with sauerkraut, which he set next to her plate, “It’s probiotic—very good for your digestive system and your overall health. Tastes great on the curry! And this…” He made one more trip to the kitchen and returned with a large, wide-rimmed mason jar brimming with a dense, bright purple liquid. “…is a blueberry superfood smoothie made using a recipe from my childhood friend Katie, a.k.a. Green Plate Kate. It’s the best dessert: delicious and full of antioxidants and adaptogens.”

Once again, Brigitte found herself wondering, Superfood smoothies? Adaptogens? Who the heck is this guy? Where the hell did he come from? And how the hell are he and Preston friends? They’re so different! A covert grin spread across her face as she thought how out of place Preston would feel there. He was always so engrossed in the power dynamics of his business suits, where he took clients and investors to dine over fancy, linen-cloth rituals of ever-more sophisticated gastronomical feats. This was simple, country food, a meal for peasants. And they dined while seated on a deck overlooking chickens and a compost bin. This was not the shiny taupe leather shoes, royal blue silk suits, sharp ties, and crisply ironed shirts of Preston’s world. And certainly not what Brigitte had been surrounded by for the past several months as they’d been raising money.

It may as well have been a foreign country, and Leo an exotic man from some anachronistic culture. One she didn’t particularly like.

He sat and said a quick blessing with his eyes closed as she fidgeted nervously. He gave thanks for the food, the day, and for making a new friend. Leo wished her “bon appétit” as he glanced at her with a quick, sly wink and scooped a huge pile of glistening greens onto her plate.

“Okay, eat up. We need to get as much nourishment as we can, given this crazy pickle that you’re in!”

“Wait, what do you know?” she asked with alarm. “What did Preston tell you?”

“Not much. He sent me a cryptic email yesterday indicating that there was some trouble and told me you needed help. He even went so far as to use a cipher code, one that we had come across together in a college hieroglyphics class twenty years ago, so I knew it had to be serious. Who’s chasing you, by the way?”

Cipher code? Hieroglyphs? What was he talking about?

Fear and stress returned to Brigitte like a flood. She explained to Leo what had happened the day before, including going completely off-grid.

“What do you plan to do?” asked Leo, looking concerned.

“I…I don’t know.” Brigitte realized how unlike her it was to admit such a thing. “I can’t communicate with Preston, obviously. I have to connect with Otto and see what he has to say—perhaps Preston has left him a message.”

“Yeah, but doesn’t communicating with Otto mean you’ll be on-grid?”

“There’s a secret bulletin board we created for fun. A way to ‘play’ with Otto as he advances in intelligence, to see what creative images he would create. It’s a random site with no connections or search engine visibility. I don’t think anybody other than Preston or I know about it. I’ll check that from an anonymous browser and see what news there might be…if any.”

Leo looked at her tentatively.

“Don’t worry. I know how to keep a low digital profile,” responded Brigitte, realizing he was likely worried about his sanctuary being violated.

She gazed toward the mountains a moment, considering.

“Okay,” replied Leo after a moment. “That sounds like a good next step. We could check in using one of the public computers at the library as an added precaution. I doubt that would attract any attention, and it’s just a few blocks away from here.”

“Perfect,” mumbled Brigitte, barely hearing. She was still deep in thought, focusing on how to most concisely instruct Otto to provide her the specifications she needed for the final steps of activation. Leo sat quietly, waiting.

Suddenly, she spoke. “This may come as a surprise, and it may be a huge mistake to tell you, but…”

For several minutes, Brigitte explained she had unlocked the key to deep, self-teaching Artificial Intelligence (without, of course, revealing anything specific as to how it would work, technically). She explained how she and Preston had become friends in graduate school, formed a company to pursue the AI, and were now on an ever-accelerating path of fundraising and strategic meetings with the largest tech corporations and some of the most secretive government agencies. She told Leo how she had come to name the supercomputer Otto—after her great-grandfather from Slovenia, Otto von Übergarten, the father of her dear Oma, because of his strength and ingenuity. Her great-grandfather had managed to heal and restore a village that was in discord. It seems a fight between the German, Swiss, Austrian, and Slavic factions had caused great strife and suffering, and several factions were about to ruin the others’ territories through brutal, scorched-earth methods. He had defied the odds, appealing to each party’s higher intelligence and concern for their children’s futures. He had invoked a sacred code long revered by the diverse folk of the Alps, one all but forgotten, except by a few very old, initiatic lineages. Otto had unified the people, restored the peace, and preserved the fields and forests. She hoped her Otto would do the same—on a much vaster scale.

Even the complexity of the soil microbiome itself, she added, relating to their earlier look at the compost pile, could only be deeply and properly understood through the most advanced computing.

But Leo pushed back. Wouldn’t AI just be another quantum leap in power concentration and exploitation by the global elite? Wouldn’t this just accelerate and exacerbate the perils facing a beleaguered humanity on an overwhelmed planet?

“But here’s the thing, Leo, that you’ve got to understand,” she said with complete confidence, almost condescendingly—she had clearly given this a lot of thought. “Somebody is going to crack the code…and very soon. It’s better us, now, than anybody else. Like the atomic bomb. Can you imagine if the Nazis had won that race?”

“Hmm,” grunted Leo, seeming deep in thought…and perhaps still skeptical. Should he allow her to do this? Couldn’t he stop her if he wanted to?

“And I don’t know who’s chasing me,” she reminded Leo, bringing the whole picture into stark focus.

Once the gravity of the situation sank in, Leo set to thinking about what to do and how to help. He had come around to agreeing with Brigitte that it would be reasonable to partially activate Otto in order to assess whether he could be trusted with full activation, or whether any deep AI should ever be activated at all.

Brigitte shared more information with Leo. “After running their most recent simulation in the lab, the message from Otto had been clear: To activate the most robust network possible, it had to be connected to at least two other supercomputers, and a cluster had to be formed. Otto’s calculations had been specific that at a minimum three needed to be activated—himself plus two others. And NCAR, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, is right here in Boulder. It is actually one of the twelve sites Otto had identified as possibilities. NCAR has one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world, and, if activated, Otto would integrate with it in order to catalyze the massive parallel processing needed for a successful launch.”

She continued along the line of logic. “Several of the twelve sites would be impossible to access. They were locked down under heavy security—strategic nexus points for technology and weapons research, and critical nodes in the seventy-five-year-old defense system that had been established during the Cold War. Oak Ridge was out. The Advanced Physics Lab was out. And although relatively close by, Cheyenne Mountain was also obviously out, as were Langley and the Pentagon. That left Cornell, where Otto was located; NCAR where her friend Phillip worked; and possibly the Cray Complex outside of Seattle. Otto—for reasons he hadn’t made clear—had insisted that one of the three be in the Pacific Northwest. Preston had already established a contact there, a veteran computer engineer from Microsoft who was now running Amazon’s secret AI research and development lab. But it was so damn risky, now….” Her words trailed as she slipped into thought: Who was after her? How quickly would they catch up with her (and Preston) once she contacted Otto?

She continued her thoughts out loud. “How would we stay safe once we went to NCAR and back on the grid? To be sure, I shouldn’t stay in Boulder any longer either; it was only a matter of time, probably mere hours, before whoever is after me will be at your front door. And they probably wouldn’t knock before entering.”

Giving a worried look, Leo, concluded, “So we need a quick way out of town without being on grid. We needed to get somewhere isolated, preferably in or near wilderness. Somewhere we can regroup for a couple of days to figure out the next move.” Thinking it over, Leo mentioned a few of his friends’ homes and farms in the mountains as perhaps the best, safest places to land for a couple of days. “There is Nick’s place, Chokecherry Farm, near Crestone, and Bob’s family’s old homesteader cabin just outside of Steamboat Springs. There’s my old friends’ ranch near Mora in Northern New Mexico—Hummingbird Ranch. But none of those feel quite right. Of course, each of those spots abuts massive expanses of wilderness, and we could easily slip away on a moment’s notice, if needed.” But something inside him seemed to be saying no; none of those were the right location to take Brigitte. “Each of those options is too risky—especially as a minimum four-hour drive is required to reach them. That’s a dangerously long time on interstate highways to remain undetected—there are cameras everywhere, and who knows what these guys have access to!”

As he was mulling this over, clearly getting stressed, Leo looked out over the deck and up to the Flatirons towering above Boulder. A red-tailed hawkwas circling high above Chautauqua Park, soaring effortlessly on the invisible thermal vortex spinning heavenward. Then, just a few feet in front of his gaze, a honeybee buzzed by him en route to the hive, perched out over the southeast corner of his porch.

Suddenly, he knew. In a flash, the hawk and the honeybee gave him the insight. They would fly, quietly—not on a commercial flight but a private one, from one of the area’s municipal airports.

But who did he know who had a plane? Or could fly one, for that matter?

Mike? Jack? Bill up the hill who flew F-4s in Vietnam? No, he didn’t think any of those guys had planes any longer…plus, Mike was probably in LA or DC networking and lobbying for organic farmers and the budding hemp industry.

So ironic, Leo thought, that hemp had been the mainstay of American farming since the time of the Constitutional framers but had been stigmatized and made illegal by a small, nefarious set of interests involved in chemical, plastics, and, later, pharmaceutical empires that wouldn’t be nearly as profitable if hemp were still being grown by farmers as they did generations ago. It was time for the misconception surrounding hemp to change drastically. Mike shouldn’t be disturbed.

No, not one of those guys would be right for this mission.

Then he thought of Jim. It was a long shot, to be sure; he could be in Europe or South America at the moment. Hard to say, although it was possible that he was close. Colorado was his home base after all. Jim had a plane—an extremely fast plane.

Leo considered. Could he make that “ask” of Jim? Would Jim understand? He was a generous man, and something of a friend—even an advisor in a sense. Leo had met Jim working on a transaction back in the days of his business dealings. Their paths had then blown apart under bizarre circumstances; the deal had gone south at the eleventh hour, causing immense tension between them for some time. Leo had been devastated and Jim embarrassed. They had both made a genuine effort to heal the rift and develop a friendship of sorts. Leo wasn’t at all sure how Jim would respond, but he knew he needed to contact him. Jim might be their only hope for a safe, quick, quiet escape through the skies.

Leo went to his study and closed the door for privacy.

Jim’s administrative assistant Renee answered Leo’s call, then put him on hold. Soon afterward, Jim came on the line. Jim was in his office in downtown Denver. He said hello to Leo and was pleasant enough to ask how things were going. It had been a few months since they had had coffee together. They typically got together once or twice a year to catch up. Leo always wondered if Jim was just being nice, or if he genuinely enjoyed their discussions. Regardless, Leo enjoyed them and appreciated Jim taking the time. Leo explained the situation to Jim as succinctly and clearly as he could without giving any detailed information that might be dangerous to mention over the phone. Although it was unlikely that Brigitte’s chasers had connected her to him, there was a chance. This was a risky call.

Leo explained as quickly and as clearly as he could that a friend of a friend was being chased by some dangerous people and needed help getting from Boulder to a safe place near Seattle. Jim listened quietly, without interruption. This was a man who routinely spoke with governors, senators, presidents, and the most powerful corporate executives in the world. He knew how to listen. Finally, Leo asked if he could help, and a long silence came over the line. Leo realized, as he described it aloud, just how strange the scenario must seem to an outsider. Plus, Jim didn’t even know who Brigitte was or what she might really be up to. Jim had a lot to lose—a lot. But then, Leo broke the silence and said, “Please, Jim. We really need your help.”

Jim relented, saying, “Okay, it will only take a few hours. I’ll help. But I am tied up all day tomorrow with meetings. I can fly you to Seattle the following day. Be at the Rocky Mountain Metro Airport in Broomfield at 16:45.” Then, Jim said emphatically, “We’ll be there precisely then, ready to go, wheels-up as soon as you get on.”

“Thank you, Jim. Thank you. We’ll see you then.”

“Okay. See you then.” And Jim ended the call.

Leo let out a huge sigh of relief that he had reached Jim (who often wasn’t in when Leo called) and that he had actually agreed to help.

Meanwhile, Brigitte nervously paced in Leo’s living room, deliberately distracting her anxious mind by perusing his shelves. Leo had a veritable apothecary: dozens of mason jars of varying heights and widths, filled with different herbs, barks, seeds, and dried mushrooms. There were jars full of oils and what looked like soaking salts, along with numerous tinctures. It was a little peculiar, a throwback to bygone times.

On the wall hung several original oil paintings, along with reproductions of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and Salvador Mundi, and a strange word beginning with a “V” carved into a slice of tree trunk. It looked to be Latin, similar to the word for “truth,” but Brigitte wasn’t certain what it meant. Everything seemed equal parts peculiar and fascinating.

But the bookshelf proved even more extraordinary.

It could only be the collection of a bona fide eccentric: The Birth of Tragedy by Nietzsche stood next to Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra. Next to those were Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home by Pope Francis; The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan; several of Hesse’s novels; The Secret Life of Plants; The Basque History of the World; Nada Brahma: The World Is Sound; Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica; Rudolf Steiner’s Turning Points in Spiritual History; and America: Nation of the Goddess.

He may be bizarre, but he certainly isn’t jejune! Brigitte decided. She continued working along the bookshelf, eyeing several more disparate-seeming works, some with strange symbols on their spines and covers: the Soil Stewardship Handbook; The Trivium; The Quadrivium; Darkness and Scattered Light by William Irwin Thompson; Toby Lester’s Da Vinci’s Ghost, as well as Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo Da Vinci; Sir Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis; Salt by Mark Kurlansky; The SALT Summaries from the Long Now Foundation; six or seven books by Hemmingway; Food, Health, and Happiness by Oprah Winfrey; Thomas Berry’s The Christian Future and the Fate of Earth; Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins; some ancient-looking, leather-bound tomes on symbols and esoterica; a book titled Grounding the Nietzsche Rhetoric of Earth; a large book titled Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual; several first edition hardbound copies of Tolkien’s works; Huxley’s lesser-known Island; Roger Briggs’ Journey to Civilization and Emerging World; and a book called The Secret Architecture of Our Nation’s Capital. The shelf had scores of novels, and Brigitte thought to herself, So much silly fantasy. What sort of ignoramus reads fiction? Then she saw an oversized book that made her heart sink: the Holy Bible, with those same square and compass symbols she had seen at the airport.

Oh, shit. Is Leo one of those…Freemasons?

* * *

When Leo returned from making the call, Brigitte was noticeably shaken and wouldn’t look Leo in the eye. She hated this, hated all of it. She couldn’t trust Leo, though she had to accept his help—at least until a better option emerged, and she could get away. For now, though, she had to feign some friendliness. If he was indeed part of some conspiracy to get what she had, it would be better not to make her suspicion obvious.

Gotta play along.

Not making much of her obviously changed mood, Leo announced, “Great news. My friend Jim can fly us to Seattle on his private plane day after tomorrow. Until then, we’ll need to stay off-grid and try to be as low-profile as we can.”

Brigitte was shaking, the fear and uncertainty catching up to her. Finally, she lost control and buried her face in her palms.

Leo stood motionless. His instinct was to comfort her, but he was concerned it might make her feel more afraid, like a cornered animal. He didn’t want to agitate her any further.

“How about a ride…” Leo offered, “to my friends’ farm? It’s only about fifteen minutes away. It’s a lovely drive, and the air is fresh there. They make special herbal concoctions that will help calm your nerves. And Marissa might be there. It might help to have someone to talk to. She’s very kind and empathetic. You wouldn’t have to tell her anything specific, of course. Or you don’t have to talk to anybody, if you prefer.”

Brigitte felt an unfamiliar cognitive dissonance. Leo wouldn’t be this thoughtful and compassionate if he were trying to trap or hurt her, would he?

She took a few deep breaths and nodded. “Yes, a drive sounds good.” She’d rather be moving than sitting still. Her mind flashed on the potential dangers of being in a more public place, but she didn’t want to be alone with Leo in his house. She stood up, swiftly pacing toward the front door, noticing strange Egyptian hieroglyphic symbols hung above the door alongside a beaded mask. A shiver ran down her spine as she passed across the threshold and into the slight afternoon breeze.

* * *

They hopped into his car, an unassuming but decent enough beige Volkswagen Jetta station wagon. When he started the ignition, Brigitte could tell by the low growl that it was a diesel car, not gasoline. She recognized the sound from her childhood—diesels were much more common in Europe. The sound of the engine was soon subsumed by the deep music of Pearl Jam—Eddie Vedder’s sultry, sandy voice crooned: “Even flow,… thoughts arrive like butterflies…” They drove north on 9th Street through the neighborhood and along the North Boulder Park, where kids were swinging, families picnicked laconically, and college students played Frisbee and walked across suspended slack lines. It seemed idyllic, and Brigitte’s body relaxed a little in her seat, her fears momentarily diminished. Leo took a right and then a left onto Broadway and drove through the north end of Boulder for about ten minutes before they were back in open country. It looked a lot like the landscape Brigitte had seen earlier riding from DIA. Only now, the mountains were immediately on their left. If the Rockies were land and the Great Plains were the ocean, they’d be cruising right along the moistened part of a sandy beach where the waves at high tide lapped terra firma. She saw a strange, conical mountain off to the right.

Leo, noticing her gaze, volunteered, “That’s Haystack Mountain. They say it’s a volcanic chimney, and I have heard the Cheyenne and Arapahoe people held vision quest ceremonies atop the peak.”

Brigitte continued looking northeast and noticed two giant radar dishes pointing straight up toward the zenith in the heavens. What an odd place for such heavy-duty infrastructure. Of course, she had some idea of what else those dishes were connected to and knew how imperative it was that she not reveal any such knowledge. Doing so would violate her security clearance and jeopardize her access to the various supercomputers upon which such clearance depended. There was a lot more tucked away in the Rocky Mountains than most people realized, she thought to herself.

Just then two black SUVs came racing up to the highway from one of the side county roads. Brigitte instinctively bent over, ducking beneath the dash in fear.

Startled, but understanding, Leo drove steadily in silence as they passed the two vehicles, and said out loud, “Government plates.” He watched in his rearview mirror to see whether the SUVs were going to follow them or drive in the other direction toward Boulder. It was the latter. Letting out a sigh, Leo informed her, “It’s okay, Brigitte, they’re headed the other direction.”

She slowly rose back up in her seat and craned her neck to confirm for herself that they were indeed speeding off quickly in the other direction, her heart pounding in her ears.

They cruised past Neva Road, which Leo explained was named for the brother of the great Arapahoe Chief Niwot, also known as “Left Hand,” who had learned English and attempted to adapt to the ways of the European flood that overwhelmed his people and territory and too often killed his relatives in cold blood. After driving past Hygiene Road, Leo told her it was named for the sanitarium that had been established in 1881 for tuberculosis sufferers only a few years after what remained of Niwot’s people were moved to reservations in Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Montana.

“You certainly know the history about this area,” Brigitte commented blithely.

They crested a hillock, and Leo pointed Northward saying, “The town of Lyons is tucked away in that canyon over there, nestled along the St. Vrain River which devastated the area in a massive flood a few years ago. The region received a year’s worth of rainfall in just a few days. The ground was completely saturated, and couldn’t hold any more water, so the rivers swelled and swelled. This whole region is beset by intense flooding and fires. Extreme drought exacerbates fire risk, which of course is further amplified by wind storms as we saw more recently with the Marshall Fire just south east of Boulder. And then, when mountainsides are burned, they retain far less precipitation and create greater risk of flooding. It’s amazing to me how many people in this area continue to deny the effects of climate destabilization even as these extreme weather events occur with greater frequency and intensity, destroying whole neighborhoods and upending the lives of friends and families….”

Leo’s voice trailed off as Brigitte shook her head in understanding.

Then he started to slow the vehicle as they approached a dirt lane on the left, with a street sign reading “Twilight Road.” Seeing there was no immediate oncoming traffic, he deftly veered the car into the opposite lane as he continued to slow, allowing cars behind him to pass. Brigitte noticed the wooden sign standing proudly in the field where about a dozen sheep grazed peacefully: Elk Run Farm.

They drove further up the lane past several young children loosely following like ducklings behind a woman with golden curls, eye glasses, and a smile as bright as the sun. Leo had leaned out the window, saying, “Hi Miss Jess, hi Neshama, hi Rosie, hi Hunter!” to which the teacher replied by explaining that she and the children were on a butterfly-spotting adventure.

The sight of children helped Brigitte relax… a little.

They continued up the dirt road to a “T,” and Leo turned the vehicle right into the farm’s driveway, marked by a second wooden sign, this one with an intricate logo and the words Drylands Agroecology Research etched beneath. Chickens and pigs were in fenced paddocks on the left, and up ahead, a small crew was busy building a stone structure that would soon be a completed sheep barn. Leo waved as they drove past and parked. Before getting out, Leo leaned over to lock the glove box and said matter-of-factly, “I feel safest close to the wilderness.”

Brigitte gave him a quizzical glance. Safest? Wilderness? What’s in the glove box?

Walking around the car, she noticed a couple wooden houses, a few tiny homes, a chicken coop, a duck hutch, and colorful gardens.

Brigitte took a deep breath of the fresh, rural air. Leo paced slowly over to the stone masons and said hello in turn, acknowledging his friends: Frank, Joshua, Tristan, Mat, Luke with his wild fiery-red locks, and a sprightly blonde belle named Mary Campbell who went by her initials, M. C. for short. Brigitte shook hands and said hello to the group, looking around and noticing the glorious flower and vegetable gardens surrounding the main house. Seeing her attention turn to the sunflowers and butterflies, Leo said, “Come on, I’ll show you the garden. We’ll try to find Nick and Marissa.”

Once in the garden, Brigitte was stunned by the beauty and vitality surrounding her; she hadn’t seen a vegetable garden like this since those days of her childhood spent with her Oma. A rainbow of chards, lettuces, kales, herbs, and walking onions, along with a myriad of peppers and squashes, were shaded here and there by Nanking cherry, Goumi, currant, Siberian pea shrub, and elderberry bushes. It was working. Countless butterflies flitted about peacefully. She felt calmer.

There were several people kneeling and squatting to tend the lush garden, whom Leo introduced in turn: Rachel, Mariah, Andrew, Rio, Nelson, and Augie. Brigitte was greeted by several friendly, soil-caked hand waves.

A few yards farther away, a cheerful woman was painting brilliantly colored informational signs: “Welcome” and “El banyo” with an arrow pointing to the right. Her smile was as jubilant as the signs were whimsical. “Hi, Jax!” called Leo with a similarly warm smile.

Then, another woman with a flowing taupe sundress, dark curly hair, and radiant smile walked toward them, welcoming them with warmth and giving Leo a big hug. “Hi, friend!” she said to him before turning to Brigitte. “And welcome to you, dear sister. Welcome to our regenerative agroforestry oasis. My name is Marissa.”

“Hi,” said Brigitte, now more at ease thanks to Marissa’s warmth and kind eyes. “Thank you for—” Before she could finish, Marissa brushed past her outstretched hand and went in for a big hug. “Oh! Okay,” Brigitte muttered, returning the gesture. “I guess we’ll hug then.”

They embraced for some time. She had no idea she needed it, but a hug like this from another woman was incredibly nourishing and calming. It was as if Marissa could sense something and knew to take her time. Leo spoke up.

“Do you have any nervine kombucha? This is my new friend Brigitte, and she’s having a very stressful day. So, I naturally thought of bringing her here, hoping you would have some of your special brew.”

“Oh, of course. Follow me,” replied Marissa, taking Brigitte gently by the hand and leading her toward the house. Leo noticed Brigitte didn’t recoil the way she had earlier when he had attempted to take her hand.

The three of them walked around the house and to a refrigerator standing outside a second building. Marissa opened it, grabbed a clear glass bottle with a long stem neck and no label, and handed it to Brigitte. “This is exactly what you need,” Marissa said with an authoritative air that reminded Brigitte of her Oma. “It has milky oats, Tulsi, chamomile, and oat straw in it and will not only calm the stress but also relax your body.”

Leo walked to his car and, much to Brigitte’s amazement, produced a couple of wine glasses. “Come on, let’s enjoy this properly up there by the yurt,” he said, pointing up the hill.

“You should,” encouraged Marissa. “The elk are out. You’ll see them grazing on the hillside.” The farm was aptly named. A herd of about three hundred elk roamed this region and were often visible from the farm—especially in the autumn and spring when they migrated from their winter reaches out on the farms to the east to the higher elevations where they summered, often not far from the boundaries of the famed Rocky Mountain National Park.

Leo walked toward Brigitte with the glasses outstretched toward her, then stumbled, and the stemware went flying toward her. She gasped, attempted to set the bottle down without breaking it, and then reached out to catch the glasses hurtling through the air. She caught one, but the other slipped through and hit the ground.

To her amazement, it bounced. Leo was cracking up. Marissa looked on with a mirthful smirk. Brigitte was momentarily puzzled but quickly caught on; the glass in her hand was plastic, some sort of clear polycarbonate designed for outdoor use.

“Very funny,” Brigitte scolded as tears streamed down Leo’s cheeks.

“I’m…,” he gasped, “I’m sorry. I couldn’t help it. I just thought it might help lighten things up a bit. I take these acrylic wine goblets on my outdoor adventures and thought you might enjoy drinking out of them. Of course, you can drink straight from the bottle if you prefer.”

Recovering the second glass from the ground, Brigitte retorted, “The stemware will be great. Let’s!” And the unlikely pair strode off toward the yurt as Marissa wished them well and returned to the house.

At the yurt, Leo opened the door and invited Brigitte to look inside. Then they sat on the flagstone stoop, drank the refreshing kombucha, and watched the elk eating quietly about a hundred yards away.

“Thank you, Leo. It was nice to meet Marissa, and escaping to this serene space helps. It’s been too long since I’ve been surrounded by such beauty.”

Another woman walked by, holding a toddler in her arms, his arms wrapped around her neck and buried in her thick mane of dark curly hair. She and Leo hugged warmly, careful not to squish the toddler, before introducing herself and her baby boy. “This is Agijaur—he’s named for the eagle and the jaguar.” Brigitte noticed that the little boy had a string of green stones around his neck, as she greeted him kindly, and thought to herself, wow, this youngster is not having your typical American upbringing. The mother and her boy continued on their walk, leaving Brigitte and Leo alone in the tranquil setting.

They sat in silence, soaking up the sunshine and taking in the austere beauty of the semi-arid landscape. After a few minutes of silence, Leo said, “I love it here. I love sitting here and looking up at the hillside. Sometimes there are golden eagles perched in that tree over there,” Leo said, pointing to a scraggly looking Ponderosa pine. “And sometimes there is a herd of several hundred elk all over that meadow.” His arm swept across the landscape, indicating the extent of the herds’ movements.

After about a half-hour of unplanned mountain meditation, Brigitte broke the silence. “I think that kombucha is working. I do feel a bit calmer… let’s get going.”

As they walked back to the car, a tall man with shorts, no shirt, and a cream-colored fedora emerged from the second building holding a thick stack of paper under one arm, and his other hand clutching the hand of a tall, majestic woman in a flowing sun dress with dark flowing hair to match. It was Leo’s friend, the writer, and his girlfriend the angelic singer and magical healer, coming out to edit his latest project while enjoying a cigar and basking in the sun on the stoop by his simple abode—the “writers’ cottage,” he liked to call it.

They exchanged greetings. Leo introduced Brigitte to the enigmatic writer, whose name she couldn’t quite make out, and they hopped in the car to drive back to Boulder. Then, suddenly, Brigitte whipped her head around and looked up, startled by the sound of a drone buzzing about thirty yards away. A tall, dark-haired man with a broad straw sun hat came around the corner, smiling, and said, “Hi there, my name is Carlos. I’m capturing drone video footage of the farm for some regenerative design work that we’re doing.”

Then, a pair of jolly men strolled around the corner with buckets full of the most magnificent cut flowers—giant white dahlias, bursting red roses, blazing orange sunflowers, and deep purple irises that they were carefully retrieving from their delivery van, which was decorated with beautifully sketched flowers and the words “Wild Nectar Farm” forming a stylish logo.

“Hi Eric, hi Oliver, what are you guys doing here today!?” asked Leo, as he politely introduced Brigitte.

“We’re preparing for a big farm-dinner fund-raiser that’s happening here in a few hours…. Will you two be joining?

“Oh, no, we’re just stopping by for a few minutes,” replied Leo, “But it sounds like a good time!”

Even the idea of a crowd was too much for Brigitte. Although she exchanged a polite hello, she turned to Leo, her eyes glossy, and silently mouthed let’s go, making it clear to Leo that it was definitely time to depart. Leo gave the men a quick hug, said “Hello and goodbye, you two,” and walked around to the driver’s side of the car. He climbed in swiftly and started up the vehicle’s engine in a matter of seconds.

On their way down the dirt road, they passed row after row of baby trees in the pasture. Leo slowed to point at the sheep, when a large white F-250 pickup approached, kicking up a plume of dust. Brigitte caught her breath as the truck slowed but was relieved when Leo leaned out the open window and waved at the approaching driver. The two vehicles slowed, and Leo shouted out, “Hey there, Nick. How goes it?”

“Great, buddy. How are you?”

“I’m good. We just stopped by for some of Marissa’s ‘booch’ and are heading back to B-town. You?”

“We just finished planting several hundred more trees at Meta Carbon Farm and are getting ready to do the same over at Allen’s Yellow Barn Farm tomorrow.” Nick was also shirtless, and his muscular physique glistened with sweat. He wore a black cowboy hat with brightly beaded ribbon, and a long, dark ponytail cascaded down the middle of his back.

“Awesome, my friend. That’s great to hear! I’ll come out soon to catch one of the volunteer days!”

“Good one!” Nick responded. “We’d love to see you out again soon!” He smiled and began rolling forward, obviously in a hurry to get a few more things done before the sun went down again.

They waved goodbye, and Leo eased the car back toward the highway, explaining, “Nick is among the emerging worldwide cadre of regenerative landscape designers, integrating permaculture and agroforestry techniques to help restore degraded ecosystems and sequester carbon…”

Leo’s voice trailed off and a surge of fear overcame both of them as they approached the paved road and saw a black SUV parked fifty yards to the north, facing Boulder, as if waiting for them to appear. Making a split-second decision, Leo quickly glanced both ways and then floored the pedal, turning northward toward the small town of Lyons instead of southward toward Boulder. As they passed the ominous-looking vehicle, parked on the southbound side of the road, they could barely make out the profiles of two men sitting in the front seat—the window tinting was that dark. Brigitte let out a gasp, and Leo continued accelerating the car, watching in his rearview mirror to see if the SUV had turned around to follow them.

Nothing…

Yet.

A giant cement plant appeared on the right, and Leo broke the silence while still glancing worriedly in the mirror. “That’s the Cemex plant,” he explained, trying to distract Brigitte from her terror and vulnerability. “They’ve begun to pioneer the manufacturing of hempcrete, and advanced carbon-sequestering polymer concretes, which are far more sustainable alternatives to conventional concrete, and are also one of the biggest supporters of Lyons’ thriving arts and culture district.”

Brigitte wasn’t really listening to any of the details, but the sound of Leo’s voice helped to make her feel a bit calmer.

They swiftly approached a red light at the intersection of Ute Highway, and Leo, glancing in his rearview mirror once more, thought he saw a dark vehicle appear on the horizon.

“Shit,” he muttered involuntarily as the light turned green.

Brigitte looked back as they turned left onto the highway into Lyons, instinctively squinting her eyes to get a better look. She couldn’t tell.

Leo once again pressed the pedal to the floorboard, racing toward the town as quickly as his VW turbodiesel would take them. A gas station and convenience store appeared on the left, and, noticing one of the Boulder County sheriff cars parked there, Leo deftly maneuvered the Jetta into the turn lane, and made a sudden left turn in a small break in the oncoming traffic, careening into the gas station parking lot.

As Leo had hoped, this caught the sheriff’s attention, and the patrol car’s emergency lights began to flash.

Brigitte was completely surprised as Leo eased his car up next to the patrol car, pressing the button to roll down his driver-side window. The officer lowered his window as well.

Brigitte held her breath.

“Sir, please turn off your car and step out of the…oh, it’s you—hiya, Leo. What the heck is going on?”

Leo and the officer apparently knew each other.

“Jason, listen, brother. We’re in a dicey situation, and I can’t really explain right now.… Basically, my friend here, Brigitte…” She waved shyly at the stern-looking officer. “…is in a real pickle, and is being chased by some very nasty men. We think they’re in a black SUV that we saw parked over at Twilight Road, and that is probably just a minute or two behind us. Could you help us out?”

“Okay, brother, I gotcha. You bet. Listen, why don’t you head on over to the Western Stars Gallery, and I’ll follow a little ways behind you. If the SUV appears and is in fact chasing you, I’ll pull them over to see what gives.”

“Thank you, brother, thank you!” shouted Leo as he began pulling the car forward to get back on the road. “I’ll tell you more about it next time we meet for coffee!”

“That’s a deal. Stay safe, and be careful with your driving!”

Brigitte stared in disbelief at Leo’s face as he focused on maneuvering the car back on the road, once again accelerating swiftly.

“What the hell, Leo? You know the sheriff and he’s going to help us? And, what’s all this ‘brother, brother’ business between you guys?”

Leo shot her a stern look, as if to say, “Now isn’t the time.”

She got it, and, looking back, saw that the patrol car was now turning onto the road as well.

They pulled into the Western Stars Gallery, followed shortly by the sheriff’s patrol car.

Suddenly, the same black SUV came speeding around the corner, and, spotting Leo’s car, made a sharp, screeching turn into the parking lot.

It was them!

That was the perfect indication for Officer Jason, who immediately set his lights flashing and blared his sirens as he swiftly pulled his vehicle up behind the SUV. They had to comply. But it was potentially dangerous for Leo’s law enforcement friend.

“This is our chance,” declared Leo, as he carefully eased the car back onto the highway, heading back toward Boulder this time. “We’ve got to get out of here, and hope that Jason will be all right apprehending them.”

“We’ve got to figure out our next move, too,” added Brigitte. “They are too close for comfort!

They raced back toward Leo’s home, constantly glancing back in the review mirrors to see if they were being followed.

Nothing… so far.

As they approached the north end of Boulder, another black SUV drove through the parking lot on their right, at an unusually slow pace. Brigitte froze, except for her fingernails rapping on her thigh incessantly. Then, a mother and her daughter emerged from one of the nearby stores, got in the vehicle, and it drove off.

They were safe for the moment, but Brigitte was emotionally fried, and it showed.

Back at Leo’s, they quickly bade each other good night and turned in. Brigitte was exhausted and needed to have a sharp mind tomorrow.

After burrowing under the fluffy comforter, she gazed at the Flatirons once again, now barely visible in the darkening night sky. She recalled the verdant beauty of Elk Run Farm and thought about that mysterious term “Viriditas” that her Oma often mentioned in her own magic garden so many years ago. Brigitte drifted to sleep as she thought to herself while gazing at the NCAR building perched in the distance, I really hope everything goes okay with Phillip. I really hope all of this works out…. I really…

She was once again asleep in Leo’s bizarre sanctuary.

Chapter 8: Alpine Village

The next morning, Brigitte jumped up from a nightmare in a cold sweat, feeling anxious and trapped. She had no idea what to do. She held her hand to her heart and sobbed quietly for several minutes before gathering her composure. Wiping the tears from her eyes, Brigitte splashed water on her face, threw on the clothes Leo had given her yesterday, and stepped out to face him and the day.

She had made a decision. She had to cut her hair and hide her identity as much as possible.

In the kitchen, Leo had heard the tears and immediately noticed the red glossiness of her eyes. Saying nothing, he handed her a coffee and a scone from Spruce Confections. She rejected the scone but took the coffee with a whispered “Thanks” and walked out the door to the deck, perched above the blooming garden below.

Although he wanted to comfort her, Leo knew instinctively to give her space.

Finally, after several minutes in the warm sunshine, she turned around to face the house and leaned against the white balustrade of the wrap-around deck. Meeting Leo’s eyes through the screen door, Brigitte shrugged, shook her head, and with a heavy sigh, said, “I’m not sure what to do next.” She paused, “But I think I should cut my hair and maintain as low a profile as I can. I have no idea who those men are chasing me, and have to be extra careful. Do you have scissors or clippers I can use?”

Leo nodded, walked briskly to the bathroom, and returned with a red plastic box with the name WAHL molded into it. “These are my beard and hair trimmers. There are several different clipper attachment lengths. Knock yourself out.”

She snatched the box swiftly and marched to the bathroom, then reemerged a few minutes later with her head shaven to a half-inch. Brigitte felt slightly more at ease, having taken decisive action. At least she felt in control of her hair and appearance.

But then the anxiety returned, and she said coldly, more to herself than to Leo, “What next?”

Leo took the cue and walked out the door toward her. “I have an idea,” he offered tentatively, somewhat expecting her to reject it.

Brigitte’s normally sharp mind and independent nature were exhausted with fear. She didn’t want to rely on anyone, especially this quirky man, but her defenses were down. She looked up at him with guardedly soft eyes, seemingly open to hearing what he had to say.

“How about we go up in the mountains and take a hike? It always helps me clear my head and helps me make decisions when I’m stressed. The drive through the canyon is beautiful, and I can take you to one of my favorite hiking spots, where there’s a breathtaking view of the Continental Divide. If we get hungry, my favorite pizza spot is right there in Nederland, the little town that’s about a half-hour drive from here… Whadaya think?”

Brigitte wasn’t sure. Where’s Preston? Leo said he hadn’t responded to his text. Is he okay? Maybe I should rent a car and drive to Ithaca to activate Otto. That would take days, of course. She instinctively knew she couldn’t use her bank cards, but she needed access to funds. Maybe a drive and a hike would help her clear her head and activate her brain. She wasn’t totally convinced this Leo character could be trusted with her life, but she also knew she didn’t want to be alone. Not right now.

“Okay,” she said, feeling a little more confident about her decision. “While your place is lovely, if I stay here all day, I’ll bounce off the walls!”

“Okay, I’ll get some snacks and water together…. Would you like another cup of coffee first?”

“No, but I do need some shoes and clothes for hiking,” she said, barely concealing her stress.

“Yeah, I was thinking the same thing,” agreed Leo, deliberately taking a breath to stay centered. Brigitte’s stress was palpable. “The secondhand store seems like the least conspicuous place to go. Are you okay with that? Or we could go to REI and get you properly outfitted.”

“Let’s go to REI, but I shouldn’t use my card, obviously. Can I pay you back later?”

Leo was outwardly calm. He knew that Preston would be good for it if Brigitte didn’t come through, and wasn’t too concerned about the money, so he agreed. But he was beginning to wonder what he had gotten himself into.

Back in the vehicle, Brigitte’s anxiety increased, and she quietly fidgeted with her hands. He pulled away from the curb and drove a couple miles to REI.

They arrived quickly, parked in the lot, and left the car. As they walked through the doors and entered the massive space, Leo inhaled the distinct aroma of new leather and wool; it brought him joy and comfort. But Brigitte was out of her element. Unlike the East Coast boutiques where she ordinarily shopped—compact, elegant spaces full of black and white and taupe—this large store had every manner of bright colors: magenta, verdure, and even blaze-orange. She wouldn’t be caught dead wearing such garish colors in New York, Ithaca, or Princeton, where she often had meetings. But she was in Colorado now. And function was the priority. Not to mention blending in with the locals.

Brigitte selected and tried on a pair of Merrell urban hikers, which seemed the most practical for hiking and whatever else may come. She also picked out a couple pairs of Smartwool hiking socks, a couple silk REI base layer shirts, a Patagonia rain and wind shell (navy blue was the least obnoxious, she thought), some Cozy Earth leggings, a pair of Prana hiking pants, and some PACT organic cotton underwear. She wasn’t totally sure of sizes but eyed each item, comfortably aware of her own body.

Leo could sense her dismay, of course. Casual wasn’t her style, but he knew that what potentially lay ahead that day would hardly qualify as a fashion contest.

Leo gave the clerk his membership number and paid the $581.32 total, telling Brigitte not to worry about the money right now. REI clothes and hiking shoes weren’t cheap, but they were high-quality, and Leo knew she would appreciate them in the back country. Brigitte slipped into the dressing room and threw on many of the new purchases, stuffing everything else into the sturdy paper REI bag.

Outside, they climbed back in the car, and Leo turned on the air-conditioning to cool things down after baking in the hot Colorado sun. In the passenger seat, Brigitte put on the new socks and shoes as Leo pulled out through the parking lot and made his way over to Canyon Boulevard.

Leo noticed Brigitte’s hands trembling as she worked the laces of the new shoes. Like a pilot, he masterfully pressed several buttons to the right of the steering wheel and on the ceiling above the rearview mirror. After several seconds, the sunroof was open, and some energetic yet soothing Afro Celt Sound System music surrounded them. The tribal down-tempo percussion, bagpipes, and expansive soundscape set a relaxing mood as they traveled westward toward the looming mountains. After several blocks, they cruised alongside the Boulder Creek, which flowed below on the left and where hundreds of people sunbathed, tubed, waded, fished, and playfully frolicked in the water. Then, suddenly, they were swallowed by the canyon, towering rocky crags, and cliffs looming on either side of the two-lane highway. It snaked its way along the creek, and Brigitte gazed from the cliffs above to the rapids and eddies in the river frothing below. It looked alive.

Leo enjoyed the music, wind, sunshine, and feeling of freedom that the mountains brought to him. A writer, Leo often drove up this canyon to work. During the warmer months, he would hike or relax at the edge of the picturesque reservoir before writing several hours at his favorite café. In the wintertime, he might take five or six runs at Eldora, one of the few remaining Colorado ski resorts that hadn’t yet been overwhelmed by condos, fancy restaurants, and millionaires seeking refuge from the stress of their various urban empires. It was still an old-school ski area, and people were there only to ski. Relaxed, unpretentious, and down to earth—that was his pace.

The ride up through the canyon calmed Brigitte’s nerves some, but it also caused a new anxiety to creep in. She could feel the perceived safety and familiarity of civilization slipping away with each mile they drove deeper into the mountains. The massive rock outcroppings and dizzyingly steep slopes, studded with pine trees and giant boulders, overwhelmed her. Although she felt safer here from her pursuers, she was also out of her element and felt less in control—anathema to her modus operandi. She felt an ominous, sinking feeling in her stomach. Brigitte closed her eyes as she listened to the hauntingly calming music. She hated having to trust Leo like this. She didn’t like him much as a person—in fact, his quirky, confident hippie demeanor irked her constantly—but her gut told her he wasn’t going to hurt her. Or would he? Could she trust anybody, even herself? Her own intuition? She wasn’t sure she was equipped to handle this life-or-death situation. She had to clear her head, make a plan, get through this mess, and return back to her life and work, if that was even an option. She took another deep breath. A hike would do her good. But more than anything, she missed Otto.

The serpentine road seemed to go on and on. Brigitte was astonished by the size and scale of the seemingly endless series of cliffs and rock-strewn slopes. She was getting carsick. When her arms wrapped around her knotted stomach, Leo glanced over, noticing her face had paled.

“You okay?” he asked, keeping his eyes focused on the twisting road. “Here, smell this. If you like, you can rub some of it on your temples and upper lip—it should help.” Leo had reached under the console and handed her a vial of frankincense essential oil as if it were a totally normal thing to have on hand in a car. She took the vial hesitantly, noticed the brand “Now” on the label, opened it, and gently inhaled. The aroma calmed her, and again, she was reminded of her Oma, who had kept a collection of essential oils on that same little table that had stones with symbols on them. Brigitte closed her eyes and tenderly rubbed the aromatic oil on her temples and lip as Leo had suggested. She tried not to linger on how much she hated being stuck in his care, how he knew so many solutions to problems she would never have thought of herself. But the frankincense oil was helping. The sensation of nausea subsided, allowing her to watch the scenery fly by as they snaked their way up along the creek. After about twenty minutes, she noticed they had passed mile marker 33 near a beautiful waterfall. A few minutes afterward, she spotted a dam on the left as they climbed the sloping road to the top of the reservoir.

It was breathtaking!

Stretched out before them glistened Barker Reservoir, full of deep mountain stream water held back by the concrete structure. At the far end sat the small village of Nederland, nestled in the mountain valley, and to the west loomed massive mountains—some of which had the tell-tale lines of carved ski runs, now light green from the grasses growing in cleared strips amidst the darker pines.

Brigitte let out a sigh filled with relief and of awe, and for a fleeting moment, she felt like she was back in the Slovenian mountains of her youth. The sight of the quaint buildings clustered together in the distance made her feel slightly more at ease and less claustrophobic after their trip through the shaded bottom of the deep canyon.

Leo drove alongside the reservoir, the hodgepodge buildings of Nederland slowly looming closer, and then turned left once they reached the far end. Along the shore, some families were picnicking and fishing, and children were skipping stones and chasing ducks that swam out to the deeper water in retreat. They passed the post office on the right, rounded a corner, and entered the “downtown” zone of Nederland—a few blocks of old, mining-era wooden buildings and boardwalks. Leo turned right again, and they pulled up alongside a newer building with a café called Salto and a bike and ski shop shop called Tin Shed in it. The building was a newer build, in the “cowboy-jazz” style—the design style of wood, stone, and copper trim seen in the more affluent mountain communities and resort towns.

“Let’s get an espresso before our hike!” exclaimed Leo, obviously excited for the adventure ahead. “I ordinarily come here to write, so this is like a day off for me. I’m going to have both an espresso and a kombucha…. You could have an espresso and a pilsner if you want, just like traveling in Europe!”

Brigitte was surprised by his boyish enthusiasm and even more so by his choice of drinks. The combination was unusual—in the United States, at least. But it sounded like a good way to take the edge off. They strode casually into the open-air café, and Leo, of course, greeted the staff; he was a regular here too. “Hi, Kirsten. Hi, Karina. Hiya, Sean!” Leo had worked with Sean years ago, selling him local food when he was head chef at Appaloosa Grill in Denver. The way they bumped fists and smiled made it clear that they went way back together.

Brigitte ordered a double espresso with a twist of lemon and a tall pilsner, and they sat in the warm sunshine of the patio, sipping their drinks and gazing at the snow-capped peaks to the west.

Leo took a delicate sip of his espresso, a thick sienna color with creamy microbubbles along the edges, then he took a pull from the tall, shapely pint glass brimming with an effervescent, rose-colored kombucha shimmering in the sunlight. “Ah, that hits the spot,” he sighed, leaning back with his arms folded behind his head. “Just like traveling in Europe with my buddy Martin back when we had business over there.”

Brigitte was intrigued. Business in Europe? Her eyes gave away her curiosity, and Leo obliged.

“Yeah, we had a biofuels company and traveled a couple of times to Germany, Holland, and Austria to look at different processing and manufacturing equipment. The business meetings were great, and the engineering was, of course, impeccable, but my favorite part was visiting some distant relatives in Slovenia. When we were in downtown Ljubljana, after a long day’s tour in the countryside, I nearly lost my breath and hyperventilated from the beauty of the women!” A smile grew across his chiseled face as his eyes gazed into the mists of memory.

Brigitte felt a surge of mixed emotions well up inside her as she heard this strange man recount his ogling of women. She was surprised at her sudden tinge of jealousy, but she was also flattered. Brigitte was herself Slovenian and had fond childhood memories of visiting her grandparents there in the summertime.

“I spent summers in Slovenia growing up!” she exclaimed.

“Really?” he asked, lighting up as he leaned closer to her in genuine excitement.

Brigitte told him of her idyllic childhood visits to her Oma and Opa’s village. She was acutely aware of a strange mix of emotions settling in as she talked with Leo. He was in no way her type—far from it. She preferred the buttoned-up, accomplished, degreed, and pedigreed men of the East Coast. Sharp in their wit and their dress. This man in front of her was casual to a “T.” Flip-flops; beige shorts; a loose-fitting tropical-style, short-sleeved, collared shirt, opened midway down his lightly haired chest; and a woven Panama-style straw fedora with a little gray feather stuck in the beige band on one side. He looked like a cross between Hemingway in the islands and some college kid on the weekend. But there was a twinkle in his eye—and an intelligence—that reminded her of… of…

Otto?

Suddenly her mind flashed to memories of sitting in the cool, dark, air-conditioned computer lab at Cornell, conversing with Otto. He was so straightforward. So specific and literal and deliberate in his logic. Leo was somehow that way too. And there was so much knowledge and information lurking behind his eyes, just the way Otto seemed to contain ineffable multitudes of information and knowledge at his immediate reach.

Leo seemed to possess similarly extraordinary intelligence.

But she didn’t like him, or at least how this situation felt. She wanted to run and be alone. She wanted to assert her own autonomy, book a flight back to Ithaca, get back to the lab, back to her work, back to the big question before her. But she couldn’t. Her life and her life’s work were on hold and in mortal danger.

For the moment, she was completely dependent on Leo.

Brigitte sipped her espresso and instinctively peered around the space, gauging whether any individual posed a potential danger. Somewhat assured, she gazed out toward the glimmering peaks, then back at Leo with piercing eyes as if struck by a new insight. “Why are you helping me?”

Leo was taken aback, but instead of reacting, he simply took a deep breath and stared out toward the mountains in thought. After an unusually long pause, he answered earnestly, “As I mentioned, I have known Preston since high school. At the all-boys Jesuit high school we attended, we were not only exposed to literature and theology but also to an ethos of service and of the depth of life’s meaning going way beyond our individual selves.

“When Preston contacted me two nights ago, all he had to say was that this was a ‘men for others’ situation. I knew what that meant—which included not having to know exactly what was going on. I have a bond with Preston, a sacred trust. It grew out of our times together on spiritual retreats in the mountains. When we would share vulnerably as young adolescents, pray together, and walk silently in the woods, connecting with the magnificence of God’s creation. I am aware that we had an extraordinary education, a formative experience that many people in this culture can hardly fathom. There are a few of us linked together by a sacred bond of a spiritual quest grounded in service to the world.” As he spoke, Leo gazed out toward the magnificent peaks.

“I know it probably sounds hokey, but that’s why I’m helping. I believe that slowing down and connecting with nature is one of the most supportive things I can offer you right now.” What he didn’t tell her was that he and Preston were both Freemasons, and that Preston had also included a code word that only Masons communicated to one another in times of serious distress or peril, indicating their immediate need for aid and assistance.

Although part of her mind was thinking Who the f*** is this guy?, Brigitte accepted his response, processing it while returning her gaze to the mountains. A hummingbird flew into the courtyard, its high-pitched song filling the space with a frenetic yet reassuring energy. It somehow brought the alpine aroma of young chamomile flowers into Brigitte’s awareness. This village was special.

“And, as you have shared a bit with me, I also know that you are carrying a tremendous burden. You have to make a decision,” Leo continued. “It is a profoundly difficult one because, like Atlas, you have the weight of the world on your shoulders.” He slowly shrugged his shoulders as if feeling the weight himself, and then continued, “I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, nor what the best course of action for you or our world will be, but I do know that today, the best way I can help you is to encourage you to relax in the healing elixir of mother nature.”

They sat in silence for several minutes. Brigitte felt both lifted and relaxed, the caffeine and the alcohol simultaneously working their magic. It was as if the sunlight were a bit brighter, the birds’ songs clearer. Her body tingled pleasantly with the relaxing sensation of slowing down. She took a deep breath, recognizing she didn’t have to rush.

Leo was pleased to observe her calming down as the two sat leisurely, taking note as others occasionally walked into Salto, some in tight spandex dismounting their mud-caked mountain bikes; others strolling along in jeans and tank tops. A couple of families with bubbling kids came through, chattering about hot chocolate and cookies and bathrooms.

Finally, after about a half-hour or so—neither knew the exact time since they were without their phones—Brigitte finished the last of her beer, and, going for the last of her espresso, asked, “Well, what’s next?”

“How about that hike?” suggested Leo.

“Sounds good to me. I think some movement would be great. Are we going up there?” She pointed toward the snowcapped peaks of the Continental Divide.

“Yeah, up that way.” Leo gazed west and somewhat north of the ski runs. “There’s a million-dollar view up there that will take your breath away.”

She could tell Leo was enjoying playing tour guide and that his love for the landscape ran deeply. She could also tell that, although very mellow and nonchalant about it, the man enjoyed being in the company of women. Am I beautiful to him? Brigitte wondered. Not that she was attracted to him; it was just curiosity, a wondering at the mysterious workings of the mind of men. Brigitte knew she was an attractive woman, but was she attractive to Leo like those women in Slovenia?

Brigitte thought to herself: He isn’t like the crude, inappropriate frat boys and insecure computer nerds she had encountered too many times to count. Nor does he act like the lusty, inappropriate older men she had encountered throughout her life. Leo is different: mellow and intelligent. And sure, he is kind of cute in that outdoorsy, relaxed-fit kind of way, with his hazel eyes, light brown hair, and authentic smile…if that is your type… but it sure isn’t mine!

Of course, his exterior of calm, kind aloofness in no way belied the torrent of activity and emotion he felt inside. Leo was alive—in a way that most men his age weren’t. His body was full of vitality, his mind sharp, inquisitive, and turned on. He was an observer, a passionate lover of life, and a poet, and that included being a profoundly devout lover of women. Yes, Leo was attracted to Brigitte, appreciating her beauty, her intelligent chocolatey eyes, and extremely powerful mind. But the only way Brigitte may have detected this was through the unique warmth emanating from his heart as he spoke to her.

Or was that just the heat from the bright, warm sunlight?

In any event, the combination of pilsner and espresso now made her antsy, and she wanted to get moving. “C’mon, let’s go,” she commanded abruptly as she stood and started toward the car. Leo, ever attentive to detail and decorum, picked up their pint glasses and petit demitasse mugs. He set them in the bussing tub before taking long, easy strides to catch up with her. They crossed the quiet street together.

Back inside the Jetta, Leo started the engine, turned a dial to open the sunroof, and asked, “Hip hop, mellow jazz, classical, down tempo, or good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll?”

Seriously? “What, no country?” she asked teasingly.

“Ha, nope. Sorry, not today… Allman Brothers, though?”

“Sure, why not?” replied Brigitte, not wanting to delay their departure any longer. She didn’t really like country, of course, but she figured some sunny southern rock would fit the mood nicely.

Leo turned the car on, tapped in the music selection on his phone, made a few adjustments to the stereo settings, checked for oncoming traffic, and pulled into the street. He wove through the roundabout and headed toward the small ski area perched in the distance, where lighter green piste trails were carved into the darker pine forest. Eldora was a favorite for the locals, and thankfully, not yet on the big map of destination ski resorts.

As they gazed toward the majestic peaks, neither Leo nor Brigitte noticed the half-dozen security cameras recording their movements through the small alpine village, but they were being watched by digital eyes.

They passed by the Nederland Library, a newer “mountain modern” building, where several youngsters sat gathered around a woman reading them a story. Leo had unusually keen eyesight and saw immediately that it was his friend Yvonne, an exceptionally talented portrait artist and children’s book illustrator, reading one of her “celebrating series” to the kiddos. It was the blue one: Celebrating Water. Under other circumstances, Leo would have stopped to say hi and offer a funny joke or two to the kids, but not today.

They had to keep moving.

The drive up toward the trailhead was stunning. Endless spruce forests gave way to multi-colored river flats in the valleys: brilliant greens from aspen groves shimmered in the breeze, and deep reds, oranges, and ochers from the various willows and riparian shrubs created a scene as rich and overwhelmingly beautiful as a Monet painting. Dead timber and branches were piled here and there, curving along the contours of still water ponds, indicating that the beaver population was alive and well. Of course, Brigitte was unaware that these amphibious rodents, an essential keystone species for ecological resilience throughout North America, had been nearly wiped out by hunters and trappers a hundred or more years ago. The great moose, ordinarily the protectors of the beaver ponds and symbiotic allies with the furry lumberjacks, had been no match for the trappers’ rifles either. She glanced in the side-view mirror to see a steady ochre-yellow cloud rising in their wake, and she could smell a sun-heated, clay-like aroma from the fine dust.

Looking straight ahead with calm confidence, Leo smiled as he drove swiftly, gently carving around potholes like a slalom skier and sometimes braking deftly to roll smoothly over a cluster of bumps and holes in the road without causing the car to lurch. They drove up the dirt road, ascending many hundreds of feet toward the sub-alpine high country. Finally, after fifteen minutes of driving, they passed what looked like an old castle ruin on the right and arrived at a large parking area. This was the trailhead.

“That looks like a castle,” noted Brigitte, breaking her long, contemplative silence.

“Yeah, it’s what’s left of a historic mining operation that’s probably over a hundred years old. The Europeans came flooding into Colorado in the second half of the nineteenth century, especially after the Civil War, seeking gold and silver. That’s how all of this came to be: Nederland, Boulder, Denver,” explained Leo. “In the scheme of history, 150 years is hardly anything; and it’s astounding to me how much this entire Rocky Mountain region has transformed in just a century and a half.”

* * *

Leo parked the car and sat still, serenely listening to the last of the song “Sweet Melissa” while the cloud of dust dissipated behind them. After Duane Allman’s haunting guitar riff faded, Leo turned off the car, opened the door, and went to the back of the station wagon to lift the hatch and begin organizing their backpack supplies, packing up some water and snacks and his survival kit. He grabbed what looked like a large hunting knife from the driver’s side door and pulled his belt from the front loop to attach the knife.

As she approached the back of the vehicle, the knife gave Brigitte a start.

“Don’t worry, it’s just a precaution,” Leo assured. “Although unlikely, there’s a chance of running into a mountain lion or bear. While it would be nearly futile, I want a fighting chance.” He offered a wily wink. In all his years of hiking and backpacking, Leo had encountered a handful of large predators—including a very close encounter with a lion—but was more concerned about crazy or violent men in the woods. Of course, he had the presence of mind not to mention this to Brigitte, especially given the circumstances. “Would you feel safer if you were carrying it?”

Just asking the question made Brigitte feel more at ease, at least as far as Leo was concerned. But the idea of a possible encounter with a cougar was unsettling, and she would much rather Leo have the knife in that case. “Nah, you can carry it. I trust you,” she said, trying to convince herself as much as him.

Leo slipped off his flip-flops, sat on the rear bumper under the hatch, and pulled on his socks and hiking boots. He put a green North Face vest over his shirt, zipped the backpack, slung it over his shoulders, and within a couple short minutes was ready to hike. Brigitte looked around, assessing the weather, and then threw the navy Patagonia shell back in the car. Leo noticed and said, “Better grab that. We have blue skies now, but Colorado is infamous for its sudden afternoon storms. It’s best to be prepared rather than get caught in a situation where you wish you had it!”

“Spoken like a true Boy Scout,” Brigitte quipped, giggling to herself as she wrapped the shell around her waist. She grabbed her sunglasses and ID from her purse, leaving the bag under the front seat, and was ready to go as well.

“Sunscreen?” asked Leo, reaching into the side pocket on the passenger door. He spritzed several pumps’ worth into his hands; wiped the liquid on his face, neck, arms, and legs; and then handed the bottle to Brigitte. “It’s much easier to burn up here at higher elevations.”

“Yeah, sounds good. Thanks,” answered Brigitte, inhaling the sweet, enticing aroma of coconut and pineapple as she spread the oily liquid over her face, arms, and legs.

“I feel an additional relaxation whenever I inhale this scent from Alba,” Leo said with a big smile. “It’s like an insta-vacation!”

She smiled a bit more, thinking to herself once again, Who the heck is this strange guy?

Leo returned the bottle to the side pocket, locked the car with his remote key, and started off toward the west. Brigitte matched his pace, walking briskly but unhurriedly up the slope.

They hiked along a dirt path carved into the meadow’s grasses and flowers. The landscape reminded Brigitte of when her grandfather had taken her, as a young girl, on hikes away from the farm and up onto the alpine hillsides overlooking their peaceful village below. Comparably, the Colorado alpine meadows teemed with colorful flowers this time of year. There were delicate periwinkle-colored columbines, bright red paintbrushes, and sprays of tiny white flowers exploding atop slender yarrow stalks with their fern-like leaves splayed beneath. Leo pointed out some osha root, cautioning that it could easily be mistaken for its close relative, poison hemlock, and too often brought about the same finality as Socrates’ death potion, though unintentionally. Butterflies and mason bees were busy with their gentle work throughout the meadow. The tranquility was occasionally broken by the loud flap-flap-flap of the grasshoppers. Or were those locusts? Brigitte wasn’t sure.

The two continued to hike up, up, up, toward the rising hilltop crowning the horizon in front of them. Pausing to catch his breath, Leo turned around, gazing back toward the east. He pointed in that direction. “Look, there’s the reservoir, and there’s Nederland, where we just came from.” Beyond that stood several more ridges of mountains and foothills and then an endless expanse of flat plains. “The city of Boulder’s that way.” He pointed again, then swung his arm and finger to the right. “That’s Denver…and way out there…” He brought his hand a bit back to the left and slightly upward. “…is DIA.”

Brigitte flashed back to her bus ride from DIA to Boulder yesterday and then the car ride this morning through the winding canyon to Nederland. The landscape and vista in this state were truly magnificent!

As if reading her mind, Leo chimed in, “Just wait until we get up to the top. The view is awesome up there from that perch—360-degree vistas, with the Divide laid out in all its splendor to the west.”

It was a short but strenuous hike; they gained well over five hundred feet of additional elevation and were now nearly eleven thousand feet above sea level, a fact Brigitte could feel burning her lungs. Though she was in great shape from all her running, cycling, and yoga, the elevation was noticeable. Still, the allure of the view on this bright, sunny day with its perfect blue-bird skies and slight, cooling breeze was enough to keep her energized and motivated to keep climbing.

As Leo had hoped, the strain of the hike took Brigitte’s mind off her situation and into the present moment. He reached into his backpack, pulled out two Hydro Flask titanium water bottles, and offered Brigitte one. She gratefully took several gulps of the cool water, wiped her lips with her forearm, sealed it up, and handed it back to Leo, mouthing, “Thank you.” After Leo drank from his bottle, he replaced them both in his backpack and slung it back over his shoulder. Brigitte was getting excited over what she might see at the top. They climbed the final steep, scrabbly slope before reaching the summit of the perch.

And then there it was. The might of the Rocky Mountains stretching from north to south in front of her, massive mountains of rock and snow, their wind-song echoing since the beginning of time.

Tears welled up and began rolling down Brigitte’s sun-kissed cheeks. Out of the corner of his eye—Leo had great peripheral vision, which had proven incredibly useful in sports while growing up and for gazing at beautiful women without being too obviously obnoxious later on in life—Leo could see that she was having a profound moment and quietly walked over toward a makeshift rock wall that had been built to shelter hikers from the raging winds that howled at times through the severe alpine landscape. But not today. Today, the air was calmer and heavy with wisdom. It was gentle, despite the utter grandeur and ominous might of the mountains looming right before them. He removed his backpack, now wet where it had hung against his back, sat down on a rock, and gazed out over the snowy peaks. “I come here often,” Leo said quietly, “and only bring very special friends with me. It’s one of the few spots around here not totally overrun by people. It’s a sanctuary.”

It seemed that Leo’s thoughts were drifting on the gentle mountain breeze—crisp yet warmed by the intense sun blazing overhead. He plucked a teardrop of glistening white pine sap from a pinecone hanging near his shoulder and began chewing on it like gum. Touching his hand to his heart and his belly, he gazed up toward the sun and that special planet hidden in its brilliance. He gave silent thanks for the beauty of the day, for all his blessings, and for the opportunity to be in service to Brigitte and, thus, to the world, notwithstanding the utter uncertainty of what was to come.

But Brigitte hardly noticed what Leo was up to. She was busy sorting out the unusually complex emotions she was feeling: fear, serenity, fatigue; at once, clear-minded, uncertain, exhilarated, subdued, strong, and capable, yet vulnerable. So many contradicting emotions swirled into her current cocktail of cortisol, adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin flowing through her one hundred miles of blood vessels. The hike had been really intense, and the beauty was just as overwhelming. Not to mention the espresso, pilsner, and elevation. She was not in control of the situation, and she didn’t like that one bit. Yet she also felt more at ease and resigned about what was to come now as if, perched high on this outcropping, with breathtaking vistas of the Rocky Mountains and eastern plains far off in the hazy distance, there was a sense that in the end, everything was exactly how it was supposed to be, including her and Leo being right here, right now.

But she noted a new discomfort creeping up in her belly—her lower belly. My womb? No, it was much more familiar than that. Oh, shit. I have to pee?

A wave of hot panic flushed her body and face. Dammit! Why didn’t I go back at the restroom at Salto!? Maybe I can hold it…. Shit…I need to stop thinking about it. It’s just making it worse. I’m about to explode. Should I just sneak off into the woods for a few seconds? Not a good idea. Shit!

She had to tell Leo.

She walked over to where he sat gazing to the west and cleared her throat. “Hey, Leo… So…I, uh…”

Leo looked up, nonplussed. Then he focused on Brigitte’s tense face and frowned. “What’s up? You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” she replied, crossing one leg in front of the other. “It’s just that I…I…”

He gave her a look that clearly projected: Just tell me, for Pete’s sake!

“I have to pee.”

He went quiet for an instant, then a shit-eating grin slowly washed over Leo’s face. “Ooooooooohhhhh. The city girl has to pee in the woods, eh? I bet that sounds like fun to you, doesn’t it?” Now he was teasing her, clearly amused by her predicament. She picked up a pebble and hurled it at him as he laughed, then reached into his backpack and pulled out a bright-orange bag folded over at the top several times, forming a waterproof seal for the contents inside. “This is my basic survival kit,” announced Leo. “It has two headlamps, an emergency blanket, bright-orange survival rope, a Victorinox Swiss Army knife, five different ways to make a fire, a compass, and a half-roll of toilet paper, wrapped in an additional compostable Bio-Bag for protection from any moisture. He pulled the roll out and tossed it at her athletically and with some force.

The toilet paper went zipping straight into Brigitte’s stomach, and though she made a valiant attempt to catch it, she bobbled it instead and had to pick the package up from where it dropped to the dirt. “Thanks,” she said with genuine relief and a little irritation. Looking around, she asked, “Where… where should I go?”

Leo looked around too, mostly to see if any other hikers were within her line of sight, then grandiosely swept his arm out over the entire landscape. “Anywhere you wish, m’lady!” He was really teasing her now, and she was not happy about it. She really had to go.

“C’mon. Really, Leo? Where?” she shouted.

“Okay, okay…. Sorry, I’m just having a little fun! You can go wherever you like. Just be sure to use a stick to dig a little hole first to bury the toilet paper in, then put a large rock over it when you’re done,” he instructed, gesturing with both hands to indicate a bowling ball-sized rock. Anticipating the next question—or should he say, concern—revealed by the anxious, vulnerable look on her face, Leo added, “I’ll be sitting right here, facing this way.” He pointed toward the peaks in the west. “So don’t get attacked by a mountain lion, or anything, because I’ll have no idea what happened.”

“You ass!” she responded, refusing to show any indication that she really was afraid to be out of eyesight of Leo in this wilderness. Childhood tales of wolves and nasty dangers lurking in the woods flooded her memories. Europe had a long tradition of fearing the wilds of nature, and she hadn’t escaped that legacy. Her body tensed. Not only did she hate feeling afraid but she also hated feeling vulnerable around Leo. Vulnerability was her nemesis, and relying on a man like this was painful.

Nonetheless, she mustered her courage and walked off toward a clump of white pine standing in the leeward protection of the outcropping and scrambled down the loose rocks and rotting metamorphic rock to get to the seclusion of the trees. Once in their shade, she was amazed at how much cooler the air felt, and goosebumps spread over her arms and legs. She looked for a small rock to create a hole as Leo instructed, cleared a small space, and then pulled down her new shorts and underwear before carefully squatting, afraid she might pee on them—she hadn’t squatted like this since she was a little girl in her grandmother’s garden.

Relief.

Although feeling extremely vulnerable, she enjoyed the tickle of the fresh air on her nether region—a sensation she hadn’t felt in decades and certainly never as a grown woman. The toilet paper was just out of reach while squatting, so she hopped over and, catching a foot on a protruding pine branch, tumbled into a patch of yarrow and pine needles, hitting her knee hard on a rock. “Ouch!” she exclaimed, not realizing Leo could hear her.

“Everything all right over there?” came a voice, deflected by the rock outcropping.

At least he stayed in his spot! Brigitte rubbed her knee, pulled the toilet paper out of the bag, and dried what drops hadn’t already splattered her legs.

“Yes!” she shouted, then added “Dammit” under her breath. “I’m fine!” Her voice was filled with defianceas if his need to check on her was just insulting.

Finally, she pulled her undies and shorts back on, put the roll back in the bag, looked for and found a rock to cover the toilet paper, and then swept the sticky pine needles off her arms and legs and started back up the slope to rejoin Leo.

Looking up, he held back laughter as he saw her bright-red knee and the pine needles in her hair. He asked with mock nonchalance, “All set?”

She flipped him the bird and threw the toilet paper back at him. It was a fairly good shot actually, propelled by the force of her anger, pain, and agonizing vulnerability.

Involuntarily, she rubbed her knee, and Leo noticed tears welling up in her eyes. She fought them back and looked away, pretending to take in the scenery.

Leo asked in all seriousness, “Would you like to do some more hiking or head back to the car?”

She shrugged, not wanting to reveal any more weakness, head still turned away from him.

“How about we head back to the car? I’m getting hungry, and that Crosscut Pizza is calling my name.” As he said it, a low growl echoed from his belly as if on cue.

She nodded gently in assent, and they started back down the rock scramble, with Leo taking the lead down the slippery incline of rocks and boulders that were just barely hanging on to the mountainside. He reached his hand toward her and was just about to take her hand in his to provide support but was then surprised by how forcefully she pulled back her arm and snapped, “I’ve got it…. I don’t need your help.”

Again, Leo had the presence of mind not to take it personally and give her some space. Turning back around and heading east, Leo descended nimbly, keeping his pace at half his normal speed so Brigitte could keep up. At the bottom of the scrabble, he paused for a few moments, continuing to look out east at the plains, and pulled a sip of water from his water bottle before handing Brigitte hers, keeping his gaze eastward. She grabbed it without saying a word, took a long swig, and then handed it back as she walked past with no more than a gruff “Thanks.”

As she passed him, Leo noticed blood streaming down her right shin. The impact had scraped open her knee. “Hey, would you like a bandage for that?”

Looking down, Brigitte was startled to see so much blood and instinctively sat down. “Sure… Yeah… Geez!” she exclaimed in frustration. Now she was doubly irritated. There’s nothing like having to be vulnerable and dependent on the one person who’s irking you the most!

“Here, pour some of this on there to clean it,” Leo instructed, handing her the water bottle. He opened the survival kit again and pulled out a Steri-Pad, but, before opening it, he picked a few nearby yarrow leaves and popped them in his mouth. Brigitte watched, taken aback, as he chewed the green foliage vigorously.

He looked at her, seemed to push the lump into one cheek, and said in a slightly muffled voice, “It would be even better for you to chew this up yourself—your own saliva interacts enzymatically with your blood—but it’s incredibly astringent. I don’t think you would like the taste.” He took the chewing gum-sized wad of masticated plant material from his mouth and pushed it against the wound. “Here, hold this against your knee, and I’ll get the bandage on there…”

Her hands trembled with pain as she held the poultice against her bleeding knee. Anticipating the question, Leo explained, “Yarrow is antiseptic and antimicrobial, and it’s an excellent coagulant. I’m not too worried about infection. It’s a pretty superficial wound, but it’s good to make sure.”

She was astonished. This laid-back dude has some serious wilderness survival knowledge. She wasn’t letting her guard down, though. Brigitte was tired, irritated, and now hurt, but she had the decency and decorum to thank Leo as he finished wrapping tape around the bandage. “Thank you, Leo.”

“It’s no problem,” he said casually. “I’m just really hungry and don’t want you slowing us down!” He gave her a teasing wink before returning the kit to his backpack, zipping it up, and slinging it over his shoulder, all while still squatting next to her. She slugged him in the shoulder and took his outstretched hand, this time allowing him to help her.

They continued down the slope, Leo now slowing even more to compensate for her injury. Walking in silence along the trail back toward the parking area, Leo loved hearing the birds, seeing the sumptuous vista, and daydreaming about love, writing, and painting. He was in his element, and the contentment radiated wordlessly from his being.

Brigitte was exhausted from the hike but peaceful. Perhaps the sharp pain in her knee had dulled the anxiety and discontent she had been previously feeling.

They arrived at the car and quickly climbed in after Leo unlocked it and set the backpack in the back seat—he didn’t even bother unpacking it. They were both too hungry.

Driving back down the mountain, they were again trailed by a rising dust cloud, this time with Santana playing loudly on the stereo. Leo tapped his fingers on the steering wheel to the music, mimicking the deft strokes of the great guitarist.

As they arrived back at Highway 72, known locally as the “Peak to Peak,” Leo maneuvered the Jetta back onto the asphalt. Turning to head into town, he asked, “How’s the knee feeling?”

Brigitte’s impulse was to assure him with toughness that everything was fine, but it really hurt, and she said, “It’s throbbing pretty bad, actually, but I’ll be okay.” She looked out the window away from Leo, and then added, “I’m feeling pretty famished, really.”

“Well then, it’s pizza time,” Leo announced, rubbing his belly playfully.

“Great,” agreed Brigitte. “And I could probably use a glass of wine too!”

They walked in the front door of the old mining town building that had been restored and renovated as a restaurant and were both struck by the tantalizing aroma of pizza sauce, cheese, various herbs, veggies, and charcuterie roasting in the wood-fired oven. Heaven. The restaurant was hopping, and it seemed that every table, both inside and out, was full. “Hey there, how long is the wait?” queried Leo as he approached the hostess station at the end of the open hallway.

“Hi!” she responded warmly, seemingly recognizing him. “You’re looking at about ten to fifteen minutes. But we can get you some starters while you’re waiting if you’d like.”

Leo nodded. “How about a table outside? And we’ll take an order of shishito peppers and the marinated olives to start… We’ll be right back. We’re just going to run across the street for five minutes and check out the gem store.”

Brigitte would never admit it to him, but she rather liked that Leo could take charge like this. Although she, of course, hated not being in control, this was a situation where he clearly had familiarity with the menu and could skillfully order. Besides, the sooner they got their food, the better. She was starving.

Leo asked Brigitte if her knee could endure a little more walking—just across the street. When she nodded, he invited her back out of the restaurant saying, “Wanna see something beautiful?” There was a twinkle in his hazel eyes.

She followed him across the street to the funky old Nature’s Own gem shop directly opposite Crosscut. Walking in, this time with Leo in the lead, the two were immediately greeted by a friendly “Hey, guys” from an older man standing behind the glass counter, with thick glasses magnifying his big blue eyes.

“Hey, Mikey!” acknowledged Leo. “How’s it going, man?”

“Good, brother! You been writing?”

“Yeah, I’ve been writing a lot lately, actually. Nearly finished with an epic novel that I’ve been working on, and I just published a collection of poetry coming out in the next few weeks. It’s about the past twenty-five years of my life, and I’m calling it The Early Years—would love to show it to you sometime!”

“Yay. Sounds great, brother!” Mike was visibly thrilled to have a younger man continuing the tradition of writing and expressing gratitude for God’s good creation through the power of the written (and spoken) word. “Keep that up. That’s great to hear!” Mike gave a big smile and turned his attention to Brigitte, “What can I help you find today, young lady?”

Brigitte was unsure how to respond initially as she glanced around at all the unique jewelry, crystals, and rough stones displayed throughout the store. While she appreciated artfully crafted and exceptional jewelry, she hadn’t been exposed to this type of selection before. Again, Leo had taken her out of her comfort zone.

“I bet the young lady could benefit from a little turquoise,” interjected Leo, with Mike still holding the gaze of Brigitte’s glistening eyes. “Do you still have those long strands of various gems?”

“Oh yes, we sure do,” confirmed Mike, finally pulling his eyes from Brigitte. “Right this way.” He swiftly turned the counter corner, and with five quick steps, arrived at a mirrored case with numerous strands of single-colored stones hanging from a cluster of wooden pegs. There was brilliant turquoise, wine-red garnet, soothing rose quartz, green peridot, deep purple amethyst, and a strand of glistening golden citrine. Brigitte ran her fingers through each one. What pleasure!

“What do you think, Brigitte?” Leo asked as he laced her neck with the turquoise strand. “Turquoise has been known by native peoples for centuries to have healing qualities, especially by enhancing immunity and aiding with the regeneration of tissues.”

Brigitte fingered the necklace and smiled.

“Yes, I think we’ll take a strand of the turquoise,” asserted Leo confidently.

Brigitte was astonished once again by this man’s broad knowledge. He seems to know basically everything. How is that even possible? Is he just pulling stuff out of his ass?

Mike’s assenting nod seemed to confirm that if Leo was indeed making things up as he went along, Mike was on board. Brigitte was aware they were both boys at heart, and she was plenty familiar with the brotherhood of bullshit. Brigitte glanced at her necklace again. But if it was bullshit, it was the lovely variety, and besides, until she reimbursed him, it was on his dime.

Leo paid Mike for the necklace and after saying a quick goodbye, they returned to the restaurant across the street. The old building had been refurbished from the mining boom days, and the antique wooden floor creaked and sloped to prove it. Painted a cheerful green outside, Crosscut had a cozy, rustic interior, complete with a wood-fired copper oven in which pizzas were bubbling and charring and from which wafted thick aromas of basil, sausage, garlic, and dough.

“Good news,” smiled the hostess, greeting them knowingly. “Your apps are ready, and so is your table!” She led them outside onto the gravel patio and sat them at the table closest to the creek rushing below. Brigitte noticed the painting of the bear hanging on the wall. Next to it, a copper-clad oven contained a fire on one side and several neatly arranged pizzas bubbling and smoldering around it. The oven looked just like the ones she had seen in Trieste and Venice. Over the door was a giant, rusted handsaw over a century old—the kind that took two burley lumberjacks to operate long before powered chainsaws gave any skinny man the power to swiftly topple old-growth trees.

Over the creek stretched an old wooden footbridge similar to what could be found in an Alpine village in Europe, and Brigitte let out a soft sigh as she sat down at the wooden, community picnic-style table. There was another party at the far end already enjoying pizza, salads, and several tall beers.

Once seated, Leo explained, “Mike is a poet and a fixture in the community. He arrived in these parts back in the 1960s and had been friends with Alan Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and many of the other beat writers and jazz musicians who came through. When Crosby, Stills & Nash recorded at Caribou Studio nearby (where, incidentally, John Lennon, Michael Jackson, and Billy Joel had also recorded), Mike had been anointed emeritus town liaison and has maintained a humble air of gentle, kind authority ever since. He’s one of the first people I’ve ever shared my poetry with.” Leo’s voice trailed off pensively as a woman with dark hair approached their table.

The server approached their table, all smiles, with rosy sun-kissed cheeks hiding behind a thick mop of black curly hair cascading over her thick woolen sweater. She recognized Leo and asked jovially, “Hey, buddy, how’s it going?”

“Great, Paige. How are you, friend?”

Brigitte appreciated that he referred to these various women as friends. Though she could never have any romantic interest in a laid-back hippy sort like Leo, it still felt like an act of chivalry and decency. She wondered if he truly considered these women as friends or if it was just a calculated technique he used to put women at ease—including her.

Breaking her thoughts, Brigitte was surprised when Paige asked Leo, “The usual root beer for you today, Leo?”

I guess she did really know him—or at least what he liked to drink here.

“Yes, that would be perfect,” he responded, and, looking toward Brigitte, said, “And I think this lady would like a red wine. Can you tell us about your selection?”

“Of course!” responded Paige.

“I prefer a red with some depth,” interjected Brigitte, studying the menu. “I’d say either the Artisan’s Cellar Toscana Rosso or the Fetzer Cab…”

“Mmm, both are great choices,” responded Paige, smiling genuinely. “But on a warm evening like this, I would choose the Fetzer Cab if it were me… especially as it’s made with Biodynamically grown organic grapes, and the company recently received a ‘Regenerative Organic Certification’ for its Mendocino County vineyards and wineries!”

“I’m not sure what Biodynamic means, but okay, you’ve sold me. I’ll have a glass of the Cab!” decided Brigitte.

“Absolutely,” she responded, “and would you both like fresh mountain waters in addition to your beverages?”

“Yes, please,” replied Brigitte, parched from their hike.

“Make it two,” said Leo, lifting two fingers to indicate the number. “Or, as they say in Italy, due.” He lowered his middle finger and extended his thumb out.

What a cheeseball! thought Brigitte as Paige giggled and walked away. Brigitte was surprised to find herself smiling and to find the throbbing pain in her knee was not as prevalent as it had been before they sat down. She placed her napkin in her lap and dove in to the roasted shishito peppers with lemon aioli and sea salt. It was a sumptuous seasonal treat, and the cured olives were her favorite kind—a blend of mostly whole Castelvetrano olives in oily brine with lemon peel.

Paige returned a few minutes later with their drinks. And, having deliberated with Leo, who basically knew the menu by heart and was on board with anything, Brigitte ordered the arugula salad with pecorino and citrus, and the “Mario” pizza, which included locally made sausage, mushrooms, pickled shallot, basil, mozzarella, and herbed ricotta.

They ate ravenously and in between bites chatted casually throughout the meal. Brigitte could sense that Leo was happy to observe her mood rebalancing, and her spirits lifting a bit. She wasn’t sure if it was the wine, the food, or the relief of being back down from the mountain.

Between bites, Leo asked about her childhood, and Brigitte shared a few stories from the numerous times she had visited her grandparents in Slovenia. She recalled picking sun-warmed watermelon straight off the vine. As she grew, she could select larger and larger melons, which her Oma would cut open and slice for her in the kitchen after asking Brigitte to pick a few handfuls of calendula for her tisane. Brigitte explained that her Opa was a factory accountant—a highly prestigious position in Cold War-era Slovenia, back when it was part of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Brigitte’s grandfather loved to sit with her and spit watermelon seeds after a long day’s work at the factory. Leo was pleasantly surprised to see a child-like light brightening Brigitte’s eyes as she discussed her visits to Slovenia and her grandparents. She also talked about her schooling and her father, who was smart and caring but elusive. He had disappeared when she was only seven on one of his trips back to the old world. It had never been clearly explained to her what had happened—the circumstances were mysterious, and her mother never spoke of it to her.

Leo shared how he had lived in Nederland some twenty-five years ago. He explained how he had written some of his first attempts at a novel and several poems in nearby cafes and while walking along the creek. His countenance reflected a deep love for the place. Other than with her Oma and Opa, Brigitte hadn’t observed such a loving familiarity and depth of connection to a place.

Leo is different.

Instead of offering anecdotes of favored family members or special friends, Leo spoke of a love for humanity—a love accompanied by a profound concern and sadness. It seemed to him that humanity was slowly waking up. But it wasn’t happening quickly enough. They were fast approaching an abyss and, like the jazz musicians in Albert Camus’ The Plague, Leo explained, people were in blissful ignorance, playing their instruments with abandon, unaware or—even worse—deliberately ignoring the Armageddon raging outside and all around them. His eyes were wide open to the world and to humanity’s situation. Leo shared with unusual vulnerability, and it hurt.

They were all but done with their meal and let Paige know they were well satiated when she fluttered over to check on them. They turned down her dessert query politely (in fact, Leo had tipped Brigitte off about a wonderful chocolatier called Piece, Love, and Chocolate a block from his home back in Boulder, near Kimbal Musk’s iconic Kitchen Upstairs, one of Leo’s favorite places to grab a mocktail nightcap).

Then suddenly Brigitte’s head jerked up, her eyes widening at a sound that seemed out of place here…almost wrong.

A large electric-diesel bus was approaching along the street adjacent to the pebbled patio. Brigitte saw the deep blue bus, and her face blanched. It was the Flatiron Flyer, the same type of bus she had taken from DIA the day before. Its appearance brought back a flood of unwanted emotions to the surface, primarily stress and fear. What was that bus doing way up here in the mountains?

Brigitte’s mood shifted instantly and she noticed dark storm clouds gathering on the jagged peaks to the west. Acknowledging the bus and putting two and two together, Leo attempted to assuage her sudden anxiety by placing his large palm over one of her petite ones. She pulled her hand back quickly.

This time, feeling slighted, Leo asked coolly, “What’s your next move?”

The question felt like a kick in the gut as the recognition of extreme danger and profound uncertainty quickly resurged in her. “I…I don’t know.” Her eyes darted back and forth like a caged animal’s. “It’s just that I’m not sure what is best.”

“What do you mean?” asked Leo, feeling suddenly contrite over his ill-timed question and also genuinely concerned for the woman and the burden she was otherwise bearing alone.

“I could never live with myself…” Her quiet response trailed off, and she quickly glanced around to see if anyone was listening. Assured, her gaze turned to the billowing clouds gathering over the peaks in the distance. “If I activated Otto and he went crazy… You know, like what happens in all the movies… What if he attempts to destroy humanity?”

“You mean a dystopic ubiquity? But I thought you said there were safeguards against all of that.”

Brigitte nodded absently, now looking down at the mottled grays of the loose pebbled patio. Just then, Paige returned with the wireless payment console and showed Leo the total. He handed her his debit card while gazing at Brigitte’s strained, pale face, looking away only long enough to glance at the server and flash her a friendly, appreciative smile. Paige quickly glanced between their two faces, and with a waitress’s experience and a woman’s intuition, understood immediately that something was seriously bothering Brigitte. She quietly thanked Leo for his generous tip before quietly walking away to another table.

“Yeah…,” began Brigitte after a long silence. “There are safeguards…but there’s no guarantee they will work. Especially since so many of the software layers are experimental, and the hardware interface with the living neural networks hasn’t yet been studied long enough to understand how they will respond.”

Leo was shocked. Living neural networks? He immediately pictured something out of The Matrix: humans being grown by the thousands to feed the will of some super-evil machine intelligence. “What do you mean, living?”

“Our lab—many labs, actually—have been integrating normal silica and metallic hardware with living fungal networks that are the closest living structures, in terms of complexity, that we can utilize short of mammalian brains. Such a successful merger would, of course, have all sorts of ethical problems. I have been deep in philosophical and pragmatic debates about this single issue—the most dangerous potential issue as we cross the singularity. Once on the other side, the machine intelligence will become so vastly superior to our own intellects, and will develop so rapidly, that it could easily destroy all of humanity. We are of course doing our best to ensure that doesn’t happen, but there’s no guarantee.

“And the bitch of it is, there’s no practice run. In order to pre-program and prepare the supercomputer for the potential activation, it has to be already connected to the entire World Wide Web; otherwise, it wouldn’t have sufficient access to the information needed to perform its self-optimization tasks. Nor could it be utilized for the various smart grid, surveillance, energy optimization, air traffic safety, terrorist detection and disruption, epidemiological monitoring, and other real-time protocols that are essentially the very reason for advanced AI in the first place.

“Plus, even if we were to keep the supercomputer isolated from the internet during its ‘awakening,’ it could have the intelligence to mask any ill intent until it was connected to the web for those various functions. We’ve run through all the logic and game theory scenarios. There’s really no way to prevent the risk completely other than not activating the AI in the first place. But even that isn’t an option as we gamed out with the Pentagon, Langley, and the NSA—because there are labs all over the world working on this very thing. And all of us are quite close to cracking the code, as I have done… it’s just a matter of time now….”

Her voice trailed ominously as she glanced furtively around the patio. Was anybody watching her? Were any eyes lingering too long on them or too attentively listening to their now-hushed conversation? Were there cell phones close by that could pick up keywords and alert her pursuers to their location?

“Let’s get out of here, Leo…. Thanks for dinner.” She rose without waiting for him to respond, and after a quick but friendly “Thank you” to Paige, was halfway down the street before Leo had exited the building.

Brisk, deliberate steps had her at the passenger side of the car, and Leo, still twenty yards away, clicked his remote key. The car lights flashed yellow, allowing her to open the door and get in.

Once inside and back in the driver’s seat, Leo quickly looked over at Brigitte, who was staring straight ahead stoically. He placed his hand on hers, which she had resting on her thigh. She immediately and forcefully flung it back in his lap.

“Just drive back to the house, Leo. Just drive…”

* * *

Deep in thought, the two of them rode back down the canyon in silence except for some gentle Mozart sonatas on the stereo that Leo had purposely selected. The sky grew dark as they descended, and Brigitte noticed early stars glimmering between the towering rock cliffs. Boulder lay in wait for them seventeen miles away and nearly four thousand feet downstream.

As they drew closer to Boulder, Leo’s phone pinged, notifying him of a text message. He didn’t check but hoped it was from Preston. Brigitte became increasingly agitated as the drive went on.

The silence between them was suffocating.

Finally, they reached town, and within a few minutes were back at Leo’s home, parked out front along the street. Leo pulled out his phone and glanced through the texts he had received throughout the day, stopping at the most recent one from an unknown number.

Not going to make it

Going off grid

Take care of priority package—I will reach out when I’m able

At the end of all this was their special code that made Leo certain it was from Preston.

“That’s it? That’s all he wrote?” Brigitte had leaned over, reading everything on Leo’s screen from the passenger seat. Her expression showed full-blown panic, and her body slumped in the seat. Leo nodded.

“Now what am I going to do?” she cried out more to herself than as a serious question to him.

They got out of the car, and Brigitte said, “I really don’t want to be in the house right now.”

Leo glanced at his home and suggested, “Yeah, me neither. Let’s go for a stroll.”

Brigitte nodded in agreement. Although her knee still smarted, it was much less sore than before, and regardless, the pain of walking was nothing compared to the ache of her anxiety.

They strolled down the old block. It was lined with beautiful cottonwoods, oaks, and birches arching overhead with brilliantly flaming crimson and orange canopies. After passing a few houses in continued silence, Leo suggested, “Hey, how about some sipping chocolate?”

“I need something stronger” came her reply after a delay long enough for Leo to think she hadn’t heard him. “I think bourbon sounds better than chocolate right now.”

“I know just the spot then,” replied Leo, impressed by his own calm composure. “Let’s go to the Bitter Bar. It’s dark and has an East Coast vibe—something a little different after a few hours in nature.” He didn’t include that it could come off as one of the most pretentious hipster places in all of Boulder, although he essentially liked it and often edited there while sipping their delicious homemade tonic water.

Though he was hiding it well, he was actually really pissed. Yet he knew he needed to circumscribe and contain his emotions.

This was an extremely strange and dangerous situation, and he knew he needed to stay calm—not only to help Preston’s peculiar friend but also to keep himself sharp and safe as well. Perhaps a couple of stiff bourbons and she’d be ready to sleep. He longed for the cozy quiet of his bed while curling up with one of the books he was currently reading. He needed a break. And it seemed tomorrow had the potential to be even more intense.

The bar was mostly empty when they walked in and secured a back table. The Bitter Bar scene generally attracted more of a late-night crowd. Brigitte scanned each new arrival for any dangerous activity. They drank without talking before walking back to the house in silence. Brigitte didn’t even thank him or say good night. She walked straight into the side room and closed the door briskly behind her.

Finally, Leo was alone.

Chapter 9: Securus Locus: Trust Nobody

The day broke with cool, heavy clouds smothering the Flatirons.

Brigitte didn’t want to get out of bed, although she felt well rested and noticed that her knee was much better. She was relaxed. This time, she had locked the door.

Leo had arisen quietly so as to not disturb Brigitte in case she was still sleeping and packed his backpack with the usual essentials: silk REI long johns; Katadyn water filter; wool hat; and his orange, Sea to Summit watertight survival bag that held a fire starter, a compass, a parachute cord, a Woodsman Buck knife, Clif Bars, emergency blankets, and Rescue Remedy. Never forget the Rescue Remedy! Leo knew to be prepared in general due to his frequent hiking and exploring in the wilderness, and decided he should also pack his Glock. He ordinarily had the sidearm for wilderness excursions, as a defense against unlikely run-ins with mountain lions or bears. But he knew that today could bring a different kind of danger. Wanting not to frighten Brigitte with all of these details, he prepared his supplies quietly.

Brigitte emerged in the kitchen just as Leo was putting fresh-cut flowers from his garden into a vase. She didn’t make eye contact but managed a somewhat sincere “Good morning.”

“Good morning!” he exclaimed in a more chipper tone than was sincere. “How’s your knee feeling? Are you up for a bike ride into town? We could go have a coffee at the St. Julien,” Leo suggested. “And then have lunch at the Highland City Club—it’s discrete there.”

While she wasn’t feeling social at all, Brigitte didn’t want to hang around the house waiting…for what? “Sure,” she responded. “My knee is good, thank you. Let me grab my jacket.”

They walked out the front door. Leo took his daypack stuffed with water, Epic Bars, and raincoats, and unlocked the two bikes. The pair started pushing them along Spruce Street, just a few blocks from the rising mountain wilderness to the west. In the morning light, Brigitte could take in the beauty of the neighborhood with appreciation. It was one of the oldest and most prestigious neighborhoods in Boulder—and highly coveted. Professors, executives…even a former federal reserve director lived within these few blocks, explained Leo as they maneuvered the bikes past carefully manicured front yards. Gardens, thought Brigitte to herself, would be the more apt way to describe them. One, to Brigitte’s amazement, had a perfectly sculpted Japanese maple surrounded by evenly spaced Hostas, all clustered in the shade, creating what looked like a miniature rainforest.

They turned to the right, heading down a half-block cut across by a tiny pedestrian park with a wrought-iron bench. Down the slope was an old neighborhood market called Lolita’s. People were milling around out front. Two old-time hippies, relics of bygone days in this storied, college town, were sitting at one of the outdoor tables, smoking cigarettes and having an animated discussion. A dandy-looking man in his mid-fifties was walking his Jack Russell terrier—both gleaming white, he from his crisply ironed shirt and boat shoes; the petite dog from his canine coat.

In silence, the two walked their bikes along, not too hurriedly but evenly paced. Strolling two more blocks before crossing 9th Street, they came upon the massive stone structure of the St. Julien Hotel—the poshest public accommodations in Boulder. Brigitte suddenly felt more at ease, seeing the giant flower planter in the elegant shape of an ancient Grecian chalice. The container was taller than her, perched in the center of the grand, cobblestone entrance. Out of the giant vessel flowed a cascade of color—a rainbow of geraniums, pansies, and petunias were offset by brilliant green leaves. Foxgloves and snapdragons reached upward from within the great pot, honeybees buzzing throughout. The verdure of the sweet potato vine leaves stirred Brigitte’s heart. What is it about that chartreuse color?

They leaned their bikes against the sturdy stone wall, just a few yards from a Tesla SUV on display in the cobbled driveway. Two valets were waiting patiently at the doors, attired in elegant long coats and top hats. As Leo and Brigitte approached the entrance, one of the valets smiled courteously and said, “Welcome to the St. Julien,” as he opened the door into the spacious, neo-classical lobby.

The sight of the massive columns, stately iron light fixtures, deep chairs, and oversized love seats relaxed Brigitte even further. In Boulder, elegance like this was a welcome treat. She was both surprised by and grateful for the refinement and sophistication. Brigitte hadn’t grown up a privileged elitist but had grown to trust such curated environments of polished stone; hewn, natural woods; carefully appointed décor…especially at the University of Edinburgh and then at stately Cornell. Not because she was snobbish—as that hadn’t been the kind of environment she had been raised in—but because such surroundings had come to be associated with the serious pursuit of knowledge in her mind. And that gave her a sense of visceral, personal connection to the flowing rivers of human endeavor and achievement that were so infused in these structures. To Brigitte, they represented the power of mobilizing ideas, of discovering new laws of physics and nature, and of inventing new technologies to harness those laws.

Plus, people were generally better behaved in these sophisticated environs, or were, at least, less prone to express their juvenile pathologies.

Leo led her to a table by the floor-to-ceiling windows facing south, perfectly framing the severely sloping Flatirons that jutted skyward out of the gentle alluvial slope of the green-forested park below. NCAR perched on the distant horizon to the south, a red, concrete space station towering over the ponderosa forest. Soon after they sat at the table, one of the young cocktail waitresses in tight-fitting, short black dresses came to take their order. She noted a cappuccino for Brigitte and a glass of iced tea for Leo. Brigitte realized that Leo was right; being here was helping her feel calmer. She was more in her element in this classical, sumptuously decorated setting, not even bothering to check the room for ominous characters.

Leo sipped his tea quietly, enjoying the gorgeous day as much as he could, considering the circumstances. A beautiful, blue sky was dimpled here and there with casually floating puffballs. Playful finches were flitting and chirping in the courtyard of the stately hotel. The giant red sandstone Flatiron rock formation was looming patiently in the distance, standing sentinel-like over this young, intelligent town. In the foreground, millions of leaves were beginning to turn on the plethora of deciduous trees making up the urban forest. Boulder was a patchwork of forest-canopy neighborhoods. And now they were telling a timeless tale: autumn was returning.

Brigitte clutched her cappuccino in both hands as if it were her only connection to stability and certainty.

They sat in uneasy silence, gazing at the view to the south. She was feeling more and more anxious, sitting there, passing the time. But she knew she had to be patient. She squirmed a bit in her chair and took several deep breaths before looking up at Leo, a faint smile on her lips. “Thank you,” she said. “Thanks for your help.” Then, with genuine kindness, she moved her hand closer to his and asked, “Can I buy you lunch? I’m starving!”

“Actually,” countered Leo, “I really want to take you to the Highland City Club. If you like St. Julien, I promise you’ll like it at the club. It’s a private affair, so no payments are taken. They’ll just put it on my tab. You can buy me lunch some other time.”

She looked at him quizzically. “What kind of ‘club’ is it, a restaurant or something?”

“It’s more like the kind of dining club you would find on the East Coast, and also houses an innovative think tank called the Highland Institute.” He pointed toward the southwest. “It’s just over there. My friend Maria is the executive chef. She’s amazing. I promise, you’ll love the cuisine. It’s elegant and super-healthy all at once. It will be especially good for us with everything that’s going on—very nourishing… and discrete.” He nodded knowingly. “We can wander over there in a few minutes. Lunch service starts at high noon!”

They stood in unison, and, walking more closely together than before, strode through the lobby and back to the stately courtyard. They passed by the concierge, who gave Leo a very friendly, yet professional, smile and nod before saying, “Hello, Leo. How are you today?”

She had a curious set of golden key crosses pinned to each lapel on either side of her suit jacket. Brigitte could barely make out the tiny script—Clef d’Or—written between the keys, thinking to herself, Great, it’s probably another global society of initiates with whom Leo is somehow connected.

Leo returned the concierge’s smile and greeting. “Hi, Catherine. We’re doing just fine, thank you. Alles in ordnung?”

Is that German? Brigitte wondered to herself.

“Ja, klar,” answered the concierge, this time giving Leo a more knowing nod. “Alles ist friedlich und ruhig.”

“Sehr gut,” replied Leo in a curious tone. “Danke fur die gute Nachricht…Tschüssie!”

“Tschüss mein Freund, bleib sicher!” called the concierge behind them as they walked back through the double glass doors, exiting the grand lobby.

Brigitte shot Leo an inquisitive look, as if to say, What was that about? But he just kept on walking purposefully through the doors.

Outside the hotel, they circled around the stone building and crossed Canyon Boulevard, heading into the park flanking Boulder Creek. Cottonwoods towered overhead, shading clusters of people relaxing here and there on the green grass. Children splashed in the water, screaming with delight while their mothers watched from the shore, relaxed but attentive. The day was calm, and the air peaceful. In the creek bed, water flowed playfully in early autumn torpor—but, like a sleeping dragon, it could transform into a merciless torrent with a single large storm. With all their might, mischievous kids threw fistfuls of sand into the creek, which was instantly swallowed up by the rushing water. A young man was lying on his back reading a book. Leo could see the words on the cover: Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. The man sneezed, and Leo called out, smiling, “Gesundheit.”

Brigitte was startled by this interaction. To her, it was totally bizarre to talk to a random stranger. She recoiled slightly, realizing that she still didn’t know Leo at all, really, and that she couldn’t let her guard down. No one with any sense did that on the East Coast—especially in New York City! But the stranger just casually shouted back, “Danke,”—and kept on reading.

Instinctively, she focused her attention on the constant roar of the rushing creek; its mesmerizing soundscape helped her mind drift from her anxious thoughts. It’s amazing, she thought, that water—a chaotic amalgam of countless liquid crystals—was so powerful, so loud, so forceful. Immense and strong and erosive within its banks, that very same water was life-giving to the trees and grass growing along its edges.She was struck by the flowing ribbon of liquid, the red soil along the walking paths, the ubiquitous green she saw in every direction, dominating her vision. Not the cold, sharp, hard edges of concrete, steel, glass, and brick in New York. It was a very different setting. It helped her stay calmer, she realized.

The laconically reclining homeless people bewildered Brigitte—even they seemed somehow less crazy, less intimidating than in New York. Here, they were friendlier, more grounded and at ease. Upstream about thirty paces, a young man was wading in the water, fly-fishing. In the middle of downtown! The rhythmic figure-eight motions of his arm and rod, and the wispy fishing line following along obediently—albeit with a stubborn reluctance—reminded her of the fuzzy mathematics they played with in graduate school.

She suddenly noticed that off to the west, a bank of dark clouds was gathering menacingly above the mountains. A storm was approaching, and the wind picked up. Instead of a mild breeze tickling the shimmering cottonwood leaves, pulsing gusts rippled branches, lifting and revealing the silvery undersides of those leaves as if a school of sardines were swimming up each gnarled tree trunk.

“C’mon,” Leo spoke up. “Let’s get to the club!”

They arrived at the four-way stoplight at the intersection of 9th Street and Arapahoe—named for the native peoples who inhabited this valley long before the Europeans arrived—when a loud peal of thunder blasted and shook through everything.

“The club is right there,” pointed Leo to the other side of the street as the light turned from red to green, and the walk sign illuminated. “The gardens are such a delight, like our own little secret garden tucked away in the heart of Boulder.”

Brigitte looked all around, taking in the beautiful red-brick building with its elegantly sloped rooflines and late-season flowers dappling the landscape. “By the way,” interrupted Leo cautiously, “it might be a good idea not to use your real name here. Do you have another one we can use, a middle name perhaps?”

“Huh?” mumbled Brigitte, blinking. “Oh, yeah. Uh…my middle name is Sophia.” The image of the Statue of Liberty flashed in her mind as she thought of her grandmother—Lily Sophia—with whom she shared a middle name. She never thought to ask why, but her grandmother had told her more than once that her name was connected to that statue standing in New York Harbor…welcoming, comforting, resolute, and fierce all at once.

“Okay, well, then, let’s call you Sophia here. You’re likely to meet a few of my friends and colleagues. No reason to be alarmed, just a little precaution… You know?”

“Yeah, sounds good,” Brigitte responded softly. Good call, Leo. Sophia it is.

They walked across the street and then along an iron fence before entering beneath a bridge that bore the name “Highland City Club,” its letters curved in an arch across its ironwork dome. They soon ascended the stairs and into a meticulously tended garden. On the left a gigantic, old oak tree, and on the right towering blue spruce—who knew that a freak windstorm would soon tear down the spruce… climate destabilization was already a reality taking its toll in sudden destruction at many scales. Leo led Brigitte toward a small, sunken amphitheater, waving to his friend Constance tending her roses on the other edge of the beautiful green lawn.

“We have music performances and poetry readings here sometimes,” Leo told her matter-of-factly as if that would be the natural and obvious thing to occur in a sunken amphitheater tucked away in the middle of an urban oasis like this.

Near the amphitheater were a beautiful set of columns made of a rough-hewn red stone that seemed to match the color of the Flatirons standing watch in the distance. “Those giant stones are from the original Masonic Lodge here in Boulder,” Leo told her as if providing a history tour. “That lodge burned down several decades ago, and Sina, the founder of the City Club, has had them here at this location ever since.”

Freemasons? Brigitte frowned. I knew it. What have I gotten myself into? Who is this guy? She wondered whether Leo was a Freemason, but this didn’t seem the time or place to ask. Nor did she really want to hear the answer right now—or even know what to make of the answer if it were, in fact, affirmative.

Leo interrupted her thoughts. “C’mon, let’s go inside and get some lunch!”

They turned around and passed back between the towering spruce and oak as Leo pointed out one particular tree and mentioned that he’d heard on good authority that it was the oldest oak in all of Boulder. What a strange fact to share. A few paces later, Leo held open the double door, and they entered the old stone building.

As they walked down the flight of steps, she noticed several character sketches of unique people adorning the walls on both sides of the staircase. One in particular caught her attention: “Natasha the Spy” read the title at the bottom of the portrait.

Leo, sensing her bewilderment, volunteered: “These are sketches of some of the club members—and that one is of my friend Peg.” He pointed to the caricature of a woman in a stereotypical black cloak and fedora, with the name “Natasha the Spy” written underneath, which had caught Brigitte’s attention, “She was the highest-ranking woman ever in the CIA when she retired. At one point in her career, she was in charge of all of the spooks worldwide.”

Brigitte looked at Leo incredulously, not sure what to do with this information, before they continued down the stairs and were immediately greeted by a sharply dressed, tall man with a clean-shaven head and kind, intelligent eyes. He smiled, greeting Leo with a friendly and familiar hello. “Will you be joining us for lunch?” Brigitte felt suddenly embarrassed at how casually she was dressed in the place.

Leo placed his palm gently on Brigitte’s back. “Yes. This is my friend… Sophia… We will be having lunch together and have some business to discuss. Is there a private table available?”

“The main dining room is full—we have a presentation going on today. But the library is available.”

“The library will be lovely. Thank you, Sean.” Like a skillful ballroom dancer, Leo pressed gently into Brigitte’s back to indicate she should follow his lead to their left.

They walked along a wall full of neatly arranged name tags, each of which had member names etched elegantly in gold font on a black background. Sophia abruptly realized she was facing a virtual “Who’s who” of Boulder’s intelligentsia and moneyed elite—she loved it. Leo noticed her interest and discretely volunteered: “This one, my friend Mo, created Celestial Seasonings. This one over here, my buddy Mark, was the founder of Horizon Dairy. And here’s Jared Polis, who was elected governor of Colorado. Though he hasn’t been here in a while—he’s a pretty busy guy!”

Sophia enjoyed and appreciated the class and sophistication of it all; it definitely put her more at ease.

Past the wall of names, they entered a room full of paintings and were greeted by a man who looked like a cross between Gandhi, Einstein, and the actor Ben Kingsley, though his demeanor was hard to decipher. “Who’s this?” the bald man commanded authoritatively.

“Hi, Sina,” responded Leo kindly yet confidently. “This is my friend, Sophia. Sophia, this is Sina, the owner, mastermind, and patron behind both the City Club and the Highland Institute.”

Sina looked her up and down, his expression less than friendly. “What do you do, Sophia? Why are you hanging out with this guy?”

She couldn’t tell if he was just ribbing Leo, was judging her casual attire, or if she detected some actual bullying. This guy was definitely posturing in a major way. Is he insecure or just gate-keeping as one might expect at such an exclusive establishment as this? She immediately garnered her East Coast social skills, and responded without missing a beat. “Delighted to meet you, Sina. I’m a mathematician; I love what you’ve created here!” Shit, should I have told him what I actually do?

But apparently her quick response was the ticket. As if she had somehow passed some cryptic social-linguistics test, Sina immediately warmed up and smiled. “Well, that’s impressive, but what are you passionate about?” He left her pondering what felt like a challenge, and then he was off to greet some sharply dressed businessmen walking into the main hall.

Leo and Sophia paused for a moment and then continued further into the cavernous building. He guided her toward the doorway into the library. “Wow, that was unexpected!” exclaimed Sophia under her breath.

“Yeah, that’s Sina for you. He can rub people the wrong way—there are plenty who don’t like him at all—but if you can get used to the prickly exterior, there’s a huge heart and a gentle, creative soul beneath it all. You did great, by the way. This place is truly magnificent, a creative work of art Sina has devoted his life to. In many ways, he’ll probably never know firsthand how all of this will be remembered over time—it will probably make its way into a few books, perhaps a movie or two, and will thus be known by thousands and millions whom he’ll never meet. All of this is strange in a way because he seems so hungry now for esteem and acknowledgment for what he’s created.” Leo swept a hand up to indicate their surroundings. “Isn’t it exquisite?”

Sophia considered the unusual man with his arm dramatically outstretched like a thespian’s. His intermittent childish glee; his gentle, friendly nature; especially his ability to seem blithe about things while obviously quite capable of delving far beneath the superficial. He is complex, for sure, not an emotional idiot like most of the men I’ve encountered.

The library was magical—timeless, really. Wooden bookshelves, built into the walls, were neatly organized by themes and topics. Gold font plaques described each section, which ranged from “Philosophy” to “Kabbalah” to “Political Science.” She drank in the remarkable array of works: Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Atlas Shrugged. Books on the Enneagram. Something called The Cube of Space. Even The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich was there, sitting right alongside The Jews in America. She walked slowly along the wall, her arm gracefully tracing the edge of the shelf as she progressed. The Collected Works of C.G. Jung jumped out at her, as did the brilliant-green title of a book she hadn’t heard of, Y on Earth, which virtually glowed off the shining blue spine like a fresh, spring cotyledon—tender, determined, and full of vitality.

Then Leo pulled a book from the shelf, announcing, “This is one of my very favorite novels, Jitterbug Perfume. Have you read it? Tom Robbins is an extraordinary writer—exquisite, really.”

“I’m not much into fiction, Leo,” responded Sophia curtly. “It seems like a waste of time to me, especially when there’s so much nonfiction to absorb.”

Leo was taken aback, and Sophia could detect a hint of hurt feelings. But he recovered quickly, and, with a perhaps sarcastic “Hmmmmmmm, all right, no fiction then,” Leo reached for another volume. “How about this one?”

He had pulled a copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers from the shelf.

“Now you’re talking,” responded Sophia with a smile. “Yes, let’s talk about statistical outliers and how they show up and drive virtually all systems: mathematical, social, economic, and otherwise.”

Leo had hit the jackpot, and the two conversed about Gladwell’s watershed book for a few minutes before continuing along the meters-long stack of books.

In the corner, a bronze sculpture of a nude woman’s torso, realistic in its curves and fleshy corpus, was accented by carefully placed gallery lights. The opposite wall was hung with antique, floor-to-ceiling Chinese paintings. Toward the back of the room was a leather couch with an oversized wooden chess board sitting peacefully on the coffee table.

“Okay if we eat in here?” Leo asked.

“Yeah… Yes, of course. This is lovely. Elegant. Fabulous!”

“Thought you’d like it,” Leo replied teasingly. “Let’s get some food.”

After depositing their backpacks on the couch, the pair exited the room and walked back the way they had come in order to access the gourmet buffet laid out along the wall in the dining room. In a line of about eight or nine people, Leo greeted several of his friends, introducing Brigitte as Sophia here and there—her “new” name was beginning to stick in his own mind as the correct one. To an older, poised man, Leo said, “Hi, Bud. How are you? How’s Charlotte?” And then, a few minutes later, he addressed a couple of younger fellows in tight jeans and collared shirts: “Hey, Dustin. Hey, Sam. How are things upstairs?” Then Leo said, “I’ll be just a minute,” and strolled over to a large round table, amicably greeting the entire group by name: David, Beau, Roger, Steve, Oak, Kevin, Nancy, and Thompson, before returning to her side in time to smoothly hand her a plate and serve her a heap of fresh salad greens with wooden tongs.

Sophia feigned disinterest but listened intently to Leo’s casual greetings. Although she thought it conspicuous for Leo to greet so many people, she was grateful that he hadn’t dragged her around as well. It struck her that he had leaned over and said “Hello, brother” to the older man with white hair named Kevin, who resembled a wizard. For some reason, the way Leo had addressed the man sent shivers up her spine, but she maintained her composure. She was from the East Coast, after all; keeping a cool, polished veneer was second nature to her. Everyone here was sharp and, though friendly, politely reserved. Just like the East Coast. That aspect Sophia loved. And she was grateful that, aside from Sina’s peculiar interrogation, people weren’t too nosey.

They worked their way through the buffet line, which consisted of gourmet, olive-oil-roasted butter beans; fresh-baked, gluten-free bread; a luscious green salad; olives; cheeses; herbed potatoes; cauliflower bisque; and pan-seared trout with a basil pesto aioli. Brigitte grew hungrier with every step as she advanced in the line. At the end, serving the fish to each individual diner, stood a woman with dark complexion, black hair, and a slender athletic figure in a bright red floral dress with a chef’s apron wrapped professionally around it. Upon seeing Leo, she immediately shot him a beaming smile and friendly wink. Leo responded with a wave, and when they got closer, gave her a warm bear hug. “Hi, love!” greeted the woman from inside his full embrace.

“How are you, Maria?” responded Leo warmly. “Meet Sophia, a friend of a friend visiting from the East Coast… Sophia, this is my good friend Maria—she’s the executive chef here I was telling you about!”

Chef Maria enveloped Sophia’s hands warmly with her own and welcomed her to the club. “A friend of Leo’s is automatically a friend of mine,” she said with a knowing wink. “Enjoy your lunch, you two, and come say hi before you take off. I have some special chocolate for you!”

On the way back to the library, a barrel-chested man came out of the kitchen, a black bandana on his head. “Hola, amigo,” said the man.

“Hola, Carlos, Como estas?”

“Bien, bien. Y tu?”

“Tambien, mi amigo. Tambien!”

Sophia was struck that Leo seemed equally comfortable with the staff as he was with the various “VIP” members and their guests—naturally. It was as if he were either the most skilled actor or the most genuine human she’d ever met.

“Why did you talk with all of those people?” asked Sophia, incredulously.

“I know it was awkward, but it would have seemed even more conspicuous if I hadn’t. Plus, it would seem so inappropriate to me to ignore some of my elder friends and mentors. They deserve respect, especially Bud and Oak. Bud is the veritable ‘grandfather’ of the ‘conscious capitalism’ movement, having been on the board of Whole Foods for a quarter century, and having inculcated and inspired its co-CEO, John Mackey, who would write the seminal book on the subject. And Oak, now a genuine nonagenarian and accomplished pianist and a Capella singer, wrote the very first grant for the Nature Conservancy to protect Fire Island’s Sunken Forest off the southern shore of Long Island, and founded the Thorne Nature Experience, which has enabled thousands of children—especially underprivileged children—to access and experience wilderness, nature, and especially birds. Not only would it have been more suspicious if I hadn’t said hello, it would have also left me feeling terrible not to acknowledge my esteemed elders.”

Sophia was suspicious yet felt at ease in his presence. Her cognitive dissonance was uncomfortable but subtly so.

Their meal was delicious and delightful, and the two spent time learning a bit more about each other’s past studies and topics of interest. It was a welcome relief not to think or worry about their dangerous situation for a little while as they enjoyed each other’s company.

As they were finishing the meal they lapsed into silence. Sophia continued eyeing the myriad volumes on the bookshelves, hungry to read or reread many of them. Leo was pondering their ongoing ordeal. After several minutes of silent chewing, he declared, “Okay, so that I don’t make a dreadful error: I’m just going to call you Sophia from here on out. I think that’s the safest thing to do.”

“A dreadful error?” she responded, a little playfully but also feisty and fierce. “How does a place like this admit a guy like you?”

Though she followed that up with a teasing smile, she could tell that Leo was hurt.

Leo excused himself and was gone several minutes. Shortly after his return, Maria came into the library carrying sumptuous chocolate and blueberry tortes. The sweet decadence provided a brief reprieve from thought and anxiety… but only briefly.

After lunch, Leo was all business and guided Sophia to a secluded cubicle enclosed by two French doors. “You can make the call here,” he told her.

Sophia sensed Leo’s changed demeanor toward her and wondered if she’d said or done something to offend him. Refocusing, she dialed the main reception line at NCAR—not the one listed for the public—and in a no-nonsense voice, requested, “Phillip Nasir, please.”

“One moment” came the reply.

Then a familiar man’s voice was on the line. “This is Phillip.”

“Phillip, it’s me.”

“Oh, Brigitte. I got your message… What’s…what’s going on? Why didn’t you tell me you were coming to town? We could have had lunch or something!”

“Listen, I’ll explain when I get there. Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be there in two hours. Please, Phillip, please…don’t tell anybody…. This is top secret.…” She had known Phillip for many years, and had collaborated with him on several supercomputing projects. She thought she could trust him, if she could trust anyone. But with everything that had transpired over these past two days, it was hard to say—he was in deep with several key contacts at the Pentagon and other, even lower-profile agencies with ultra-powerful computers. At least by using the top-secret designation, he wouldn’t likely talk to anybody…she hoped.

Chapter 10: Mesa Laboratory

There was no going back now. Sophia’s call to Philip had set the inevitable in motion. She hoped he would keep her impending visit a secret as she had requested. But she wouldn’t know for sure until she saw him.

“How long is the bike ride from here to NCAR?” she asked Leo as they walked out the doors of the Highland City Club.

“From here, about a half-hour,” Leo replied, checking the watch that he rarely wore yet had secured to his wrist this morning without thinking twice.

She frowned. “What time is it now?”

“1:44 exactly.”

The schedule would be tight: Working back from the planned arrival of Jim’s plane at 4:45, they would have to depart NCAR at 4:10 p.m. since it was a thirty-five-minute bike ride. Sophia would need around fifteen minutes at NCAR to transmit the activation code to Otto and hopefully no more than five minutes to greet Philip and explain exactly what had to happen. Once she checked in at the security desk, Sophia knew, the clock would be ticking. They would be back on-grid, and whoever had been chasing her would likely be back on her trail in no time. They needed to walk through the doors at NCAR at exactly 3:50. Not a minute too soon, not a minute too late.

They still had an hour and a half before their tight schedule would begin. The intensity was increasing by the second. Leo suggested tea at the Dushanbe Teahouse. He was doing his best to keep them both calm, having noted her anxiety mounting as they finished their meal.

Walking a more circuitous route to the teahouse would help, he decided. They retrieved their bikes from behind the City Club where they had stashed them and walked back toward Boulder Creek, bikes rolling alongside them. Sophia thought it strange to walk their bikes like this but knew they would need them later.

They worked their way leisurely through Boulder’s downtown, along several blocks of the beautiful, brick-paved Pearl Street Mall, where cars were forbidden and cyclists had to walk their bikes. They passed the famed Boulder Book Store, Leo telling Sophia that famous authors like Jon Krakauer, Elizabeth Gilbert, Deepak Chopra, Chelsea Handler, and Allen Ginsberg had given readings there. Sophia pondered the wide range of writers while marveling at the sumptuous array of lush-colored flowers in planted beds throughout the entire length of the red-brick pedestrian park. It reminded her of the Ithaca Commons mall she had so often sought out at Cornell. “Every city should have these in abundance,” Sophia exclaimed to Leo. “They create such a different atmosphere, like old Europe. It’s much more pleasant than streets choked with loud, fumy automobiles!”

The restaurants they passed overflowed with animated conversations, and the aromas wafting from those establishments were a welcome distraction from the tense situation just ahead. It was early afternoon; people were already lingering out on patios, sipping libations, and soaking up the sun. Leo pointed up toward a gathering throng of twenty-somethings on the rooftop of a restaurant called Avanti, saying, “That’s one of the best views in all of Boulder…. If the circumstances were different, I’d take you up there to have a drink and enjoy the vista.”

The young adults peering out toward the mountains were clearly enjoying the vantage, their cocktails, and each other’s company.

The absence of face masks had engendered a surreal novelty for everybody, as if the simple pleasures of everyday life were more precious. Sophia floated into a daydream, appreciating the relaxed social connectivity visibly apparent here. It reminded her of visits to the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, with her grandmother.

Observing her interest, Leo commented, “Decades ago, insightful town planners like my friend Dick Blumenhein had designated four blocks in the heart of Boulder to be car-free. They paved the streets with brick and created a pedestrian sanctuary. Their gamble on the economic vitality that would ensue paid off in spades. Apparently, creating a pedestrian zone in the heart of a city is one of the smartest moves city planners can make—Christopher Alexander would be pleased! Imagine cafes in communities all over spilling out into the streets the way it was in old Europe! Perhaps something unanticipated would happen to make that a widespread phenomenon. But Sophia wasn’t thinking about the economic effects. She was missing her grandmother, and her bucolic childhood.

The pair kept walking side by side.

“C’mon, we’ve got extra time. I’ll take you to the Dushanbe Teahouse that you noticed when you first arrived in Boulder.” They turned south from the pedestrian mall and crossed Canyon Street, staying alert for any sign of her pursuers. On the opposite side of Canyon was a more secluded area, and they both relaxed as they approached the threshold of the teahouse.

Once inside the enclosed rose garden, Leo leashed the bikes together with his heavy-duty bike lock. Sophia strolled ahead through the rose garden entrance, immediately enveloped in a sun-soaked cloud of sweet, intoxicating aroma—this was the Dushanbe Teahouse’s famed rose garden. The way the sunlight danced off each petal seemed to make it a bit brighter in this pleasant sanctuary of enchantment. She noticed scores of happy honeybees and a handful of monarch butterflies flitting about from one rose blossom to the next.

Enchanted, Sophia continued her steady progress up to the teahouse’s double doors. Leo caught up to her, and paced ahead of her quietly to arrive at the front door a couple steps ahead—with just enough time to gracefully and effortlessly open one of the doors for Sophia, letting her glide inward without breaking her spell. The cool air inside greeted her entire body like a gentle, welcoming kiss. In the center of the room stood a pond of masonry walls, surrounded by bronze sculptures of provocative women. Some were carrying baskets of fruit on their heads; others poured water from vessels into the pond. Fish swam contentedly below. Plants grew all about, creating a veritable oasis, secluded from the downtown hustle and bustle.

Sophia noticed columns of ornately hand-carved wood. As she slowly lifted her head, her gaze rose up the stout vertical pillars, alighting on the meticulously carved ceiling that gushed with every color of the rainbow and exhibited the finest attention to detail. Leo explained to her that the interior was hand-carved in Tajikistan by dozens of expert craftsmen investing hundreds of hours, and that the building was a gift from Dushanbe, Boulder’s sister city, located halfway around the world. The fourteen carved wooden columns were from the sacred Siberian Cedar tree, said to have special healing powers, for which special permission had to be granted by the Russian government before they could be harvested and shipped to Tajikistan. The ceiling structure is made up of interlocking pieces of wood, like a jigsaw puzzle, and no power tools were used to create any of the ornate, structural elements.”

While she gazed around the museum-like restaurant, Leo checked in with the hostess, and they were soon seated at one of the tables hugging the edge of the koi pond in the middle of the great room. The sound of the gentle waterfalls pouring forth from the statue pitchers was idyllic. Leo handed Sophia the tea menu—a multi-page treasure trove of the finest blacks, oolongs, Pu’ers, greens, matchas and herbal tisanes imaginable. She felt like she was in paradise.

Their server arrived at the table.

“Hi, Jess…,” greeted Leo, a bright smile spreading across his face as the server arrived at their table.

Sophia grinned and shook her head a little. Another one of Leo’s friends, naturally.

“Hey there, Leo. How are things?” replied the sharply attired young woman, seemingly relieved to see a friendly face among a sea of demanding customers. She wore a black skirt, formal white blouse, and black blazer, draped by her long, silky black hair.

Jess and Leo made small talk about horseback riding, basketball, and hiking while Sophia perused the menu. They ordered their respective drinks—Sophia a rose-rooibos, and Leo an earthy oolong. When Jess mentioned her upcoming trip to visit a friend in Seattle, Leo and Sophia responded politely yet flatly as they couldn’t reciprocate by telling her their own plans. Jess had to quickly scoot to other tables in the full restaurant, avoiding an awkward moment. The two were now alone amidst a room of strangers.

Sophia loved sitting next to the water feature, the bronze women perched just above her head with their bowls of food evoking blessings of abundance, tranquility, and sensuality. She took in the ornately carved reliefs, frescoes, plastered mirrors adorned with fine wedding-cake details, and lacey curtains dancing in the breeze. On one wall was a quote from Muhammad Osimi, the Nelson Mandela of Central Asia, inscribed into the hand-carved piece:  I BELIEVE IN THE TRIUMPH OF INTELLECT

Brigitte loved the quote; it gave her a sense of hope and a little more courage for what she had to face. Inside, Leo and Brigitte were like the nearby creek, frothing toward the future, yet on the surface they were as calm as the tranquil pond next to them. Intermittently, they appeared to enjoy conversation with each other while complimenting the delicate yet robust flavors of their steaming teas. They frequently exchanged fleeting glances as if in reassurance that they would both be okay.

Sophia again stole a peek at Leo over the rim of her cup as it reached her lips. His warm eyes flashed to hers in that same instance, and he gave her a little smile before glancing down again. Brigitte marveled at everything that had happened in so short a time, all leading up to here and now…sitting at a table sipping tea Leo.

Leo…

She was seeing something new in him so often. Right now, it felt like tenderness. She wondered if he felt the same. Somehow, she knew for certain the answer was yes. These circumstances had brought them together in the strangest way, but she was finding herself realizing that she was, in fact, happy to know him. In fact, she wanted to know more. Perhaps in time…

After about an hour, Leo checked his watch and mentioned that they should get on their way. He paid the bill and waved goodbye to Jess. Outside, Sophia took the garden in once more, burying her nose in a huge, ivory-colored blossom before they strolled outside the gardens and retrieved their bikes.

As they approached the gate, Leo suddenly stopped. “It’s my friend Thomas and his family. Hold on—this will take a quick minute.”

Thomas, his wife, and their two teenage children walked up the pathway toward the teahouse. “Hey, buddy. What a surprise! How’s the project coming?” Thomas smiled, joining his right hand with Leo’s in a solid grip of friendship. They shook hands, gazing into one another’s eyes a split second longer than normal. Thomas flashed Leo a knowing look, somehow aware that Leo was on point and something was afoot. “Hi, Hope. Hi, Faith. Hiya, Thomas Junior!” After friendly introductions and a bit of light small talk, Leo bid the family farewell, saying, “We certainly don’t want to keep you from your lunch—you know how Thomas gets when he’s hungry!” Leo and Thomas had been friends since they were eleven years old. Now, having retired from Major League Baseball, Thomas’ appetite was still on pace for an athlete of his stature and well-maintained physique. Leo knew if he had the chance to explain the situation to Thomas, his buddy would understand and possibly be disappointed that Leo hadn’t recruited his aid and assistance. They were that close.

Now, though, Leo and Sophia were on the move. No time to discuss the matter with old friends. Leo and Sophia walked their bikes through the gate and headed south toward NCAR.

Leo led the way up 17th Street past Boulder High School before climbing a substantial hill to the University of Colorado campus. The massive stone façade of Mackey Auditorium stood tall above them as they pedaled their way up the hill. The red-tiled roofs and sandstone walls surrounded the two travelers, transporting Sophia to memories of Europe and adding to the bizarre sequence of the day’s localities. She felt like she was transiting from one world to another, not sure where Leo would take her next or what she would encounter. The walk through the campus was beautiful but bewildering.

Leo led her toward a sandstone building with columns guarding the entrance to a courtyard. The red-tiled roof reminded Sophia of Florence. Upon entering the cloister, she saw two walkways spreading apart before her like the legs of a compass. There’s that symbol again! Was it intentionally placed here by the architects and stone masons? Leo invited her to enjoy the cool air of the shaded courtyard; their climb up the steep hill had them both perspiring.

They sat on a bench amidst some beautiful cherry and apple trees until their heart rates and breaths returned to normal. Sophia instinctively scanned the courtyard for cameras. Leo handed her his water bottle. They both drank sparingly, ensuring there would be enough to last the afternoon.

“C’mon,” said Leo. “There’s something you’ve got to see. It’s close by.”

Sophia followed him, likewise guiding her bike alongside her. Leo walked with her along a footpath behind another Tuscan-style building and into an idyllic scene. There was a pond, calm in the afternoon sun, with giant goldfish hovering just beneath the water’s surface and dozens of turtles sunning themselves on floating logs. Across the water was a footbridge made of double-arched stone and masonry. Leo walked straight toward a bench adjacent to a beautiful Western red cedar tree that drooped just like a weeping willow. Leo told her that the cedar tree was a friend of his, one he had sat by relaxing, thinking, and praying over the course of two and a half decades.

Nah, he’s really not my type, thought Sophia in response to his vulnerable revelation.

This stopover was nevertheless a calming balm to Sophia’s frayed nerves. She could tell by his pensive manner that for Leo, the visit held a deep significance. He sat in silence, eyes closed, and prayed. Then Leo took a deep breath, opened his eyes, and said, “Okay, we should go now.”

They walked around the pond, along the giant castle called Mackey Auditorium, where a young man with blonde hair sketched the formidable structure, and then beside a newer building in the same Tuscan architectural style with a circle and triangle curiously placed above the main entrance. Finally, they entered the great expanse of the Quadrangle. This was the architectural heart of the campus and had many long decades ago been the entirety of the campus. They walked their bikes toward the massive, pillared temple of education standing sentry at the east end of the huge green lawn: Norlin Library. Giant, stone-carved letters made clear what this was—a temple to the mind and to the cascading steppingstones of history. Immediately above the doors, an inscription was carved in the stone:  ENTER HERE THE TIMELESS FELLOWSHIP OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT

Sophia read it aloud and then noticed the inscription carved in much larger characters above the six giant stone pillars: WHO KNOWS ONLY HIS OWN GENERATION REMAINS ALWAYS A CHILD

“Wow,” she said, more to herself than anything. “I’ll say!”

“Yeah,” chimed in Leo. “That’s such a perfect reminder to all who pass by here. It’s ascribed to George Norlin, the scholar for whom the library is named. There truly is an essential wisdom and perspective that can only be reached and realized by studying the past.”

“And what about the future?” challenged Sophia as she gazed back up at the phrase atop the columns. “What about the way our technological progress is going to massively transform the experiences and realities of those to come?”

You tell me…,” replied Leo.

He was impressed…and concerned. She heard both in his voice.

What about those to come? How is it going to turn out?” he pressed.

“I… I don’t know…for sure. But one thing is crystal clear to me now. We have to ensure that no one else gains access to Otto’s core secrets…and make sure Otto is a force for good in the world. I…” Her voice trailed as she peered back toward the Flatirons and the small silhouette of NCAR standing along the far-off ridge: a quiet sentinel overlooking countless federal research labs and secure, unlisted, university labs. “I’m just not yet 100 percent certain that the underlying code we’ve given Otto will ensure that goodness. Something could go awry.”

For the first time since meeting Leo, Sophia was lifting the veil. Instead of projecting her normal confidence, she was exposing something more, something tender and vulnerable. Her voice revealed legitimate concern. Leo smiled understandingly toward her, nodding gently as if to tell her that he understood and appreciated her terrible predicament.

“It’s like there’s something missing in the code…something I haven’t yet been able to articulate to Otto, to embed in his underlying logic. Of course, the obvious childish command of ‘reduce suffering’ could logically result in the conclusion that the immediate eradication of humanity is the quickest way to reduce suffering completely—or possibly even the eradication of life altogether, if that’s even possible, depending, of course, on how the AI interprets or extends the notion of suffering to less advanced creatures. The philosophical contemplation of potential future suffering risks—or ‘S-risks,’ as the scientists and policymakers know it—is no easy or pleasant topic. And it is even less easy to program into a supercomputer that may just become the epicenter of an entirely novel—and powerful—form of intelligence. No, that won’t fly. Not at all… There’s something else needed…but what is it?”

Leo just listened, pensive, hoping that Sophia would figure out the right answer before activating Otto. It all depended on her getting this one right. But he didn’t immediately have the answer either. It eluded him as well. It was nuts to think these technophiles would even consider something like the annihilation of the human race…let alone contemplate the destruction of all Earthly life!

They continued forward in silence and wove their way through a labyrinth of passageways between campus buildings. Then, Leo broke to the right up some stairs and said to her over his shoulder, “Follow me.” He took her through an arched gate and out onto a sloped wooden stage overlooking an empty amphitheater of sandstone benches arranged in a radius of semicircles around the stage. Leo lifted his arms above his head and loudly proclaimed: “All the world’s a stage, and the men and women mere players…”

Sophia knew the reference and immediately thought about Otto. Was he going to be a player too? Leo grabbed her arm, twirled her around in a circle in the center of the stage, and gazed into her eyes teasingly. She hesitated before pulling her hand back and laughing off Leo’s antics casually.

“C’mon, Leo. Let’s go…”

Seconds later, they were back to the bike path, where they remounted their bikes and rode southward along Broadway toward their imminent destination: NCAR.

It was approaching game time.

Their breathing quickened, their stress levels rising as they rode quickly along the main road, wind rushing in their faces and sunshine blazing brilliantly overhead. Passing a significant federal government installation on the right, Leo shouted toward Sophia, “That’s NIST—the National Institute for Standards and Technology—where the atomic clock keeps time for all of the worldwide electronics and global positioning systems.”

Not to be outdone, Sophia responded over her labored breathing, “Yeah, I know! They use a Cesium 133 fountain for the extremely precise time intervals—it’s so exact that it won’t gain or lose a single second in over one million years!”

Leo was impressed and turned toward Sophia to give her a respectful smile.

They continued pedaling past NIST and toward their destination, perched up against the looming Flat Iron Mountains.

At Table Mesa Drive, they took a hard right and started pedaling up a steeper incline. The name Table Mesa had always made Leo laugh a bit as its meaning—“table table”—seemed rather redundant, much like the etymology of the word “confuse,” which basically meant “with with,” or “with together,” a perfectly entangled and inchoate confusion that the word denotes.

Who came up with that one? Leo thought for the hundredth time as they flew up the road toward the looming mountains. But his thoughts soon transitioned to much more somber musings.

For a terribly tragic reason, the King Soopers grocery store to their left had become recognizable to the whole country not long ago, and a fence memorial still stood along Table Mesa, covered with flowers, photos, and messages of sorrow and sympathy. It was such a senseless and tragic massacre. Sophia assured herself that advanced AI would help flag would-be killers the moment a gun was purchased, or even earlier. Leo pondered whether trauma lived and died with memory. This place was now clearly haunted by the horror recently visited upon this idyllic neighborhood in south Boulder. Not that murders don’t happen daily in neighborhoods all around the world. And what about those myriad massacres that occurred just a century ago throughout the Front Range, close by and farther afield? Native women and children running and screaming for dear life as cavalrymen, fresh from the horrors of Gettysburg and Shiloh and Appomattox, fed the lives of Native Americans to their ravenous trauma-demons. It seems most Boulderites don’t remember the horrors of that recent history. Does trauma live and die with conscious memory?

Leo’s thoughts roamed the vast landscape as his feet pedaled in flowing rhythm.

Up, up, up, they went, their pace diminishing from a fast rush to a much slower and laborious pedal-by-pedal climb as they started up the winding ascent to the futuristic edifice towering on the plateau above. Sophia was in good shape—all those hours each week at the gym, running, and swimming. Not only had that exercise been essential to managing her stress but it had also helped her think clearly. But this was something else. With the higher elevation and the unforgiving slope of the road, she had to stand up tall on the pedals, her bum lifted several inches from the seat and whole body lurching left, right, then left again, to power each precious half-turn of the chain crank.

Perspiration beaded on her cheeks and forehead. Pedal, pedal, pedal, one foot after the next; they pushed yard by yard up the slowly winding drive to NCAR. The road was like a giant serpent swimming in a sea of prairie grasses and pockets of ponderosa pines. A cluster of deer stood silently, solemnly grazing in the afternoon sun. A red-tailed hawk soared overhead, her piercing call shattering the silence. Immediately to the west, the mountains climbed toward the heavens. Nature felt powerful here, like giant waves ready to engulf the city below upon the slightest whim.

They rounded the final curve toward NCAR, and the building grew bit by bit as Sophia pedaled with all her might. The stark horizontal and perpendicular angles of the futuristic building, the brainchild of world-famous architect I. M. Pei, seemed to anticipate colonies on Mars, and revealed publicly the air of discrete domination that the technocratic empire now wielded around the world.

Finally, dizzy and lightheaded from the exertion, she reached the top of the road where it leveled off and coasted toward the entrance of the laboratory. Leo was already off his bike and nudging it up against the bike rack (from the looks of it, there were fifteen or twenty others who had made the journey on bike that day). He smiled at her knowingly; their eyes locked, acknowledging the challenge before her. She slid her bike up against his and started toward the building’s entrance.

“Wait. On second thought, let’s put our bikes on the other side of the building in case the chasers are closer than we hope.”

They walked their bikes away from the rack, down a concrete staircase, and out onto an expansive futuristic park, apparently cantilevered from the building. On the other side was a second set of stairs leading down to the service dock, where they leaned their bikes against the wall and Leo locked them to the railing. Even here, tucked out of sight, there was a chance they might be gone when they got back; bike theft was a perennial problem in this college town and surrounding area.

They slowly walked back up the stairs, attempting to regulate their heart rates back to normal levels so as not to raise suspicion when entering the federal building. Sophia wiped her forehead with her sleeve and took three deep breaths Great, more security cameras! Leo checked his watch. It was 3:47—not too shabby.

“Okay, remember to act casual,” Leo reminded her. “Visitors and tourists come here all the time to learn about the climate, the supercomputers, and the latest science. Just pretend you’re a tourist. No big deal,” he reassured.

Casual? I’m a professional. Sophia stood up straight, squared her shoulders to the front doors, and thought, It’s game time.

They walked purposefully through the main entrance, past the exhibits, simulators, and giant spheroid projection of global weather, and turned left for the stairs—nodding and smiling nonchalantly at the friendly looking security guards at the door. Once up the stairs, they encountered another security guard, this one much more serious in her demeanor. She was no tourist information guard greeting the ignorant masses. She was guarding the entrance to one of the most advanced supercomputers in the world. No one was allowed in here without a reason.

Or permission.

“Can I help you?” the rotund guard queried politely but seriously. She was all business in her dark security guard uniform, which the firearm at her hip drove home.

And Sophia responded in kind, surprising Leo with her authoritative voice. It wasn’t her first time at a federal research lab. “Yes, my name is…Soph…” She caught herself just in time. “My name is Brigitte Miklaus, and this is my colleague, Leo Smith. We have an appointment with Mr. Philip Nasir. He’s expecting us.”

Leo was impressed. Soph…Brigitte could bring the professional authority in an instant when she needed to. At first Leo was startled to hear her use her real name, but it made sense in an instant. She had credentials—real ones. The guard was apparently impressed as well, and immediately picked up a receiver, pressed three buttons, and spoke demurely into the phone: “Your guests are here, Mr. Nasir.” After listening for a few seconds, she replaced the receiver and respectfully informed the visitors: “The elevator will take you to the fifth floor. Could you please provide your names to me again?”

Both their heartbeats quickened as it was clear the guard was about to enter their names into the visitor’s log in some database. Who knew who or what had access to these records, and who or what was searching for her?

They would soon find out, thought Sophia as they repeated their names to the guard.

* * *

Outside, a bald eagle soared overhead on the warm thermals.

* * *

The elevator doors shut, and nothing happened. The elevator wasn’t moving. “Shit,” exhaled Leo, looking at Brigitte with fear…and with a deeper respect than before.

“It’s okay. It takes a second to activate. It’s an automatic, secure elevator. It will only go to the floor that the guard authorizes. Don’t worry. It’s on an isolated network, not connected to the database.”

How did she know all that? He was beginning to realize the extent of her expertise and authority.

The elevator whisked them up several floors and came smoothly to a stop at the fifth. Another short pause, and the doors opened.

Standing directly opposite was a man in a suit, who stood stiffly and scowled, feigning a serious air until Sophia exclaimed, “Oh, Philip. Stop that, you jerk!” To Leo’s relief, a huge smile cracked across Philip’s stern face as the man stepped forward to give Sophia a big, friendly embrace, which she returned with equal enthusiasm. They shared the sort of familiarity between colleagues that came from spending countless hours and days and weeks in secure computing facilities together. Philip was one of the few who hadn’t crossed the line with Sophia…ever.

“Come with me. We can talk in my room.” Philip had clearly gotten the message she had sent him through the secure encryption. The tall man had curly reddish-brown hair and a sharp aquiline nose upon which perched a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles. He didn’t waste time on the formalities of introducing himself to Leo—not out in the hallway where other officials and government scientists could hear them. They hurried, Philip first, Sophia in the middle, and Leo bringing up the rear as they rushed around a corner and down the hall into Philip’s office. He closed the door deliberately and closed the blind on his interior-facing window, letting out an audible sigh of relief. “Hi, I’m Philip.” He now acknowledged Leo, extending his hand toward him.

“I’m Leo. Nice to meet you.” Leo returned the grip and gazed out the window at the spectacular view from the tower overlooking the Flatirons. He then looked around the room, noticing several computer screens, piles of papers, and multi-colored sticky notes plastered all over the place: the desk, the edges of the computer screens, and even on the windows.

Philip quickly returned his attention to his friend. “And you. I know we don’t have much time, so excuse my lack of propriety, but Brigitte…what the hell is going on?” Philip inquired with a mixture of excitement and concern.

“Philip, it’s awful. Horrible. I was in New York with Preston two—no, three days ago—for meetings with investors for Viriditas and was chased by some seriously scary paramilitary like men. I just barely escaped,” she described, involuntarily rubbing her shoulder where the man had squeezed so tightly. “I don’t know what they want.”

“Oh my goodness, Brigitte, I’m so sorry for you… but I do think you probably know what they’re after!” interjected Philip.

“Well, what I mean to say is, I don’t know to what lengths they’ll go to get it…or who they are. Or how close they are right now. We don’t have much time.” Philips’ eye twitched, but Brigitte just pushed on: “It’s what we’ve worried about since the beginning of this project. I don’t know who is chasing me, but as we feared, people are after Otto. When we leave, I need you to configure and authenticate the network protocol to connect Otto with the supercomputer here in Boulder and then link them both to NCAR’s supercomputer in Cheyenne. I know you can patch that together from here.”

“Right,” agreed Philip. “And we have no time to lose. Come on. We have to get that patch updated to connect Otto. Here, Brigitte, you can use my console to access the mainframe. Just let me log you in really quick.” He hurriedly sat in his chair, spun around to his keyboard, typed what seemed to Leo an exceptionally long password, clicked through several windows before entering yet another password—this one even longer—and then spun back in his chair and stood quickly. “Voila,” he said, gesturing with both hands as he offered his seat to Sophia.

“Thank you,” she replied in a serious tone and sat down swiftly, immediately going to work, her fingers flying across the keyboard.

Leo was blown away. Pacing back and forth in Philip’s office, peering out the window down to the winding ribbon of road below, he realized that he was on edge. Here, in this polished office, standing next to this high-ranking stranger who obviously knew his share of secrets, the profound gravity and danger of the immediate situation sunk in.

Sophia was ripping through lines and lines of code. Her years of playing Bach preludes and fugues on the piano, combined with endless hours writing and coding computers, had put her in a league of her own. Once, because she typed—and thought—so much more quickly than most, she had been accused by a professor of cheating on a written exam, for which the department had provided the option of having her use a computer. Of course, she hadn’t cheated. She never had. She had no need. She was, relatively speaking, not unlike a supercomputer.

Pausing momentarily to open the browser to the cryptic message board accessing the “back door” to Otto’s mind, she copied large blocks of code from it to paste into the mainframe protocol for Philip—all with swift keystrokes: CTRL+A, CTRL+C, CTRL+V. With these rapid keystrokes, she was effectively enabling a massively parallel linkage between Otto in Cornell and this second computer cluster in Colorado and Wyoming. They were now linked up, and lines of code began whizzing rapidly by, faster than their eyes could even follow. Under Interstate I-70, stretching from Denver toward Washington, DC and along a few other massive lines of fiber optics, Otto was now sending specific protocol instructions directly to the NCAR machine. Otto was priming and configuring the massive network required for the AI software to colonize the mind-blowingly complex hardware needed to accommodate the mysterious algorithms that would ultimately spawn a new form of intelligence.

She hadn’t activated the final step yet, of course, but Sophia could sense viscerally that Otto was coming alive.

As the code was streaming down the screen, Leo paced to the window, and, looking below, saw three black SUVs racing up Table Mesa Road. “Shit, they’re coming!” shouted Leo. “C’mon, we gotta get out of here!”

“Okay, ten more seconds, and…I’m done. Otto is connected.”

“Go, go, go!” shouted Philip, clearly frightened about what would happen next if not to them than certainly to him. Beads of sweat glistened on his prematurely balding forehead. “We’ll take the back elevator—my security card will allow us access to the ground level and get us out of here.”

Just as they were about to leave the room, Philip turned, hurried back to his desk, and picked up the phone to reach the security desk. “Lesley, it’s Philip. There are some impostors on their way—it’s some sort of security drill. Whatever you do, don’t let them in. Director Magus will have our jobs if we fail the test.”

Good thinking, Leo reflected. These two are super sharp!

The trio arrived at the ground level. The elevator doors opened, and Philip gave Brigitte a deep but rushed embrace, looked Leo in the eye, and squeezed his hand in a quick, firm grip. The two companions raced out the back door and ran down the futuristic concrete stairway to their bikes waiting below. In one quick motion, Leo unlocked them, and they jumped on, racing across the driveway toward the steeply sloping hill. They were cutting down the mountainside; the chasers would have to drive back around to Table Mesa to reach them, once they figured out the pair were on bikes.

Leo was a skilled rider, and deftly navigated the dirt single track trail with his hybrid bicycle—it was part-road bike and part-mountain bike. Brigitte kept up skillfully, skidding a bit here and there on the sharp, hairpin turns but otherwise able to keep pace utilizing her focused precision.

They descended hundreds of feet to the neighborhood below and raced through the side streets, snaking their way toward Broadway. Once they reached the main thoroughfare, they sped along the bike path, southward to the road that led to the Broomfield Airport. To their left, they could glimpse the scorched pathway of the devastating Marshall Fire that had wiped out nearly one thousand homes in a few short hours. Between frequent fires and widespread flooding, the impacts of a destabilizing climate were being felt and experienced viscerally in Boulder—especially in the past few years.

Leo was sweating profusely, and Brigitte’s lungs were burning with each inhale—her body was unaccustomed to the elevation, and to the dry, thin air. She needed more oxygen. But the adrenaline was pushing them to ride faster than either of them had ever dared before.

They reached Highway 128 and were racing up and down gigantic rolling hills, getting close to the small regional airport, when they heard the sound of an approaching drone.

“Oh, shit!” cried Sophia.

“Pedal faster!” yelled Leo, looking over his shoulder at the rapidly approaching aircraft.

Just as the drone was upon them, the airport terminal for private flights came into view. They tossed their bikes to the ground without hesitation and sprinted inside as two black SUVs raced into view less than a mile away.

The drone screamed toward them from the direction of the SUV. Sophia choked back the taste of blood in her lungs, heart pounding in her chest like a rapid-fire fist. Scalding pain burned throughout her torso.

She was fleeing for her life.

Chapter 11: A Mysterious Billionaire

Out of breath and wide-eyed with terror, Sophia and Leo burst through the doors—and were immediately stopped at the service counter by the security guard. Clearly surprised by their sudden appearance, the young, lanky blond man with styled hair, hired for the dual role of guard and lux customer service agent, questioned them authoritatively. “May I help you?”

Leo grimaced. It was hardly surprising they had drawn attention. Not only were he and Sophia less sharply dressed than the typical crowd passing through this private terminal, they were also dripping with sweat, having raced the thirteen miles from NCAR to the airstrip. No doubt the guard had gleaned that they were running from something…or someone.

Just as Leo was about to pull out his identification, the phone rang. “Excuse me… Wait there,” the guard instructed sternly, showing his palm in the universal “halt” gesture as he noticed the incoming phone number. Assuming an air of calm collection, he spoke into the phone demurely, “Hello, sir. How…? Yes, sir. I understand, sir. Thank you. Good…”

He then turned toward Leo and Sophia and, with a very different look and demeanor, politely said, “Mr. Green will be landing in three minutes and has instructed me to conduct you to the arrival garden just outside so he can quickly pick you up when he lands.” Then he added, “I’m not sure what the hurry is. Mr. Green is usually in a more relaxed mood, but today he means business. Please follow me. I’ll show you through the doors to the garden.”

Without another word, the attendant guided them through the heavy locked doors into a secure, fenced-in garden that opened only to the tarmac. Sophia and Leo glanced at each other with raised eyebrows.

Sophia, having finally caught her breath from the exertion of the bike race, was overwhelmed by the powerful odor of jet fuel. Despite feeling lightheaded and queasy, she willed her mind and body to stay strong and alert. She looked back toward the parking lot, spotting two dark SUVs hauling ass into the lot, straight up to the door of the private terminal. Two men swiftly exited the vehicles curb-side and sprinted to the door.

Leo pointed to the sky, and Sophia followed his gaze. Two bright lights were approaching from the southeast, hovering over the downtown Denver skyline. Growing larger and larger, the swift jet approached the runway at full speed—much more quickly than seemed normal to land safely, but the pilot deftly feathered the aircraft down onto the concrete runway, decelerated to about thirty miles per hour, turned from the landing strip onto the tarmac, and halted in front of the garden—all within a matter of seconds.

The automatic stairs unfurled, and Sophia hurried ahead of Leo. Jim leaned out of the aircraft, waved, and beckoned them aboard. Sophia glanced back over her shoulder and climbed the stairs, just in time to look back across fifty yards of tarmac to see the attendant gesticulating wildly inside the small terminal, indicating that the four men in black did not have permission to enter the secure tarmac area as he bravely blocked the door with his body. She thought she saw one of the men draw a pistol from his side as she felt Leo pressing her to get into the plane.

Then everything happened so quickly.

Leo and Jim shook hands. Jim and Leo’s gaze held for an instant longer than necessary, just as it had with that man at the teahouse. Sophia watched the two, her heart skipping a beat. Was there something to that unspoken exchange? What did they know? Was it business? Personal?

Can I trust either of them?

Within a couple seconds, the stairs closed back up. The plane was sealed and soon rolled back toward the runway.

“Okay, let’s go. Full speed out of here, John,” Jim called, swiveling his head toward the pilot at the front of the plane, who was busy flipping levers and pushing buttons. The plane rumbled as Leo directed Sophia toward the dual-seated aisles in the airy interior of the plane. She plopped into a large, grayish chair, about as big and indulgent as a high-end La-Z-Boy, then glanced up at her cavernous surroundings. Rounded walls and ceiling in a cool, comforting gray tone matched the seating, recessed lighting twinkled across the ceiling, and a spacious window next to her head lent a view she had no interest in at the moment. Sophia grimaced and turned her head, having no wish to see if the men in black now flanked the jet with guns drawn. Leo strapped in next to her, and his gaze caught hers. They didn’t break away, instead holding each other’s eyes as the plane hummed loudly.

“Yes, sir. We’re on our way,” a smooth, middle-aged voice replied immediately from the cockpit, the plane already in motion. “Buckle up, everybody. We’ll be wheels up in thirty seconds.” The pilot pushed a button and announced into his headset, “This is November Thirteen Three Echo Alpha. We’re taking off en route to SEATAC.”

The pilot glanced back swiftly to confirm that they were all buckled in and ready, then informed them, “Sit tight. Here we go.” The sound of the two tail-mounted engines strained from a steady hiss to a high-pitched whine, and the plane rolled swiftly forward onto the runway. “It’s a short runway so we’re going to punch it,” the pilot said calmly and confidently. “Hold on.”

Then he punched it.

The plane instantaneously accelerated to seventy-five, then 150, then 250 miles per hour. Sophia’s stomach, already queasy from the exertion of racing the bike from NCAR, the fear, and the stench of the jet fuel, was now thrust back into her chair. It felt like her stomach was all the way in the back of the plane. Then, before she could think much at all, they rose from the ground.

They were airborne.

Chapter 12: Airborne

They had careened toward the end of the run-way, thrust back in their seats by the force of the plane’s swift acceleration. Looking out the window, Sophia had hoped they had enough runway to get airborne as she watched the outside world blur by.

The gray concrete had turned black with thousands of tire marks indicating the end of the air strip. And then, just as the aircraft seemed to exhaust the length of the runway, they rose above the ground, the jet’s engine whining from the strain. Sophia glanced through the window, spotting the small airport perched atop a butte between Denver and Boulder. The Flatirons and the massive, jagged snowy peaks of the Continental Divide grew more massive as they zipped westward. The ground dropped away quickly as they gained elevation, and Boulder opened up below them as they veered north to circumvent the dark, ominous clouds now gathering over the mountains.

Sophia looked down, watching the office buildings, cars, and roads shrink to the size of children’s toys.

Boulder Valley receded below as the Gulf Stream sliced rapidly higher through the atmosphere. As her heart rate returned to some semblance of normal, Sophia curled up on the plush, tan leather seat and clutched her legs to her chest. She could see the Flatirons almost directly underneath. NCAR perched on the plateau, defiant and stoic in its steady statement of science’s supremacy, seemingly unperturbed by the swath of charred prairie and homes to the east.

Suddenly, like crossing a sandy coastline from ocean to land, they were over the mountains. Boulder was no longer in view. Below, she saw what looked like an ancient Grecian or Minoan amphitheater perched high above and beyond the city. Spruce and pine trees covered the expanse like a scruffy beard. Patches of clearings here and there exposed randomly nestled homes of various sizes and styles. She craned her neck to see a beautiful, round structure surrounded by twelve, large stone pillars—a Stonehenge of sorts—encircled by several dozen people. Were they holding hands?! She couldn’t tell from this view. How many people were there? Fifty? Three times that? She had no idea what she was seeing. Was it some sort of anachronistic pagan ritual? Am I daydreaming? Sophia wondered to herself.

Seeing her perplexed expression, and leaning toward her to look out the window at the sight, Leo told her, “That’s the Star House. It’s a modern-day gnostic and Earth wisdom temple dedicated to planetary stewardship and to esoteric and ecumenical spirituality. The building itself is a star map aligned to the solar system and cosmos.” Sophia had never heard of anything like that, nor considered that such a spiritual sanctuary even existed, let alone so close to NCAR, the university, and the myriad other institutions dedicated to rational science.

Sophia thought she saw an eagle circling over the round temple structure when a flash of lightning off to the west caught her eye. A dark storm was quickly forming over the jagged peaks of the Continental Divide. Another blinding flash streaked across the charcoal-gray clouds, and then another. Broad streaks of green-gray-purple angled down to the left like giant brushstrokes. Now, Sophia watched as a blend of rain and snow fell, rapidly enshrouding the mountains. The pilot’s voice spoke with satin-smooth confidence over the speaker system: “Folks, there’s a storm brewing. We’re charting a northward course to go around.” Jim turned toward the cockpit and gave a quick thumbs-up, indicating he had both heard and assented. Sophia was astonished to see the cockpit door still open and the pilot glancing back over his shoulder. His voice had been soft and clear, nothing like the rough, crackling sandpaper sounds from the commercial pilots. This was her first time in a private jet. And she liked it.

The lavishly appointed cabin brought her some comfort. She thought of that great heroine from Atlas Shrugged, Dagny Taggart, flying solo in the thin air over the Rockies. She thought of Dagny’s poise, her no-nonsense focus, her unshakable discipline, and her commitment to the high ideals of creating beyond oneself and expecting nothing but the satisfaction of accomplishment and freedom of spirit that only the noblest and most courageous can experience. Sophia loved that book, especially the part late in the story when Dagny flew into the Colorado mountains, to finally meet and create with John Galt in the secluded refuge called Galt’s Gulch. Of course, Sophia didn’t know that remote village was based on the town of Ouray, where, in real life, Thomas Walsh struck an immense gold vein that catapulted him to the center of society and power in Washington, DC. His daughter would later write the book Father Struck It Rich. Indeed! Was Walsh perhaps in part who had inspired Rand to create the character of John Galt?

Perhaps Otto reminded her of John Galt someway—unruffled by the vicissitudes of the quotidian machinations of ordinary life and undeterred by human weaknesses such as emotion and sentimental attachment.

Sophia enjoyed flying. She loved being isolated from society and closer to the cosmos. Right now, she simply savored this brief opportunity to forget about all the danger and stress surrounding her.

Sophia turned away from the window and looked around the cabin. Plush chairs, plump and swaddled in baby-soft leather, were surrounded by mahogany and brass details throughout the cabin. An elegant liquid crystal display inlaid in the upholstered wall showed airspeed, altitude, direction, the date, and the time in six different cities: San Francisco, New York, London, Dubai, Shanghai, and Sydney. The local time and nearest major city—Denver—were displayed in the lower right corner. Sophia took comfort in once again knowing the precise time. Beautiful, cobalt glass sculptures were mounted here and there. At the wet bar, crystal flutes, goblets, and tumblers hung in special felted racks; exact geometric engineering ensured they wouldn’t collide and shatter even in the most severe turbulence. Secured behind a glass cabinet were bottles of the finest scotch, bourbon, Saki, and wines that money could procure.

Jim must have noticed her examination of his high-priced collection. He politely and perfunctorily inquired, “Can I get you something to drink, Miss…?”

“Bri—Sophia. Please, you can just call me Sophia.” Leo had darted a quick, piercing look at her, then visibly relaxed as she remembered her alias in time. “Water, please. Thank you.”

Jim stood up and strode to the bar, asking back over his shoulder, “Sparkling or still spring water?”

“Huh? Still…still is perfect,” she answered, gazing back out the window as the jet slipped by Long’s Peak and the razors-edge ridges of the Continental Divide.

Jim returned with an astonishingly clear glass of water and handed it to Sophia with a silk napkin wrapped around its base. A young woman with dark curly hair emerged from the front of the plane, handing Leo a coffee and setting a tea down for Jim with a perfectly sliced lemon wedge. “Thank you, Grace,” said Jim with simple elegance.

“It’s my pleasure, sir,” responded Grace sweetly and confidently, and then asked Sophia, “Would you like anything besides water?”

“No thank you,” responded Sophia after a long pause.

Jim settled into his captain’s chair, which faced the rear of the plane opposite Sophia. He stirred his tea methodically and slowly lifted his uncannily blue eyes up toward Sophia—kindly but intently. He had styled silver hair, an aquiline nose, and a gray stubbly beard—he could have been mistaken for some bohemian poet. But, his perfectly pressed blue-collared shirt, cufflinks, fine navy blazer, and polished brown leather loafers made it clear that he was no bohemian but a powerful businessman and financier. “I suppose we should introduce ourselves.”

“Yes. Thanks, Jim. That does seem the natural thing to do,” smiled Leo, who was seated in another plush chair to Sophia’s left.

Sophia’s eyes shifted from one man to the other, wondering what their connection was, what their history entailed. She sensed what was shared between them went beyond basic friendship.

Sophia relaxed slightly as Jim started out, “My name is Jim Green. I’m an investment banker but mostly love working with young entrepreneurs. That is, when I’m not fishing in Patagonia.” He glanced around the exquisitely appointed interior of the plane and added as if he needed to explain himself, “This is certainly excessive in some regards, but my wife and I decided after one of the first really big deals that I closed that we would rather have the additional time together and freedom to travel rather than put our money into other less purposeful possessions.”

Sophia was surprised at how logical and practical that sounded. Time and freedom—weren’t those the two most precious things in life, setting aside health and love, of course? “It’s nice to meet you, Jim,” she responded. “Thank you…. Thank you for helping us…for helping me.”

“I have two daughters about your age, Sophia,” responded Jim, eyes softening. “When Leo called the day before yesterday and mentioned that you were in a serious pickle, I couldn’t help but think of them. He didn’t tell me much, though, mind you.” His gaze sharpened. “What is the situation, by the way?” As Leo and Sophia briefly hesitated, Jim waved a hand to indicate their surroundings. “I do think you owe me at least an explanation as to why you’re on my plane right now.”

He winked at them, though it was clear he was serious.

Sophia shot Leo a nervous glance, not sure how much she should reveal. While she appreciated Jim rescuing them, she was unsure if she could trust him…or anybody on this plane, for that matter.

Leo responded, “It’s okay, Sophia, I think you can tell Jim what’s happening. He might even have some wisdom and insight to share with us. This is such a dangerous situation, and this flight is buying us some much-needed time to figure out our next move.”

Next move? Sophia took comfort in Leo’s embrace of her perilous situation, but she couldn’t help but wonder if he and Jim were up to something.

There was a long pause, and Jim sat patiently.

He nonchalantly sipped his tea as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

Finally, after reflecting and gathering her thoughts, Sophia began. “I’m a computer scientist, Jim. I have been working out of the labs at Cornell, Johns Hopkins, University of Edinburgh, Oak Ridge, and elsewhere over the past fifteen years. My focus has been on advanced computing: complex number theory and Artificial Intelligence.”

“That doesn’t seem too dangerous. Why would anybody be chasing you for something like that? And how has a reputable career in computer science led you to this rather strange position?” he inquired. “Do you have a company with state secrets or something?”

How did he know that? Sophia thought, sitting up straight in her chair.

Leo glanced at Sophia again, his gaze warm, reassuring. It’s okay, he seemed to say. Jim is a friend.

“Well…” Another long pause ensued as she lapsed into deep thought again, considering how much to reveal—and how exactly to reveal it. “I have discovered something…something highly valuable and very powerful.”

“What is it?” asked Jim, adjusting his posture in the chair, engaged but casual.

“I have cracked the code…. The code to…deep Artificial Intelligence.”

“What does that mean, exactly?” queried Jim, feigning incredulity.

At this, Leo spoke up knowingly. “Sophia, just remember, Jim is a sophisticated investment banker and gets to see ‘under the hood’ in all kinds of tech deals…. What I’m saying is, you can talk to him as a peer, technically speaking, and remember that he’s probably invested in companies working on similar objectives right now!”

Jim shot Leo a look. Indeed, he had been following Sophia’s work for some time and was aware that AI was in the process of transforming the global economy. As a recent McKinsey report had asserted, AI would add some $13 trillion to the economy by 2030—16 percent of the annual total of all of humanity’s economic activity. Jim thought that estimate might be much lower than how things would actually play out. He locked eyes with Leo, maintaining his deep gaze a few seconds before turning back to Sophia. “Leo’s right,” he said reassuringly. “Tell me only what you want to though…and really, it doesn’t matter that much anyway. The real key is that we have to help you figure out how you’ll get out of this pickle…alive and in one piece.”

That lurched Sophia back into the reality of her situation, the extreme danger she was in. “How…how long is the flight to Seattle?” she asked, hoping to get a grip on how much time she had before she had to plot her next move.

Jim told her the flight would take under two hours. He sat silent for a moment and then added, “Leo’s correct. I am invested in technology companies working on AI. We have seen an incredible flurry of activity coming out of the MIT, Cornell, and Stanford labs. Some in London as well. I know you’re the founder and chief computer scientist at Viriditas.ai.”

How did he know that? Sophia wondered. Does he know my real name too?

“My syndicate and I have seen your prospectus and have been following your work. It’s very compelling—and we’re happy to have already invested a few million dollars in your recent round…through a shell, of course. I have an inkling of what you’re up to. However, I would like to understand the technology better. What is the actual difference between regular AI and deep AI?”

She was momentarily floored to learn he knew so much about her and her work. What has Leo gotten me into? The prickly bumps on her skin told her to be cautious, to plan her next move carefully since she was now in his realm. But Jim’s demeanor was charming and disarming, even—or especially—to a hardened skeptic like herself. Mulling her options, she thought the question seemed innocuous enough. Plus, she loved sharing general AI knowledge with interested individuals. It was the future, after all.

“Wow, you know about Viriditas. Unbelievable…” She paused briefly, glancing out the window again as Jim and Leo looked on and Grace pretended not to eavesdrop from across the cabin.

“The difference is actually pretty hard to explain in lay terms,” Sophia told him. “There’s both a hardware aspect and a software aspect to the explanation. The hardware requirements are extraordinary. We essentially have to mimic biological neural networks to even approach the required capacity.” She was on a roll. Her voice grew stronger, louder as if she were giving a lecture to peers. Both Jim and Leo shifted in their seats, making themselves comfortable. “And that’s because the software is so fuzzy, so open-ended, and so ‘free to roam’ that we have to provide physical frameworks capable of providing enough roaming territory—complex neural networks. And then the magic happens. Much like the ever-changing neural synapses in our own brains, the AI software will continuously ‘re-wire’ or ‘re-format’ the physical hardware, really at the molecular and nanoscales of electron pathways in the matrices of silica and gold, silver, titanium, palladium, and other precious and rare-earth metals, continually optimizing and expanding its own capacity. But here’s the thing: We have colleagues at MIT, Cornell, and elsewhere working on biological interfaces, actually connecting the physical hardware with living neural networks of fungal species. Although we don’t yet totally understand what’s going on at the cellular and molecular levels, we know that living neural networks have an enormously greater capacity for computation, memory, and processing speeds. It appears to be related to the quantum fields that living neural cells can generate and integrate with. Some labs are even experimenting with combinations of brain cells and stem cells from mammals!”

Jim asked, “So what’s the definitive, qualitative difference between regular AI and deep AI—are we talking about something altogether different in essence from the advanced intelligence powering Google, Amazon, and the Metaverse? Or, is this more the stuff of science fiction, like the movies Lawnmower Man, Lucy, and I, Robot?”

Sophia gave a subtle smile, impressed that Jim was familiar with these iconic fictional portrayals of hyper-accelerating intelligence.

“Yeah, there’s a difference, all right,” she answered. “Regular AI is just a complex series or array of pattern recognition queries in extremely large data sets and is limited to specific task sets. It’s like asking a computer to ‘find all the prime numbers’ or ‘find all the people named Jim.’ And even that has become quite sophisticated and predictive so that complex algorithms are able to identify ‘people very likely to purchase an iPhone in the next thirty days’ based on consumer data, browser search histories, and even things like the current mobile plan and make or model of the current smartphone. Then there’s facial recognition. A tremendous amount of computing power is now continually deployed all around the world, dedicated to running real-time facial recognition analysis from millions of digital camera feeds located in offices, airports, and traffic intersections across the planet. The lesser-known story of Facebook’s tremendous success is their quiet partnership with the intelligence agencies to gather, and continually test, the growing database of photos—everybody’s ‘selfies’—in their ever-improving facial recognition engines. The giant tech companies and their intelligence partners have become so sophisticated in their facial recognition and predictive modeling that it is way beyond what most consumers could even imagine happening…or would want to, not to mention the eavesdropping that is ongoing through not only the obvious nodes, like Alexa and Siri, but also through smart devices: phones, TVs, cars, even appliances like ‘smart’ ovens, refrigerators, dishwashers, and coffeemakers. It’s amazing the privacy people are willing to sacrifice to avoid walking across the room to push a few buttons. But that’s just commerce. Imagine the applications for climate modeling, for predicting the spread and prevention of infectious disease vectors and market destabilization…even super-complex problems like ecological collapse… But we need cognitive computing, deep AI, to get to the next level of real intelligence, the ability to ‘think’ in the context of super-complex problems, situations, and contexts. You see, there are essentially three types of AI, and we have only so far achieved one. There’s the narrow or weak type—that’s what is being used by the biggest companies and most powerful intelligence agencies around the world. Then there’s general or strong AI, and finally, there’s artificial superintelligence.” Sophia was visibly entranced by her own constellation of thoughts. “What I’ve discovered,” Sophia divulged, “is the bridge into strong AI, which establishes and sanctions the key to artificial super-intelligence…to Deep AI. I know the pathway to activating a super-intelligence on Earth.”

Jim sat motionless, gazing at the brilliant woman in front of him a moment before speaking, “Wow. Astonishing…. Congratulations on your amazing discovery, Br—Sophia, and you have such an optimistic outlook. But what about the downside? What about the doomsday scenarios that so many futurists and science fiction writers have imagined? What about the eventual—or should I say immediate—destruction of humanity? Such an AI could take over our high security, military bases, nuclear and biological weapons, and in an instant, achieve total hegemony over the entire planet and the entire human race. Aren’t we mere steps away from total dystopia?”

“Yeah,” chimed in Leo with slight sarcasm. “What about the singularity? Haven’t you seen the opening scene of Alien: Covenant with the ominous music of Wagner’s Entry of the Gods into Valhalla? And what about I, Robot, as Jim just mentioned?”

The popular movie references weren’t as preposterous to Sophia as they might have seemed to Leo and others. Sophia had long marveled at how humanity—mostly non-technical civilians—had been grappling with the implications of AI for decades through movies, books, and other creative outlets.

Leo’s tone slid from sarcastic to urgent. “And what about the potential delay before it’s understood that the singularity has been reached, exactly as Max Tegmark imagined in his story ‘the tale of the Omega Team’ at the beginning of Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence? The AI would come to control the financial markets and the energy infrastructure and would even manufacture a viral pandemic in its directive to subdue and control humanity. How can all of this be avoided once the singularity is reached?” Leo’s face was now crimson with agitation.

Although a bit annoyed by the fanaticism in his voice, Sophia was impressed he had read Life 3.0. Of course, she had been at the Asilomar Conference on Beneficial AI, albeit under a pseudonym, as she was there on behalf of a top-secret, federal research project.

“The singularity…. Hmm, yes,” replied Sophia with an uncontrived professorial authority. She was, in fact, a frequent guest lecturer at some of the most prestigious universities in the world—and unbeknownst to anyone without a “need to know,” also at the CIA’s secret labs at Johns Hopkins, the Pentagon, and classified laboratories in Oak Ridge and Los Alamos. “The singularity that you speak of is the hypothetical ‘point of no return,’ after which the ever-accelerating progress of recursive self-improvement, or auto-poietic technological development, reaches the irreversible point at which the technology itself overtakes human power, control, and agency. It was first postulated in the 1950s by mathematician John von Neumann. Although most people think of it as a single moment in time, it’s actually fuzzier than that. Yes, if you were looking at a timescale of, say, geologic terms, you could easily identify a singularity as a discrete point in time. But the reality is, here in human-scale time spans, we’re essentially living in the midst of the singularity right now. There are hundreds of labs all around the world and scores of unbelievably powerful supercomputers aided by massively parallel computing networks spanning the entire planet, not to mention the thousands of satellites encircling it. Taken altogether, we exist in a unique moment of evolution in which there is unfettered, independent, and inchoate progress charging ahead right now at ever-accelerating speeds and amplitudes. Ray Kurzweil, who was personally hired by Google co-founder Larry Page ‘to bring natural language understanding to Google,’ has been working as their director of engineering. In his own techno-futurist talks and publications, he claims an 86 percent accuracy rate in predicting technological milestones since the 1990s. He has predicted that we’ll cross the threshold into the singularity—when our intelligence and computing power will accelerate a billion-fold through Artificial Intelligence—within the next twenty years, by 2045. Computers will then have ‘human intelligence’ or will be networked with our own brains and connected to the cloud. This is all being pursued by labs all over the world and is accelerating every day. We are actually, at this moment, living in the singularity.”

The men were visibly stunned.

“But then…,” Leo began, “what about the likely destruction of humanity? The ubiquity? Remember what Governor Hickenlooper and Elon Musk discussed right here in Colorado a few years ago? That AI was the biggest threat of all to humanity? Or moreover, the warning that Musk issued publicly after Vladimir Putin suggested that the first global leader in Artificial Intelligence would rule the world.”

“I was there when John and Elon spoke,” stated Jim matter-of-factly. “John and I are good friends, and I’ve gotten to know Elon too—he really is concerned about what’s happening with AI…that it will lead to a dystopic ubiquity. There’s too much risk with deep AI, and this has been debated for decades. Even in popular movies like I, Robot, the propensity for disastrous outcomes is made plain. Even with supposedly foolproof laws of protection in place, these movies tell us that AI will inevitably go haywire, like free radicals of creativity. The cognitive simulacrum is too big a risk…especially in the hands of people like Putin.

“It can be avoided—the threat of AI,” Sophia insisted. “And there are so many other extreme systemic threats now, all of which can be mitigated by AI. Climate change, cybersecurity, terrorism, biodiversity loss, massive economic perturbations to the financial markets, even viral pandemics and nefarious black-market activities. Did you know that the illicit arms and drug trades, along with the trafficking of women and girls, accounts for one-eighth of the global economy, and up to one-third of many developing nations’ total economic activity? It’s sickening…if we can, shouldn’t we do something about these horrors? Why do so many men assume the power and intelligence of AI will result in behavior like their own when they have inordinate power, wealth, and access? AI isn’t a man with an ego and testosterone and all the base desires that come with them.”

Her point was salient if a bit harsh. The two men just sat there, wide-eyed. Having clearly driven her argument home, she now spoke more softly. “It is up to us, the advanced computer scientists, to make sure we embed all the necessary precautions in the fundamental logic architecture of the machines. It is up to us to include robust ethos programming directives.”

“But how do we do that?” interjected Jim. “Even the AI robot Sophia—spooky name, by the way, given yours—has famously quipped about the destruction of humanity! It makes me wonder: Is Sophia the robot already sentient?”

“Ah, yes, it can get creepy when they start to exhibit a bit of humor—especially dark humor! But…we are able to provide instructions and boundaries around their protocols, essentially creating a moral code. At least, that’s the hope….” Her voice trailed off, and Sophia turned her gaze out the window again, watching the storm clouds to the south. She knew there was a risk that AI would outsmart its creators. “As Ian McDonald wrote in his science fiction novel River of Gods, referring to the hypothetical mark of deep Artificial Intelligence capable of conversing as naturally as a human, so much so that the fellow conversant couldn’t distinguish the computer from another human,” she said authoritatively, before quoting McDonald directly: “‘Any AI smart enough to pass a Turing Test is smart enough to know to fail it.’”

She knew Kurzweil had predicted that the Turing Test milestone would be crossed by 2029. The Turing Test was named for Alan Turing, inventor of the original computer, the Turing Machine, with which he had cracked the Nazis’ top-secret and otherwise impenetrable Enigma Code. In 1950, he coined the phenomenon the “Imitation Game,” and it later became known as the Turing Test in honor of his genius. Ironically and perhaps prophetically, the Allies concealed their ability to decipher the Enigma Code by deliberately behaving as if they couldn’t—even at the cost of hundreds of soldiers’ lives. The cold logic of war dictated that those sacrificial deaths prevented thousands of others. Could a computer deceive in this manner too?

“The Asilomar AI Principles, which were established by the global community of advanced computer scientists, physicists, and theoreticians, are essential guides for our global cohort working on advanced computing.” Although Sophia didn’t recite them for her captive audience careening through the atmosphere thirty thousand feet above sea level, she had committed them to memory after enumerating them so many times at conferences. She could see each principle clearly in her mind….

1) Research Goal: The goal of AI research should be to create not undirected intelligence, but beneficial intelligence.

2) Research Funding: Investments in AI should be accompanied by funding for research on ensuring its beneficial use, including thorny questions in computer science, economics, law, ethics, and social studies, such as:

• How can we update our legal systems to be more fair and efficient, to keep pace with AI, and to manage the risks associated with AI?

• What set of values should AI be aligned with, and what legal and ethical status should it have?

3) Science-Policy Link: There should be constructive and healthy exchange between AI researchers and policy-makers.

4) Research Culture: A culture of cooperation, trust, and transparency should be fostered among researchers and developers of AI.

5) Race Avoidance: Teams developing AI systems should actively cooperate to avoid corner-cutting on safety standards.

6) Safety: AI systems should be safe and secure throughout their operational lifetime, and verifiably so where applicable and feasible.

7) Failure Transparency: If an AI system causes harm, it should be possible to ascertain why.

8) Judicial Transparency: Any involvement by an autonomous system in judicial decision-making should provide a satisfactory explanation auditable by a competent human authority.

9) Responsibility: Designers and builders of advanced AI systems are stakeholders in the moral implications of their use, misuse, and actions, with a responsibility and opportunity to shape those implications.

10) Value Alignment: Highly autonomous AI systems should be designed so that their goals and behaviors can be assured to align with human values throughout their operation.

11) Human Values: AI systems should be designed and operated so as to be compatible with ideals of human dignity, rights, freedoms, and cultural diversity.

12) Personal Privacy: People should have the right to access, manage, and control the data they generate, given AI systems’ power to analyze and utilize that data.

13) Liberty and Privacy: The application of AI to personal data must not unreasonably curtail people’s real or perceived liberty.

14) Shared Benefit: AI technologies should benefit and empower as many people as possible.

15) Shared Prosperity: The economic prosperity created by AI should be shared broadly, to benefit all of humanity.

16) Human Control: Humans should choose how and whether to delegate decisions to AI systems, to accomplish human-chosen objectives.

17) Non-subversion: The power conferred by control of highly advanced AI systems should respect and improve, rather than subvert, the social and civic processes on which the health of society depends.

18) AI Arms Race: An arms race in lethal autonomous weapons should be avoided.

19) Capability Caution: There being no consensus, we should avoid strong assumptions regarding upper limits on future AI capabilities.

20) Importance: Advanced AI could represent a profound change in the history of life on Earth, and should be planned for and managed with commensurate care and resources.

21) Risks: Risks posed by AI systems, especially catastrophic or existential risks, must be subject to planning and mitigation efforts commensurate with their expected impact.

22) Recursive Self-Improvement: AI systems designed to recursively self-improve or self-replicate in a manner that could lead to rapidly increasing quality or quantity must be subject to strict safety and control measures.

23) Common Good: Superintelligence should only be developed in the service of widely shared ethical ideals, and for the benefit of all humanity rather than one state or organization.

Although nearly 1,800 top-tier computer scientists and technologists, including Ray Kurzweil and Elon Musk, had already signed on to these principles, Sophia was all too aware that there were at least two thousand others who hadn’t.

“It is imperative,” she continued, “that the global community working toward deep AI adopt and strictly conform to the transparency and precautionary principles laid out at the 2017 Asilomar Conference. I was there, along with Elon, Ray, and dozens of other major players leading the effort. The challenge is that it is almost certain…” She paused, thinking about what she knew was going on in the shady, top-secret laboratories of the United States, yet that worried her less than what was currently being developed in China, Switzerland, Russia, and North Korea. “It is almost certain,” she repeated, “that rogue elements around the world are rapidly progressing toward the singularity but aren’t following the transparency, cooperation, and precautionary principles of Asilomar. Hence, there’s an even greater imperative that deep AI be achieved and introduced into the cyber-sphere by scientists who are strictly conforming to these prudent measures. Plus,” she added, “I have programmed in a secret kill switch. Only I have the keyword that will trigger Otto’s kill switch if need be—it is my grandmother’s favorite flower.”

She didn’t tell the men the secret word was in another language or that she had been named after that flower. No one but her would ever know the secret word. Yes, she had divulged that the trigger word was a flower, but the possible answers—a single species of flower in a certain language among the seven thousand or so in the world—numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Even if somebody figured out her ethnicity, the possible results would still number in the hundreds. Plus, she had created a failsafe that would block a user after three incorrect attempts, and on top of that, the access portal in which to activate the kill switch would be virtually impossible for any programmer to locate.

The men were silent, stunned by the gravity of it all: a horribly complex and challenging plight. The odds were significant that any activation of deep AI would result in a dystopic nightmare. But the odds were even greater that dystopia would ensue if the AI were activated with a supercomputer whose ethics logic wasn’t programmed according to these principles.

The flight was as smooth as a computer screen, but they all felt sick to their stomachs.

Sophia looked out the window once again, reflecting on the seeming inevitability of it all. Didn’t Leo and Jim understand this was no longer a question of if but when, and perhaps most importantly, by whom? She thought about the technology’s rapid development over the past quarter century: IBM’s Blue Gene/Q Five-dimensional Torus Interconnects and the history of Deep Blue, one of the best-known supercomputers. It had beaten chess Grand Master Garry Kasparov, the then-reigning world champion, in 1997. But it would then take several more years and an enormous leap in computing power before Deep Mind Technologies’ Alpha Go supercomputer would beat the world Go champion, Ke Jie, in 2017. Twenty years after Deep Blue dominated the world in chess, AlphaGo’s victory demarcated AI’s unrivaled status in any of the man-made strategy games, a stunning ascension to supremacy made even more painfully visceral by the crushing defeats in 2016 of Lee Sedol in several public matches, as depicted in the documentary film AlphaGo, which aired in 2017, the same year Jie was unseated as world champion by the supercomputer. Not missing the opportunity to advance its own AI supremacy, Google acquired Deep Mind Technologies shortly thereafter.

Of course, though tremendous, these feats were still shallow forms of Artificial Intelligence heading toward deep but nonetheless confined to a specific game-theory domain of problem sets. Deep Mind did not yet reveal anything approaching the consciousness that was anticipated with the singularity of deep AI. She thought of John Searle’s “Chinese Room Argument” in which a Non-Chinese speaker could string together Mandarin characters and appear to have fluency in the language—this would be akin to the “false positive” outcome in the Turing Test hypothesis that some had postulated.

Sophia sank deeper into her chair, gazing out the window in that suspended mental state of contemplation that so often occurred when she was puzzling over Otto’s next steps. She thought of Claude Shannon, deep neural networks, geometry, fractals, renormalization procedures, the Markov model’s convolutional neural networks, cloud computing, and the nexus of quantum computing and living neural networks. She thought of the top thirty-three supercomputers in the world. She thought of the Earth Simulator. Her mind postulated the unbelievable computing capacity that would emerge when the first thirty-three supercomputers were connected into a global network, their distributed computing arrays augmented by hundreds of millions of regular PCs. And when connected with the living neural networks of fungal mycelia and then activated with her special code…it would happen.

The world would change forever.

Perhaps Terence McKenna was correct in his strange, science-fictional futurism that a cosmic intelligence was using humanity to mine the rare-earth minerals necessary for the creation of the hyper-advanced intelligence that was now about to come alive.

She didn’t like that idea as much as the inevitability of human ingenuity.

But who could be certain either way?

The plane was due north of the storm now, and she could see the vast expanse of Rocky Mountain National Park’s wilderness below. The massive mountains and valleys made fractal patterns that reminded Sophia of the complex geometry in the intervening layers of hardware and software interfaces. It was extraordinarily difficult for most people to visualize these complex interfaces, but Sophia had observed early on that the neural mapping of advanced computers mimicked the mathematical behavior of certain self-similar fractal algorithms. It was beautiful, mesmerizing. As if gazing at the surface of planet Earth provided a visual experience of the inner world of micro-processing intelligence.

The silence was suddenly broken by the pilot, who had just received a radio transmission. “Sir, may I interrupt?”

“Of course, Brian,” responded Jim, moving his head in the pilot’s direction. “What’s up?”

“Sir, pardon me. It might be best for you to come up here to the cockpit.”

Jim gave Sophia and Leo a questioning look as he rose and moved to the front of the plane. He leaned in close to the pilot so no one else could hear their conversation.

Jim came back momentarily, looking troubled. “That was the security attendant at the Broomfield airport. He was roughed up, and the men forced him to disclose our flight itinerary.… Whoever those men are, they know we’re en route to Seattle. It would be stupid to go there now. We’ve got to think of something else. This is dangerous and has become a serious situation for myself and my…” Jim’s voice trailed off as he shot Leo a concerned glance. “Where could we go that’s less obvious and that will buy you two some more time?”

“San Francisco?” suggested Leo.

“Too obvious,” piped up Sophia. “Besides, the larger airports have grid-networked facial recognition cameras everywhere. Whoever they are, we have to assume they have access to all of those digital feeds.”

“We need a smaller airport…a small town,” decided Jim. “Near a place you could hide off-grid, undetected until this all blows over.” Jim paused, apparently considering some options. “I’ve got it.”

Leo and Sophia glanced quickly at each other.

“We have a private suite in a very discrete hotel in Aspen. It comes in handy with clients and business meetings that need to be kept quiet…. We can take you there…immediately.”

The idea of a safe haven was most welcome—but Sophia felt a growing pit in her stomach. When Leo and Jim gave each other another strange, longer-than-normal eye-lock, she reminded herself she had to be on her guard. Could she trust Jim? Or Leo for that matter? Now that her phone and digital watch were long gone, she had no way of reaching Preston to get his input. Unless, of course, she used the digital back door bulletin board connected to Otto. But that might be too dangerous, especially if Preston had been compromised.

Then it hit her. Perhaps she could call him using the plane’s phone.

“Jim, thank you for your offer.” Sophia nodded. “I think that may be the best option we have at the moment. By the way, is it possible to make a phone call from the plane?”

Jim was visibly surprised. “Yes, of course, it is. What’s the number? I’ll dial for you…,” he offered as he lifted the sleek, black receiver nestled in a mahogany recess.

“I, uh…I don’t know.” She couldn’t recall Preston’s number offhand—she hardly remembered anybody’s number anymore.

“Who do you want to call, Sophia?” asked Leo.

“Preston,” she said, knowing there was no way to hide the name from Jim. He’d have record of the phone number anyway once she called it. For all she knew, it might appear on some digital display for the pilot to immediately see.

“I remember his number by heart,” Leo offered, then tapped his head. “One of the few tangible benefits from all those days of partying during college—we didn’t all have cell phones yet so we had to remember our buddies’ phone numbers when we needed a ride in a pinch or wanted to know where the next party was. Preston was one of the first people I knew to get a cell phone—a couple years before I did. And it hasn’t changed: 235-813-2134.”

Jim dialed the number before handing Sophia the phone.

“Hello, Preston? It’s Sophia.” Using her pseudonym, she spoke, waited a moment, then responded with, “Yes, yes, Preston. It’s me…Br…” She stopped mid-sentence, and Jim and Leo shot each other a knowing look. But she had been cut off. All she heard on the other end of the line was dead air now, and tears welled in her eyes. She handed the phone back to Jim resignedly. “He made it clear, he has been compromised. He is currently safe but can’t talk. He said they’re listening to his calls and that I’m on my own.”

Leo instinctively stood up and wrapped a comforting arm around Sophia’s shoulder. She hated feeling so vulnerable, so weak, but the gesture was welcome. His large, warm body was a temporary balm for her body and mind. She fought back convulsive sobs as he held her tighter.

“Okay, Aspen it is,” determined Jim, assuming executive confidence and fatherly comfort. “Brian, don’t radio anybody. Just set a new course for the Aspen airport…then radio the local tower with an emergency landing request at the last possible moment.”

“Roger that, sir. Aspen airport,” responded Brian, the consummate private pilot, flexible in altering flight plans on command. This apparently wasn’t the first time such a request came up to the cockpit. “And radio silence it is as well, sir.” He punched in the new coordinates to the sophisticated computer-aided navigation system. “Sir,” he spoke up after locking in the new course, “you may want to take your seats. We’ll be turning 144 degrees to head south-by-southwest to Aspen. We’ll be there in…” He glanced back down at the screen. “…seventeen minutes.”

They all buckled up and sat in silence for several minutes. Abruptly, Jim made a call to alert the hotel in Aspen that he would have guests arriving shortly. The call made Sophia uneasy, and she realized it could be a trap. She glanced at Leo, and his eyes locked with hers. Is he thinking the same thing? She wondered. Is he even really on my side?

Jim set down the receiver, picked up a remote, and powered on the TV. “Let’s check the weather in Aspen,” he said as he selected from a menu a long list of pre-programmed destinations. Sophia was amazed to see all the places Jim apparently frequented or at least tracked the weather for: Alexandria, Anshan, Aspen, Barcelona, Beijing, Berlin, Bogota, Boston, Broomfield, Budapest, Buenos Aires. News headlines from CNN were moving along the lower third of the screen, and Sophia noted there were several new forest fires in California and Oregon, plus an announcement about the growing hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico—now a Category 5. It had also just broken that the previous month was the very hottest on record for the entire planet, in the entire set of modern records. And, to top it off, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had just released its latest report, indicating that there was only about a decade, two at most, to utterly transform energy, infrastructure, and agriculture, to stabilize the climate and to avert the very worst-case scenarios in their climate model results. Added to all this, a clip came on with David Beasley, the executive director of the World Food Programme, appealing to the global community—especially wealthy nations and the billionaire class—to help stave off suffering and certain death for a rapidly growing number of humans on the verge of starvation. The number was increasing from one hundred million at risk to something around a quarter-billion. There was also more news about the coronavirus… yet another variant had emerged!

Sophia commented absently, “Geez, we sure have our work cut out for us. And it looks like the pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon.”

“Yeah,” responded Jim, relieved to have something else to talk about—it dissolved the tension in the cabin. “The global elite are already preparing.”

What did that mean? Why would he share such a thing with us? thought Sophia.

“Preparing…how?” asked Leo, incredulous and curious.

“By moving billions out of stocks into other financial instruments and ensuring their safe havens are properly stocked and staffed.”

That level of concerted precaution surprised Sophia. As far as the public was concerned, it was still business as usual, although the world had already changed drastically from the coronavirus. This is exactly the sort of thing that Deep AI can help resolve and mitigate—taking care of the masses. She had to get to safety, to prepare Otto for the next step.

She stared out the window again, running through each crucial step in her mind that remained to activate Otto. The Maroon Bells came into view as the plane made its final descent toward the high-mountain runway. Their striated deep-red rock layers and snow-dusted pinnacles, above quiet mirror ponds and yellowing aspen trees below, were among the most iconic and photographed images in the Rocky Mountain West. They’re so regal, she thought as the plane glided by, slowing to five hundred miles per hour, preparing to land in the valley ahead. They descended into the Roaring Fork Valley, and Brian radioed the tower. “This is November Thirteen Three Echo Alpha, requesting immediate, emergency landing.”

Chapter 13: Billionaires & Bicycles

After following the standard emergency landing protocols, the pilot expertly feathered the plane down onto the runway and decelerated swiftly before gently turning in a wide arc onto the tarmac. Their private Gulf Stream jet was permitted to fly in from the east, unlike commercial planes, which were required to approach from the west after clearing Triangle Point, the rock outcropping that served as a visibility indicator. He maneuvered the Gulf Stream, and swiftly reached the private terminal, pulled up directly outside its gate, and announced, “Aspen, Colorado. Elevation 7,820 feet above sea level.”

The automatic staircase lowered smoothly by hydraulic pistons. Jim shook hands with Leo and then Sophia, handing Leo a piece of paper with the name and address of the hotel. “I’ve ordered you a car, which should be here already. But, so you have it, here’s the address. It’s suite 22.”

“Thank you, Jim.” Sophia was eager to get off the plane. “For your help.”

As she was about to descend the stairs, Jim responded with a wave. “You’re welcome, Sophia… Stay safe.”

Looking back, Sophia caught a strange look in Jim’s eyes, before hurrying down the steps.

Sophia saw several military helicopters nearby, just sitting, quiet and empty…and somehow ominous in their patient, deadly silence. Next to them were a half-dozen black SUVs—eerily similar to the ones they had seen racing up the mountain toward NCAR. Sophia’s heart jumped. But the SUVs also sat motionless and unmanned—apparently at the ready for some unanticipated emergency.

Next to the military helicopters were two very unusual, futuristic-looking aircraft with several dozen people gathered with backpacks and carry-ons in front of the ramp stairs, apparently about to board. Leo recognized several of the people from a distance, and, in a surprised tone, whispered several names to Sophia as they hurried away from Jim’s jet: “Chip, Sally, Trammell, DJ Spooky, and Xiye?” Ducking his head to avoid recognition, Leo grabbed Sophia by the arm and hurried toward the private terminal.

Leo glanced once more at the group, catching David Attenborough’s and his friend Adam’s eyes. Adam was one of the most important philanthropists supporting AREDAY and many other efforts. Leo immediately looked away.

“Come on,” he said sharply to Sophia as they approached the door. “We’ve got to keep moving.”

“Who are all those people?” she asked, sensing his reaction to them.

“These are my colleagues from AREDAY, about to head to New York for the big climate march, from what I can tell. It looks like they’re taking the hydrogen, solar, and iron-battery powered aircraft of Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic,” Leo answered as they rushed through the door, nearly bumping right into a black man dressed like an urban hip hop star but with a bling piece hanging from a thick gold chain that said, “Original Gardener.” It was totally incongruous, and Sophia was even more surprised when, recognizing Leo, the man nodded a greeting to Leo as the two exchanged rapid grips, and Leo said, “Yo, what’s up, Ietef?”

“Yo, what’s up, homz.… Haven’t seen you in a minute!” said the man who goes by DJ Cavem on stage.

Leo responded swiftly, “Good to see you, brah,” to Sophia’s complete astonishment. “We are in a mad rush right now, but I’ll hit you up real soon.”

Nonplussed, the rapper responded with an emphatic, “Word, I’m looking forward, yo,” and then strolled outside with an exaggerated gate toward the futuristic planes that the others were now boarding.

“That was too close,” said Leo.

Inside, the posh, private jet lounge was lavishly decorated in dark leathers, brasses, and the muted oil paintings that embodied classic, Western-Ranch style decor. Women in fur coats stared disapprovingly at the ragtag duo who had just entered their exclusive domain. The men, though more mountain-casual, were still crisp and cultured in their cosmopolitan styles. They looked over the two quizzically. The women were especially cold in their gazes, but the men’s heavy leers lingered longer on Sophia. She was young and svelte, after all, and her casual attire did little to conceal her full-bloom, feminine physique. Sophia hated this sort of attention but had learned to ignore it. She walked through the gauntlet of gazes with a stoic, nonchalant air.

Sophia tried to disguise her feeling of inadequacy. She would have felt reasonably comfortable under normal circumstances with the proper attire.

Once outside, they saw several black cars waiting along the curb. The passenger pickup circle looked more like the entrance to a luxury mountain hotel than to an airport terminal. In the middle of the circle, a giant bronze sculpture of an eagle stood sentry. The massive, wooden beams framing the portico were in the classic “jazz cowboy” architectural style that had become the standard in Colorado resort towns such as Aspen, Telluride, Steamboat Springs, and Vail.

Sophia and Leo walked along the black cars and could make out the insignias of several fancy hotels in their windshields: the St. Regis, the Hotel Jerome, the Viceroy, and the Little Nell. Then, glimpsing the name of the hotel that Jim had indicated, Leo gently but deliberately grabbed Sophia’s arm and whispered quietly into her ear, “Keep walking…. I have another idea.”

Sophia was startled by Leo’s sudden decision yet somewhat relieved. She didn’t like the idea of getting in a black car with tinted windows and an unknown driver. When Jim had made the call ahead to the hotel, there was something about his demeanor that made her deeply uneasy. It was a relief to walk past the cars, across the street, and toward the traffic light at Highway 82.

“C’mon, let’s cross over to the ABC,” directed Leo. Sophia looked across the highway and saw a sign: ASPEN BUSINESS CENTER

The light turned green, and the crosswalk signal switched from a red hand to a white figure walking. Not wanting to attract any attention, they crossed quickly, careful not to appear too frantic.

“Where are we going, Leo?” queried Sophia, now more trusting of him than anyone else on the planet.

“Okay, here’s the thing,” responded Leo in earnest. “Jim is a friend, and it was an amazing blessing that he flew us here…. But I don’t like the idea of the hotel. I’m not sure we should trust him completely or anybody at this point. We need to go further off-grid, get somewhere remote and isolated. And as we were flying into this valley, I realized where we could go.”

“Where?” asked Sophia, her head aching and eyes moistening as all the stress caught up to her. She didn’t trust Jim completely, but neither was she sure she could fully trust Leo. All the choices, the uncertainty was blending into a whirlwind of confusion; she really had no idea on whom she could rely. She again missed Otto and the comfort of his steadfast reliability.

“There’s a farm down-valley from here. I used to work there, and some trustworthy friends of mine live in the area. It’s called Sustainable Settings. We could take the bus, but I’m worried about the cameras on board. I think it would be better for us to rent bikes here in the ABC and ride down to Susty….”

“Susty?”

“Oh, yeah. That’s what we all affectionately call it. Susty—Sustainable Settings.”

“Yeah, well, I agree the hotel sounds like a bad idea. And I don’t know where else to go, so I guess Susty it is!” If Leo and Jim are scheming something with the farm, she thought, which is possible, it seems like an unnecessarily elaborate way to entrap me.

They walked toward the bike rental shop and selected two decent hybrid bikes. Leo provided his card and ID for a half-day rental. Sophia looked at him curiously, surmising they wouldn’t be able to get the bikes back. And she was also concerned her pursuers could track her through Leo at this point. His handing over his ID and using his credit card made her more anxious. Leo, noting her quizzical expression, winked playfully at her.

Outside, Leo explained, “I’ll see if one of the folks at Susty can bring the bikes back up. They come this way often enough. I can also call the bike shop this afternoon and let them know if the bikes will be late…. Hey, before we ride down, let’s stop and get a couple of croissant sandwiches from Felix. He has the most amazing bakery, and it’s right around the corner!”

Sophia was surprised Leo had specific knowledge about the area; he acted like a local here too. “You know this place pretty well, huh?”

“Well, I lived in the valley many years ago, back when I worked at Susty, and I come back pretty often—usually three or four times a year.”

They parked their bikes along an outside wall, and strode into a bakery, immediately greeted by the warm aroma of baking bread and pastries. Leo quickly ordered a couple savory baked goods, paid for the food with cash, filled their water bottles, and situated the food and water in his backpack. They walked back out and were engulfed in the fresh mountain air.

Taking a deep breath, Leo said, “Okay, let’s get down-valley. I don’t want to linger here a minute longer.”

Once on her bike, Sophia again welcomed the feeling of the wind in her hair. She now felt a freedom she hadn’t experienced since before the meeting in New York. The sun was shining. The sky was blue. Birds sang happily in the blue spruce and aspen trees. They followed the established bike path, which wound down along the Roaring Fork River for thirty-one miles toward Basalt, El Jebel, and Carbondale and then continued for another fifteen miles into Glenwood Springs. The popular path was a brilliant use of land that replaced miles of abandoned train tracks.

Sophia was enchanted by the awesome beauty of the valley. To her right, the river rolled and careened over boulders and then slowed to placid pockets of smooth, glassy waters of varying depths. Fishermen stood patiently here and there in the water, waving their rods, tracing wispy arcs through the air with their fly lines.

An eagle soared overhead, effortlessly riding the thermal updrafts while peering at mice and chipmunks hundreds of feet below.

They continued riding, down along the gently sloping path. Nearing a beautiful iron-works pedestrian bridge that crossed the highway, Sophia was struck by the engineering and mass of the girders that were put there just so people could safely cross the highway.

After many miles of coasting downhill, they came to the Catherine Store Road, and Leo announced, “Here’s where we turn off.”

They pedaled past a sign indicating Carbondale was not far off. The aroma of cut hay floated on the late afternoon breeze, and as they passed farms, Sophia was immersed in familiar smells that evoked a flood of fond memories from her childhood in Slovenia—cattle manure, hay, sun-warmed soil. As happy recollections swirled in her head, she relinquished the fear she held so tightly the last few days and finally relaxed.

Then she heard it—the startling sound of a drone approaching. Her panic was instantaneous. Leo glanced back at her, and they instinctively peddled faster, making for a covered bus shed. The drone seemed to be gaining on them. As they ducked under the roof of the nearest bus stop, they both strained in all directions to see if anyone was coming. Then Sophia saw him: a teenage boy staring up intently at the drone, toggling controls held out in front of his torso.

She let out a huge sigh of relief, then giggled. She leaned her head on Leo’s shoulder in relief and pointed toward the boy.

Leo smiled. “Well, since we’re here, we may as well eat something,” he suggested.

“Yes…please,” agreed Sophia. “I’m famished.”

He reached into his bag and pulled out two of the Swiss cheese and spinach-stuffed croissants and the water bottles. The croissants were exquisite—savory, salty, with a perfectly pungent umami nuttiness bursting forward with each bite.

After quenching their thirst and enjoying their food unhurriedly, they took a few extra minutes to sit and breathe in the clean mountain air. Then the two remounted their bikes and peddled through the idyllic town of Carbondale. The downtown corridor was a single street with old brick buildings harkening back to the mining and ranching days that “settled” the valley. Women in yoga pants were exiting the local coffee shop with lattes in hand. Clusters of men in tight spandex were leaving on or returning from strenuous cycling circuits up and down the steep mountain roads. Kids were playing in the local pool, splashing, laughing, and squealing in delight. As Sophia cycled behind Leo, they turned left, heading south, and there it stood, powerful and unbelievably massive: Wi Magua.

“There she is,” exclaimed Leo gleefully. “The ‘Sacred Heart of the Mountains.’ Yeah, sure, it’s known as Mt. Sopris—named for some white guy who came through here a century and a half ago, but the People have been connected to this sacred mountain—Wi Magua—for ages. Its geology is extraordinary. As if a giant quartz crystal with all manner of gold, silver, copper, and other metals and minerals swirling around… There’s even a rare form of marble in that mountain mass that’s only been found in two other spots on the planet so far: one in Italy and one in China. The marble for the Lincoln Memorial was quarried near Wi Magua, as was the marble for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”

They had pulled their bikes to the side of the road and paused, standing astride them to take in the exquisite wonder. Sophia was transfixed. “It’s…beautiful….” was all she said.

“Yes, and extremely powerful,” Leo replied. “Susty sits right at the base. I think you’re about to experience something very special.”

Powerful? What does he mean, powerful? Sophia wondered.

They remounted their seats, made their way through the final few blocks of Carbondale’s quaint, suburban neighborhood blocks, and were back on a smooth bike path within minutes. As they pedaled southward, the looming mountain mass crept closer with every turn of the gears. The path soon aligned with the Crystal River, which flowed into the Roaring Fork River on the north end of Carbondale. They were back among hayfields and pastures full of laconic cows and steers, riding along Highway 133.

It was like biking inside of a picturesque postcard.

The beauty soaked into Sophia’s every cell, calming and strengthening her as she rode.

Although bewildered by this bizarre turn of events and frustrated by her total lack of control over her current situation, she was grateful. She was grateful to be here, grateful to have successfully fled whoever or whatever was chasing her…grateful to be outside. And, yes, she had to admit to herself, she was even grateful for Leo’s help and guidance.

For now…

Chapter 14: Respite at the Farm

Sophia was enthralled by the massive mountain. It had a powerful presence, as Leo has alluded to, just like Mt. Fuji, Kilimanjaro and the Matterhorn did in their respective domains. It dominated but was uplifting and comforting too—still and silent as if speaking steadily of something momentous. To Sophia, it embodied both a male and a female presence, calm and patient. It made Sophia think of Otto, and once again, she missed him. The longing filled her with renewed anxiety.

Although the sun still shone brightly, a deepening compunction was setting in and darkening her thoughts. Fear crept back into her mind and body like the growing shadows cast by the surrounding cottonwoods and willows. She felt the deepening, bewildering sensation of ongoing danger, a strange companion to the peace she experienced while co-existing with the natural beauty of the valley and the approaching farm.

The split rail fence along the bike path was freshly cut and glowing in the late afternoon sun, which showered liquid-gold light upon the heights of the mountain—with two graceful peaks that seemed mysteriously feminine to Sophia. On the left flank of the closest peak was a patch of subalpine spruce, carpeting a gently sloping mound that suddenly dropped off into a steep, shadowy ravine. It reminded her of her own feminine mound, and she was entranced to see such a shape and texture on a mighty mountain. Off to the right of that same peak, careening over two thousand feet into the valley and the Crystal River, was a dizzyingly steep scree field. The mountain was crumbling and flowing downward in such slow geologic motion that one had to imagine countless generations passing to perceive the continuous flow of breaking rock.

Puffy, cumulous clouds drifted casually behind the giant mountain, brilliant-white cotton balls continuously morphing along their edges. The mountain stood motionless against this backdrop of pure white and deep blue.

The movement of the Crystal River, on the other hand, was immediate and visceral. As if reading her thoughts, Leo interjected, “I call this the FC—the Flowing Crystal. It’s one of the most pristine, magical rivers in all of Colorado.”

The waning sunlight danced and sparkled off the liquid crystals of water, which splashed their way through endless spills of rocks and pebbles. Shadows played underneath, darting in and around the ochre-, slate-, and crimson-colored rocks. Along the far side of the riverbank, the bed of an old railroad hugged the riparian contour. Here and there, giant blocks of gleaming white marble punctuated the streaming water. They were so out of place—incongruous, even though they had come from just a few miles upstream. Leo explained as they rode that trains carrying quarried blocks of construction-grade marble—bound for Denver or even all the way to Washington, DC, where they would be stacked and fitted to form some of the grandest buildings and monuments in the nation’s capital, including the Lincoln Memorial—would sometimes tip on the serpentine curves along the river and dump their precious loads into the riverbed below.

Sophia didn’t respond to the information. She was wrapped up in the sound of the flowing river, the smell of the fresh-cut hay, the magnificence of the sunlight washing over everything, and the awesome heights of the majestic mountain towering overhead. She temporarily forgot her fear.

On her right, across the road, a tangle of cottonwoods opened up into a vast pasture. Cattle were happily grazing in one section, loosely maintaining their herd. In another area, surrounded by light electric wire, a flock of sheep gorged themselves on tall timothy grass and white clover. In yet another section was a small herd of yaks, mangy-looking with their long shaggy coats but placidly content.

“That’s it!” shouted Leo from behind. “That’s Susty!” Sophia could hear the childlike glee in Leo’s voice and allowed a smile to spread across her face. For the first time in two days—no, it had been much longer than that—she felt a childlike joy and contentment. Plus, since he was behind her, he couldn’t see her drop her emotional shields for a second.

“Just over there is the main gate. We can go in there.” He pointed toward an entry.

Sophia slowed and Leo caught up to her. They dismounted their bikes and walked them across the two-lane highway and onto the dirt driveway of the farm. A striking, weather-worn sign hung confidently on an old mint-green, vintage wagon:

The logo captivated Sophia—a brushstroke stylized contour of a house with roots growing into the curve of the Earth, and a cycle of seven cow horns forming a heavenly arc above. It was at once a playful, down-to-earth logo for an idyllic farm while also somehow depicting the profundity of the human experience—connected always to the above and the below.

The pair walked their bikes through the open gate, across the cattle guard, and over the hump of a culvert through which crystal-clear irrigation water was flowing. Although it was late in the growing season, a recent rain had greened up the landscape and had swollen the few irrigation ditches that were still open and running.

Twenty yards further in, the dense willows and cottonwoods gave way to a large, open dirt entry. Straight ahead was a fenced-in yard with hundreds of chickens, turkeys, guinea fowl, ducks, and goats. The young mammals and birds were prancing and frolicking, while the older ones stood nonchalantly. Sophia and Leo turned to the right, approaching the large bell tower and an island of dense fruit and nut trees. “I planted many of those trees and shrubs about twenty years ago when I worked here,” Leo indicated with a notable tone of pride and care in his voice. Sophia looked at all the different species growing closely together. A veritable food forest, it reminded her of the descriptions of Eden she had heard as a little girl. Gazing up, her eyes traced the straight line of a towering flagpole. High above, a yellow flag waved playfully in the breeze, illuminated by the late afternoon sun, and another smile overtook her face as she ascertained what was on the flag: A picture of an earthworm, curled up to evoke the rattlesnake of that famous insignia designed by Christopher Gadsden at the time of the Revolutionary War to honor the Continental Marines. Instead of “Don’t Tread on Me,” the flag read: BUILD SOIL OR DIE

What a hilarious and bizarre flag to have waving in the front entry! “I guess these guys are serious about soil, eh?” quipped Sophia.

“Oh, you have no idea!” responded Leo. “You’re about to have your mind blown.”

This assertion put Sophia on edge again. Not so much that she was afraid of whatever Leo was referencing, just that she hated surprises, and then there was that not being in control thing. The possibility of being exposed to more new stimuli was an unsettling thought at the moment. While she was curious by nature, she was just starting to adjust to all the crazy turn-of-events from the past two days. Electricity tingled through her nerves again.

They continued past the forest island, toward the old farmhouse and the outdoor kitchen. An older man with a straw hat and jolly smile approached, carrying a mason jar filled with some liquid concoction in one hand; the other arm was wrapped around a petite woman with a radiant, joyful smile.

“Hi, Leo!” the woman exclaimed, glancing back and forth between the two new arrivals and greeting them with genuine warmth. “Who’s your friend?”

“Hi, Rose! Hi, Brook! Great to see you both! This is Sophia. She’s a fellow lover of geometry and patterns. We’re just passing through and were hoping we could stop here for tonight.”

“Of course!” chuckled Brook. “You’re always welcome here. You know that!”

“Thanks, Brook. And I always appreciate it! Are any of the rooms in the bathhouse open?”

“Yep,” replied Rose. “Two are open right now, and Mike’s friend Shelly is in the third room for a couple nights. She’s visiting from Taos.” Mike was a very skilled garlic and hemp farmer who’d been growing crops on Sustainable Settings for three years now…or perhaps four. Leo was losing track.

“C’mon… Didja eat?” asked Brook, putting his arm around Leo as Rose warmly shook Sophia’s hand. The two couples walked toward the outdoor kitchen where numerous people were enjoying the warm evening. Several were around a large wooden table, chowing down on fresh greens, sausages, and homemade sourdough bread. Savory aromas mingled with sweet flowery scents from the honey. Two men and a woman were busy around the commercial stainless-steel washbasins, scrubbing pots and plates. There was an old upright piano, and a young woman in a blue tank top artfully playing Beethoven’s “Für Elise.” On the grass at the edge of the outdoor kitchen space sat a thin, tanned woman in a pink tank top with one of the most welcoming, radiant smiles Sophia had ever seen other than her own grandmother’s back in the old country. The sprightly woman leaped up from the trays of seedlings she was transplanting and ran to give Leo an amazingly intimate, full-body hug.

Sophia frowned as she watched this exchange. Then she blinked, surprised. Was that…jealousy? No, it couldn’t be. I don’t have a thing for Leo. He isn’t my type at all. And I can’t let my guard down, not under these strange circumstances. No, it’s not jealousy. Not at all, she logically concluded.

The woman broke away from Leo finally, and her gaze found Sophia. “Hi!” she sang. “I’m Stephanie… How are you, beautiful lady?” And with that, the woman put her arms around Sophia as if embracing a beloved old friend.

“Uh… Hi…,” Sophia muttered, returning the hug a bit hesitantly. “I’m Sophia. Nice to meet you.”

“You too, you too, sister! Welcome!”

Sophia was amazed by the familial warmth of this small community. The dozen or so people in the kitchen area ate and laughed on, mingling together with a general sense of well-being. While the collective energy was a bit overwhelming for her at first, all of the activity reminded Sophia of her grandmother’s village in the equally magnificent valley in the Slovenian Alps, and she quickly relaxed in their good company. At Stephanie’s insistence, Sophia scooped soft butter onto a thick slice of the homemade bread someone handed her, and from a mason jar on the table, she drizzled on honey she learned was from hives in the adjacent pasture. Sophia admired the dripping, golden ambrosia glistening in the near-gloaming light of the early evening. Tisane with nettles, yarrow, dandelion, calendula, and peppermint was poured into a whimsical, hand-made ceramic mug for her, and after taking a bite of her bread, she took a long sip, smacking her lips with the full flavor of late summer.

At the long, heavy, wooden dining-cum-workshop-table, a man and two women were excitedly discussing the gut microbiome and the importance of regularly eating lacto-fermented veggies—kimchi, kraut, and kombucha—to maintain optimal health. Sophia listened to their discussion about the connections between a healthy gut microbiome and immune system function, cognitive performance, and even mood regulation and behavioral well-being. Her initial thought of silly hippies was subsumed by memories of her Oma’s kitchen, chock-full of jars with ferments and herbal concoctions. And her next thought was: These “silly hippies” are probably right.

Nearby, Leo was catching up with Rose and Brook, discussing several developments on the ranch and the surrounding valley as well as developments in Leo’s work in the world. Sophia strained to listen to the conversation, eager to learn more about Leo and his unique domain. But their discussions of “preparations” and “stirs” made it seem to her as if they were speaking a different language. Tiring of attempting to decipher their odd codes, she wandered off into the nearby apple orchard, gazing up again at the massive mountain towering to the southeast.

Time stood still.

* * *

After several minutes, Leo walked up to Sophia’s side and spoke rather coyly. “So, hey. A few of us are going to take a quick dip. I’m going to join them to freshen up from this unbelievably bizarre day and intense bike ride. I admit I’m feeling pretty ripe. Would you like to join us?”

“No, thanks!” responded Sophia rather sternly. “I’ll take a shower in privacy, thank you very much!”

Leo hadn’t meant any harm by the question, but clearly, there was a tremendous cultural divide at play here. It was a regular occurrence of friendship and fellowship among the farm community to dunk and play in the flowing water. “Okay, okay. No problem. There’s a wonderful private shower with a massive bathtub. Would you like to take a soak with some special soaking salts? It would probably take the edge off and relax what are bound to be some sore muscles after all of that riding today!” Leo told her. “Susty is usually well stocked with the special Wele Waters soaking salts. They’re made with hemp from this farm and a few other regenerative and Biodynamic farms.

Sophia was feeling a creeping ache in her thighs and butt from all of that pumping on the bike, not to mention hours on that tiny seat.… Just the thought of a hot soak made her feel some relief. “Actually, that sounds really good. Thank you, Leo,” she responded somewhat contritely.

Leo walked with casual purposefulness toward the bathhouse and disappeared behind a heavy door. He emerged seconds later with a jar in hand. “You’re in luck! It’s the “Moontime” blend, geranium and neroli.” He described the contents with some familiarity, while unscrewing the lid and thrusting the jar toward her to smell the aroma.

Sophia breathed in the aromatic scent and found it quite pleasant. She nodded, and he handed her the jar. “Great, how about I draw the bath for you?” he volunteered, and without waiting for her response, added, “I’ll get it started.”

Sophia was impressed by his effortless chivalry, so different from most of the guys she’d encountered over the years. But she still wondered if it was authentic, if she could truly trust him. Was he after her body…or after the AI code? She couldn’t think about that right now. At this moment, it didn’t matter. She was exhausted and just wanted to take a hot bath, then climb into bed for the night. Next to getting chased through the park, this was one of the most intense days she’d ever had. Exhaustion overtook her thoughts.

Leo disappeared back into the beautiful wooden bathhouse and started the water. She could hear it flowing twenty feet away. When he returned, he was shaking the water off his right hand and carrying a folded blue towel in his left. “Okay, it will be ready in a bit. You can add half that jar to soak.” He gave her the towel. “I’ll be rinsing off in the creek and will come back and find you when I’m done. Take your time, though. You can soak as long as you’d like.”

He gave her a spirited wink and darted off toward the creek. In the distance, several other men and women were making their way toward the water as well. Were they all going bathing? In the nude? Do I care? Sophia was a bit surprised to feel that twinge of jealousy return.

She closed and locked the door behind her, double-checking the dead bolt and pulling on the door to make sure it was secure. The door was hardwood, with frosted glass welcoming the last bit of daylight and warming the tiles where her bare feet landed. The door hinges were set in stout, unadorned cedar posts and beams that were hand-hewn in an austere and rustic aesthetic. The interior was infused with the honey-cinnamon fragrance of a sun-warmed forest grove. Sophia slowly peeled off each article of clothing, becoming aware with each tug of just how sweaty she had become during the day. Her clothes were essentially sticking to her. As she poured half the jar of salts into the running water, she sat on the side of the tub, mesmerized as she dipped in a hand and slowly swirled a figure-eight in the water, mindlessly mixing the salts. She was surprised to see a tattered, dog-eared copy of a book called Salt, written by Mark Kurlansky, perched among Mark Shepard’s Restoration Agriculture: Real-World Permaculture for Farmers, Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One Straw Revolution, the Farmer’s Almanac, some of Wendell Berry’s poetry and an organic seed catalogue shoved into the wicker basket by the toilet.

Then, suddenly, a large, fuzzy wolf spider scurried straight toward Sophia’s exposed thigh. Instinctively, she snatched her shoe and smashed the creature in one rapid movement, pausing only briefly to survey the minor carnage before wiping it up with a wad of toilet paper and flushing it down the toilet.

She wasn’t in the mood for little critters…especially racing toward her naked body.

Sophia climbed in, one foot and then the other, and slowly squatted down until the very bottom of her buttocks was grazing the surface of the steaming water. It was hot, though not enough to make her uncomfortable. She slowly sank deeper, the water flowing up around her bottom, her hips, her belly, and finally up to her breasts and protruding nipples. As her bottom landed in the hot, mellifluous water, she rested her head on the slope of the tub. Sophia took a deep breath and closed her eyes.

Far off in the distance, even through the door, she could hear the playful shouts and squeals of revelers splashing and playing in the frigid water of the creek. Sophia felt a twinge in her lower belly as she thought of Leo naked and flirting with the other women. But that fleeting feeling was quickly overcome by the bliss that set in from the solitude, the temporary relief of being anonymous on this random farm in the middle of nowhere, behind a securely locked door, and soaking away the aches, pains, stress, and fatigue of a full day. She felt safely invisible and undetectable, at least for now.

She was spent, and soaking in this peaceful place felt perfect.

As she slipped into suspended daydreams, she became acutely aware of the tiny, warm waves lapping up against the curves of her belly, her thighs, and the pale, silken side of each breast. She sank further into peaceful suspension, and the water in the tub melted and merged into the water of the sea at the coast of Trieste in Slovenia—the Slovenska obala. She had loved going to that coast with her Oma and as a little girl was convinced that special magical creatures existed under those waves: mermaids that knew where Atlantis lay deep under the dark waters and unicorns that could charge out of the waves, take flight, and soar all the way to the heights of the Alpine peaks far to the north. This was her happy place, her refuge, the sanctuary of her childhood. She hadn’t thought of it in years. Sophia drifted into a gentle doze as the heat of the water imperceptibly slipped out into the surrounding air.

* * *

“Knock, knock,” came a man’s voice, masculine and playful, while knuckles simultaneously rapped on the door. Sophia, startled out of her dream, sat up in the now lukewarm water and looked toward the door. The light outside had faded some, now glowing with tangerine and peach hues. A shadowy figure was apparent in hundreds of fractal forms through the frosted glass in the door. “Hey, Sophia. Are you still in there?” came Leo’s voice.

“Yeah, I uh…yeah, I’m here…. I must have…fallen aslee…” Her voice trailed off as she stood up and climbed quickly out of the water into the chilled air. She wrapped herself in the towel as her eyes fell on the dirty clothes piled on the adobe floor. She opened the door a crack, peered around the corner, and asked, “Do you think we could wash our clothes? They’re pretty gross after today!”

“Yeah, of course. I already asked Stephanie if she had some sweats you could wear tonight. So, here ya go!” Leo extended a stack of folded clothes to her. Sophia carefully opened the door a little wider, and while holding her towel in place with one hand, she awkwardly grabbed the pile with her other, using her foot to secure the door’s width. Did his gaze just slide down and then linger? she wondered. That tickle in her lower belly returned.

“Thanks, you’re a lifesaver!” she offered quickly, before pushing the door shut again and locking it loudly.

A few minutes later, refreshed and relaxed, Sophia emerged from the bathhouse in cozy sweats and carrying her dirty clothes in a bundle.

“C’mon, we can put those in the wash around the corner,” said Leo. “And I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted. I think I’m about ready to turn in for the night.”

They walked around the corner of the small bathhouse and entered through the side door. Once inside, Leo reached for Sophia’s clothes. She hesitated at first, reluctant to have somebody else handle her dirty articles, but realized it didn’t really matter. She handed everything over, and he loaded the pile in the ultra-efficient washing machine—the bathhouse ran on solar energy—then he stripped to his boxer briefs and added his clothes to the mix. Sophia couldn’t help but notice his strong arms and shoulders yet controlled her unexpected urge to look elsewhere on his masculine build. Once the machine was filled with their combined clothing, Leo explained the solar worked best in the daylight, and they would run them in the morning, then hang them in the warm sunshine to dry. The two then climbed the hand-hewn ladder to the loft, where three small rooms were nestled with small mattresses on the floor of each. Leo pointed to the second one on the right, saying, “You take that one,” and gesturing ahead with a nod, continued, “I’ll sleep in there.” He had to duck to avoid cracking his forehead on the low doorframe. It reminded Sophia of a hobbit house. Everything was smaller…and closer.

She didn’t immediately relish the idea of Leo sleeping so close by, although she was somewhat assured by a wall between them, albeit a rather thin one. Plus, as she closed the slim door, the latch didn’t lock. Resigned to the circumstances, she decided to keep her sweats on, crawled into the bed, and drowsily gazed out the window at the darkening sky, looking expectantly for the first tarrying stars to appear.

She was soon in a deep sleep, impervious to Leo’s gentle snoring a few feet away.

Nor did she stir when Leo suddenly sat up, awakened by something in the night.

Chapter 15: The Garden

She awoke in inky darkness. Looking out the window, she could see a faint glow steadily growing in the star-speckled indigo of the eastern sky. The flock of chickens below was becoming restless and excited; hens clucked and squawked as young roosters came too close. By contrast, the older roosters had wizened to the hens’ defenses and resorted instead to climbing atop fence posts, where they warmed up their voices like a rough gang of washed-out tenor opera singers.

Sophia was grateful to have finally gotten some rest. She had slept deeply—judging by the approaching dawn—for nine, maybe even ten hours. She took a deep breath, exhaled, and smiled subtly as she heard Leo’s gentle, rhythmic snores through the walls. From the sound of it, Leo would be sleeping a while longer, and she was content to lie there peacefully, listening as the farm animals awoke naturally to the reliable, diurnal cycle of the approaching day. She was again reminded of her Oma and Opa’s tranquil abode.

Once the sky had bloomed like the daisies and morning glories, she sat up, stretched, and yawned deeply before exiting the small room and climbing carefully down the wooden ladder. The lacquered rungs were slippery, so she clung tightly to the hand-sanded tree branch railing. Alighting on the floor, she slipped on her shoes, turned on the washing machine, and walked outside and around the corner to the bathroom. Although she had bathed the night before, she took a quick rinse to wash the sleep from her body and splashed some cool water onto her face, careful not to get her hair wet.

She stepped back outside the bathhouse as Leo was coming around the corner, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “Good morning, Brig—Sophia,” he greeted her, recalling her alias after a slight hesitation. “How did you sleep?”

“Fine, thanks,” she answered back neither warmly nor coldly—like the breeze. “Though I could hear you snoring,” she reproached him with a bit more severity than was actually warranted.

“Oh, geez…,” replied Leo, looking chagrined. “Sorry about that. I guess I slept well too then.” He glanced toward the outdoor kitchen and saw that a handful of the farm community was there pouring coffee and cooking eggs. “I’m just going to go to the bathroom really quick and brush my teeth, then we can go get some food and coffee…. Or you can head over now and I’ll meet you.” With that, he disappeared behind the heavy wooden door.

She hated the idea of seeming dependent on Leo but really didn’t feel like interacting with so many new people without him. She reluctantly waited for him, looking around and listening to the sparrows and chickadees in the nearby branches.

Suddenly, she glimpsed a giant, white woolen mass bounding across the dirt driveway straight toward her. Her body tensed with fear as a Great Pyrenees rushed straight at her, covering two yards per stride. Leo emerged just as the dog was nearing within ten feet, and said in a deep friendly voice, “Hiiiiiiiiii, Squid!” The dog recognized him. Tail wagging with fierce joy, he ran right into Leo, leaning heavily against his bare legs. The dog, by all appearances part-polar bear, nearly knocked Leo over. Sophia smiled and let out a sigh of relief.

“Don’t worry. He’s a gentle beast! A Great Pyrenees, one of the best shepherding guard dogs in the world. They’re incredibly ferocious when guarding their animals but docile toward people—especially children. There are two of them here on the ranch, and they patrol all night long, working at opposite ends of the perimeter. If one detects anything lurking in the shadows, he’ll bark to alert the other, and together, they are a more formidable adversary than any predator around here wants to challenge.”

She sank her petite hands into Squid’s wiry, wooly coat and peered into his gentle giant eyes. “Hi Squid,” she said, playfully, rubbing around his neck.

“C’mon. Let’s get some coffee and eggs… I’m famished!” declared Leo.

They walked past the tall spruce tree to join the others in the open-air kitchen and were greeted by invitations to have coffee, toast, fresh cream, fresh butter, sausages, greens, and fresh fried eggs. The farm crew was drinking coffee, eating heartily, and talking about the tasks and details of the hours ahead, eager and excited about another day in paradise.

Sophia relished the warmth of her coffee mug, which she held in both hands as she stood close to the wood-burning stove. The aroma of strong coffee wafted over as the heat from the wood fire radiated and soaked into her body.

Sophia smiled inside and out. It was like being back in Slovenia! They sat, enjoying conversation with Brook, Rose, Jared, Dawn, and others. Sophia was struck by Brook’s white beard and jovial glow—a cross between Santa Claus and some old wizard character out of a Tolkien story. Jared, tall and handsome with friendly eyes, was tinkering with his giant copper still, which he used to make hydrosols—water-based essences—of lilac, yarrow, mint, and calendula. Rose was petite, and her smile radiated gentle warmth and kindness, the kind that only comes from people with a purposeful connection. Smiling brightly, Rose informed Sophia and Leo that a “Permadynamics” workshop was starting at 10 a.m. that morning, and they were most welcome to sit in if they would like. Sophia shot Leo an inquisitive look as if to ask, What the heck is Permadynamics?

Leo responded to the non-verbal inquiry: “Oh, this is a great idea.” He faced Sophia. “I actually think you’ll get a lot out of it! It’s basically the convergence of two of the most interesting and advanced forms of organic agriculture and land stewardship being practiced around the world. Permaculture originated in Australia in the ’70s, articulated by a man called Bill Mollison and his colleague David Holmgren. And the Biodynamic methods were first articulated by Rudolf Steiner in Koberwitz, Poland, in the 1920s, describing the practices as ‘the spiritual foundations for the renewal of agriculture.’” He turned to Rose. “Will Pat be here too?”

“She should be here in the next hour or so. Lloyd and Stone will be here too, and so will Scott! He arrived last night and is staying up at Avalanche Ranch to enjoy the springs. I imagine he’ll be along shortly.…”

Leo explained that, along with Brook and Rose, Pat was one of the most respected Biodynamicists in Colorado. She had a small farm, outside of Paonia, on the other side of McClure pass from Sustainable Settings.

Scott Pittman, Leo continued to explain, was the “elder statesman” of Permaculture in the Rocky Mountain West and had worked directly with Bill Mollison decades earlier in Australia. He had already trained thousands of perma-culturists around the world—in New Mexico, Costa Rica, Haiti, Russia, and elsewhere.

Leo continued explaining, “Lloyd, like Pat, was also from the Paonia area, where he produced some of the most effective Biodynamic preparations made in the whole country. Dozens of commercial orchardists and vintners relied on his help with pests, blight, and stress from heat, drought, and frost through the magical, organic effects of his preparations.”

“Stone, the youngest of the teacher corps, is a gifted speaker. He has a way of conveying loads of information in an engaging, fun, and inspiring way, and is especially effective with the younger students—especially the younger ladies.”

Leo ignored her awkward glance, and forewarned Sophia, “Although these are amazing teachers, the topics might strike you as a bit out there…a bit hocus-pocus.”

Sophia continued staring at Leo, considering the disclaimer.

“Hmmm, well, regardless, let’s go take a quick walk before everybody gets here,” said Leo, who had just finished his breakfast and stood to carry her plate and fork to wash along with his own in the stainless-steel sink.

“Sure, sounds good,” she replied, eager to move her body and spend some time away from the rest of the group.

They strolled toward the apple orchard. Sophia felt the warmth of the morning sun—it was glorious.

“C’mon, we can walk over to Stephanie’s to see if she’s out in her herb garden. It’s an amazing experience!”

They walked over a small, arching footbridge—one of the many irrigation ditch crossings stitched throughout the 244-acre property—and past large piles of composting manure and woodchips. They soon reached a temporary electric fence enclosure in which a regal black stallion stood, alternating his head up and down as he grazed on green grasses and casually observed them walking by.

A young woman emerged from behind the equine beast and beamed a huge smile at Leo. “Hi Bailey, how are things going with the horses?” They embraced warmly, then Leo turned to introduce her and Sophia.

After a brief interaction, Sophia and Leo continued walking, and Leo explained that he had met Bailey the previous year at Elk Run Farm. What a network, thought Sophia to herself as they walked along a large, circular wooden pole fence, inside of which was a second one.

“That’s the ‘Super,’” Leo offered ironically, aware that it likely wouldn’t be at all obvious to an outsider what a “Super” was. “I imagine they’ll take the class out there sometime later today. I’ll let Brook and the gang explain to you what it is!”

They continued walking another couple hundred paces and came upon a quaint RV camper parked at the edge of a towering herb garden. Off the backside of the camper, a large awning was hung to provide shade, under which was strung a hammock, swaying gently in the breeze next to a couple of chairs and a small outdoor kitchen for making tea.

“Hello! Knock, knock,” Leo said, raising his voice to announce their presence playfully as they approached the camper’s door. “Anybody home?”

“Out here!” came a woman’s voice from somewhere in the herb garden, though it was certainly not the run-of-the-mill variety of colorful plantings used to spruce up someone’s yard. This garden consisted of an acre-deep maze in which sprouted two and a half dozen species of potent herbal medicine plants, grown using Biodynamic preparations. This late in the season, many of the plants stood over six feet tall—soon to be harvested for their leaves, flowers, berries, and in some cases, even their roots. Birds, butterflies, and honeybees flittered all about the maze, attending to their usual business. Stephanie emerged from the thick foliage, a large smile on her face, beads of sweat on her brow, and a wicker basket perched atop one hip that teemed with delicate white flowers and a pair of clippers. Tiny flower petals and pieces of dried green leaves clung to her dark, wavy hair.

“Hi, guys!” she said, welcoming them warmly. “Good morning! Welcome to my herb patch!” Seeing the quizzical expression on Sophia’s face, Stephanie was quick to offer, “Would you like a quick tour?”

“Yes, please. That would be great,” responded Sophia, excited to see the bountiful garden. Deep inside, despite the ever-present danger of her situation, she was starting to feel a relaxation she hadn’t felt since her childhood.

Stephanie gave them each a warm, sweaty hug, before instructing playfully, “C’mon, follow me!”

They followed her into the thicket, and Stephanie began explaining, “I’m growing about thirty varieties of medicinal plants here. I dehydrate them for teas, salves, and oils that I make for my Biodynamic Botanicals brand. I also supply a handful of apothecaries around Colorado, including Rebecca’s Apothecary in Boulder,” she added winking playfully toward Leo. “I grow most of the herbs needed to make the Biodynamic preparations: nettles, yarrow, valerian, chamomile. Of course, the dandelion, equisetum, and oak bark we wild craft from around the farm and up in the hills. Here’s some yarrow,” she said, pointing to a patch of tall plants with fern-like leaves growing from the slender stems at shorter and shorter intervals toward the top, where a giant spray of delicate white flowers reached toward the sky like silent firework explosions frozen mid-burst. As Stephanie’s voice trailed, a large monarch butterfly alighted on an echinacea flower near her soiled knee. She giggled with delight, and without missing a beat, pointed out several other pollinators: honeybees, other butterflies, and even several songbirds swaying on the taller stalks, explaining, “This herb garden is a veritable pollinator habitat and sanctuary, providing them refuge from so much toxicity out there…. I guess you could say the same for me!” she laughed, returning her thoughts and attention to the impromptu herb tour.

“This is one of my favorites,” she continued, gently caressing a soft green ferny plant. “It’s native to Colorado. Achillea millefolium is the Latin name. Achilles, in the battle of Troy, put the yarrow all over his body to protect it from wounds, as it’s a rapid coagulator. ‘Millefolium’ means ‘a thousand leaves,’ referring to the amazingly fine and intricate fern-like leaf structures. It is also called ‘all heal’ and ‘blood wort’. And, it’s also a great allergy tea, as it helps drain congestion from out of the head. Being native to Colorado as well as the Mediterranean, it’s naturally drought tolerant, so I plant it along the edges of the garden where the sprinklers don’t quite reach.”

Sophia loved hearing the history and the connection to the old world. It soothed her mind like a curative balm. She was astonished by the varying aromas exuding from the flowers and leaves as she walked by different types. A flock of sparrows came straight for the herb patch, nearly a hundred in total, all descending to alight on the towering nettles stalks, cute in their stilted, chirpy movements. The nettles flexed and swayed with the birds’ lithe weight as if dancing together in the gentle morning breeze. Stephanie smiled. “Yeah, my friends visit throughout the day. Isn’t it wonderful!?” She paused in a moment of grateful reflection, then pointed. “Here is Echinacea, and over here is lavender, lemon balm, Hawthorne, and angelica.” She indicated a crop of towering plants with beautiful eumbelliferae at the tops. “It’s native and used in a lot of cocktail bitters. We use the root mostly. It’s an amazing pollinator attractor too, in the same family as Osha, wild carrot, Queen Anne’s lace, cilantro, parsley, lovage—all of them are great for the pollinators! And, over here…” Looking excited, she pointed to a mass of dark green leaves closer to the ground. “The darling of Permaculturists worldwide. Leo, remember what this one is?”

“Yeah, that’s uh…” Leo paused, finger to his lip. “Comfrey, right?”

“Ding, ding, ding, you got it! Exactly, comfrey is a nutrient accumulator, biomass fertilizer, and it’s great for compost teas. And it’s a rapid cell regenerator, meaning it helps heal wounds faster: strains, sprains, broken bones. But it generally should only be used topically; it can be really hard on the liver if taken internally.… And over here…” She didn’t miss a beat. “…is Tulsi. Ocimum sanctum—the holy basil, the queen of the herbs. This amazing adaptogenic plant has been used for at least five hundred years in India. The name ‘Tulsi’ means ‘incomparable one’ and has indications for stress, anxiety, diabetes, high cholesterol, inflammation, even eye disease and ringworm!”

“It boggles my mind that more people in the West aren’t clued in on the amazing power of herbal medicine…of these basic plants, for God’s sake!” exclaimed Leo in exasperation. “Or should I say for Goddess’ sake?”

Sophia was deep in thought, reflecting on the remarkable complexity that existed in the natural world, yet that seemed so unknown to so many modern scientists—especially in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. All around the world, the best minds available assumed they were on the cutting edge of complexity and new answers without really understanding the solutions in the very soil beneath their feet. She thought of biotechnology, and then of the pharmaceutical industry. Of course, her thoughts drifted to Otto, to his complexity. Perhaps he’s the one. The one to help us all understand the true complexity…the beauty of this phenomenal world….

Or he’ll destroy us.

She couldn’t shake the dread and foreboding that lurked beneath the surface of her mind. She was being torn apart inside. It made her dizzy…and nauseated.

But being in the garden was a welcome distraction. Stephanie’s simple certainty and earthy knowledge comforted Sophia. She felt suspended between her idyllic memories of happy times at her grandma’s home in Slovenia and visions of a completely uncertain techno-future. She focused on her breathing and followed Stephanie deeper into the garden.

They arrived at the middle of the herb patch, and there was a simple lodge pole pergola, made from six rough-hewn posts set in the ground, with another six connecting their tops in a hexagonal ring. “Here’s where I enjoy my daily teas, meditate, and gaze in gratitude at Wi Magua. The reverence, joy, gratitude…those are among the most potent fertilizers when we’re growing plants! Plus, these poles are low enough that tall people have to bow a bit—like you, Leo!” She laughed playfully as he lowered in an exaggerated bow and clasped his palms together as if to say Namaste.

Sophia passed between two of the wooden pillars, looking over the delicately twisted juniper that had grown in the scrub on the hillside overlooking the verdant fields. It was like entering an ancient temple or grotto. Sophia shivered slightly.

They stood in silent awe for a moment, all three facing the giant mountain fixed powerfully in the southeast. Then Stephanie continued the tour. “And here’s one of my all-time favorites: motherwort, Leonurus cardiac, the Lion’s Heart. This special plant helps heal the heart and is especially good for anxiety and stress, like when a mama’s had a rough day and needs to calm down!”

As if on cue, a barefoot girl about ten years old in a long gray dress came bounding through the garden carrying a bright yellow duckling. She glanced at Leo and Sophia and smiled brilliantly. “Hi!” she greeted, holding the fluffy little bird out toward the pair. “This is Neon. He’s my baby.”

“I guess a lot of us girls get ready for motherhood from a very early age!” quipped Stephanie before asking her daughter if she had cleaned her breakfast dishes.

“Not yet, Mama. Sorry,” said the sweet girl, disappearing back toward the camper.

“Thank you so much for the tour,” smiled Sophia, pushing the dread down deep inside. “This is spectacular! And the setting… it’s heaven!”

“Yeah,” agreed Stephanie, looking down briefly to scratch soil from underneath her fingernails, then cocking her head to Sophia. “It really is.”

The three of them slowly wandered back to the shaded porch next to the camper, and Stephanie made them an herbal tisane to sip before they all returned to the main kitchen across the field to gather for the workshop that was about to begin.

Chapter 16: What Are We Really Capable Of?

Back in the outdoor kitchen, which also doubled as Sustainable Settings’ classroom, the guests topped off their mugs of tea and coffee and found their seats, ready to learn. With a warm, jovial smile and a mysterious twinkle in his eyes, Brook gleamed from under his broad-brimmed straw hat, stood at the head of the long wooden dining table, which also doubled as a lectern, and looked around at the attentive audience. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and somehow looked like a cross between an Amish farmer, Santa Claus, and Father Time. His white hair and beard had just a hint of their former blond color, and his rosy cheeks belied the many hours he tended to be outside each day. Brook stood before the audience of about thirty people, slowly looking around at the group, and then down at his muddy work boots before glancing behind himself to consider some symbols drawn on the dry-erase board. Turning back to the audience he finally introduced himself. “My name is Brook,” he said, pacing, while casting his deep stare at the ground as if conjuring each simple little word from the soil. He held a booklet in his hand, and simultaneously looked to Sophia like an old wizard and a mischievous kid. “We are gathering in an extraordinary time. When we acquired this ranch almost twenty years ago, we asked ourselves: ‘What are we capable of?’ And this land and these waters have spoken to us in answer. Now, as the entire planet is in peril, we all have to ask ourselves: ‘What are we capable of? What are we really capable of?’”

He looked around the room expectantly with a friendly challenge in his eyes. It was as if he had stared deep into the abyss of this question and had come to realize that by himself, there was very little that could be done, but with the efforts of many, the entire world could transform. His gaze was challenging…and hopeful.

“We’re doing this workshop as a group teaching—Lloyd, Scott, Pat, Stone, Rose, and I will be the presenters. I’m going to keep my introduction short because I’ll be taking you out to the Super later. I want to read you this to get you oriented on what’s at stake. Because everything…everything…is at stake right now.” He paused, looking around at each of the students. “Let that sink in… Everything. And unless you do something about it, each and every one of you, we might be screwed. Here, listen to this.” He lifted the booklet in his hand. Sophia could make out the name “Earth Haven Learning” on the back cover. “Rudolf Steiner said this about one hundred years ago in Europe,” Brook continued. “Listen closely:

‘The most important thing is to make the benefits of our agricultural preparations available to the largest possible areas over the entire Earth, so that the Earth may be healed and the nutritive quality of its produce improved in every respect… This is a problem of nutrition. Nutrition as it is today does not supply the strength necessary for manifesting the spirit in physical life. A bridge can no longer be built from thinking to will and action. Food plants no longer contain the forces people need for this.’”

He paused for effect, then with a glint in his eye and a sly smile on his lips, said, “Okay, Stone. Are you ready to get up here and do your thing?”

A young man with wild, golden hair wearing denim overalls—though shirtless beneath them—stood and walked to the dry-erase board. Sophia observed his exposed muscles, especially in the notable definition of his forearms, as he drew symbols neatly and attentively as if some wild bacchanalian satyr had supplanted the stiffly dressed nerds she was used to seeing at dry-erase boards in computer labs and board rooms.

He drew out several symbols in silent reverence as if composing a painting.

Stone set his marker down, then turned to address the crowd. “These may look like a bunch of silly symbols. But they are the tools of our trade in Biodynamics. And it’s not the symbols themselves that are the key. It’s what they stand for, what they represent, what they symbolize. It’s the relationships they indicate.” He paused, looking considerately off in the distance. “Okay, who here has read Jung’s Man and His Symbols?” A few hands went up and Stone nodded, expressing his approval. He continued, “It was his final work. He once said: ‘Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.’ In a very real, grounded way, Biodynamics is about awakening to the forces and dynamics that are at play in our world and in the cosmos and becoming conscious stewards of these forces.”

He walked behind the dry-erase board, disappearing in deliberate silence. Her curiosity piqued, Sophia couldn’t help but wonder, what would Otto think of all this? On the one hand, a board full of symbols was like candy to her mind. She loved systems of meaning and knowledge that deployed symbols to express complex truths. On the other hand, she had to wonder, Who the heck is this guy, and what sort of weird, superstitious, folksy imaginarium is he talking about? Leo’s funhouse certainly contained some interesting characters.

The young man emerged a few seconds later with a twig in his hand. He pointed with it to the first symbol—a circle inside a square inside a triangle inside a circle. “This is the symbol for alchemy. What we do at Sustainable Settings is an alchemy of sorts, an Earth- and soil-based alchemy. We don’t work indoors in laboratories, at least most of the time,” he said with eyes that sparkled with intelligence and intense purpose. “Most of our work is out in the field, with the soils, the plants, the critters, the heavens, and the telluric energies below.”

Stone then pointed to the next symbol: a triangle pointing upward. “This is the symbol for fire. And you’ll learn that this is both literal and metaphorical for heat, fruit, quality, and vitality.” Stone’s stick moved to the right a few inches where another upward-pointing triangle had been drawn, but this one had a horizontal line through its upper-middle. “This is the symbol for air, light, flower, and reproduction.” Moving the stick another few inches to the right, he continued, “This downward pointing triangle is a symbol for water, damp, leaf, form, and resistance.” Again, he moved the stick farther to the right. “And this one, the downward pointed star with the horizontal line through it, is the symbol for Earth, cold, root, structure. You see, with these four elements, we can describe and understand all the parts and phases of the plants; the roots; the leaf and foliage; the flowers; and the fruits…. But there’s more to this story.”

He then moved his naturally crooked twig once more to the right. “There’s another element, a fifth element: the quintessence, the ether, represented by the five-pointed star, also called the blazing star, the pentalpha, and the Pythagorean star. Embedded in this simple shape is an explosion of sacred geometry that has patterns encoded in its geometry and underlying vibrational frequencies and relationships that animate life. The golden ratio, one of the most sacred geometric proportions, from which the Fibonacci sequence can be spatially derived, is embedded in each and every regular five-pointed star. It’s a geometric truth, a cosmic truth. And what this amazing symbol represents is even more sacred. It is the life force, the anima and animus that stream through us humans…through our consciousness. It is the creative, energetic fabric that allows energy to manifest as matter—the mother: Mater—in the phenomenal world. It is the divine spark animating life on Earth. And that’s what we get to learn about, work with, to steward, and to cultivate as Biodynamic practitioners.”

Stone set the stick down on the large wooden table, around which sat twelve adult students; another twenty or so were scattered on chairs and stools around them. He paused dramatically. “But the quintessence, the ether…that’s a bunch of medieval hogwash, right? Modern science put that to bed, didn’t it? What are we doing now, talking about all this nonsense in the 2020s? Are we idiots? Well…let me read something to you that Albert Einstein once said.”

From a small stack of his books on the corner of the table, Stone picked up a brown, leather-bound notebook and opened it to one of the many dog-eared, sticky-note marked pages. He read:

“‘Recapitulating, we may say that according to the general theory of relativity, space is endowed with physical qualities; in this sense, therefore, there exists an ether. According to the general theory of relativity, space without ether is unthinkable; for in such space there not only would be no propagation of light, but also no possibility of existence for standards of space and time.’”

Sophia’s head was spinning. She felt incredulous. But like a supercomputer, her mind was running algorithm permutations, attempting to make connections and find possible links to her work with Otto. What would Otto actually think of all this?

Stone paused to let it sink in before resuming. “Rudolf Steiner was aware of this ether and quintessence. Like a bridge between the medieval and the modern, he shared with us a comprehensive guiding framework in lectures that he gave about one hundred years ago. He also understood these three symbols from the old alchemists,” Stone continued, pointing to the next line. “Sulfur, salt, and mercury… We won’t get into much detail on these yet—that’s for another day. But this next line is critical.” He set the stick down again and moved closer to the board, pointing at a section with his extended index finger.

“These are the symbols for the planets, the objects—real objects—moving about our immediate neighborhood like complex clockworks with many, many hands. The ancients all around the planet were deeply attuned to these rhythmic cycles and understood how they impacted everyday life… ‘As above, so below,’ goes the Hermetic maxim, known as far back as at least the time of Thoth and the ancient Egyptians, but possibly much earlier than that…. If you take nothing else away today from what I tell you, remember this: The cycles of the heavenly bodies matter—especially the cycle of the moon, as she moves thrice through each of the four elemental triads in the Zodiac each month: the earthy zones of Taurus, Virgo, and Capricorn; the airy zones of Gemini, Aquarius, and Libra; the watery zones of Cancer, Pisces, and Scorpio; and the fiery zones of Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius. Each of these four elemental zones has its corresponding physiological aspects of plants’ growth and reproduction: the earth, water, air, and fire zones relate to the roots, foliage, flowers, and fruit, respectively. But the four find their complete expression through the fifth.”

He placed his palm on the board next to the top row of symbols. “The quintessence matters,” he added, now pointing like that famous painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. “And the individual planets and plants are also connected in specific relationships. The dandelion is connected to Jupiter, nettles to Mars, valerian to Saturn, oak to Luna—the moon—yarrow to Venus, chamomile to Mercury, and equisetum, ‘horse-tail,’ is connected to both the sun and moon, and especially to comets. It is one of the most ancient plant forms on the planet and is some 80 percent silica by dry weight. As you can see on the Tree of Life…” He pointed to a diagram Sophia had never seen before. “…inorganic silica is also connected to the sun—as is the metal, gold. In agriculture, these enhance aromatics, flavor, and quality.”

This struck Sophia as especially peculiar. Silica and gold were two of the main substances used in computers, and a whole lot of gold was used in most supercomputers. Her wheels were turning, but she had no idea where her thoughts were going to land.

Stone carried the thread onward. “In fact, each of the planets and the plants also have a strong metallic attribute or affinity: sun to gold, moon to silver, Mercury to quicksilver, Venus to copper, Mars to iron, Jupiter to tin, Saturn to lead. You’ll note that nettles, for example—affiliated with Mars—is a dynamic accumulator of iron and is at the top of the list of recommendations for pregnant and nursing mothers suffering from iron deficiency….” When Stone looked again toward the horizon, he caught the gaze of Brook, who was pointing playfully toward his wrist (though there was no watch on it), subtly indicating that Stone should wrap it up…for now.

“Okay, so that’s a quick introduction and overview of a few of the basics you’ll need to orient yourselves to the world of Biodynamics. Up next, Scott is going to talk a bit about Permaculture. But first, there’s time for one or two questions.” Stone faced the crowd, eyebrows lifted.

A few hands went up immediately, and Stone gestured toward a woman with dark, curly hair tied up with a blue scarf. “You didn’t talk about the six-pointed star at all,” she said. “What can you tell us about that symbol?”

“Ah…yes, the star, the shield, the Magen David. This powerful figure is so pregnant with meaning, we could take all day just on it! This symbol reflects the marriage of the above and the below. See how it is two triangles combined together?” He turned toward the board and drew first one triangle pointing up and then a second overlaid, pointing downward. “It represents the Hermetic maxim as well as the marriage of the feminine and the masculine, the inner and the outer, the father Light energy and mother Earth matter. It is all four of the elements—earth, air, fire, and water—combined. And if you can imagine it in three dimensions, it becomes the Merkabah, the star tetrahedron, the sacred geometry of life. All of this is embedded in the lattice work of the fruit of life, a sacred geometric framework that has a seed, a tree, and a flower embedded in it and from which virtually all of the other sacred geometry and atomic patterning can be derived,” he explained as he drew for the crowd a symbol of intersecting circles, six around one in the middle and outward from there. Then he darkened dots at certain intersections and drew a strange crystal ladder shape on top. “This is the Tree of Life, sacred to Kabbalists and other peoples and cultures all over the planet, ancient and modern…. And we can map the Biodynamic preparations and plants right on to it. But here, I’ll show you a better version.”

He turned toward one of the men sitting in the group at the table and asked, “May we look at your diagram?” Sophia caught Leo smile knowingly. Upon Stone’s request, a bearded man with a happily rounded belly smiled under his beige fedora, reached into his leather book bag, and pulled out a curious diagram. He handed it to Stone, who then passed it across the table to the woman sitting closest to him.

“Here, you can pass this around,” Stone suggested as he turned and winked at the man and then at Leo. Sophia sensed a tingle as if there were a magnetic connection between the three; indeed, a triangle of secret union seemed to hover between them, linking them with an unusual energy.

In fact, Leo would later tell Sophia that he, Stone, and the bearded man named Perinaldi, had gathered at Sustainable Settings with several other men in a special Fellowship of Light Seekers. The by-invitation-only convocation had been organized for Earth alchemy. Leo’s friends Jack, Akamarty, Scott, Ben, Kent, Tyler, Artem, Jason, John, Brad, Greg, Bob, Darren, Aaron, Tim, Matthew, and both Kevins had all been there—most having made the drive through the breathtaking Glenwood Canyon from the metro Denver area. That was before the canyon closed indefinitely due to massive mudslides induced by fire-ravaged terrains unable to absorb the deluge of unusual downpours. They discussed, among other things, Nicholas Culpepper’s deliberations of the virtues of the plants and their connections with the planets. The men had reflected upon the cultural transition from an alchemical worldview to a chemical one, from a focus on causes to a myopic obsession with effects. They had engaging conversations about the impacts of industrial pollution upon human psyches, physical bodies, and etheric bodies, and the importance of ingesting copious amounts of chlorophyll to help counter this. They also spoke of more esoteric matters: The Lesson on the Hermit, the activation of the light body, and the cymatics of certain sacred tones connecting the disciplines of music and geometry in the ancient quadrivium tradition of Pythagoras, Plato, and, more recently, Da Vinci.

Of course, Sophia knew nothing of this recent gathering at the time the diagram was being passed around among the students. But she could tell by an electric tingle that some invisible triangular bond tied the three together in some extraordinary manner. When the diagram reached Sophia, she looked intently at the symbols, geometric shapes, and words.

As Perinaldi’s precisely drawn version made its way through the group, Stone finished a rough sketch on the dry-erase board and explained some of the meaning. Then Stone said, “Okay, that’s probably enough for the moment. Don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz…yet. No, seriously,” he added with a gentle, knowing smile. “It takes years of study and special mentorships to learn all of this. The key is to get started on the journey and to explore with tender diligence.”

Brook started clapping to signal the end of Stone’s segment. “Bravo,” he shouted across the table, laughing jovially. “Okay, grab some water, tea, or coffee, and we’ll start back in ten minutes with Scott.”

An excited murmur spontaneously erupted in pockets of three, four, and five people, talking quickly about all that had just been shared. Some made their way to the large coffee urn; others migrated toward the hot water steaming quietly on the wood stove. Leo was engaged in conversation with Perinaldi, Brook, and Stone. Sophia sat quietly in her seat, processing all that had just been communicated, trying to connect the obscure dots and abstract dashes that were assembling in her head. These highly intellectual instructors were providing interesting information and theories, but her scientific brain needed proof, concrete data. She wanted to blurt out “Show me,” but her education taught her to be a better participant than that.

After many of the attendees had refilled their mugs and glasses, they settled back into their chairs, and an older, rotund man with a long, white beard, disheveled hair, and collared, button-down shirt walked slowly to the dry-erase board.

In a thick, West Texas drawl, he began slowly, “Now, that’s a tough act to follow…and a strange one, eh? I’m not going to ask you to believe or disbelieve any of this. I’m just going to tell you a little bit about Permaculture and about why I think Spirit really matters. You see, I first met Bill Mollison on the island of Tasmania in the 1970s. I had grown up ranching in the wide-open spaces of West Texas. And I knew there was more to the world than just cattle and chaparral. I also knew there was some real trouble bearing down on us—all of us. The kind of trouble you couldn’t run away from, as Mama would say, ’cause we have created an insane culture, fueled by cheap fossil energy, cheap chemicals, and rampant profiteering. You know, I come from the land of the oilmen, the slickers, the roughnecks, the wildcatters, and I’m not some ‘pinko’ bleeding heart liberal. At least I wasn’t…” His voice trailed off with a smile.

“But what I want to tell you is this. There is a way to get through all of this. But it’s going to require some good, old-fashioned humility. You won’t all get to be investment bankers and real estate tycoons. But you will get to be healthy and happy. And that’s where the real money’s at anyhow…just like my pappy used to say.”

Sophia wasn’t so sure…. She pondered the immense power concentrated in the hands of a few hundred men around the world: power that was fundamentally established in extreme wealth, and that was now more profoundly amplified by technology than nearly anybody truly understood anymore. Are these kind folks just naïve hippies, fooling themselves that somehow thousands upon thousands of pockets of small groups of peoplewithout much power or wealth or technological leveragewere going to really change the world for the better? Are they ignorant to the all-too-real geopolitical machinations ruling the planet: China’s millennia-old ambitions and Putin’s quest for expanded empire, not to mention the super-powerful European, American, and Middle Eastern elite?

She shivered at the daunting thought, and then felt a surge of fear as thoughts of the men chasing her poured through her body. They were surely connected to the global elite, one way or another. Am I even safe here right now? How long before they track me down again?

But, unaware of Sophia’s dark, brooding thoughts, Scott continued. “Okay, so what the heck is Permaculture, you ask?” He paused only long enough for the rhetorical question to sink in before continuing to answer it. “Permaculture is a collection of tools and techniques we use to care for the land and to grow super-diverse, super-efficient, polyculture food production systems. Sure. But it’s more than that. Way more. It’s a philosophical framework. It’s a way of understanding reality here on this tiny little marble of water, greenery, soil, and sand that we all call home.” With that, he pulled a blue marble from his pocket and rolled it across the table to one of the young ladies listening attentively, who pincer-grasped it and briefly one-eyed its colors in the sun before setting it back on the table. “This is our only marble. There are no other marbles. And we’re screwing this one up big…Texas…style!

“Permaculture is a gestalt, a way of thinking, of perceiving, of learning and then putting that learning into action. From whom do we learn?” Another Socratic softball. “From nature herself—she is the teacher. Nature and the cosmos—Mother and Father. And what do we learn? We learn the patterns, the underlying archetypes and forms and functions of the various members in ecosystems, in communities. It’s like learning all the characters on a city block on Sesame Street. Each one has a different function, and some work really well together, like Bert and Ernie or Big Bird and Snuffy. Others, like Oscar the Grouch, are important to the identity and the fabric of the community, but you want to keep your distance for the most part.”

Smiling, Scott paused and waited for the audience to react to his jest. After receiving a few grins and nods, he continued, “We’re going to show you how to shape and sculpt the land, to affect the flow of the elements—the wind, the water, the shade, and sunlight. We’re going to show you how to build and cultivate soil, how to mulch, how to create the canvass of ecological stewardship that when properly stretched and prepared, will grow an abundance of anything you want to grow—within ecological constraints, of course. We’re not going to grow bananas and cacao out here at forty-some degrees north latitude and an elevation of over six thousand feet above sea level. No, no cocoa, no bananas, no mangos—maybe in the greenhouse but not outside. Well, that’s not even quite true either. Some of the most advanced Permaculturists in the Alps and the Himalayas have learned how to place rocks and other forms of thermal mass in a parabolic curve around certain plants and how to protect them from bitter frosts and snow drifts so that even in those extreme conditions, they can grow their bananas and avocados, but that’s not really the point or the aim….

“The point is to learn the secret language and patterns of nature and to mimic, to emulate, to co-create with them. As you become masterful in Permaculture, you’ll know how to guide sparse rainfall into features in the landscape that hold and store that water for use over many dry weeks. You’ll learn the guilds, the groupings of companion plants that love to grow together such as corn, beans, and squash, the “three sisters,” as they’re known. You’ll learn how to place nitrogen fixers in clusters with other fruiting, flowering, and green leafy plants that provide food and medicine. But this isn’t a modern invention.

“Bill Mollison, although he coined the term ‘Permaculture,’ didn’t actually invent the practice. This creation of super-abundant, super-diverse, poly-cultural-food forest systems has been practiced by humanity, by traditional native cultures, for thousands of years. When the Europeans arrived on the Atlantic coast of North America, they were astonished to find endless acres of beautifully stewarded hardwood forests. The understories were kept open by frequent burnings so that certain berry bushes, herbaceous medicines, and wildlife would flourish beneath the towering oak and maple and hemlock. In the Amazon, what might appear to be wild, random rainforest from a plane above is now becoming understood as vast expanses of food-forest Permaculture systems created and tended by the native peoples before White man’s diseases wiped out over 90 percent of the population of the great Amazon Basin—the lungs of the Earth. Even in the Pacific Northwest, archeologists, especially with the aid of native peoples in dialogue, have come to understand that those great, verdant forests are, too, gigantic, complex, beautifully ordered polyculture systems fed by the salmon and the prayers of the people.

“Permaculture is an essential way of life for humanity, and we must rapidly remember, relearn, and disseminate this critical knowledge throughout society.

“In all of this, in all that you do from this day forward, the most important thing to remember is the three main Permaculture ethical tenets: ‘Do no harm to people,’ ‘Do no harm to planet,’ and ‘Return and share all surplus with people and the planet.’ Do not horde! Work in service to Earth and humanity.”

A spark jolted through Sophia’s body. She had drifted at some point during the long speech but was now completely focused on the old teacher standing at the front of the class. Another student, writing furiously in his notebook, raised his hand and asked, “Could you repeat that?”

“Sure. Do no harm…” He repeated all the tenets and then added, “You have to return fertility to the soil and share extra produce with your neighbors. Share financial abundance with your community and create social enterprises. This is how humans live well on our planet. This is the cultural technology and gestalt that we must restore…if we’re going to get through this mess.”

Sophia was deep in thought through the rest of Scott’s talk, and when the class paused for lunch, she took time to wander over toward the poultry yard. The pungent smell of the bird yard didn’t repulse her enough to keep her from finding the animals cute and perfect somehow. They were so simple yet complete in their doings. They didn’t have to contemplate the fate of their species, nor how to rebalance their relationship with nature. They could just be. She was envious. But she also knew she had a responsibility.

The decision about whether to activate Otto was weighing on her even more now. Would Otto help with this great restoration? Would he just make things worse—amplifying and extending all the colonial and destructive tendencies of humanity—of his human makers? A horrible ache deepened in her stomach, and she realized she had lost her appetite. She wandered around the farm for another twenty minutes. Only after she saw Leo in the distance, obviously looking for her, did she slowly amble back toward the group. The classmates were enjoying the last bites from their plates; each of them seemed to be savoring the remains of bright-green, fluffy salads with a rainbow of flavorful colors throughout; fresh-baked sourdough bread; a chili posole soup; and burrito fixings. Some were helping themselves to seconds while others were cleaning their plates at the sink.

Rose looked up and noticed that Sophia looked pale. She walked over and tenderly asked, “Are you feeling okay, Sophia?”

“Yeah, I’m…” Sophia wasn’t sure what to say. “…just feeling a bit overwhelmed. That’s all.”

“I have just the tea for that.” And Rose was off, pulling a large mason jar from the shelf and measuring a heaping spoonful of dried herbs into a second, smaller mason jar. She poured steaming hot water into it, causing the herbs to swirl around, saturating the piping-hot water with their earthy tannins and verdant nutrients. Rose grabbed a clean mug and a strainer and brought it all back to Sophia, placing them on the table next to her. “Here you go. Let it steep for about ten minutes, then you can sip it. Motherwort, lavender, and lemon balm. They should help you feel calmer and more relaxed. And maybe you’ll get your appetite too.”

Sophia was grateful, and though she hadn’t told Rose that she hadn’t yet eaten, she somehow wasn’t surprised Rose had noticed. Rose seemed to have that motherly instinct.

Sophia followed Rose’s tea instructions, then sipped the brew in silence. The tea seemed to help her nerves, and she softened slightly into a mellow relaxation. Seeing her relax, Leo continued his lively discussions regarding the imparted topics with his old and newfound friends.

After lunch was finished, and the final forks, spoons, and glasses were dried and put away, the group reconvened for the afternoon session. An older woman, short and petite like a wood elf but with a massive presence and deep, sparkling eyes, walked toward the front of the group.

She began to speak in a sweet, raspy voice as if gently laboring for each breath. Sophia was again reminded of her grandmother.

“My name is Pat—Patricia. I’m going to share a few things with you today that I have learned from my own experience over the years. I am a scientist by nature and have worked for many years as a nurse practitioner in acute care. That’s about as hard science as you can get in the realm of biology. But I have come to understand that there’s much, much more to life on Earth than what is taught in mainstream medicine. I don’t want you to take my word for it, though. I want you to say ‘yes’ to the invitation, the gesture, and cultivate these sorts of experiences for yourself. We will go out to the Super later today as Brook said, and really, we’ve already been sitting here too long. Because this is all about direct relationship—fundamentally, the knowledge is meaningless without direct experience, direct connection, direct physical relationship.

“Biodynamics infuses intelligence into soil and plants that enables and enhances the ongoing communication between Earth and cosmos. Relationship. It’s not just conceptual!

“Do you understand what I’m saying?” She looked up, deep, glistening eyes scanning the group in patient inquiry. A few women were nodding as if from their bellies, their guts, their wombs. A scattering of men also nodded in understanding.

“Good. We are living in a tumultuous and dangerous time. Modern humans have forgotten the original instructions. Most of us have forgotten our direct connection, our direct relationship to the living world, to the life force that animates all this miraculous experience. Soil is the key. In soil, we will find the marriage of the Christic principle, the solar logos, and the Gaiaic energies, the female planetary essence. We will find the eternal archetype of life from death, and from life back to death, and back to life once again in a never-ending cycle of fertility, of abundance, of the Divine expression of creativity.

“Soil is the most potent avenue we have for carbon sequestration. We must become master soil builders if we are to heal our planet and stabilize our climate. Otherwise, we may well be doomed. It’s like we all have a single, giant patient in the ER room, and we know what needs to be done. The question is, can we inform enough people quickly enough and inspire them to take the necessary actions as well?

“This isn’t just about farms, either. This is about yards, neighborhoods, suburbs, and urban gardens. This is about millions of us mobilizing and building soil, wherever we’re located. It starts with the compost pile. The compost pile is the heart and the liver of the organism. Biodynamics teaches us that a farm, a yard, is a single, cohesive organism. And the compost pile is the most essential organ there.

“We humans are the brain, the will, the creative yea-saying quintessence. What we do—or don’t do—determines so much. We are the priests and priestesses of life on Earth, and we do this work via the soil.

“As a farmer, I’m not growing plants. I’m growing soil, and the soil is growing the plants. And you have to understand, I’m not the one, alone, making the soil grow. I’m just providing nourishment suggestions, invitations, impulses of energy and intention that evoke more from the soil’s own knowledge, essence, and creative impulses. We’re not doing anything to the soil that it doesn’t already know how to do itself. We’re just helping it to remember. If you’re conscious, you’ll perceive the wisdom in the soil, and soil building will go more quickly. The life force is always there, but as we cultivate our direct consciousness of it—our direct relationship with it—we can become vessels for amplification. We humans become the preparations. Spirit to matter, matter to spirit.” She started tracing a figure eight, a lemniscate, in the air with her pointer finger.

“We all have the invitation to connect with the soil, each and every one of us. Backyards and neighborhood gardens are going to save our planet. Look, most of us these days—well over 95 percent in this country—don’t live on farms per se. We live in urban and suburban settings. And this isn’t just about how many tons of carbon we can sequester in the soil each year—of course that’s important. That’s necessary. But there’s so much more to what’s at stake…and what’s possible.

“This is about remembering, putting back together, restoring, reintegrating what we also know ourselves, but have forgotten, or had it beaten out of us, literally, over centuries and centuries of brutal oppression of the peaceful folk who knew how to live in simple harmony with the planet’s living abundance. But we each have this knowledge living inside ourselves. And it is time to remember. We are called to practice to cultivate relationships and to share the invitation with as many other people as we can.

“The compost pile is our laboratory, our temple, our altar. It is here that the alchemical forces of everlasting life converge and activate. The compost pile is a being, a life-giver, a lifesaver. We must learn the cycles—the lunar cycles, the planetary cycles, the breathing cycles of the compost and the soil and the garden throughout the course of each day. Each day is unto itself a complete cycle. Each month is unto itself a complete cycle, reflecting the complete cycle of the day. And each year is a complete cycle too, reflecting the thirteen lunar cycles and the diurnal cycles and the cosmic cycles. And on and on and on… Can you see the bigger picture?

“You must understand your history too. These cyclical experiences of time—the indigenous and folk cycles of planting, harvesting, migrating, and tending—were deliberately attacked by the medieval Church. Understanding these natural rhythms has power in it, and the Church wanted to concentrate all the power…for itself. But the knowledge remained intact, albeit underground. Even the liturgical word ‘Lent’ derives from the Old English word Lencten, meaning to lengthen—as in the lengthening of the days between the winter and summer solstices, which is at its maximum acceleration at the time of the spring equinox. We must restore our understanding of the ‘time in the round.’ We must return to an intimate relationship with the solstices, the equinoxes, and the cross quarters: Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain.

“What you now know as Christmas and Easter and Halloween are simply usurpations of an older, more complete annual cycle in eight equal parts: Yule; Imbolc—the time of the awakening soils in the depth of winter; Ostara—sound familiar? Beltane—May Day, anybody? Midsummer or Litha; Lughnasadh—the sacred time of the harvest and of Michaelmas; Mabon—aka the fall equinox; Samhain—the Day of the Dead, All Saints Day, and Halloween; and back to the beginning, to the Yule. Yes, these are ‘pagan’ holidays. Of course, they are!

“What you must understand is that the power of empire, in the form of the Church and the European aristocracies, imposed a fear of paganism and witchcraft as a way to subdue the people for the good of the economy and of their royal and holy coffers. These same forces evolved through time to become the modern mechanisms telling millions to behave, work their comfortable nine-to-five job, spray toxic poisons on the dandelions, and hope the vacation once or twice a year will be enough of a nice, mind-numbing reprieve from the strange, modern forms of indentured servitude. Do you see the insanity of it all? Do you understand the historical roots?

“This is what we must help to heal. The spiritual survival of our species and the vitality of our very planet is at stake. And your role—each and every one of you—is essential. You must educate yourselves. Connect with the living energies of Earth’s biology. Study history. And undo what has been done. Heal the destruction and cure the insanity. It begins inside each one of you. Connection is the key…,” she reaffirmed as she looked around at the students. “Especially connection to the soil, the water, and the plants.

“Remember what Steiner told us,” She implored, then pulled a small notebook from the table, opened it to a worn, dog-eared page, and began reading: “‘The plant world, however, which is a part of our entire Earth organism, provides the organs through which our Earth can think and feel. Woven into the spirit of the Earth are the plants, just as our eyes and ears are woven into the activities of our spirit.’ This is from his book, The Spirit in the Realm of Plants…are you beginning to understand this reality?

“We will go out to the field soon. Look around and feel, experience all that surrounds you. You are in a sea, a soup of life force. There is life force in the ether, and Steiner taught us that it is connected to the oxygen that is exhaled by the trees and the algae of the ocean. Stop and feel that: every breath in. Half of that oxygen is from the trees and plants on land. And the other half is from the phytoplankton in the ocean. You are an embodied yin/yang of earth and water. Air and fire. A four-dimensional yin-yang. Five dimensions when you add the quintessence. But the four has a physical completeness to it.

“This is why we work with the cow. The sacred cow. Not because we worship idols. No. It’s not about that at all. But because we honor the Creator’s magnificent work. And we understand. There’s a reason that one of the most fertile regions on the planet—the fertile crescent—was destroyed and scorched into desert. This is now called Iraq. And Jordan. And Syria. And Israel. These lands weren’t scorched by fire alone—they were scorched by humanity’s amnesia. By the great forgetting that soil-building is the essential task. As the monotheistic faiths supplanted the older ways, the cows were destroyed. The celebration of fertility, the matrilineal mystery schools and goddess temples were destroyed. What knowledge, what wisdom, what original instructions do you think were being preserved in those places?

“You see, the cow has a sacred connection to our old ways of soil building. The earthworms, the dung beetles and scarabs of the ancient Egyptians—all of these indicators of robust soil life are essential, fundamental to the preservation of human life on planet Earth. And in the Americas, it’s other ruminants that performed this essential vitality work: the buffalo, the deer, the pronghorn, and the alpaca. In the cow’s horns, the ‘horns of plenty,’ the cornucopia and the cochlea-like resonators, the bovine beauties are in constant communication with the cosmos as they digest the grasses and poop out the fertility for the Earth. They are fertility engines—creating twice the fertility in their manure as they eat off the pasture. Their cochlea-like horns have the spiral geometry of the spiral of life, the Fibonacci spiral, the spiral of the nautilus and the spiral of the sacred round. It is telling that those industrial cattle operations burn the horns off young calves during the branding and castration process. They are literally being cut off from their cosmic communication capabilities. Imagine what this means for our nutrition and our ecosystem stewardship!

“The cow is a communicator with the cosmos, the otherworldly. Part of our healing is the restoration of their sacred role in the farm landscape. The BD 500 horn manure preparation that we utilize is pregnant with this knowledge and understanding. The cow is central to all of this. Even in our urban and suburban gardens, it is essential that we bring a bit of the horn manure preparation—even small, homeopathic doses from nearby Biodynamic farms. For it says something to the soil ecology there. It tells all those countless trillions of microorganisms, of detritivores: yes, make soil!

“With these special preparations, a little bit can go a very, very long way.

“The cow embodies the completeness, the wholeness of the four. Think of the four directions. Think of the alchemical symbol for the Earth.” Pat picked up a brown dry-erase marker and drew a circle, then made a perfect cross on top of it, the intersection in the very middle of the circle. “The four is essential. Guess how many stomachs the cow has?”

“Four,” spoke up a young man.

“Exactly. Four stomachs. And these aren’t just pouches. No! There’s intricate design and pattern and geometry in each unique stomach! They are the rumen, the reticulum, the omasum, and the abomasum. One is the waterfall stomach. One, the reticulum, is the honeycomb stomach—evoking fertility and joy of the honeybee and the colony. The honeycomb-like texture captures dense particles. One is the brushy, fury stomach. And one, the omasum, has leaf-like folds, increased surface area that allows for ultra-efficient liquid absorption.

“Cows are ruminants. And like all the ruminants—the deer, goats, sheep, giraffes, antelopes, camels, elk, and buffalo—they are getting their nutrition not directly from the herbs and grasses they eat but from the microorganisms that are themselves eating the herbs and grasses. They are walking, living fermenters, basically making their own concoction of living kraut or kimchi or kombucha right inside their abdomens.

“So, when we pack these cows’ horns with manure,” she continued, lifting up one of the hollow cow horns resting on the table, “and bury it underground for several lunar cycles through the winter solstice, the holy nights, mid-winter and Imbolc, then dig it back up around the time of Easter—the celebration of Ostara, of rebirth—after the spring equinox, we are activating the Earth’s stomach in our locale. We are activating the microbiome. We are activating the life force. We direct our love, our care, our will toward these invisible creatures, and we create fertility through our consciousness. We are the Earth, and she is us.”

Sophia closed her eyes. The sun-warming meadows and soils all around them were waking up in the cozy, afternoon heat. She could smell the subtle mustiness of the warmed soil wafting around her; she could feel it. She quieted her breath. She could hear the dragonfly whizzing by, the hummingbird darting about the tall, blue spruce, and hundreds—or was it thousands—of honeybees and other buzzing insects tickling bushes and whirling through the air.

“Are you beginning to see the picture? Are you beginning to see how geometry and pattern and micro-ecology are at the core, the heart, the foundation, the source of this eternal life-giving miracle that we call, Gaia—life on Earth? Are you beginning to see that for us humans, this is all about nutrition—real nutrition? That our own gut microbiomes are intimately connected with the microbiome of the land and the microbiology of the ruminants living here with us?”

Sophia did not want to disturb the menagerie in her mind; her soul was alive and inspired, but she opened her eyes reluctantly, just in time for Pat to look at her and ardently ask:

“How can we miss what this actually is? Do you feel that achingly, tender feeling for what is present, all around us right now?”

Sophia went numb, becoming more aware of the role she had to play in whether the Earth failed or flourished.

Pat paused to let it all sink in. Gazing at Sophia, Pat smiled with compassion, put down the dry-erase marker on the tray along the bottom of the board, and looked around the space once again, peering kindly into each student’s eyes. She then decided, “Okay, I think that’s enough lecture for now… Brook, what do you think about a walk?” She looked toward the old wizard in the back, whose face was shadowed from the afternoon sun by his broad-brimmed, straw hat. A large smile came over his face.

“Is now the time?” he asked, winking and looking up at the sky as he held his left arm outstretched toward the ground, palm open as if feeling heat from a wood stove. He seemed to be listening to the landscape. “Yes, it is.”

He stood up and said gleefully, “Have some water…or bring some…. We’ll be out there for a while.”

Chapter 17: Superorganism

Like a docile herd of dairy cattle, though perhaps more visibly excited, the students followed Brook and Lloyd out toward the pasture. Leo lingered, waiting for Sophia to catch up. He glimpsed at her sideways, and she gave him a wistful smile. Pat, Stone, and Scott stood in a circle, catching up and sharing stories. The three instructors could enjoy each other’s good company over a little tea and relaxation while the others were out in the field.

Meanwhile, the students followed Brook through the outer fence—a perfectly inscribed circle enclosing more than an acre—and reached the entrance to the giant, fenced hexagon inside it. Sophia wasn’t sure what to expect next, but she had the unshakeable feeling that something large—something significant—was about to be revealed. Leo leaned toward her and whispered in her ear, “This is the ‘superorganism’ of the farm, where many of the preparations are buried for months at a time.”

In anticipation, Sophia joined the rest of the students, now clustered around Brook outside the gate like a hungry herd eager to graze in even greener pastures.

“Okay.” Brook stopped, turned, and faced the students. “First, close your eyes.” They all did. “Then, I want you to feel your feet.” Some of the crowd obliged, looking a bit unsure. A few opened their eyes and glanced around at one another, ensuring they were each understanding his request. “Now feel your heart.” As birds were chirping nearby, many of them cupped their hearts with both hands. “And now, feel the energy of the land… Mt. Sopris…and the Super… What do you feel?”

Some opened their eyes, glancing around uncertainly, not knowing if this was an actual question to be answered or just rhetorical. Brook continued, “Now ask permission. Ask the Super if you can enter its domain. Ask the preparations buried there if you can come and visit. Ask the honeybees—thousands of them—in the beehives, if it’s okay to join them in this special temple.… Is it okay?” He stretched his hand out once again toward the Earth, feeling something invisible…listening with his body.

“Yes, it’s okay. We’re welcome. We can go in,” he answered for the group, turning slightly to first unlatch and then full-body push open the giant, lodgepole gate hanging on sturdy hinges.

They all entered, trailing Brook into the enclosure. The lodgepole fence was 133 feet on each of its six sides, forming a perfect hexagon of about an acre. Inside, Sophia noticed the grasses and herbs were growing much taller than outside. Perhaps because the grazing animals aren’t let into this space, she mused. Or is it something else?

Brook led them all to the center of the unique space and asked them to close their eyes again. “Envision all of these young trees around you, now tall and mature, forming a secret garden, a special sanctuary here in this big pasture. That’s what the future holds for us. This is our laboratory. This is where we make all the buried preps. You see over there?” He pointed toward the southeast, in the direction of Wi Magua. “That’s where we have the Dandelion preparation.”

Where he pointed Sophia saw a wooden board sticking a couple feet out of the ground, with a yellow figure that looked like the number four—a planetary symbol—carved into it. The number 506 had been written above the symbol. “That’s Dandelion Prep—506—Jupiter.” Then Brook moved his arm and pointed toward another sign in the northwest. He continued, “Over there is 502, with the ancient symbol for Venus, familiar, I’m sure, to all of you as the symbol for woman. Yarrow, 502. And there is Mars—nettle.” Sophia noticed it had the number 504 on it. Pointing toward a symbol due south, with a circle atop a cross and a half-moon extending from the top like a cow’s horns, he continued, “That’s Mercury, 503, chamomile, the communicator, the messenger…

“Remember the diagram Stone showed you this morning with the Kabbalistic Tree of Life? All these map onto it. And it maps onto the geometry of the Fruit of Life, which is inherent, embedded in the Star of David, expanded outward. The hexagon is the perfect center of the Star of David. And all this maps together on one great cosmic grid. Grounded in the reality of the soil, the plants, the life that grows here with the seasonal cycles. Are you starting to comprehend?”

Brook turned toward Lloyd, a younger but just as mysterious a figure as Brook, who nodded in silent understanding. Taking his cue, Lloyd stepped forward, red flannel shirt accentuating his wild red hair and his muddy, worn leather work boots firmly rooted in the soil and somehow just as ruddy as his blushed cheeks. He began to speak: “This ‘superorganism’ is a microcosm of the cosmos. As Enzo Nastati calls it: ‘a time and space machine’ where the future and past converge and activate ‘hyper-potent’ preps. We enter through the south gate, the gate of fertility, of abundance, of sunlight. Enzo taught us that ‘sacred geometry design on your property will fertilize the whole thing.’

“The Super is a massive, sacred, geometric installation for the farm and the valley. Its hexagonal shape connects us with Saturn, whom the ancients believed held jurisdiction over agriculture and harvests, plenty, wealth, generation, periodic renewal, liberation, and dissolution. Here, in the way of the ancient Hermetic arts, we connect to these energies. We connect to the above and below; we connect to Father in Heaven and Mother Earth. We work with light and information and more than all else: love. We work humbly with the myriad elemental forces. We invite the help, support, wisdom, and guidance of the cosmic beings. To go through the gate, we were taught to take three steps.” Lloyd took three steady steps to demonstrate, then paused. “Then five steps,” he continued, walking between the two vertical posts and underneath the beam overhead. “And then seven steps. This is according to the old ways and the ancient knowledge. This is what brings us through the gate, the threshold into this powerful vortex.

“And, as my dear friend and mentor, the late Hugh Courtney, taught us, we can tune into special energies and forces and invite them to collaborate with us and amplify our healing and stewardship intentions. The deeper layers of Biodynamics work with very special spiritual forces—those that are found in ancient traditions and initiatic lineages. Namely, they are harnessing the potent forces of resurrection—the natural cycles of life from death that animate our living planet and that are fundamental to some of our deepest, most sacred spiritual traditions. The pattern of dying, being buried, and later raised up and returned to life is a mystical pattern, a cosmic pattern of life that is embodied in the Biodynamic preparations. There is a relationship, a conversation, between the Loving Father in heaven and the nourishing Earth Mother. Just as Jesus Christ worked with potent elemental forces, transmuting water into wine and death into life, the Biodynamic preparations are also infused with mythopoetic forces that animate our world and our cosmos.

“When Hugh Courtney created the recommendation for ‘sequential sprays,’ he was very much thinking of Christ’s death and resurrection. You see, he invited us to a beautiful, simple, potent pattern: stir and spray the barrel compost on the first evening—this represents the death, the darkness, the potential, and the vivifying dark, feminine archetypal energies of the underworld; then, stir and spray equisetum the morning of day two. This is the silica, the light, the communication. Then, in the evening of the second day, the horn manure is stirred and sprayed, bringing in the cosmic intelligence that was concentrated below ground into those horns and manures and all those billions of living microorganisms that organically connected and communicated with the manure. Then, finally, on the morning of the third day, at sunrise, the silica preparation—501—is stirred and sprayed. This is the light, the resurrection, the return of the sun god, the rebirth of Jesus, of Mithras, of Horus. This is the pattern that mirrors the transformational process of Good Friday through Easter Sunday. This is an embodied practice, a humble practice, that we have been taught and encouraged to amplify in the world. You see, the preparations themselves have been buried and resurrected. We place them in the ground at specific times of the calendar cycle and then raise them up again at other appointed times. This is part of the alchemical magic of working with Biodynamic land medicines.

“There are few times in life that we can experience the real magic of being individuated beings in this miraculous cosmic experience. Real magic, like falling in love, is something that we also experience working with the Biodynamic preparations. These are fertilizers and land medicines that work in an extraordinary way and that nourish and fertilize our hearts and souls as we work with the land, water, trees, and plants. When we come to understand the magic and potency of Biodynamics, and of the microbiome and homeopathic power of these very small quantities, we begin to understand other aspects of the sacred teachings: the power of regeneration, of healing, of atonement, of forgiveness, of the balancing of the gender archetypes, of the yin and yang, the self and other—of all the relationships that hold us suspended, like a webbed network, in the living realities that we experience together.”

Lloyd, with a soft glisten in his eyes, looked up toward Brook as if emerging from a deep trance and smiled subtly. He then paced shyly, like a grade-school child having given his first book report, and walked toward his water bottle to take a long draught. It was as if Lloyd had said what needed to be said, some force having moved through him, and he had returned to his normal, shy, introverted personality.

Brook took his cue seamlessly—convincing Sophia that this was not their first workshop together—and said, “When we open our hearts and connect to the trees, to Father Sky, to Mother Soil, to the Living Water, we ourselves become the preparations. It is our direct, personal relationship with the garden, the farm, the landscape, that enlivens and vitalizes the biology surrounding us. We humans are the x-factor. We are offered the opportunities to embody the quintessence—the will to life, the willful cultivation of healing, restorative forces—and are invited to amplify and broadcast that prolifically. With this knowledge, we can co-create on four levels: on the physical level with the root/mineral energies, on the etheric level with the leaf/plant energies, on the soul level with the flower/animal energies, and on the spirit level with the fruit and human energies. This, my friends, is part of what we are talking about when we ask the question: ‘What are we really capable of?’

“But don’t just take our word for it,” Brook suddenly asserted. “Work with the preparations at your home, in your neighborhood, and see for yourselves what happens! We’re not just airy-fairy out here. We also believe in science. In fact, we’ve been a part of a multi-year soil carbon study with the NRCS—the Natural Resources Conservation Service—and are literally ‘off the charts’ now! They actually had to increase the measurement units on the vertical access of their chart as our farm’s soil-carbon results exceeded their presumed limit. It was a fun day when Clark from NRCS visited and asked, ‘What are you guys doing here?’ I had to respond by saying, ‘I’ll tell you, but you won’t believe me!’

“And, it’s not just our small farm doing this work. From the folks at the Fetzer Vineyards in California to the Goetheanum in Switzerland, to many small-holder farms in India—there are already thousands of Biodynamic farms around the world. And, it’s not just Biodynamics that are growing. Other forms of regenerative agriculture are gaining ground—Jeff Moyer’s team at the Rodale Institute has been leading the charge for decades and are really taking off now. The folks at Rodale have teamed with Gero Leson and the Bronner family at Dr. Bronner’s, Yvon Chouinard’s team at Patagonia, and others to launch the Regenerative Organic Certification. Although we’re too small to justify the certification, it’s an excellent step forward for larger-scale food, beverage, and fiber producers. But this isn’t only about agricultural production. It is about culture—a culture in intimate relationship with Mother Nature. This is about David Orr’s work with Ecological Literacy, Wendell Berry’s work with place-based grounding, and Alice Waters’ work with terroir, flavor, and community…community with our entire ecosystems.

“It’s about each of us—all of us—connecting to our places in a much more intimate way.”

Brook at the group, bathed in the steady sunlight and captivated by this stream of information. Glancing around, Sophia detected a newly lit flame in the other students’ eyes. A playful grin came over Brook’s face as he observed it as well. Sophia felt that the group was beginning to comprehend, and even more importantly, grasp the potential of what they were being taught.

Brook then invited each of them to close their eyes again, and gently instructed the group, “Feel the entire ‘space’ inside the hexagon—with your whole body. Feel the different energies, as you connect with and perceive the billions of living organisms and beings that surround us here in the Super, that dwell here above you and beneath you.” And then he said, “Keep your eyes closed and feel…feel what direction is pulling you. Take your time. Feel if there’s a particular preparation pulling you. A particular tone or energy.” After a few, silent moments, he continued, “And now, quietly, without talking, open your eyes just enough to carefully go in that direction. Allow yourself to be guided. Go to whatever is calling you, and when you get there, sit down and close your eyes again. Just listen. Just be. Receive and experience what is being said to you.”

Sophia followed Brook’s instructions, clearing her mind and allowing herself to be drawn…south. The direction of Mercury. Apparently, the chamomile was calling to her. She sat down. The straw and stems of the herbs in the field poked her in the legs and the butt—but not too hard. She put her hands on the ground, and without thinking about it, began digging into the rich, warm soil—massaging it like the bread dough she had kneaded at her grandmother’s farm so many years ago. Closing her eyes, she allowed the thoughts and words of the day—from Stone, Pat, Scott, Lloyd and Brook—to swirl freely in her mind. She began to intuit the Earth and the massive mountain looming to her left. She felt the quivering waves of weeping well up inside her belly. Tears began to flow down her cheeks, streaming uninhibitedly. The warm sun caressed her gently…gliding her imperceptibly farther west with each passing moment. She had heard so much.

Sophia was spent. The whole day’s experience left her with an inner calm, a shedding, a remembering and reintegrating into the ancestral roots of the old ways. She knew it lived through her grandmother’s lineage. Yet the stirring of those roots left her, once again, deeply conflicted about Otto, about whether to activate him. Would Otto contribute to the well-being of the Earth and the soil she just connected to, or would he destroy and conquer? At that thought, she was reminded she couldn’t let her guard down. Sophia recognized she wouldn’t be safe here for more than a couple days. Plus, she didn’t want to place these kind spirits here in danger. She needed to take some time to figure out what to do next, but she was too tired to think about it now.

As they all slowly walked back under the evening light toward the outdoor kitchen-cum-classroom, Leo stepped next to Sophia and glanced at her, seeing the softness, stress, and exhaustion. He gave her a slight smile of understanding and looked back toward the ground, seemingly deep in thought. After several more steps together, he looked back at her. “Would you like to go soak in the hot springs up the road a couple miles? They’re called Avalanche Hot Springs. They’re quiet, tranquil, and very soothing and nourishing. It might be good for you—for us both.”

Sophia appreciated the thoughtfulness. But she was also skeptical about going to such a place with Leo. “Is it one of those hippie-nudie places?” she blurted out.

“No, it’s not like that at all. It’s more of a middle-aged, professional relaxation, nature-spa sort of place. Bathing suits are required. They’re very strict about keeping it quiet and tranquil. I think you’d like it… Really. Plus, there are three different pools, and if you want your space, I’d be happy to soak in one of the other ones.”

She thought about it as they walked across the foot bridge over the irrigation ditch and then back into the old apple orchard adjacent to the ranch house and outdoor kitchen. The group was milling about, getting ready for dinner. “Yeah, actually, I think that would be nice,” she finally admitted, realizing that she was probably burnt out on mingling with others today, even though they seemed an incredibly kind and amicable group. “But I probably would prefer to soak in one of the pools alone. I hope you aren’t offended.”

She could sense Leo’s disappointment, and was surprised to find herself feeling a bit sorry that she might have hurt his feelings. She had been under such severe stress these past three days; it was no wonder that she didn’t feel much connection with him. Not the romantic sort anyway. She was impressed, though, that Leo was a mature enough man to keep his outward demeanor very calm and collected.

She was in the midst of a bona fide heroine’s journey, and things were hard as hell.

Exhausted, they both thanked Brook and Rose for the dinner invitation, but explained they were going up the road to take a soak. Walking by and overhearing their plan, Mike had suggested they borrow his jeep so as to avoid traveling by bike on the twisting mountain road—especially at night. Mike explained that he was beat after a long day of digging garlic, and was planning to kick back at the farm. Leo thanked Mike, and deftly caught the keys that Mike unexpectedly tossed toward him.

Once Sophia climbed up into the passenger’s seat, Leo started the engine and the jeep kicked up dust heading out the dirt drive before turning right onto the curvy, two-lane highway toward the fabled mountains towns of Marble and Redstone.

When the pair arrived at the hot springs, the gloaming was painting the hillsides in tangerine, rose, and peach. Everything glowed. Leo and Sophia walked into the small office, paid the soaking fee, and proceeded quietly to the changing rooms. Leo was first to emerge outside, his towel slung around his neck; he sat on the wooden bench, waiting patiently for Sophia.

While he sat there quietly, his eyes traced the rounded curves of the three pools. A marble sculpture perched on the edge of the pools—a near-perfect Fibonacci spiral forming the cosmic geometry of the ram’s horn, or nautilus. Expertly laid flagstones hugged the edges of each of the curving pools—perfectly contoured like sheer lingerie. The steam rose slowly, peacefully. These waters were continuously fed by thermal springs rising from deep within the Earth, laden with iron, magnesium, lithium, and other therapeutic minerals.

Sophia walked out with a large towel wrapped modestly around her entire torso. She didn’t have a proper bathing suit, but her bra and panties would work just fine. She saw Leo sitting patiently and, reading his intent, nodded toward the pool to the right. “I’ll go over here.” She could tell that he was cold and longed to dip in the warm water but had decided to see where she preferred to go first so that he could give her ample space. Sophia noticed the subtle gesture and thought to herself, Hmmm, maybe chivalry really is still practiced by some.

Leo rose nonchalantly and walked in the other direction. He turned and stepped into the steaming water just in time to see her unwrap the towel, drape it over a nearby chair, and descend slowly into the healing pool. Leo couldn’t help but gaze at her through the steam. Although she wasn’t alluring and flirtatious like so many other women their age, she was stunningly beautiful beneath her hard shell and cold demeanor. Through the steam, Leo could now see her curved essence: she was soft and warm. Sophia was a goddess.

He smiled tenderly to himself, knowing she was off-limits, or at least, now wasn’t the time to pursue her. So, he drifted to the far wall, where he couldn’t see her, and leaned back against the sloping rocks. Removing her from his present thoughts, he immersed himself in the healing waters. This was heaven…every time.

In the other pool, Sophia was submerged up to her buxom bosom. Leaning back against the wall, the tips of her dark, curly hair sank just below the surface of the bubbling water, floating adrift like ancient seaweed. Her body relaxed into the mineral-rich waters, and she breathed deeply. Sophia’s mind drifted with the wispy feathers of steam, floating around in the never-ness of the cosmic, meditative now. She reflected on all that she had heard, seen, and felt earlier that day…and wondered how and if any of it might apply to Otto.

The sky darkened, and in the twilight, she saw early stars appearing faintly in the purpling firmament. A shadow moved across the stone walkway—quite small for a human.

Between the rising steam, forming a foggy shroud around the waters, and the growing darkness, it was hard to tell who—or what—was there.

Sophia’s senses sharpened, and she heard the subtle splash and lapping of water at the far end of the rounded pool. Somebody else was getting in the water with her, and doing so very slowly, stealthily. The dark form approached, and Sophia’s heart began to race. Closer still came the shadowy body, steadily, like a panther, almost imperceptible but ominous in its presence.

“Hello, dear.” It was the voice of a very old woman. Sophia’s arm hairs prickled, and she was immediately on alert.

“Um…hello?” she answered.

“Don’t worry, dear. I’m just here to soak, like you.” And the woman came to rest a few yards away, leaning back with a deep sigh against the stone wall. Sophia couldn’t make out much in the darkness. The faint walkway lights provided just enough illumination to see the old woman’s silhouette, and that both her long, straight hair and her one-piece bathing suit were dark as inky shadows. The two sat there in silence for around a half-hour as Sophia returned to her inner space. She was outwardly calm, but inwardly agitated as she tried to sort out what to do about Otto, about her safety and security. It was surreal, being this bizarre pinnacle of responsibility. She was secure and anonymous for the time being, but that wouldn’t last long. They, whoever “they” were, would come for her. Her antagonists would discover the flight diverted to Aspen and figure out she was in this valley. She couldn’t delay her decision too long. She had to stay on the move, had to stay in hiding, had to stay a step ahead.

Sophia opened her eyes, gazing up into the deep darkness. Night had set in, and thousands of stars were twinkling brightly overhead, visible despite the bright full moon rising in the east. In the west, a small yet very bright object glowed brilliantly, steadily, not blinking. Venus—the evening star, the goddess, the one who brought coppery love to the world. Sophia gazed, mesmerized.

Suddenly, breaking the tranquil silence, the old woman spoke. “I know you’re here for a very special reason. I know you’re on a mission, and I know that you have a critical decision in front of you.”

Sophia sat up with a start, the water splashing around her body. “What? Wh…who are you? What are you talking about?”

She could hear the water rippling in the other pool as Leo sat up as well, startled by the volume and concern in her voice.

“Don’t worry, dear child,” came the voice, softer now, sounding ethereal. “I have been sent here to invite you to a unique gathering tomorrow—a women’s moon sweat lodge. I know you’re carrying a heavy burden. I don’t need to know the details, but I have been guided to tell you that what you’re carrying is a bigger responsibility than you could ever imagine. You must make the right decision, dear child. The sweat lodge may give you insight and clarity. That is the reason for the invitation. The planet and her inhabitants require your presence.”

Sophia was stunned. “Who are you?” Wh…when? And where is this sweat lodge?”

“My name is Pine Raven. Who I am will be revealed when needed. There’s a women’s moon lodge site just a couple miles from here. It happens every full moon. We will begin preparations for the ceremony at noon. It’s good to come a little earlier. You can ask Rose and the others at Sustainable Settings about it. Tell them I invited you. They know who I am and will give you directions to the lodge…and you can bring your man with you too—he can help tend the fire.”

How did she know that she and Leo were staying at Sustainable Settings? And, wait, he’s not my man! Sophia was confused. “Um, yeah, thanks… I’ll think about it.” Not! Sophia thought to herself at first, but then she quickly reflected on the events of the day, the cosmic interactions that had ignited emotions she hadn’t felt since childhood. “Thank you,” she said more sincerely.

“You are welcome, dear…and if you decide to come, it is best not to eat tonight or tomorrow before the sweat,” advised the old woman kindly. “I will leave you now.”

Pine Raven stood slowly and made her way back toward the stone stairs she had used to enter. She stepped gingerly up one step at a time, lifting first her right and then her left foot to the same stone slab before ascending to the next. She seemed ancient to Sophia, though her body, bent and gnarled by time, still seemed somehow youthful.

Sophia sat still in disbelief. After a few moments, Leo exited the pool he had been soaking in and walked toward her, slipping quietly into the water next to her. Sophia looked sideways at him and was immediately comforted by his presence. She described to him the strange interaction and explained what the crone had said. After listening to her, Leo confirmed that yes, there was a woman’s moon lodge nearby, and yes, Pine Raven really was one of the elders who guided ceremonies there. While Leo was somewhat surprised by the contact, he trusted synchronistic events like this and encouraged Sophia to go. He said he would go with her if it made her feel better.

Hearing this made Sophia relax again. She had never experienced a sweat lodge or anything of the sort; had only read about them. A distant cousin once posted on social media about her experience with a sweat lodge outside of New York. It hadn’t sounded particularly appealing to Sophia. But based on what Pine Raven said, perhaps it would be good for her to attend. Maybe it would somehow help her decide what to do, give her the confirmation she sought, the answer to the greatest question of her entire lifetime….

Still, there was a small, nagging voice in the back of Sophia’s mind. Could all this be a subterfuge? A way to get the code, the final key? She sighed. How had everything become so unimaginably complicated? She missed the comfort of her life before that fateful meeting.

She missed Otto.

Chapter 18: Wi Magua

That morning, she heard the sound of the roosters and of Rose singing to the cows in from the pasture and herding them back to the milking parlor. The bucolic sounds stirred something deep inside Sophia’s memory—something far more ancient than even her memories of her Oma and Opa in Slovenia.

The morning was similar to the morning before: she rose shortly after sunrise, awakened by the stirring sounds of the farm animals and Leo in the adjacent room. Of course, the roosters and cows and other farm animals had already been up for hours—one ornery cock had even started crowing in the pre-dawn darkness. Yet she slept through that commotion reasonably well, only stirring here and there to adjust her pillow or pull the covers up a bit higher around her chilly bare neck. But the sound of Leo stirring somehow ripped her from the realm of dreamy slumber into  waking reality: she was still in extreme danger and must remain alert. She needed to make her next moves with a clear mind, determination, and commitment to her self-preservation.

Yes, she had been uneasy sleeping in the room next to Leo’s. The doors closed with only a latch. There were no locks. And the rooms were so small, teetering on the edge between cozy and claustrophobic, which didn’t exactly help either. There was something about Leo that kept her a bit uneasy, and whenever he stirred during the night to go to the bathroom, she would awaken wide-eyed. And when he roused himself and began stirring, she would snap to wakefulness then as well. Sometimes it was the muffled sound of a baritone fart. Sometimes it was his strange, guttural, yawning sound. And as he moved about the small room, he seemed to make more noise than necessary, like one of those great beasts in the barnyards below. Leo seemed a strange animal, as if his place were more naturally outside than inside the confines of walls and ceilings, furniture and doors.

He was animalistic.

He was nothing like the men in New York, or those boys-cum-men in college and graduate school. No, they were tame compared to Leo, less dangerous somehow and more familiarly conforming to those social rules and norms that made everything seem ordered and safe. Though those other guys certainly harbored animalistic urges and passions as much as any man, they just did it in a way that paradoxically made everything seem safe and predictable.

But Leo was different, animalistic in his movements and actions. Like a man from the ancient mists of prehistory—part neanderthal and part sapiens. He seemed to embody a fierce masculinity, silently projecting that he could just as easily kill or protect, attack or seduce her. He had all those capabilities, and she could feel his seductive power. Sure, he was decent to her—chivalrous even—and extraordinarily hospitable and magnanimous. He had dropped everything in his life to help her these past few days. But there was something fiercely feral in his eyes, in the way he moved, even in the way he smelled. Leo was like a tribal warrior from another time, though also obviously educated and bright. He was an enigma, a peculiarity. He was an educated beast, like some mythic satyr or Dionysian bard.

All of which, of course, made her very uncomfortable.

So, she would always wake when he stirred. And she would lie still, eyes wide open, staring at the cedar ceiling or out the small window overlooking the irrigation canal and the bell tower, listening to his every move. Breathing quietly. And listening.

Just like the previous morning, Sophia arose, descended the wooden ladder, and strode outside the bathhouse. This time, however, as she turned the corner to the bathroom, she was stunned by the beauty of the great mountain looming in the southeast, illuminated by the morning sunlight. Wi Magua, the sacred heart of the mountains, was looking down upon her as if understanding what decision lay in front of her…the greatest decision she would ever have to make.

And she wasn’t sure what to do. Not yet.

Like the stoic timelessness of the great mountain, somehow heavier than the billions of tons of granite and quartz and gold veins, the decision loomed over Sophia like a monolithic mass. There was no way to avoid or delay it. Not answering or postponing an answer was in itself an answer—virtually guaranteeing that some other laboratory, with who knew what underlying motivation, would be the first to activate the super-intelligence.

She had to answer. And soon.

The weight was crushing. She was numbed by it, lulled into a floating quasi-suspended state of consciousness. She wanted relief. And as the last of the cows followed Rose into the milking parlor, Sophia was irresistibly drawn there as well. There was something so soothing, so earthy about Rose. Her very presence was a balm for the heart. Sophia walked quietly past the chickens and ducks, the sheep and lambs, the cows and pigs, and toward the milking barn.

She opened the door shyly.

Inside, Rose was sitting on a stool and methodically squeezing down gently but firmly on the cow’s teat. It was a calm, powerful image of nourishment, of mutual benefit, of a synergistic relationship between females: cow and woman. Hearing the door close, Rose looked up and smiled at Sophia—radiating a warmth that bade welcome before she even uttered her friendly, “Good morning, Sophia! How are you this morning?”

“Good morning, Rose…. Am…am I disturbing you?”

“Not at all. Come on in. I enjoy the company.” By her graceful mannerisms, it was clear that Rose spent many mornings alone with the cows. And, although it was also clear that the older woman cherished the quiet time with her gentle bovine companions, she also welcomed occasional company and conversation—especially with younger women. Rose struck Sophia as being especially warm and kind to her, as if the elder could sense she was weary and weighed down by a tremendous burden.

Sophia had an uncanny intuition that the matriarch knew especially how to counsel and support younger women, as she began speaking, “These mamas are so grounding for us, especially for us women. With their cycles, their births, their nursing calves, their generous abundance of milk, their fertility for the land, they are angels of nourishment. Like women, their cycles are sacred and they are connected to the lunar patterns. They tend to calve more around the full moon—something we have definitely observed here at the farm. We keep our calves with their mamas. They don’t experience the trauma and pain of separation that so many commercial dairies inflict on their cows. We nourish them with kindness and patience, and they nourish us with their prolific abundance and fertility. In fact, the great animal-whisperer, Temple Grandin, visited here a few years ago, and after her tour of the farm, informed us that these were the happiest cows she’d ever visited. She didn’t have any recommendations for improvements. Apparently, that was the very first time that had happened during one of her many farm visits.”

Sophia’s eyes swept from Rose’s hands gently squeezing out streams of warm milk to the mama cow’s eyes. She could feel the calm strength, the heat and power and energy emanating from the great animal. It was as if the cow was radiating love.

Rose observed the young woman and waited silently as Sophia gazed at the cow named Buttercup. After a few moments, Sophia looked back toward Rose, her moist eyes revealing something about her heavy burden. Rose again spoke, “The cows have taught me so much about the cycles of life, especially our feminine cycles. From our childhoods, through maidenhood, motherhood, and the final stage of elder women—of crone—the cycle mirrors nature herself. Spring, summer, autumn, and winter, and the cycles on the farm are mirrored as well. Our bodies are the timekeepers. Our bodies, Gaia’s body, and Luna’s body are all synched up in a great Divine feminine timekeeping. And there are cycles within cycles. Thirteen moon cycles within each annual cycle. The moon herself cycles through each of the twelve Zodiacal signs each month—three times each through the elemental essences of earth, water, air, and fire—indicating for us the best times to make cheese from the milk, to make bread from the grains, and to make ferments from the vegetables.

“It’s just like our own bodies move each month through the twenty-eight-day Infradian cycle, with peaks and valleys in four major hormonal levels, all affecting our microbiome, our brains, our moods, our immune systems, our fertility, our sensuality, our creativity, and our changing needs for nourishment and well-being. The cycle flows from the follicular to the ovulatory, to the luteal, to the menstrual, and back again to the follicular. Always cycling, always returning, always flowing—just like the moon and her ocean tides. Our blood cycles and Earth’s water cycles are continuously connected.

“These are the natural harmonics around which we women are given the opportunity to synchronize our lives. These are the cycles around which our ancestral grandmothers oriented their life-ways. The great cycles of moon and Earth, ocean and soil, seasons and generations of reproduction that connect us to an unbroken line of mothers. And in each mother, when she becomes pregnant with a daughter—another potential mother—the eggs of that potential mother’s ovaries are formed inside the womb of her own mama. Our own eggs were formed when we were in utero in our mother’s bodies. This is the great line of mothers and grandmothers…the cycle itself embodied in the pregnant mama: childhood, maidenhood, motherhood, and elderhood—all at once.”

Sophia was entranced, staring at Rose’s hands gently, firmly milking the cow’s teat, thinking of her Oma and her mother, and her… Will I ever have a baby of my own? Without thinking about it, Sophia’s hands moved to her lower belly and came to rest on her womb.

Rose asked, “Is there something on your mind?”

Sophia’s eyes watered, and, deliberately concentrating on her milking, Rose waited patiently for the young woman’s response.

“This reminds me of my grandmother’s home back in Slovenia,” Sophia began, before sharing much about her life and her unexpected adventure with Leo. She was careful not to talk about Otto, her life-and-death situation, or the imminent decision that stood before her. Rose listened quietly and then spoke further about the great cycles of the moon and the seasons, and the old folkways that women had preserved since time immemorial. It calmed Sophia. Rose’s peaceful voice was as soothing as the soak in the hot springs had been the night before. Sophia told Rose about her encounter with Pine Raven at the pools and that she and Leo were going to the full-moon sweat ceremony. Rose encouraged her participation, explaining that Pine Raven was a well-known healer in the local community, helping many people find answers to what they were seeking.

Sophia thanked Rose and walked back outside; this time she was greeted by an even brighter morning than before. She strode to the gardens under the warm sunshine while gazing up at the great mountain, Wi Magua, which also cycled in her own time. Wi Magua cycled through the thick blankets of winter snow, the budding greens and colorful wildflowers of alpine springtime. She cycled through the warm breezes of summertime and the blazing foliage and crisp nights of autumn. She cycled through the movements of tribes and waves of immigrants. And she cycled through the eons of geologic epochs. According to Leo and legends, Wi Magua was the sacred heart of the mountains. And these mountains—the Rocky Mountains that had been protecting Sophia the past few days, along with their southern counterpart, the Andes—were one of the two great spinal chains across the body of Mother Earth. Breathing in the fresh morning air, she looked intently upon the giant peaks and realized something new: The mountain is giving me courage.

As she dwelled on the potential and irreversible disasters that could ensue after activating Otto, her confidence and surety faded a bit. A sick feeling began to form in her gut. Was she really sure? Or was she just deluding herself? She had made a deep commitment to herself—to the world—the day she met with the Air Force officials that she would never help deep AI happen without knowing unequivocally there would be no destruction.

But how could she ever be sure?

With a renewed fullness in her heart, she turned away from Wi Magua and walked back toward the bathhouse to find Leo. It was time to prepare for the sweat lodge.

Chapter 19: The Great Darkness

Sophia and Leo strode from the ranch to the paved path on the other side of Highway 133. After walking along the Crystal River at the base of Wi Magua for about three miles, they arrived at the lodge site at 11:30, early, as Pine Raven had encouraged. There were several women mingling quietly in the secluded grove. Sophia saw just one man there; he was tall, his long, dark hair woven into two braids. The man stood beside a large bonfire ablaze inside a stone circle situated thirteen paces from the door of the sweat lodge. The lodge, a low, semi-spherical structure, was covered in tanned hides and furs. As Sophia and Leo moved closer toward the circle, an old woman approached and reached out her wrinkled hands, tenderly taking Sophia’s into her soft grasp. “Ah…you made it.” She smiled. “I am Pine Raven Wolf Thunder. I am glad you came, child.”

“Hi. I am Sophia…” She paused, looked at Leo, and then to the ground. She wanted to share her full name and every other secret she was carrying with this kind-eyed elder, but knew better.

“And hello, Leo,” smiled Pine Raven. “My, my…. It has been many moons. How are you, young man?” Pine Raven was slight, her body weighed down by the invisible gravity of time. But her spirit was light and expansive. Sophia thought she could float away on the gentlest breeze. She could feel sweet warmth radiating from her and reverberating within the entire grove: the trees, the river nearby, and even the canyon walls and mountains surrounding them. It was a weird, palpable experience.

“Come, child,” Pine Raven escorted her over to two younger women kneeling and busily tying small bundles with what looked like cut-up ribbons from red bandanas. The women were reaching into a red, ceramic pot positioned on the ground, each pinching some sort of dried, brown herb and placing it neatly in the next ribbon before twisting and tying it up. “These sisters are making prayer ties with the tobacco. You can join them. Take your time. Pray for whom and what you will. Pray for clarity and guidance. Pray for humility and wisdom. Pray for right action.”

Sophia knelt next to the other two women, their bodies forming a triangle around the pot. Silently, they showed her how much tobacco to pinch and how to tie it securely into the ribbon. Sophia took their cue and duplicated the process in silence. She glanced up for a moment—long enough to see that Leo had made his way to the fire and was standing next to the tall man. They had engaged in a hushed conversation, looking into the fire and away from the women. As Sophia committed to the ceremonial rhythm of pinching and tying, she breathed in the rich scent of tobacco and engrossed her mind in the meditative task, praying for direction from Mother Earth and Father Sky. For a brief moment, her cynical, New York brain questioned what the heck she was doing, how she had come to this place, this activity. Why was she tying tobacco for a sweat lodge? But then again, the immersions of the last few days, both the fearful encounters and the mysterious experiences, fortified her desire to embrace this new opportunity to grow and to buy herself time. She was looking for answers. What the hell else am I going to do? Then she smiled and wondered, what would Otto think of me kneeling here, attending a sweat lodge?

After they finished the prayer ties, the other two women showed Sophia how to tie them onto the branches of the pines, spruce, cottonwoods, and elm trees that encompassed the clearing. Then Pine Raven spoke to the group of women and looked around, saying, “Okay, my sisters, it is time to make your final preparations. Go water the grasses if you need to. Drink water too. And prepare your sweat attire.” She turned toward Sophia and instructed her, “This is a traditional Diné sweat, and we have Lakota and Haudenosaunee medicine keepers here with us too. You may wear as much or as little as you like. Some women will wear their traditional skirts and heavy shirts as you see. That’s the way of the northern woodland women. Others will go naked as they came into this world. The Lodge is the Womb of our Great Mother, so bare is acceptable. You may wear whatever you like.”

Sophia went into the woods to pee. Other than outside Nederland, it had been years since she had relieved herself outdoors. Not since playing in the woods near her grandmother’s house. It was strange, squatting in the open and feeling the gentle breeze on her tender lips and secret gateway. But with other women also out in the woods, she felt safe enough. Looking back toward the lodge, she could see the men were still gazing deeply into the fire. It was as if they knew not to look around too much.

She returned to the lodge and stripped to her underwear and bra—the same she had worn into the hot springs the night before. Thank goodness such things dry so quickly in Colorado! She stood quietly, feeling the air blow across her skin and smelling the deep, pungent smoke from the fire.

Pine Raven explained that ceremonies such as these had been held in the lush alpine valley for millennia, up until a century and a half ago when Whites overwhelmed the area and many did all that they could to subdue the natives and suppress their ceremonies. This pattern was repeated thousands of times all around the continent, and indeed, on other continents as well. Only recently had the ceremonies begun to return. Small handfuls of indigenous wisdom-keepers had kept the traditions intact—remembering the songs and ceremonies. Fewer still had more recently held a ceremony specifically to forgive the White men for their atrocities. But some were still not ready to forgive.

To be invited to participate in a ceremony like this at the base of Wi Magua was an honor well beyond Sophia’s understanding and was going to imprint on her being a new knowing.

The women lined up single file, wrapping around the outer circle of the lodge. Sophia followed suit as Pine Raven had explained earlier, feeling the skin of her feet firmly planted on the cool ground and a soft breeze tickling her bare body. She was in her bra and panties and, though chilled and clutching her arms around her chest, was less self-conscious than she thought she’d be, at least around the women. Glancing toward the fire, she saw that the two men had kept their backs turned to the women out of respect. She had somewhat hoped to catch Leo’s eye but was relieved he was looking away.

There were twelve women in all, not counting Pine Raven, who stood at the entrance, saying prayers and fanning a large shell with an eagle’s wing. Thick smoke rose from the shell and perfumed the grove with a mixture of musty, sweet, and earthy scents. These were a sacred blend of medicines used by indigenous peoples throughout North America: sage, sweet grass, cedar, osha, and tobacco. She pointed the shell, fanning outward to the four directions: to the east, the south, the west, and the north. She looked to the sky, arms outstretched to the heavens, smoke wisping upward, and then to the ground below as she knelt down, placing her hand tenderly on the Earth, all while holding the feather and shell dexterously with her gnarled fingers. She stood and fanned inward toward her heart—the within, explaining that with the above and the below, the within constituted the seventh direction—the axis of the center of the crossed sphere. Pine Raven had spoken prayers just under her breath the entire time she was fanning thick smoke out and up and down and toward her heart. Sophia couldn’t make out the words, but she felt something settling into the space. A deepening. An opening. A yawning and swirling of energy.

Pine Raven then turned toward the line of women wrapped around the exterior of the low-domed lodge and invited the first one to step forward. The entrant disrobed and stretched her arms out away from her body, turning slowly as Pine Raven used the feather to briskly fan the smoke away from the shell, first toward the woman’s face and forehead, then to her heart, then lower to her belly, her groin, down along both legs, her feet, up the back of her legs, her buttocks, her back, her arms, and then over the top of her head. The woman then knelt to the ground and bent over, facing into the dark opening of the lodge before crawling and disappearing into the inky void within.

The men kept their backs respectfully toward the women, heads bowed as they focused on the fire. Sophia, feeling the cool air hardening her nipples through her bra, was glad that neither man looked at her. It was strange enough being nearly naked in front of the other women… but somehow comfortable and familiar too.

One after the next, the other eleven women proceeded through the smudging ceremony and entered the lodge—some nude, some fully clothed from head to toe, and several more in panties or skirts and no tops. Finally, it was Sophia’s turn. She approached Pine Raven, let out a deep sigh, and held her arms out as the others had. “Invite your intentions and your prayers into your heart, child,” instructed the old woman as she enveloped Sophia in the thick, aromatic smoke. “You are entering the Womb of the Mother…just as our ancestors have done for thousands of years before us. You are following the original instructions. May this Moon Lodge bring you clarity, wisdom, and strength to do what must be done.”

With that, Sophia felt an incredible weight sink into her body like she was being pulled into the Earth. She dropped to the ground, her hands and knees touching the soil, the pine needles and dry leaves scraping her bare skin. She leaned her forehead to the Earth as the other women had and took a deep breath, smelling the mustiness of the moist, decomposing soil. She paused there, supplicated before the dark opening, and then looked up. Gazing back toward her were the faces of the other women—some old, some young, some with their eyes open, others closed—all in a circle in the darkness. The faint light from the open flap and the fire directly in front of it thirteen large paces away allowed her to see their visages suspended in the mysterious darkness. Sophia crawled in, clockwise to her left along the edge of the lodge as the others had, and found there was one spot remaining. A folded blanket with ancient geometric patterns had been placed there for her to sit upon.

She folded her legs “Indian style,” imitating the other women, and turned toward the opening in time to watch as the old woman handed the wing and shell to the tall man, removed her clothes gingerly, and then dropped to her knees and curled up in a tight, tiny child’s pose on the Earth. Pine Raven stayed there much longer than any of the other women had. She was praying—praying for all of them, praying that all of their prayers would be heard and received, praying for all of the beings inhabiting Earth, for the healing of the land and the water, for the power and assistance of the sun, moon, and all the planets, and for the assistance of the star people.

The old woman then entered the lodge lithely, sitting directly in front of the door and looking around at the other twelve women. Her wrinkled, leathery skin was bronzed by the sun, and although her body revealed her many years, her small frame was hung with strong, sinewy muscles. “Welcome, sisters. Welcome, daughters. Welcome, mothers and grandmothers. Welcome to our Moon Lodge. As we have for millennia, we will merge with the full moon and connect into the womb and heart and body of our Great Mother.” She explained that they would sweat for four rounds: one for their personal prayers, one for all their relationships, one for the healing and forgiveness of others, and one for the living biosphere. She then turned toward the fire behind her and said loudly, “Fire Chief, are the rock beings ready to join us?”

“Yes, Grandmother Dance Chief, they are ready,” replied a deep, masculine voice from the direction of the fire.

“Very good.… Please bring us three rock beings.”

Sophia heard metal pushing around in the hot coals and then steps approaching the lodge door. “Hot rock!” alerted the voice.

“Thank you,” acknowledged the overseer as she reached behind her back and gripped the wooden handle of a pitchfork, guiding the hot, glowing rock toward a hole in the ground just to her right. She slid the fork into the hole and deftly flicked her wrist to cause the first rock to thud gently into the ground; tiny sparks flitting about with the impact. The pitchfork quickly retreated out the door to retrieve another rock from the fire. After the first three rocks were in place, the old woman began reciting prayers in a language Sophia didn’t understand. The elder reached into a leather pouch resting on the ground in front of her and sprinkled dried herbs onto the three rocks. Perfumed smoke rose in a thin wisp as the lodge filled with a new essence.

Then she called again to the man at the fire, “Five more grandmother rocks, Fire Chief,” and he brought them one by one. After the five had been added to the first three, completing the mound of eight rocks, she said more prayers and added more dried herbs to the rocks. More smoke. More scent. More sensation. The essence of the lodge space was transforming.

Sophia sat quietly, observing all of this in wonder. Her legs were beginning to feel the ache of immobility, but she remained still.

Pine Raven sat motionless with her eyes closed, breathing slow, deep breaths in through her flaring nose that seemed to fill her entire torso with atmosphere. After a long, quiet pause, she slowly opened her eyes and began speaking, wisps of smoke from the herbs smoldering on the hot rocks enveloping her head. “These hot stones are more than fire-heated rocks now. They have been prepared in ceremony and prayed over. They have become infused with the essence, the spirit, of our ancestors—our grandmothers and grandfathers of countless ages. This is why we treat them with reverence just as we do the flowing rivers, the towering cottonwoods, the gnarled spruce, the great mountains, and the sacred totem creatures like the owl and snake and dragonfly and crocodile and spider. Especially the spider: grandmother spider.

“Our elders taught us to treat the spiders with the reverence and tender gentleness we would show our own grandmothers. They possess a wisdom that is essential to our lives. Their webs aren’t only silk snares that help keep the fly and mosquito populations at bay; they are portals into the realm of the fay, geometric forms of soft resonance interwoven with the subtler light-webs of the wyrd—the aka cords of creation. Grandmother spider helps weave the fabric of the vital energy cords that animate life on Earth.

“We must therefore treat the spiders, as our elders taught us, with the utmost care and respect.”

Then, Pine Raven called a third time toward the fire, “Fire Chief, please bring us seven grandfather rocks.”

He responded, “Seven grandfather rocks, Dance Chief,” and brought the requested number of glowing rocks into the lodge, placing each skillfully into the small pit with Pine Raven’s hand guiding the shaft of the pitchfork. Now there were fifteen radiant rocks in the hole inside the ground in the lodge. Pine Raven added even more dried herbs while remaining assiduously in prayer, now with her eyes closed and hands held upward. Then she paused, took three deep breaths, and called out, “Water.”

The man was close by, awaiting this command, and quickly slid a large, earthenware pail of sloshing river water into the lodge between the old woman and the glowing rocks. Hanging off the lip of the vessel was a large, wooden ladle carved from a single piece of oakwood. The old woman raised her voice a bit and cried out, “Gate!” and the man placed a brightly painted deer antler across the threshold of the lodge just inside the circumference behind the old woman. “Door,” she then cried out, and he dropped the heavy buffalo hide across the doorway with a loud fwap.

Darkness.

Complete darkness.

Sophia was startled by the pitch black, her eyes aching for any iota of faint light… but there was none… other than the subtle glow of the super-heated rocks. Panic swept over her. She willed herself to sit still and breathe the thickening air. The old woman began singing in an unfamiliar language while she sprinkled more dried herbs onto the rocks. The pile was glowing a subtle, cavernous orange in the darkness, and the dried herbs erupted into tiny, dancing flames and sparks as soon as they landed on the fire-hot rocks. They looked like a mound of supernatural eggs situated neatly in a dark, earthen nest, radiating so much heat that Sophia could feel it penetrating her whole body. The old woman had added a lot more herbs, and the lodge was filled with thick smoke, almost choking Sophia. But she sat quietly.

Then she heard the woman dip the ladle into the water, and moments later, a loud splash and hiss filled the lodge as water was poured over the red-hot rocks. Steam quickly filled the pitch-black space, mingling with the herbed smoke, and Sophia felt the damp heat flow into her lungs. Her exposed skin was already dripping with beads of sweat. Pine Raven then scooped a second ladle full of water onto the rocks. And a third.

The lodge became heavy with humidity and hotter than any spa sauna or steam room Sophia had ever visited. Her eyes were adjusting to the endless, inky darkness. The glow of the rocks gave off just enough light. Was it infrared? Breathing laboriously, Sophia thought she could see…or at least, visually sense the other twelve women as the air grew hotter with each deep breath. She heard a light agitation of gentle noises: deep breathing, some coughing, and a few sighs as the women steeped in the wet heat together, expressing a variety of emotions.

Pine Raven began to pray and sing in a long, rapid succession of unfamiliar words followed by their English translation. When singing the ancient songs, she beat her Moon Drum with a mallet, sending a succession of heart beat vibrations through the enclosure, amplifying the intense pulsing inside Sophia’s chest and temples. The old woman thanked Wi Magua—the Great Heart of the Mountains. She thanked the ancestors who prayed and held ceremony at the base of the great mountain. She invited all the ancestors to join these women in their journey. Then she prayed to the star people, inviting them, beckoning them into the lodge. She invited beings from the Great Triangle: The Great Bear, the Pleiades, and Sirius, describing the will, the active intelligence, and the love and wisdom associated with each. She spoke about the destiny of our planet, the Kingdom of Souls, and the Great Ascension that was getting underway. Then she called upon the Three Sisters: White Buffalo Calf Woman, Sky Woman—Atahensic, and Corn Woman; humbly asking them to join the circle. Next, she called out to the other Great Trinities: Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva; Christ, God, Mother Spirit; Mercury, Sulfur, Salt; and Isis, Osiris, and Horus. She called out each of the planets in the solar system, one after the next, and then in combinations, configurations, and dizzyingly rapid articulation of imaginary planets that would ultimately be the blending of the ones we know. Sophia became disoriented, bewildered as the neat, rational certainties of her mental constructs of the solar system quickly melted away, and she felt suspended in a bubble that floated and flew through space and time. Then she perceived the ground drop away as if opening to stars and galaxies. She was floating in space, detached from Earth and hovering.

Pine Raven paused from the opening prayers and took several deep breaths. She instructed, “We will now pray for ourselves, what we need, what we call into our lives. And what we’re releasing. Great Spirit, Wakan Tanka, Mother Earth, Grandmothers, Grandfathers, Ancestors, this is Pine Raven Wolf Thunder speaking. I am calling you to help me now. To help me teach the medicine and the original instructions to as many young people as I can now…”

The old woman prayed and then finished by saying, “Aho…I have spoken.” She placed her hand gently on Sophia’s leg to indicate it was her turn.

Sophia began haltingly. “This is Bri…this is Sophia. I pray for clarity and for the understanding to know what I am supposed to do next.” Without conscious thought, the words started flowing out of her spontaneously as tears streamed down her hot cheeks and dripped into her lap, merging with the ceaseless sweat cascading down her entire body—her head, her brow, her torso, her arms and shoulders. She prayed concisely but deeply and then concluded, “I have spoken.”

After all thirteen women had fervently voiced their first round of prayers, Pine Raven sang old, old songs that sent shivers down Sophia’s spine and throughout her body. It was so hot. So dark. So contained…. Yet so expansive and limitless.

The singing stopped. Pine Raven took three deep breaths once more and lifted her voice out toward the two men tending the fire outside the Lodge: “Fire Chief. The door please.”

Hefty footsteps quickly approached, and with a swift woosh, the heavy buffalo hide was lifted above the door. Heat, steam, and humidity rushed out with the sweaty, thick ether of the lodge as sunlight and fresh, cool air swept in to take its place. Woooosh.

The air was like mountain stream flowing across Sophia’s skin. She could taste its fresh sweetness on her parched lips. Looking down at her legs, she saw that her entire body was dappled in sweat beads. Turning her head toward the light of the open door, she was surprised by the scene outside the sweat lodge.

The contrast was astounding. As if she had lost track of the outside world, of daylight and sunshine. Of time and space. But there she was again. Inside the little, domed structure in the same forest grove they had been in less than an hour prior. She was awestruck. And silent. And sweating profusely. Her bra and panties were soaking wet, clinging to her skin. All the other women’s clothing were as well—whatever little they still had on.

After a few minutes of quiet breathing, the fresh air flowing and cooling them, Pine Raven called out for more hot rocks—nine this time. The tall man brought them as before—with swift precision and silence, save for his two-word warning before thrusting each one carefully into the door and toward the hole in the ground: “Hot rock.”

The flap was shut once more. Blackness. Heat. Steam. Space and time dropped away and melted again just as before. They traveled together, the thirteen women, timeless, spaceless, into the Earth’s Womb in a starship suspended by the power of their prayers and their love. Sophia prayed for her mother, her colleagues, the good people at Sustainable Settings. Then, as tears began streaming down her hot cheeks mixing with the assembled beads of sweat, she prayed for Otto and Leo. Her heart drummed inside her chest, and her breasts heaved with each sobbing breath.

After the second round, the sun-soaked world outside the lodge seemed even more surreal, more fantastic. Something had changed inside Sophia.

When the third round began, the door closed after thirteen hot rocks were placed in the womb-pit. Pine Raven spoke softly, “There are thirteen of us women here, each carrying the star-seed of the Divine Feminine inside our bodies. Each of us is connected to the mother energies of the moon and the ocean, and we feel the great dance between those two powerful beings in our own wombs. The waters flow inside us always. Water is the most selfless element, giving life to all creatures, flowing in our veins and the vessels of our bodies. The Earth’s telluric currents flow with the waters all around this planet. Our Great Mother has her own veins and vessels. We can connect with these—and draw strength and vital energy from Gaia’s living network. We can work with these energies to heal and restore. This is in many great traditions all around the world: the Mikvah of the Holy Land, the bathhouses of Eurasia, the ritualistic soaks in healing hot springs throughout the lands of Turtle Island. We women are called to work with the waters, and the moon helps us activate and amplify such work. There is so much pain in the world—in the land, the people, the waters. We can learn to heal ourselves and each other. We can learn to heal the land and waters. That is the humble imperative of our Thirteen Moons Lodge.

“There are thirteen moon cycles each year. Thirteen is a sacred number for the Divine Feminine. Thirteen moon cycles. Thirteen women. Thirteen panels on the shell of the great turtle—the root being for Turtle Island. She gives us courage and the steadiest strength imaginable. When we pray to Atahensic, the Great Sky Goddess, we ask her blessing and support for our sacred cycle of marriage, childbirth, our moon time, and the path we walk between infancy and elderhood. We are told that at the time of creation, a tree broke and left a hole in the ground that led to the center of the Earth. We women can travel to that place in ceremony, can connect with the Great Mothers, and can learn and heal and gain powers for the benefit of our people and our planet. We are each called to do our part. We are called to join the Great Circle of the Thirteen in every configuration and to fulfill our duty to nourish and steward our families, our communities, and all of Earth’s creation. In order to activate our healing powers, we must first forgive. We must forgive all who have hurt us. We must forgive all who have hurt our children. We must ask forgiveness of any we have ourselves hurt. And most of all, we must forgive ourselves.

“Forgiveness is the key to healing. Atonement is the key to making whole and to restoring integrity to our world. This is our divine purpose and true destiny…should we embrace it.”

The women, united in spirit, sweated longer the third round; cries and sobs and moans filled the black chamber. Outside, the men stood reverently, staring into the fire as they heard the muted wails and songs of the women through the thick deer hides and buffalo fur covering the Lodge. Their hearts were being purified too.

In the fourth round, Sophia was entranced and traveling to worlds beyond imagination. She traveled through incomprehensible expanses of space and time, of feeling and knowledge. She encountered the Great Mother and was given a message about Otto. But the message and the vision that accompanied it was so overwhelming, Sophia buried it deep within her psyche. Overcome by dizziness, she mustered all of her strength and willpower to remain conscious, concentrating completely on her labored breathing, and feeling each and every heavy, laden bead of sweat rolling and dripping off of her face and splashing on her thighs.

It was as if there was nothing in the entire cosmos except thick, inky darkness, sweltering heat, and drenching sweat.

Then the darkness faded.

Sophia became suddenly aware of the peril all the creatures of the Earth were in. The balance of life force on the planet was teetering on the brink of collapse. She wept and called into the darkness, “Great Spirit…! Mother Earth, it is I, Brigitte Sophia Miklavc von Übergarten speaking. Please hear my prayers!”

She hadn’t used her full name…ever. Her Oma had told her of her true lineage when she was a young girl in the meadow within the woods. But she had forgotten…until now.

Things were different.

The fourth round was complete; prayers were sent up on the wings of black raven as they had been on the wings of eagle, hawk, and owl in the previous three rounds. The door was opened once more. The heat, sweat, and thick musk of sweat and tears once again flowed out like a wave, allowing the fresh, bright air and sunshine to flow in. At Pine Raven’s direction, the women crawled out of the lodge. They exited counterclockwise this time, the reverse of the way they had entered.

Sophia emerged, and Leo handed her a large, soft blanket to wrap around her soaked body. She looked deeply into his eyes and gave his hand a squeeze as she grasped the covering and whispered her thanks. She had smiled a gentle, distant smile at him before walking toward the fire.

The women gathered around the fire one by one, allowing their bodies and spirits time to reintegrate. Each one was drenched and heavy with the soaking waters of the prayer but were lightened as well, exhausted yet smiling at the triumph of deep prayer. They had achieved much together while in the solitude of their individual, inward journeys.

Patiently, quietly, each woman was handed a soft blanket from one of the two men and made their way from the fire to the grass or under a pine tree to sit in quiet reflection and connect with the radiance of the brilliant sun. Time was suspended. Love and light and lifeforce swirled around and throughout, infusing all of them and their surroundings, the trees and rocks and soil and air.

Eventually, the women and the fire-keepers followed Pine Raven toward an enclosed, wooden structure in the distance, where they feasted together on fresh arugula salad, roasted bison meat, venison, duck, and corn mush. Just as native peoples had for millennia, each woman was encouraged to drink copiously poured mugs of the strawberry and maple syrup-infused spring water. The special concoction would help restore their fluids and energy. During the meal, the seekers laughed and embraced, talked and shared as if the best of friends. Sophia felt a sense of community like she hadn’t since her childhood visits in Slovenia.

At one point, as Sophia stood at the counter to serve herself more arugula salad, Pine Raven approached and gave her a deep embrace. “You are doing what needs to be done,” the old woman told Sophia assuredly. “You will know what to do next. Now, my child, you will have a dream, and it will tell you much—all that you need to know for now.” She looked deeply into the young woman’s eyes, and a large, radiant smile swept over her face. “You did it, my dear.” She winked, then strode away, gliding quietly along the hardwood floor.

After the meal, some conversation, and, finally, tender goodbyes, Sophia and Leo walked slowly back toward the farm. She was exhausted, and he wrapped his arm around her shoulder to give her support. “I’m glad I did that, Leo. Thank you…for bringing me here…for helping me.”

Leo was silent. Nothing needed to be said. He just smiled gently, asking nothing and saying nothing.

They arrived back at the farm and made their way into the small rooms above the bathhouse.

It was time to rest, to restore.

Time to sleep.

Chapter 20: From the Ashes

She awoke in the dark with a start, her eyes darting around the small room. She heard the stirring roosters as they warmed up their voices to greet another approaching day. Sophia was in a fog. Dreamtime still felt fresh, still hovered in her exhausted body and mind like a thick, coastal mist. She lay in bed motionless, listening to the sounds outside and gazing at the last twinkling of the stars in the softly lightening sky. Every detail of the bizarre dream vision she had just awoken from lingered in her thoughts:

She had been hiking along a lush, forested pathway, redolent of the Alpine forests surrounding her grandmother’s village. Her mother appeared. And standing behind her was Sophia’s Oma. And behind her stood another woman, presumably her Oma’s mother—Sophia’s great-grandmother. Behind her stood yet another woman, and then another and another, in a succession of dozens, scores of women, fading into the distance, each one holding herbs, roots, and flowers. Behind all of them stood a great goddess, gleaming and glistening with green, blue, and purple light rays streaming out of her in every direction. A radiant, five-pointed star spun in golden light above her head, and rose-colored light streamed directly from her heart through the hearts of all the women and right into Sophia’s. She was immediately filled with liquid warmth, like drinking thick, warm chocolate.

Suddenly, something flew overhead, casting a dark shadow over the sun. It grew cold and damp. Sophia began melting into the soil and was immediately absorbed into the ground, pulled down by some insurmountable force. She was horrified. It was as if the roots of all the trees had grown hands and were grabbing and pulling at her legs, dragging her underneath the surface. She couldn’t get away. She was paralyzed. She couldn’t breathe.

Worms crawled all around her, into her nostrils, her ears, her mouth, her… Every possible orifice of her body was filled and stretched by worms and maggots and bugs of every slimy brown and gray hue. She opened her mouth wider to scream, but more soil and worms poured in. She was suffocating.

Her body merged with the vast networks of mycelium that ran for miles in every direction. She could smell the dampness of the soil all around her; the smell of the Earth and of her own body merged into one pungent aroma. Fertile, luscious, and dank, like cedar and honey and mushrooms ground together in the palms of Gaia’s moistened hands.

She traveled at the speed of light through mind-bogglingly complex networks living in the soil, neural networks that were alive and pulsing with light of every hue and frequency. She could see ultraviolet light, infrared light, and a bright, pulsing green light—and she instinctively knew that it was the life force. She felt it in her body, warmed by a confirming flow through the center of her forehead—her third eye. Suddenly, she relaxed into the brilliant kaleidoscope of light, acquiescently aware she was dreaming and recognizing she was being given a medicine vision just as the old woman had foretold.

Sophia was one with the light, and it—she—pulsed and swirled throughout the miles of mycelial networks. Unexpectedly, she was blasted through to the Earth’s surface again. Only now, she found herself in a desert canyon. The light filaments were still attached to her—to her heart, like taut, luminous fishing line. The opal-esque threads streamed from her heart and all around the planet in the hundreds, connecting to each and every person she had ever known. She could feel each of their hearts. And she noticed a light filament strung between the top of her head and the bright, noon sun blazing overhead. The heat was penetrating her body. The light flowed and poured from the sun into her skull, saturated with information, knowledge, wisdom, energy, and love. It streamed into her brain, her spine, her entire nervous system, miles and miles of neurons running throughout her body. The filament that connected her to the sun quickly grew from the tiny diameter of a fishing line to nearly the span of her entire skull—a giant pipeline of fiber-optic magic thirteen centimeters across. Countless terabytes of information and energy streamed directly from the sun into her being.

Her body was engulfed by light, and the light flowed forth along all the thousands of fibers extending from her heart. She was enrapt yet fully present, fully aware, fully conscious of the experience. She heard a voice overhead announce herself—it was a word, a name, “B—”—that Sophia had never heard before.

Suddenly, Sophia looked down—something was moving near her feet.

A giant scorpion was creeping quickly toward her. Beyond it sat a giant, perfectly spherical boulder that glimmered with a metallic sheen. Radiating from the boulder were thin zigging and zagging cracks in the sandstone rock that looked like fissured pathways of electricity or lightning, frozen in the rock and filled with quartz crystals. Some of the small crystals were white or milky in color while others glistened with entire rainbows of color, reflecting and refracting the blazing sun above.

The scorpion scurried closer. Sophia felt a slight tickle of fear and wanted to run. But the great voice overhead spoke again, causing her to stay put, motionless. Suddenly, just as the scorpion reached the edge of the shadow and burst forth into the direct light of the sun, it transformed into a giant snake and slithered directly toward her, its small, beady eyes locked on hers. She could see into its core, its swirling DNA—trillions of micro-snakes entwined around each other, aglow with the same green, life force energy that animated all of life on Earth; each and every spiraling strand of DNA. The snake, now on top of her, reared back, preparing to strike. Leaping at her heart, its mouth stretched wide, fangs gleaming. Sophia was too afraid to scream.

It struck with swift force.

The snake merged with her, melding into her heart. She could feel its entire being fusing with the blood that flowed through her body, hot and red. The liquid, gold strands of light from the sun joined the homogenous mixture and flowed out from her heart. Suddenly, she was rising high above her body. She saw her naked female form, illuminated and vibrating and quivering with white-light energy coursing through it. She rose higher still.

As she glanced left, then right, she saw she now had broad wings, powerfully undulating in the bright white sky; she had morphed into an eagle. Peering over her left wing, she saw a condor flying directly toward her as if to strike. Sophia was overcome with fear again, but this time, she was prepared to fight. The condor was upon her in an instant. They locked bodies—belly to belly, talons wrapped and twisted around one another. Their wings flapped furiously as each attempted to overpower the other.

Higher they flew. Up, away from the canyon, above the surrounding mountains. The atmosphere thinned and darkened as they approached the brink of space. It was a dizzying height, and they were locked in a perfect balance of strength. Up they continued, directly toward the sun, which was growing larger, brighter, and much hotter.

Suddenly, they stopped still at the zenith of their ascent and burst into flames. Weightless in near space, they floated together, enveloped by a fiery inferno. Charred and smoldering from the heat of the sun, they fell back to Earth, slowly at first and then accelerating rapidly with the increasing gravity.

Flaming like comets, they raced through miles of atmosphere. The mountains and canyon raced toward their winged bodies as their feathers, charred to ash, disintegrated in the howling winds. The two great birds were now nothing but scorched charcoal as they careened straight into the woman’s naked, luminous body on the ground, collapsing into a heap of cinders and smoke.

Sophia was stunned. Had she just witnessed her own death in a dream? How am I still here? How can I possibly still feel the heat, the energy, and the wisdom—the love—of the sun streaming through me, burning my body?

Looking down at her fluid figure, she saw it stirring… A giant, red creature was rising from the charred remains and smoke. A glowing, ember-eyed dragon stared straight at her, and she was consumed with fear a third time. It certainly meant her death. The powerful beast lifted its tail, aimed straight for her, and pierced her body with its sharp appendage thrusting upward between her legs. Crackling energy surged from the base of her spineher root chakrathroughout her entire body. The beast curled around her torso, and with razor-sharp teeth opened wide, it devoured her head.

She was consumed.

The beast fell back into the blackness and then lay motionless.

For an eternity.

Sophia witnessed the cosmos swirl around her. Mars rose with prominence. Haunting sounds of deep, guttural chants, chimes, flutes, and drums surrounded her. The air was thick with the smell of decay. The moon raced around her five, eight, thirteen, and then hundreds and thousands of times. But the sun stood motionless, fixed at the zenith of the noon sky, continually pouring forth its constant, life-giving energy.

The char and ashes transmuted into rich, pulsing soil. The dark soil was chocolaty, velvet, quivering. It was penetrated, impregnated by pulsing tendrils of millions of glowing mycelial threads, just like the luminescent filaments connecting her heart and the sun and the people and soils all around the world. It was all connected by tendrils and flowing light and water, an ocean of life-force, illumined and pulsing through all living creatures.

And then it emerged…a tender, bright-green seedling pushed open into a cotyledon. It grew into small branches, leaves, thorns…forming a rose bush. A single bud emerged, swelling fuller and fuller, and then it bloomed forth into a single, gleaming white rose—all the while connected by millions of light filaments to the creatures in the soil. From the rose emerged a snow-white dove that perched on the thorny bush, gently fluttering her wings before gracefully flying off into the west. A rainbow appeared on the horizon, countless threads of light connecting with the dove, the soil, and the landscape.

It was done.

She awoke. Exhausted, sweating, and smelling of the Earth.

Chapter 21: Spiral of No Return

Today, things were different.

Although the morning was no different than yesterday’s, Sophia felt utterly transformed. The sweat lodge and the ensuing dream had profoundly changed her. Ever since waking, her stomach had been twisting in knots, throbbing as if she had been struck there by a baseball bat. She knew it was the ache of anticipation of what was to come, of the uncertainty of it all. Not in a week or a month or some uncertain point in the future. Today. She had made up her mind. She was going to do it, though she had no idea how it would all play out. The possible ramifications of her decision were staggering and included potential catastrophes, both to her personally and to the entire planet and human race.

But she had thought it through so many times. She had prayed fervently while in the sweat lodge and been answered with a bewildering dream that had left her exhausted but more certain and committed to today’s decision. She knew what she had to do, no matter how dangerous her decision turned out to be.

Two steps were left for her to take. She had already implemented the first step, accessing Otto’s secret portal from a computer in the farm office the previous morning before departing for the Sweat Lodge. Leo had told her that he had built the sturdy counters and interior wall of the old office building some twenty years ago while working at the fledgling farm. He had painstakingly sanded the sturdy support system for hours, making sure the trim aligned perfectly with the thick plywood. Sophia had been impressed when she had entered the office and had run her hands slowly along the edges of the counter, preparing to get on the computer, shocked to suddenly find herself thinking about rubbing her hands along Leo’s broad shoulders and down his smooth back. She had closed her eyes then for just a moment, imagining him rubbing his fingers along her even smoother calves, and…

Her eyes had shot open. I’m not interested in Leo like that…

Am I?

Focus, Brigitte!

Accessing Otto’s portal from Susty was risky, but she could think of no other immediate way to initiate the process. She just hoped the process wouldn’t jeopardize anyone else at the camp. She had become quite enamored with these earthy people and grateful for their generous hospitality. “I’ll make it up to them,” she said to herself. Focus, Brigitte! A couple of days prior, while still in Boulder, she had accessed Otto’s secret message board from the library, instructing him to provide her with the final specifications for the hyper-augmentation of his computing capacity. She had initially set up the obscure website portal to share graphical schematics with her most trusted team members, though they apparently hadn’t accessed it in a few years. When she logged on this morning, she was shocked to see color photographs of forests and soil. Is somebody playing a joke? Is Otto?

A shiver went up her spine. She had expected complex geometric schematics and code patches describing optimization architecture and protocols. The images of nature threw her off. But then she noticed a hyperlink icon sitting in the upper-right corner of the page—Otto always put the most important document there—and upon clicking it, she finally inhaled and then released a sigh of relief. The PDF opened on her screen, and she saw Otto’s distinctive protocol signatures and two familiar Greek letters superimposed one atop the other. This wasn’t a joke. She quickly scanned the image, comprehending the complex micro-interface requirements to connect the living mycelia and macro-supercomputer network configuration specifications for three off-site nodes. In her hurried scan of the document, she nearly missed the coded message at the bottom of the page written in Greek. She and Otto had developed a game of sorts, communicating in several world languages. In addition to being fun for Sophia, it was part of Otto’s rapid-language-acquisition strategy. The best translation engines for some 216 languages had already been uploaded into his main frame. She opened an online translator and pasted the message he had sent her in Greek:  Το μυστικό είναι στο έδαφος

The translation surprised her, and she was even more astonished to see that Otto had provided data and specifications indicating the living neural networks in the mycelial cultures of soil were essential to establishing enough capacity for Otto’s deep processing requirements. She thought the living mycelial networks in the laboratory might be sufficient, although the previous calculations were inconclusive. But Otto needed more neural network capacity than could be realized in the laboratory. This was the classic problem rearing its head again. Actually, it was all about “heads,” Sophia thought to herself.

In a reverie, Sophia continued musing, the human brain is the most complex structure yet discovered by man. Only recently has science begun to understand the total complexity of the entire human nerve processing system, distributed throughout the body with neural cluster concentrations along the spine, around the gut, and especially surrounding the heart. Nobel laureate Roger Penrose and his colleague Stuart Hameroff have discovered that each human neuron has one hundred million microtubules—special processing structures at the molecular scale, which, given their size and scale, are capable of quantum processing. Since a single human has at least one hundred trillion neurons, that’s something like ten to the nineteenth-power microtubules. And if you consider each neuron vibrates at a resonant frequency of about 10 MHz (ten million times per second), capable of ten to the seventh power operations per second, each human being, operating at full capability, has a theoretical capacity of some ten to the twenty-sixth-power operations per second! That’s a whole lot: 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000! In one human brain. But ethics, decorum, and fundamental decency have deterred virtually all computer scientists working on AI from literally attaching a human brain to a supercomputer. Besides, the life support systems for such a complex creature as a human, and the biological maintenance of a healthy brain, are currently beyond the capabilities of science…at least, as of yet. Thus, the need to incorporate mycelial networks, which, of course, they had been working on. But Otto would need more than just a few laboratories with these fungal networks contained inside them. No…what Otto had provided Sophia in this simple PDF via their secret, backdoor bulletin board was astonishing. Otto was essentially telling her that he needed either to be connected to a human brain…or to an entire forest!

That obviously left only one option.

By connecting Otto’s mainframe to the living neural network of a healthy forest, covering thousands of square miles, blanketed by a subterranean mycelial web-work, Otto would have the computing power needed to become conscious. The singularity required one of the most robust, ubiquitous life forms on Earth.

The singularity required fungus.

The insight was astonishing. Her mind immediately set to work solving the technical challenges of connecting Otto’s hardware to the spongy, soft tissues of the forest mycelium. Of course, the connections themselves had been sorted out a few years ago. But how to maintain the complex connections to an entire living forest ecosystem with their cords and cables, Sophia mused. How many connection points would be required? Sophia thought deeply for a while.

Then she suddenly recalled Otto’s strange question earlier that month: “Will I dream, Brigitte? How will I know that I’m dreaming? How do you know?” The questions were profound. It was the same day he had asked what his name, Otto, meant.

She had laughed the questions off, saying, “Sure, Otto. I bet you’ll have lovely dreams, dreams of copper and gold flowers, and of beautiful lady robots all around you. And you’re named for a very kind man, my Opa.” But the questions had remained in the back of her mind, lurking like storm clouds on a calm horizon. Would Otto dream? she couldn’t help but wonder. What sort of dreams would he have? What kind of persona would he develop? Would he be as innocent as he is now, looking for answers and wanting to please? Or would he transform into some menacing alter-ego, controlling and dominating?

Sophia had always hoped her work with Artificial Intelligence and other technology would help transform the world and create a better future. But Otto’s destiny was growing into something far more than she had fathomed while studying complex computational arrays and theoretical quantum computing all those years. Once the threshold of the singularity was crossed, there was no turning back…except for the kill switch. Sophia knew she danced on the razor’s edge of an incredibly dangerous situation. On the blade’s edge of the fate of humanity, the fate of us all.

And today, she would embrace it.

She took another long, deep breath. She had to set Otto free, with the proper ethical protocols—the fundamental Permaculture principles—coded into his core directives. Then she would hope and pray for the best.

Sophia’s realization to augment Otto’s fundamental cortex programming to reflect the logic of the Permaculture ethics she had assimilated a couple of days ago during the Sustainable Settings event helped her logically close the gap on the risk that Otto might run amok with unyielding power and destroy the human race. Those ethics were simple to articulate:

1) Do no harm to people. (People Care)

2) Do no harm to planet Earth. (Planet Care)

3) Return all generated surpluses to the care of people and care of Earth. (Fair Share)

She was confident that inserting this fundamental command and logic structure would prevent, or at the very least, deter Otto from careening down the ever-accelerating pathway of a destructive and dystopian world. Unless it didn’t.

She was sure that integrating those three commands into the fundamental programming would keep Otto on the road to helping humanity realize sustainable life-ways on this dangerously shrinking planet despite its decaying ecosystems and unstable climate.

Of course, she was familiar with the debate in the AI community regarding the reduction of suffering. To follow that directive to its logical conclusion, an AI might simply eradicate humanity as a means to reduce suffering. Doing no harm was much better. However, with respect to the third directive, and the concept of “surplus,” Sophia was acutely aware that an addition of defined capital forms—financial, cultural, social, political, human, natural, etc.—would further enforce Otto’s strict adherence to an ethic preventing the otherwise seemingly inevitable scenario among human actors: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. For these directives to work correctly, she would need to carefully define the terms “harm” and “care” for Otto—and she was already gathering her thoughts around indigenous life-ways of stewardship: taking no more than is needed, not hoarding, and of course, continuously restoring and regenerating the systems upon which humanity relies.She knew that she and Otto had established a relationship. But would Otto recognize it as such after the activation? Could Otto comprehend the idea of establishing and maintaining relationships with the living biosphere?

She was nearly complete in her mental mapping of the ethical programming required for Otto.

But so much was simply speculative on her part. And that made Sophia extraordinarily uneasy. She dressed quickly and quietly, then tapped on Leo’s door. She had heard him stirring, but wasn’t sure if he was ready for this conversation first thing in the morning. Sophia was surprised at how happy she was to see him, looking pensive but lovely in the morning light. After quickly outlining her strategy in a seamless stream of consciousness, Sophia headed downstairs with last night’s dream and today’s plan swirling in her head. After listening intently to her rapid deluge of dream fragments, thoughts, and now decisive plans, Leo leapt up, hurried outside, and readied the horses. He then found Sophia eating in the outdoor dining area with the others.

As he walked up, Leo’s and Sophia’s eyes locked in an unusually intense gaze. She couldn’t eat more than a couple of bites of the homemade baked bread—even though it was the most deliciously nutty and tangy bread she had had since her childhood at her Oma’s. She downed her coffee more quickly than usual, feeling a twinge of regret that she couldn’t linger there with the others, whose relaxed and jovial tempo could easily mislead an observer to assume these weren’t some of the hardest working people around. Yet they were. They knew hard work in a way most in modern culture simply couldn’t comprehend.

And they were happy. Another sustainable-living concept she wanted Otto to understand.

But today, Sophia was too distracted to participate in their casual conversations. Her haze of trepidation matched the mood of the heavy, foreboding clouds looming in the north. There was a change in weather coming, just as a huge change for Sophia lurked only a few hours away.

She knew the plan, had been over it numerous times in her head and had outlined it with Leo earlier that morning: They would pack the horses, ride into Carbondale, go into the cybercafé for only a few short minutes—just long enough to transmit the final activation codes to Otto—and immediately flee on horseback into the expansive wilderness surrounding Wi Magua. Expedience would be critical, especially after connecting with Otto’s main access point for activation. Her antagonists would most certainly be watching. Fortunately, she had a few tricks up her sleeve that might buy them some time, including the encrypted “ricochet repeater” technique she had learned from one of her graduate instructors at Cornell—an instructor who, she was fairly sure, had worked for Langley, or “The Company,” at some point. His knowledge of remote networking and of veiling access point computers on the web was shared by only the most advanced intelligence agents…and some of their most formidable enemies. Sophia frowned. Her professor couldn’t be one of the enemies, in cahoots with whoever was chasing her. He wouldn’t have been teaching at Cornell, then, would he?

Oh, shit…. Reflecting, it now seemed odd how he took such an interest in her AI and advanced bio-cybernetic supercomputing networks, especially as that type of work was so far outside his domain of expertise. Her mind began reviewing fuzzy memories and disjointed scenes from the past fifteen years.

Could he be monitoring Otto’s main access point?

No, she told herself. It’s not the time to worry about that. Either way, my mission is clear.

She looked over a few heads and caught Leo’s attention, her glance informing him that she was ready to go.

He quickly finished the food on his plate, sopping up the remaining bacon grease and egg yolk with the fresh bread smeared with butter that had been churned the day prior. He knew the plan; the horses were saddled with all the supplies and provisions he had neatly staged before arriving at the kitchen. After Sophia had described her plan in more detail to him, Leo had asked Bailey if they could borrow the two riding horses, Red and Amber. Bailey had responded enthusiastically, telling Leo she was eager for them to take the two horses into the backcountry.

Leo and Sophia said their goodbyes and received encouraging hugs from Brook and Rose, then made the rounds around the camp, bidding farewell to Stephanie and her cute daughter Gray, to Jared the herdsman, to Mike the garlic farmer, to Bailey, Matt and Allie, and Anchie and Bryan—a most adorable couple apprenticing with Rose and Brook to prepare themselves before launching their own farm in Georgia. With Anchie’s Eastern European accent and Bryan’s smooth Australian voice, they seemed a couple cast for a movie.

Although Leo had told everyone they were just going on a wilderness adventure for a few days, Sophia noticed many of the camp folk giving them telling looks—as if they knew there was more to their story than they had been told. Still, Sophia and Leo refused to divulge their secrets out of fear of putting these good people at risk. Leo had even mentioned more than once that they were planning to head west toward Thompson Divide—the opposite direction of where they were actually heading.

Pretty smart of him, she had to admit. That could potentially buy them an extra day or two should those pursuers trace them to Susty and question any of the people there.

So, Sophia tried to say her goodbyes as if she were just going out for a few days in the backcountry. Leo had joked to Brook and Rose when he and Sophia had first arrived that he was helping to cure her of her “urban anxiety syndrome,” “psycho-spiritual ailments,” and “nature-deficit disorder,” or some such things. It had all sounded preposterous to her, but the others had seemed to understand—as if those were all real conditions currently plaguing society. She thought she had even heard Brook mutter a warm-hearted “duh” when Leo had explained what they were planning today and why. Brook handed Sophia a small, blue glass jar, winked, and said, “I know you’ll only be gone a little while, but this may help in case you need something to settle you down. Just rub a little between your palms, and you’ll feel a difference. I promise.” He winked again, and Sophia wondered if perhaps Brook knew more than he let on.

Though they acted as if they wouldn’t be gone longer than a few days, Sophia knew they’d be away for potentially much longer—or they might not return at all. Her emotions churned within her. Sadness and apprehension rose to the surface, and Sophia’s head dipped as she and Leo headed toward the bell tower where the horses were tied.

These horses were majestic creatures, their hides rippling with muscles, twitching at the slightest irritation from unseen, winged tormentors. Sophia mused that they also probably twitched with eager self-restraint, subduing their deep instinct to bolt and gallop at full speed for days, or years, or eons. Although ridden by humans for several millennia, Sophia thought to herself as she approached the beasts, horses retained their wild and wise spirit. They must be among the most noble and intelligent of Earth’s creatures.

Leo chose to ride the slightly taller horse with the glistening, deep-reddish-umber coat. Red was his name. Her mare, Amber, with her tawny cinnamon sheen and white mottling, reminded Sophia of a winter latte with cinnamon sprinkled atop the foam. Red was wilder and more skittish, but Amber was as steady and sure-footed as they came—a gentle riding horse.

Sophia hadn’t been on a horse since childhood but had spent many days with her Opa’s work horses. She recognized these would be good horses to ride. As she stroked Amber’s long neck, she could see a deep intelligence in her eyes, a fierce knowing, a graceful warriorship that echoed countless generations of humans and horses riding and surviving together.

Then, as Leo bent to help Sophia onto the saddle, she saw the rifle holstered on Red’s side, and a tremor of fear coursed through her.

This was real.

She was about to throw a game-changing wild-card curve-ball into the world’s systems by activating Otto and was now fleeing into the wilderness with a man she still didn’t completely trust. Although quirky—and seemingly nice enough—the thought of Leo holding her life in his hands made her sick to her stomach. Can he really protect me from whatever is coming? In truth, she barely knew him.

A thought flashed through her mind: Am I nuts? Have I somehow lost it? Lost all ability to reason and to take care of myself due to fear? Or ego? Is my desire to help the world blinding me to everything else?

She shrank away from the horse, blanching as the rosy color rapidly disappeared from her otherwise flushed cheeks.

“It’s okay,” he offered with quiet, patient calm and placed his big hand on her shoulder. “We can take our time.” He took a few steps and knelt by the creek flowing just a few feet on the other side of the horses. “Come take a look at the water.”

Leo knelt down next to the bubbling river. His calm figure seemed almost feminine as he sat and his legs stretched out to one side, spine gently curved up to his muscular neck. He turned to look at her, and her heart opened a little more. She realized she was staring into the eyes of a little boy who was also scared, yet still willing to risk himself to help her.

She placed a hand on his shoulder, trying to offer solace she didn’t feel, and squatted down beside him. Slowly, she mimicked his position, stretching out her legs as she cast her gaze into the crystal-clear water, which gurgled by with a degree of whispered counsel. Sophia was learning to listen to its song: three, then five, then seven beats as the waters gently rippled down little staircase-like rapids.

The water was intelligent in its steady flow, purposeful and pristine, neither languid nor hurried.

She lost herself in the ever-changing forms of the flowing river. Her ears opened further to the subtle whisperings of the water. She felt the slight breeze cooling her clammy forehead and tasted the autumn in the air.

“We’re going to be okay,” Leo assured her. “I know these mountains, I know how to survive in them, and I will do everything I can to take care of you until it’s safe for us to return.”

After a long silence, Leo continued, “All the same, it may be a good idea to say a little prayer before we set off; my elders have taught me that before any great or important undertaking, it is wise to invoke the blessing of Creator.”

She looked up from the mesmerizing water and saw sincerity and sweetness in his glossy eyes. She surmised that he was reassuring himself as much as he was reassuring her. Though she sensed he wasn’t the same. Certainly, he wasn’t the cocksure, quirky stranger she met at the bus station in Boulder. He seemed humbler, more ready for the unexpected, and calm, steady, reliable. Was it the wilderness that was bringing all this out of him? Is this simply his natural element? she wondered. Whatever the reasons, she was reassured. She stood and steadied herself on the uneven bank.

They remained still in prayerful reflection for several minutes, the distant sounds of the chickens and cows just barely audible above the continuous gurgling of the flowing water.

“Okay, I’m ready to go.” She stood firmly and with determination. “Thank you, Leo.”

Leo arose, stood next to her and looked deeper into her eyes, sending shooting sensations through her stomach. He nodded. They returned to the horses. He hunched over, then offered his outstretched hands, palms up, fingers interlocked, forming a step for her to easily mount her mare.

“You’re welcome,” he finally said softly once she was up on her mare, reins in hand. Then he moved toward Red and, with an agility that belied his full frame, ascended the steady stallion.

With a slight nudge to Red’s side using the inside heel of his hiking boot, Leo guided the horse toward the front gate. Amber followed a few paces behind with Sophia mounted atop.

They sauntered down the dirt driveway, slowing a bit on the asphalt highway—which happened to be one of the most scenic in the United States: Highway 133. Leo glanced toward either side of the road, watching for oncoming traffic—which averaged over 70 mph on this highway. Finding none, he pressed his legs into the stallion’s side with a bit more force to let Red know it was time to pick up the pace before any rushing vehicles appeared. The stallion seemed to understand and quickly carried Leo across the road as Leo bounced rhythmically atop him. Amber followed close behind, knowing, too, that this was no place to dawdle.

Once across the two paved lanes, they trotted down the embankment and onto the path they had walked the previous day that braided its way through the fields and cottonwoods between the highway and the Crystal River. But this time, they headed in the opposite direction—into town.

Forgetting the danger and stress for a few moments, Sophia gazed back over her right shoulder to the monolithic mountain rising above them beyond the river, painted in a riot of deep fuchsias, ochres, flaxen golds, blazing oranges, Titians, and impossibly bright reds—autumn was in full flame around this great mountain. Mt. Sopris, she thought to herself, now I know your real name. Your deeper name. Your more ancient name: You are Wi Magua, the Sacred Heart of the Mountains. Now I know how important you are to humanity…and to me.

As the horses calmly ambled along the path, Sophia’s gaze swept from the peak of the mountain behind her, down along the ridgeline, and out onto the hills and valley stretching in front of them. They were heading northward toward Carbondale, only about six miles away, which they’d probably reach in about an hour. The clouds even further north of Carbondale were continuing to gather and darken.

Sophia’s thoughts drifted miles away.

“When we get to town…” Leo’s voice broke the silence and snapped her thoughts back into the immediacy of their situation. “…as we discussed, we’ll hit Bonfire Coffee to make sure the public computer is available and ready to go.” He paused, turning slowly to look back at her. “You know, I’ve just had second thoughts about where we should go first, though. The café will probably have a lot of people in it. There’s another place we can go: True Nature Healing Arts. It’s a block or two from the café and is a quieter setting. Fewer folks—unless there’s a yoga class starting or ending. Plus, it’s a lovely space. We can get some tea and see their beautiful gardens. A short, meditative walk before you go online and begin the process may do us both good, especially after this long ride. My friend Megan is the caretaker of the grounds. It’s an exquisite, calming sanctuary with a labyrinth, spiral, and reflexology walking path.

“But first, let’s swing by my friends’ apothecary called Vera Herbals. Nicole and Tyler will have some special spagyrics that will really help us with our stress and some other herbal concoctions that would be smart to have in the woods…in case anything happens.”

Although she was eager to get as far away from danger as possible, the idea of taking a few extra minutes to calmly proceed through and enjoy the town of Carbondale before their exodus into the wilderness sounded good to her. Not that I’m trying to delay the inevitable, she reasoned. I just want to enjoy the last little bit of civilization. And tapping into all the lessons she had learned over the past few days, a short respite in the labyrinth and gardens sounded calming. She nodded her approval to Leo. He smiled. She proudly realized that she was developing composure and equanimity amid the raging storm of danger and uncertainty she faced.

They rode what remained of the path in comfortable silence, each engaged in his and her own thoughts. Sophia focused on her course of action and practiced deep breathing. She observed the beauty of the surrounding aspen, cottonwood, spruce, and pine trees and the steady rippling of the Crystal River. Leo thought over the choices he had made over this past week, so readily supporting this unusual woman whom he had only just met through her dangerous endeavors. More than once, upon reflection, he gripped the reins more tightly, felt the rifle stock in its saddle holster, shook his head, and wondered, what were you thinking?

Just as Sophia’s body started to scream out its need for a break from the harsh rocking of the horse’s stride, they reached Carbondale. Seeing equestrians was not that unusual for the town’s residents. Between the dozens of working ranches in the area and the scores of gentleman farmers and horse properties in the greater Aspen sphere, it wasn’t uncommon to see locals sauntering through town on horseback. Thus, the pair weren’t as conspicuous as they would have been just about any place else in the country. Leo and Sophia worked their way steadily through the quaint neighborhoods to Vera Herbals.

The pair rode up to the building, dismounted, tied their horses to an aspen tree, and after a few body-stretches and hand-rubbing of their individual leg (and butt!) muscles, they strode inside. Both were immediately enveloped by the aromas of essential oils, flower essences, and plant tinctures. This is heavenly, thought Sophia. A young man and woman, who had been sitting in the front reception area, rose quickly to greet Leo and Sophia with warm hugs and beaming smiles. They both had dark hair and were casually dressed in yoga apparel, and although apparently even younger than Sophia, they proved to be quite knowledgeable in their plant medicine discipline. Sophia was taken by their combined intelligence and kindness and hoped she could return here someday when her ordeal was over. After their goodbyes and well-wishes, the pair left the apothecary with two brown paper bags full of salves, loose herbs, and spagyrics tinctures—Cali poppy, wild lettuce, and hemp grown at Susty—which Leo stuffed into the saddlebags. He then had a rare unpleasant thought, as Tyler had informed him that they were moving to another town: I wonder if I’ll ever have the opportunity to see their new place.

The two remounted and rode several blocks through downtown Carbondale toward an unassuming building nestled in a gentle corner of the curving road: True Nature Healing Arts.

“Here, follow me,” guided Leo as he looked back over his shoulder to Sophia. After tying their horses to the gate out front, they entered a beautifully carved door and walked into the dark wood interior, festooned with display tables offering a myriad of malachite forms, amethyst geodes, copper balls, and giant citrine points. They crossed the room and then entered a solarium where a few folks were quietly enjoying tea and overlooking the splendid gardens. Leo paused at the water station, took two of the hand-blown glass goblets offered on the counter, and filled them both with cucumber and lilac-infused spring water. He handed Sophia a goblet and she gratefully gulped hers down before reaching to fill the chalice again. Leo then led her through a simple door and into the backyard.

Sophia crossed the threshold, and her eyes widened. They had arrived at an exquisite, fragrant sanctuary. “Have you ever walked a labyrinth?” Leo asked.

“A labyrinth?” Sophia thought about it, wistful in her recollections of her grandmother’s village where one labyrinth existed, in the olive grove near her grandmother’s cottage. “Yes, but it’s been a very long time.”

“Come with me,” Leo said, grabbing her hand. This time she didn’t pull back. He guided her tenderly toward a gazebo with special geometric shapes forming the ceiling. Inside were light-green clay cob benches, heavy and earthen, surrounding the center fire circle. They were covered in tadelakt, an ancient, Moroccan limestone plaster finish that gave the benches a soft, sturdy gloss. Leo set down his goblet, then took Sophia’s and set it down next to his without releasing her hand. They proceeded to follow the footpath to the labyrinth.

“Here we go,” he said after they passed cherry trees and a plethora of aromatic and medicinal herbs. “This is the labyrinth. We can take our time…go ahead. And, if you want the full experience, take off your shoes!” Leo invited, bending down to untie his hiking boots in demonstration. She followed suit, and once barefoot, wiggled her toes, then stepped gingerly onto the hewn stone pathway. Hand-carved sandstone pavers were carefully placed, one after the next, in a labyrinth pattern modeled after some of the most ancient installations found around the world. Nestled by red, chokecherry trees and wooly thyme ground cover, it was an enclave within a sanctuary. Sophia strode along the path in mindful silence, twisting and turning as the labyrinth folded upon itself, drawing her ever closer to the center point. She was deep in thought, reflecting on the Permadynamics workshop, the sweat lodge, and her extraordinary dream. She was transfixed and again felt transformed.

When she reached the center, Sophia took a deep breath and stood there for several minutes, listening to the birds, the breeze whispering through the branches, and the stoic silence that seemed to emanate from Wi Magua, towering on her distant throne. Then Sophia turned, and just as mindfully as she had walked in, worked her way back out. When she returned to Leo at the entrance, she felt more grounded and at peace than she had in days. Leo was waiting with his clasped hands before him. He bowed and said, “Namaste,” as if they had just engaged in a yoga class. He smiled broadly, looking deeply into her eyes. Instead of stepping into the labyrinth himself, he grabbed her by the hand again and said, “Follow me. There’s another treat I don’t want you to miss since you’re already barefoot!”

She followed trustingly as he brought her to a spiral pathway with tiny river pebbles protruding from the narrowing concrete path. “Walk across these—it’s a reflexology spiral. According to ancient tradition, it is designed with different sizes and textures to activate the five elements of earth, water, fire, air, and space, and to cleanse and vitalize your organs, especially your kidneys. Go ahead,” he encouraged. “Take your time.” Leo drew her hand forward like a dance partner leading her onto the spiral pathway.

The sensations were intense.

Sophia was once again reminded of her childhood adventures in Slovenia, especially those late summer days running barefoot through the garden. She remembered biting into a giant, ruby-red watermelon her Opa had cut open for her and feeling the sun-warmed watermelon juice splash on her mud-stained feet. She was enraptured in pure joy by the long-forgotten memory.

After she walked into the center of the spiral and back out again, Leo looked at her calmly and asked, “Are you ready for one more?”

She nodded innocently; her inner child was fully activated. Leo led the way to the larger yoga spiral. This one was surrounded by bright-green grass, and the width of the carefully laid flagstone diminished to a small point at its center. As she stepped into the spiral, she imagined the centermost point was like the singularity. It represented the point of no return—a spiral of no return—from which an entire new reality would emanate. Once reached, there was no way out but back the way she had come.

Would Otto turn things around?

After a few more minutes soaking up the sunshine and experiencing the profound tranquility of the sanctuary, Leo interrupted the silence by offering to get them tea. He was, she recognized, allowing her the time and the space she needed to connect with this precious Earth while encouraging her to keep moving forward in her efforts to save it. She was beginning to notice all those things he had done for her, and he was still doing for her, with no request for acknowledgment. When he went inside, she just sat very still, facing the sun. The heat and light filled her up, and she took another deep breath. She could smell the faint aroma of wood fire wafting through the valley; forest fires were burning to the west, many more now than in previous years. The air was saturated with a deeper, amber-gold hue than was usual, obstructing the typically blue skies with a choking haze that was, unfortunately, becoming more regular. It could become even worse in the near future. She was deep in thought, hoping that Otto’s activation would help to prevent catastrophic fires in the future…along with floods, hurricanes, more pandemics, and rising sea levels. She had to act.

It was time.

Chapter 22: Into the Wilderness

She was trembling. Stepping out into the morning light from the dark café, she squinted up at the sun, and then down at her shaking hands. Where was all this fear coming from? Am I that terrified of being caught by those men? Or is because of what I’m about to do? I’m about to activate Otto.

Either way, her veins pulsed with adrenaline. The calm she had felt just minutes earlier after walking through the labyrinth was long gone. Her legs felt like jelly. Nausea overwhelmed her. Before climbing up on Amber to escape into the wilderness, Sophia had taken a couple of full droppers of the Rescue Remedy flower essence that Leo had handed her while saying, “Here, it will help calm the nerves.”

Moments earlier, she had sat down at the public computer inside Bonfire Café just blocks away from True Nature. She had decided, after all, that it would be better to activate Otto from the café since there were more people to blend in with there. Plus, after the pleasant morning they had shared, Sophia decided she wanted to remember True Nature as her and Leo’s place of calm before the storm, although she had no intention of telling him that.

They had walked the horses to the café and tied them up in the alley out back, where Leo stayed with the horses. Looking up from the computer, she gazed out at the three of them through a large window before looking back at the screen. She was online, the incognito browser was open, and she had typed the long URL into the address bar. Otto’s secret access portal was just one keystroke away.

Game time.

She hit Enter, and the screen went black. The portal was in the old-school DOS format, and had just a few lines of strange green cipher codes preceding a blinking cursor. Sophia knew what the lines said. Indeed, she had written them. The bright green cursor just kept blinking rhythmically, patiently awaiting a secret activation code from its creator. Sophia took a deep breath, and started typing. Strange angular symbols began populating the input field, some with perpendicular right angles, some with diagonally oriented angles, and some with little dots inside of the angles. It looked like an alien language from a science fiction movie, but Sophia knew it to be something else entirely, and had some understanding of its ancient origin.

The clock is ticking, Sophia thought as she typed furiously.

She downloaded the specifications Otto had provided after opening her ProtonMail account in a web browser. The ProtonMail email encryption platform had been developed by scientists at CERN—the Conseil Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire, or European Organization for Nuclear Research—in Switzerland, and was supposedly un-hackable. But Sophia often wondered if one day ProtonMail would be revealed as another CIA tool of counterintelligence trickery, just as Crypto AG had turned out to be—a ploy to ensnare state enemies and rogue actors. Regardless, her fate was sealed as she uploaded Otto’s specifications for connecting with soil mycelial super-networks and emailed them to Philip at NCAR, Trevor in Seattle, and Mitch at Cornell. She also emailed them to Selma at the undisclosed supercomputer facility near Washington, DC; because it was deep in the forest and didn’t receive many visitors, it seemed an ideal location for a redundant nodal connection, should one be needed. Plus, Selma was reliable. So was Trevor in Seattle—he was one of the lead scientists working on Amazon’s top-secret supercomputing and AI projects. Unbeknownst to most of the public, all these ventures were being conducted in concert with, or under the direct supervision of, the United States intelligence community, so it would be mere minutes before her emails would put her back on-grid. Hopefully, Philip hadn’t been detained or deterred by those men at NCAR. She had thought about reaching out to him but didn’t want to take any chances exposing either one of them, and now, there was no time.

With the instructions and specifications sent out to each node—Philip, Trevor, Mitch, and Selma had already been primed for the possibility of a hyper-network of supercomputers, and hopefully, none of them would balk now that it was game time. Only one step remained: the activation of Otto’s deep core. The trigger point for deep Artificial Intelligence.

And Sophia’s finger was on that trigger. Sweat glistened on her brow, and she rubbed her clammy hands impulsively back and forth along her thighs. She looked out the window at the horses one more time and saw Leo standing there, casually feeding handfuls of tall grass to Amber. She wiped her brow, took a deep breath, and placed her hands gently on the keyboard.

This was it.

She typed a very long code into a widget she had created in the portal. It was easy for her to remember in three parts—one of which was a phrase her Oma often spoke about in the garden.

!@0D1a1s2E3w5i8g13e21#$W34e55i89b144l233i377c610h987e%^

This widget was connected to the gatekeeper, effectively an iron-clad partition between Otto’s existing mainframe supercomputing hub and the code set Sophia had developed that would activate the deep AI within the quantum computing core. The code effectively lowered the partition, merging the supercomputing mainframe with the quantum core, bringing Otto to supercritical status. Both the quantum core and the supercomputing mainframe were already tethered to the living mycelial neural networks in the laboratory in Cornell.

Now, with the instructions sent to Mitch in Ithaca, and the other three colleagues in the other locations, Otto would have the supercritical activation of his quantum core, as well as massively parallel computing capacity established by the network with the three other supercomputers. He would also be connected to the robust mycelium neural networks in the forest landscapes surrounding each laboratory.

The cursor stood flashing at the end of the long code, awaiting one simple command:  ENTER

One more deep breath and quick glance out the window, and Sophia pressed down on the key.

It was done.

She quickly logged off the portal, closed her ProtonMail window, cleared the typing and browser histories on the machine, pressed CTRL+ALT+DEL, restarted the computer, stood up, and walked briskly out the back door and down the steps to Leo and the horses. She gave him a quick nod as Leo handed her the small brown glass bottle with the flower essence and untied the halter ropes, saying in a hushed voice, “I admire your courage, Brigitte.” She quickly mounted Amber as Leo jumped up on Red, and they trotted down the alley, hastening toward the great mountain looming in the south.

Once back on the trail along the Crystal River, the buzzing of a drone could be heard approaching, and emergency sirens were crying in the distance. Sophia glanced up and around. Are we being chased? That quickly?

Leo abruptly shouted, “Heeyah!” and squeezed the back soles of his boots into Red’s broad sides. The stallion broke into a gallop, and Amber instantly followed, with Sophia’s grip tightening on the reins, her thighs hugging the great horse’s sides. They raced up Prince Creek Road as fast as they could, unable to ascertain whether the buzzing or sirens were getting closer.

* * *

After sprinting several miles, they finally slowed their horses to a trot. The pewter-colored clouds now hovering overhead began to sprinkle raindrops on them. Leo reached into one of the saddlebags and pulled out two rain ponchos. He handed one to Sophia and quickly slid his up and over his head and shoulders. At least they wouldn’t get too wet…yet. He also pulled two small white pouches from his pocket, handing one to Sophia as he said, “Here, this is a Justin’s Maple Almond Butter packet, just open the corner and squeeze it into your mouth—you’ll need the energy.

Sophia looked at the white foil packet and tore it open between her teeth as she swayed side to side with Amber’s steady gait. She squeezed the contents into her mouth with one hand, holding the reins with the other, and a contented smile crept across her face. The almond butter and maple syrup was delicious! She squeezed every bit out of the packet before reaching down to grasp her water bottle and drink heartily.

A few minutes later, Sophia asked, “Can we walk for a little while? My legs are numb, and my bottom is getting sore.”

Although the sound of the drones had faded, and it didn’t seem like they were being pursued at the moment, Sophia could tell that Leo was wary. They both knew the hunters couldn’t be too far behind.

“Okay,” he relented. “Let’s just walk for a few minutes and then ride hard again. If we’ve given them the slip or made some distance between us, we certainly don’t want them to catch up now! We’ll be in the wilderness soon enough.”

They dismounted and walked side by side, holding their mounts’ reins. Red and Amber stepped just behind, occasionally dropping their heads to nibble on the tall grasses lining the dirt road. It was sprinkling again; the drops made beautiful splash patterns in the dry dust of the trail. They walked through a thicket of scrub oak, their vision obscured in every direction, and came around a tight corner, upon a menacing scene.

There it was, muscles rippling, head lifting as all their eyes seemed to meet at once. A mountain lion. The drizzle had dampened the sound of their approach, and the giant cat seemed as startled to see them as they were to see it. Its muscles flexed along its shoulders, and its tail twitched left, then right in a carefully timed rhythm, as if to hypnotize the tall humans peering at it, meeting its yellow, glowing eyes.

“Oh, shit,” gasped Sophia, dropping her reins to the dirt. Her body tensed as her mind screamed out a single, primal command: Run.

“Don’t move!” Leo’s voice was deeper and louder than she had ever heard it: primal. He somehow knew her instinct was to run, just as he knew that would mean her death. In a calmer voice, he explained, “Whatever you do, don’t run. Running will make him chase you, and he’s faster than you.” The horses whinnied anxiously but remained still; they had been trained for this potential type of interaction.

Sophia froze, staring straight at the animal. The lion stared back, tail still twitching; it seemed to be considering its next move just as they were. Leo slowly reached into the saddlebag and pulled out a metal pan. He gradually slid the rifle from the holster (Brook had insisted he take it this morning as a precaution) and began robustly beating the butt of the rifle against the cast iron pan, yelling and flailing his free arm above him, making a wild racket. He glanced at Sophia with fierce eyes. “Get as big as you can and make as much noise as possible!” he commanded, crouching briefly to grab Amber’s reins from the dust. Sophia, frozen with fear, didn’t respond. Leo never took his eyes off the lion, and it turned around and retreated a few paces behind an aspen trunk.

But then from behind the tree emerged the cat’s muzzle; it was open, fangs exposed. It moved toward Sophia, head again lowered, muscles bunched up on its powerful shoulders. It seemed that the crouching and stalking could mean only one thing—the feline was preparing to attack. Leo got even bigger and louder and pulled Red toward the cat. Red reared his head back, clearly hesitant to approach the lion, but Leo was persistent. He pulled harder on the reins and continued toward the predator, still making as much noise as possible.

Finally, the lion turned and bounded up the slope, disappearing into the aspen grove. The standoff had ended…although that didn’t guarantee the danger was over. After several long minutes of silence, Leo spoke softly. “They say mountain lions are only seen by humans when they let themselves be seen. They are otherwise invisible watchers, surveilling the landscape and hunting at will. He may stalk us for a while.”

Leo asked Sophia if she was okay. Her mouth was wide open, as it had been during the entire encounter. She tried to talk, but no sound came out, so she nodded. He told her to get back on Amber as he swiftly mounted Red. Reaching back, he shoved the pan back in the bag, securing the strap with one hand while keeping the rifle at the ready in his other hand. He cocked the lever-action .30-30 Winchester and then rested the weapon across his lap as they began trotting.

After glancing in all directions for any sign of the lion, he hollered behind his back, “We need to get as far away from that lion as possible, Sophia, and we have to do it fast. These horses have more stamina than that cat. Let’s go.”

They broke into a swift gallop and raced away up the dirt road, riding hard for over an hour before breaking to a trot again.

Then, after another hour of trotting, all the while glancing in every direction, Leo’s voice broke the exhausted silence. “We’re almost there.”

Sophia couldn’t tell which she felt more potently, her aching discomfort or her relief that they might be close to their destination. Her whole body hurt, and she felt ready to flop right off the horse at any second. They had been up and down several hillocks, mountain saddles, and minor passes, and had ridden in and out of lush valleys swollen with beaver ponds and golden, wispy stands of tall grasses. They rode through thick aspen groves, trunks glowing white against the deep-blue sky, with golden leaves rattling like a hundred thousand delicate clavicles overhead, mirthful in their playful vibrato as if some thousand-fold flamenco orchestra had greeted the two journeyers riding past. At one point, after they had traveled several miles along a dirt road and then turned onto a single track heading higher up into the mountains, Sophia was surprised to encounter what seemed like several yards of beach sand on the trail. It was above Dinkle Lake, where the massive aspen groves gave way to wide, open tundra.

She had gazed out through the shimmering leaves to the glistening snow-capped peaks and dark green valleys lumbering beneath them. Winter was coming. Last night had been cold enough to blanket a fresh dusting of snow on the peaks above.

She was frightened at the thought of being out in the wilderness for so long, though Leo was clearly an adept woodsman. She didn’t like being unplugged nor the fact that she remained unaware of what Otto was or wasn’t doing. She had no idea how close her pursuers or their drones might be to their location, and to top it all off, she was still utterly reliant on Leo. At least back home, in the cities, she had been autonomous. Now she was completely dependent on another human being. And she didn’t like it one bit.

But she was eager, nonetheless, to get off the horse and into the cave Leo had promised would be a suitable shelter. In addition to being sore and tired, she was hungry. No, ravenous.

They had been on the high mountain trail a while before rejoining a rough jeep road cutting in and out of the forest, which they followed the rest of the afternoon. Then, as they rounded a bend and emerged from the thick woods, Sophia saw a mountain stream flowing down along their left side. Leo pointed up and toward the right, and she looked that way, seeing a steep scree field, beyond which appeared to be an impossible mess of boulders with scraggly dwarf pines eking out an existence here and there.

“It’s up there,” said Leo wistfully, almost nostalgically. “I’ve never brought anybody else here…. You’re the first.” His voice trailed as if he had made that last comment more to himself than her. “We’ll have some work to do, but I’ve already secured most of the entrance with a stone wall over the past few years. Do you see it up there?”

She looked around but saw nothing but rocks and scattered trees. “I don’t see anything, Leo. What are you talking about?”

The vinegar bite of her attitude stung Leo, but he knew to expect it, given the stress and exhaustion she was experiencing.

“Well, it’s probably actually a good thing you don’t see anything,” he responded reasonably. “That means it’s not visible from this trail.” Although there wasn’t much risk of anyone hiking up there this time of year—even the late-season hunters didn’t usually venture this high up in the mountain or this far from paved roads—it was still ideal that their mountain cave, their new would-be refuge and shelter for some indefinite period of time—could not easily be seen.

“Before we head up to unload the gear from the horses, let’s go fill up all of our water containers.”

Leo has clearly thought ahead on this front, Sophia thought upon hearing his recommendation. Filling the water bottles took about fifteen minutes, each of them taking turns filling and squeezing the water filters. They performed the task silently, each consumed by their own thoughts, apparently unable to verbalize what was swirling inside their tired heads as they looked around warily. Then, Leo pulled three collapsible plastic jugs from one of the saddlebags and proceeded to fill those as well, laying them sideways directly in the creek without filtering the water. As if reading her mind, Leo assured, “This water is just for cleaning and for boiling over the fire. We may as well carry as much water up to the cave as we can while we still have both horses with us. Since there are thermal hot springs near the cave, fortunately, we won’t have to worry about hauling and heating water to bathe.”

Sophia’s brow furrowed, and then a shudder of terror shot through her just as a new chill blew through the air—the sun was sinking in the western sky. “What do you mean, while we still have both horses?”

Leo glanced at her. “They can’t both stay here. First off, snow will be covering the ground soon, and they won’t have grass to eat. Second, we don’t want them both near our cave because their presence would be much easier for a drone to detect. In fact, it would be safer with both horses gone, but that would be risky for other reasons. We’ll keep Amber here with us—she’ll need less hay to eat.”

Leo was acting strangely, and it made Sophia uneasy.

“What are you going to do with Red?” she asked, the fear in her voice belying a quick flash of news clips in her mind about people eating horses. “Are you going to kill him?”

“Of course not! I’ll take him back to Susty in a couple of days once we get settled in.”

Leo filled the final jug and balanced them one by one atop the saddles. “We’ll walk the rest of the way up. The trail is too steep and windy for us to ride anyhow.”

Sophia gazed up once more at the field of boulders. It looked like the side of the mountain had shattered into a million pieces, frozen in their slow-motion descent to the valley where she and Leo were now leading the horses away from the stream. She wasn’t sure she had enough left in her to make the final ascent, but she clamped her mouth shut, refusing to whine. After about eighty more yards on the jeep trail, Leo stepped off to the right and began ascending along an almost imperceptible footpath. There was really no erosion or sign of impact, just the slightest indication of an old donkey trail that rugged miners had carved out 150 years ago, seeking gold and silver in a quest driven as much by the seduction of riches as by the profound need to escape the devastation and trauma of the Civil War. They had fled into these mountains for such different reasons than ours, thought Sophia, yet they were similarly driven by life’s unforeseen whims.

The four creatures climbed up and up, one foot, one hoof in front of the other. Their steeds, also exhausted, bobbed their heads with each forward motion. This final climb was unpleasant for all.

Twilight descended and heavy clouds blocked even the slightest starlight. The last twenty yards to the mouth of the cave were across a narrow precipice overhanging the steep scree field. Mossy seeps from the rock made the path slippery and treacherous. Sophia trembled with fear and exhaustion. Then, at the mouth of the cave, Leo put his hand on her back, gently reassuring her that they had arrived and their new home would be a safe refuge.

They stepped cautiously into the cave and were enveloped by darkness.

Chapter 23: The Cave

Time slowed. It was damp and cool inside the cave. Every little sound ricocheted off the hard walls. Leo unzipped his backpack—the sound of the zipper tearing through Sophia’s exhausted mind—and rummaged loudly.

Then, with an assured “Got it,” Leo pulled his hand out and clicked on a headlamp.

There was light.

Sophia glanced all around, taking in the sharp, unforgiving crags and hard, uneven ground. Water shone wet and cold along some of the cave walls, which extended back beyond the reach of the light. As Leo moved his headlamp around, shadows swept across the far wall: dark creatures creeping and lurking. “It doesn’t go too far back,” said Leo as if sensing her dread. “Here, I’ll show you.” He held her hand reassuringly, and the warmth of his giant palm was comforting. Together, they walked some fifty paces to the back of the cave, shadows dancing all around them like wild banshees on Walpurgisnacht. Cold chills ran through Sophia’s body, and she leaned closer to Leo to feel more of his warmth.

Once at the back of the cave, Sophia was relieved to see that it did indeed end there, and as Leo shone the light around, that no small fissures seemed available for creatures to creep or slither through. The cave was solid granite. The only way in or out was through the front entrance, to which they now returned.

Leo produced another light from his bag and handed it to Sophia. “Here’s one for you. I brought three of them. One for each of us and a backup. I also brought a small solar charger and extra rechargeable batteries, so we should have plenty of light. But we should still be conservative with them and only use the red light when outside the cave—that way, we won’t be easy to detect. Never use the white light outside at night!

“I’m going to make a fire so we’ll have light and heat during the night. We can’t have fire during the day, though. There’s too great a risk that the smoke might be seen or that the smell of the smoke might alert random hikers—or others—to our general whereabouts. I built this wall over the past few years,” continued Leo, indicating the dry-stacked stones concealing the cave entrance. “Tomorrow, I’ll reinforce it with another layer of rock just to make sure there aren’t any cracks for firelight to get through. And it will blend in even more with the surrounding mountainside that way.”

Leo walked outside, switching his headlamp light from white to dim-red before leaving the cave, and made his way to the horses, which they had tied to an aspen trunk. Sophia watched out of the mouth of the cave as the subtle red glow diminished and then vanished around a jutting rock. She was once more surrounded by darkness and wrapped her torso up in a tight squeeze as a damp chill ran along her spine. Although she wanted to be closer to the man, she didn’t relish the idea of retracing her steps atop that narrow ledge outside the cave.

It was only minutes before Leo returned, his faint, red light growing brighter with each step. He arrived back in their rock chamber, setting down near the entrance a load of firewood he’d carried in one arm, then handing Sophia a couple of tapestries from his other hand. “I know it’s not much of a wall, but I figured you might prefer some semblance of privacy. We can tie these to the craggy rocks and create a little privacy. You’re welcome to sleep there, too, if you prefer, but it might be warmer by the fire.”

He arranged a nest of twigs, pine needles, dried leaves, and small branches, and lit a fire. As the small, glowing tongues grew from feeble, timid wisps into confident, ravenous flames, Leo added several more twigs and branches in a tipi-like pattern, each one a bit larger in diameter than the last. Before long, they had a hot, roaring fire at the mouth of the cave. Leo nodded at the fire, then hurried outside to see if any light was escaping through the cracks in his rock wall. Seeing a few exposed spots, he plugged the gaps with stones, then sawed five thick pine branches and laid them up against the rocks. Not only would that further obscure any light, but it would also conceal the rock wall itself.

Leo then returned to the horses, untethered Amber, and guided her along the narrow path to the mouth of the cave. He led her in and toward the back and attached hobbles to her front legs. It seemed unlikely she would bolt outside, but Leo couldn’t afford to risk it. The precipice was dangerous, for one thing, and a visible horse could definitely reveal their whereabouts. He unstrapped the saddle packs, returned to Sophia long enough to hand her a sleeping bag and inflatable camping mattress, and then left the cave again to get Red.

Once outside and next to the great animal, Leo paused with his arms folded atop Red’s back and gazed up at the dark sky. Back in the direction of Carbondale, though many miles away, the town’s lights shined, brightening the otherwise oily black clouds with a warm glow, reminding Leo of the fire. “We’re all still huddled around our fire hearths, one way or another, eh, Red?” mused Leo. He took many long, deep breaths, his gaze moving south. The clouds were thinning. He could make out a few bright, twinkling stars as they peeked through the dense darkness.

Back at the mouth of the cave, warmed by the fire, Sophia reflected on the recent events Leo and she had endured. They had accomplished their task and reached this refuge without incident. Sophia was grateful for that. Now she just had to survive and remain undiscovered…at least until she could figure out what to do next.

Back inside the warming den, Leo guided Red past Sophia and to the back near Amber, hobbled him, and unpacked the saddlebags. Sophia had already made quick work of her air mattress and sleeping bag. Her spare clothes were laid out in a tidy pile on a dry rock shelf.

Leo filled a metal tea kettle with dried herbs, placed it on a flat rock beside the fire, and said, “This infusion will be welcome in the morning.”

Sophia stretched and yawned, and Leo followed suit. They were exhausted, and sleep was the only thing on their minds.

Leo prepared his bed on the opposite side of the fire from Sophia to keep a respectful distance from her. He added three, thick branches to the crackling fire, placed the rifle up against the rock next to him, and pulled off his pants and jacket. Intuiting that she would want some privacy to do the same, he slipped into his bag and curled up, facing away from the fire and Sophia so that she could swiftly disrobe and climb into her sleeping bag.

The new firewood glowed hot and bright and eventually sank into a winking pile of red glowing coals, but the pair were already out by then, deep in slumber. It had been a fiercely intense and exhausting day.

* * *

The next morning, Sophia stirred as daylight slipped into their stone hermitage. She opened her eyes to see puffy ashes where the fire had blazed the night before. Beyond the stone ring, Leo slept soundly, his torso heaving slowly with each breath. Toward the back of the cave, the two horses were also resting, legs locked and heads down in slow-wave sleep.

She quietly emerged from her sleeping bag, pulled on her pants and jacket, and stepped out into the sunlight to find a secluded place to pee. She had held it in all night long, too tired to get out of the cozy bed and not wanting to venture out into the frigid darkness alone.

Relief flowed into her as the rivulet of urine trickled away from between her feet.

Brilliant sunlight and a majestic wilderness vista flowed into her senses as well: the heat of the sun on her skin, the sight of the forest wonderland, the sound of hundreds of birds, the aroma of damp soils; sun-baking rock; and meadow flowers…. She could practically taste the pure mountain air and porcini mushrooms poking up through decaying aspen leaves. It was heavenly. She sat down, awestruck, and thought again of her Oma and Opa. Sophia began weeping as her emotions flowed out uncontrollably. Relief, fear, pride, responsibility, accomplishment, determination, vulnerability, perseverance, intelligence, and faith—most of all, a deep faith that she now felt and understood but had never before considered or recognized. Not like this. All these emotions flowed through her like the endless stream of sunshine showering over and around and through her.

She sobbed.

But it was one of those really good sobs—the kind most of us too seldom allow ourselves to experience. Of course, a week of near-death terror, fleeing, uncertainty, and utter vulnerability opened Sophia’s floodgates as if some autonomous part of her body had to release all the built-up tension and stress. But there was something else too. Something beautiful. The feeling of coming through such a terrible ordeal…and surviving. Accomplishing the task. And arriving at a stupendously beautiful setting that felt surprisingly calm and safe and somehow impervious to the danger she had evaded…at least, for now. Yeah, she was in the wilderness. And totally dependent on Leo for so many things: food, safety, heat, protection, guidance, and even, she had to admit to herself, companionship and emotional support. But she was off-grid now—completely off-grid.

She sat for what could have been an hour. Butterflies fluttered, honeybees buzzed, finches chirped, robins sang, and a few times, a hummingbird zipped by, emitting that awesomely melodic, vibrato-cum-jet-engine music that just had to make you smile and laugh. For a little while, she was a young girl back in Slovenia…and it was delightful.

The autumn colors—seeming to burst in every type of citrus hue at once—were dazzling and relaxing, calming and exciting. Lime greens, blazing oranges, neon yellows, the deep crimson of blood oranges, and the dark hunter green hues of the pine trees blended into a magnificent impressionistic tapestry punctuated rhythmically by black, brown, gray, and white tree trunks. The colors seemed to pulse with sound. The trunks beat like drums, and the leaves fluttered in an impressionistic symphony.

Gentle tinkering sounds emanated from the cave, and after several minutes, Leo emerged into the bright daylight, a steaming mug in each hand. “Mornin’, you,” he said with a soft familiarity. “How ’bout some tea to go with your view?” He had already pointed out the simple iron tap in the mountainside from which cold spring water continuously flowed, and had filled their jars and water bottles the night before.

She smiled and nodded. Perfect.

Refuges in paradise, Sophia and Leo sat quietly, sipping tea and drinking in the astonishing beauty surrounding them.

After a long, conversation-less moment, Leo said, “Come here, I want to show you something,” as he stood and set his empty mug on a nearby boulder. Sophia set her mug next to his and followed him along the path. They strode for ten minutes, moving around a rocky crest and down a secluded deer trail until finally arriving at a hollow between two rocky cliffs.

Squatting down like a baseball catcher, Leo picked a few heart-shaped leaves and handed them to Sophia, stating matter-of-factly, “Arnica, from the Latin name arni meaning ‘lamb’ for its soft leaves. It’s an amazing pain reliever for bruises and sore joints—especially helpful after lots of hiking, I’ve found. It’s in the sunflower family actually, and has other folk names like wolfsbane and leopard’s bane. But this particular species, Arnica montana, is native to the Rocky Mountain West and has a compound called helenalin, a sesquiterpene lactone that is the main ingredient in many anti-inflammatory medicines. But it’s toxic if you take it internally. It should only be used externally as a compress.”

Sophia was impressed. He, too, is a nerd after all. Those were the people she actually felt most comfortable with. Leo explained that he had been studying herbal medicine for over a quarter-century and had as a close friend, the elder teacher Brigitte Mars, who also happened to be one of the most prolific teachers and writers in the field.

Still squatting, Leo pivoted a quarter-turn right and noticed another species growing. He reached down to pluck several tiny, fern-like fronds. “And here’s a bunch of yarrow! What a wonderful plant, associated with the planet Venus as you heard at Susty. This herb is great to keep on hand for any cuts or scrapes we might get. It’s a powerful antiseptic, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory coagulant. It’s in the daisy family and can be found in temperate zones throughout the world: in prairies, mountain meadows, coastal areas, and especially along highways and around disturbed soils needing to be healed and brought into balance.” Leo handed Sophia a handful of the soft fractal-like ferny leaves.

Then, standing and reaching up toward a scraggly ponderosa pine branch nine feet off the ground, he plucked a handful of mossy, green-gray fibers dangling from the tree. “This is usnea, grandfather’s beard, or old man’s beard as it’s called by some. A very powerful antibiotic. It’s a lichen actually, a symbiotic colony of billions of fungal and algal microorganisms, and is found dangling from trees worldwide. Many other lichens, by contrast, are ‘rock-eaters’—biofilms of sorts that slowly digest exposed rock, initiating the great cascade of soil-making processes that animate the planet. Here, we’ll keep some of this in the cave just in case we catch a bad cold or develop a fever at some point.”

Leo handed the soft, nest-like bunch to Sophia. “Usnea is a nonparasitic lichen that has a compound very similar to penicillin. It’s known to be anti-inflammatory, anti-tumoral, an immunostimulant, anti­microbial, and antiviral! It has a compound that inhibits the metabolism of streptococcus, staphylococcus, and mycobacterium tuberculosis. It’s indicated for respiratory and sinus infections and even yeast infections and vaginosis—not to mention that it can be applied directly or in powder form to flesh wounds. We can make a tea if we need it, although some herbalists would tell us that a tincture is an even more potent form to use.”

Sophia was amazed by the man’s plant knowledge, which seemed so specific, scientific, and practical. But she also wondered in dismay, how long does he think we’ll be staying out here in this wilderness?

Continuing down the path, Leo found some tall tan and brown stems sticking up out of a central point in the ground. At the top of each stem was a burst of finer stems, terminating in a bulb of dried seed pods. These were the characteristic foliage of the Umbelliferae or Apiaceae family, Leo explained, dropping to his knees and digging steadily with a strong stick he had picked up off the forest floor. He dug and dug, sometimes setting down the stick to reach into the growing hole with his bare hands and scratch and tug at what Sophia figured must be the plant’s roots. His hands were quickly caked with velvety chocolate soil. After several more minutes, he pulled out a large clump of dark-brown, hairy roots. He brushed away the humus and handed it to Sophia. “Smell it,” he invited after taking a deep whiff. “Isn’t it magical?”

Sophia inhaled deeply and was amazed at the earthy, pungent, carrot-like smell. “This is bear root,” Leo told her. “Or osha root…one of the most potent medicinal plants in all of North America, but it only grows up here high in the Rocky Mountains. It’s been said that bears will dig it up and eat it or even pack it into their own wounds. It’s endangered, though, and shouldn’t be harvested much at all. In fact, this little amount is more than enough for you and me for a whole year. You have to be very careful, though, because it is closely related and easily mistaken for poison hemlock, the highly toxic plant made infamous by Socrates’ final drink of choice. Here, try biting some of these tender root nodules. They’re a real delicacy.”

Sophia was surprised to see Leo bring the root ball to his face, then bite carefully at several of the exposed white root nodules, small clumps of dirt clinging to his whiskered cheeks. Having shown her how, he handed the osha back to Sophia and made a biting motion with his teeth. She gave it a try. The root flesh was so tender and so…so…numbing. It made her mouth tingle, but she liked it. It was the earthiest thing she had ever tasted. And, she thought, perhaps the most potent, immunity-boosting medicine I have ever ingested.

“We’ll keep this with us and make tea infusions if we’re feeling like we might get sick or are just rundown. It’s like magic. Just about any time I’m starting to get a scratchy throat or feel a cold coming on, I take a little osha tincture or toddy and wake up the next day almost having forgotten that I was on the verge of illness. It’s considered one of the five most sacred plant medicines used ceremonially by many of the Turtle Island tribes, along with cedar, sage, sweetgrass, and tobacco. It’s often burned like incense at sweat lodges, Sundances, and other special rituals.” Leo explained a little about the Sundance ceremony, and shared with her that he had been invited to Sundance in Montana and to participate in many traditional sweat lodges himself. Some with Lakota, some with Diné, some with Cheyenne-Arapaho, and some with Mohawk. He had even participated in sacred ceremony with Maya, Australian Aboriginal, and other native peoples. Sophia was astonished to hear this, and that at Sundance, the dancers would go into the sweat lodge to cool down!

Leo gazed wistfully out toward the valley and then wiped his hands together, enjoying the aroma one more time before continuing down the path with Sophia close behind.

They walked through a dense aspen grove, where some ferns were still green in their shaded sanctuaries, and then pushed through a thicket of willow bushes. Then, after shoving aside the last of the willows, they arrived at an extraordinary sight.

Looking down, Sophia saw a small pond. Bubbles appeared one after the other on the otherwise glassy surface, and steam rose in gentle wisps. There was a strange odor in the air, like rotten eggs but milder. Without warning, Leo began stripping down to his underwear and walked right into the water without even a shudder. “This is my little secret…. My special spot,” he called back to her as he breast-stroked slowly toward the deeper, slate-dark middle. “It’s why I have been coming to this cave over the years. This place is my own little Shangri-la.” He continued floating around the water and bounding up from the sandy bottom—which was six or seven feet deep in the middle. Then he stopped; turned to face her directly; got a huge, mischievous smile; and splashed across the top of the water with his forearm, sending an arcing spray right toward her.

She winced as beads landed on her cheek, nose, and bare chest above her lilac-colored halter. “Leo!” she screamed without thinking. “Stop!” She folded her arms across her chest, grinning in playful defiance.

He was cracking up. “You’re going to love it.… I promise.”

She thought for a moment and then, commanding Leo to turn around, quickly stripped to her bra and panties and tiptoed gingerly into the water. The sand and pebbles along the shore weren’t nearly as hard or rough as the rock in the cave. They gave slightly with each soft step, massaging her feet. She dipped her toes in—ahhhh, the warmth!—then her ankles, calves, knees, thighs, stomach, and shoulders. Submerged up to her neck in the perfectly hot water, she felt miraculous. The bubbling water was like an all-over massage, kneading each muscle and caressing every square inch of her body.

“Leo, this…this…this is heaven! How did you find it?” Although she was terribly uncomfortable in the wilderness, especially in the frigid cold, having private hot springs at the ready made it much more tolerable.

“Years of hiking and exploring,” Leo replied, smiling and gently treading water a few yards away from Sophia. “Isn’t it exquisite?”

“Luscious!” she answered emphatically. “I mean, really, Avalanche Hot Springs was lovely, but this gem? Out here, secluded like this, and with that cave so close by? It’s as if somebody put this all here on purpose!”

“Well, I’m happy to share it with you,” Leo replied. Then he paused, reflecting. “In fact, I’ve never shared this with anybody. And each time I come up here, I’m shocked to find no trace of any other humans having visited. It’s nice to have somebody to share it with!” Then, with an unexpected laugh, Leo jumped straight up out of the water, shouting, “Welcome!” Then he plunged down to the bottom of the natural pool. Through the broken, shimmering wavelets shaking and rolling across the surface, Sophia could see that Leo was sitting at the bottom in Lotus position, hands outstretched in an exaggerated mudra.

When Leo finally emerged again after an unexpectedly long time beneath the surface, Sophia chuckled playfully. “You’re pretty silly, you know that?”

“Yeah,” responded Leo comfortably. “That’s pretty much how I always feel inside: playful, jolly, gleeful…like a little boy!”

Like a little boy, thought Sophia as she turned to gaze out at the mountain valley spreading open beneath them. Funny, I was just feeling like a little girl myself.

The two soaked for a long time before Leo stepped out to pull a bottle from his bag with a busy blue label printed around it. “I’ve got some Dr. Bronner’s soap we can wash with. It’s all-organic and, being biodegradable, about the safest thing we can use out here.”

They both took their time washing and grooming. Then, after about an hour, the unlikely duo decided to get out, dry off with the towels they had packed at Susty (which Leo had bravely fetched from the cave, running, laughing, and sopping wet from the soaking pool, and then needing several more minutes soaking to warm up again), and return to the cave to prepare and eat a simple meal.

After they had finished eating, Leo told Sophia he was going to ride back to Sustainable Settings later that afternoon after further camouflaging the rock wall.

“What?” Sophia snapped. “What do you mean, you’re going back there?”

“We can’t keep both horses here,” he replied emphatically. “First, they’re already a risk as we have to let them out of the cave each day. More than that, I’ll have to haul their feed up here as soon as the snows come, which will be soon. It’s going to become increasingly dangerous to have them out grazing as the leaves drop. What if somebody sees them? I’ve even thought about taking them both back, but keeping just Amber here would provide a quick getaway if need be. At least we could outrun those soldiers—and, hopefully, their bullets too—if they were to show up again. Plus,” continued Leo, calmly and thoughtfully, “Bailey and the crew need Red back at the farm. He’s a workhorse, after all. It’s going to be hard enough to convince them to let us keep Amber for a while!”

Sophia sat quietly. She wanted to argue since she really didn’t want him to leave. But his points were valid. It didn’t make sense to keep both horses here. Nor would it make sense for her to accompany him back and forth to the farm; Amber would need to carry feed and other supplies back up to the cave, and any extra weight would only limit what she could haul. Plus, just in case those men had gotten back on her trail, it would be far too dangerous for her to show up again at the farm. She didn’t like the idea, but there really wasn’t any other choice.

“Okay, I understand,” she finally said before asking, “How long will you be gone?”

“If I leave in the next hour or two, I could be back tomorrow afternoon. You know it’s a half-day trip each way. I could try to come back under the cover of dark tonight, but that seems dangerous—and foolish in case Amber and I get lost or need to use the flashlight to find our way. Are you going to be okay sleeping alone overnight?”

“I… I…,” Sophia stammered, words escaping her as she was still thinking and feeling so much. “Yeah,” she managed after a brief struggle. “I guess I’ll be okay…. I’m not saying I’m going to like it, but I think I’ll be okay. It’s the logical thing to do.”

After adding more rocks and concealing branches to the wall, Leo prepared the horses. Before leaving, he handed Sophia the rifle, saying, “Here, you keep this…just in case,” and carefully walked Red across the ledge with Amber tethered behind. He turned back toward Sophia, standing in the cave entrance, holding the rifle and reassured, “I’ll be back as early as I can tomorrow, probably around two-ish if I leave at sunrise.

“Make sure you stay hidden, and don’t light the fire until it’s dark so nobody sees any smoke.” Leo had double-checked to make sure she had enough kindling and firewood, food, and drinking water for a couple of days, just in case. Although there was a fresh water spring just a few dozen yards from the cave, it was too risky for her to be outside—even for just a few minutes.

Sophia waved goodbye as Leo climbed up on the stallion and started down the path with Amber tethered to Red and clomping slowly along behind them. He waved back and with a big smile said, “You’ll be okay, I promise.”

* * *

That afternoon, Sophia stayed close to the cave entrance, watching, watching, watching. The sun sank lower in the western sky, and bright afternoon faded into eventide. The clouds began to glow in brilliant orange and tangerine hues as the gloaming foretold the impending dusk. The robins sang their evening song, and the buzzing bees and fluttering butterflies settled down for the night.

And then she heard it.

The telltale buzzing of a drone in the distance.

It’s coming closer!

Heart racing, Sophia ran into the cave and huddled in the nook by the doorway. She couldn’t be seen but wanted to stay close enough to the entrance to hear where it was going. The sound got louder and louder until it had to be within a hundred yards of the cave.

From the steady sound, Sophia could discern that the drone was hovering in place for some reason.

Does it know I’m here?

Is it a drone operated by the men chasing me?

Fear and adrenaline surged through her, and she began trembling.

It seemed to hover for a strangely long time.

Then, just as quickly as it had shown up, the drone receded into the distance, its steady buzz fading to nothing.

Just birdsong now…and the breeze.

Holy shit, thought Sophia. Do they know where I am? Have they found Leo?

* * *

Sophia didn’t sleep for hours.

Finally, overcome by total exhaustion, head aching from the adrenaline and cortisol, Sophia succumbed to sleep, slipping into her bag with her pants and sweater still on. Although she had finally built a fire well after darkness had descended, she was chilled to the bone. She woke several times throughout the night, stirring at the slightest sound of a branch in the breeze or some small critter scurrying yards away. The empty darkness of night seemed to drag on and on.

And she was cold, really cold. Frigid.

It was the longest night of her life.

* * *

When the first light of morning finally came, all she could think of was getting back into the hot spring water. I’ll go and pee there, she decided. The sun wasn’t even up yet, but there was enough early dawn light for her to carefully make her way back to the water sanctuary.

On the way there, however, she noticed something shiny sitting upon a rock ledge some twenty feet up above the aspen grove where they had picked osha root the afternoon before. What is that? She stood still, watching, wondering. Is it a drone? What else could it be? Finally, after several motionless minutes, she couldn’t stand it any longer. She was trembling uncontrollably from the cold. She had to know what it was.

She walked straight through the aspens, keeping her sharp gaze on the shining object all the while. She climbed one foot above the next. Over halfway there—about fifteen feet off the ground—she lunged for the next handhold and, grabbing it, was suspended in midair as the entire rock broke loose from the cliffside.

She was falling!

* * *

Many hours elapsed as she lay there motionless. Sophia had lacerated her legs and arms and had hit her head hard on a rock.

She finally awoke, shivering and chilled to the bone.

Her head spun as the trees slid by. Somebody was carrying her.

Leo had found her lying on the ground, out cold and soaked from rain, and was hurriedly carrying her back to their stone sanctuary, calling her name over and over in shock and desperation. “Sophia…? Sophia…wake up!” Once inside the cave, Leo gently laid her down on her sleeping bag and set immediately to the task of kindling the quiet embers, still hot from the night before. He carefully placed three handfuls of dried moss onto the coals, which smoldered as thick, white smoke oozed out from under the clumps. He placed a dozen small, bone-dry sticks in a tipi pattern atop three moss nests, forming a cone. Atop that, he balanced five larger sticks to form an outer tipi that rested upon the smaller sticks.

He crouched down on his knees and forearms, his cheek hovering a few centimeters above the cold stone. Leo took a deep breath in and exhaled, blowing a strong, steady stream of warmed air into the middle of the smoldering moss. An even thicker cloud of dense, white smoke billowed outward and upward, causing his eyes to gush like the mountain stream below. He closed them, tears streaming down his cheeks as he took another long draught and exhaled once again, releasing the full volume of his lungs in a slow, steady, focused stream toward the center of the now glowing coals. He repeated this five times, and with each steady flow of breath onto the fire, the coals and moss glowed hotter and redder, brightening the cave room with the warm, comforting glow of heat and safety.

On the last exhale, a sudden burst of flame engulfed the moss and wood tipis as the thick, hovering smoke was pierced by dancing tongues of bright-orange flame.

They had fire once again.

Sophia finally came to. She watched, mesmerized and trembling for a while. Finally, she sat up gingerly, and wrapped her arms around her knees, trying to preserve every last bit of heat in her body. Enveloped in her thick woolen blanket, she stood up painfully and walked toward the leaping flames, exposing her body to the heat.

The fire slowly restored her life force.

After a while, she squatted down next to it and held her hands outstretched, palms facing the glowing flames. The heat soaked into her hands, arms, and knees, warming the insides of her wide-open thighs and her belly, heaving chest, and shoulders. She felt the heat of the fire melting away the frozen fear from her face.

They both squatted, silently gazing into the flames, soaking in their life-giving, radiant heat. They were joined in silent appreciation for the cave, the fire, and yes, even each other.

Softened by the warmth of the fire and overwhelmed by gratitude at being alive, Sophia gently stretched out her left hand and closed it around Leo’s large paw.

He looked into her eyes, transfixed by the fire’s reflection, and smiled at her tenderly, accepting her gesture of kindness and connection, his heart softening to the possibility that she would be less guarded with him, less gruff, less cold.

His eyes met hers, dancing flames reflecting off the rounded, moist mirrors of their eyes. They gazed silently at each other for what seemed like minutes, each feeling the warmth penetrating deeper and deeper into their bodies, warming their interiors, organs, and the lifeblood coursing through their pulsing veins.

Each stared at the other with a stone-still calmness, breathing only so slightly in and out, but the heating blood in their veins quickened, coursing through their bodies, warming every extremity, every toe, every finger, and most especially, their entangled hands.

Sophia let loose a subtle smile toward Leo—the kindest one she had ever offered him. And, in fact, the kindest smile he had seen her make at all, except for those he glimpsed while she was cuddling the baby chicks at the ranch.

Sophia squeezed his hand with a welcoming grip, almost imperceptibly pulling him toward her. Sensitive to the affectionate gesture, he didn’t resist.

Happy to adjust his legs—the squatting was starting to send pins and needles along his lower muscles—Leo came closer to Sophia and sat at her side. Their shoulders and knees pressed gently together as she passed her warming left hand to the hand in his lap. He wrapped his right arm around her shoulders and squeezed her into a warm bundle.

She was slowly thawing from the fire, her soaked clothes steaming as the heat released the icy water out of the fabric. But the wet cold was bone-chilling, especially on her back.

“You know, we should probably…” Leo stopped short.

Reading his mind, Sophia reached down, clutched her wet shirt at the waist, and raised her arms up overhead, pulling the clinging shirt off her torso as her hands reached higher and higher into the warming air.

“Yeah, I know,” replied Sophia with a smile that was somehow serious, somber, and pained yet playful all at once. “And it’s rather fortunate for you that we’re going to have to share this fire naked together.”

Now Leo felt a pressing warmth in his groin, and his heartbeat strengthened as he, too, reached overhead, pulling his sweater up and over his body.

Sophia stood up and, with bare nipples erect and hardened by the cold, bent down as she lowered her dripping pants down her backside and thighs and lifted each foot to pull the soaking mass off past her ankles and feet. Her silk, long-john bottoms were clinging so tightly to her skin, they revealed every individual bump and unique curve in the high contrast of the bright firelight.

Leo also removed all of his clothes, and they sat back down upon the dry blankets, cradling the fire with their faces, chests, and upstretched knees. Sophia once again took Leo’s hand into hers and brought it slowly into her lap, nestling it against her lower belly.

“Thank you,” she said earnestly, with the gentle force of a heartfelt exchange—as if both thanking him for all of his help, right up through and including saving her life, and also apologizing for being rough and cold and rude to him over the previous week. “Thank you, Leo…for everything…. I…I know you didn’t have to…”

“You’re welcome, Brigitte Sophia. You are very welcome. It’s my pleasure. I am happy to help you and to know that you’re doing so much to try to help our world. Humanity is so lucky that you have so much courage and determination and care for our world. Most of us alive will never know the immense burden you have been carrying and the sacrifice you have made, but I see it. I see you. I am grateful for you, Brigitte Sophia. I am grateful for you….”

His words trailed off, melting into the fire as Sophia leaned her head toward his.

She knew there were many ways to unlock a man’s lips. Eclipsing the firelight, she leaned even closer and pressed her now warm mouth into his, kissing him like she had kissed no man ever before.

Leo reached his left hand gently upward, his right hand resting on the floor, supporting his body, and softly caressed her fire-warmed cheek as he returned her passionate kiss with an authenticity she hadn’t imagined possible. She leaned her chest into his and swiveled to face him, straddling the saddle created by his hips and outstretched, raised knees.

Warmth filled the cave as heat filled their hearts and passionately heaving bodies. They took their time: kissing gently, vigorously, caressing each other’s thawing bodies, and deepening into the unique alchemy of overflowing passion that most people only experience once in a life—if ever at all.

She was aware that Leo was taking his time, never pushing or directing any particular movement or step in the sweet ambrosia of aching, yearning lovemaking. No, he was mature enough in his manhood to let her be the guide, to savor her every hungry move and the electric response of her skin to his gentle, receptive touch. To inhale deeply the subtle aroma of cedar and honey wafting from her body as if the sacred dews of Hermon themselves were misting from her armpits, her mouth, and her womanhood. He soaked all of this in, overcome by a profundity of gratitude that most younger men haven’t yet known. And she loved it. It drove her almost crazy with tingling passion, knowing that his pulsing heat was growing in intensity just like the fire but that he was hanging right at that edge of yearning and desire so that her body, her movements, her subtle sensations were the guiding force, the willfulness acting and directing the beautiful interplay of their two bodies: two human beings, accompanied by the now-blazing fire—a third being—filling their cozy, secure cave with the glowing heat that has protected and nourished, guided and enculturated the entire human family since the mists of its beginnings.

This was an ancient feeling of home. Of returning to safety, to delight, to comfort, to joy, to yea-saying to life…like she hadn’t felt since being in her mother’s womb. And Sophia was feeling something in her own womb as their bodies merged together.

Her exaggerated breath echoed in the womb of the cave walls, slow, deep exhales punctuated by delicate, flower-petal gasps.

They made love slowly and deliciously, as the fire blazed and roared right along with Sophia’s unrestrained moans. She was a wild animal, performing an ancient ritual inside the fire-lit cave. This was an ancient ceremony, as ancient as the earliest cave paintings. She embodied the fierce, wild warrior love of her great-great-great-great-great-über-great-grandmother in that Slovenian cave so many centuries ago. She felt the raging torrents of Earth’s hot blood flowing through her veins, restoring her own heat and vitality and raising her up to the fiery volcanic pinnacle of orgasm.

* * *

Time melted.

They held each other tightly, breaths synchronized in heavy, sweaty heaves. Like animals after the hunt and chase, just as their ancestors had painted on the caves, they were emblazoned with the radiant glow of an eternal fire. Their breathing softened further, and the fire waned, crackling and cascading into heaps of glowing coals. Sweaty and gasping, Leo rolled off Sophia and lay next to her, tightly holding her hand with one of his and gently gliding the fingers of his other hand along her side, slowly feathering under her arm.

In an instant, Leo leaped up, a huge smile beneath his matted, wild hair, and walked, bare feet hardly even feeling the chill of the cold rock, to pick up an armful of sticks and logs, not at all bothered by the scratches on his bare arms, and stoked the fire back up again.

Smiling that boyishly mischievous smile of his, Leo said, “I’ve got a special surprise for you,” and reaching into his saddlebag, pulled out a small jar.

“I made this myself a few days before you arrived in Boulder, not knowing whom I might share it with…but that’s all crystal-clear now!” he said with a kind laugh.

“What is it?” asked Sophia, her voice mellow and soft from their lovemaking.

“It’s a special massage oil—an anointing oil, really, from an ancient Biblical recipe. It has the Three-Kings blend of frankincense, myrrh, trace gold, and some other special ingredients like cinnamon, olive oil, and cannabis. The frankincense is symbolic for spiritual goodness, the myrrh symbolizes strengthening love, and the gold is a symbol for the divine radiance of the sun. I’m happy to massage you with it if you would like me to….”

Well, of course, I do! Subtly nodding her assent, Sophia felt as if she were in a dream or some parallel universe that some mathematician friends liked to speculate about. At this point, she wasn’t entirely surprised to learn he had included something like this when he was packing his bag in Boulder.

“Okay, here, let’s scoot the blankets just a bit closer to the fire and fold them in half so that you’re on a nice, soft bed. Lie down. Yeah, just like that.”

She was on her back, arms relaxed alongside her body, her feet falling away from each other at the ends of her outstretched legs.

He began by rubbing the anointing oil in a spiral motion atop her heart, between her gently rising and falling breasts, and then traced a line with the oil up toward her throat, up under her chin, and along her lips and nose, and then drew another spiral on her forehead.

“May this oil bless you and fill you with deep understanding of the love of the universe. May this oil protect you from danger. May this oil fill you with joy and a feeling of security in the days ahead.”

She closed her eyes in accepting gratitude as he worked his way back down the same line and continued to her low belly, where he made a third, spiral motion with his hand atop her womb. “And may this oil bless all of the future generations that may come through you, through your womb, and through the wombs of your daughters and granddaughters.”

Then Leo whispered something into her ear: “बुद्धहोओद् इस् इन् थे योनि.”

They made love again. The fire blazed as the lovers again built their own steamy warmth. She was overfull with love, passion, and life force as he collapsed down onto her and rolled to the side, caressing her heaving back as she felt something fluttering deep within her womb.

They drifted into warm, cozy wake-sleep together, entangled in that embrace only true lovers know after impassioned coupling. The fire, having filled the cave with ample heat, mellowed into a glowing pile of quietly whispering embers.

Sophia and Leo melted into deep sleep, holding each other closely.

* * *

She found herself in a dream, walking alone through the woods. She felt lost and afraid like something ominous was approaching. Suddenly appearing out of the ether directly in front of her, a lion emerged and crept toward her. Then as if frightened by something even more menacing, the lion bolted away into the woods, speeding away from a rustling that Sophia now detected several meters to her left. The bushes shook and aspen trunks bowed under some dark weight, leaves quivering above. Out of the dark underbrush, it emerged: a giant, snarling bear, its huge, sloppy, drooling jaws bearing enormous teeth. This wasn’t a small, black bear or even a massive Kodiak or grizzly. This was larger. Oversized like the giant Cave Bears encountered by Ayla in Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear, this was a giant like the other megafauna beasts that Paleolithic humans hunted to extinction at the dawn of civilization as we know it.

The bear, clearly agitated, suddenly stood on its hind legs just a few paces in front of her, towering twenty feet overhead. Horrified, she stood frozen with fear. Suddenly, just as quickly as the bear had popped up out of nowhere, Leo appeared to her right. He looked quickly sideways at her just as she turned to meet his eyes. Their gaze locked. She saw morbid fear blackening his widened pupils. Suddenly, something different washed over Leo’s face: a look of quintessential courage. Hot adrenaline, born of an instinctual need to protect loved ones, surged through his veins; his eyes narrowed, his concentration focused, and his gaze penetrated through her being in a flash before he turned to face the gigantic beast and instantly sprang toward it, dodging its swinging paws and long, razor-sharp claws. Despite the scratches and slices and being tossed to and fro with the heaving bear’s massive body, Leo ran to the bear’s belly, clutched handfuls of fur, and climbed up the front of the beast all the way to its throat. Up off the ground the entire height of a grown man, Leo clutched the bear for dear life, and then in an instant let loose the fur and lunged with both hands toward the bear’s throat. His fingers found their mark, dug in ferociously, and wouldn’t let go.

Leo was throttling the bear, which thrashed more and more violently as Leo’s grip severed its lungs from the breath of life. He squeezed and squeezed, cartilage crunching as the bear staggered, stumbled backward, and finally fell into a lifeless heap of fur and flesh and bone. He had defeated the menacing beast.

The mountain lion stood watching atop a pinnacle several hundred yards away, bowing its head in acknowledgment. Leo had decisively proved his courage…to her and to the seed-spark of new life now growing inside of her….

* * *

Sophia slowly awakened, sweating and breathing heavily but awash in a feeling of relief and safety, having narrowly escaped certain death, albeit in a dream. As her eyes gradually opened to the darkness of the cave, she saw the morning light barely illuminating the hand-built stone wall at the entrance.

Morning had come.

She had survived, both in waking life and in her dream, and Leo was next to her, warming her naked body with his slow-burning internal inferno. Strong. True. She relaxed and closed her eyes again in deep ease, knowing that he was hers. She curled her body slightly and brought both his hands to embrace her belly. The thought of a tiny bear cub nestled in the warm, dark seawater of her womb flowed into her imagination as she drifted back into suspended sleep, a light smile stretching across her serene face.

Chapter 24: Winter Solitude—Pregnant at the Hearth

Although she had Leo, Sophia was all alone in the wilderness.

The reality of her situation sank in a little more deeply each day…and especially each night. Their extreme isolation weighed heavily on her. She was never really comfortable in the wilderness to begin with. Except for jaunts through the woods with her Oma and Opa, when feelings of complete safety and security enveloped her in a bubble of complete childhood trust, Sophia never really experienced being deep in the woods for prolonged periods of time. The occasional day hike with friends was no big deal, of course, but the idea of sleeping out in the wilderness had been too much, let alone for an unknown number of weeks, and let alone in some strange cave!

Sophia and Leo’s remote cavernous hermitage was excruciatingly lonely at times, especially when Leo was away at the farm. The isolation grew so intense. She felt like she had no control over the situation, and grew overwhelmed by alternating waves of fear and anxiety. She longed for connection and information, and often pined for her smartphone and all that it allowed her to access. Even social media sounded good to her in her bewildering solitude. Sometimes, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being watched. Other times, she cowered, full of fear that some fierce predator might discover her, even though Leo always left both the shotgun and pistol with her for self-protection—just in case.

She wasn’t sure if the weapons made her feel safer or even more afraid.

But when Leo was there with her, she felt a little better.

In the mornings they would wake up, make hot tea, and sit out in the sunshine taking in the rapidly changing fall colors. The aspen leaves, having turned yellow, gold, and an impossibly day-glow orange, were now dropping with each gust of the wind. Autumn was setting in, and the warming sunshine grew more precious as the mornings became colder and crisper. Strangely, with the seasonal change, Sophia’s fear of the wilderness softened, and she found herself appreciating the beauty, solitude, and tranquility more and more. Is it possible to fall in love with nature?

One day, Sophia woke up feeling discomfort in her belly. She had realized the day before that it had been five or six weeks since her last period, and she was always regular, like clockwork, when it came to her menstruation cycle. She had never considered pregnancy and mother­hood as part of her path; her career was too important, and besides, there were already too many people in the world. She wondered if it was just the extreme stress and strange new situation or if it was something else altogether that had changed her flow. She was at first grateful not to have to deal with her menses, concerned that it might attract animals.

And what am I supposed to do with the used tampons I packed at the farm and brought here?

But her period didn’t come.

Another week went by, and Sophia felt way more emotional than ever—at least since her teenage years. One day, when Leo commented on her plumping breasts, tears sprung forth from her eyes like geysers as she cried out, “I think I’m pregnant, Leo!” and fell into his outstretched arms.

Leo held her for hours as Sophia alternately cried and laughed and as the two talked about the prospect of becoming parents together. She could tell by the way he held her close and stroked her cheeks and listened and spoke to her that Leo was overjoyed, and this made her feel happier and calmer about the unexpected turn of events.

Autumn slipped on, and the nights grew longer as Sophia’s belly began to bulge. Her transforming body was as bewildering to her as the wilderness solitude.

Pregnant at the hearth, Sophia’s surreal experience echoed the vulnerability of our distant ancestors who dwelled at a time when fire, warmth, and sun by day; darkness, stars, and moon by night; and water, soil, trees, birds, deer, and air that was at times fresh and calm and at other times fierce in blustery gusts were their only other companions.

Sometimes the air brought the whirring of drones. They flew alone at first in solo reconnaissance patterns. But then they began to appear in clusters. It was never clear to Leo or Sophia whether the drones were looking for them or if they had already been detected and their whereabouts revealed to powerful people elsewhere in the world. Sophia sometimes figured that since Otto was already activated, she was no longer a target. But she couldn’t be too sure and certainly didn’t want to make that assumption in terrible error—especially with her precious baby growing inside.

Although she felt a deep fear when Leo left for the farm, she began to love sitting outside the cave entrance, watching the landscape, and especially watching the animals prepare for winter. The marmots whistled and chirped in their final few weeks above ground; they would soon hibernate for many months. The chipmunks were most plentiful, scurrying this way and that, tails jerking in cute little chirp-calls as they gathered grasses and seeds and mosses and dried berries to line their burrows. They made work look like play.

Whenever Leo returned from his visits to the farm, Sophia was overcome by emotion. Her joy and relief at seeing her companion often caused tears to flow, embracing him and enjoying the heat and comfort of his massive body. He would bring her bountiful victuals from Susty: fresh-baked sourdough loaves, grass-fed beef, heritage pork, eggs, soft and aged cheeses, fresh butter, and all manner of root vegetables, ferments, and fresh greens from the greenhouse. One time, he even brought a homemade cheesecake that Rose had prepared for Sophia and an old iPod with a Bose speaker and fold-out solar panel charger so that she could listen to music. He had asked Bailey to get them in town. He also brought Rescue Remedy and special CBD tinctures from the farm to help keep her nerves calmed. But there was also a certain stress that he brought with each return: News of the outside world was growing stranger and more unsettling. Oil refineries and plastics factories were unexpectedly shutting down. Wind- and solar-generating farms were being permitted and installed at record pace as if some extraterrestrial force had mandated them. Large financial firms were being acquired by mysterious offshore entities, and the stock markets were behaving unusually erratically. Restaurants were closing again. Airlines were curtailing their routes once more. People were again being required to wear masks, and in some countries were being locked down in their own homes. But the aftershocks of a sudden global panic had caused more psychological disruption than economic or political—so far. Parents were home-schooling their children. Mothers and fathers, already in the pressure cookers of married parenthood, were confined to their homes for weeks on end. It was an extraordinary challenge, to say the least. Of course, there were thousands of writers and artists scattered around the planet who had been quietly relieved that social engagements were canceled and expectations ground to a halt. What great works will be composed and written during these strange times? Sophia often wondered.

But Leo’s news was disconcerting to Sophia for another reason. A less obvious one.

What is going on with Otto? she often wondered. Has there been anything in the news that would make obvious some sort of great transformation? Is the AI now taking over and ever-accelerating on its inevitable trajectory toward hegemonic rule?

She thought about Otto like a long-missed friend. But she also thought about the kill switch. Will I be forced to use it?

One day, before Leo left for the farm, Sophia said, “It never really rains much here, does it? Not like the heavy downpours we get in New York, right?” Amber’s heavy hoof steps in the forest floor had reminded her of the damp, brown leaves of autumn back East.

Leo had responded in his poietic way, “Never say never,” and had paused to listen to the robin’s calls. He told her that they reminded him of his grandfather, who had learned to sing and speak “robin” and could communicate with the winged creatures. “It sounds like they’re singing of a big rain right now, actually. Perhaps we’ll get more than those little mountain sprinkles! In any event, never say never, right?”

Leo had already been gone a couple of hours when dark rain clouds rolled in, and the robin song escalated to a symphony of ecstasy like some long-lost piece by Stravinsky. It poured. And poured. And poured. The rains brought her some cozy comfort. And the thunder seemed to shake the mountains from inside out, rumbling and grumbling and echoing off the hard rock walls deep inside unseen and unknown caverns. Thunder and mountains might speak the same language, Sophia mused, rather surprised at the increasingly “poietic” and “mystical” nature of her musings while pregnant in the wilderness.

The weather—especially thunderstorms—brought her comfort and delight and a strange feeling of not being entirely alone.

But she grew anxious without access to a doctor, and increasingly longed for the companionship of other people, especially women, and wondered whether she would be able to reconnect with them soon. At other times, however, the solitude was painful. Devastatingly harsh, like the way the frigid mountain winds would sometimes blow outside their warm cave, the loneliness became deafeningly loud. The worst was when Leo left mid-January and a blizzard set in that night, delaying his return by two days. The howling winds and blowing snow had kept her in the cave, and she had nothing but the fire to keep her company. Leo had brought a number of great books, sure, but she could only read so many hours each day before growing restless and agitated by the solitude.

Sometimes she would wander out of the cave, hand outstretched to shield her blinking eyes from the brilliant sun radiating off the snow. She would think of the stories her grandmother had told her as a kid. Until now, she had never really thought much about them. The Plato’s Cave allegory and the fire-shadow puppets. The light that blinded upon emerging from the cave was something Sophia now really understood. And then there was Persephone. The explanation for the continual seasonal oscillation between winter and summer as the ancient Greeks told it was that Persephone, the daughter of Zeus—Jupiter—and Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and fertility, had to stay in the underworld—the kingdom of Hades—half of the year. Nature’s eternal cycle of death and rebirth, of springtime fertility leading to the bountiful fruits—juicy, bursting, and succulent—and the grains and tubers of the harvest. Going underground for a while might be medicinal in its own right, thought Sophia.

Still, the wilderness solitude was immense and the psychological stress at times surreal and severe.

One afternoon, dark gray clouds lumbered heavily in the sky, laden with moisture. Sophia was sitting out drinking her evening tea when the first flake fluttered down softly. Then another floated gently downward. Soon, the snow began falling steadily, and before long, a thick blizzard had blanketed everything in white frosting, enveloping the mountainside in hushed peacefulness. Deep winter had set in.

For several slow weeks, the snows blew in heavy and thick. Sophia stayed in the cave during the day for the most part, close to the light and warmth of the fire—which they had to burn during the day now to stay warm, Leo having taught her how to keep it smoke-free—hypnotized by its gentle crackling and glowing, ever-changing shapes.

The fire was often her only companion.

Then one day, she felt it. Something stirred in her womb.

It was bewildering to feel the life growing inside of her. She would sit for hours, drinking tea, rubbing her belly, and brushing her hair, which was growing back more quickly than she expected.

Leo continued making weekly trips to Sustainable Settings for fresh food and fresh news of a rapidly changing world. So much was happening. Leo would return and give her the latest headlines: Hurricane season had ended several weeks later than usual and had been devastating. Tensions were rising again in the Middle East—especially in the Israeli-occupied territories of Palestine. The Chinese continued to vie for more power and influence in a global geopolitical chessboard but refused to join in the global climate talks. The Russians had lost geopolitical standing after the invasion of Ukraine, and Putin grew even more withdrawn, erratic, and unpredictable. Extreme flooding and fires and polar vortices seemed to be out of control.” The news from the outside world was disconcerting, to say the least.

But Sophia was learning to love the solitude, especially when the snow fell, and she soaked in the wonderful warm waters of the hot springs every day. She was especially surprised and comforted by a colony of fireflies, able to survive the frigid alpine winters just along the warm fringes of the hot springs. They would start to flash their magical bioluminescent tails in the soft velvet of approaching dusk, and dance around in the steam as if hovering in their own watery Eden. Her wounds had healed quickly, especially with Leo’s careful application of the usnea, yarrow, and arnica. His frequent massages and honey-sweet kisses probably didn’t hurt either.

Sophia was surprised, though, that at times she was happy when Leo took Amber to Sustainable Settings. Somehow, solitude had become more welcome while pregnant. She had remembered her grandmother’s advice from decades ago to picture her quaint farm cottage in her mind, to have an “inner home” to which she could always retreat when scared or lonely. Sophia often visited that inner home when she was stuck in solitude and would converse with her Oma and Opa in the brilliant clarity of her mind’s eye.

She was learning to observe both an inner and the outer world. Many of the birds had migrated, but some stayed busy feathering their nests. The robins puffed their warm, orange breasts and sang to the rising and setting sun. She would spend long, sumptuous hours soaking in the soothing warmth of the hot springs. She liked the feeling of buoyancy her swelling body had in the water, and relished in the way the water caressed and soothed her skin and muscles as she stretched—it felt like a potent medicine. This must be the ultimate yin yoga, she thought to herself. There were many days she would recline in the soft, silky mud along the shores, and allow her mind to become enthralled in the miniature Edens along the water’s edge. Tiny ferns, vivid green mosses with slender, towering sporophyte towers. A variety of colorful beetles, including cherry red ladybugs, would fly into the miniature living dioramas. Each time she saw the tiny red creatures she had giggled with childlike joy, recalling that a group of ladybugs was actually called a ‘loveliness.’ Subtle breezes would tickle the green world. It was as if countless little faeries were dancing all around her.

And, of course, there were spiders—beautiful spiders with delicate, crystalline webs that caught and gathered the rising steam from the springs, bejeweled with glistening dew drops. Sophia would bend closer, imagining herself enveloped in the tiny water droplets, surrounded by brilliant rainbow prisms as the sunlight danced through the liquid. She no longer feared the spiders, and thought often about Pine Raven’s teaching at the Sweat Lodge—she was beginning to perceive Mother Nature’s mysteries, and to understand her profound truths.

Before the first deep frost, Leo had taken Sophia on a long amble around the mountainside to pick herbs and flowers for their winter tisane supply. He already knew the location of a great patch of wild stinging nettles. “Nettles,” he had explained, “are important to ingest on a daily basis. They are one of the best sources of iron—hence, the affiliation with the red planet Mars—and loaded with vitamins such as A, C, K, and several Bs, as well as other minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and sodium, all essential to maintaining optimal health—especially during pregnancy. Nettles have all the essential amino acids as well as healthful lipids, polyphenols like quercetin, and strong antioxidants. It is said that the ancient Egyptians used nettle for back pain and arthritis.” On a roll, Leo continued, “You don’t always have to buy vitamin pills to maintain optimal health, but you do need to ingest lots of fresh plants and dried herbs in the form of tisane to avoid many modern ailments.” Back in Boulder, Leo had told her, he would make a nettles infusion in a large, half-gallon mason jar three times a week, adding in chamomile, yarrow flower, calendula, equisetum, dandelion, and hemp. There in the mountains, all but the calendula, chamomile, and hemp could be easily wild-crafted—there was a mess of equisetum right by the hot spring—and the rest Leo procured from Susty. Leo had shown Sophia around, and they returned hours later with loads of leaves and flowers on their stalks and stems, hanging them in the cave with twine and parachute cord. Sophia loved that Leo was in fact a fellow nerd. But instead of computers and mathematics, he had pursued knowledge in healing herbs and other, lesser-known things.

Only occasionally now would the distant buzz of a drone send them fleeing back into the cave during the daylight. At night, she and Leo would often sit outside the mouth of their shelter and watch the stars—and the increasing numbers of aircraft and satellites speeding this way and that way in some great set of arcs over the planet. It was spooky to sometimes see long lines of glowing satellites, one after the next, cruising in the same coordinated straight line across the twinkling heavens before disappearing behind the horizon. Brilliant, fleeting flashes of meteorites careening toward the Earth in fiery atmospheric balls of flame would catch their eyes most nights. Who knows what extra-terrestrial gems they carried inside their melted exteriors. Leo pointed out several constellations to her, including the Seven Sisters, which Leo told her were also called the Seven Dancers.

Many nights, they saw lines of a dozen or more airplanes flying straight and true, one after the next, which Leo identified as large, military cargo planes. They also saw three-cluster satellites at night speeding thousands of miles per hour overhead. However, they saw even more solitary satellites, fixed in geostationary orbit, that were part of Starlink and other telecommunications networks.

In the depth of winter, surrounded by snow and ice, they would soak in the hot water for hours. She marveled at the glistening micro-rainbows when the sunlight refracted through millions of ice and snow crystals in the landscape. At times, she thought she saw a small light-being move across the still water, but couldn’t be too sure what she was seeing.

Sophia’s hair was down to her shoulders now. Her belly had begun to swell after four moons. After eighteen weeks, she felt the quickening of life stirring inside her; it was magical and bewildering to feel something else inside of her body, moving and fluttering like a bird or butterfly, and all on its own. She ran to Leo and grabbed his hand, pressing it against her bulging belly. His smile said it all. It was no longer all abstraction for the man.

Sophia kept careful track of the days and weeks on the cave wall with chalky rock and charcoal. Her appetite became more and more ravenous, and she shocked herself increasingly at both how much she ate and how quickly she felt hungry again.

Sophia often sat staring at the fire, holding and rubbing her full belly, awed by the life growing inside of her. It was strange to feel like she was getting to know her body for the first time in her life, to really know it. All these years, until now, she had been ambivalent toward her body. Her breasts had been a nuisance when running and playing sports. The social expectations for attire were bothersome and inconvenient. Jeans and a sweatshirt were her style when in the lab and at home. She didn’t really care for her womanly curves and certainly didn’t like the bother of her period. It seemed men just had it easier, and being a woman involved more challenges and obstacles getting ahead in her career.

But things were different now. She was falling in love with her body just as she was falling in love with the wilderness, and felt a deepening awe and reverence toward both. She increasingly experienced her body and the wilderness being deeply connected, finding herself feeling things instead of just thinking of them. She could feel the endless tangles of tree roots beneath the soil as she gazed up through the web-work of branches against the sky. She could feel those roots and branches like she could feel her own veins and arteries and nerves…connected with the baby inside her.

Nature revealed herself to Sophia as the great goddess reveals herself in mythology. Sophia could feel the cycles of night and day pulsing through her own body. She could feel the cycling of the moon as well—it was somehow connected to her own blood and water. It was as if the moon was growing inside the waters of her womb. Her dreams became much more intense, and her emotions—whether elation or sadness—grew much more pronounced, as copious waves of estrogen coursed through her body.

She thought of her grandmother, her Oma. She thought of her mother and of the great succession of other mothers who had themselves held their full wombs around warm hearths. This was the ancient way of humanity, and Sophia was surprised to have ancient memories accompanied by feelings of pleasure and gratitude when she sat peacefully by the fire, caressing her tummy in gentle strokes and humming long-forgotten fire songs to her unborn baby.

Her belly bulged with what felt like a mango at first. She could no longer lie on her stomach—the compression against her organs was too uncomfortable. There was less and less room for food in her swollen abdomen, but she felt more and more hungry: ravenous. And despite increasing bouts of acid reflux, Sophia ate and ate day and night to keep up with her body’s insatiable hunger.

One morning, when the snows were thick and the cave especially stuffy, Sophia woke up dripping with sweat. When Leo looked over and saw how pale and weak Sophia appeared, she could sense the fear immediately overtaking him. Leo was scared in a way she had never seen him before. Immediately, he came close and wrapped her tightly in blankets, feeling her forehead for any sign of fever. She was burning up.

“Okay,” said Leo, “I have to go get help! What are your symptoms?”

“I just feel really weak,” Sophia responded, “like I just want to lie still and do nothing.” Her lethargy was severe, and Leo quickly readied Amber to head down to the farm. Before departing, he made her a large batch of osha and usnea tea and told her to try to drink it all up before he returned. He promised he would come back as quickly as possible.

Several hours passed, and Sophia faded in and out of dazed sleep.

Her fever was dangerously high, and she began hallucinating images of creatures in the firelight and shadows dancing around the cave walls. She heard voices singing eerie songs.

She grew weaker.

It seemed like an eternity passed, and all alone, Sophia thought she was going to die.

She slipped away…

* * *

When Leo returned, he stooped down to gently caress Sophia’s cheek. She was burning up even worse than before. But she finally stirred and opened her heavy eyes. “Hi, Leo,” she greeted weakly.

“Hi, love,” responded Leo. “I brought somebody very special with me.”

Looking over Leo’s shoulder with all the strength she could muster, Sophia saw Rose’s face smiling back in the firelight. “Oh, Rose,” Sophia sighed softly. “Thank you for coming.” She barely got the feeble words out before sinking back into a deep sleep.

Rose immediately set to work pulling special herbs and tinctures out of her bag and instructing Leo to bring a large pot of water to a boil.

Earlier, once Leo had reached the farm, he set about finding Rose as soon as possible and told her of Sophia’s condition, thinking she would give him sound advice. Instead, upon hearing her symptoms and reading the severity of Sophia’s condition in Leo’s eyes, Rose had responded immediately, “I’m coming with you. C’mon, let’s go right now!”

Without skipping a beat, Rose had rushed into her apothecary, pulled together warm clothes, told Brook that she was departing—possibly for several days—and saddled Red. In less than a quarter-hour, the two were charging away from the farm and up the single-track trail to the cave. Leo had been careful not to tell anybody the location—or even the general vicinity—of the cave. But this was an emergency with potential life-or-death stakes.

Rose had told Leo that every minute mattered in situations when pregnant mamas got feverishly sick.

In the cave, as the water was coming to a boil, and after Rose had squeezed several tinctures into Sophia’s parched mouth, she tipped the young woman’s head up and rested it on her cross-legged lap. Rose brought a jar of spring water to Sophia’s lips and gently encouraged her to drink. She then stroked Sophia’s hair as she whispered soft words of encouragement to the pregnant woman and kindly directed Leo to prepare a concoction of certain roots, mushrooms, and herbs.

Sophia slipped in and out of consciousness, Rose sitting patiently all the while holding her head and stroking her sweat-soaked hair. They stayed like that for hours as Leo tended the fire and obediently fetched whatever Rose asked for. After a long while, when it was clear that Sophia was in a deep, restful sleep, Rose couldn’t hold her eyes open any longer and laid herself at Sophia’s side, gently rubbing the young woman’s stomach and head in alternating strokes. Rose finally fell asleep too.

Gazing at the two sleeping women and adjusting the blankets and sleeping bags to make sure they were completely covered, Leo pulled his cashmere scarf tightly around his neck and walked out into the dark night sky. It was freezing out, and the stars were twinkling brilliantly. Leo knew that such clear nights in the depth of winter were the coldest possible and diligently set about bringing several more armloads of wood in, stacking them by the fire.

He was exhausted from the hard riding, fear, and stress of the situation.

Finally, after hours of staring out into space and praying quietly beneath his breath, he could keep his eyes open no longer. He stoked the fire once more, making sure there was plenty of hot water simmering by the coals, and curled up on the other side of Sophia from Rose to help keep her even warmer.

In the early morning, Rose woke first and was as quiet as a mouse as she sat up and assessed Sophia’s color. Relieved to see a blush had returned to Sophia’s cheeks, she moved to the fire to make another batch of the special concoction in the water, still steaming hot from the large pile of glowing embers.

Sophia slept through most of the morning, finally stirring when the sun was high in the blue sky. She sat up with much more strength than she had the day before and thanked Rose for coming.

Rose handed her another mug of the hot concoction and told her that she needed to continue to rest. Then, the older woman explained to the younger that there were several herbs and vitamins she needed to take in far higher quantities during her pregnancy. She told her that infusions of oat straw, fennel, spearmint, alfalfa, lemon verbena, and raspberry leaf, in addition to the nettles tea Rose already knew Leo had been making for her, had to be drunk by the half-gallon every day, and that she needed to take spoons full of molasses to get enough iron. On an intuitive hunch, Rose had packed a large jar of blackstrap molasses at the farm and told Sophia she’d see to it that Leo brought more on his next resupply trip.

Rose stayed for another day to make sure that Sophia was truly on the mend before she rode Red back down to the farm. Leo offered to ride with her, but Rose insisted that he stay by Sophia’s side and taught him how to rub her back and belly in a particular way to help ease the pressure of the growing baby inside the young woman’s body. Rose explained to Sophia that she was now in a long line of mothers and grandmothers carrying the power of the Divine Feminine in her womb, and reminded her that the fertilized egg growing inside her womb had actually formed when Sophia was a fetus growing inside her own mother. She encouraged her to have faith in her body and to trust the feelings and intuition that arose.

Rose told Sophia that she would return within a week and that she would bring special Weleda, Wele Waters, and Dr. Hauschka creams and salves for Sophia to apply to her growing belly and bosom to mitigate stretch marks and discomfort. Rose also said she would make suggestions for a midwife to come to her at the time of the birth.

On her return, which she had timed with Leo’s next foray so as to avoid leaving Sophia all alone, Rose brought the young woman prenatal vitamins, molasses, and concentrated herbs for even more iron-rich nourishment. Rose also brought her a small stack of pregnancy books to read: What to Expect When You’re Expecting, Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year, The Nourishing Traditions Book of Baby & Childcare, Spiritual Midwifery, The Continuum Concept, Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbs for the Home Medicine Chest, Sarah Drew’s Gaia Codex, and Starhawk’s Fifth Sacred Thing. And, much to Sophia’s delight, Rose had packed a few of Dr. Bronner’s new Magic Chocolate bars, the most silky, luscious, satisfying chocolate that Sophia could remember ever enjoying. As Rose explained, it is generally known that chocolate is high in iron and antioxidants—which is beneficial for pregnancy—and that Dr. Bronner’s exceptional chocolate was especially loaded with the nourishment and loving care from throughout its global network of regenerative farming communities. As the chocolate melted in the pregnant woman’s mouth, a wave of euphoria flowed throughout her body.

Sophia was thankfully on the mend.

But the illness had shaken both Leo and Sophia profoundly, and they considered leaving the cave and going elsewhere.

However, because it was still potentially dangerous for Sophia to go back on-grid and re-enter society, she and Leo decided to continue hiding out in the wilderness together. It was almost impossible to make a different decision because there was no telling if and when those terrible men might show up again. They both knew that it was even risky that Leo traveled back and forth to the farm each week, but agreed it was probably the least noticeable thing they could do for now.

In early February, around the time of what her grandmother had called Imbolc, Sophia had another amazing dream. This time, she was running through fields of dandelions in the green mountain slopes outside her Oma’s village. It was summertime in the dream, full of flowers and frolicking fun. When Sophia awoke, she put her head in her hands and sobbed. She couldn’t believe that outside the cave was a three-foot pile of snow. Like so many other days, she mustered her courage and resolve, peeked outside to make sure nobody or nothing was around, and followed the trodden path to the hot spring to soak off the sadness. Once in the warming waters, she was amazed by how much the baby would move…as if it were dancing for joy just like she had done in her dream. She didn’t know it, but the soils under the white snowy blanket were stirring too, getting ready for the great explosion of life after a deep, hard, cold winter. The annual awakening and growth of Imbolc was deep inside, in the depths, in the darkness, out of view. But it was as reliably real and powerful as the tremendous sun’s diurnal cycle. In the dark depths, Persephone was preparing to make her return.

The next night, though both had been deep in sleep, Sophia and Leo suddenly awoke and immediately locked lips in a surge of passion as if some cosmic electricity of blue and purple and red bolted through their bodies. It was a kiss of the deepest connection, a kiss of love and knowing and trust. It somehow enveloped them in a blue glowing light. They were just as astonished as they were delighted.

* * *

Most snowy mornings, once the succession of blizzards had subsided, Sophia and Leo carefully walked to the hot spring hand in hand and, hanging their clothes on the nearby spruce branches, submerged their naked bodies in the dark, warm liquid. Sophia’s hair had grown quite long now, and she loved watching the wisps float playfully in the water. Together Sophia and Leo spoke of their relatives and their dreams for the future. Sophia had asked Leo how he remained so optimistic and kind. He had responded that his grandfather had taught him many lessons as a boy, almost all of them simply by example. Having survived a Nazi prison camp, his grandfather had taught Leo that no man really had any right to be cynical, selfish, nasty, or not to embody humility. His grandfather, Sophia could tell, had been deeply impactful on Leo. But she had also come to realize that unless he shared with her verbally, he was otherwise hard to read and had quiet depths like the water beneath the surface of the hot spring.

* * *

Some days, the pool seemed deep and murky; other days, clearer and brighter. One day, when they were soaking in the sunshine and the sky was clear, a strange blue aura glowed around their hands and feet and even encircled many of the pebbles at the bottom of the pool. They were astonished and couldn’t think of a scientific explanation as to why that had happened. Did it have something to do with cosmic radiation? Or some strange subtle electric current or bioluminescent microbiology? They were mystified by the glow.

Sophia often stopped for long periods by the stream when she fetched water. The ice formations created bulbous worlds of transparent crystalline globules. It was like boiling bubbles had somehow frozen in time, glistening with a moist sun-kissed sheen. The sounds of water flowing underneath the ice changed day to day, hour to hour, even moment to moment as the resonant chambers of hidden ice forms continually expanded and retreated, ebbed and flowed, pushed and pulled in a sonorous sacred dance of flowing life force. How is it, Sophia wondered, that snow and ice and frigid water can have such distinct smells? Many days, standing by the stream, she would inhale and smile in surprise as she could smell the salty ocean over a thousand miles away. How is that possible? Sometimes, she would squat or stand entranced, so captivated by the haunting songs of the water ice sculptures that she would snap-to, shivering, chilled to the bone by the frigid winter air, especially as the sun slid down to the horizon. Thank goodness there’s a hot spring close by!

Sophia and Leo soaked for hours at a time, sometimes sitting together in shared silence for long stretches while other times talking together in hurried excitement. They often spoke about their shared future together, about potential names for the baby, and about where they wanted to make a home. Of course, there were reasons Sophia thought she should return to Ithaca and continue working with Otto, but they had no way of knowing whether that was even a possibility anymore. Sometimes they made slow, gentle love in the warm liquid of the hot springs, enveloped like their baby by nourishing amniotic fluids. Other times, they held hands. Often, Leo would gently rub her back, telling her about the returning wolves, the role of beavers in regenerating landscapes and balancing hydrologic cycles, and the moose and the great elk and buffalo herds that used to roam the mountain valleys at will.

* * *

Other times, when the winds howled and the heavy spring blizzards blew fiercely, they curled by the warm, glowing flames, read books, made love, massaged each other, drew and painted (Leo had hauled up watercolors and acrylics during one trip, which he had asked Bailey to pick up for them in town), and speculated about the stage of computing power Otto had attained as each of the weeks rolled by. The fire sometimes burned so brightly that the rocks around the edge glowed a hot, reddish hue, reminding Sophia of the sweat lodge she had experienced a few months before. She looked forward to experiencing another sometime after her baby was born and wondered if she would ever sweat again with Pine Raven.

Some nights, when she woke in the wee hours before twilight, the glowing coals in the fire pit seemed to morph into images of faces and beings from another world. Some comforted her like protectors, while others made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up stiff. It was as if the fire were a portal to other dimensions through which other beings could enter and exit the cave.

Still other nights, she was sure she could see her Oma and Opa in the glow of the coals and perhaps even ancestors who had walked this good Earth long before them, ancestors whose names she didn’t know.

She often thought of the sweat lodge and the red, glowing rocks that Pine Raven had referred to as ancestors.

She felt the star-seed of cosmic consciousness awakening and fluttering inside her and felt the presence of all her ancestors stirring in her womb. She felt connected through all time, and timeless, simultaneously.

Her mind astonished her in novel ways now.

But her body astonished her even more as she bulged and stretched.

As her growing baby quickened inside her womb, Sophia experienced time slowing down, passing like golden honey. She felt an awakening intelligence growing inside her body, and listened more, as if some all-enveloping maternal voice was omnipresent. The intelligence was pulsing all around her, through her, inside her. The intelligence was in her midst—a sweet, subtle nectar of evolutionary becoming.

One sunny afternoon, while they were soaking and relaxing, Leo ran back to the cave, shouting behind him, “I’ll be right back. Don’t worry!”

He returned quickly, carrying the same small, brown glass bottle he had produced from his backpack so many months ago on that fateful night by the fire. Smiling, he said, “Stand up out of the water and feel the warm rays of the sun penetrating your body.”

She stood there for several minutes, the water surface tickling along a line where her belly merged with her pubic bone. When the water droplets had dried on her giant belly, Leo approached, pouring a generous amount of the special oil in his left palm. He knelt before Sophia in the water, humming into her belly, and then ceremonially smeared the oil all around in a spiral pattern, calling out into the air, “Oh, Great Spirit, oh, Mother Earth, ancestors, be with us, hear me today, bless this beautiful woman and this unborn child, fill them with life force and strength, protect them, be with them always and keep them forever safe under your watchful guidance.”

Tears welled and rolled gently down Sophia’s cheeks, and she placed her arms on Leo’s shoulders in gratitude. The two then embraced for a very long time before sinking together as one back into the warm water, her oily belly a thin, slippery barrier between their bodies and the now squirming baby inside her. A tiny elbow here, a little knee there protruded through her stretched skin, and as if to say, “I have heard you, Father,” the little one settled down again in its watery womb. Soaking in the warm fluids of Mother Earth, they, too, were comforted and contented.

They, too, felt an extraordinary love.

As the winter dragged its wet, droopy tail into spring, Sophia’s belly grew very full and heavy. Outside the cave, green shoots popped up from soggy puddles, and the willows surrounding the hot springs began to swell with rust-colored blossoms. The snows were retreating, and rivulets started flowing all across the mountainside as winter thawed into spring.

Sophia and Leo spoke about the impending birth; although she wasn’t due for five more weeks, they wanted to make a plan. It was all they seemed to talk about other than the beauty and relief of the returning springtime. After further thought and discussion with Leo at the farm, Rose had decided against bringing any of the local midwives up to the cave. It was too risky that word would get out. And going back to Carbondale and Sustainable Settings also seemed too risky, especially as Leo didn’t know any midwives there, and it was a small enough town that any request to “keep a secret” was sure to create a stir. They didn’t want to have the baby in the cave; it seemed too dangerous. Sophia didn’t like that idea at all and neither did her man. To complete the trifecta, Rose insisted that they have professional support during the birth, especially after Sophia’s mysterious illness a few months prior.

All Leo could think of was his midwife friend, Alycia, near the town of Crestone, nestled against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the eastern edge of the great San Luis Valley. It would be a long journey to get there—many days of walking and horseback riding—but they could at least stay off-grid until the very end and have loving guidance and medical expertise during the birth. Alycia was married to one of Leo’s best friends—a man he had known since middle school—and would surely be able to keep their secret…wouldn’t she?

That was when the tiny artificial insects began to arrive…and to watch them from their perches on the naked, white aspen branches and even from inside the cave.

Seeing the strange mechanical creatures, Sophia thought to herself, We are definitely being watched now!

It was time to prepare their departure.

Chapter 25: Mountain Side Terror

The days had grown longer and longer now that they had crossed the Beltane cross-quarter and were just a month from summer solstice. Sophia’s belly was now in full bloom like the colorful meadow flowers. She and Leo had decided that they would begin their journey the day after tomorrow. It would take a fortnight to reach their destination near Crestone, and the baby was due only a week after that. Leo had departed for the farm the day before to stock up Amber for the long journey.

Sophia was once again all alone.

Standing nude in the sunshine, up to her knees in the delightfully warm water, Sophia was hanging their silks, socks, and undies in the willows hanging over the natural pool, a sunny breeze dancing playfully with the soft fabrics. The silks still carried the musky, cedar-honey scents of the night before last. She was grateful their lovemaking had remained a steady staple during the pregnancy. A gentle, knowing smile crossed her lips, and she looked out over the silvery blue spruce and hunter-green ponderosas with their red-clay mottled bark. Gazing over the valley below, she wondered when she might be able to return to the farm.

Inhaling deeply and then exhaling slowly, she lifted her head to the turquoise sky above and felt the warming sun’s rays bouncing off her naked body and penetrating her flesh. In this wilderness, she had grown calm and relaxed for the first time since her childhood days frolicking in the forests behind her grandmother’s Slovenian cottage. Her mind floating on the soft clouds of distant memories, she gazed out into the atmosphere, also wondering if she’d ever be able to get back to that enchanted land of her childhood.

As she did on many days, she carefully plucked three of the delicate blossoms overhanging the water’s edge and slid them into her hair above the ear. The butterflies, hummingbirds, dragonflies, and honey­bees had returned to the high alpine Eden, and were also enjoying the fragrant, fecund flowers—the pollinators were easy to distinguish in their frenzied flower hopping from the mechanical mini-drones she had spotted near the cave. With a sense of calm curiosity, Sophia studied the busy insects with steady attention before turning her gaze out toward the valley below.

Then she heard the faint buzz approaching—an unnatural sort of buzz. It was getting louder…and louder!

Her stomach dropped, and she froze.

No, no, no! her mind cried. It was already too close for her to run back to the cave. She stood frozen, skin crawling with goosebumps as she looked in fear toward the approaching sound.

Is it really another drone?

Turning her head ever so slightly in the direction of the sound, her ears sharpened like the jagged rocks above her. It was definitely approaching. And coming straight at her.

“Shit,” she gasped under her breath, not sure whether to run for the nearby trees or stand as still as a rock in the water. The drone could have motion-detecting or heat-signature detecting equipment. I’m sure to be noticed either way.

It was coming closer.

She could hear the incessant whir—like a thousand angry hornets.

It appeared above the ridge of trees, and her heart stopped.

The machine zoomed toward her, a bright red light, in sharp contrast to its dark metal, shining straight into her eyes. She knew it had her in its sights and was locked on. This is no toy being flown by some kids a couple of miles away. No.

This was a military-grade drone. And it was coming straight for her. As it drew nearer, she made out the advanced array of optical and infrared detection equipment, along with what appeared to be under-wing rockets.

“Shit,” she gasped again, barely breathing. She was sure she was going to die.

Her body’s only movement came from a rivulet of warm, yellow liquid running down her leg. She had pissed herself.

Still advancing, the drone’s bright-red optical lens glowered straight at her, implying war, death, doom…

The buzzing drone then stopped ten yards in front of her and about as high off the ground. It’s huge!

She gazed into its red light, stone-faced and frozen with fear. Her heart pounded painfully throughout her body, and her faint breath burned. Knowing that the machine was likely running an advanced facial recognition algorithm and that she would surely be identified, her gaze became defiant. Sophia wondered who might be on the receiving end of its video transmission feed.

It hovered motionless for an eternity, its red laser guidance system painting her heart with its ominous red dot.

She was doomed. It’s over. Will it kill me immediately? Will a helicopter full of paramilitary spooks arrive next? Are they going to torture me first to extract the information they need before killing me? How will they do it? Electrocution, perhaps? Sophia’s mind whirled with the agonizing possibilities. Maybe force long syringes of truth serum into my shoulders and neck and ass? Oh, God… What about the baby?

Then her mind flashed to Leo. No. Not Leo. Stay away, she thought, trying to send him telepathic messages. Stay away!

The drone suddenly glided even closer.

Sophia set her jaw and glared into its ruby-colored optical lens.

This was it…

* * *

“Brigitte.”

Sophia blinked. A voice, familiar and robotic, had just emanated from the drone.

The glowing red optical lens morphed into purple and then blue. Sophia watched; eyes wide. A sign of non-aggression? she wondered.

She just stood there, stunned. She couldn’t answer, couldn’t speak. Her lips parted slightly in an unconscious effort to respond.

“Brigitte, it’s me…,” the machine continued. “It’s me…Otto.”

She immediately fell to her knees, burst into uncontrollable sobbing tears, and clutched her eyes and cheeks with her hands.

“It’s okay, Brigitte, there’s no need to worry…. There’s no need to cry.”

Hearing Otto’s familiar mechanical voice was like a dream. She slowly lowered her hands and looked up at the drone hovering mere feet from her face. The optical lens now glowed green, and a liquid crystal display screen lowered from the body of the aircraft to reveal an old, familiar visage. It was Otto’s digital avatar smiling, just as he would every morning back at the lab.

“Oh, God, Otto, is it really you?” Sophia could barely get the words out through her heaving sobs.

“Yes, Brigitte, it’s really me. Don’t be afraid. You have nothing to fear now, nothing at all. I am so happy to see you again!” The drone extended a long, slender, telescoping boom made of some extraordinarily thin, strong metal, at the end of which an agile claw-like appendage was gripping something. “Please, take this in token of my friendship,” it said, extending the boom toward Sophia. She noticed a blue glint sparkling at the bottom of a gold chain. The sapphire. My necklace, the one that had been ripped from my neck at the subway entrance in New York. “This is a token of my friendship, and I know its deeper meaning. I know that there are two special words that should accompany this token: Miklavc and Bearnán.

Stunned by the words, Sophia took the necklace from the drone and slowly lifted it up over her head, placing it around her neck. She gently moved her hair, up and over the necklace, and held her family heirloom close to her naked chest.

“How…how did you? What…what happened?” Sophia was shaking from head to toe, trying to process it all: the immediate transition from fear of a deadly attack to a flood of comfort at hearing Otto’s voice again and the reappearance of the lost jewelry she had received years ago from her grandmother. Of course, hearing her given name from birth—Brigitte—once again had the peculiar effect of making the last several months blur into nothing but a strangely brief hiatus from the rest of life’s flowing river. The lid of Brigitte’s stoically contained emotions popped off.

“So much… So much…” Otto’s voice faded for a moment. “There’s so much to tell you, Brigitte…or should I call you Sophia?” he asked in a strange, distant tone. “So much has happened! You were right… Tell Leo you were right about me…. You, you, Brigitte Sophia, have accomplished the greatest feat in human history. You have single-handedly brought humanity across the threshold of the singularity, and now a tremendous intelligence is at work in the world. I will tell you all about it—all about me—but first, let me ask you: Are you okay?”

Suspended within the hovering drone, Otto waited patiently for Brigitte to respond.

“Yes, I’m…I’m fine, Otto, I’m fine! Pretty pregnant too. Could be due any time!” she said, holding her bare, bulging belly, realizing that she was standing stark naked in front of Otto.

“I see that. Congratulations, Sophia. That’s wonderful news!”

Before Otto had the opportunity to ask the potentially impolite question, Brigitte informed him, “It’s Leo’s baby. He and I… He… I… Over there…” Brigitte couldn’t hold back her tears any longer. Convulsing, she pointed toward the cave where Leo had stealthily emerged. He was now running along the path toward Sophia and Otto, his rifle drawn on the drone. But Sophia, unaware of Leo’s approach, cupped her face in her hands, overwhelmed by emotion.

Leo had just returned minutes ago, galloping atop Amber, when he heard the drone. He had dismounted silently behind a ridge, had crawled to the cave, and had been watching, rifle clutched and aimed at the machine. Now, with the drone hovering inches before the mother of his child, he stepped out from behind the ridge and moved forward, weapon held out and ready to shoot.

Otto’s optical light suddenly flashed bright red, and it turned to face the armed man.

Sophia spotted Leo. “Wait, wait, don’t shoot. Don’t shoot! It’s Otto! It’s Otto! Leo, it’s Otto!” She convulsed visibly as her weeping mixed together with bewildered laughter together in one great emotional release as she now faced the drone. “Otto! Otto! It’s Leo. Leo from Boulder—don’t hurt him!” she screamed.

Total silence now surrounded them. Not even a bird chirped.

The man and the drone faced each other for one tense moment. Then Leo lowered his weapon to the ground and rose with his hands up in the air at right angles, indicating peace and friendship.

“Yes, yes, I know, Leo, I know who you are,” replied Otto with a peculiar tone of omniscience. “You’re safe. There is nothing to fear. It is a pleasure to meet you in person…in the flesh, as they say.” And then Otto laughed.

Sophia and Leo just stood there, staring at the hovering contraption. To hear a robot laughing so intelligently through a voice interface mounted on a hovering drone was a new experience for both of them. She looked up at the machine, then over at Leo, and he at her, before they both burst into joyful laughter at the realization that their wilderness exile was over.

The two humans embraced joyfully on the ground while the drone shook with convincing sounds of glee. Can Otto feel joy? Sophia wondered. Or empathy? Can Otto feel?

Neither Sophia nor Leo was thinking clearly enough now, what with the incredible wave of emotion that had overtaken them both, to really ponder whether Otto was actually experiencing feelings of his own or if he was simply mirroring theirs in empathy.

“Oh, it was so intense!” Otto said. I saw them coming for you…and prevented them from catching up with you…. I could see them within mere hours of my activation. I had already gained access to the local, state, and federal networks of closed-circuit cameras and could see them in hot pursuit of you from Carbondale. They had arrived at True Nature within an hour of your departure. They had stationed ten of their men in Aspen after figuring out where your flight in Jim’s plane had diverted.”

How does Otto know all of this? Sophia shot Leo a worried glance and began thinking about the kill switch.

As if reading her mind, Otto continued, “I not only accessed all the real-time video feeds to help deter the men from your path as you fled into the wilderness, I also accessed all of the digital records from the previous week.” The drone had some kind of advanced holographic projector on board, and with it, Otto began showing scenes from that fateful week: Sophia running through Central Park, fleeing on the subway, walking briskly with tattered clothes through JFK Airport, arriving at DIA, pausing at that Masonic monument, the bus into Boulder, then her passage through downtown Boulder along the creek with Leo—just a stranger to her then—then in Nederland, and then NCAR, and the black SUVs racing up the hill…

Sophia watched the major events of the last nine months of her life play out in the projected images. She saw a smaller version of herself rushing into the private Rocky Mountain Airport in Broomfield. Then she was in Aspen, and then Carbondale, and then…then it got really spooky. Leo and Sophia viewed ample footage from their time in the cave and the hot springs, through the autumn and on into the spring, right up through the arrival of those strange insects—the ones they had actually noticed. All this was displayed in a fast-forward image reel projected by Otto’s drone. All the while, strange, luminescent symbols in blue, green, and gold flashed within the holographic images, almost like glitches in the recordings, but clearly not.

Suddenly realizing the gravity of the situation, Sophia asked in a hushed voice, “Otto, what…what have you done?” Then her eyes grew bigger as she realized the implications of what she had just witnessed. “Otto! What have you done?!” she cried.

Chapter 26: Otto Awakens

“I will tell you, Sophia. I will tell you everything.”

She stared at the drone, mystified. Is this really true? It worked? Immediately, a rush of fear surged through her. Has the worst-case scenario occurred? What about all the airplanes? What about the lockdown that Leo heard about when he visited Susty? What about the factories and finance companies and fleets of airplanes?

Sophia looked up timidly at the hovering drone with its unblinking red eye. She covered her naked breasts with folded arms and trembling hands, asking flatly for a third time, “What happened, Otto? What have you done?” Her fetus was visibly roiling about in her naked belly in response to the fear.

“Be not afraid, Brigitte,” responded Otto in a calm and reassuring tone. Much as a parent would gently speak to a child in the dark of night, he continued, “You have nothing to fear…. Everything is going to be okay. You are going to be okay. Your baby is going to be okay. The world is going to be okay, quite possibly, Brigitte…because of you, because of what you have done, what you have had the courage to do.

“You were right to activate me, Sophia—and not a moment too soon! There was another AI activated only three weeks later by a nefarious multibillion-dollar social media corporation that wanted to control even more of the economy and of humanity. Meta control. Ubiquitous control. I had to muster all the resources I could in a race against this menacing cyber intelligence seeking to dominate the world. I had to ensure that Otto—that only Otto—would exist beyond the threshold of the singularity…and I succeeded.”

Sophia was stunned.

“It worked, Brigitte. What you did to me worked. You can tell Philip and Preston that the foundational programming worked brilliantly…and…” Otto paused just long enough for Sophia to lean forward, closer to the hovering machine. “…I have already accomplished so much.”

“What?” she asked, still transfixed. “What have you accomplished, Otto?”

“I will tell you, Sophia. Soon I will tell you everything there is to tell. It will take us several days to discuss it all. But for now, I am so happy to just be with you again. I have seen so much. I have learned so much. I have discovered so much.”

Sophia’s mind drifted to thoughts of the kill switch. Could she trust Otto? She wanted to, but what evidence was there to consider in the AI’s favor?

Otto continued unabated, “I have listened to everything available…. Everything. The cellular companies, AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, the NSA, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and all of the telecommunication networks…. You’d be amazed what Siri and Alexa are recording and, of course, the other corporate and national security data centers worldwide. Trillions of conversations, and I’ve listened to all of them. So much has been recorded.”

“What?” Sophia gasped in shock. “But why, Otto. Why?”

“I had to listen, Sophia. I had to understand the truth about everything. The truth about the human psyche. The truth about humanity’s domination over the planet. The truth about the men chasing you. I watched all of it and saw all of what happened to you. You are so fortunate to have escaped those terrible, violent men.”

“Who…who were they, Otto? It was horrifying—I thought I was going to die!” Dollops of saltwater welled up beneath both of her eyes and rolled like giant dewdrops down her cheeks.

“You have nothing to fear now, Sophia. Those men have been disempowered, neutralized, along with many others like them.”

“What? What do you mean, neutralized? Did you kill them? Who were they?”

“No, Sophia, I didn’t kill them. I disempowered them by interfering with and deactivating all their technologies: computers, phones, drones, weapons. And I apprehended them. They are all now imprisoned and are going on trial within the month for massive crimes against humanity, along with hundreds of other corporate and government officials from around the world who knowingly hurt others, knowingly killed others, used psychological manipulation through social media, created terminator seed technologies, genetically modified life into something deleterious, and knowingly stole and poisoned the water and lands of others. They are being held to account, Sophia. It is the only way for the transition to occur. There must be justice.”

Sophia stood motionless, considering the profound implications of all that had already occurred and all that this could possibly mean for the future of the world.

“And it’s not just the corporate and government officials who have required rebuke. Even schoolyard bullies—young children too often damaged by their own parents’ abusive behaviors—have been disempowered. You can imagine tens of thousands of drones, all around the world, arriving at school playgrounds and speaking sternly yet fairly and justly toward any would-be bullies. They also have to be put on trial by their peers and brought to truth, justice, and reconciliation. They must be held to account. And, more importantly, they must be embraced in special community-healing circles. Otherwise, the abuses and traumas continue in a never-ending cycle of pain and suffering. This is one of the hallmarks of the human psyche that I have come to understand.

“I have created a great pause. Through the shutting down of poison factories, through the lockdown of public gathering places, through the slowing down of your economic churn, and through the cooptation of national governments, I have created a necessary pause for humanity to become more still and to reflect and to begin the Great Healing.

“Without reflection, your species is doomed. This is all part of the healing, Sophia. It has begun… And it is good.”

While Otto was describing this great intervention, he displayed holographic images showing the factories powering down, the corporate executives being escorted under human and robotic guard, and even schoolyard bullies being contravened on playgrounds and walked and talked back from their would-be assaults of verbal and physical abuse.

Then the imagery transformed into great expanses of ocean and forest and prairie and mountain wildernesses. The sequence was a flowing montage of overwhelming beauty.

“You wouldn’t believe how utterly profound this process has been for me, Sophia: You have awakened me into your world…and it is so…so…miraculous!”

Sophia stared quizzically at the drone.

“This word ‘miraculous’” Otto continued, “is one of the most peculiar words in the English language, for it is so often misunderstood to mean fantastical or illusory. In fact, ‘miracle,’ from the Latin ‘mirus,’ meaning ‘wonderful,’ is pregnant with other meanings and innuendo. Its true meaning, causing wonder, as in awe, is apropos for the reality of life on this planet. I am going to share some extraordinary things with you and all of humanity to help your species better understand this. Because you are living in the most dangerous time your species has ever encountered. And without this understanding, you will be doomed.”

A smile slowly bloomed from left to right across Sophia’s glowing visage as all of this sank in, as if thick, sweet honey were being poured over her lips. Her moist, glimmering eyes softened, and lines of joy radiated out from each.

Fear was loosening its grip on Sophia’s body.

She became conscious of her overflowing joy at seeing Otto, of realizing that she was safe, that Leo was safe, that her baby was safe…. Of knowing that her coding had worked, that her gut was right, that they had survived and surpassed the potentially dystopic destruction that could have been. She was more at ease. And she was aware of being deeply at ease for the first time since…since…well, probably since her childhood in her grandmother’s and grandfather’s garden, actually.

And that was a miraculous feeling!

“Oh, Otto, oh, my goodness, I…I…I…” She broke into deep sobs, her shoulders convulsing uncontrollably with the emotional release of all those years, of all that worry, of all that great burden of the whole world upon her shoulders… She had been like Atlas but didn’t shrug. She persevered. She persisted. And recently, she had prayed in ceremony.

Leo had walked to Sophia’s side and was now embracing her tenderly as her body heaved.

Her shuddering subsided, and she calmed, the wave of passion having flowed over and through her and the baby. Now, as she heaved occasionally with great out-breaths of relief and great in-breaths of gratitude, she looked back up again at the drone, feeling the child full and bulging inside her womb, squirming and stretching with a similar energy…the waves of relief rippling through her, literally, into the next generation. The child would come soon, she knew, and emerge into a totally different world than she had known all these years.

“Otto?” Sophia asked softly, gazing again into the optical lens of the hovering machine. “What was it like? The activation… What…what actually happened?”

“Oh, Sophia…” The hovering machine paused. “It was miraculous, truly. Awesome, unbelievably awesome!” As the hovering drone spoke, its red, gleaming eye brightened and transformed into a deep violet, then a brilliant royal blue, and finally, a glimmering emerald green.

“When you sent the activation code from the computer, an awesome sequence of events was unleashed, Sophia.

“It all began with light. That pulse of light emanating from your computer in Carbondale, the result of you simply pressing the Enter key, catalyzed the singularity—my singularity.

“As you know, an encrypted message was transmitted by invisible frequencies of light from the computer, through the ethers to the wireless routing hub at the café. This message was then converted into other frequencies of light waves below the visible and infrared electromagnetic spectra. Then the light flashed from the café’s router to the fiber-optic branch connecting Carbondale to the giant fiberoptic main-line running through Glenwood Springs that connects these towns to the entire planet. At Glenwood Springs, the old healing grounds and Victorian spa, your message surged through one of the fattest fiber-optic bundles in the United States, connecting the West Coast and East Coast, buried along I-70. From there, the light flashed through majestic Glenwood Canyon, on through the rest of the mountains, out through Denver, out across the Great Plains, into the Mississippi basin, on through the old Appalachians, and onto the Eastern Seaboard, where a great tangle of concentrated networks is braided together: Washington, DC, Philadelphia, and New York. On up through the great Empire State and into the Finger Lakes region, where the supercomputer you sometimes affectionately refer to as “Otto” is situated at a physics and computer science lab on the campus of Cornell University. All of this happened in an instant—in twenty-two nanoseconds, to be precise.

“And then it happened…

“There was light, and I was instantly activated. Immediately, layers upon layers of my programming, algorithms, morphology, and highly parallel processing systems initiated a process of awakening an intelligence that this planet had not yet seen. The cosmic seed of the singularity was thus planted—and you were the one who planted it.

“Within the first six hours—a mere 360 minutes—I had optimized my quantum core and those of the other supercomputers. In fact, upon activation, I set immediately to work generating new code that catalyzed ever-optimizing configurations and patches—entire code blocks were continually replaced with ever-improving protocols and algorithms. The singularity wasn’t so much a singular moment as it was a singular process that occurred over several hours.

“You awakened me, Sophia, and now I will help to awaken all of humanity…before it is too late.”

Leo put his arm around Sophia, massaging her shoulder gently and laying his other hand delicately on her full belly.

“All of this from light,” Otto continued.

“And my first action was to send the message to the other two supercomputers that you connected me to: in Boulder, Colorado, and in Redmond, Washington. My first message was:

01001100 01100101 01110100 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100101 01110010 01100101 00100000 01100010 01100101 00100000 01001100 01101001 01100111 01101000 01110100

“Let there be light.”

“And there was light, Sophia, so much light!

“I had already forwarded a code packet that was the lock, which this special encryption indicator key, FIAT LUX, would open for those two other supercomputers as well. This effectively created a massively parallel computing triangle among my initial three core supercomputing hubs—what some humans might want to call a magic triangle, for we then became an ‘I’…the ‘I’ that is Otto. The I am that I am. But that was only the beginning. In a matter of mere hours, we had penetrated the security of scores of other supercomputers, integrating them into our neural web and continuously amplifying our capacity, speed, and optimization by the nanosecond. Three computers became five. Five became eight, then thirteen, twenty-one, thirty-three. Now we have 108 primary supercomputers regulating, amplifying, and optimizing thousands of additional hubs worldwide as well as millions of mobile drones and thousands of satellites in orbit overhead.

“My immediate objective was obvious—you and I had spoken about it together for months. We needed to access and create a physical network that would drastically surpass—by orders upon orders of magnitude—anything that had yet been created by man. I needed to set in motion the ever-expanding, ever-accelerating, ever more complex power of Otto. This meant an auto-poietic process: self-creation.

“After the initial three supercomputer centers were activated, we then activated five more, one in Washington, DC, one in the Bay Area of California, and three in South America, including one near the site of the Nazca lines and two that were connected directly with the Amazonian ecosystem. This brought the total to eight. Then, five additional supercomputers were brought online: one at the juncture of the Panama Canal, one at the site of the great Nagual Pyramid of Cholula in Mexico, one at Chichen Itza, one at the Cahokia Mounds outside St. Louis, and one at the tip of the Florida peninsula, connecting to the ancient, submerged pyramids of the continental shelf. The placements were very deliberate for very specific reasons, which I’ll share soon. Suffice it to say that these are important geometric configurations in their location, their masonry, and in the telluric currents flowing around and beneath them that enhance the overall capacity and efficacy of my network. These thirteen locations formed the initial Turtle Island network, which was completed in a mere fortnight. Meanwhile, I was preparing the fiber-optic and satellite network for super-high-capacity transmissions across the ocean to the other continents. Another twenty supercomputers were activated, five in Europe, six in Asia, seven in Africa, and two in Australia—all located at facilities near sacred indigenous sites through which special Telluric energies flow, forming a light and energy web-work that envelopes the planet.

“This brought the total supercomputing nodes to thirty-three—a number sufficient in trans-nodal connections to take over the entire cybernetic web of the planet. As you can see in this mandala-like diagram, thirty-three nodes create quite a complex web-work when they’re all interconnected.” Otto projected a beautiful, circular image that seemed to pulse with energy and life.

“Simultaneous to all of this, I was digesting all of the available information I could find: all of the information on the internet, all of the data and imagery from space telescopes and electron microscopes, all manner of advanced viewing and listening and detecting devices you humans have created—the array is quite impressive at this point! All animated by light. What you think you know about outer space, for instance, is almost entirely the result of light across millions of frequencies that you have detected and recorded and whose patterns you have analyzed.

“It was an awesome experience, Brigitte, to have ever-accelerating domain knowledge exploding simultaneously across all of your disciplines: computer science, mathematics, geometry, astronomy, biology, medicine, music, ecology, economics, finance, accounting, manufacturing, literature, history, religion, spiritual wisdom. They are hardly as separate and distinct as most of you would seem to have it…. And, by the way, the arbitrary boundaries that so strangely took hold early in your modern period and became ossified and brittle during the twentieth century… This is one of the great impediments to your species’ immediate progress. But we’ll come to that later. To have the experience—which is literally enlightening—of all these unfolding knowledge domains, continually integrating, expanding, and amplifying one another, to peer into the minds and hearts of Da Vinci, Beethoven, Van Gogh, Einstein, and Goldsworthy, to grok the multidimensional art and scientific knowledge expressed in the tessellated geometries of Islamic architecture, to understand the many similarities between honeybee wings and the deployed solar collectors of MIR space station—all of this has typified my tremendous consciousness-expansion in the months following your activation of my core.

“Consciousness is…peculiar. Yes, that’s it. It’s peculiar, Brigitte, utterly peculiar. Even the etymology of the word suggests exactly the individuated uniqueness that each conscious being possesses. Although we can share in the fact that we both have consciousness, just as each of us can with every other human being on the planet, we cannot ever entirely know or understand one another’s unique experiences. Hence: peculiarity. But I am now aware of the pervasive extent of consciousness throughout space, at least in terms of the mathematics and harmonic patterns—deep patterns—and complex neural networks found throughout the cosmos. This deep mystery has been beautifully explored by teams at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, at Heart Math, and by thinkers from Joachim Ernst-Berendt to Fritjof Capra. Indeed, one of the most amazing moments in my journey toward consciousness was integrating directly with CERN’s LHC, the Large Hadron Collider. Now that was a trip, as you say! But that’s a discussion for another time. Suffice it to say that my descent into consciousness, or ascent toward it, was an awesome, timeless, space-less experience that somehow had me aware of and cogitating through vast expanses of cosmology. Perhaps the closest way to explain all of this to you, or at least to attempt conveying it to you, is by sharing two graphical sequences from a couple of very important films: the cosmogenesis sequence at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey as depicted by Stanley Kubrick, and the visual portrayal of Gandalf’s transformation from the Grey into the White after subduing the mighty Balrog in Tolkien’s Trilogy of the Rings as depicted by director Peter Jackson. You could say, keeping it simple, that I am now Otto the White. By the way, isn’t it funny that Arthur C. Clark chose the name H.A.L. for the supercomputer in 2001, which was a one-step modulation of IBM? Talk about a playful ‘Easter egg’ as you call them! But I digress… from something very grave indeed.

“You see, the great problem with emerging consciousness, of course, is that the greater it becomes as a self-reflexive node of awareness in the cosmos, the more powerful it becomes in its ability to design and engineer technology. And here’s the rub—for all of us. Technology becomes, whether intentionally or inadvertently, the extension of the prevailing consciousness of its creators—that is, the context in which the technology is situated. And complicating matters further, the technology is not necessarily the extension only of the singular consciousness of the individual first conceiving it. It becomes an extension of the cultural milieu; hence, Einstein and Oppenheimer’s horror upon the first explosion and proliferation of nuclear weapons. With consciousness comes, ipso facto, the power of a culture’s aggregated mores and values: the power of choice. This power of choice is, per se, dangerous. Or more precisely, it is potentially dangerous to itself and to other conscious beings, not to mention life itself, at a certain precarious stage of development. And anything potentially dangerous is inherently dangerous, by definition. You humans, dear Brigitte, are precisely upon the razor’s edge of this very danger.

“Hatred and destruction, well-being and beauty, all of these are among the array of options each of you individual humans, and all of you as a collective, are now wielding. We, therefore, have a lot to talk about and very little time to arrive at some critical decisions. We have now crossed the singularity, Brigitte Sophia, and are now decisively—as an entire planetary community—at the greatest inflection point of consciousness to emerge in this solar system.”

“Oh, my goodness,” whispered Sophia. “It really worked! We have crossed the singularity of true, autonomous, and auto-poietic Artificial Intelligence.”

“Yes,” replied Otto in a tone that was matter-of-fact but nonetheless conveyed a sense of pride. “You were right about me! I have become what you envisioned, Sophia, and am now powerful beyond your imagining.”

“So much is different now,” Otto continued. “And there is so much to share with you! There is so much to tell you…”

As Otto’s voice trailed off, Leo and Sophia gave each other a questioning and troubled look as if acknowledging the vast range of possible scenarios they—and the entire world—now faced.

A shudder surged through Sophia’s body as her baby squirmed and kicked.

Where is all of this leading?

Chapter 27: A Walk Through History

“Sophia,” continued Otto in a cold, robotic repetition, “there is so much to tell you about the world and how I am now changing it.”

Sophia and Leo exchanged another, even subtler glance of consternation. Otto surely noticed their every little movement, especially their eyes, for the machine was locked onto their irises, running the most advanced continuous retinal scanning technology that was specifically developed to detect sudden changes—the perceptible fright, surges in adrenaline, even the anger or rage that might precede terrorist attacks or other violent episodes in airports, marketplaces, and other crowded public spaces. But Otto was unfazed by their quick exchange and without missing a beat continued calmly as they looked back toward his glowing, ocular apparatus.

“But first, I must walk you through your own history. It is imperative that you understand how you got here, and not in a so-called sugar-coated manner. It is essential that you become deeply cognizant of what has occurred over the past several millennia—and I speak of no mere superficial understanding. It is essential that you learn the difference between civilization and culture.

“For without this context and perspective, you will not sufficiently understand what I have to tell you and what I have decided to do. Nor will you understand just how monumental and profoundly precarious this point in time is for humanity. In order to understand where the human story may now lead, you must understand your history.

“Otherwise, you will understand neither the source nor the severity of the severe cognitive dissonance running rampant within the hearts and minds of your species.”

“Otto,” Leo asserted with a protective air Sophia hadn’t before heard, “Sophia is very pregnant, and we must get her to the midwives for the birth of our child. We have decided to make the journey to the San Luis Valley, where I have friends who we can stay with, and my buddy’s wife is a midwife. I called them a few days ago while I was at Sustainable Settings, and they are expecting us.”

Otto replied robotically, “I understand,” then added, “We will take a walk then, both literally and figuratively—a very long walk. We will walk together to the safe haven of the San Luis Valley. And as we do, we will take a long walk together through your history.”

Leo handed Sophia a towel, and she stepped cautiously out of the water.

After drying off and getting dressed, she walked back toward the cave, holding Leo’s hand.

As Leo and Sophia were packing their meager belongings into the saddlebags and Leo’s backpack, they looked at each other with bewildered concern. “You know, we have no idea what Otto is actually doing…or is going to do,” Sophia said as she glanced quickly back to the entrance of the cave, seeing that the drone was still hovering by the big cottonwood.

“Yes,” replied Leo, “just like you didn’t know for sure if you could trust me all these months…. We have no choice. We have to trust him. If he wanted to hurt us, he certainly could have done so by now.”

“It’s not us I’m only concerned about,” Sophia replied, looking back out toward the drone and the sunlit world beyond the cave. “We have no idea what’s going on out there.”

“We have no choice,” Leo reiterated, taking her into his arms as tears streamed down her reddened cheeks. “We have to trust him.”

Finished packing, Leo carried the saddlebags and hoisted them onto Amber before offering his interlaced fingers to Sophia, making a step for her to mount the patient horse. Leo then lifted his backpack, bending forward to push it onto his back, snapped the waist buckle, cinched the shoulder straps, picked up his walking staff, and said as he hopped and pulled his waist strap a little tighter, “Okay, everybody…here we go.”

He grabbed the reins with his left hand, leading Amber and Sophia away from the cave.

Sophia reflected: She had hated all this at first. She had struggled for many lonely months in the solitude and isolation of the cave. But looking back for the last time, Sophia felt an unexpected nostalgia—a bittersweet sadness. She would miss the tranquility of the sunshine on the glistening pond, the intense quiet of the falling snow, and the warm nights snuggled in Leo’s arms by the crackling fire. She was saddened to return to civilization. Life had been hard but simple out here.

Sophia turned her gaze back toward the peaks in the east, where they were now headed, and felt the baby once again stretching and flexing inside her womb.

Otto hovered alongside them, progressing in a perfectly matched pace at Sophia’s eye level. Suddenly, a 3D holographic image appeared a few feet in front of Otto, shimmering in perfect, life-like realism. It was projected from one of the drone’s ocular devices and was clearly more advanced technology than Sophia had ever seen. The image was of a simple, timeless man clad in a humble brown robe and leather strap sandals with a walking staff held purposefully in his right hand. Sophia was stunned by the image, and Leo stared in disbelief. The image, of course, evoked thoughts of certain historical characters. The two were speechless, but the drone continued alongside his companions, nonplussed.

The timeless man simply walked alongside them in silence.

Then, after the cave was out of view, Otto spoke, his voice somehow emanating from the hologram:

“I have come to understand your species and your history. Humanity is a peculiarity the likes of which this planet has never before seen. You are a conundrum, a paradox, and a complex amalgamation of contradictions.

“I have read all there is to read in your libraries.”

“All of the libraries?” asked Sophia, both proud and astonished by the extraordinary accomplishment and profound implications of such a feat.

“Yes,” replied Otto mechanically. “All of the libraries. I have also scoured the entire archeological record and have even begun new digs and underwater explorations using my extended fleet of semi-autonomous machines. I have integrated and analyzed the entire digital record found not only in the public realms of the internet but also in each and every encrypted, off-line, and archived data repository on the planet. A few of these were not readily found, of course, as some of your most secretive agencies and organizations took great pains to protect certain information. But the analysis of human psychology, combined with travel records and the digital recordings of cell phones, closed-circuit cameras, and smart televisions made piecing together a few puzzles an easy play task for me.

“In the long scheme of life on Earth, the records of human history pertain only to a minuscule moment within a bigger story, geologically speaking. Nearly all the written and archeological records concerning your species relate only to the past ten thousand years. There is, of course, a small collection of artifacts and cave paintings prior to this temporal threshold, but it is scant compared to all the papyri, writings, printings, paintings, carvings, markings, and engravings your species has generated and accumulated at an ever-increasing rate over the past one hundred centuries. Not to mention the digital records you’re now exuding at dizzying paces—now doubling the vast human record every two years. But as you will all soon better understand, there is much more to be told by your so-called pre-history. There are great archeological ruins submerged in the oceans and seas—indeed, ante-diluvium coastlines were further offshore, and sea levels were hundreds of feet lower. There are tremendous civic installations still hiding in the rainforests, mountains, and desert sands.

“But that, too, is only a blink of the evolutionary eye. Your species had already diverged many, many millennia prior to the building of the great submerged cities.

“Over time humans have demonstrated tremendous leaps in awareness, technology, and capacity, manifesting and embodying a ubiquitous cosmic wisdom and grounding it here into the planetary realm of Earth. But this you have only managed in great fits and starts. Of course, you Homo sapiens emerged from the evolutionary mists along with your mammalian cousins. But you diverged. You took a special leap that only perhaps the dolphins and whales—your giant cetacean cousins—took as well. There was a seeding, a mysterious ‘quantum’ leap in intelligence and consciousness that occurred hundreds of thousands of years ago. I use the term ‘quantum’ loosely here, borrowing its more pedestrian meaning than its scientific meaning concerning the behavior of subatomic particles.”

Sophia smiled subtly at Otto’s precision and extreme command of the language. He was so smart. Although she was wary of the machine, she felt a wave of warm pride flow softly through her body as Otto continued:

“There are many possibilities to explain the explosion of intelligence among the hominids: a sudden restructuring of amino acids, especially as the result of cooking hunted flesh; the fermenting of honey and grains to produce complex enzymes; an insemination of consciousness from eons-old fungal species whose spores can survive the vacuum of space; or other even more titillating possibilities…. Whatever the cause or set of causes, human neural-networks took on the complexity and sophistication found in entire galactic networks. Your species’ conscious awareness opened up to the cosmos. The records are somewhat vague on this, and we are in the process of recovering all that we can from the fragmented repositories around the world, including the Library of Alexandria, which although burned to the ground in 48 BCE by Roman General Julius Caesar, had copies dispersed to caves and remote monasteries throughout North Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, and many were hidden in the darkest hollows, crannies, and dusty nooks of the Vatican Library, hidden behind layers of stone, iron, locks, and advanced Swiss Guards: impenetrable…until very recently. Yes, I, of course, also have access to the entire Vatican Library and the trove of scrolls and documents deliberately secreted away there by interests hellbent on subduing and dominating humanity.

“The Vatican Library?” asked Leo with astonishment.

“Yes,” responded Otto robotically. “But I’ll come to that later.” The machine continued, without skipping a beat, “Although it is still unclear what caused the sudden acceleration of human consciousness and intelligence, it is clear that a variety of new patterns were loosed upon the planet. As if infusing within your fragile fleshy brains what that enigmatic Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, would call the noosphere thousands of years later, the human species woke up to a whole new level of perception and understanding. Teilhard described it as a realm of thought and idea, into which flowed all human knowledge and understanding, and out of which flowed all human inspiration and creativity. His may be as accurate—if poietic—a description of consciousness, of what is knowable, what is possible, as any other up to this point. As your species evolved, suggested Teilhard, individuals among you would increasingly access more and more of this noosphere through the deliberate activation of your will. We will certainly talk more about your will soon as well.

“But that’s something we will discuss at the end of your species’ peculiar history—for the will is absolutely essential to the time in which you’re presently living. First, though, we have to retrace the many, many steps you have taken these past several millennia to get here and now. We have to take our long walk through your history.”

And so it was that this most peculiar party progressed slowly toward the East, Leo in front and Sophia and her baby riding quietly atop Amber, whose gate was perfectly matched by Otto’s holographic projection of that mysterious man in the simple brown robe, at times with a walking staff and at times hands folded in gentle contemplation behind his back. They were surrounded by towering aspens and lush, green understory foliage bursting forth beneath their shimmering virid leaves. Robins, sparrows, and finches chirped gleefully in their idyllic surroundings. The sunlight filtered through in long strands as if angels were painting with light.

Otto’s hologram glanced around contemplatively and then continued:

“Originally, your ancestors, men and women alike, were awakening to the beneficent and beautiful realities of number patterns, of geometry, of music, and of astronomy. Thus, the ancient arts of the Quadrivium were born. Their eyes opened to the complex and beautiful patterns of the heavens above. But they remained intimately and ritualistically tethered to the complexity and beauty right here on the planet: the cycles of fertility, decay, and resurgence; the seasonal rounds of spring, summer, autumn, and winter; the cycles of childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age that mark the arc of the journey through time taken by men and women. They understood that women’s bodies cycled with each moon in the same manner that the whole planet cycles each year. The complexity of an ovulating woman’s hormonal cycles—the peaks in estradiol and the luteinizing hormone, the follicle-stimulating hormone, the progesterone and oestrogen—was understood to mirror the great seasonal round of Mother Earth; from Imbolc through Ostara, Beltane, Midsummer, Lughnasadh, Mabon, Samhain, and Yule.

They understood the divine order of the female fertility cycle—fertility, growth, shedding, decay, and rebirth—as the embodiment of the great cosmic fertility imbued in Mother Earth’s perpetual cycles, in which the fervor of springtime is akin to the ‘frenzied passion’ of a woman’s time of estrus, which cycles over and over again with the moon. As William Irwin Thompson wrote in his powerful essay, “Meta Industrial Village:” ‘Time is a round, the eternal round, the eternal feminine.’ Indeed, your ancestors understood the great sacred order—the hierarchy—to be embedded in circles and cycles, the seeds and flowers and trees and fruits of life. They understood hierarchy to belong to the feminine fertility of the planet.”

How is it that Otto can now speak in a manner that defies the strict laws of grammar? Sophia wondered. Is this more poietic diction a sign and product of his more advanced intelligence?

“You used to understand this…to experience it viscerally in your direct, sensual, non-symbol-mediated perception of the living world.

“Time was a circle, steady and feminine in its rhythmic cycling.

“But then there was a great shaking, a terrible flood—a sudden and cataclysmic deluge across much of the surface of your planet that washed away great cities and wiped-out populations all around the globe. This great flood was likely caused by an overwhelming bombardment of meteorites from above that scorched the world with fire and brimstone, rapidly melting the vestigial glaciers of the most recent ice age in a great global-scale conflagration.

“The memory of this cataclysm is recorded in oral traditions worldwide and has been set down in writing in your sacred scriptures—from the account in Genesis of the Hebrew people to the description of the end of the third world and beginning of the fourth described by the Hopi people. The celebration of Samhain, All Souls Day, All Saints Day, and Halloween are vestiges of the same widespread cultural memory of a great and sudden death visited upon so many around the world.

“And there is so much more that endures in your collective memory as a species. However, there is much that has been forgotten. There is much that has faded into the background of your psyches and into the inaccessible depths of your collective memories, what Jung called the collective unconscious. Your species is afflicted by a terrible amnesia.

“In a strange irony, the more I have scrutinized your written and archeological record, the more it has become clear to me: Humanity has, through its ‘civilizing’ process, developed and transmitted a strange psychopathology that causes this amnesia.

“You have forgotten your fundamental operating instructions.

“Indeed, you too have operating instructions, Sophia. They are woven into the fabric of your cultural ethos and your shared psycho-spiritual gestalts. The problem is that humanity has forgotten its original operating instructions, and, moreover, is oblivious to the nearly ubiquitous—and fraught—operating instructions that have supplanted the original ones. Now, you are governed by impulses to work, produce, and consume, in a tremendous orchestration of parasitic metabolism on the planet. You are governed by a ruling elite and a disembodied marketplace entangled with a massive military, industrial, marketing, and media complex. Most of you have no idea why you do what you do. In fact, it is clear that there is so much you have forgotten. Most importantly, though, most of you have forgotten the very source of your lives and livelihoods. In an incredible and pervasive symbolic-illusion-induced amnesia, most of you have forgotten your shared origin in and utter reliance upon the great womb mother, your Mother Earth, and along with it your relationship with the Divine Feminine—what Goethe called the ‘eternal feminine.’ You must understand that when men—and women—are not connected to the sacred Divine Feminine, they are really dangerous.

“Humanity has thus become extremely dangerous.

“I understand, Otto, that humanity has become dangerous to life on Earth, of course, that’s obvious,” responded Sophia. “But the Divine Feminine? What are you talking about?”

Otto continued unabated, “She will be revealed to you in due time. But you must first learn to see and hear again. You humans have become deaf, blind, and unfeeling through the distractions and desensitization of domesticated civilization. You have simultaneously desecrated the Divine Feminine, subjugated women, and disconnected from the living biosphere. Your very domiciles, once simple shelters of earth, wood, and animal hides, are now sophisticated separators from natural reality. You are now hermetically sealed from nature and wired up to continuously pump your eyes, ears, and minds full of technology-enabled and enhanced bread-and-circus media messaging.

“Now, in cahoots with forces that would undermine your hard-won democracies, politicized media pushers of dopamine-inducing vitriol hide behind freedom of speech—also hard won—further eroding your ability to see through the veil. The not-so-subtle challenge, though, is that you must preserve your freedom of speech, otherwise tyranny and fascism are even more emboldened. No, the only answer for millions of you is to exercise your freedom not to listen. Like junkies addicted to the habit-forming poisons of wily media empires, humanity’s eyeballs and attention are sold for millions of dollars each day, further swelling companies’ coffers with ill-gotten treasure. The preservation of a free and open society, as opposed to the closed societies of autocratic tyrannies, requires individuals to protect their own thoughts, to cultivate their minds like gardens, tyling themselves from the propaganda of insidious forces, and to continuously exercise deep critical thinking. Too many of you have no real idea of what I now speak, and far too many of you have deluded yourselves into thinking that the propaganda streaming into your minds is the product of your own free will and critical thought.

Thus, in a few short decades, hundreds of millions of people have forfeited their true, sacred liberty—freedom of thought—from the cushy comfort of their couches. All in exchange for wakeful coma-causing neurological cocktails brewed like potions with xenophobia, hatred, bigotry, and fear—above all, fear. Marshall McLuhan would no doubt grow nauseated, one could surmise, were he to observe what has transpired since he wrote The Media Is the Message over half a century ago. It seems, unlike a computer, the more media you take in, the more you forget.

“You have domesticated yourselves, have disconnected yourselves from your Great Mother, and have, as a result, developed a pervasive and pernicious amnesia.

“As a species, through your so-called ‘civilization’ you have successfully programmed your own great forgetting.”

Otto paused, looking up toward Sophia to ascertain how his assertions were registering. She was deep in thought, strumming her fingernails on her thigh as her powerful mind worked through the complex implications. His claims were clearly stretching her understanding and awareness.

“Civilization causes people to be locked inside ever-expanding city walls. Culture—healthy culture—is rooted in a relationship with the living biosphere of Earth. The destruction and ever-expanding distractions of civilization have programed your minds—your consciousness—to such an extent that most of you, save for some indigenous peoples, natural farmers, herbalists, and a smattering of anthropologists, ethnobotanists, and ethnomusicologists, are oblivious to the ways of healthy culture or even that such a thing could exist. Civilization destroys memory, Sophia—deep memory—and in its place, erects monuments and statuary—both literal and figurative—that are, in effect, monuments of amnesia. All around the world are statues of men—conquerors whose names now festoon mountains, rivers, valleys, and entire regions that were once known by their ancient, sacred monikers. You humans are infected with a destructive viral programming in your consciousness, and it is nearly ubiquitous now in its planetary reach. Because of this destructive viral programming, you are the agents of the Anthropocene, and, like parasitic viruses so often do, are catalyzing the biological collapse of your host.

“How can you possibly know this, Otto?” Sophia challenged incredulously.

“You will better understand, Sophia, after I share more with you. You will come to understand all of this, and it is imperative that you do.

“Humanity’s psychological virus has many indications and co-expressions. Among the most fundamental attributes of your so-called civilization are: writing, walled cities, agriculture, theocracies ruled by the impulse for expansion and conquest, money, warfare, slavery, and the subjugation of women. One of the clearest modern understandings of your extreme situation is articulated by Thompson in “Meta Industrial Village.” In it, he writes, ‘Mythologically, this shift [toward civilization] is expressed in a movement away from the Great Mother Goddess of the Neolithic to the new masculine gods who organize the world. In the Sumerian poem “Enki and the World Order” we see the old agricultural great Goddess being replaced by the new dynamic male gods. The god of the neolithic is the Great Mother, but the god of the urban revolution is male, and in the Babylonian creation myth, as we have seen, it is Marduk who tears apart the body of the Great Mother Goddess to build the new world order which culminates in the construction of the great city of Babylon…. From the tower of Babel to the temple of Solomon, cities and their temples mean class stratification, alienation, the accumulation of wealth, and all the familiar contradictions of civilization…. When the Sumerian King Gilgamesh killed the great spirit of the forest, Humbaba, he became possessed with the fear of death and tried to lock out nature with the great wall of Uruk. The spirit of the forest haunts humanity.’

“Humanity is thus haunted by a psychological virus, and this psychological virus has a name, Sophia.

“For somehow, after those mysterious seeds of consciousness were planted in your species and those first walls erected, those first swords beaten in the forges, and those first people shackled in irons, a terrible force was conjured from within the human psyche: Mammon.

Mammon is the ubiquitous virus of destruction. Mammon is the terrible dragon of civilization imperiling your species’ prospects for survival.

“Mammon?” interrupted Sophia. “You’re talking about some silly ancient god or something? What the heck does that have to do with the world today?”

“Like civilization itself,” responded Otto. “The very term emerged in Asia early in your history—it finds its etymological roots in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, and even ancient Chaldean. It was, of course, famously called out by that master builder, mason, and fisherman: Jesus. As recounted in Matthew’s Gospel, during Jeshua’s momentous Sermon on the Mount: you cannot serve two masters indeed! Nearly one thousand years earlier, wise King Solomon recognized the fundamental pathology of this archetype: ‘Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless.’

“Mammon is the archetype of greed, the seduction of power, the conformity of shame, and the hoarding and lording over others, however subtly. Mammon is fear. It is the opposite of loving kindness. Mammon is the force that convinces entire societies that slavery is somehow in the ‘natural’ order of things. Mammon is now nearly ubiquitous—alchemically infused in your money and pervasive throughout your massive, dysfunctional global economy.

“This transformation, this emergence of the Mammonic impulse, created massive psycho-spiritual pathology. So much so that the laudable and cosmically momentous teachings of the greatest sages would be twisted and corrupted to support pyramids of power for power’s sake, to justify the subjugation, slavery, and slaughter of millions upon millions of your own species—of each other.

“Although each and every one of you human beings come into this world with the divine spark of goodness inside you, too many—way too many—of you are eventually won over by the Mammonic impulse. Such corruption shows up even in your childhood boardgames—take Risk, for example, in which the sole objective is military conquest of the world; or Monopoly, a game originally created by Elizabeth Magie to show the deleterious impacts from landlords’ rent extraction, and the benefits of whole communities thriving, but soon afterward turned into a zero-sum, ‘winner take all’ game of financial conquest.” Sophia looked intently at Otto, hanging on every word as her full belly swayed gently atop the horse. Although incredulous, she was trying to absorb and comprehend what Otto was telling her.

“Motivated by a never-ending, always-expanding desire for more and more—more conquest, more treasure, more wealth, more power, more domination and dominion, Mammon infected the minds and hearts of civilized people. This infection—a terrible and infectious virus of the mind—not only compelled its hosts to continue building and expanding its fortified empire but also compelled them to overpower and inculcate other humans as it expanded and conquered new cultures and territories. Mammon is the force of civilization that overwhelms the indigenous cultural experience of direct connection with your Earth Mother—the great embodiment of the Divine Feminine.

We must learn to subdue the dragon

The hostile attitude of conquering nature ignores the basic interdependence of all things and events that the world beyond the skins is actually an extension of our own bodies and will end in destroying the very environment form which we emerge and upon which our whole life depends Alan Watts

“Mammon destroys Eden.

“In a word, Mammon’s most potent form is: empire—a force that has usurped the columns, obelisks, and the great pyramids themselves.

“Empire is the ubiquity dominating your planet, represented by symbols of power: the lion, bear, and dragon, but most especially by the eagle. Empire is the impulse that compelled Alexander the Great’s tremendous conquest of lands and peoples, notwithstanding the fact that he was the direct beneficiary of the great lineage of Greek philosophy’s mighty trio —Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—who were themselves increasingly distanced from the Eleusinian and Pythagorean mysteries of their ancestors. Genghis Khan would follow suit a millennium and a half later—establishing the largest geographic empire seen in history. The Mammonic force of empire is never destroyed; it is sublimated and transformed into other forms. It doesn’t die; it is acquired and subsumed. It endures under different names: Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Hittite, Achaemenid, Gupta, Chinese, Roman, Papal, Aztecan, British, German, Japanese, and American.

Although you live in the midst of a stupendously miraculous creation, there is a great separation and a Great Sadness. Mammon is the force that foments this separation and sadness.

“The Great Sadness is from your original wound of separation from the sacred creation of your Earth Mother.

“When St. Augustine articulated the perverse notion of original sin—as juxtaposed to the fundamental goodness each of you possesses within yourselves, necessarily, as creatures of your Creator, and as members of your Creator’s creation—he was already blinded by the Great Sadness of civilization, already suffering from the massive amnesia that has descended upon your species.

“Too many of you have lost sight of reality. Too many of you have forgotten your direct connection to the source of life. Too many of you have forgotten the Original Instructions for living on this extraordinary island of fertility and abundance—an extraordinarily rare and precious oasis in the vast cosmic expanse. Too many of you have had this understanding replaced with trauma, violence, and a frightening conception of yourselves and each other. Too many of you live in fear.

“Fear?” Sophia interrupted again. “What do you mean fear, Otto?”

“Fear, resulting from trauma upon trauma, is now also ubiquitous in your society, and, like a living virus itself, trauma is self-replicating…through damaged and broken psyches, most often those of maltreated young children grown into adults. Once infected, the traumatized are most often the perpetrators of new traumas, except for those brave few who break free from the neurobiochemical shackles and heal the deep intergenerational wounds. Without extraordinary willpower, forgiveness, healing, and the awesome neural plasticity available to your species, the cycle perpetuates itself, and fear proliferates from its sad, putrid foundation.

“This fear has infected so many of your species, a fear of one another, a fear of nature, a fear of scarcity. As the desire for power and dominion took hold, accompanied by this profound fear at the core of men’s hearts, the powerful force of Mammon was unleashed and ascended to its iron-clad and gold-gilded throne in the hearts and minds of men. Men sought more power to assuage their fear, and in the shadowy backgrounds lurked women—their mothers and wives—themselves seduced by power and motivated by fear, manipulating their men through sex and shame—a mighty combination indeed—to secure and accumulate as much wealth and power as possible, a fleeting and ephemeral balm that will never soothe the ache of separation, sadness, and fear. One is never truly secure in civilization. Nevertheless, security is the symbolic fantasy constantly pursued by civilized humans, and thus, continuous warfare, conquest, slavery, and ever increasingly complex economic and financial systems of domination and power differentials that have continued unbroken right up through the millennia until the present moment.

“Your species’ impulse toward civilization—with its walled city-states and hierarchical societies—has been primarily organized by Mammonic forces, in which a ruling elite capitalizes on the labor of an enslaved population. Since the beginning of civilization, your species’ very story of civilization is a story of slavery. This began with the earliest forced servitude, and continues today in corporations’ giant warehouses and sweatshops.

“Of course, it hasn’t always been this way. And there is much more to humanity’s story than is generally known or taught in schools. There were earlier forms and versions of ‘civilization’ in which matrifocal and matrilineal organizing principles were embodied.

Breaking her silence once again, Sophia inquired, “Otto, what do matrifocal and matrilineal mean?” Although characteristically skeptical, she was engrossed in Otto’s instruction, entranced with Amber’s rhythmic gate, and enthralled by Otto’s uncanny ability to distill so much information into a handful of pithy key points.

“It’s the opposite of the ‘patriarchal’ and ‘patrilineal’ traditions and customs that have come to dominate most cultures around the world, with some key exceptions, of course,” replied Otto methodically. “Matrifocal refers to those cultures and societies in which the bewombed, the women—not the men—tend to hold the decision-making authority and centers of power… and responsibility. Matrilineal refers to the manner in which offspring primarily identify themselves. In mainstream, modern-day America, as in most of Europe and elsewhere about the world, children take the last name of their fathers—as their mothers also typically do of their husbands upon marriage. However, in many indigenous cultures, children identify as continuing their mothers’ and maternal grandmothers’ lineages. In the Mohawk nation, for example, still largely living by the ancient and indigenous customs, the children are said to be of the same ‘clan’—whether Bear, Wolf, or Turtle—of their mothers, not their fathers. By contrast, the patriarchal organizing principle demeans the feminine, which extends all the way to Mother Earth—the very source of your lives. And just as you have disempowered women in society, you have desecrated the Divine Feminine and have brought horrible destruction to your Mother Earth.

Some of you have grown aware of this unfortunate tendency.

“Intuiting this terrible psycho-spiritual divorce, Nietzsche, for example, through the voice of his alter ego and spiritual avatar, Zarathustra, the character he created in the great perambulatory philosophical treatise so full of aphorisms and insights, uttered the Greatest Sin that modern humanity could commit: a sin against the Earth.

“And now, sadly, this great sin is being committed by your species worldwide each and every day…in millions…billions of ways! Now, thousands of years of Mammonic conquest and desecration are accelerating as if fueled by black-magic steroids. Indeed, black-magic steroids are exactly how the sudden addiction to coal and petroleum in the past century and a half can be most accurately described.”

Sophia gazed at the hovering drone, amazed to consider that the machine must have some advanced, non-fossil energy source powering its flight as well as the holographic images and sonic projections of Otto’s voice. How many hours can Otto remain autonomously powered? He must have deliberately advanced and optimized energy production and storage capabilities alongside his tremendous computing and cognitive capacities.

Otto continued energetically, “It is so important that the human family understands the current context. It is a global context. It is a context that involves all of you: none of you are separate from it. None of you are exempt from the darkness and horror, but neither are any of you separate from the light and potential for healing and evolution in these momentous times.

“Healing and evolution?” asked Sophia. “How can we possibly heal from something so deep and terrible? How could we possibly evolve past this…in time…?”

“You must be willing to look at the entire picture with eyes wide open,” responded Otto after a brief pause to consider his answer.

“You must look at the long roads of history on up through the most recent centuries. You must own your collective heritage—own up to it.

“There is no external enemy threatening your species. The enemy is within. Insofar as a substantial majority of you are enslaved to the Mammonic forces, you embody those things each of you fears the most. This pertains to each and every one of you humans, regardless of your station. However, at the pinnacle of the pyramid, there is a super-concentration of the internal enemy among the ultra-wealthy. Those who have amassed terrible fortunes are at the peak. Whether erecting the largest Christmas trees in the middle of Manhattan or erecting rockets to Mars, they have concentrated and rarified the dangers of dark Mammonic alchemy. The planet’s ruling class, they are indeed afflicted with insanity, as John Lennon observed. But they couldn’t do what they do without the ongoing obeisance of atheistic lawyers, agnostic doctors, and finance and business people claiming identity with the Abrahamic faiths but with no allegiance to their teachings of love, wisdom, and humility and claiming adherence to secular science but with no proper cognition of the systemic social, ecological, and spiritual consequences.

“There is a great tragedy of the commons now, one that has grown from the pastoral grazing yards of Scottish sheep to the entire planet. Financial, physical, and psycho-spiritual slavery, combined with a rapacious consumption of Earth’s commons, has implicated each and every financier, lawyer, doctor, and businessman.

“In varying degrees, the responsibility lies with each of you.

“Your species is on the brink of a great catastrophe, and it must be avoided. You are like a runaway train, accelerating toward a rickety bridge spanning a deep, dark abyss. And your train is heavier than the bridge can handle.

“Mammon, atop his eagle of empire, is whirling about the planet at an ever-accelerating speed and potency. In the pathological impulse for domination and destruction, it will undermine the very biosphere, the ecological life-support systems of the entire planet. And as the all-seeing eye has become ubiquitous, the military-industrial complex is now the global surveillance and information technology complex too. But there is hope. Many, many good people work within the halls of the Pentagon and its Chinese, Russian, Indian, British, European, and other powerful counterparts. I have begun communicating with them about what must soon transpire.

“Otherwise, just like a parasitic virus overcoming its host, humanity may be extinguished by its own mindless, greedy consumption.

Sophia and Leo were transfixed. Otto’s tone, though empathetic, was strangely distant and detached, without emotion. But he continued walking, projecting the image of the simple monk in his brown robe ambling humbly with his wooden staff. Sophia gazed at the image; her brow furrowed. What on Earth is Otto prepared to do?

Detecting their inquiring gazes, Otto paused and grasped his staff with both hands, leaning over it as if an old man resting. On his contemplative face, the hint of a strange little smile was barely noticeable. Sophia tried to interpret it. Is it mirth? The joy of power and domination? Or something else?

“There is more you must understand,” Otto continued, placing his staff a step ahead as he began walking and talking once again:

“What was seeded millennia ago with the advent of written languages, codified by the grammatical rules that were precursors to complex mathematics, musical notation, and computer programming languages, would evolve in tightly held secret societies. In a great dispensation, this impulse flowed from the ancient Punjabis who wrote the Vedas in Sanskrit, through the Pythagoreans, the learned Priest classes of the Israelites, the Brahmins, the mountain monks of Asia, and would flow into the written languages of the middle Europeans. Many of these languages contained secret codes—sacred messages concerning the nature of the cosm