Halloween is not a universal instinct. It is a learned behavior practiced by a specific human community at a particular time in their history. Therefor, it is not worthy of discussion.
"Mr. Grumbles, make a fire," said the raven perched on a troll's shoulder. His name was General Graa.1
"I will skewer snacks for roasting," said the giant spider, whom we shall call Hostess.
"Let me gather rocks to heat for a mud-bath," said the bug-eyed monster, Twine.
"A lovely idea," said Digeridoo the sea-beast. "I'll dig out a wallow for us."
And the killer space-robot spoke thoughtfully, his communication laser-fire rendered into comprehensible sound by the translator bugs hovering by or clinging to each of the gathered friends. "A fire." The robot's name was Arch-Beacon Clay. "I appreciate the symbolism. Graa, I will help you with a well-chosen word."
Graa understood what Clay was about to do and pecked his hairy steed in the cheek. "Mr. Grumbles, full retreat!"
The domesticated Homo erectus stumbled back from the pile of kindling just in time to avoid the burning light that blazed forth from Clay.
"Fire!" communicated Clay, and there was fire.
It was fall in the Zogreion. Specifically, in the nature reserve north and west of the city. Here, Twine's species had not converted the land into artificial mangrove swamp, but left it as a forest.
The trees had turned dark and glassy as their leaves withdrew into their trunks, and unharvested reproductive netting littered the ground with orange tangles and curds. Quad-wing fliers called to each other as they soared south. A distant aircraft glowed pink with the light of a sun hidden behind the rim of this version of earth.
The five friends had no reason to gather and talk, and that was exactly why they enjoyed it. Tonight they would not have to negotiate or charm. They could relax, set aside diplomacy and trade, and speak of more important things.
"Have any of you seen the most recent broadcast of Heavy Bombardment?" asked Digeridoo.
Graa nibbled on his steed's ear as he added more wood to the fire. "Is that the prequel series? My secretaries won't stop talking about it."
"Yes!" squealed Twine around the rock in her mouth. "Are your secretaries Team Ceres or Team Eris? I'm Team Eris all the way. Woo! Boost that ice! Right?"
"Right!" Under the mobile web of Hostess the spider, puppets dangled. One of them was shaped like Twine.2 Hostess manipulated this puppet, saying "Scatter those tholins!"
With a bird-shaped puppet, however, she whispered an aside to Graa. "It's not as good as the original series, but I feel I have to keep up with it so I have something to talk to people about."
Arch-beacon Clay sadly flickered his lasers. "I stopped watching Tensor fiction broadcasts a long time ago. It is as if the writers have never talked to a real person. It is as if they have lost their grip on meaning."
"They are not paid to grip meaning," said Graa. "The show's writers are paid to extrude stories that the audience enjoys."
"Yes." Digeridoo spoke out of the hole he was excavating in the forest floor. "You're overthinking, Clay. Just lie back and let the show wash over you. It doesn't have to make sense. It's just fun."
"Don't you want something deeper?" asked Clay.
Digeridoo stopped digging, closed his eyes and nostrils, and hugged himself with all four flippers. "No. There are things swimming in deep places."
"Don't scare him," chided Hostess.
Graa stretched his neck and raised his wings. "Belay that order!"
Clay played lidar up and down Graa's feathered body. "You mean I should scare Digeridoo?"
"Yes!" Graa paced back and forth across his steed's padded shoulder. "Fear is precisely the reason I invited you to this campfire gathering at the tipping point of autumn."
"I thought you invited us so that we could roast treats over the fire," said Hostess. She manipulated threads, and clockwork arms hammered skewers of food into the ground.
"Treats are only my secondary goal," said Graa.
Digeridoo upended his tank of camping water into the hole he'd made. "You had an ulterior motive," he accused. "A trick!"
Graa's throat-feathers bristled in smugness. "Now tell me: what scares you?"
Silence around the campfire. Night creatures pipped to each others. Migrating fliers cried. The friends considered whether they were friendly enough to talk about this sort of thing.
"I will lead the attack!" Graa crowed. "Now hear this! I am scared of food. I command you to imagine it!"
Hostess visibly obeyed, releasing ratchets and tugging threads in her complex web to trigger memories and run simulations. The others just sat there, brains presumably working. Digeridoo closed his eyes.
"You're perched above the carcass," said Graa. "You are entranced by the pattern of its blood on the snow. Vapors still rise from it. The meat is fresh! But this means that whatever killed the meat will still be near."
As he talked, Graa lost his dominant posture. His feathers smoothed down and he tucked his wings tight to his sides. His voice took on the harsh qworks and triple-raks of fear.
"If I stoop upon the meat, what will stoop upon me? How dare I? How dare I eat?" Graa huddled on his steed's shoulder. The domesticated Homo erectus whined and put his hand around his rider.
Hostess shook her legs, rattling all four of her puppets. "Thank you for that tasty offering. I'll offer you my fear next: I'm scared that I'm not attractive."
"Oh no, don't say that," said Twine. She rolled her rock, now heated, from the fire toward Digeridoo's mud bath. "You're very attractive."
The rock went kshh and Digeridoo snorted in appreciation.
"Thank you." The spider manipulated her puppets to give the various species' equivalents of appreciative bows. "You have all joined me for a meal, and I am grateful. But what about next time? Or the time after that? Every day I grasp my web and take up my puppets and wait for guests to come. I do my best to appeal to the widest range. I craft the most convincing decoys I can. But some days, my number of guests falls. What if it falls to zero? Someday it must, and what will I do when I have no one to mimic? Alone, who will I be?"
"Interesting that your fear is loneliness," said Graa, who had calmed himself and his steed. "I would have thought you would be more afraid of being eaten by birds."
Hostess twitched a leg, and one of her puppets flapped papier-mâché wings. "I have better ways to feed birds, my friend. Would you like a roasted fruit or a heated strip of meat?"
Graa flapped down to grab both and cached them away where no-one else could see. "Who's next?"
Twine twitched her single eye and raised her mouth above the mud-bath to chitter. "I am scared of staying huddled in my hive. Seeing the same clone-sisters every day, speaking about nothing that everyone does not already know. Forgetting the cold outside. And when the cold comes inside, I will not know how to fight it."
Lasers sparkled from the anti-gravity cylinder that housed Arch-beacon Clay. "You and I are two ends of a tether, Twine. You fear falling in toward the heat, but I fear flying outward into the cold. Will I be unable to tolerate others? Will I throw away all my bindings and tumble, alone forever?"
Hostess scuttled across her web and spun a symbolic thread linking it to Clay's cylinder.
"Thank you," said the space-robot.
"I wish I could feed you," said the spider.
Clay spun himself, sparkling in his anti-gravity vacuum cylinder. "I absorb some energy from the fire, but what you give me is something better."
"It's gotten dark," said Digeridoo, who was uncomfortable with emotional vulnerability.
"That's the whole point of a campfire," said Twine. "We create a warm brightness to form the heart of a little hive, safe from the cold outer darkness."
"Safe," said Hostess. "Exactly."
Graa growled. "And yet there are treasures in the darkness, aren't there? To grab them, we must ride out. We must follow our fear, as if led by the pole."
Clay understood, but those species without a magnetic sense required a little more clarification.
"You think we should be led by our fear?" said Digeridoo. "Find things that scare you and then do them? That sounds foolish and dangerous. And I don't like all these metaphors."
Twine vibrated her eyeball. "What danger? We are sophonts! We habitually leap between universes. We fear no predators. No starvation."
"That's evidence in favor my argument," said Digeridoo. He was a bit hurt at Twine's aggressive tone. Hadn't he dug out all this nice mud for her? "We do not need to venture from our burrows in order to find food. We can stay safe, and let what we need come to us."
"I confess I do like that idea," said Hostess the spider.
Graa gave a kek kek kek call of frustration. "There the food lies, steaming in the snow below you. You hunger, you rage, you fear the glint of eyes in the darkness: predation. But you should also fear the rush of many wings coming up behind: starvation."
"Metaphors again!" Digeridoo snorted. "Do I have to re-tune my translator?"
Clay extended robot claws from his spherical shell. "You mean if you do not overcome your fear and snatch your prize, other people will steal it."
"Exactly," said Graa.
"You speak like someone who doesn't trust your neighbors," said Twine.
"Yes. How many of us are killed by predators or natural disaster? How many of us are killed by each other? Why did we evolve intelligence in the first place. Not to outsmart hawks or blizzards, but to outsmart other sophonts."
"You mean," said Hostess, "that we are our own monsters."
"Yes!" Graa spread his tail, feathers on his legs and heads fluffy with dominance. "I win this conversation!"
Clay spoke in a low-wattage murmur. "And yet you are the one who invited us here."
Graa's feathers slimmed back down. "When the idea caught my eye, at first I blinked. My pride raised its wings, but behind those wings was fear. I recognized the fear, and oriented myself against it. I rode out to this campground, and I perch now before people not of my species. That is what a brave bird does."
Twine's puppet bird gave the equivalent of applause while Clay aimed a laser at Digeridoo.
"You accepted the invitation as well."
"The queen says I need to get out more," grunted sea-beast.
"They are expanding the burrow," explained Twine. "Digeridoo's colony needs money, as does my hive. This is
why we network."
"Ah," sighed the spider. "Networking."
"I was most surprised of all to find you here, Hostess" Clay confessed. "Isn't it very difficult for you to travel from your restaurant?"
Hostess moved her space-robot puppet in the equivalent of a nod. There was even a little electric light that flashed like a laser.
"There is always a moment of terror when my web moves," she said. "Digeridoo might feel the same way flying, or Graa trapped in a watery burrow. Or in free fall..." She flashed her electric light again. "Clay, do you feel that terror when you look down, and see the ground does not move beneath you?"
"I confess that I do."
"And yet you're here with us."
"And you've been to space."
"Oh," said Digeridoo. "Space. I remember. Yes, that trip was terrifying, but nothing I've seen was more beautiful."
Graa made a kek kek sound. "Alright! I accept your challenge! Next time, we can meet in a burrow."
1 The troll's name was Mr. Grumbles.
2 A one-eyed vacuum-cleaner with legs.
This story was originally published on Royal Road
The taser fits right in my hand: light as a pack of cigarettes and cool as a sleeping beetle.
“Press the button,” says the man from the future.
I press it and the taser spits a fat blue spark. Pigeons flee over the bazaar at Future Pier and I laugh out loud.
It’s the spring of 1930, with grass blades peeking out of the mud and the kind of Chicago air that you might like to swim up into.
“Rudolf’ll be sore when he finds us,” Billy frets.
I give my little brother a pat on his cap and glance around the bazaar for signs of the approach of any son of a meat-magnate. “You let me handle Rudolf, kid.”
“And he’ll tell Mother.”
“I’ll handle Mother too.”
Billy gives me a dubious look.
“I will,” I tell him.
In fact what I intend is avoiding Mother entirely during the Preunion party. Afterward I’ll escape her house and go frolic at liberty through the seedy underbelly of Chicago. When I return home safely on the day after tomorrow, Mother will be so impressed at my foresight and self-reliance, she’ll have no choice but to cut the apron strings.
Billy isn’t done whining. “I don’t like that dingus, Ruth. Who do you need to give the electric cure, anyhow? You could knock somebody up with that thing.”
“Um,” says the man from the future. “What. No?”
“He means kill someone,” I translate.
“Oh. Naw. Hurts like fuck, though.” The man grins at our expressions. “That’s the way we talk where I come from, kids.”
The salesman’s fresh complexion and the zipper on his cardigan make him look like a kid himself. And not a rich one, judging by the blue canvas pants with the rips across their knees. He doesn’t act like a street urchin, though. He acts like a grifter.
“Now,” says the man from the future, “if you guys do want to kill somebody, I stock a little magic trick that’ll be illegal as soon as your government finds out about it…”
Billy grimaces as if someone has snuck a slingshot onto the school yard. “You can’t sell deadly weapons to girls.”
“What? Where’s the girl?” The salesman squints at me. “He mean you? You told me you were 19.”
“You bet I did,” I say. “And I was on the up and up.”
The man from the future scowls. “Shit, you Up-timers. Learn to speak modern English.”
That comes out “learn-na speak marrern Ing-lish.” Some kind of English this mug speaks.
“I’ll take the taser,” I enunciate clearly, “if you would be so kind as to sell it to me, sir.”
The grifter’s shoulders move. “That’ll be 5 dollars.”
Billy whistles. “You could eat out for a week on that.”
I pat my coat’s pockets. We’re both dressed for the party with our up-time relatives, me in my cloche hat and evening dress under the coat that’s almost too heavy the weather, Billy in a more fashionable cap and cardigan. The knee-socks spoil the look, though.
“Why do you want that taser dingus anyhow?” he whines.
“Why, to grill five sacks of hamburgers,” I say, “with onions and pickles. What do you think I need it for?” I find my roll of cash, peel off a bill, and hand it to the grifter.
“Awesome,” he says. “Anything else I can interest you in? If you’re into personal defense, I’ve got mace, keychain weapons, Swiss army knives…”
I don’t see any maces or chains. Or the Swiss army, neither, but before I can ask for clarification, Billy tugs on my sleeve.
“Don’t run away, Ruth.”
I sigh. Billy found out about my run-away plan this morning, when he saw that roll of cash.
“I’ll only be gone for a night or two,” I tell him. “And dummy up about it.”
“What’s the point if you’ll only be gone a day?”
“You want me to stay away forever? And I said dummy up.”
Billy’s voice drops to an agonized whisper. “But Mother says the streets full of down-time disintegrators and ray-guns getting sold to malcontents and agitators.”
I hold up the taser. “Maybe I’m looking forward to doing some agitating of my own, hey?”
I put the taser down, though, and wipe the smile off my face, when I see Rudolf.
“Ruth,” my suitor slips through the crowd with the determination of a spawning trout. The face of one, too. “Billy. There you are.”
“Rudolf.” I mutter the down-time merchant’s vulgar word and stuff the cash and the taser into my pockets. “There you are. Because we have also been looking for you.”
Rudolf stares me in the eye and smiles with his lower lip. Maybe he’s trying to tell me something with that look he’s giving me, or maybe it’s just gas. It’s hard to tell with him.
Rudolf Bleirer is the son of a baron of sausages, and has spent the fall and winter asked me to marry him on a more or less weakly schedule. I would be more flattered at his persistence if it weren’t so clear that he’s only after my family’s political influence.
Since, for her part, Mother is only interested in his family’s money, she guesses it’s a match made in heaven. She’s the one who told Rudolf to help me fetch party guests from Future Pier, maybe hoping the task would require the boy to demonstrate his marriageable qualities.
“We’re to meet our guests over there, hey?” I point down the peir and Rudolf’s eyes track the movement as if he’s about to flick out his tongue and swallow my hand.
“Yeah,” says Billy, “let’s blouse. I want to meet my future self.”
The salesman shakes his head, mutters something about blouses, and turns to fleece some other natives of 1930.
The time trains arrived just after Black Tuesday, and they saved us. Investors and humanitarians from the 22nd century dumped cash on the banks, stopped the trusts from crashing any further, and gave us the knowledge and technology to transform our world and rewrite our old destiny.
Their “railroad” sits within a circular, concrete platform at the end of Future Pier. It’s a cage composed of pipes that might be porcelain, except they glimmer with soap-bubble colors. No matter where you stand, the opposite side of the cage seems to vanish off into the distance.
“I can’t wait to meet my future self,” says Billy while I peer into the depths of time and potential.
“From what I understand, the people from down time are only what we might become,” corrects Rudolf, the tedious bore. “It is better to consider them as coming from another country.”
Sure. Another country. A country whose books contain between 45 and 203 years of extra history. There is some confusion about what the future people are doing here, since nothing they do in our version of 1930 will change anything about their own past. Mother says it’s something to do with tax-free import and export.
Rudolf takes out a cigarette and lights it. “Want one?” he asks.
“No thanks,” I say, looking past him at a row of bill-boards filled with futurese gibberish. “Bao’an’s multi-UI-e-cigarettes! Personal Maglev Packs! S. electrogenisis cultures Utility fog! Now in a can!”
“Would you like to buy something from the bazaar?” Asks Rudolf, bland as a butter sandwich.
I look sidewise at him. “No,” I say. “I didn’t come here to shop.”
Rudolf seems to accept that. He either doesn’t know I’m playing him, or else he just doesn’t care. “Your coat and hat are quite fine.”
The coat with the money and the weapon. I don’t know whether that remark was meant to be ominous, polite, or only dull. They all sound the same, coming out of Rudolf.
“It’s my driving outfit,” I answer.
Rudolf’s eyes go unfocused as he considers my response. “And where is your chauffeur?”
“I drove here myself,” I say. Over Mother’s objections, but she was too busy with preunion preparations to really stop me. It’s another reason why today is an excellent day to go camp out in Chicago. After I meet my future relatives, of course. A girl’s got her curiosity.
“You like to drive?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say from the depths of boredom and despair.
“Ah,” he says, staring at me. “Very good.”
My sanity is preserved by a violation of space and time. The soapy white cage emits a gong sound and a blast of cold air. Rainbow light shines through mist that wasn’t there a moment ago and my sense of down tips giddily outward. I stumble, and when I look up, the mist is parting over the smooth snout of a time train’s engine.
Another gong sound, and an oddly-accented voice speaks out of nowhere. “The Centuries Unlimited, now arriving at Black Station.”
The porcelain cage is only about five yards wide, but somehow the whole train fits inside, its silvery length tapering off to some distance you can’t properly call “up” or “down” or even “away.” “Thence,” I suppose.
From just this side of thence-ward, then, passengers begin to disembark.
I put my hand on Billy’s shoulder. “Would you look at that? Wouldn’t it be grand to take a ride on one of those things?”
Billy isn’t listening to me. He’s scanning the faces of passengers. “Hey,” he says, and stands up on his tip-toes to wave. “I think that’s me!”
I expected Billy’s downtime doppelganger to look like my father, but the man who walks up to us is older than my father. This “William” is like an uncle I never had: a pouchy, balding fellow in a funny green and red uniform. He looks tired, but that may just be from the train ride. I wonder how long it took? How many hours are there between 1930 and the 1960s?
“Ruth,” William’s eyes go wide when he sees me. “How young you are. You’re just a girl.” He stands there, staring at me as if either I’m made of glass or he is.
I put out my free hand and yell, “Shake, sit, roll over!”
Billy laughs at the familiar joke, and William’s eyes go misty at a memory decades behind him. He grasps my hand and squeezes. He’s real, all right, a man from the 1960s with a grip as doughy as an accountant’s.
“I’m glad,” William swallows. “I’m so glad to see you again, Ruth. And looking so well. So happy.”
“Happy to meet you, hey.” I say, a bit up in the air. Are those tears in his eyes?
“Is that…” William squints past me, “Rudolf? Rudolf Bleirer?” He looks from the meat magnate’s son to me
and his expression goes from joyfully sad to shocked and mad. “What is he doing here, Ruth?”
Billy gasps at the rudeness of his older self, but Rudolf just blinks.
I guess that leaves me to answer the question. “Rudolf’s here to fetch the other guests,” I say. “He brought his own car.”
“Then I’ll ride with you.” William turns away from Rudolf and winks at Billy. “I’d like to be beside myself.”
Billy giggles and everyone relaxes but me. I’m wondering what happened – will happen? Is fated to happen? – between my little brother and the man Mother wants me to marry. I pat the taser in my pocket and decide not to worry.
“Ah,” says William after a Rudolf-less walk back down Future Pier and through the bazaar. “Our good old Imperial Landau.”
“Imperial” is the right word for it. The car is slow, safe, and eye-wateringly ostentatious. You can see why Mother would like it. Me, though, I want a Duesenberg. Something that flies.
“Hello there, old boy.” William runs his fingertips down the Landau’s hood and smiles sadly at me. “I remember you used to love driving this thing.”
“I still love to drive it.” I glare at Billy, who’s giggling again. “And I’m good at it, too.”
William squints at me before memory dawns. “Oh, that’s right. Our first joyride was in ’29, wasn’t it?” He taps the scratch on the Landau’s right front fender. “It was not to be our last encounter with Mrs. Allais’ mailbox, either.” His avuncular chuckle joins the merriment already underway from Billy. “I remember you told me you’d been driving before, but that was your first time, wasn’t it?”
You’d been driving? The fate of our language was worse than I thought.
I sniff. “I read books on driving.” I unlock the driver’s side door. “And anyhow I’m much better at it now than back in the fall.”
Billy gets into the car. “This is screwy,” he says. “We both remember Mrs. Allais’ mailbox, but you don’t remember this meeting we have today?”
“Your life departed from canonical history the day the time trains came.” William says, and slides in after Billy. “I grew up, went to war, and had all sorts of trouble before I married. Trouble I trust you will avoid.”
Billy quizzes William about his wife and children as the Landau wallows out of its parking spot. I feel like I’m piloting the like the imperial barque of a pharaoh.
“My sons might already be at the house,” says William. “They and the counterparts of my grandchildren from the stations down time from mine: Denise and Old Denise and Very Old Denise…” Another chuckle. “And the Cheryls. Oh my. What characters they are. What characters.”
I picture the time trains and their rail system, with stations at every generation between now and 2132. “How about people from the end of the line?” I ask.
“The Present, you mean? Yes,” says William. “I believe both Very Very Old Kisha and Emulated Gavrail have sent in their RSVPs.”
“Funny names they have down in the future,” says Billy.
“My boy, you don’t know the half of it,” says William. “Not the half of it.”
I focus on steering this land-yacht. There’s a certain type who lets this sort of “canonical history” get to him. The kind of guy who digs into what would have happened if the time trains had never come: the Great Depression, World War Two, and all. I think it’s a morbid and pointless obsession. Whatever happens, now that we’ve got a pipeline to the future, it’ll be a lot stranger than any old war.
We sail in stately sloth through the bazaar and into the city proper. Ranks of windows line the gray faces of skyscrapers. Cars run up and down boulevards as wide as all our possibilities. The wind reaches in through the open window and plays with my hair as I press on the accelerator.
“How different your Chicago is from mine,” says William. “So much smaller! But, I think, more hopeful?”
“Who cares about the dumb old city?” says Billy. “What will my kids be like?”
William harrumphs. “In fact, we don’t know anything about your potential children, Billy, as I’ve been saying.”
“I mean your kids.”
“Ah. Elmo and Ignacio, you mean. Why, they became members of the government of the Nuclear Commons. That’s my country.”
“The Nucle-what? That’s not a real country,” says Billy.
“well, for me, the time trains arrived in 1962. That was five years ago, and a great deal has changed since then,” says William.
William tells Billy about “force shields,” and “the power of the atom,” and “the value of labor,” but I care less about the politics of William’s 1960s station than the people I can see here on the streets of Chicago, doing their business and living their lives. Enjoying their freedom.
The traffic tugs me as if I were swimming in a river before it becomes a waterfall. Not that I’ve ever swum in a river, or even seen a waterfall. All the more reason to fling myself into this one.
“It’s my turn now,” I say.
“Beg pardon?” asks William.
“I mean,” I stammer, “how about my future, hey?”
William is silent for just a little too long, and when he speaks, it isn’t to answer my question.
“Ruth, I’m planning to ask your mother to let you come work with me. We need skilled young people in the Nuclear Commons.”
I consider the offer as I swerve around some dope in a Studebaker. Once I’m back in the clear, I decide I would prefer to have a little fun before I’m passed from one minder to another.
“Mother won’t agree to anything like that.” It’s a good excuse, and it happens to be true.
“I’ll tell your mother that life in my station, that is to say, my historical era, is much better than here,” William declares. “We have more and safer food, better medicine, machines that wash your clothes…”
What do I look like, a servant? “How about flying cars?” I ask.
“Yes, in fact,” says William. “We import maglev cars from stations further down time, but I’m personally in favor of field-supported vehicles, which we can produce locally.”
I stopped listening at the word “yes.” “They dear, these flying cars?” I ask.
“Well,” says William. “A maglev car would cost about as much as however much you paid for this Landau, I suppose.”
“Wow,” says Billy. “Flying cars! Imagine that, Ruth!”
I do. I imagine the skies over Chicago filled with flying cars, with me in the fastest one.
“Ah, yes,” says William. “My sister used to love flying, too.”
As much as it tickles me to hear little-kid slang like ‘love flying’ coming out of this old bird’s mouth, I don’t like the melancholy in William’s voice. “You mean I don’t love to fly any more in the future?”
“Not you,” he says, too quickly. “Your canonical counterpart. She…she stopped flying, yes.”
“Why?” I ask, worried. It would be one thing to never get the chance to fly. But to start and then stop?
“William?” says Billy as the old man’s silence stretches.
William sighs. “I will tell you, Ruth. Not now, though. Not here.”
“Nobody here in the car but us,” I say.
“I promised Mother she gets to hear the future news first.”
The way he says “Mother,” I know I can’t change William’s mind.
“Then promise me,” I say. “After you talk with Mother, you’ll come find me and you’ll tell me my fate.”
“Not your fate, Ruth,” he says and I hear in his tone, I hope. “But I promise I will tell you what happened to your counterpart. In good time.”
“‘Good time,'” I say. “Cute.”
William doesn’t laugh.
Our house is an elegant, stately Victorian on a street of elegant, stately Victorians, the big, peak-roofed gingerbreaded fruits of an orchard with pretensions. The street is packed with cars and arriving guests.
The party fills the living and dining rooms and the foyer in between with future relations and 1930s high society. Jenkins and the special staff hired for today hustle back and forth, exchanging coats for canapes and flutes of newly-legalized champagne.
William introduces me to his son Elmo, a sunburned and handsome young jasper with wild eyes, who’s talking about something called “marketing” with “Old Elmo” and “Very Old Elmo,” his gray-haired and no-haired future counterparts.
Elmo’s wife looks daggers at her husband as she tries to soothe a crying baby, which is taken up and cuddled by a Chinese-looking woman named Denise. Denise is no nanny, though. She breaks off cooing at the infant and yells, “Behave, Alex, or I swear to God!” at a gangling pickle-pus who must be her son, Billy’s great grandson.
Alex hastily puts down a flute of champagne, which is picked up and downed by his bald and miserable-looking 52-year-old counterpart.
“Old Alex must have learned he’s destined to have a heart attack,” whispers William. “Must be quite a shock.”
For her part, Mother has enthroned herself on a davenport at the other end of the living room. She has on old-fashioned evening gown, her hair poofed up around her head. Mucha could have found a better model for an illustration of The Sin of Pride, maybe, if he visited the court of Kubla Khan.
William identifies the women and girl standing around Mother as “the Cheryls,” before he bustles off to go kow-tow at the matriarchal shrine. Billy joins some other young kids in a game that seems to consist of clinging onto and being dragged around by the robotic legs of “Very Old Denise.”
I manage to snag food and booze without giving up my coat and try to figure out how to avoid trouble while I wait for William to come back and dump his revelations on me.
Mother might be a withered old stick in the mud, but she plays the hostess as if her life depends on it, and she flies in circles so lofty that we could run Chicago from our living room. Besides the music and caviar, we’ve got the the O’Hares, the Rathjes, and the Adlers. They all looking awful important with their diamond-studded tie pins and sequined evening gowns.
Or, they would look important, if the 1930s natives weren’t so spooked by the future people, who are wearing just about anything. And, in some cases, almost nothing. A glance tells me suits are destined to stay dull, while dresses will mutate wildly, turn into brightly-colored togas, dissolve into fuzzy, amorphous clouds, and finally sublimate into a force that simply makes it impossible to look at certain places on the wearer’s body. Wardrobe by hypnotic suggestion. I like the idea, but I guess it must get chilly.
I goggle at the future people so much that I don’t immediately notice that they’re all goggling back at me. Politely, of course. No more than a glance here and a comment there. Worse, Mother is watching me too, and her face, as William whispers in her ear, is dismal. That’s no big change for her, but when she looks me in the eyes, I see something terrifying: sorrow.
I take a step toward them, but Mother shakes her head. She jerks her chin toward the corner of the living room next to the punch bowl, where Rudolf is standing at the edge of a huddle of frightened 1930s celebrities.
“Ugh.” I mouth at her. “Rudolf?”
Mother jerks her head more forcefully.
I consider simply leaving. I still have all my money on me, but my mind goes to William and those dark hints he laid out in the car. What if he remembers something from when his sister ran away from home? What if something is fated to happen to me in the spring of 1930?
I find a full champagne flute and beard Rudolf by the punch bowl.
He tells me I look lovely again. Maybe he was expecting me to get ugly in the last half hour? I thank him, put a cucumber sandwich in my mouth, and try to chew slowly. This passes the time, and also helps to avoid gasping in surprise when Rudolf says, “I was thinking.”
“Mm?” I encourage.
“I was thinking of a trip to Denver,” Rudolf says. “There’s still snow there. We can ski.”
I might like to ski. I never have tried it. When I do, however, I believe I’ll take somebody else with me. I would rather not die of boredom on a mountain in Colorado.
Rudolf looks as if he might expect an answer.
“I’d rather drive than ski,” I tell him. “And I can do that right here in Chicago.”
“What about flying?” he asks. “Would you like to fly?”
This time I can’t help but gasp aloud, and Rudolf gives me a tiny smile. The minute upward hoisting to his toothbrush mustache might indicate that he knows that I would sell my left arm for the chance to fly an aircraft.
I test him. “Billy would want to come.”
Rudolf shakes his head. “It would be better with just the two of us. More romantic.”
More romantic, he says, the wet sock. But all I say is, “My mother won’t agree to it.”
“She already has. I spoke with her. We can leave tomorrow.”
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Where Rudolf is concerned, Mother stops pulling me back and sets to pushing me forward. And I can always enjoy that flight to Denver before shutting my hotel room door in Rudolf’s face. Besides which, I’ll have my taser with me.
I say yes, and we stare at each other for a few more minutes, while I imagine my hands on the steering yoke and the plane banking under me. Rudolf imagines God knows what.
“Hey,” someone says behind me, “hi!”
I turn and look down to see a little black girl in a bizarre outfit. It looks as if she’s taken some boys’ clothes and splashed bright-colored paint all over them. She holds out a hand, bold as you please.
“I’m Kisha,” she says. “Are you Ruth? I’m your un-un-great-granddaughter!”
“You’re my what?” I ask, but a noise from the door makes Kisha jump and puts hands over her mouth.
I follow the little girl’s gaze to the beautiful blonde who has just stalked through the door, and who now surveys us from the folds of her fur coat as if she’s auditioning for the role of Evil Queen in a Disney picture. I’m just considering about how much competition she’s got in this family when she looks me in the eye.
“You,” the Snow Queen mouths. Or maybe it’s, “No.” Her high cheekbones go livid and she crosses herself.
I take a step forward and she turns away. “No. I can’t do this.” She has the same accent as the little girl and the mug who sold me the taser. “Kisha,” she calls. “Come here.”
Kisha frowns at the blonde. “But mom – ”
“Now!” she this woman who I realize must be my granddaughter. “Jesus, these awful people. I should never have brought you here.”
“Ginevra,” William’s voice rises above the party noise. “What are you doing here? I told you to wait an hour.”
Ginevra? What kind of name is that, even? Billy was right about future people and their screwy ways.
“I didn’t trust you,” Ginevra says. “I was right not to. You haven’t told Ruth a thing, have you? Why is she still fucking here, William? Why are you over there talking to your fucking mother?”
William doesn’t get a chance to answer. “You there,” says Mother. “Who are you and what makes you think you can speak so to my family?”
Ginevra’s eyes jerk wide. Her upper lip curls.
Kisha runs to her mother. “I’m sorry,” says the little girl. “We can go. I’m sorry, mom. Please don’t be mad.”
Ginevra nods slowly. Still glaring at Mother, she turns her head to the left and spits deliberately onto a potted palm.
“What was that all about?” I ask once the ruckus has died down.
“Search me,” says Rudolf, uselessly.
But no, the ruckus still has some life in it. The blonde, Ginevra, strong-arms past a trio of tall black women who must be the old, very old, and very very old counterparts of Kisha. Mother in heaven, that kid will live a long time.
My three great-granddaughters march up to Mother, William, and the Cheryls. One of them says something I can’t hear. I do feel the temperature drop, though.
“I wonder,” I say as I watch chill spread from this witches’ row. “Why are all my descendants so mad?”
I’m not expecting an answer from Rudolf, but he gives me one anyhow. “None of them would come with me,” he says. “I met them at the airport. Betty and Ginevra and the Kishas. I told them I was to fetch them, but they wouldn’t come with me. They wouldn’t talk to me, even.”
I’m about to ask Rudolf if my descendants hated him as much as William did, but there’s the old bird himself, looking me straight in the eyes.
William is standing behind Mother, who is still arguing with the Kishas, and he isn’t just looking at me, he’s staring like I’m a ghost. So are two Kishas and a Cheryl. And I’ve had the same horrified fascination from almost everyone at this gathering of my future family. It’s as if they’re watching the beginning of a train wreck.
My earlier suspicions grow cold and solid. Something happens to me in the spring of 1930. Or somebody wants me to think so. My hand goes to my jacket pocket. “What the hell is this?” I mutter.
“Just what I’m wondering.” Rudolf’s eyebrows meet in the middle of his forehead. So that’s what worry looks like on him. “Everyone is awfully touchy, but nobody will tell me why.”
“Someone’ll tell me,” I say, and put down my champagne flute. “So long, Rudolf. See you at the airport.”
I meet William in the same place Billy and I used to go to get away from Mother’s parties. The closet under the stairs is empty of furniture now and tall enough for us both to stand comfortably.
“Quickly.” William is sweating, face red, eyes shifty. “They’ll miss me soon.”
“Oh, they will, will they?” I sneer. What sort of dumb cluck does he think I am that I haven’t caught on to his game yet? “Because Mother doesn’t want you talking to me? Isn’t that right, William?”
“She forbade me explicitly.”
“As if I should believe you. You think you can play me for a sucker? I know what goes on.”
“I very much doubt you do.” William wipes his brow. “Saints alive, I wasn’t this nervous when I was plotting to overthrow the United States government.”
That throws me. “You what?”
“Staged a revolution.” He tugs on the lapels of his uniform. “But that’s not important.” He leans closer. “Ruth, I have to tell you – ”
I hold up my hands. “Right. You’ve some dire horse feathers to sell me about how my future self ruined her life.”
“Horse feathers?” repeats William as if he doesn’t know the meaning of the phrase.
“Admit it,” I say. “You and Mother want me to believe all my plans will end in tears. So you arranged for this whole parade of descendants to come here and show me so.”
William shakes his head, blinking. “We haven’t arranged – ”
“And even if it weren’t a load of hooey, things will be different this time,” I assure him. “I’ve got a…well. Let’s just say I can protect myself now.”
“No, Ruth – ”
“Let me finish,” I say. “I’ve made my own plans, and unless you give me an awful good reason – ”
“Ruth!” William’s voice is choked. “Don’t get on that plane with Rudolf.”
“Rudolf?” I repeat dumbly. I thought he was about to forbid me to run away.
“Break off your engagement,” says William.
“Take it easy,” I tell him. “I’m not engaged. I’m not even thinking about marriage.”
William glances over his shoulder at the door to the closet. “Mother will be here any moment. Listen. What’s your relationship with Rudolf?”
“Relationship? That’s an odd way to put it.”
“Did he invite you to go on a plane ride to Denver?”
I move my shoulders. “Yeah?”
“Jesus.” He’s shaking. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, don’t go with him, Ruth. You’ll marry him, Ruth, and then you’ll – ” He breaks off, shakes his head, runs his hands across his face. “No. Not you. She. She committed suicide.”
I feel as if I’ve been kicked in the gut. “She who? Your sister, you mean? My counterpart?” That might explain her kids’ reaction when they saw me. Suicide. Jesus. “Why?”
William shakes his head again. “I don’t know why she killed herself.” Then, as if he knows all too well, “It was after the War, when Rudolf came back from the Pacific.”
“That’s that war with Japan, you mean,” I say. “But now there won’t be a war.”
“I don’t give a damn about any old war!” says William. “Rudolf is still going to…” He closes his eyes and shakes his head, the back of his trembling hand pressed to his mouth.
I’m out of patience. “You think Rudolf drove me – my counterpart, I mean – to suicide. Swell. Did she tell you how? Because that’s what I’d like to know.”
“She never told me,” admits William. “My sister and I drifted apart during the war and I saw her only once between 1945 and her death. That was for Betty’s christening in ’47.”
“Betty. My daughter,” I say. “I mean her daughter.” The one who wouldn’t come to this house and wouldn’t tell Rudolf why. Mother of Ginevra, who couldn’t bring herself to look at me, grandmother of Kisha, whose three counterparts who had descended like furies on Mother.
“Betty was her second daughter.” William levels a look at me like a melancholy cannon. “Ruth, your counterpart’s eldest daughter was born in 1930.”
That’s not a kick to the gut; it’s a pie in the face. “Go on with you. I’m not pregnant, for Christ’s sake.”
“Not yet,” William says.
“Not yet, he says.” I’m starting to heat up again. Someone is playing me, even if the game isn’t what I thought it was. “It’s already 1930 and I don’t intend becoming pregnant before, what, the end of the month?”
William’s expression makes me double-check my math. I think about that romantic plane ride. Could butter-sandwich Rudolf actually seduce me?
Could he do worse?
I take a sharp breath. “What are you telling me, William?” But I know what he’s telling me. The skin on my neck prickles and all of a sudden the closet seems awfully dark and close. The air is clogged with old horror.
“I suspect,” says William, voice as heavy as a tax audit, “that young Rudolf has gotten tired of waiting.”
He’ll to force me to marry him. That’s what William is saying. Nine months later, my first daughter will be born, and I’ll stay with Rudolf for her sake. Then, when Rudolf comes back from the war 18 years later, he’ll rape me again. I’ll have another daughter, and that’s when I’ll decide to take my own life.
“The Kishas were right, damn them,” mutters William, rubbing his chin as if he feels dirty. “You deserve to know this even if Mother – ”
“Mother doesn’t want me to know any of this.” I point a shaking finger at him. “You spilled this whole story to her just now. That’s what you came here to do in the first place. And that job you offered me in the Nuclear Commons – ”
“I was wrong to do so.”
“– it was to get me out of this house.”
William sighs miserably. “Your mother refused, in any case. But, Ruth, you can still – ” William touches my shoulder and I twist away.
“Get your hand off me.”
“I’m sorry. I felt I had to tell you.” He looks out the closet again. “But you can see I also had to tell Mother.”
My fingertips are tingling. I see for the first time that William is between me and the closet door.
“Mother,” he swallows. “Your mother, that is, she says the future safety and, and prosperity of the family are worth your marrying Rudolf.”
“Oh she does, does she?” I raise my voice. “Her safety is worth the sacrifice of my whole damn future?”
William wrings his hands and snivels, but it isn’t he who answers.
“What are you sacrificing, Ruth? Much less than I ever had to.”
Mother is at the closet door.
“Go to hell, you dirty, rotten harpy,” I tell her, since nothing better comes to mind.
She brushes off the insults like silverfish crawling in the lace at her breast. “Weren’t you listening, Ruth? We shall prevent your suicide.”
“Not the rape, though,” I say. “That, you’re attempting to ensure.”
“Don’t make her marry that man,” pleads William.
Mother rolls her eyes. “Of course she must marry him. The Bleirer family brings us through the Great Depression. You told me so yourself, William.”
“There won’t be a Great Depression now,” he says. “Not in your timeline.”
“That misses the point a good ways,” I say. “How about I find someone better to marry, my own damn self?”
“And whom would you choose?” Mother shakes her head. “It has become clear to me that women in our family are afflicted with the urge to marry the strangest men they can find.”
I think of my father. He lives on the other side of town and opposes everything mother does, but I wouldn’t call him “strange.”
William also looks perplexed. “Beg pardon?”
“Nothing,” says Mother. “Ruth, I have been too lenient – ”
I shout over whatever lecture she has prepared. “You’re about to sell my virtue for a share of the Chicago meat packing business, you hag.”
Mother’s lip curls. I’m reminded of Ginevra. “Keep your voice down, Ruth.”
“Selling my virtue,” I shout louder, “for the possibility of – ”
“For our family’s safety,” she hisses. “Yes. And you, Ruth, would make the same decision if you were in my position.”
“Oh I would, would I?”
Mother puts her hands together and presses her fingertips to her lips, eyes closed as if praying. “Once I was foolish like you,” she says in a calmer voice, “and two persons were killed.”
I’m back up in the air. Mother’s killed people?
“Mother?” asks William.
“No,” Mother opens her eyes and drops her hands. “There is no reason for you to repeat my mistakes in order to learn my lessons, Ruth. You can simply listen to me now. And as for Rudolf, I shall ensure his good behavior.”
Her voice makes William and me shiver. I almost feel sorry for that vile, lizard-eyed rapist. Although not sorry enough to spend another minute in his company.
“He will treat you as a gentleman should,” says Mother. “In all other ways, however, you two are to carry on as canonical history dictates.”
“As you dictate, you mean.” Why am I arguing with her? I could never change Mother’s mind about anything. Now I can’t bear even to stay in the same house as her. She can go to hell. This whole city go to hell. This whole damn era of history!
I reach into my pocket. “I won’t let Rudolf rape me, Mother.”
She winces. “Language, Ruth. Why did you tell her, William? For God’s sake, don’t let her past you.”
William makes helpless little circles with his hands, and I see that Mother doesn’t need a time machine to turn an old bird into a little kid. “But you don’t need the Bleiers,” he says. “You can all come live with me. Be reasonable!”
Mother barks out a laugh. “Live? In your half-baked pseudo-Marxist utopia? No. As always, I must stay behind and create safety while others dive into danger. I must stay the course.” She points at me, finger like the barrel of a manicured rifle. “And your course, young lady, is set.”
I pull the taser out of my coat. “I’m fixing to un-set it.”
Mother’s eyes focus on the weapon and her powdered forehead wrinkles. “What is that? Some sort of gun? Put it away, Ruth, before someone sees you with it.”
William slaps his forehead. “Gun? The gun! Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! This is the spring of 1930! Ruth was planning to run away!”
“Run?” Mother’s glare twitches from me to William. “So stop her! She won’t shoot you.”
William reaches out for me. “My sister had a gun, but that thing looks like – ”
I stick the taser in William’s armpit and press that button.
There’s no spark this time, just a hideous chattering sound like the jaws of a giant insect. But I keep my hold on the weapon as William spasms away from me. Brandish it like a cross in Mother’s face. She’s smart enough to get out of the way, but not smart enough to start screaming until I’m out the front door.
Clouds pile up in the northern sky, but ahead, the air between me and Future Pier is clear and blue. I haven’t my hat or the love of my family, but I’ve got the taser, my money, and the key to the Landau, which is right where I parked it.
I tear open my car’s door as they pour out of the house after me. Elmos and Ignacios, Denises and Cheryls. The Kishas advance on me like a troop of Valkyries, but I press the starter button and roar away down the street.
I don’t have much time. Mother will turn this whole city into a machine for capturing me. Billy is probably crying. I might feel a bit lousy about William. I don’t suppose I’ll be able to take him up on his job offer now. Mostly what I am, though, is glad to be in a position where I can just give up on all these mugs and get out of town.
I grip the wheel so hard it hurts and take a left turn onto Lake Shore Drive. Hooked streetlights and young trees flash past, and Future Pier stretches off to the east. Tickets on the time trains come dear, but I’ve got this big, valuable car, haven’t I?
I pat the dashboard. “Time to trade you up, old boy,” I say, “for something that can fly.”
I remember I was out on a mission with my translator Plamen. We were way out in Aaha space, trying to sell a magnetic confinement fusion device as “human folk art.”
Here was the scam: you take this stellarator coil, which ought to work in theory, but has never managed to produce electricity economically. You sell the stellarator to an alien art collector, talking up its historical value as an example of the primitive handicraft of fusion power generation. Then it’s – whoops! something must have damaged the stellarator during delivery. So sorry! We’ll drop the price if you help us repair it. Then, we pay careful attention to the repairs, take our notes back to Earth, hand them to whoever we want to win the next Nobel Prize in physics, and Bob, as they say, is your uncle.
It didn’t work out that way. Of course, Plamen and I were given thorough check-ups before we left Earth, and of course we ate nothing but what came out of our Amazonian kitchen replicator. But I developed appendicitis, anyway.
I tried to muscle through it during meetings. I’d be doubled up in pain while male Aaha art students climbed over my back. They thought I was flirting with them! It wasn’t going to work.
Plamen said he had to do something. But what could he do? We were in a “nucleon arts college” tethered like a balloon to a neutron star made of negative matter, somewhere that isn’t even in Earth’s light cone. The Aahas had bought two-way ride vouchers for us with a return trip in three months, and a new one would cost more than the Earth (outside Amazonia) produced in a year. We were stuck, and medical facilities here would have no idea what to do with an appendix.
I still don’t know how Plamen found them. Some sort of alien social media? I shudder to think. All I remember is sweating on my cot while they poked at me. Aaha fingers, Beezle bugs, and some terrifying barbed thing that Plamen called a “gynosome.”
They weren’t doctors. There weren’t artists, either, exactly. And certainly not scientists. They asked me questions like “what is the diplomatic protocol for negotiations with your gut flora?” and “is cellulose a popular building material on Earth?” and “to the best of your memory, when was the last time your species engaged in folivory?”
I was given something to drink that tasted like electrolytes. “Calcium ions!” I heard one of them say as my vision went blurry. “Didn’t you do a project like that back in college?”
“Yes, but I never thought to combine it with hind-gut fermentation. What an idea! Symbiosis has been done to death of course, but making the mutualists prokaryotic is a good twist.”
When I regained consciousness, I had a headache and a potbelly, but the pain in my gut was gone.
When questioned, Plamen told me not to worry, the new tissue was all made in the kitchen replicator. When questioned again, more loudly, he said he was sorry. He’d been desperate. That’s why he’d delivered me up to a gang of speculative biologists.
“We can always get it removed,” he said, poking my large, new gut. “And in the mean time, you can eat all the leaves you want.”
Energy curdled back into mass as the ship translated out of light speed. After a pause for the crew to get used to experiencing time again, the ship’s instruments extended.
From the crew’s perspective, they’d finished an extensive survey of this part of space just a moment ago. For this part of space, however, 600 years had passed, so it was important to make sure nothing had changed.
“It used to be a star like the sun,” explained the astrophysicist, whose name was Gaviria. “It had a family of planets ranging in size from a little larger than Earth to a little smaller than Neptune, all of them orbiting closer than the orbit of Jupiter.”
Marletta, the astrophysicist, spoke over Gaviria in his excitement. “So far, so similar to many other star systems. Really, it’s closer to the galaxy’s standard average than the Solar System.”
“Or it was when we translated to light,” said Gaviria.
“But?” asked Zhang.
Once a biochemist, Zhang had recently been elected to the post of “Social Coordinator,” or as he called himself, “cat herder.”
“Its planets have shrunk,” said Gaviria.
“Huh.” Zhang wondered why he was having this conversation. Aha. There it was. “You want me to authorize an away team.”
In free fall as he was, Marletta could not jump up and down with excitement. The best he could do was anchor himself to a hand-rail and vibrate in place. “It’s close. It’s super close!”
Zhang looked at Gaviria, who said, “Point nine eight light years.”
“Would a two-year-ship-time trip fit our flight plan?” Zhang’s question was directed at the ship’s computer, which cleared the mission. Soon, the three of them were packed and in their landing pod, which the ship translated into light. The team was away.
After either a year or no time at all, the landing pod re-materialized above a planet. Zhang, Marletta, and Gaviria watched the hazy, blue-white ball flicker in their portholes. As their pod translated itself into a safe landing trajectory, the planet vanished and reappeared, changing position and orientation. It grew closer.
Now, the planet filled all the portholes on one side of the pod. The diamond light of its home star limned its upper edge. Now, that light was tinged red by atmosphere, and the edge had become the horizon. The horizon developed mountains. Finally, the pod settled, the planet became the ground, and Gaviria, Marletta, and Zhang walked out onto it.
Zhang hopped experimentally, feeling his suit flex under the extra gee. He couldn’t smell anything except his own canned air, but his mics picked up the sound of running water, wind over rocks, and a distant bass pulse that might be surf.
They’d touched down on a hill overlooking a floodplain, where a river flowed into an ocean. The sun rose above the mountains on the other side of the plain, casting pink-yellow light onto clouds, folded rocks, and the forest growing out of the river.
The plants, if they were plants, had no leaves, branches or trunks. The green, blunt-nosed cones simply sat there, their roots – if they had roots – invisible under the water.
They might still prove to be some strange kind of geology, but Zhang allowed himself to take a leap of faith, and sighed, “Life.”
Part of the reason Zhang had accepted the post of cat herder was that there wasn’t usually much call for a biochemist. It wasn’t the first extraterrestrial biosphere that the Von Neumann Fleet had discovered, but it was a first for his individual ship.
“Samples samples aha,” Gaviria hummed to herself. She headed for a cone-plant growing in a nearby stream.
Marletta looked out over the blue ocean and green floodplain. “Life how? Six hundred years ago, this place was a sub-Neptune.”
“It’s much closer to its star than our Neptune,” said Zhang. “Right?”
Marletta flapped his hands. “And with a denser core. And not as close as Earth…really, it was intermediate between Earth and Neptune.”
“Which is unusual?”
“Well, yes. Usually you either have a terrestrial planet like Earth: a secondary atmosphere out-gassed from the rock.” Marletta held his hands apart, as if measuring a grapefruit. “Or,” He spread his hands out to the diameter of a beach ball. “Or, you get a gas giant like Neptune, with an envelope of hydrogen and helium gathered out of the primordial matter that built its star. Those light gasses spread out farther, so the planet looks bigger from space.” He moved his palms inward, the volume between them now the size of basketball. “But then over time, heat from the planet and the star would have blown that primordial atmosphere away. That’s why we assumed that the intermediate diameters, like the one-point-five Earth diameter this planet used to have, were so rare.”
“Rarer now!” said Gaviria. She chipped away at the green cone-plant with her multi-tool. The surface of the organism was as hard as the heat shielding of their landing pod. “Since we left Earth, every planet in this system has shrunk down.”
Zhang watched Gaviria work. “And in only six hundred years,” he mused. “I’m assuming that’s much faster than any stellar or geological process could account for.”
“Don’t jump to conclusions,” said Gaviria.
But Zhang didn’t have to line up his evidence for a review board. He was a cat herder now, and he could jump to whatever he wanted. “Marletta, did the observations we made from Earth indicate oxygen in this planet’s atmosphere?”
“Well, we don’t know,” said Marletta. “We never recorded any absorption spectra through the original atmosphere. All we have are the transit and radial velocity data that told us the size and mass of this system’s planets. But…” His brain caught up with his mouth.
On Earth, Marletta would have spun around to face Gaviria and her cone-plant. In two gees, he wobbled like a penguin, but eventually got himself turned in the right direction. “You mean photosynthesis?”
“How much longer?” Zhang asked Gaviria. His logic was leading him into uncomfortable places.
Gaviria gave her cone-plant another whack with her multitool, which didn’t even scratch the surface. “Just let me get my sample. It’s not going to go off right now, just because we’re talking about it.”
“‘Go off,'” Zhang repeated.
Marletta thought out loud. “Water and carbon dioxide go in, oxygen and carbohydrates come out. O2 gas rises to mix with the H2, and now every time there’s a bolt of lightning or other spark…”
“Well,” said Gaviria, “boom.”
Marletta swore in English, and Zhang made a decision.
“We need to go.”
“Stop being paranoid, this all happened hundreds of years ago.” Gaviria scratched at the cone again.
Marletta stopped, his colleague’s assumptions overriding his sense of self-preservation. “Wait. That’s still not fast enough. The entire atmosphere couldn’t have, uh, explosively oxidized in only six hundred years.”
Zhang answered the implied question. “There must have been biological processes actively speeding things up. Sequestrating the hydrogen? Controlling the rate of reaction?” He shook his head, remembering he was supposed to be herding these cats. “Let’s go, Gaviria. We can print out better tools on the pod.” After a light-speed jump into deep space, he added silently.
“I suppose so,” Gaviria reluctantly put away her multitool and hoisted herself out of the stream.
Marletta couldn’t snap his fingers in his suit, but he tried. “And it didn’t just happen on this planet, did it? Every planet in the system lost its hydrogen atmosphere within the same six-hundred-year window!”
“Panspermia!” crowed Gaviria from the bank.
Zhang groaned because he had always hated the idea of panspermia. Also, because steam was rising from the cone-plant behind his geologist.
It was a good thing, they decided later, that Gaviria hadn’t been able to crack the ablative shielding on the cone-plant. If she had, it could well have exploded.
As it was, though, the plant only launched.
Back in the safety of their pod, the three humans watched as the green, ceramic-shelled organism lifted into the sky on its pillar of fire, and began its mission to spread life to other stars.
This story was inspired by William Misener’s “To Cool is to Keep: Residual H/He Atmospheres of Super-Earths and sub-Neptunes.” Thanks go out to him and everyone at the 2020 NASA Exoplanet Science Institutes Exoplanet Demographics conference.
This story was published in “Heavy Metal Jupiters,” the zine of the Exoplanet Demographics 2020 conference.
This Thirty Years Plus story is inspired by Joanne Rixon’s op-ed in the Tacoma News Tribune. I encourage you to write your own.
The year is 2050 and a storm washes Sloveykov Square. Rain curtains hide buildings of concrete, glass, and transverse laminated timber. Also invisible is the apartment of Yulia Raymundo Smirnova.
From the metro station “St. st. Cyril and Methodius” – still sunny – Yulia watches the lightning right above her home and considers her next move.
Some people raise umbrellas or wave at ground taxis. Others descend back into the underpass or change their jackets into temporary shelters to await the resumption of flying services. The inflated tents of smart material much resemble those of the protestors in front of the National Assembly. They want the right for single-family homes to be built within the municipality of Sofia. In Yulia’s opinion, they won’t get it. That’s why she’s wondering whether to move to the countryside.
And why not? Yulia thinks while her feet carry her down into the underpass. Her husband already works from home, and many children attend online schools. Isn’t a private garden nicer than a municipal one? That’s the opinion of most of Yulia’s friends.
By habit she buys a newspaper, which she pays for with a tap of her wooden bank card. Her parents still use their smartphones for paying, reading, and everything else, but younger people want one gadget for one task. And even better if it’s made of bio materials.
Invisible circuits in the clothes of Yulia and the salesman record the transaction and she climbs the stairs to Knyazheska Garden. Around it sigh the electric and hydrogen cars of the great carbon-neutral traffic jam of the mid-21st century.
Expensive private cars get in the way of trolleys and cargo vans, but the driverless vehicles do not honk their horns. The cyclists are much louder. They don’t give a damn what’s pouring from the heavens – neither rain nor snow. They would ride merrily shouting through a rain of flaming tar, at least according to them.
The sycamores tremble over Levski street. The drones and swifts return to their nests under eaves and old solar panels. The monsoon continues as Yulia reads of Kaliningrad and the price of Arabian ammonia. Biomass energy with or without carbon dioxide capture? This month, the American scandal is “Neuralgate.” Taxes on parking in Sofia and subsidies for home hydrogen batteries will rise.
All of this changes the weather, but not all at once.
The first drops of today’s storm fall on the newspaper, which begins to transform into biodegradable mulch. Yulia lets it run between her fingers, to where it will nourish tomorrow’s grass.
Yulia stands. She will go home on foot. If she walks slowly, the rain might stop. Or else she might just get more wet. Well, alright. She’s realized that she loves to walk through her city in the rain.
Годината е 2050 и буря мие Площад Словейков. Дъждените завеси крият сгради на бетон, стъкло, и напречен ламиниран дървен материал. Също невидим е апартамента на Юлия Раймундо Смирнова.
От метростанция “Св. св. Кирил и Методий” – още слънчевна – Юлия гледа светкавицата чак над дома й и счита за следващия си ход.
Едни хора вдигат чадари или махат към земните таксита. Други спускат се пак в подлеса или сменят якетата си в временните приюти за да чакат възобновяването на летящите услуги. Надуваемите палатки на умна материя много приличат тези от протестиращите пред народното събрание. Те искат правото да се стройят еднофамилни къщи в общината в София. Според Юлия няма да го спечелят. За това се чуди тя дали да се премести в провинцията.
И защо не? Юлиа мисли докато краката си я носят долу в подлеса. Мъжът й вече работи от вкъщи, и много деца посещават онлайн училищета. Собствената градина не ли е по-хубаво от обществената? Така е мнението на повече от приятели на Юлия.
По навик тя купи вестник, за който плати с едно потупване от дървената й банковна карта. Нейните родители ощте изполвате смартофоните си за плащане, четене, и всичко друго, но по-млади хора искат едно джадже за една задача. И все по-добре е то ако е направено от био материали.
Невидими схеми в дрехите на Юлия и продавача запишете продажбата и тя качва стълбите към Княжеска Градина. Около я се въздишат електрическите и водородните автомобили на якото въглерод-неутрално задръстване на средно-21ия век.
Скупи лични коли пречат тролеи и товарни микробуси, но безшофюрните превозни средства не бибипкат клаксони. Много по шумни са велосипедистите. Не тях пука какво полее от небесата – нито дъжд, нито сняг. Би карали весело викайки през един дъжд на пламтящ катран, поне според тях.
Чинарите треперят над ул. Левски. Дроновете и бързолетите тръгват в гнездите си под стрехи и стари слънчеви панели. Мусонът продължи като Юлия чете за Калининград и цената на арабски амоняк. Биомасна енергиа със или без съхранението на въглероден диоксид? Този месец, американският скандал е “Неврогейт.” Данъци за паркинг в София и субсидии за домашни водародни акумулатори ще се вдигнат.
Всички от това променява времето, но не все веднага.
Първите капки на днешнията бурия падне на вестника, който започне да се трансформира в биоразрадим мулч. Юлия дава му да изтече между пръстите й, към където той ще подхранва утрешната тревата.
Юлия застава. Ще тръгва са на пеша. Ако ходи бавно, дъждът може да се спре. Иначе може само тя да стана по-мокра. Ей добре. Осъзнала е че обича да разхожда из града си под дъжда.
The crowd didn’t seem to be violent, at least. They weren’t holding up signs or chanting slogans. They didn’t even seem to be talking much with each other. They just ambled sedately around one of Bruce’s stores, heads bent towards the phones cupped in their palms.
Bruce Devritte, CEO and founder of The Byke Group, stood beside car and watched them. “At least they picked a good day for a riot.”
Hunter, Bruce’s technical lead, grunted and shook his head in the way that he thought concealed his impatience. “It’s not just ‘a.’ And it isn’t exactly ‘riot.'”
The word the programmers used was “herd.” It would inevitably leak out of their internal communication and cause a PR stink, but Bruce had to admit that it was apt.
He squinted out over this suburban parking lot and across the street, toward the back end of the little cluster of commercial buildings. A handful of gray concrete boxes squatted under tangled phone lines: bank, restaurant, Byke authorized retailer. Helium balloons floated over this last, supporting a banner proclaiming “SALES EVENT.” There were probably cars and shrubs and dumpsters over there too, but Bruce couldn’t see them because the herd was in the way.
They were upper-middle-class, white and Asian, all genders, just a bit hipper than the baseline. Byke’s target demographic. These were the people who had responded so well to the Super-Normal User Experience that Bruce’s first employees had created, back when his company had been called Bicycle for the Mind. These people here were, in other words, his. In all senses of the word. He owned them and he owed them everything.
Mostly they played with their phones as they ambled in small loops, around and around the Byke store. Bruce was reminded of brooding penguins. Was there a collective noun for penguins? Would it go over better with the press than “herd”? He’d have to look into it.
“This is happening all over the country,” Hunter was saying. “It would have been all over the world, too, but we rolled back the update in Asia before most of our users woke up and we’ve never sold well in South America.”
Bruce nodded. Europe, thank God, was still bitterly grappling with last year’s update. By the time Brussels got to this one, the bugs would be worked out.
“Right,” said Bruce. “So, clearly this has something to do with the Sales Event.”
“Yes, and it’s the update we rolled out on midnight before the Sales Event.”
Bruce noticed his CTO had in fact told him that Bruce was wrong, despite his use of the phrase “yes and.” It seemed the communication seminars were not working as intended.
“Obviously it’s something wrong with the update,” said Bruce, and regretted it. He sounded petulant, like he was covering his ass. It wasn’t my fault. It was someone else monkeying with the settings.
That had to be the truth, though, because the basic idea, the concept of Proximity-based Clock speed Adjustment was beautiful. Breathtaking in its elegance.
What you did was, you used GPS data to track how close a Byke device was to a Byke store. Then you very slightly adjusted the clock speed of the phone. The closer you got to a store, the slower time ran. The adjustment affected everything from the device’s clock display to its map to its Augmented Reality apps.
If you set out from your house at 8am and walked at one mile per hour toward a Byke store that was one mile away, you would find yourself arriving at your destination at 8:45. Hurray! You’re making such good time today. Turn around, and you’d find yourself arriving home at 10:00. Oh no! What happened? You should never have walked away from a Byke store.
It was genius. The most perfect example of the philosophy of subconscious manipulation that had carried Bruce and his company so far. Wherever they might be planning to go, people would find their paths gently curving toward the nearest Byke store.
Walking through the door was just a little easier than walking out, and once you were there, why not buy a new subscription plan?
“So what happened?” Bruce demanded. “Some pointy-headed idiot in Sales turned up the scale of the adjustment, didn’t they? Thought they could net more customers from a larger radius.”
Hunter shook his head. He had hooked his thumbs through his belt loops and surveyed the crowd like a ranch hand eyeing his herd for signs of hood-and-mouth. “The adjustment scale is the same as before. We think the problem is synchrony.”
Ugh. Synchrony. That was why PCA only worked in markets with complete Byke saturation. To put it bluntly, people’s phones were lying to them about the time. Usually, the lies canceled out. A trip to and from the nearest Byke store still took two hours, it’s just that that time was sliced differently. Asymmetries did build up, though, especially if the user took long, out-of-town trips.
Differing time zones gave Byke some wiggle room, and you could do real-time search-and-replace for text, image, and voice, but you couldn’t stop people from talking to each other and comparing notes. Users had begun to notice their clocks didn’t agree.
Their patch for that bug was to add another adjustment that slowed or sped up the clocks of two devices in proximity to each other. The update had gone live at 3am this morning, and here Bruce was, looking at the result.
“Everything was fine until morning rush hour,” said Hunter. “A large number of people all left their homes and drove toward the commercial areas where they work.”
“Or in this case, walked,” said Bruce. Traffic in downtown Seattle was never great, but this morning it had been apocalyptic. The streets were blocked, cars and people spilling out from the parking lots of Byke stores.
“The closer they got to a store, the slower their clocks ran, the less distance there seemed to be between them and the store,” Hunter ground on, inexorable. “I mean, assuming a constant velocity. The effect magnified as more people gathered around stores and their phones synced. Eventually, it took zero time to walk in, and infinite time to walk out.”
Bruce couldn’t contain his irritation. “What the hell does that even mean? Infinite time?”
“What are they seeing on their phones, you mean?” Hunter turned away from his contemplation of the herd and reached into the car. He picked up a new Byke from the seat, pulled his multitool out on its extendable cord, and cut open the packaging. He handed the beveled rectangle of glass to Bruce.
Bruce looked at the Byke until its gaze awareness triggered. The device blushed a pale, rosy orange, color, like a peach bathed in the light of a Caribbean sunset. It sighed and warmed against Bruce’s fingers. Colors pulsed just a little slower than his breathing rate as the device identified Bruce and downloaded his preferences. The scent of baking cookies rose from it.
Bruce could almost feel his pupils dilate. God damn but he made a good product!
But the Byke could tell that Bruce was in the mood for business. Skin conductivity, pulse, and cortisol in his sweat caused its color to shift into a more businesslike blue, and a serious tenor voice spoke from the empty air between Bruce and Hunter.
“Mr. Devitte. Mr. Shapiro, how can I help you?”
“We want to find a good cup of coffee,” said Hunter. The standard test.
“Of course,” said the phone. “Just follow me.”
The Byke matched the color of Bruce’s hand and the asphalt behind it, seeming to turn transparent. When Bruce lifted it, the phone faithfully reproduced the edge of the parking lot, the buildings, and sky. One of those buildings shone a bit more brightly than the others, its colors warmer, and the scent of coffee spritzed into the air.
A damn good product! No follow-up questions. No, “I’m sorry, did you mean ‘Aged Cupcake Fees?'” It even knew that they would prefer to walk, and didn’t bother to suggest anywhere out of their line of sight.
“Would you like me to call ahead and place your order?” asked the Byke.
“It seems to be working fine,” said Bruce, trusting the device to understand he wasn’t talking to it.
Hunter shook his head. “You’re looking north. That’s a tangent to the Sales Event.”
Best to humor his people. Bruce moved his hand in the direction he supposed must be east. At any rate, toward his store and its herd.
“Huh. That’s weird.” He squinted, and the display sharpened and zoomed. That was just what was supposed to happen, but still there was something off.
It was like one of those trick photos where they mess with the depth of field so that a normal street scene suddenly looks like a clutch of tiny toys. “Some sort of visual distortion?”
“Yes, and there’s a lot of user feedback incorporated into the display,” Hunter said, still not using “yes and” correctly. “The interactive evolutionary computation we mediate through gaze and skin-conductivity…” He lost track of his sentence and started again. “The phone basically outsources a lot of its graphics processing to the user’s visual cortex.”
What Bruce told investors was that the Byke “builds the picture that you would love most to see. No two people experience the same world, and no two users see exactly the same thing when they look through a Byke.”
That was his company’s whole philosophy. The post-modernists loved the hell out of it.
“You mean it’s hiding something from me,” said Bruce.
“Look away from the phone.”
That was surprisingly difficult, even though Bruce knew all the tricks his devices used to catch and keep their users’ attention. With an effort, he averted his eyes and looked at the real world.
The bank he’d been looking at seemed to leap away and grow explosively at the same time.
Bruce jumped, “Jesus!”
“If you were navigating with the Byke, it would seem to take less time to walk closer to the Sales Event,” said Hunter. “The visual distortion – what we’re calling ‘contraction’ – is just the Byke’s graphics processor trying to make its clock agree with the user’s brain. Velocity is space over time, so if it takes you less time to travel a distance at a given speed, that distance must be shorter.”
Bruce digested that. “But not this much less time. This is a way bigger adjustment than anything I ever -” He was about to expound more on this, but the Byke purred in his hand, subtly nudging him to look into it again.
When Bruce did, the bank seemed to jump toward him, tiny, friendly, and inviting.
“And you’re still not looking directly at the Byke store,” Hunter said.
Bruce did not like having his cowardice pointed out like that. Now, taking more comfort in the warmth and vibration of the Byke in his hand than he would like to admit, he slid his view toward the crowd.
In a way, they now looked less crowded. The more distant-seeming people also seemed smaller, taking up less space. Those closest to the store were so tiny they hovered at the limit of vision. And the Byke store itself was just gone, contracted into a black pinprick, its horizon encircled by a minuscule sign: SALES EVENT.
“They’re trapped, Bruce,” Hunter said. “Their devices’ clock speed is so slow that they feel like it takes an eternity to walk across a parking lot.”
“But it’s just a feeling,” said Bruce. “It doesn’t actually take any more time than usual. Uh, right?”
Another irritating grunt-headshake. “Look away from the store.”
Bruce turned 180 degrees, passing through a fairly normal view of the restaurant and the street. And then a…
The Byke hummed soothingly.
Bruce found himself looking out upon an endless plain of asphalt. A parking lot like a continent receded into an unfathomable distance. There were shrubs there, planted like redwoods before dumpsters as tall as skyscrapers, under a sky of brick. At a given speed, distances covered in less time must be shorter. Therefor, distances covered in more time must be greater.
Bruce stood at the edge of an abyss, the looming, gargantuan outer world pushing him ever further toward his store and its sales event horizon.
The CTO put his hand over Bruce’s eyes and the world sprang back into its normal proportions.
Bruce trembled. Now the buildings and cars looked fake. A projection on a warped screen, hiding the real reality. That vast asphalt plane, that hole in space. The store upon which all perspective lines converged.
“The store,” whispered Bruce. “What does it look like from the inside?”
“Nobody knows. Nobody has come out.”
The author would like to cite Spooky Action at a Distance by George Musser, “Molecularly selective nanoporous membrane-based wearable organic electrochemical device for noninvasive cortisol sensing” by Onur Parlak et al., and thank Professor David R. De Graff and Kim Marjanovic for their expert advice.
…or “Ghost Decon”…
The heads of the press swung to follow him as Rutger walked through the door.
Cameras like glaring eyes and microphones like accusing fingers. Rutger could feel the hatred. Three deaths and more than a billion dollars, and it was only Tuesday morning.
The CTO of the ReVeil Corporation reached his podium. Clutched it. Bowed his head. “Let me first say that I’m sorry.”
Silence from the press.
Rutger pressed a button on his remote control. Behind him, the ring-shaped ReVeil logo vanished, replaced by a satellite image of streets and cul-de-sacs.
“The Aspenwood Ectogenic Power Plant,” he said. “At 5:25pm yesterday, October 21st 2019. Circled in red is the Manifestor, previously the home of serial killer Steven R. Shoenburg, who died there in 2008.”
The next slide showed the Manifestor from street level, still looking very similar to the two-story house it had once been. Then a cutaway, showing the new heat shunts and electromagnets.
“At Aspenwood, we pump waste heat into the home of a diseased, immoral individual, then anger the spiritual remains of said individual by means of a team of on-site staff trained to simulate the activities of a middle-class American family.”
Rutger breathed out, allowing the well-polished spiel to spool out of him like fine titanium chain.
“The spirit absorbs ambient heat and converts it into poltergeist activity…” He managed to choke off the end of sentence: “thus providing clean energy to homes and businesses in three states.”
Rutger met the eyes of a reporter. “The problem began with a trash fire in the house’s half-bath lavatory. CCTV footage indicates one of the on-site staff members was smoking in there.”
Against regulations, but the security team routinely overlooked it. Interviewed, they’d said they thought the poor woman deserved whatever stress-relief she could get.
“We have known since the Begay Process was invented that the spiritual remains of a deceased individual do not constitute a ‘person,’ any more than do the physical remains. However, spiritual remains do appear to pursue goals.”
Rutger took a drink of water.
“The door between the lavatory and the kitchen/dining room opened. Burning trash flew toward the other two on-site staff members, who were seated there for simulated dinner.”
Click. CCTV footage of a burning table cloth.
“Normally, this would provoke a strong fear response, which would lead to more poltergeist activity. Ectogenic potential would decrease, temperatures would equalize, and the system would self-correct.”
A slide of the staff calmly standing.
“However, the team-leader’s undisclosed usage of prescription anti-anxiety medication dulled his fear, and the other team members took their cues from him. We believe that they each went to find fire extinguishers or other means of dousing the flames. This would have been wise in a real house, but…”
A graph showed the room’s temperature suddenly plunge.
“The ghost – that is to say the spiritual remains – entered an unusually pronounced chill-phase. Technicians in our control room tried to increase heat in-flow to prevent temperatures in the room from dropping below spec, but the secondary heat shunt under the lavatory did not open. Ice crystals had formed inside it.
“Meanwhile, temperatures in the northwest corner dropped below 300 Kelvin, reducing the electrical resistance of the stators in the walls. The result was a strong attraction between the walls and the neodymium vests worn by the staff. The staff did attempt to free themselves, but now the haunting entered its poltergeist phase.”
Rutger clicked the projector to the next slide. “This is a photo of the Aspenwood Plant taken by a high-altitude drone at 6am this morning.”
The Manifestor had been converted into serrated silver and black wreckage: the worst ectogenic feedback loop ever in North America.
“Further human deaths were prevented by the immediate evacuation of the Aspenwood Plant. However, the loop continued to spin, generating more heat from friction, which was converted into ectogenic potential and re-deployed as more torque.
“This was likely deliberately engineered by the…” Rutger took a breath, “by the spiritual remains of the now-deceased on-site staff, working in collaboration with those of Mr. Shoenburg, combining their technical knowledge to his…that is to say its…”
Hell. What was the jargon word for “evil”?
“…value tension,” Rutger sighed.
“The loop continued to grow until 1am today, when our emergency cold lines absorbed enough energy to stop the growth of the loop.”
But not reverse it. The next slide was the latest drone footage, a video showing queasy rotation within the wreckage. Contraction, as of a monstrous, iron-gray iris.
“Resonances in the thermal fluctuations of the loop are consistent with the persistence of three distinct ghosts.” Rutger stared into the darkness over the press’s heads. Shoenburg, Mathew, and Stephanie? Shoenburg, Stephanie, and Kyle? Thank God at least one of the staff had managed to escape into oblivion.
Rutger blinked back into the cameras. “I’m a mechanical engineer by training. And my training, even after the discovery of the Begay Process, was all about entropy. I was taught that no matter what you do, there’s always waste.”
Despite everything, Rutger couldn’t help but smile. “Then came ghost power. It is…I have no other word for it. It’s a miracle. Perpetual motion. The ultimate free lunch.”
Except recently, Rutger had wondered whether entropy had found a way to increase after all. Moral pollution. The efflux of evil.
Well, so what? Don’t businesses harness greed? Don’t politicians use the bigotry and envy of their voters to support important programs? Anger in the army? Lust in marriage! Evil didn’t taint any of those institutions, why should ectogeneration be any different?
“I know that I have abused the trust placed in me,” said Rutger, “but now I have no choice but to ask for yet more.”
And there was the deeper problem. How to die and leave no spiritual remains?
Rutger had never told a living soul, but he believed that the key was to die with no regrets. He stretched his his hands toward eternity and pleaded.
“Give me another chance.”
Earth with Heaven
The storm was roaring,
The temple of Nippur,
the storm was roaring,
Heaven with earth
earth with heaven was talking.
— The Barton Cylinder. Surface A. Column 1. Lines 7-14.
The king stood at the rim of his tower and looked up, back the way he had come.
The night sky glowed yellow-black. The dust of the tower’s descent had dissipated, but clouds reflected the lights of the city below, obscuring the stars.
Only a few bight points twinkled around the face of a single celestial body. An earth-world. Giant, pitted, impossibly close, it gleamed like old teeth.
Ki An-da, King of the Tower, Emperor of All Worlds, the Pinnacle of Achievement, turned his face away from that hoary light. Twelve twelves of Beads clattered in their gold-wire cages, and swinging on their strings from neck to navel.
The high astrologer flinched back, lest he touch a Bead and die.
“Where are we?” Ki An-da’s voice rumbled like the motors at the base of his tower. Dead now, their Beads passed to their apprentices, now training for war.
The astrologer licked his lips. “Well…”
“Surely you know.”
Ki An-da’s hand went to the Bead at the center of his second necklace. The Bead-that-Called-Rainbow-Stars rattled in its cage, no longer warm as it had been, pinched between the king’s fingers for nearly a year. Most inscrutable of the Beads.
Ki An-da had expected Rainbow-Stars to guide his tower to a new world, a world he could remake for the pleasure of the gods. Instead, the gods had brought him and his settlers to an already inhabited world. A world whose men had displeased the gods, and required to be remade again.
But more importantly, a world whose sky had already been charted.
“The stars are very faint, sire,” said the astrologer. “The lights from the city interfere with our observations.”
Ki An-da’s hand strayed out to his fifth necklace, and a Bead-that-calls-Force. Flanked as it was by two Beads-that-Restrict, it would project a flat sheet of force, a cleaver that would slice this fool in two if he did not please his king.
“Even I can see that giant world in the sky,” Ki An-da said. “Do I need astrologers at all?”
The astrologer bowed very low, hands swept back and fingers splayed to show he held no Beads. Sweat beaded on the man’s bald pate.
“Yes. Sire. The world. It circles this one. It is certainly distinctive, is it not…?”
Ki An-da brought his fingers around the Bead-that-Calls-Force and the astrologer barked: “the Moon, sire.”
“The Moon.” Ki An-da had never heard the word before.
“We can’t be sure, sire. The legends are fragmentary. The prophesies,” he swallowed, “vague.”
The king did not ask questions. His advisor answered anyway.
“Yes, sire. The Gods’ reward, sire. The wages of man’s toil. After we have made enough worlds bloom for them, the Gods will return us to the garden from which — ”
“Silence.” If the astrologer continued, Ki An-da might begin to tremble. He looked back up at the Moon, and felt an emotion he had not known for decades.
The king stared up at that cratered face for long minutes, mastering himself. Finally, he spoke.
“After five thousand years, our work is done. The Gods have brought us home.”
“I think so, sire.”
Ki An-da brought himself back to business. “If you’re wrong, I’ll kill you myself.”
“Thank you, sire. To be certain one way or the other, we must see the other stars. The lights from the city…” The man, looked out over the rim of the tower, past his monarch. “…those strange lights.”
Ki An-da grunted. Strange lights indeed. They did not flicker like flames, stars, or the Beads-that-Call-Light. They shone like bronze or silver in sunlight, unwavering. Nor did the natives seem to posses weapons, or defenses, or any Beads-that-Spoke in anyway way Ki An-da’s alchemists had been able to recognize. They only flew around the tower in funny little air-boats or simply gathered around the foot of the tower and shouted in an incomprehensible language.
Weaklings, then. Or else fools who refrained from striking first. Let them be strengthened, then, let them be taught.
“Very well.” Ki An-da turned on the pinnacle of his tower. He faced the city, and his hands went to the Beads that hung down his chest. “Summon your men to the observation stations. I will put out these lights.”
The sun is hot on my back, and my thighs burn with the effort of holding this position. My back doesn’t hurt, though. Those stretches work.
My face is full of leaves. They come in triplets, saw-edged, each the size of the space between my thumb and forefinger. Hard, unripe berries tap against my glasses. Somewhere too close, a yellow-jacket buzzes.
I put one hand down and reach with the other into the shadows, scattering leaf-hoppers. The sweat sticks to the inside of the glove as I squeeze the handles of the garden sheers. A growing resistance, then a dull snap, and a brown, prickly cane shudders behind the leaves.
The dead cane tears away from the bush like velcro, exposing a patch of soil, the wall of my parents’ house, and a small volume of empty space, dangling with raspberries.
I grab one and put it in my mouth. It tastes like the dirt and leather on my glove, ash from the recent forest fires, and decades of piled summers.
Raspberry canes take a year to grow up from the root, another to produce fruit, and then they die in the third. My job is to clear out the dead canes of last year to make room for next year’s shoots. I’m also exposing more of this year’s berries to my daughters and their cousins.
I wanted to do this in my garden, which is just old enough to have its own raspberries. They’re planted in rows away from the house, just the way my grandpa had them. And I have already done the chore of cutting out that patch’s first crop of dead canes. But my kids were firm: if we were going relive someone’s childhood today, it would be theirs.
I decide that my back is hurting after all and slowly stand.
My parents’ garden hasn’t changed much since Julia was a nine months old and pooping in the wading pool. The lilacs have grown thicker, the apple tree has died. The bird bath is now at our summer house three valleys south of here. Julia manipulated my parents into giving it to her.
But there’s still the enormous rhubarb plant next to the compost. To the east, beyond the rhubarb, the hill slopes down to the Interstate, the web of aerial traffic, and the houses, condos, restaurants, business incubators, network hubs, micro-factories, and silvopastures of Lolo, Montana.
Julia and Mikhaela move through the garden like a hummingbird and a lawnmower, respectively, with the other teenagers strung between them. Some are talking or doing incomprehensible things with their key-rings and charm-bracelets, but an impressive amount of berry-picking is still getting done. Mikhaela said she wanted to make a pie for the party, and they already have enough for two.
I glance to my right, where my younger daughter is methodically mowing her way down the raspberries. I can’t tell whether she’s listening to an audiobook or sharing her POV with some other kid in Saudi Arabia or just thinking her thoughts.
I remember my grandpa when he drove me home from the airport one summer. I had wanted to read a fantasy book, but he wouldn’t let me. He kept me talking that whole drive.
“What did you learn in drama camp today?” I ask her.
“Diegesis,” she says.
There’s a conversation starter! But my attempt at a follow-up question is interrupted by a delivery drone descending onto our lawn. Its brown plastic carapace is emblazoned with the logo of the nearest hub, which means only that this isn’t a delivery from a Lolo caterer or micro-factory. The kids could have ordered something from Seattle or New Zealand, and it would still get routed through the local hub. My guess, though, is that it comes from Sofia, Bulgaria.
“What did you forget to pack, Yooli?” I shout at my older daughter, Julia, as she runs toward the drone, waving her wallet-key.
Last summer, Julia packed almost nothing for our trip to the US. She told us she thought it would be easier to just mail herself stuff when she remembered she needed it. When we saw the international shipping bill, we got her her own bank account and wallet-key, which might have been the whole point of the exercise.
The drone sees her key, releases the box it was clutching, and zips back into the smoky air to join the sky-traffic.
“I didn’t forget anything.” Julia shakes her hair out of her face and lets go of her key-ring, which zips back to her belt on its recoil line. The belt is bright pink, with green and blue Kazakh embroidery patterns. Each key on the ring is a different color and pattern, for a different digital purpose. “This is for our party.”
She pulls open the self-storage box, revealing an irregularly-shaped pink crystal the size of a melon. It’s a salt-lamp.
Generational cycles are funny things. Growing up means doing whatever your parents didn’t do, but we all have a soft spot for our grandparents. I want to be firm and practical like my grandpa, Mikhaela wants to be strong-minded like my mom. My older daughter Julia, for her part, cultivates a free romantic spirit like my mother-in-law. This, for me, is an endless opportunity for spiritual growth.
“Your salt-lamp.” I repeat. “Why do you need a salt-lamp for a party? Why do you need your salt lamp? You could have ordered a brand new one and it would have been a lot cheaper.”
I know what she’ll say next: “it’s my money. You‘re the one who told me to get a job and now I have eighty.” I open my mouth to tell her that she still ought to save her money for something important. And what is it exactly that she’s doing in these eighty jobs anyway?
But Julia hoists the salt-lamp and says, “it has to be this one. My friends and I licked it into just the right shape.”
I have no idea how to respond to that. I close my mouth and process data while my daughter skips away, tongue-sculpted lamp cradled in her arms. I’ve been out-maneuvered again.
I strip off my gloves and hat and go to find my wife.
Pavlina is on the balcony, sipping chilled white wine with her brother and sister-in-law. They’ve lived in California since the early 2010s, and in some ways they’re more American than me.
“I need to go to the teenager party,” I tell Pavlina.
“Zashto? Ti li si tineidjar?” Why? Are you a teenager?
Pavlina’s brother lifts a bottle of beer in my direction. “Ne trevozhi, bre. Veche si imam pushkata.” This is an in-joke.
According to Bulgarian tradition, Julia’s and Mikhaela’s first teenager party means we adults are all exiled here, to my parents’ house. We’re supposed to have a party, too, but I suspect it will be more like a military command center. Lots of tense pacing while we try to imagine what chaos is unfolding on the front lines.
“What are you talking about?” My dad appears from the kitchen with a tray of cheese and the tactical situation becomes more complicated. Neither of my parents approve of the teenager party, and we’ve been tip-toeing around the topic all week.
“We could be in the attic,” I tell Pavlina. “Or the basement.”
“That is where I’ll lock you when you go insane, yes,” she says.
Pavlina’s brother cackles and my dad says “What?” in a tone that means “I am playing the doddering cyborg grandpa, but I really am angry that you’re talking over my head.”
“It’s the teenager party.” I look out over the balcony, where our kids are doing incomprehensible and scary things in the yard below us. “I mean, what if something happens?”
My dad doesn’t say, “exactly! We have to cancel this whole barbaric ritual.” He says, “I’m worried too.”
“Yooli and Mishi will take care of it,” Pavlina says. “That’s what they’re learning to do.”
“What if someone brings dope?”
“They’ll tell him to smoke it outside.”
I check to make sure my mom isn’t in earshot. “What if things get…physical?”
“Zdravko and Boris are big. They’ll beat him up.” These are Julia and Mikhaela’s cousins, who seem to be engaged in some a virtual sword-fight right now. Mikahela is directing it.
“Now you say, ‘there can be only one sun, one moon, and one great khan!'”
I look around for support, but even my dad is nodding. “You don’t need to worry about boys,” he says.
I pick up a piece of cheese. “Well, at least I got them to pick raspberries with me. Mishi’ll make a pie.”
Pavlina looks serenely out at the Sapphire Mountains. “Sore wa kokuteiru no tame da to itta yo.”
‘She told me they were for cocktails,’ in Japanese, a language which nobody within earshot speaks but me and my wife.
I try to slow my breathing.
It isn’t just the underage drinking. It’s the social situation. My kids keeping secrets from me. Me keeping secrets from my dad. I reach down inside of myself for that still, small, voice. It says “be honest.”
“Mikhaela is making cocktails?” I say.
The US and Bulgaria have very different ideas about what constitutes proper behavior for teenagers and police officers. My dad, brother-in-law, and sister-in-law now all agree that the teenager party is a terrible idea.
Pavlina, meanwhile, looks steadily at me, letting me know that I have now become her opportunity for spiritual growth.
I put my cheese down on the balcony railing. “I’m just worried. Our kids are going to be alone in the summer house, which we just finished. They’re going to be drinking and smoking and licking salt-lamps.”
“Huh?” says my brother in law.
“What’s going to happen? What are we going to do when something does happen?”
“You’ll deal with it.” Pavlina declares, standing. “Nali si moyat mesten vodach?” Aren’t you my native guide? Another in-joke.
She pats me on the shoulder. “In the mean time, meditate on trusting your children, or at least trusting God to watch over them.”
“The God of fools and children,” I mutter. But that still, small voice speaks to me. “Go pick some more raspberries,” it says.
The sun rose, and the sky separated from the Pacific Ocean.
The water stayed dark, but the air above lightened and developed clouds. They shone pink and hazy, stitched by the gleaming contrails of jets.
Golden Hour, thought Mike Loew, and shoved the sippy lip of the go-cup into his mouth for another desperate sip of coffee. His body still thought it was 10pm. His brain thought he should be in Hollywood. In his heart, Mike was very worried about what the salt and sand would do to his shoes.
“Um,” he said. “Are you sure we’ve come to the right place?”
It was an inane question to ask. Of course they were in the right place. Mike’s charges had woken him up an hour before dawn, fed these coordinates directly into the rental van’s AI, then dashed straight into the water as soon as the vehicle had parked. All that was visible now of the visitors were the little robot interpreters hovering over four ominous shadows below the waves.
Mike tried to think of other ways to politely phrase, “What the fuck do a bunch of non-human film critics have to do at the beach at dawn?”
“Certainly,” said one of the interpreters in the chirpy voice Mike had chosen for Sessile Probings, the non-human in charge. The official name of Sessile’s species was “Individuals Locked in Mutual Tensegrity,” but Mike privately called him a slime-fish.
“We have to wait an hour to get the tide,” said Sessile. “However, Octopus Iceberg was bored at the hotel.”
Mike glanced at a passing jogger, trying to force his brain to work. “Okay, so you wanted a morning swim before we drive up to Hollywood? I just need to know how far I should push back the meetings I’ve lined up for us.” Meetings with people who would never have given Mike the time of day back when he was trying to break into the industry. When he’d been the sort of idiot who thought you got a movie made by telling a good story.
Mike was a government functionary now, and much wiser. Or at least, he had thought he was wiser until this morning. He raised his go-cup and found it empty.
“We do not swim,” said Sessile. “We study film.”
Yes! Mike wanted to shout. That’s why I pulled strings to get myself assigned to you.
He closed his eyes. They’d told him about this in Beijing. Interpreters weren’t perfect. You needed to speak clearly and stay aware of alternate meanings. “I am confused,” he said. “Please restate.”
“Currently, I am studying this film on this rock.”
Mike tightened his grip on on his cup. He stared out over the water, a horrible realization swelling in his gut. “Sessile, what do you mean when you say ‘film?'”
“I will show you.” Shadows moved against the sand, and Sessile rose from the waves.
Sunlight glared off the spun glass globe of Sessile’s primary shell. Then the slime-fish rose to his full height and the sun was behind him, haloing the bloated head within. Sessile’s eel-like tail thrashed embedded in the column of slime that supported his fish-bowl head.
The slime hardened as Mike watched, its surface turning gray and cracked as water wept out of it. Rods pushed out of the mass, dangling snotty strands. Webs of mucus tightened, and these extruded limbs flexed.
A cluster of these limbs cradled a flat, smooth rock, about the size of a plate. It was also slimy. Everything within a foot of Sessile was slimy.
The non-human’s head pulsed within its spiked and blistered globe. Bubbles of air farted out of the depths of the tower of mucus. “Look at this, Mike,” the interpreter chirped. “I found a model film. This is a good example of a film.”
Mike wanted to fall to his knees and shake his empty coffee cup at the sky. This wasn’t how things were supposed to work! He was supposed to be in a Hollywood board room in an hour, facilitating deals and making connections. They had to respect him now! He was bringing them film critics from alternate Earths! Not…not marine biologists!
“I think,” he said, “that there has been a translation error.”
The training turned out to be worth the jetlag. Upon further discussion, Mike and Sessile managed to establish that a film was a series of sounds and images that told a story when projected in front of a human’s eyeballs. A biofilm, however, was a colony of bacteria that coordinated their behavior in order to change their environment. They secreted a number of fascinating compounds.
Mike nodded and looked down at his salt-stained shoes. “Good,” he mumbled. “Good. I’m glad we established that.”
Sessile had finished excreting his land-body. He tottered forward on a pair of spindly puppet-legs, a fishy eye bulging behind a lens-blister on his shell. “Mike, does the shape of the front of your head indicate that you are emotionally troubled?”
“No,” said Mike. “No, I’m just fine. Please don’t try to give me a hug.”
“I won’t hug you because it will be disgusting. But please wait a moment. I will call Octopus Iceberg. He studied the psychophysiology of mammals.”
Another monster loomed out of the depths, this one a plexiglass globe perched on top of a ring of articulated metal tentacles. Floating within the globe, veiled in fluttering jellyfish gowns, was an octopus.
Mike wasn’t a biologist or paleontologist, so he didn’t know how octopi had conquered Iceberg’s version of Earth, but the Convention of Sapient Species had much weirder members. At least he knew the two of them shared a love of audiovisual story-telling. Or so he had thought.
“Octopus Iceberg, I believe our native guide is upset,” said Sessile.
Metal tentacles tip-toed over the sand. Segmented suckers opened like camera shutters. Colors and textures flickered across the skin of the octopus. “Yes,” said its interpreter. “He has a mental state of frustration.”
“It’s just I worked hard to get this job because I thought we worked in the same industry,” said Mike.
The non-humans looked at each other.
“But you are a government official and we study film.”
Mike squeezed his eyes shut. “Biofilm! Interpreter, translate that word as ‘biofilm.'”
“There is a very important difference,” Sessile told Iceberg. “This ‘film’ is a tradition of human performance art that Human Mike hopes to participate in.”
“I understand. Human Mike, don’t be ashamed of making bad films. It is very important that you are helping science.”
“I didn’t give up because I couldn’t make a good movie,” Mike told the inside of his eyelids. Who cared what he told a bunch of marine biologists? It might as well be the truth. “I gave up because Hollywood is a corrupt pit where real art goes to die.”
There was some confusion while their interpreters chewed on the cultural context behind that explanation, which evolved into a longer diatribe about the industry in general.
“It’s just so cynical,” Mike found himself saying. “There’s this old boy’s club giving awards to each other. Calculated grabs for attention. Public personas instead of actual people. Just…” he waved his hands, “just lies. But everyone has to act like they believe, or else they get pushed out. Nobody is willing to stand up and say what they really think.”
The octopus and slime-fish looked at him.
“I am still confused,” said Sessile. “So, are there images paired with sounds?”
Mike groaned and clawed at his pocket. “Look. I’ll show you. Here’s the most critically acclaimed film of the past year.” He had it downloaded on his phone, and he watched it compulsively. It always depressed him.
“Look at this!” Mike said, thrusting the phone at the biologists. “That brown color palette. Those fake accents. It’s not a movie at all, it’s just a sign that says ‘this is intellectual.'”
“Yes,” said Sessile. “It seems completely incomprehensible. But only the most advanced art can resonate outside of its cultural background.”
“No, wait, I think I might like it,” said Iceberg. “The problem is that the quality of the display device is poor. Wait a moment.”
A message popped up on Mike’s phone. “New device connected,” followed by a long string of numbers and letters.
“I have connected my armor to your communication device.”
“You can watch movies on your exo-suit?” asked Mike.
“Of course. The entire inner surface is covered with visual displays.”
“Octopus Iceberg’s species sees with their skin and also eyes,” explained Sessile.
“Sure, why not?” Mike pressed “play.”
Iceberg’s skin prickled. Browns and grays marched across his body. “It is pleasant and soothing,” he said. “However, this effect is only effective when you are watching a movie with all eight arms.”
Mike shook his head in despair.
“What about the population?” asked Sessile.
“The population only has two arms.”
“I don’t understand. I mean what movies do most humans like to watch?”
“Oh, the public, you mean? They watch absolute garbage. Uh…look.” Mike found last season’s highlight reel from a reality show and cast it to Iceberg’s suit.
His tentacles stiffened. The fishbowl helmet sparkled with refracted images and his skin flashed red, white, and purple. “Inarticulate joy,” said the interpreter.
Sessile’s scarecrow body jerked, sending mucus flying. “Octopus Iceberg! Are you okay?”
Iceberg’s skin shivered. “This is the product of great and noble talent,” whispered the interpreter.
Mike looked at his phone to make sure he hadn’t selected the wrong video. “What? No! It’s just sex and shouting.”
“This art encompasses the essence of human existence.”
Sessile connected to Mike’s phone and his glass shell swam with images. “I understand your idea. This shows the purest form of interaction. Bacterial communities coordinate in a very similar way.”
Mike floundered. Every diplomatic instinct he possessed was saying “Just nod and smile and agree.”
But he couldn’t. Not after he’d bared my soul to these non-humans. These beings who he had thought were people. “No!” He stomped his expensive shoe on the sand. A cigarette butt went flying. “No, God damn it! This stuff is garbage! It’s stupid, Sessile.”
“We will teach you to appreciate it,” said the slime-fish.
“Yes,” said the octopus. “All that is needed for this film is proper analysis.”
Daniel M. Bensen