‘Tears of the Gods’, Sarah L. Byrne

Legend had it that the blue rain was the tears of the gods, though just why gods would weep in blue no one could quite explain. Modern science said the odd meteorological phenomenon was simply a matter of copper sulphate, spores from the blue copper-feeding algae in the deep vents forced into the atmosphere by volcanic activity. Gita knew differently. Opening the door of her house at the patter of the heavy drops on the titanium roof—how did it manage to even sound so blue?—she held out a hand and let the liquid pool in her palm.

What the blue rain really meant was change.

Gita’s hand started to itch. Back inside, she held it under the cold tap, washing off the residue of the rain before her skin began to blister from the contact with the irritant. The first time she’d seen the corrosive blue rain had been more than ten years since, when she first arrived. She and Silvia, assigned Survey work as a couple for the first time, and who cared if it was some backwater planet, not exactly a career-boosting move? It had come again the day the shuttle had arrived to take Silv away for the last time. The relentless blue rain beating futile on its impassive grey hull, and Gita’s dreams trampled in the dust. When the blue rain had come for the third time, she’d made the decision to leave the city, with its bright lights and protective dome, and volunteered for this lonely post. Just her in a little house in the desert outside the city boundaries.

Change meant a number of things to a woman past forty, even aside from the obvious one. But one thing you knew about change by this age was that it was inevitable. It came like the blue rain whether you liked it or not or just hadn’t made your mind up yet. So Gita wasn’t surprised when her door buzzer sounded, though she jumped at the sudden noise all the same.

When did I get so used to silence?

Gita slid the door open to reveal a familiar figure, foot already tapping with impatience. Min. Standing there lithe and long-legged in her black leather-look protective gear, the usual energy was visibly humming through her every muscle. Min bounded into the porch, bringing the wet-sand smell of desert rain with her, then tugged off her soft helmet-hood so her short ash-blond hair stood up spikily, grinned at Gita and flashed her a wink.

“What’s new, gorgeous?”

Min: Survey project manager, one-woman whirlwind of unstoppable energy, old friend.

Some things, at least, did not change.

“Don’t flirt with me,” Gita said sourly, as Min stripped off the rest of her outer layers and discarded them on the porch floor. “We both know you don’t mean it.”

“Might do,” Min said, though she did at least look slightly shame-faced. In the soft light of the interior, she looked Gita up and down. Gita knew she was taking in every detail: the old flannel pyjamas, the streaks of grey in the unbrushed dark hair that tumbled to her shoulders. Min herself looked fantastic as always, even standing in her socks, all wiry grace and boyish charm.

“How’ve you been?” she asked at last.

“Fine,” Gita said. “At least I am as long as people don’t keep coming here bothering me.”

Min raised an eyebrow.

“Might do you good to be bothered a bit more,” she observed. “You’re getting a bit… odd. Out here all on your own. People are starting to talk.”

“I’ve always been odd,” Gita said. “I just don’t bother hiding it anymore.”

“All the same.” Min brushed this off. “I haven’t forgotten you exist, and the Survey hasn’t either. We’ve got a job for you.”

Change. There it was, then. There was no avoiding it.

The sun blazed down hot on the desert trail, and Gita sweated in her weather-resistant trousers and jacket. She’d left off the headgear and filter-mask at least—she wasn’t worried about rain any time soon, with a sky as clear as this—and the rest of the team had followed her lead and done the same. Gita paused to catch her breath for a moment, to push the damp strands of hair off her forehead. The trail was too steep and narrow now for wheeled transport. Where they were going, the only way was by foot.

“You want to stop for a break?” Ed asked, beside her. Kind young Ed. New-qualified and on the way up, and solicitous of her as if she was his own old grandma.

“Not at all.”

Gita took a sip of water from her drink tube and forced herself onwards. She was awkwardly aware of being the oldest person on this trek, among all the keen young things, all temporary placements. No one came out here any more unless they needed a bit of exoplanet experience to advance their careers, and had to take what they could get. She felt heavy, and not just the way her muscles were softened from inactivity, or the couple of extra middle-aged pounds around her middle.

“You’re the most senior microbiologist out here,” Min had argued, as Gita resisted her efforts to prise her out of the comfortable hole her quiet little life had become. “You’re wasted doing weather observations, that stuff should have been automated years ago, anyway. We need you on this.”

Gita strongly suspected there was no such urgent need. Sure, the volcanic clefts were finally officially safe to access, now sufficient time had passed since any activity other than a bit of odd-coloured rain. And someone might as well have a look around, bring back some samples for analysis. But this had the flavour of one of Min’s for-your-own-good social engineering moves. Especially when Gita had hesitated, and that little crease had appeared between Min’s eyebrows, concern and sympathy and more than a little admonishment.

“She’s been gone a long time, Gita. Life goes on, you know.”

So it did. So here she was, heading for the mountains, the weird scooped-out shapes of them on the horizon, eroded by the abrasive rainfall, no sky-scraping peaks here. But except for that, it could almost be back on Earth somewhere. Morocco maybe, the Atlas mountains. Silv would have liked it out here.

The first pioneers in this part of space, a hundred years back, had called it the planet of the gods. Since then it had acquired a serial number but no better name.

It was an ironic usage now, of course, because what a godforsaken place it was these days, now the Survey and the terraforming projects had moved onto the bigger and better worlds in the system. Even the bright-lights frontier-town city under the dome was fading, businesses leaving and families packing up. But people had seen things. The people who’d been here before the Survey with its safety protocols had come along and put restrictions on wandering into the remote places. They’d seen things, or said they had; things that became a kind of legend. You could still find their accounts cached somewhere on the old internet if you looked: accounts of ethereal things that materialised out of nowhere and drifted in the wind, and some had said the planet must have its own gods. Others said it was heatstroke or dehydration or whatever it was they were smoking back then, and that you-see-what-you-want-to-see. And they were probably right. But still.

Gita liked to think the gods wept for Silv. Someone had to. Gita was worn dry by the years, by solitude. Someone had to remember her; Gita struggled to picture her face sometimes. Like now, lying awake in her narrow single tent, as the chatter and giggles of her young companions finally quietened, giving way to the weight of the desert-silent night.

It had been cancer, and not one of the curable ones. Not one of the slow-moving chronic types, manageable if you didn’t mind taking so many pills a day you rattled when you walked. It had been the kind that tore through you silent as a scream in space and by the time you suspected that niggling ache in your back, that odd nausea—not pregnant, are you? hah, chance’d be a fine thing, spawn of the gods, hey?—might be anything more than one-of-those-things, it was too late, far too late to even talk about treatment.

Silv hadn’t wanted to go off-planet. She’d loved this place, even though the medical facilities were basic. If there’s nothing they can do anyway…

The transfer shuttle she’d finally agreed to had come too late for her, and the cold silent burden it carried away to the mainland—for freezing, for shipping back to her family, her legal next-of-kin—had not really even been Silv anymore. Gita could have made a fuss about the legal thing, about Silv’s wishes, how she’d wanted to be buried—I was her family too, you know I was—but she had no stomach for that fight. She could have gone along, taken compassionate leave: Min had in fact stopped just short of ordering her onto the shuttle. But the real Silv was still here. The memory of her was right here, where the gods themselves wept their corrosive blue tears because she was gone. That funny, gentle, gorgeous woman who’d loved this place and wanted to grow old here. She was gone.

“I’ll go in,” Gita said, as they stood high above the desert, looking down into the crevice that opened up in the rock at their feet.

“You sure?” Ed frowned in concern.

“I’ve done quite a bit of climbing, you know.” She was irritated by the dubious looks they gave her; that was enough to make her determined, despite her tiredness from the ascent. That, and if this was going to done, it should be done properly, taking the samples with minimum disturbance to the environment.

Gita clipped her descender device onto her harness, checked the rope and the spring-loaded anchor wedged in the rock. All in order. Here we go.

How many years had it been? Odd how your body remembered things. Her gloved hands slipped a little on the rope, her feet groping more clumsily for the wall than she would have liked. But the harness took her weight, she began to descend smoothly into the dark crevasse, the pale glow of her headtorch dimly lighting the way.

“All right down there?” someone shouted down from the blinding-bright sliver of light above.

“All good,” Gita called back.

And then the rope slithered loose and she was falling.

She’d fallen before. There was never any life-before-your-eyes endless-seeming plunge. Just a brief panicked flail of your arms and legs then the ground slamming you hard in the back. Gita lay still for a moment, trying to catch her breath, letting her hammering heart slow. She moved her arms and legs tentatively: nothing broken, the protective gear had taken the worst of the impact. She wasn’t sure how far she’d fallen. The rope had been good for ten metres; they hadn’t expected the cave to go deeper than that. She didn’t think the blue algae could survive too far from the warmth and oxygen of the surface.

Warmth, yes. It was warm down here, and there was a hot coppery tang in the air that Gita could taste even through her filter mask. She turned her head. Liquid bubbled blue in the pool inches from her face, from where she lay on a narrow rock ledge. She’d been lucky not to fall in that pool—deep and larger than she’d first realised, an underwater lagoon stretching into the shadows. Might have been an easier landing though. Gita winced with the sharp pain in her back as she started to ease herself up. And then the surface erupted. The god burst forth from the depths and rose up before her.

Sleek, blue-translucent, it breached the surface like the ethereal ghost of a dolphin, stretching, forming. Liquid fountained from the pore that took shape in its centre. Air was forced out in reed-like whistles and clicks. Turning towards her; reaching. Then splitting apart into a thousand glistening particles, as a panicked shout echoed down from above.

“Dr G? Can you hear me? You all right?”

“I’m all right,” Gita called back. But she didn’t move. She just watched.

Those shining droplets, raining back down into the pool of their birth: safe, contained, to reform again, reborn.

She understood then: the blue raindrops were not the tears of the gods, but their death. Unless, for them, the two things were the same.

They hauled her out strapped to a backboard, despite her protestations. She unstrapped herself and pulled off her face mask, blinking in the too-bright daylight, fending off the attentions of the slightly panicked young woman with the medical kit. Gita winced a little as she saw the crumbled rock where the anchor had pulled out of its crack. The rock must have been more fragile than it looked, eroded with the corrosive rainfall and vapour. Should have thought of that. Once upon a time she would have checked and double-checked everything.

You were supposed to get less reckless with age, weren’t you, not more? That depended on your priorities, maybe. On what you had to lose. How much of a hurry you were in to meet your gods.

Ed and his young team had hitched the rescue rope around a sturdy outcrop, the most likely thing to hold. Good thinking there, and brave of them to risk themselves for her. They weren’t bad people. They couldn’t help being irritating, any more than she could help becoming more of a cranky old woman with every passing year. They’d grabbed some samples from the pool while they were down there. They’d done it hastily, in a hurry to get out, afraid of the rope corroding and trapping them. They’d done it before Gita’d had the chance to tell them not to, though they’d at least remembered to use the proper vials: temperature and acidity controlled.

The medic hovered over her with her handheld scanner. Gita barely noticed. Her mind was still spinning with it, with what she’d seen down there, liquid flowing and forming into a god-like thing. No, not liquid exactly, because if she had this right, that azure pool was teeming with the blue algae. Cells, tiny creatures. Millions, maybe billions of them, coming together like the cells that organised to form the pavement mosaic layers of her skin, or that pulsed through those blue veins so fragile along her wrists.

Gita looked up from where she’d been staring at her own hands.

“I saw it,” she said slowly. “It was what people saw, what they wrote about. You know, the gods, the ones who cry the blue tears, I saw it…”

The young medic goggled at her briefly, then frowned, leaned in with the scanner again.

“Dr G, did you hit your head when you fell?”

Gita sighed. No one read old electronic media any more, did they? No one cared about the legends. But—if what they had in those little vials was what she thought it was—that was going to change.

“I don’t want anyone messing around down there,” she said to Min, back at the office. “I don’t want anyone touching the site, or any of those volcanic shafts. I don’t want anyone going near it without my supervision.”

“Oh?” Min raised an eyebrow, from the other side of her desk. She had one foot drawn up onto her chair, chin resting on her knee—typical Min—and her eyes were keen. “Well, nice to see you taking an interest in something at last. Maybe the near-death experience was just what you needed to snap you out of it. Bit extreme though, don’t you think?”

“It wasn’t anything like that,” Gita said. “It was just a few bruises. I’ve had worse.” In truth she was stiff and sore all over; walking gingerly as an old woman in the morning and pressing her palms into her back when no one was looking. Now, though, she shrugged off the pain.

“You know the protocols for dealing with exospecies,” she said.

“Of course I do,” Min returned. “I wrote half of ‘em, didn’t I? But they’re intended for higher species, not slimes and algaes or whatever.”

“They’re not algae like the stuff you get on a pond back home. They’re protozoa, as far as I can tell from the samples we did get, single-celled organisms. But they’re more than that, they’re self-assembling into something bigger. Into a higher species. Like, you know, how an ant colony or a swarm of bees does. We need to get a linguist in, that’s the protocol. Nothing about them without them, isn’t that how you put it?”

Min clicked her tongue, frowned at her across the desk. “Bees are pretty amazing things,” she admitted. “But, you know, they don’t actually talk to people.”

“It wasn’t actually bees, that was a goddamn analogy.” Gita crossed her arms, faced Min down. “We’re doing this properly, or not at all.”

“Since when were you, of all people, so bothered with protocol?” Min asked. “If this is what you say, there’s going to be some big interest in it, this could be huge for you.”

Gita just shrugged. She didn’t know herself why she was doing this, didn’t know how to name or define the feelings she had. She just knew that the god-creature she’d seen was something to be protected, guarded. That no one was going to touch it without her saying so, no one was going to take another being she loved from this place where it belonged, where it was supposed to be, where it was supposed to live out its life and pour its dying tears into the dry ground to begin the cycle over again.

Change, I don’t want anything to change. Not yet. I’m not ready.

“So, hey,” Min said, as Gita swung by the office on her way to check on her samples. “I got you that linguist you were asking for.”

“Already?” Gita asked, a little dismayed. She’d hoped for more time—for what, she wasn’t sure. More time to study, to understand. She’d come to like just spending time with the little blue creatures, hoarding them close to herself—these tiny things that migrated and clung to each other in their gel dish like raindrops on a leaf, some innate longing for each other in the very atoms of their chemistry.

Not like Silv, her cells refusing to cooperate, turning against each other, mutinying against their higher purpose. If only someone had seen it that way at the time. Could they have been persuaded, negotiated with? Could the errant cells have been gathered up and returned prodigal to start over? Gita sighed.

“You found someone pretty quick,” she said. “For out here, anyway. They are actually qualified, aren’t they?”

She, not they,” Min said with one of her wicked winks. “She’s supposed to be pretty good.”

She, not they. As if you could gather up the pieces of a shattered woman and put them back together with no more than a trick of language. She wasn’t likely to be that good.

Anne was her name. A spare, scholarly-looking woman with her grey hair close-cropped, she came into Min’s office with a tentative shyness odd for her age.

“Hi,” Gita said tiredly, making the effort to lift her eyes and look at the newcomer properly. She should at least be polite.

Ap se milkar khushi huyee,” Anne said in Hindi, with a quick little smile. Pleased to meet you. Gita blinked. How long had it been, how did the words sound so strange and yet as familiar as the scent of magnolia in a long-ago garden and grazed knees from forbidden climbing.

Anne’s smile became hesitant.

“I’m sorry, I thought…”

“No,” Gita said. She felt a smile start to come to her face as well, the odd stretch of it stranger than the shape of those ancient words in her mouth. “No, it’s all right. I was just surprised.”

“Told you she was good,” Min said, looking pleased with herself. “Anne worked on the cetacean language project, back in the day. Looking for the next challenge, apparently.”

Is that what I am?

“It was a bit like a dolphin,” Gita explained again for Anne’s benefit, a bit tersely this time, fearing mockery or doubt. “The thing I saw. In the shape it made, the way it was using liquid and air to make sounds. And it was like bees, too, that’s what I thought of afterwards. Like a swarm of them, all those little protozoa coming together to make a whole something, and I’d swear it was trying to talk to me. I mean, I know bee swarms don’t talk…”—she trailed off self-consciously, aware of Min’s sceptical gaze.

“Actually, they do.” Anne flashed her a glance of startling blue eyes. “Split off into groups and communicate with each other, it’s a kind of dance-based language. I mean, obviously we’ve known that for a while, but there’s been some interesting work recently, starting to look like it’s a lot more complicated than we thought. I’d be fascinated to take a look at this discovery of yours.”

“Well,” Gita said. She refrained from looking around at Min: what did I tell you? “I need to go out there to return the samples,” she said to Anne instead. “You can come along, if you like.”

“I’ll put a team together,” Min began, swivelling back towards her screen.

“No.” Gita cut her off before she could get started. “Just the two of us. I don’t want the site disturbed. Protocol, remember?”

Min quirked an eyebrow.

“Protocol. Of course.”

Anne was a quiet companion on the trek, and that was a solace to Gita’s silence-accustomed soul; a relief after Min’s relentless tight-wound energy and a welcome change from boisterous young interns of her last trip. Anne had gazed out of the window of the vehicle as Gita drove, her eyes on the odd-shaped mountain range, alert but contemplative. When they’d gotten out to walk, she’d hefted her pack—heavy with her recording equipment—without complaint, declining Gita’s offer of help.

“Thank you, it’s fine.” She smiled, self-deprecating. “I’m quite strong, actually.”

She was, Gita was starting to realise. That fragile-looking build belied a wiry strength, a distance-runner’s body. Not like Silv, with her tumbling amber curls and ready laugh and that softness, the generous roundedness of her. Anne couldn’t have been more different. But she had a deep stillness about her that was like cool water in the desert. No rings on any of her fingers.

As they approached the place, they went quietly, walking with soft steps. No words. Anne watched while Gita anchored the ropes, carefully. A multi-point system based in the hard-packed sand not the crumble-prone rock. She was taking no chances this time. Someday, if all went according to plan—Min and the Survey’s plans, that was—there’d be permanent steps, safety-approved according to protocol, pulleys for getting equipment up and down. But not today.

Gita went first, no dramatic falls this time, just her feet touching lightly on the smooth-worn stone of the ledge. Anne followed quietly, competently, following Gita’s instructions to the letter. They stood and contemplated the lagoon for a while, the surface shimmering blue-dark in the light of their torches.

“This is where the blue rain comes from?” Anne asked at length.

“Vents like this, yes. This one here’s been dormant ten years, likely will be for a while yet. There was one a few kilometres from here blew the other week though, and we had the rain.” And everything changed. “The volcanic eruptions denature the cell membranes; that’s how I understand it, the copper-bound proteins dissolve into the water that gets forced up into the atmosphere, into the clouds.”

“Tears of the gods,” Anne said. She extended her hand towards the blue surface as if in sympathy. “I see why now.”

Gita nodded, surprised, and yet not surprised somehow.

You understand.

Anne knelt down to unpack her recording equipment and set it up around the cavern. With respectful care, she slipped the wired probes into the blue water, drawing back gingerly as though she expected it to erupt before her.

No god rose up out of the depths. The surface breathed though, ripples spreading outwards, in response to the touch. Below there was movement. Low vocalisations echoed in the depths, trilling in and out of audible frequency, bouncing off the rock walls of the pools.

Anne knelt in rapt silence, glancing from the turbid waters to the screen on her recording device and back again, her gaze intent.

“That’s amazing,” she whispered at last, looking up at Gita with a grin of genuine delight that it tore at her not to return.

“You know what they’re saying?”

“Not yet, there’ll be a lot of analysis to do. But it’s a language for sure. It’s enough. We’ll understand, don’t worry. I can do this. Amazing though, it’s like nothing else we’ve seen.”

“This could be huge for you, then? Being lead researcher on a project like this?”

“Well, it’s the same for you, surely, on the biology side? Your manager, Min, she was talking about the applications for cancer models. She said you had some ideas already?”

“Only tentative ones,” Gita admitted. So tentative she hardly dared voice them. But a flood of ideas all the same, just from looking at the way those cells assembled, cooperated. There was a torrent of questions too: how did they deal with the cells that didn’t cooperate, how could a being split apart and reorganise like that, recovering from the kind of catastrophe that would devastate any other organism? And was it the same being, afterwards, not some randomly composed other thing? Did it remember what it had been before?

Gita chewed her lip, biting back the longing for knowledge and understanding that used to drive her on. She’d thought that had died inside her ten years ago. That enthusiasm that wanted to rise up and respond to the call of this other woman’s quiet excitement. She barely knew how to let that happen anymore, barely dared to try.

“That’s far off,” she said.

“Sure, but we’ll get there.”

Gita drew a breath, warm air through her mouth filter, spoke slowly.

“What if that isn’t what they want?”

Anne turned to look at her through her filter mask, those bluest eyes deep and grave in the flickering blue of the light.

“If they want to stay hidden, right here, for as long as they live, and never see another soul?”

Gita nodded, wordlessly.

“Then we’ll do that. There’s protocol for it, and I’ll back you every step of the way. If they want to be left alone, we’ll make sure they are.”

But what if they don’t want that, what if this woman’s gentle persistence coaxes words from them, draws them out of their long hiding in their deep safe places and then there’s no going back?

“Such a huge opportunity, though,” Gita said.

Anne shrugged, lightly. “There are other worlds than this.”

“I know.” Gita thought of them. The first long-ago one with the magnolia and the dusty lane behind the house. All the bright new worlds being discovered now, and more of them out there waiting to be found. And all the worlds she’d known over the years, the ones where she’d touched down so lightly she wouldn’t have left footprints even if it hadn’t been all terraformed fake anyway.

“This one’s different,” she said. She was tired of it now, of the clinging to a ten-year burden, wanting to lay it down at last. “For me, it is.”

“I know,” Anne said. Gita wondered just how much she did know, how much background Min had seen fit to feed her. It didn’t seem to matter. There was knowing like that, and then there was knowing: one soul open to another, reaching to touch, to understand. And in this place of the gods, they were almost there.

Gita knelt down, popped open the lids of the vials, and carefully slid the contents into the pool. Letting the cells go, letting them merge into their… what? Mother, progenitor, society—home? The surface rippled again. But not spreading out this time, but drawing in, gathering up: surging.

The god rose out of the water again, blue and shimmering, vast. Gita heard Anne’s startled gasp, even behind her mask, felt the other woman’s gloved fingertips brush against hers—softly, shyly almost. She understood that need, that reaching for human contact in the face of this wonder, even as she dared to feel the hope of something more, dared to think of the possibilities.

Then she blinked, looking up at the god-creature as it dived and surged again: not the single cetacean shape she’d seen before, but splitting into two, merging and separating again, mimicking the vision it saw before it. There was a future to be made, Gita knew then: choices to be made in this place by two women and the closest thing to a god they’d likely ever see.

Tears would come again, blue and otherwise; there was no change for better or worse without them, that was the way of this world and every other. But that was far away. Gita let her fingers twine through Anne’s, and even through the protective fabric she knew the warmth and shape of them.

This would not be a day for tears.

© 2014 Sarah L. Byrne

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