Sentience – Part Two
“The stone talked to me again last night.” Judith was making a pot of coffee at the kitchen counter. Three weeks since they created a philosopher’s stone and the kitchen still smelled like chemicals. Sam was sitting at the table staring at the stone intently, his brow furrowed and his eyes narrowed to slits.
“The stone can’t talk, Judith. Frankly by this point I’m not sure what it can do other than purify water.” He picked it up. “The properties of the stone are bizarre. It’s denser than lead but only two inches long. It’s blacker than obsidian but has a gold sheen when light hits it at certain angles. There’s something mystical about this rock, but I don’t know what.” He put it down and looked at Judith. “All that I know is that we’re gonna be rich once we figure out what’s so special about this thing.”
Judith turned, leaning on the counter. “I swear it talked to me. And when I was in the living room last night I saw flashes of light coming from the kitchen.” She folded her arms. “It knows when we’re observing it.”
Sam rubbed his eyes. “It’s a rock, Judith. It doesn’t even know if it’s cold or hot. It’s weird that it can turn almost any liquid into pure water but there has to be something else.” He bent down and examined it. “How do you think you would use it to turn lead into gold? Do you just rub the two together? Or do you have to melt the lead into a liquid and drop it in?”
Judith sat down. “It’s more important to think of this as an opportunity for knowledge, not just a way to get rich.”
For a long time they looked at the stone in silence, contemplating the possibilities. There was a hunger in their eyes. But where Sam’s eyes were wild and ravenous, Judith’s eyes sparkled, brimming with curiosity.
There was nothing about the stone that went beyond the boundaries of science. Everything was explainable by the laws of physics or the theories of quantum physics. Judith and Sam wanted the unexplainable. They were searching for magic.
She was alone in the kitchen, watching the stone, waiting for something magical. But nothing happened. Maybe the philosopher’s stone was just a stone after all. She got up and walked out, stopping briefly to turn on the camera, just in case.
Morning brought strife, not coffee. “There. Did you see it?” Judith was pointing at the television. Sam’s arms were crossed and his mouth was drawn in a tight line. He sat of the sofa saying nothing. “Hold on, I’ll rewind it.” She played the footage again and turned. 15 seconds in. The stone moves. It turns into a liquid and ripples for a split second.”
He rubbed his eyes. “I didn’t see anything, Jude.” He sat up and crossed his arms. “And to be perfectly honest, I don’t really care if it turns into a liquid or knows when we’re watching it.” He stood up. “I just want to wring it for all it’s worth. Maybe finally move out of this fucking cottage.”
Judith grimaced. “That’s not why I became a chemist.”
Sam threw up his hands. “Well that’s good for you then isn’t it.”
She pointed at the screen again. “I think it’s testing its own abilities. It doesn’t know what it’s capable of so it’s playing.” She was tense. “It’s like a kid.”
“It’s a rock Jude.” He gestured wildly at the television. “Barely anything more than a lump of coal and the only thing we need to do is figure out how to squeeze a diamond out of it.” He rubbed his eyes and groaned. “Maybe there’s something in one of John Dee’s books that talks more about the properties of the stone.” He stood up. “I’m going into my office to do more research.” He stopped briefly at the door before stomping away and slamming the door.
Judith rewound the tape again and watched the hint of a ripple again and again. The house was silent and cold. “What are you?” Her whisper boomed in the stillness, interrupted by a wordless murmur that came from the kitchen.
“Okay. Immerse the stone in the iodine sulfur mix while I finish painting the last mark on the circle.” Sam dipped a paintbrush into a pot of black ink and painted a Hebrew character on the kitchen table. Judith slowly and carefully submerged the stone into a beaker filled with iodine and sulfur. Sam retreated to the kitchen counter and consulted a cracked leather book. “All that’s left now is to wait for the solution to boil.” He sat down at the table, watching the beaker in the center. There was no burner.
After a long time the ink moved. It slid across the table until it settled in a pool underneath the beaker where it bubbled and steamed for a moment before floating through the air and settling on the bottom of the beaker.
Almost immediately the solution bubbled and frothed. It boiled over the top of the beaker, running down the sides in thick strands of foam. After another minute passed the boiling stopped and the beaker was nearly empty. The ink on the underside dripped off in thick, gooey strings.
Sam peered into the beaker. The philosopher’s stone was undisturbed. But the remaining solution was hard, flaky, and yellow. Cautiously he picked up the beaker and turned it over, letting the stone and the yellow substance fall to the table. He separated the two and examined the new substance closely.
“Judith, I think this is gold.”
Judith leaned over. “No way, it worked?” She picked up the yellow lump. It was heavy in her hand and it certainly looked like gold. It almost seemed brighter somehow. There was a tingling energy that felt like a low voltage of electricity rushing through her fingers. Her mind buzzed with curiosity. What else could this stone be capable of?
As she gazed at the stone there was a wordless language she could almost understand humming through her head. There was something about the stone that went beyond money. What Judith saw on the kitchen table was magic. Magic wasn’t supposed to be real, and yet here it was. All that Sam cared about was wealth. He was saying something but his voice was muffled, as though he was talking from behind a heavy velvet curtain. But what did that matter in the face of something like this? The strange wordless language was pulsing through her mind, hypnotizing her. She knew she would be able to understand it if she could get away. Take the stone and study it the way it was meant to be studied. The meaning behind the thrumming in her head was on the tip of her tongue, but she was shaken awake by the slamming door. She looked around the kitchen. Sam was gone.
“What we did to the stone is like smashing open your third eye with a crowbar.” She held the stone in a closed fist, standing at the door to the kitchen, watching Sam working on the new setup. He was shifting a massive cauldron into the center of a huge mandala. “It’s like a three year old who suddenly knows everything. They wouldn’t know what to do with all that knowledge and neither does the stone.”
Sam stood up grimacing. “I don’t want to hear it. The stone is not alive.” He grabbed a pot of paint and a brush from the kitchen counter and started painting characters in Hebrew and Arabic around the edge of the mandala. “I have to get my book.” He threw the paint pot and his brush into the sink, splattering paint across the counter and the windows. And then it was just Judith and the stone, looking out over the elaborate painting on the floor. She opened her hand and looked at the stone. It started shifting colors, from black to dark blue to shimmery gold to dark red and back to black. It rippled and turned into liquid and rolled around the bowl of her hand before solidifying and sitting still.
Here in this kitchen she would never understand the nature of the philosopher’s stone in her hand. Sam’s obsession, as it always did, was getting in her way. She closed her hand and walked out.
From the hill behind her house she watched Sam storming through. Books flew through the air and she could just barely hear him screaming. The stone was right. Sam’s greed corrupted him and everything he touched. She could hear the crashing whenever he threw something, see the sparkles when he broke a window. A tear rolled down her cheek. She put the stone in her pocket and walked away.
Photograph by Olia Gozha