‘One Drop’, David Dumitru

Illustration © 2008 Paul Downes

 [ Reflected in the lenses, © 2008, Paul Downes ] It had once been somebody's dream house by the sea. At least that's the way Joan, our exoarcheologist, saw it. Looking back, I suppose that's what made her so good at her job, coaxing narrative from the chaos left behind when things die. It had to have been a dream house in the same way that a crumbling, unadorned vase became a ritual decanter brimming with intent and meaning. She told me once that she heard the songs of the distant dead in a ragged scrap of ancient, faded cloth. It was the way she was and it was why Bellamy fell in love with her. Ultimately, I suppose it's why I'll never leave this place. I wait. And I listen for their song though I know I will never hear it.

Originally, I'd planned the mission as a twofer, just myself and Bellamy, QCore's top cryptobiologist, whose working hypothesis was, unsurprisingly, Life Hides. But when I arrived in Woomera to catch a shuttle to the Farside Computational Facility at Daedalus, there was Joan, waiting with Bellamy on the tarmac, her arms draped oh-so-casually around his neck like some kind of cheap, op-shop ornament. She asked to go along and I couldn't very well have said no. It wouldn't have looked right. And then, as if my day wasn't already spilling over with joy, I spied Robert Utson Jr. the forty-something, egg-shaped son of one of QCore's major shareholders, ahead of us in the boarding queue, having a go at the shuttle pilot because he'd been given a lower berth instead of an upper.

"Do you know who I am?" he bellowed. "I'm the senior planetary systems scientist, and I'm needed at the twinning center at FCF, ASAP!"

Behind me in the queue I heard Joan muttering, "Oh, lovely. Buttson's coming along. Idiot." I gave her a jab in the solar plexus with my elbow. Robert—Bob-to-my-friends (as if he had any)—Utson, Jr. (and thus Buttson to Joan), was an idiot, true, but that didn't stop him from being powerful. And in my book, a powerful idiot is the most dangerous variety.

"Okay, okay," Joan relented. But in the end she could not help herself. "I suppose," she deadpanned, "that it is critically important to the advancement of the store of human knowledge to find out what happens when one squeezes a giant, semi-sentient hemorrhoid through a massive quantum computer and out the other end in an alien world. There could be a Nobel in it for each of us."

We were in for a ripper little mission. Skittles and beer, I could tell. The telescope crew at the Lagrangian 2 platform had spotted a new planet. They thought they'd picked up a signature for liquid water, maybe an ocean, and they wanted someone to twin out and have a look. It was humorous, in a way. They would blueline us, rendering us dormant in order to get us out of the way—or, in q-comp speak, reduce our potentiality profiles to a statistical nullity—and then send statistical approximations of who we'd been before we went dormant to have a look at a statistical representation of the planet, effectively chucking us into a probability trajectory based on observations taken eons after the information had left the target system.

There was, of course, a catch. The statistical approximation was so complete that it was mathematically indistinct from the, for lack of better term, real thing. And so there was always the question, academic though it may have been, of who wakes up at the end of a mission; you, or your twin, since it's the twin that's made the memory you now have in your head while the other you was lying on a gurney so close to death that, had you been laying about like that on Earth they'd have harvested your organs and sold 'em to some rich American sesquicentenerian before you could say Hold on, I'm not quite finished with that kidney.

On the day, as usual, I was last into the system and last to download to the planet. The others were only seconds ahead of me but by the time I got my bearings in the planet's muted, dull-orange light, it was apparent that the fun had already begun. Bellamy, gorgeous to a fault in everything else, was prone to losing his balance and I gathered that he'd accidentally stumbled into Utson's personal space. The first thing I heard, then, shattering the perfect silence of this pristine alien world was Utson's nasal sneer.

"Bloody bottie, mind where you tread with those...those things of yours."

Bellamy took a careful step back and fixed his eyes on the ground.

Still a bit fuzzy from the twinning process, I was slow to react and Joan stepped into the leadership vacuum thus created. "Get stuffed, Butson," she barked. "Mind your own great boats."

I remember raising my hand, signaling her to stop and I remember as well Joan ignoring me completely.

"He's no bot," she went on. "He's as human as any of us and more so than some. He's every right to go wherever he's a mind to."

Utson flinched. Joan was small, but she was a force of nature when angered.

Looking to me for some kind of support and seeing that he was looking in the wrong place, Utson yammered on. "He's arto. You know it and I do too." His right hand, pasty and slick with sweat, shot out from his side, a jittering index finger pointing at Bellamy's shoes. "He's not fooling anyone with those bloody things."

Involuntarily, I glanced at Bell's feet. He was wearing runners dyed a lurid sort of violet that glowed iridescent in the planet's semi-daylight. Holos. It was a painfully obvious and ineffective subterfuge, meant to draw attention to them, to trick the subconscious into forgetting about what they might conceal. Inarguably a genius in every other way, Bell's emotional status was that of a very confused, very awkward child.

Utson pointed at Bellamy's head, then. "Let's see the eyes," he jeered. "Drop the sunnies, eh? Let's have a squiz at those peepers of yours."

"Stop!" Joan shouted. She'd had enough, as had I. We both grabbed for Utson's collar but Joan got there first. A head shorter than he but much fitter and utterly without fear, she drew his face down close to hers. "When we get back, Buttson, I'm going to..."

Utson's nostrils twitched and a fleck of spittle was visible the corner of his mouth. He was afraid, but he gathered his wits enough answer with a mocking threat of his own.

"You'll what?" Joan didn't answer. "Let me tell you what I'll do, you puny, conceited little pygmy. I'll have the bottie's contract pulled. See how much you fancy him then..."

"Enough!" I heard my own voice before I knew I was speaking. "Back off, M'Goto," I said, using Joan's surname to reinforce my rank and break her focus. I sensed a grin forming on Utson's face, gray and hollow in the languorous light of the planet's star. The grin melted away when I rounded on him next. "You keep your gob buttoned up on this mission," I said. "You're only here because of who your father is."

I should have stopped there but of course I did not. "Joan's twice the man you are and Bell's thrice the human. Any more trouble and I'll crash you."

Every once in a while it was good practice to remind a twinning team that there was one among them and only one—me—who held the crash codes in her mind and could send one or all of them back into their own probability vectors and thus back to their bodies or, depending on the circumstances, off into absolute and absolutely instant oblivion. I could crash a team and never face even the notion of an inquest. This was no democracy. It was business. Officially my authority was absolute and my accountability nil while twinning.

Utson and Joan separated, eyeing each other for a moment like children being sent to their rooms without supper. Joan then turned her attentions to Bellamy, who was already studying the landscape, pretending rather badly to have missed the entire episode.

The planet, at least the bit where we'd put in, was as flat as one of those old petrochemical music disks my father used to collect. Bell scanned the horizon, squinting through the visor-like mirrored sunglasses he wore almost everywhere except, I knew, to bed.

"I'm not getting much, Bird," he said, using my given name (after an early twentieth century jazz musician on one of those petrochemical disks). He turned slow, awkward circles, cocking his head this way and that, lifting his hands and craning his neck just noticeably, all of his senses straining, gathering, sifting and analyzing. His wetwork—the extra brains, the small one between his shoulders at the base of his skull and the larger one embedded in his abdomen—would have been working full on, processing, postulating, rejecting inconsistencies, forming opinions and arranging the results into potential courses of action. It's amazing what a few billion extra, finely-cultured neurons can do for a person's processing capacity at very little extra cost in terms of energy. Beef up the heart a bit, add a bit of blood, and you've got parallel processing.

"There," he said at last. "The water's this way."

We walked, taking it slowly at first so Bellamy could pace himself. I remember looking back at one point and seeing three sets of footprints like three dotted lines bisecting the surface of the planet. I should have, later on, been a little quicker to connect the dots, so to speak, but then if I had a dollar for everything I should have done in my life I'd be as rich as Buttson's father, Robert Utson Sr.—affectionately known in certain circles as Daddy Butt.

Gradually, the surface beneath our feet changed color and consistency, turning from a thin layer of cinnamon-colored sand to something like slate. Joan stopped and brushed her hand across the ground.

"Look at this," she said, standing now, displaying her hand, palm out to us.

"So?" Utson said. "There's nothing."

"That's sort of the point, I think," I said just as Joan's mouth opened to let fly with another insult. Utson was supposed to be our planetary systems man. Right.

Bellamy, close by, took Joan's hand and studied it and then ran his own hand over the surface. I looked back to where we'd come from, there were no more footprints.

Joan said, "It's as if it's been swept clean. There's no dust. No dirt. No sand..."

"Now she's a bloody walking thesaurus," Utson cut in. "Isn't that the botto's job?"

I felt Bellamy's reaction more than I saw it, even though I was looking directly at him. He bristled under the surface, struggling to keep his hands from balling into fists, biting back words that, once uttered, could not be taken back. Sensing another blue on the boil between Utson and Joan, I stepped in between them while addressing Bellamy. "What do you make of it, Bell?" I said.

He shot me a sad, grateful smile and continued his survey, turning, focusing his senses in that way of his, like a gemstone can focus a beam of innocuous photons into a cutting tool. It was this, his ability to concentrate so completely on one thing at a time, to possess an experience and at once be possessed by it in a way that I never would, that drew me to him. Watching him now, images appeared in my head, of being alone with him and him engaged that way, absorbed in my needs and desires, knowing what I wanted before even I did. After a time he looked at me and I thought for second that he'd read my thoughts. He said, "Huh," and turned back to whatever he'd seen in the distance.

"Huh," he said again. Again there was a smile, but this one different, like a child about to open a present, expecting to be disappointed but hoping against it. "A feature. There. An anomaly."

We started walking again, our pace doubled, each of us now engrossed in our own private game of beating back the fear, propelled forward by the obsessive curiosity that had gotten us here—aside, of course, from Utson, for whom curiosity was something to be bludgeoned to death in the pursuit of his own personal aggrandizement. We'd been to dozens of planets. So far, we'd found that life, as such, was common in the universe. But then, from what we'd seen so far and working from the Copernican principle that we live in an isotropic, homogenous universe, we'd come to the depressing, and mostly unspoken, conclusion that as far as intelligent life goes, we humans may be a bit late to the party. For instance, on a certain planet several months ago Bellamy and I had found four hematite arrowheads, conical in shape and threaded like screws, and a cut diamond the size of my fist. That was all. The planet was otherwise barren, near the end of its life cycle. It did not appear that it had ever been inhabited, at least in the way we humans think of inhabiting a place. Where did these things come from, then? Where did the rest of it go?

After an hour of walking we came to the edge of a body of what appeared to be liquid water, bronze streaked with red, stretching off to the horizon, waveless, glassine, as flat as the land we'd been traversing and as eerily still.

"Why aren't there any waves?" Utson wondered aloud. Joan and I shared a glance. An intellectual dynamo if ever there was one, our Sonny Butt.

"I think it's a very old planet," Bellamy said, half responding to Utson's query and half merely pondering the phenomenon for himself. "There's little or no volcanic activity, no thermal disequilibrium to stir an ocean."

"No wind," I interjected.

"The planet's a slow spinner," Bellamy answered. "There's probably some wind, sometime, but maybe not enough to lift the top thermal layer of water. No upwelling, at least not enough to break the surface tension. Maybe it's a cumulative effect. No stirring..."

"...it settles in layers," Joan finished for him. "Like soil."

"Oil and water," I said.

Utson said, "I could've told you that."

"But you didn't," Joan said.

They were nose-to-nose again. I had to physically separate them. "Right, you two. Stand down." I reckoned I was in for a top-up on the pay-grade if I was going to have to play nanny as well as everything else.

I'd lost track of Bellamy for an instant and turned to find him wandering off along the barely perceptible shoreline. His gait was uneven, but not as bad as I'd seen it before. I followed, directing the others to do the same, with Joan in front of me and Utson behind to keep them apart. We were close enough now to the anomaly that even my un-enhanced eyes could pick out a shape, a lump like a tortoise shell on the horizon. I don't recall now how long we walked before I heard Bellamy say, "It's a structure." He'd come to a stop and Joan was standing with him.

"Wait here," he said. He started forward and Joan started after him but I reached out and pulled her back.

"That's right," Utson mocked. "That's what he's for. He's expendable. He can't sue us if he gets hurt and there'll never be any wee botties running around to sue us if he carks it."

I'd had enough. It was true that Bell and his kind were, by law and out of hysterical, irrational fear, sterilized at birth. Here we were at the end of the twenty-first century, still defining people's legal status by their ability to reproduce. "If you so much as open your mouth again," I said to Utson, "I'll defrag your packet and rewrite your vector so that no computer will ever be able to unpack it."

I was fairly sure I'd gotten through to him this time. His knees knocked together twice and his hands tugged spastically at the hem of his shirt. It produced the desired effect of shutting him up while we waited for Bell.

I often envied Bellamy his reconnoitering duties: thousands of light years from home, we come across a structure built by alien beings before we Earthies had even crawled up out of the oceans, and he would be the first to see it up close, to examine it, smell it, feel its textures and contours and thus join it to the course of human endeavor in this vast, expanding universe. He approached the structure and climbed up on it. He waved us in and we went, Joan sprinting ahead.

Forgetting himself, Utson said, "Look at her," meaning Joan. The venom had crept back into his voice. "It's disgusting. Nice little chickadee like that going all gooey over a bloody arto. He doesn't even belong to hisself like a real person. He belongs to QCore, well and truly. If I had his contract pulled, he'd as good as starve to death. Nobody's going to hire one of his kind even to sweep their floors. We've real robots for that. Dinkum bots that know their place and don't try runnin' off with our women."

I bit my lip. I counted ten but got only to two. I said, "You'd just as soon see him in a collar with a tag around his neck like a dog. Your kind never learns, do you?"

"My kind? The law's on my side and you know it. One protein. One splice. That's all it takes for Eeyore," he taunted, referring to the EOR, the Enhanced Organism Registry. Anyone with even a single non-standard enhancement was supposed to be registered and chipped for tracking, ostensibly purely for research purposes. In reality it was a legal and social marker, identifying its wearer as somehow less than human so that people like Uston could have someone to feel superior to. "One drop of artie blood makes him a bloody artie," he went on. "You're just envious. The thought of M'Goto and him doing the doona dance, it's got your knickers all in a twist."

My temples pounded. I heard my knuckles popping as I flexed my hands. He was right. And I suppose that it was that, the fact that I'd been so transparent, that got to me. In any case, he should have kept it to himself. I closed my eyes. Q-code poured across my inner field of vision, some of which I'd loaded before we twinned and some of it coming from a place inside of me I'd not known was there. When I opened my eyes again, Utson was still there, but not all of him. The right half of him was missing and the rest was vanishing a little at a time in slices, something like a ham being sliced at a deli. He appeared to be conscious of what was happening to him as well, his left eye as big as a platter and the left side of his mouth pinned open in a silent scream. I could see right into his viscera and though I knew I ought to have been repulsed I found it all quite intriguing in an odd sort of way. And satisfying, too, especially when I noticed the second brain tucked just under his beating heart.

"Why Butto," I said, "You sly dog, you. You're one of them." I looked at his one remaining foot. It seemed fairly normal. "And such a little cheat as well."

He of course was a trifle too occupied with whatever his right eye was seeing—or not—in whatever alternative universe it was materializing in—or not—to answer.

"Just goes to show, does it not," I added, shaking a finger at him for good measure, "that it's not so much the brains as what you do with them."

I blinked and he was gone.

Up ahead, it appeared that Bellamy and Joan hadn't noticed anything amiss. When I caught them up, they were surveying the structure, walking around the on-shore half and peering around gently curved corners at the other half, which sat directly on the waterline.

"Mind the water," Bell was saying.

"It was somebody's dream house by the sea, I think" Joan was saying in her singsong African lilt. When she talked like that even I was inclined to sweep her off her feet and into bed. A dream house by the sea. Only Joan. Romance writ large, alive in her soul right along with the science and neither ever skipping a beat because of it.

I stood a ways off at first. They didn't seem to notice Utson's absence and I wasn't about to point it out. We'd have to cross that bridge sooner or later and later was looking pretty good. Joan climbed down into the interior of the ruin and peered back out at me from a narrow aperture in the wall.

"Window?" she called to me.

"Gun port?" I answered.

"Looked out on a garden, perhaps," she said. "I see little alien children playing in the sand. Making little alien sand castles.'

"What sand?" I answered. She shrugged. I said, "I see little alien enemies swarming in from three sides. Little alien teeth clattering for a bit of fresh alien kiddie-meat."

"You're such a spoilsport, Bird," she said.

"That's my job." I was surprised and, strangely, not a little proud to find myself engaging in light conversation so quickly after having dispatched a member of my own team to an uncertain fate.

"Just think," Joan gushed through the portal. "This was here, maybe bustling with life, quite possibly before our sun had even collected enough mass to ignite itself."

"Yes," I said, but I was thinking about Utson again, how easy it'd been. How easy it might be to do again, to someone else.

I shook my head to shake the thought away. Apparently, I didn't shake hard enough. Pictures of Joan and Bell sharing a newlywed suite on a cruise liner bound for Mars passed through my mind. I knew what he saw in her, of course, but I wasn't exactly the dog's breakfast as far as looks went, either. And the data showed that he and I were perfectly matched. When it came to physical profiles, sexual needs, emotional tolerances, my IQ and his processing capacity, it was as if we'd spent our lives on a collision course with each other; something like fate only with test tubes and q-chips. All twinners were registered for the program before we were even conceived. Every instant of every moment of every hour of our existences had been recorded and filed away, from zygote to blastocyst to fetus to birth to here; every firing of every neuron, every beat of our hearts, every bubble and gurgle and infantile bellow and fart. It was how the computers reconstructed us and our probability trajectories. Many were registered but few actually remained in the pool after birth. Fewer still at adulthood. If it weren't for Miss Dream-House-By-The-Sea M'Goto no one could doubt that it would be me at the top of Bellamy's to-do list, as it were. All that remained was for him to realize his mistake and set it right. How he could have fallen for this effervescent, perky-breasted exoarcheologist made no sense whatsoever.

"Joan! Bird! Take a look at this." It was Bellamy. I remember noting the fact that he'd called for her before me. It stung, and it took a moment to locate him around the side of the ruin. He was standing about three meters out in the water. Only he wasn't in with water as much as over it, sort of hovering, floating there, just a centimeter or two above the languid surface, walking—literally—on the water.

Joan and I spoke at the same time. I said, "Bellamy, be careful. Don't move." And she said, "What is it, Bell? Is it alive?"

It took my eyes a second to adjust, to see the it Joan was on about, a kind of transparent pillow of the planet's buttery light had congealed into a viscous, flowing mass, undulating beneath his feet. It raised him up a few centimeters higher and let him down again. Deliberately, he lifted one foot to inspect the bottom of his shoe. Running his hand along the sole, he looked back at us with his eyebrows cocked and a silly, pleasantly puzzled frown on his face. He bent low, fingers cupped as if to try and scoop up some of the light.

"No," I said. "Don't touch it."

He straightened and looked back at us. He smiled one of his little smiles and said, "It's quite beautiful, isn't it? The way it catches the light. I think it stores it, like in a jar."

"A jar of honey," Joan said.

Jar of honey? Luckily, we void our gastrointestinal tracts before we twin out. If I'd had anything in my stomach right then I might just have blown chunks all over the surface of this placid, pristine world.

"Out, or off, or whatever," I ordered him. "Now."

He came towards us high-stepping awkwardly, as if trying to navigate his way across the back of some huge, beached jellyfish. When he finally stepped onto the shore at the side of the structure I realized that I'd been holding my breath.

He looked around, eyes narrowed, and asked, "Where's Butt...Mr. Utson?" As if nothing had happened.

"Round the side there, draining the dragon," I said, pointing vaguely over my shoulder with my thumb. "Never mind him. What was that all about? What were you thinking?"

He shrugged. "I don't know."

Joan ran to his side. Instinctively, I took his arm and pulled him a few steps further ashore.

"It doesn't appear to be menacing us," he said.

"But where did it come from? How did it creep up on us like that?"

"It didn't," he said. "It was here. I just didn't see it. It's hard enough to see even if you're looking for it."

"Camouflage?" I asked.

"Could be, but that raises the question of what it's hiding from." Sometimes a man knows just what to say to a lady. Sometimes not.

"Maybe it's hiding from us," I offered a little too hopefully.

Behind us, near the waterline, Joan sat on the ground with her knees drawn to her chin, not an arm's length from the pulsating cloud of light. She was humming something, a childhood ditty that I recognized after a second as being the theme song from the old Bananas in Pajamas program. Funny. I'd pictured her as more as a kind of post-Wiggalian cyber-tramp than a connoisseur of fine children's entertainment.

Off on a tangent already, Bell appeared not to have heard me. "It's attached to the structure somehow, I think. This could be just a bit of it. The rest could be..." he broke off and spread his hands, indicating the rest of the planet, "anywhere. Or everywhere."

"Could it be a force field?"

"Maybe, but I think it's alive. There are non-random fluctuations. Pulses. But they're an-algorithmic. It's not code. Not Mechanical. It's something else."

He cocked his head back, listening. At first I thought he was listening for whatever it was that our jarless honey jar might be hiding from. I noticed then that the humming had stopped. No more Bananas. Bell and I both swung around to look back at the shoreline and I could feel the tension that had so suddenly taken him dissipate as he caught sight of Joan, sitting where we'd left her, gazing dreamily into the slowly churning light. And then she looked at us, her lips down-turned and her eyes as sad and faraway as any eyes I'd ever seen.

"I'm sorry," she said. Her voice was small and timid, very un-Joan-like. "I couldn't help it. It's so beautiful."

Bell closed the distance in three steps and dropped to her side. He reached for her but she warned him off, pushing at the air with her right hand, pushing him away. "Don't."

I went closer, and as I neared I saw that her left hand was immersed in the light. She'd touched it and it wasn't letting her go. Where her hand should have been visible because the thing itself was so translucent, there was just the outline of a hand, as if someone had traced her hand with invisible ink underwater. She closed her fingers and opened them again and the outline did the same, like a hand made of pure, liquid glass.

Bellamy knelt beside her, his eyes darting back and forth between her and the light. It was apparent that it was consuming her, creeping up her arm, swallowing her a little at a time. I reached out on an impulse as Bellamy had done, to pull her clear, but Bell grabbed my wrist. He said, "Look," lifting his head a little, glancing up and down Joan's body. She began to shimmer, glistening from head to toe as the cloud drank her in.

I stepped back and ordered Bellamy to stand clear. Joan's crash code raced through my mind and I tagged it and executed it. It should have vaporized her from our point of reference and sent her back.

Nothing. I ran the code again. Again, nothing.

She sat, her knees tucked up to her chin. The light had climbed all the way up her arm and across her chest now, turning her body a little at a time into a tumbling, limpid silhouette of itself.

"You know better than to...," I started, but the look Bellamy gave me caused the rest to wither in my mouth.

"It doesn't hurt," Joan said. "It's actually sort of pleasant." And then it took her completely.

I watched Bellamy for his reaction, wanting to comfort him but wanting him to turn to me, to ask for it. Instead, he just stood there, looking out to over the water, his back to me, whispering her name.

"It wasn't your fault," I said, but he wasn't listening.

"Joan," he said. And then louder. "Joan?" And again, louder still.

"Bell, listen to me..."

"Shut up," he said. "Look." He pointed.

I followed his gaze. A form, her form, had risen up out of the light like the idea, just the essence, of a dragonfly caught in liquid amber, alive and unaware of its predicament, the resin amenable to changing shape and nuance. She started dancing then, whirling around and around. Her arms flew out to her sides as she spun, her fingers curved upwards and slightly apart, her lips parted in a private, inward smile.

Stunned, I could not speak at first. I went to Bellamy's side. Expecting outrage I saw serenity in his expression. Expecting anguish I saw connection. I saw rapture. He reached out, slowly, tentatively, to touch it too, to offer himself, to follow.

"No!" I shouted. "You can't."

"I'm going with her," he said. "I have to go."

"I'll crash you, Bell. Don't you move."

He fell back on the shore, sitting with his legs crossed, his hands tugging crazily at his feet. He looked up at me and shook his head. He said, "You've no right, Bird. You're better than this."

"I'm not," I answered. "She's done this to herself. I can't lose you, too. If I let you go like this, I'll never get another team."

"You mean if you lose a valuable piece of equipment like me."



He was right, of course, and I knew it.

"I can't believe you're doing this, Bird. I'm no slave."

"No, you're not, Bell. Not legally. But just the same, your time belongs to QCore. You have to come back with me. Maybe one day you'll earn enough to buy off your contract, but until that day..." Nothing I could have said could have been calculated to hurt him more.

I hated myself and still I stood my ground. "Even that, that thing," I pointed to the light, where what was left of Joan was spinning around and around like a child in the park on a summer's day, "doesn't want you. You were standing right on top of it and it didn't take you."

He looked up at me. I saw that he was laughing. Noiselessly, almost gently, but laughing nonetheless. How could he be laughing? He took his sunglasses off. His eyes, bio-marked at birth with the crimson retinal tattoo of a multicephaloid, brimmed with pity. One at a time he kicked off his shoes, the holo-runners Utson had ridiculed earlier. Revealed now, as I knew they'd be, were his feet, genetically hobbled from before the day he was born; three large toes curled down under the foot. Without the special shoes he wouldn't be able to walk a kilometer before collapsing. It was another way we kept them them and not us. It was why, even with the shoes, he had such trouble walking from time to time.

He stood up, shaking his head like there was something I wasn't getting. And there was, of course. The bloody shoes. Holograms. Three pairs of footprints back at the landing zone instead of four. The field they generated must have masked his presence. When he'd been standing on the light before, it simply hadn't recognized him as a life form. He waded again into the strange, luminous cloud. It pooled around his ankles and then crept silently up his legs until he began to go transparent. In moments, he was consumed.

Devastated, I collapsed in a quivering heap on the shore. I sat there for hours, watching, maybe crying, recriminations thrashing about in my head. If I could get back to Daedalus, I could reset the programs, I thought. I could replay the mission, maybe. But I knew that even that would deliver me nothing more substantial than a silly kind of revolving game, changing with each iteration only so much as the initial parameters allowed. With the memories having been downloaded and the processors having sifted the data, those parameters would be limited. All substantial uncertainty, to the extent that it ever existed at all, would have been washed out of the events themselves by the unyielding onward rush of time's arrow. We can twin a team of eccentric scientists halfway round the universe to squabble and argue and fall oblivious into alien honey-traps, but we cannot yet send a single organic molecule back a millisecond in time. If I'd done something differently, would it have mattered? I had to wonder if, apart from crashing Utson—which I will go to my death someday wishing I had the opportunity to do again, and again and again, damn the consequences—I would indeed have changed any one thing that I did. I'm a leader. I lead. I make decisions and I have to live with them. It's my job. And then, too, was the question of if I could have done anything differently that would have mattered. At what point in the intersections of time and space did the probabilities that governed each of us then converge into a common fate from which we were incapable of extracting ourselves?

And, even if I had the opportunity, would I have the right to do anything differently? Not the legal right—which up until then had been the source of my authority, even my ability to act—but the moral right. After all, regardless of my somewhat selfish motives, I acted to protect Bellamy and, yes, even Joan. Protect them from themselves, perhaps, but still...We humans do not, it seems, leave our peculiar, agonizing moral quandaries at the door when we so blithely slip the proverbial bonds, do we?

I slept. The alien sun hovered low on the horizon, sometimes over the sea, sometimes over the land, marking days and nights in which the light did not vary much. I recall waking up and deciding, of a sudden, that it was time to go home, to get back to my body and to set up a protocol for taking care of the bodies of the others. I closed my eyes and ran my retrieval code. When I opened them again, nothing had changed. I was still on the planet.

And then came the visual static, like white noise only in q-code. Nonsense numbers and fragments of q-spin indicators.

Then, letters. AC D N A T RS.

I uploaded my retrieval sequence once more. I appeared to be getting through, but something was happening at the other end, which caused me a little concern because, as one might imagine, nothing was supposed to be happening at the other end. The computer was supposed to be blind as far as the mission was concerned as long as there was a twin in the field. Otherwise there was the danger of collapsing the probability wave the twin was riding and aborting the mission, possibly losing the twin.

In response to my input, more letters, this time streaming across the surface of the silent sea before me: AC SS D N D AU H URS. It hit me then like a load of wet bricks.


Apparently, my having facilitated BabyButt's rather messy exit from the universe had registered with the programmers at the computational facility and DaddyButt was having a bit of revenge. I realized at that moment that there would be no going back, and likely no me to go back to even if going back had been an option. And, oddly enough, I'm not sure I felt all that badly about it. A little sad, a little angry, yes, but not otherwise able to muster much of a cry about it.

Time passes slowly here if indeed it passes at all. Joan and Bellamy dance, a pair of translucent figurines in perpetual motion, pirouetting in the light of a never-ending sunset, Bellamy as graceful on his hooves as any full-human ever was on feet. They disappear now and again. I don't know where they go. I am alone in those moments, but how much more so, I wonder, than when they're here? Nonetheless, it is a comfort when they return. I make up stories about where they've been and what they've seen. I've tried to go with them, wading into the water, into the midst of the light, reaching out and attempting to embrace it. Once I even tried drinking the water, to no effect. Whatever it is, or whatever they are now, Bell and Joan, they will not have me. There is no indication that they or it even know I'm here, although I suspect at times they do, if even just vaguely. At least I hope they do—need them to. Otherwise, what am I in this silent, unchanging world but a pair of eyes attached to a brain with too little to do?

I see Joan's head tip back and her lips part as if in anticipation of a kiss but I know that it is something else. She is singing. The song of the distant dead. But for me, there is only silence.

 [ Song of the distant dead, © 2008 Paul Downes ]

© 2008 David Dumitru

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