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“Symbiosis” by Barbara Krasnoff

“Just look at that mess,” Joy spat. She brushed impatient fingers over her tightly cornrowed hair, and stared venomously at the scattered computer parts on her desk.

Teresa glanced over from the small tree that she was carefully wiring. In the six months that they had been roommates, she had learned that most of Joy’s mutterings were rhetorical. This time, though, Joy seemed to be waiting for an answer, so Teresa tried, “Uh-huh,” as a suitably noncommittal reply.

“No, really,” Joy insisted. “Look at this.”

Although she knew that whatever was wrong with the tech would mean absolutely nothing to her, Teresa put the spool of wire down on her workbench and ambled over to Joy’s Side.

Seven months ago, when she came to view the available space as a possible sublet, Teresa thought that the large loft was perfect – better than she had hoped. It was the top floor of a former factory in an unfashionable part of Queens; Joy, the owner of the loft (Teresa later learned that Joy had borrowed most of the money from her parents on a “Pay it back when you can, darling” basis), was looking for somebody who was quiet, willing to keep the place clean, and trustworthy as far as her belongings and the rent were concerned.

But best of all, the huge windows faced the south and east, and the morning light streamed onto the painted cement floor in a way that Teresa thought was impossible within the confines of New York City. The kitchen space was clean and vermin-free, and when Teresa told Joy that she created plant sculptures and bonsai trees, Joy seemed pleased. “I was sort of hoping for a visual artist,” she told Teresa as she stood and looked around. “It would be a pity to waste all that great light on an office drone.”

They went to a local coffee shop, hashed out the financials, and then worked out the living arrangements. “It’s got to be side-by-side, not one on top of the other,” Joy insisted. “Otherwise, we’ll murder each other by day three.” Teresa secretly thought that Joy was exaggerating just a bit, but she went along with it, and they designated two separate areas in the loft, not to be breached unless expressly invited: Teresa ‘s Side and Joy’s Side.

And now, it couldn’t be more obvious who lived where. Joy’s Side looked more like an old-fashioned factory workfloor than a living space. Furnishings consisted of a futon that got rolled up during the day, a couple of folding chairs, an old chest of drawers rescued from the curbside, and four folding tables crowded with a variety of ancient computer equipment – some operational, most not.

Teresa’s Side, on the other hand, was alive with bonsai trees, ivy plants and small potted bushes that she was in the process of training and sculpting. The contrast, Teresa often thought with some satisfaction, was dramatic: Joy’s ugly tech toys side by side with her own lush greenery. But once, when she proffered her opinion, Joy just grinned, and said, “At least my systems don’t drop dead leaves all over the floor.”

In between the two sides was neutral territory, furnished with a comfortably broken-in sofa, an overstuffed chair that was the sole survivor of Teresa’s old apartment, a couple of packing boxes that substituted for tables, and a large, rather expensive TV that Joy had gotten as a swap for setting up a friend’s home network.

Most of Teresa’s friends had told her that the agreement was weird, Joy was nuts, and she was an idiot for moving in with a rambunctious computer geek. But Teresa didn’t really care. It was convenient, cheap, a great place to work – and when she wasn’t obsessed with her machines, Joy was one of the most exciting things that had ever happened to her.

“See that?” Joy now said indignantly, pointing at the open casing of an old desktop computer. Teresa stepped behind her and stared at the confused pile of parts.

“Boring color scheme,” she remarked.

Joy sighed. “Not that, fool,” she said. “Look at those two chips. On the motherboard. That flat green board over there.”

Teresa squinted at the board and then, after a moment, thought she saw it. “They’re sticking out,” she said.

“Right,” Joy growled. Teresa restrained an impulse to step back; when Joy gritted her teeth like that, it never felt quite safe to be within reach. “You know, this sucker is really, really old – we’re talking a couple of megs of memory, barely a gig of storage – but it should run like a breeze, especially after I dumped some Linux into it. It doesn’t.”

She reached into the computer, coming up with the two chips: tiny metal bricks with spindly wire legs. “So I pull off the cover, and pull out every board for the fourth time, and what do I have? Two chips sticking out of the machine like two buck teeth!”

She closed her hand on the chips for a moment and thought, her fist tapping lightly against her mouth, her eyes fastened on some unseeable object. After a moment, she dropped the chips back onto the table.

“I’m gonna take a shower,” she said, and headed for the bathroom, pausing to tap at her phone, which lay on one of the desks. Almost immediately, a heavy bass thumped from two nearby speakers, vibrating the floor of the loft. Joy nodded in satisfaction and dashed into the bathroom.

The music was so loud it nearly drowned everything out, even the trucks rumbling past on the street outside. Teresa strode to the phone, turned down the volume, and walked dourly back to her side of the room.

This was getting tiresome. They had an agreement not to get in each other’s way, and in Teresa’s opinion, loud music was part of that. When Joy got wrapped up in her work, she could ignore any interruption, but Teresa ‘s plant sculptures demanded a contemplative atmosphere, where she could feel the mood of the plants she worked with.

She should talk to Joy about it, Teresa thought. Today. Now. Despite their friendship, despite that night two weeks ago, if Teresa couldn’t respect her space… The downstairs buzzer went off; somebody wanted to come up. Teresa ran over to the old-fashioned call-box, and pressed the “talk” button. “Hello?”

“Teresa? May I enter the sacred premises?” The voice fairly dripped with British pretension. Teresa grinned.

“Sure. Hold on.” She pressed the buzzer, waited until she heard the outside door open through the speaker, and then called to Joy.

“Hey – Martin is on his way up.”

“Ask him if he’s got any extra memory chips. Preferably dating from 1989,” Joy yelled back from behind the bathroom door.

Teresa walked over to the loft’s door, opened it, and watched as the elevator deposited Martin at the end of the hallway.

“Hey, kid,” Martin boomed. “How goes it?”

Martin was bald, five foot five, and almost as wide as he was tall. He was also one of the most talented photographers around, and Teresa would have been insanely jealous if she didn’t like the guy so much.

“Not bad,” Teresa answered, standing aside as Martin lumbered in and flopped on the sofa that bisected the two sides of the attic. It listed slightly. “You want something to drink?”

“No, thank you.” Martin looked around. “Where is the beauteous Joy?”

“In the bathroom. Showering and sulking. Seems that her museum piece is acting up.” Teresa shrugged, sprawling in the armchair.

“That’s the third time this week, isn’t it?”

Teresa thought for a moment. “Yes, it is. She’s been having a lousy time with this monster. And it’s driving me up the wall.”

There was a crash from the bathroom, followed by some fairly imaginative language. Martin smiled. “In a good mood, are we?”

Teresa refused to respond to the friendly tone. “I don’t know how long I can put up with this,” she said. “She’s either on or off. These days, mostly off. I’m tired of living with a human light bulb.”

Her friend shook his head sympathetically. “You’re two very different people,” he said. “Can’t do much about that except learn to live with it.”

“I’ve tried,” Teresa snapped. “But I don’t think she has. She puts everything into those machines – sometimes she gets so obsessed, it’s scary. She loses sight of anything else in the world. Including me.” She sank lower into the chair.

Martin raised an inquiring eyebrow. “Yes? So there is something else in this equation?”

Theresa thought about it a moment, then looked up and said, “Martin, can I tell you something in confidence?”

He assumed a dramatically injured expression. “My dear, I am the soul of discretion.” And then he dropped the attitude and smiled. “Don’t mind the BS. I really mean it. I won’t tell a soul.”

Teresa bit her lip for a moment, then said, “Well, a couple of weeks ago, Joy and I – well, we had been hanging out with some friends at the pub down the block and were both just in a really good mood, and when we came back, we, well…”

“You celebrated.”

Teresa nodded. “I don’t know. It was just really, really – well, good. I thought something had changed, that there was a new relationship. But the next morning, she got up and acted as though it were just another morning. That evening, she went back to her side, and I stayed on mine. And I’m too much of a coward to say anything, so we both pretend that nothing happened.”

Martin waited a few careful moments, and then cleared his throat. “I hate to suggest this, but perhaps we’re suffering from day-after regrets? Does the lady have illusions that she is straight?”

“The lady, as you call her, has no illusions whatsoever. She works on her computers. She works on her blog. She tweets, Google Pluses, and whatever else. She might talk to somebody on the phone if they insist, but a real human relationship? Not on her agenda.”

“My dear,” Martin said after a short pause, looking embarrassed, “I’m properly sympathetic to your emotional problems, but I actually came on a more selfish errand. Do you suppose Joy would do me a favor?”

Teresa took a deep breath, and tried to switch gears. “Probably. She’s liked you ever since I introduced you two.”

“Do you think that she’d let me put a small camera in one of her old computers? One of the desktops – say, that one?” He pointed.

“Why?” Teresa was interested in spite of herself – Martin’s projects were usually interesting.

Martin slowly levered himself off of the sofa, stretched, and wandered over to the computer he had pointed to, which lay open on Joy’s workbench. He stared into it.

“I’ve noticed that these old desktop computers – although why they call them desktops if they’re mostly kept on the floor, I’ve never understood – have all sorts of grills in their casings,” he said. “I began to wonder what light would do as it came through the casing at different times of the day. Do you suppose she’d let me put one of these things next to the window in my studio for a day or so?”

“I don’t see why not,” Teresa said.

“Brilliant.” Martin smiled. “I’ve gotten myself a few small cameras; I can set it up in one corner of the case and have it send video back to my laptop.” He picked up one of the chips that Joy had pulled out and examined it. “You know,” he said, revolving it delicately in his fingers, “this is still warm. How hot does that machine get?”

“Put that down,” Teresa said nervously. “Joy will have both our hides if you bend the legs.”

“The legs are already bent. At least, two of them are. See?” Martin walked back to the sofa and held the small black object out for Teresa’s inspection. When his friend refused to take it, he pulled it back and continued to examine it.

“It looks like a mechanical insect,” Martin said. “Do you know what they mean by a memory chip?”

Teresa shrugged. “Not my job.” “Well,” Martin said, still playing with the component, “a memory chip provides the machine with the intelligence it needs to do its work. The more memory each chip has – and the more chips in each machine, at least in these older ones – the more work the computer can do. All that digital potential, sparking along its messages….”

“So?”

Joy came barreling out of the bathroom, dressed in the same tee shirt and jeans she had been wearing before. She grabbed the smartphone, turned off the music (apparently not noticing that it was playing several decibels lower than before), tapped furiously at the device for a couple of minutes, stared at it for another five, and then tapped again, while Teresa and Martin watched in silence.

Finally, she put down the phone, muttered “Screw you,” at it, and took a breath.

“I take it,” Martin said genially, “that something has fallen through?”

“Hi, Martin,” she said. “Why are you playing with my equipment?” She walked over and put out her hand; he gave her the chip and she dropped it into her shirt pocket.

“Yeah, you might say that,” she continued. “This supposed friend of mine was going to do an art exhibit and wanted to use an old cheap computer to run the software, but he got a grant, and now he’s all iPads and Mac Airs.” She walked over to the old system and stared balefully at the machine. “Damn thing is so old, I can’t think of anyone who’d want it. I probably can’t even get rid of it on eBay.”

“Martin might be willing to buy it off you,” Teresa said, trying to keep her tone careless. “He wants to set up a tiny video camera inside a computer to see what happens to the lighting in there.”

“I think it would be a fascinating study,” Martin added. “And since you don’t seem to need it now…”

Joy considered the idea for a moment and then grinned, suddenly cheerful. “Sure, I don’t see why not. Tell you what. You put my name in the credits on any video you do, and we’ll call it even.”

She left the table and grabbed a denim jacket from the back of her chair. “I’ll load all the tech back in later. Just in case you want it actually working. With luck, it should chug along fine for a while if I change the chips. You can show your appreciation by paying for Chinese. I’m starved.”

Martin obediently pulled out his wallet. Joy shrugged her jacket on, walked over, and took it from him. “Teresa?” she asked, pulling some bills from the wallet, then replacing it in Martin’s still outstretched hand. “What do you want? The usual?”

Teresa grunted. “Why not? What else should I have?”

Joy cocked her head, puzzled. “Anything wrong?” she asked.

Teresa opened her mouth, reconsidered, and shrugged. “Nope. Just wanted…no, nothing. Be back soon.”

“Absolutely.” Joy stared at her roommate for a moment, as if there was something she was going to say. But instead she fished in her shirt pocket. “Here,” she said, handing the small chip to Teresa. “Could you put that next to the computer for me?” She swung out of the attic while Teresa watched, the small piece of metal warm in her hand.

“You know,” Martin said slowly. “I’ve got a friend says that most magic is simply a combination of belief and the proper concentration. Maybe Joy is performing a sort of magic with her computers. She’s concentrating so hard that she’s blocking out the rest of world. Including you. And maybe it’s up to you to break her concentration.”

“The hell with that,” Teresa said. “She’s not some medium staring into a crystal ball. She’s fiddling with motherboards and floppy drives, tech that nobody has used for years. And I’m starting to think that I should leave her alone with them. Find my own magic somewhere else.”

***

A week later, Teresa received a message from Martin on her voicemail asking for “just a moment of your time for a rather interesting bit of video.” Since she had just delivered her latest project (three large wreaths made up of a variety of dried herbs), and Joy was spending the day ordering new systems online (a process that usually involved a great deal of yelling at her display), Teresa was only too glad for an excuse to get out of the loft.

After emerging from the subway, she stopped at a local bodega for a six-pack of beer, and took her time strolling through the mixed crowds of kids, tourists, and locals that permeated the city streets until she finally found herself on Martin’s block..

Teresa always felt a quiver of envy when she visited Martin’s place. Once he had bought the Lower East Side tenement, Martin immediately began hiring his friends to decorate his living space. As a result, he had one of the more interesting decors in New York.

The outside of the building’s otherwise undistinguished brick facade was covered with bright, fake 1950s-era advertisements while strange abstract plaster sculptures dripped from each window. (Some of the local gentrifiers had tried to sic the city on him, accusing him of marring an historic facade, but Martin had access to some really good lawyers.)

Teresa was buzzed into the front hallway with the first few bars of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” (Martin had recently entered an Andrews Sisters kick). The inside stairs had a banister carved into the shape of a long, grinning snake, while the walls were covered in bright African patterns. On the second floor landing, just outside the entrance to Martin’s apartment, a small shelf held a bonsai tree that one of Teresa ‘s clients had ordered before his bank laid him off. Martin had paid Teresa enough for it to take care of three month’s rent.

When she got to the third floor, the front door was open. The place was a study in clutter: statues, paintings, books, photographic supplies, and a variety of small unclassifiable objects were crowded onto acres of shelves, scattered on a variety of tables, and piled on the floor. A narrow path led eventually to the bedroom that Martin had set aside as his studio. The door was closed; Teresa knocked, and entered.

The studio, unlike the rest of the apartment, was clean of both dust and decoration. The stark landscape of white walls and polished floors was interrupted only by the video equipment, including an expensive computer system, carefully arranged in one corner along with a few chairs. A small door near the back led to a darkroom (Martin still liked playing with film cameras occasionally).

Martin was leaning over Joy’s old PC, which was propped precariously on a small folding table next to one of the windows. Teresa headed for a chair.

“Hey, Martin,” Teresa said, placing the six-pack on the floor. “What’s going on? Anything wrong?”

“Nothing’s necessarily wrong,” Martin said. “Just a bit weird, at present.” He sighed, and abandoned the computer. “You have a moment, Teresa?”

“Sure.” Teresa opened two of the bottles and held one out. “You have something interesting?”

“You might call it that,” Martin said. He accepted the beer, and went to his equipment setup. “I want you to watch something for me, and confirm that I haven’t completely lost my mind.”

He fiddled around with his equipment while Teresa watched. She wasn’t terribly alarmed; Martin tended to be theatrical. “Watch,” Martin said finally, and pointed to a large flat-screen monitor.

Teresa stared at the display: it showed what looked like a small city of rectangular buildings on a jagged frontier. “That’s weird looking,” she said. “Is that what’s inside Joy’s computer? Looks crowded.”

“That’s not important,” Martin said, a bit impatiently. “Watch the footage.”

He clicked on Play and waited, motionless. “I’ve got this at fairly high speed. Each minute will actually be about half an hour of real time; it covers about ten hours, from just before sunrise to just after sunset. Now watch carefully.”

Teresa sat patiently and watched as bars of light made their way across the landscape of wires and chips, the shadows shifting and changing. It was pretty in an abstract sort of way, she decided.

After 15 minutes of concentrated viewing, Teresa’s eyes started to tear. “That’s interesting,” she told Martin. “I mean…”

“‘Interesting’ is not the word,” Martin said vehemently. “Did you see the movement?”

“Of the shadows? Of course,” Teresa said. “It resembles a cityscape….”

“I don’t care if it resembles Timbuktu,” the photographer said explosively. “Did you see the movement?”

Teresa stared at him uneasily. “No, I didn’t. What are you talking about?”

“Wait.” Martin busied himself with the controls of the machine for a few moments, then turned. “Okay, let’s try again. I’ve slowed this down considerably, to where it’s about real time. Watch the system board.”

“The what?”

“The bottom of the screen. The floor of your bloody city!”

“Okay, okay, I’m watching.” Teresa leaned forward and stared at the monitor intently.

This time, the light (which appeared to be low on the “horizon”) didn’t seem to move, and for a long couple of minutes, Teresa felt as if she were watching a still life. Then something caught her attention.

“I see it!” she yelled, a schoolgirl who had suddenly gotten the right answer. “A couple of those flat things – the chips – have worked themselves loose.”

Martin nodded, satisfied. “That’s right. But did you see them move?”

“Of course.” Then Teresa thought for a moment. “No, actually, I’m not sure. They did move, though – because they were in when you started. I think. Weren’t they?”

Martin bent to the keyboard again. “They were,” he said. His voice shook slightly. “The first time I ran the sequence, I thought that the chips had popped when I installed the camera, so I went back to the beginning and checked.”

“And?” Teresa prompted.

“And they were firmly seated. Somewhere along the line, they just popped out of the machine.”

“That’s what Joy said.” Teresa sat back and took a long pull at her beer. “She told me later that the rows of sockets in the board were probably placed just a hair too close, so that the chips were eventually forced up.”

“Sounds reasonable.” Martin finished his adjustments. “Incidentally, how are you and Joy doing these days?”

“Not good. She works on her computers, I work on my trees, and we try to stay out of each other’s way.” Teresa stared at her bottle morosely. “I’ve had it. As soon as I can find a new space, I’m gone.”

Martin stared at her. “You knew what she was like when you moved in with her. You didn’t seem to mind then. And you told me that you were ecstatic after the night you had your romantic tryst.”

“Well, I mind now.” Teresa shrugged. “Joy may be able to live with the occasional one-nighter, and pretending that we’re just roommates the rest of the time, but I can’t do that. I can’t just be a fuck buddy. It’s not me. I’d rather get out of the whole thing completely.”

Martin considered this for a moment, then tapped at the keyboard again. “I’ve raised the speed again,” he told Teresa. “Now watch. Carefully.”

Teresa watched, drumming her fingernails lightly on the beer bottle. Nothing moved. After a few minutes, she put the beer down. “Listen, Martin, all this is really interesting, but…”

Martin stopped the playback. “Teresa, remember I told you that the chips in a computer look like insects? I think I was wrong. Or, rather, I think I didn’t take the comparison far enough. These chips aren’t insects. They’re symbionts.”

Teresa looked at her friend. “What are you talking about, Martin? These are chips. Pieces of metal. Stuff that you put in a machine to make it go.”

Martin shook his head. “A symbiont both takes from and gives to its host. The two live in a sort of harmony. This tiny chip provides Joy’s computer with the memory it needs to perform its functions. To allow the computer to do what Joy asks it to.”

“And what does the chip get from that?” Teresa snorted. “A good solid jolt of electricity?”

“Perhaps. Perhaps it absorbs more than simple electricity. Joy spends a lot of time with these things – programming them, fixing them, tweaking them. Playing with them. Cursing at them. Giving to them. Even feeding them…”

This was getting too weird. “Feeding them what? You think she pricks her finger, lets them drink some of her blood? It’s a vampire computer?” Teresa forced herself to grin, trying to bring things back down to a comfortable reality.

“Feeding them her own brand of electricity. Her intensity. Her feelings, if you want to put it that way.”

“Oh, forget it.” Teresa stood. “I’m going. Joy doesn’t have enough feelings to feed your electronic insects. Not for them, and not for me.”

Martin leaned forward. “Never mind. Sit down, Teresa. Let me play the clip. It’s been sped up to about three times what it was before. Just watch the screen. Watch the two chips. Tell me what you see.”

Teresa paused for a moment and then sighed and sat. Watched. And then leaned forward, squinting toward the screen, her breath caught in her throat.

Slowly, delicately, like figures in a dance, the chips began swaying, first to one side, then the other, until they had each worked themselves partially free from the board. They paused. And then each stretched two fragile pins longingly toward the other.

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About the Author

Barbara Krasnoff divides her time between writing short speculative fiction and editing tech as Senior Reviews Editor for Computerworld. She’s published stories in over 25 publications, including (most recently) Voluted Dreams, Clockwork Phoenix 4, Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction and Cosmos Magazine; a story is also slated for an upcoming issue of Space and Time. She is currently working on an mosaic novel that follows two Jewish families from pre-World War II Europe to the wonders of the far future.

Barbara is a member of the NYC writers group Tabula Rasa, and lives in Brooklyn, NY with her partner Jim Freund and a variety of toy penguins. Her Web site can be found at BrooklynWriter.com.

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