Bad things happen and sometimes there’s no one to blame. But each time I heard that from some well-meaning friend, the knife twisted a little further, cut a little deeper. I didn’t need them to tell me I was throwing everything to the wind: career, money, marriage. It wasn’t as if I had a choice.
Damned if I was going to lose my daughter–not again. Each death was a little harder to bear than the last.
So I pulled the photos from the envelope for one last look, even though I was running late for the divorce hearing. It gave me pleasure knowing Suzanne’s lawyers probably billed her by the minute.
I tilted the photograph on top for a better look. Except for a desk lamp, the apartment was in darkness. Beyond the picture window, downtown city lights glittered distantly thirty stories below. Suzanne used to call the place god’s platform and it did seem rather apt. My money had bought me that: luxury and distance–and other things besides.
In the photo, Alyson looked happy. We’d had a row the morning of her death, a stupid, pointless little argument. But I saw no trace of lingering resentment on her face now. I tilted the photo to catch the light, wanting to be sure.
Tomorrow (or maybe the day after) this would all be gone: the apartment, the houses, cars, investments–all my assets liquidated. But it would buy me the most important thing of all.
And that was all that mattered.
Sightings of the magical morfi fruit are exceedingly rare. Some say it only grows on the tip-top of the tallest peak in the Himalayas. Others say it grows on the red-hot rim of volcanoes, just after the lava has receded. Even others say it will only grow inside the stomach of a live crocodile and must be plucked while the beast is still alive, or it will shrivel and harden like a cherry pit. None of these places are likely to be visited by a ten year old boy, but somehow Johnny Dawson found a morfi and brought it to class as a gift for his teacher. He won’t tell me where he found it, and I’ve been his best friend for many years.
Everyone has their own theories about what happened the day he brought the fruit. I saw most of it myself, and learned the rest of it from Johnny.
Johnny walked into class that day with the morfi fruit in hand. It looked like a cross between an orange and a mango, but with little red hairs like the bristles on a kiwi. He placed it on Mrs. Whitmore’s desk and crossed his fingers behind his back for good luck. He was sure that she couldn’t help loving a gift as unique as that. Maybe she would give him an A right on the spot!
Unfortunately for him, his gift was not well-received because he was twenty-two minutes late for school. When Mrs. Whitmore finished her complex scribbles on the blackboard, she turned around and her face crinkled up like she’d bitten into a lemon. She looked even older when she made that expression.
“Johnny!” She jabbed the nub of chalk at him. “You’re late. Again. That’s detention.”
His shoulders sagged and his head drooped. He shuffled to his desk. He didn’t even grab his favorite hamster from its cage, like he usually did. He didn’t say a word through the rest of the day unless Mrs. Whitmore asked him directly. Usually he was so full of whys and hows and whos that she could barely finish a sentence without being interrupted. He even sat out of kickball at recess, his favorite game.
When the three o’ clock bell rang, the other kids ran for the door and sweet freedom. Johnny watched them go, then stared at the clock, waiting for it to tick away the seconds of his imprisonment.
A scratchy sandpaper sound drew his attention to Mrs. Whitmore’s desk. She was trying to polish the morfi fruit on her shirt. Her eyes met his and she smiled. He wondered why she didn’t smile more often. For a moment she seemed only a little old, instead of fossil-old.
“Where did you find this?” she asked.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. It is…very interesting.”
He didn’t say anything.
She pulled a plastic knife from her drawer and sliced the morfi open. The meat inside was purple and juicy, and it filled the room with the smell of roses. She stabbed a bit with her knife and raised it to her mouth. Johnny held his breath and sat up straight. If she liked it enough, maybe she would let him out of detention. She touched a bit of it to her tongue. Her face twisted with distaste. Johnny slumped down again and let his breath out in a long sigh.
She looked over at him and smiled again, the forced smile of someone with an upset stomach. “The strangest thing,” she said. “It tastes exactly like sauerkraut. I wasn’t ready for it.”
He slouched lower in his seat until he couldn’t slouch any further without falling out of his chair. She took the smallest of bites. She chewed and chewed, and finally swallowed.
Her stomach gurgled loudly and she clapped her hands over her mouth as she dashed from the room. Johnny followed behind to see where she went, and saw her run into the most forbidden and mysterious part of the school: the teacher’s lounge. He ran up to the door and peered through the window.
The other teachers were inside, sharing a cup of coffee. Mrs. Whitmore dashed through and into the faculty bathroom.
They gaped at her as she ran past, then went back to talking about whatever teachers talk about. Maybe discussing the advantages of plastic rulers versus wooden ones.
They were interrupted again when a young girl exited the bathroom. She couldn’t have been more than nine years old, with yellow hair and blue eyes. She could have been Mrs. Whitmore’s granddaughter. She was wearing Mrs. Whitmore’s clothes. Or trying to. Mrs. Whitmore wasn’t a large woman, but her clothes were loose on a girl that age. One hand held tightly to the waistband of her skirt and another to the collar of her shirt to keep herself together.
Johnny pressed his ear up against the door so he could hear.
“Who are you?” Principal Nelson asked.
“I’m Ellen Whitmore. I don’t know what’s happened to me. I think it’s stopped, whatever it is. I just took a bite of the strangest fruit, and then this happened.”
“A fruit? Can we see?”
Johnny ran back to the classroom before they could catch him at the door, and he was waiting attentively when the young Ellen Whitmore led the teachers back to her classroom.
“That’s it.” She pointed at the morfi. “I felt so terrible about hurting his feelings that I took a bite to cheer him up.”
“It’s a magic fruit!”
“It’s not just a fruit! It’s the fountain of youth!”
Three of the older teachers reached for it all at once. After some scratching and hair pulling, each one got a bite.
They didn’t experience the delayed reaction and sickness Mrs. Whitmore had felt. Each of them changed right then and there, each in their own way.
Mr. Truman crouched down on all fours. His skin turned green and scaly and he shrunk down until he turned into a turtle, waddling along on the ground. Miss Harrison stretched up and up until she was taller than any professional basketball player. Mr. Jones disappeared with a pop. No one’s seen or heard from him since.
The rest of the teachers backed away from the fruit as if it were a bomb.
Johnny had to find out what it was like! What would happen to him when he took a bite? He dashed for it, grabbed the morfi off the tile floor, and took a great big bite. It didn’t taste like sauerkraut at all. It tasted like pecan pie with a big dollop of whipped cream. But he didn’t seem to change at all, and he tried to hold back the disappointment.
Ellen Whitmore peered closely at him. “Do you feel a change coming on, Johnny?”
The other teachers also stared, but only the tops of their heads were visible. They were crouching behind Ellen Whitmore’s desk, in case he exploded.
He noticed a tingle in his muscles, a strength flowing into them. He grinned and grabbed the desk, hefting it up above his head. The teachers stared up at him in shock.
What else could he do now? He set the desk down gently where it belonged and ran straight for the outer wall of the school. He charged through it like it was made of paper and bounded across the playground.
He heard geese honking far overhead. The freedom they must feel with the wind blowing through their feathers, on their way to somewhere warmer. He bent his legs and jumped, not quite as hard as he could. Up and up he went until the town looked like it was a collection of models. He didn’t come back down for quite some time.
Back in the classroom, the teachers were in a panic.
“There’s no telling what it can do!” someone said.
“We’d better call the police. No! The FBI. The CIA. All of them!”
“I guess we’d better take the fruit with us,” Principal Nelson said, without much conviction.
But no one would volunteer to pick it up, so they all agreed to leave and call the proper authorities. They grabbed Mr. Truman the turtle and left with such haste that they knocked over the hamster cage. The teachers didn’t even notice, in their rush to leave.
By the time they returned the morfi fruit was gone, and so were my fellow hamsters and I. Since then I’ve done well for myself. I took advanced classes and received my high school diploma the same year as Johnny.
Why did the fruit affect each person differently? I’m not sure, but I have an idea. Mrs. Whitmore took a bite out of kindness, because she was sorry for hurting Johnny’s feelings, so the fruit affected her in a good way. But the other teachers took a bite out of greed. Johnny took a bite with the innocence of youth, so his wildest dreams came true.
What happened to the other hamsters? Well, they didn’t turn out so well as me. No ambition. They’re working dead-end jobs. Their lives never change, like they’re running in place. It’s sad, really.
Johnny and I, on the other hand, have just finished our first year at New York State. He keeps himself very busy. The crime rate has dropped in half since we moved here, and he still manages to keep his grades up. I’m pursuing a PhD in biochemistry, and he wants to go into law enforcement.
David Steffen is a writer, editor, and software engineer living in Minnesota. He runs the Submission Grinder, a free web tool for writers to track their submissiona and find new markets for their work. He edits the zine Diabolical Plots which began publishing fiction in 2015. He is also the editor of the Long List Anthology: More Stories from the Hugo Award Nomination List.
The Capekean teachers (named after the ancient Earth writer Karl Capek who coined the term ‘robots’ in his 1920 play R.U.R), were herding the students into the glade. It was late afternoon and the air was gravid. Still. Oppressive. Not even an insect dared mount a buzzing flight in this muffled wet heat. The sky’s blue seemed vast and watchful brooding over the landing site as if it were waiting for something to start. The turquoise sky was without the whisper of a cloud—except for the four slowly dispersing vapor trails of the Syndicate ships that had burned through the atmosphere to the planet nearly forty minutes ago.
Admiral Kosk sighed. Why was he the one called to do this? Why do this at all? Orders or not he could not keep the word ‘why?’ from repeatedly bubbling into his skull. He paced back and forth. Angry. Jawing his cigar as he repeatedly consulted his qnet communication channels. He looked at the gathering teachers and reminded himself they were not human, that they were machines, and that no matter how closely they imitated sentience they were not—so said all the prophets. It must be true. Right?
He knew this bewitching planet well. He had gone to school here, no, more than that, he had been raised here from age six to twelve. Taught by these teachers. He had played ‘Conic Raider and Primus Settler’ with this best friend Zad in the woods ringing the large meadow in which they had just landed. He had floated down the nearby river Neflon on an air filled donut and floated high above its forests in hot air balloons while studying canopy ecology in its equatorial rainforests. His fondest memories had all happened here—maybe the most carefree and happy time of his life.
His mind instantly jumped when he and his little friend Jinx had first kissed in this very glade. Was that really over forty-five years ago? Much had passed since. He looked at the gathered students; the younger ones were taking it in stride, chatting among themselves, but the older ones looked confused and perturbed. They had never seen the military land here. Ever. They had to suspect something was up.
The Admiral uplinked onto the military bands and checked the time. This was taking too long. The suzerain should be here already and several cohorts of children were still missing, likely on field excursions. It was not winter, so none should be off exploring the southern hemisphere’s thousands of miles of beaches. If they were, it would take hours to round them up. He checked the time again. There was really no hurry, but even so, he wanted this to be over as soon as possible. It was not pleasant duty. Indeed, ugly, horrid duty. He found himself almost sick in ways unbecoming of a soldier of the Dawkist Syndicate. Orders were orders, however. He would do what was asked. He always had.
Because he was an orthodox Dawkist, he did not have gene-integrated digital and conscious signaling enabled. He linked with his Second, “After the children are onboard, on my signal strike.”
“Any sign of possible resistance? Or is it as intelligence reported?”
The Admiral stared coldly at this officer as if he might shoot him.
He backed away chastened, “Right. They are just teachers.”
He looked across the field and saw Bla’a Kitra. When he was a student here, she had been his favorite teacher. If anyone could have convinced him that the prophets were wrong about Capeks lacking consciousness, it would have been her. His mind brought up memories he would have rather not visited at this moment. Recollections of when together, they—along with four others whose names have melted into the crevasses of lost memories—backpacked for two months through the Dakure Plain. They made themselves invisible for most of the trip with Hydoplex cloaks—walking among the giant predators and herd beasts that had evolved on this planet—a magical experience. At night, they would look at the stars scattered and burning through the striking expanse of the Nipmouse Nebula. It blazed orange and red across nearly the entire southern sky. The stories she would tell! Myths from the human past. Stories, she explained, provided meaning through the epochs of their cultural development on Earth. He remembered she discoursed on how humans had evolved on plains very much like this one; how the emergence of intelligence had then expanded into the Capekean event when artificial intelligence became actual intelligence and a new evolution emerged as technology reached into the quantum world and a new kind of sentience bubbled into existence. She spoke of how the heavens were now as full of thought as it is of stars.
All of it was heresy of course. The teachers were not supposed to talk about the rise of the Capeks to the Dawkist children, whose most fundamental belief was that humans were the only conscious beings in the universe. The Capeks were machines. Sophisticated machines, true, ones that mimicked real intelligence magnificently, but machines nevertheless. Sometimes, however, there in the dark, under stars, a kind of wonder took over making everything okay to talk about, as if all rules, ethics, norms, and such were set aside and imagination allowed to blaze into the firelight of speculation.
It was under that sky that he had almost abandoned Dawkism. How could this creature beside him speaking so clearly, so rationally—a being so filled with wonder and thought toying with the mysteries, not be conscious? The teachers rarely let their guard down like that, but it happened occasionally and people tolerated it. Most adults realized that at some point in their children’s lives they would be confronted with doubts about the singularity of consciousness and its provenance only in humans. Many fell into error. Tempted to think of the tick-tocks as sentient creatures. Although first created by humans, they had since evolved into myriad new forms with new capacities, abilities, and intelligences.
Of course, at a school taught and staffed by the human-mimic Capeks, it was inevitable that some students would be seduced by their clever mimicry of sentience. But the Dawkist council felt that those who did emerge unscathed were the stronger for it, hence sending their best and brightest children to the Academe-on-Schule. Like Admiral Kosk himself. If he remembered right, two of his four companions on that excursion had betrayed the Dawkist vision.
Alice sits on the edge of the sofa, almost impervious to the whispers of the men and women dressed in mourning clothes milling about in the living room. The drapes are drawn for the somber occasion. Alice’s hands are folded in her lap, her brown hair long and parted. Her clothes are simple: a plain but tailored dress and a pair of glossy black shoes.
“Can you even imagine?”
One woman’s words slip between the guests to find their way to her, but she doesn’t flinch. She knows not to react when she’s unsure of how, that much has always been a given. A conservative choice, to be sure, but that, too, is by design.
Julie has died. Alice knows that, too: her foster mother, three days ago, in a car accident, the fatal combination of a failed airbag deployment and a slow-reacting holdout in the other car. A human driver. Other whispers in the room say there will be a lawsuit, that it’s unbelievable that anyone is still allowed to drive their own cars these days, that there ought to be a law.
“And poor Emmet,” they say. Her foster father. “Can you even imagine?”
“Do you think they’ll take it away?”
Another beautiful morning began on Bannanatattatantsia. The red sun of morning burst like a fireball over the horizon, exploding in pink and orange rays across the sky. But Calligraphy Shopworn barely noticed. She was too busy cleaning the blood and gore from her sheets. A new iron spire had forced its way out of her back during the night, taking its place among the others along her spine.
She gathered the bloody sheets. Later she could get some more from Mrs. TVscreen. Calli lumped her remaining bedding into the pile of rags she called her bed. It wasn’t one, really. No real bed could accommodate the weight and bulk of her body’s changing form. The pile just occupied a warm corner of her dome by an open window. Through it, she had a clear view of the nearly unspoiled beauty of this lonely pebble of a planet. Anything to distract her from her unending agony. Someone knocked at her door.
“Come in,” she said.
Vash Graylighting entered. Calli couldn’t help smiling as she went back to her cleaning. Vash came to see her almost every morning, another distraction from the pain. He towered over her, but everyone seemed tall from Calli’s low point of view on her hover cart. She liked to think of Vash as being especially tall, though. He had cold eyes, but a warm smile; and among the altered men and women of this planet, he appeared almost normal, not as disfigured as she.
“Morning, Calli, I–” he began, but a mumbling beneath his clothes interrupted him. He slapped his arms and sides, and the mumbling stopped. “I wondered if you had some more rags I could use.” He leaned against the corrugated metal wall in that casual way Calli liked.
She smiled and knew he could get rags the same way she could. He simply made an excuse to see her. “You can have some of these. They have blood on them, though.”
“I don’t need them to be clean.” He brushed his hand over his baggy coat.
Calli pressed a few buttons on the control unit by her arm, and the hover cart that held her elephantine bulk rose a few feet with the subtlest of hums. Operating the hover cart tired her because she only had the use of one arm, the other having weeks before been converted into a sort of archway, or buttress; she didn’t know what to call that part of the cathedral growing from her back. She said to Vash, “I thought about ordering a few things from Mrs. TVscreen. Would you like to come?”
“Sure.” Vash looked her over.
If more of her skin had been visible, Calli would have blushed. She could feel heat rush over her in waves.
“You look different. Have you done something to the rose window?”
Her hand instinctively covered her chest and the violet glass there. “No, the spire of another tower came through last night. I was cleaning the mess before you arrived.”
“Ah, you know, Calli, you’re really turning into a beautiful cathedral.”
“Thanks,” she said. She knew he meant well.
It was the perfect day to walk down to the river and see what was left of the dead metal, rusting away since the war. The weather was about like today, crisp and dry. Some folks whispered that some of it still walked, moved, even hunted, but just like you, we were sure that was all lies.
That’s why we wanted to see The Bottom for ourselves, like you two do.
First, we had to ditch Grandpa. That chance appeared when he stopped with his hand on the front gate. He held it halfway open and turned his head, laughing to himself. “Almost forgot my cane.”
He turned around and went back in the house. I looked at Tommy and tilted my head towards the road. “Let’s just go.”
Tommy looked out at the red leaves dancing on the pavement, then back over his shoulder. Mama stood watching from the front window. “She’d whip us if we did.”
“How are we ever gonna get to the Bottom with him along?”
Tommy shrugged. “Maybe we just scout it out today. A recon mission.”
Sometimes, he had good ideas. For a ten year-old. “Then go back later?” I said.
“Yeah. Tomorrow. Or the day after.”
The old wood of the front stoop groaned as Grandpa made his way down the stairs. He took the weight off his bad leg and leaned on his cane. “What’s it going to be today?”
Tommy nodded for me to ask. I said, “Can we go see Shockoe Bottom?”
Grandpa said, “Why would you want to go down there?”
“Just to the bridge,” said Tommy.
I added, “Mama said we could.” She hadn’t.
Grandpa looked back at Mama through the window. She waved and smiled. He considered the request and shrugged. “Well then, let’s go.”
We set out down the road, Grandpa behind us. He was in fine enough shape, except for his leg. Mama told us he hurt it in the war. Grandpa said he had arthritis. Tommy and I went back and forth on who we believed. Either way, we didn’t believe any of the stories about metal walking around in The Bottom. Between you and me, I wish we had.
Mama said that was where Richmond used to go on the weekends. Before the war. When the metal marched into town, it came in from the west and drove the whole city downhill, trapping thousands against the flood wall.
We walked through the burned out buildings and deserted businesses, down Hull Street to the James River. We crossed over the rusted spans of Mayo bridge and got a good look at what used to be downtown Richmond. The bare girders in the buildings stuck up so high in the sky I couldn’t imagine why they didn’t fall over, but Grandpa acted like they weren’t there. He just limped along slow and steady behind us.
We had heard about a spot just over the bridge where the flood wall joined up with the barricade. Story was, you could get over the wall and go down into The Bottom.
Tommy saw it first. We crossed from the bridge onto solid ground and he let out a low half whistle. He flicked his eyes in that direction. A school bus sat on four flat tires, next to the wall. He thought he was quiet, but Grandpa heard.
“So, that’s why we’re out here,” he said.
I felt the red creep into my cheeks. “What?”
“You two want to see The Bottom?”
Tommy turned away from the bus. “No, I was whistling because… Because-”
Grandpa said, “You didn’t come out here to get a look over the wall?”
I gulped. “Well. It is right there. We could just climb up and look.”
Grandpa grunted and headed for the bus. He pushed the door open and went up the cracked rubber steps. He used his cane to push the remnants of the windshield out onto the hood. Steadying himself against the back of the driver’s seat, he climbed over the dashboard. Glass crunched under his feet, the hood groaned under his weight. We followed after and helped him up onto the roof. A rusty ladder missing one rung stretched across the two-foot gap between the wall and the bus. We took turns crawling across, and then stood up on the other side. The concrete of the flood wall crunched and flaked under our shoes, little pebbles bounced down and clattered on the ground.
We looked out into The Bottom. More than anything, it was empty. Not scary. Just empty. Weeds grew everywhere. Tree roots cracked the sidewalks. Cars without drivers blocked the streets. A sunflower grew through a hole in a roof of a burned out van. Piles of smashed furniture and boards blocked the fronts of some buildings. The other buildings gaped open, like mouths with their teeth knocked out.
Grandpa picked his way down the piled up concrete and palettes to the ground. We went after him. He pointed out some sharpened rebar sticking out of the pile.
“Look out for that,” he said.
Tommy rolled his eyes.
Sure, travelling three months to Endomis Station just to savor Mort’s pumperpretzels is a tiny bit of crazy, but it’s the kind of thing I’d do even if humanity didn’t have its upcoming arm-wrestle with God. Until recently, the only thing that marked this spinning kazoo on the planetary charts was Mort’s use of a unique bioengineered yeast strain, one that produces the best pumpernickel this side of the Venusian Ovens. Of course, there’s also the fact that it sits smack dab in no-man’s space, between the Terran Hegemony, the Martian Co-Prosperity Sphere, and the controlled chaos that is the Asteroid Anarchy. I suspect it’s this, rather than Mort’s loafy lusciousness, that made it the ideal place to fool the Godstar.
“Better store up some hot air, Gordon,” Mati said, tapping her foot and pointing to Endomis’ rotating oblong tube on the big screen. Set against the starry black, the gently turning metal tube glinted sharply in the distant sun, its upper bioyeast labs fully lit. Media shuttles extended from Endomis’ airlocks like thorns, giving it the appearance of some bizarre space-succulent.
I shook my head. “Disagree. Compared to you, I bet I’ll get as much attention as broccoli in a cat kennel. It’s not every day that humanity’s most famous superstar mathematician flits out of her garden.”
“Yes, but you’re the first member of the Omnite clergy to arrive, and it’s your God they’re going to disprove.” Her left hand, which had been slapping her hip absently, suddenly froze. “Or prove.”
I scowled. Mati was as opinionated as you’d expect for a lady smart enough to decode gazilobytes of information from what everyone else thought was white light. She often reminded me of an intense gray-haired hummingbird, darting from idea to idea–a tiny slip of a woman whose brain-to-body mass must’ve exceeded anything in the known universe.
“God?” I said. “I’m just here for the dark loaf.”
She pursed her lips. “What kind of priest are you, anyway?”
“A hungry one.”
Mati’s been my friend for twenty-five years, ever since I first interviewed her over the differential equations that had spawned a religion. Which meant I could give her hell whenever I wanted.
“Can’t believe we’re here, Dr. Antoretti,” said Cullen O’Shaunessy, hobbling up to Mati on his walker. “Feels like it’s been a year.”
“It feels exactly like three months,” Mati said sharply. Her hand began smacking her hip again, like she was preparing for some African juba dance. “But I can certainly see how it could appear longer, as the brain tends to overcompensate for boredom and lack of activity. Yes, maybe it felt like a year.”
Cullen and I exchanged knowing looks. Mati was to idle chit-chat what quantum physics was to nematodes, but this habit of following up her acerbic observations with a minute of back-stepping was fairly new. Cullen had put up with it good naturedly the entire trip; he was a decent kid. Too bad his continued existence owed more to the vagaries of some grand physics experiment than normal human benevolence.
There was a slight jolt as the ship hit the docking tube, and the first circular airlock opened. Smells of WD-40 and bleach assaulted me, the latter ensuring no viruses wormed their way from ship to station.
I patted down my robe, suddenly forgetting about everything else. Omnos knows, I’m no specimen of abdominal flexing. I’m a foodie, and yes, it shows. I ran fingers through my thinning blond hair and plastered a beatific smile on my face.
A whoosh of equalizing air pressure as the second airlock opened, and I felt the tug of dueling gravity generators. Trying not to buckle in the suddenly heavy pull, I walked toward the mass of hand-waving reporters on the other side of the airlock.
“Mr. Everly, what do you think this event will mean for the Omnite view of the universe?” shouted a crimson-haired man as I stepped aboard the station. A forest of hands shoved into my face, as if I was supposed to execute some massive high-five.
Mati was right, as usual. To my chagrin, that cluster of red wigs (why do all reporters have to have red hair these days?) had bypassed her and had made a beeline straight for me. Their hands fought for air time in my face, and I found myself wishing a pox on the guy who’d invented hand-mikes. Then I remembered I was on mindbeam, and re-inserted my best happy-person smile.
“Well, that’s what we’ll find out, isn’t it?” I said brightly. “I expect when the first information is received from the Magellan, it’ll show that Omnos has predicted the future.”
“What if it doesn’t?” shouted a petite woman, her red wig and black magneto-boots invoking visions of some naughty elfin prison guard. “What does that mean for Omnite doctrine?”
“It means that God works in mysterious ways,” I said carefully. “Even without foreknowledge, what human process could weave the DNA of every single living person into light from a faraway star and in the process include a massive amount of incomprehensible information that is slowly being revealed over time?”
“I see you’re still spouting the same tired doctrine, Gordon,” said a familiar female voice. “Even if the data shows Omnos did predict the future, it doesn’t prove divinity, only that we missed something in physics 101.”
I turned to my lovely nemesis Jonasa Wagner, leader of the Venus chapter of CLEAR–Citizen’s League of Enlightenment and Reason. Just as in all our holo debate shows, she wore a no-nonsense pantsuit and dark top, making sure we all understood her Seriousness. A tall, powerful woman, she had jet-black hair and intense blue eyes that could cow any man not raised by Amazons.
“Well, Jonasa, at what point does human hubris allow us to stop pretending that everything is quantifiable, and start recognizing that there are some things we may never explain?”
She watched me from beneath a cascade of luscious black hair. Her high cheekbones radiated purple, the mood-cream translating her confidence into a violet glow. “Yet your God offers no moral dictates, and the only hope that’ll happen is if the army of decoders managed by the Omnite church finally deciphers all the side-band information. Doesn’t that make your religion more of a science?”
Every reporter huddled inward, shoving their hands between our faces. Oh how they loved our little debates.
I clasped my hands together. “We believe Omnos will guide our evolution as a species, and said guidance will include rules of morality and growth. We don’t know that’s what’s in Omnos’ ancillary information, but we have faith. And isn’t every religion based on faith?”
Her eyes gleamed. “Yes, but–“
“Excuse me, but I suspect Mr. Everly is tired from the three month journey and might like to see his room,” said a short man to my right. He was wearing a brown-white uniform that resembled the vanilla-chocolate swirl I’d had yesterday, and I pegged him for the Endomis station representative.
I nodded brightly at him. “Yes, that would be lovely.”
I followed him amid a cacophony of shouted questions from the reporters, which I happily stifled by waving my hand in their faces as we walked away. Just before we rounded the bend in the steel hallway, I turned to look at Jonasa, who was watching me with a slight scowl.
“I’m Gunnet Bradley, Endomis Mayor,” said the short man, extending his hand. We shook, and his voice went into tour-guide mode as we escaped the red-haired gaggle. “Endomis has over six hundred residents, a few of whom work in the bioyeast labs. Still, most are independent souls, some with–ah–a few minor legal issues. As you may know, Endomis station isn’t subject to the laws of any of the three major powers…”
I listened with half an ear. Much as I hated to admit it, the debates with Jonasa always ruffled my feathers. And this time, her sniping had burrowed even further under my skin than usual.
Mati’s first presentation to the journal of Astrophysics back in 2210, the horribly mundanely titled “Photonic Anomalies in HD29641”, had electrified humanity from day one. Using mathematical disciplines odder than an Antarctic amusement park, she’d shown that light from a particular star in the constellation Orion was transmitting actual information, rather than the spectra of its component elements like every other self-respecting sun. But it got even weirder–a small portion of this celestial telegraph consisted of DNA sequences from every living human being in the solar system. Individual sequences disappeared a few months after someone died, and appeared a few months after they were born, like some cosmic check register. Since it took six hundred years for Omnos’ light to reach us, this implied the impossible: long before two randy college students left the party on a hormonally-hyped ride in the aircar, Omnos could predict not only the event of their coupling, but the new baby’s DNA as well.
Or so believed by some, and enough to start the religion I have the honor of representing. Do I really believe Omnos is God? Officially, yes. In reality, I heartily subscribe to the notion that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. So to me the question is immaterial; let’s just say I believe that whatever’s in the other 99 percent of that sinewave salad is likely to turn civilization on its head.
Others aren’t so sure. Some think there’s no prescience involved, we just missed an easier explanation. Others believe that even if foreknowledge exists, those predictions could be altered. After all, if you had access to an earlier copy of Omnos’ light, proving the Godstar was fallible is as easy as keeping someone alive beyond his DNA expiration date on Earth. And God isn’t supposed to be fallible.
To end this debate, twenty years ago the three big powers launched a viper-class starship at 0.15c in the direction of Omnos with mankind’s latest invention–a D-tube teleporter. Five days hence, the Magellan would instantaneously transmit data to Endomis Station from three light-years closer to Omnos, light that would contain DNA sequences of people not only as yet unborn, but for whom the wine that led to their conception had not fully aged. From that light I’d learn whether my son Aaron would live long enough to let me back into his life. And Cullen O’Shaunessy would find out if he was supposed to be breathing.
“And over here is–“
“Why do I feel heavier here than ten steps in the other direction?” I interrupted. Gunnet stopped and looked up at me sheepishly. “We have an old gravity generator; its wave mixer has slowed down.” He seemed genuinely distraught, and I realized I’d just burst his bubble a little.
“A tiny hair on the cherry sundae that is Endomis,” I proclaimed. He smiled again, and we continued with our tour.
My room was quite nice, and I could tell I’d been given the VIP suite. It had an eighteen-flavor nitro-paste dispenser, for those too asocial to tolerate even a distant dining room view of their fellow humans. It had a bubble bed set in a clear circular dome reached by ladder, to provide the feeling of floating amongst the stars. And there was a modern holo station, with multiple angled cameras so anyone I talked to could see my posterior.
The ramp lifted and rolled into the ship behind him as Ellsworth surveyed the planet. Unspoiled natural beauty spread across the endless horizon. The ship had let him off at a river, a few days from his intended destination, but he didn’t want anyone to know exactly where he was headed anyway. He had specifically chartered Hartwell’s ship for its lack of crew—just the captain and some AI, which wouldn’t be telling any tales out of school.
“Six weeks,” Captain Hartwell called just before the doors shunked closed. Ellsworth didn’t bother to turn around or wave. Kept his eyes on the horizon, but really he was seeing his future.
Like all prospectors—the first to discover deposits of gold, reservoirs of oil, rich veins of iridium hidden within asteroids—he came alone. For three days, he carried his heavy pack, following the river until he came to a small feeder stream. All his research on alchemium pointed to just this sort of feeder stream as a source for the substance. And when he reached the head of the stream—a small natural spring that sluiced out from under a rocky outcropping—he had only to take a plastic vial from his pack and fill it with spring water. When he poured it into the alchemium detector, the bulb on the front of the machine lit up green. He’d found it.
Any prospector worth his salt knew that intuition and ambition were nothing if not accompanied by the right set of tools, whether they be pick or shovel or microscopic robots that dwelled in your bloodstream. The nanotech residing in Ellsworth would both help him to survive in the planet’s ultra-oxygenated atmosphere and protect him from any effects of alchemium exposure. Just a few drops of the stuff in a tilapia farm and suddenly the fish were too big to fit inside the pools. A sprinkling atop overfarmed and barren soil and the land was as fertile as the Nile floodplains. Whoever was the first to exploit the substance and extract it from the planet would be a rich man indeed.
In his heart and mind, he could not wait to begin his search in earnest, could not wait to start drawing the gelatinous alchemium from the soil like blood from a vein. The rest of his body, however, wanted sleep after the three day trek from the landing site. And so Ellsworth unstrapped various equipment from his pack—shovel, rifle, hatchet—pitched his tent, spread out his bedroll, ate a small meal from his dehydrated vacuum-packed rations, washed it down with water fresh from the spring, and fell into a deep sleep.
I was plucking mint leaves from the herb garden, hoping tea would soothe my head, when a slim, well-dressed young man strolled up our lane. “Are you the alchemist’s daughter?”
“She’s an herbalist,” I snapped. The scent of crushed mint leaves filled my nose. I took a deep breath and loosened my grip. My head throbbed.
“Yes. Well. Are you the daughter?”
“I am here to inform you that your father has bequeathed unto you his entire estate.”
My mother had always refused to tell me my father’s identity. “My father’s dead?”
“Yes. And all that was his is now yours.”
“Is that a lot?”
The stranger scanned our modest cottage, with its herb garden and climbing roses. “Yes.”
“May I come inside?”
I scanned him up and down. Thin and pale, with short blond hair and dark green eyes. He didn’t look particularly dangerous. “I suppose.”
Inside, I poured hot water over crushed mint leaves. “Would you like some tea?” I asked.
He shook his head. “We should go. The moat will keep out any unwanted visitors, but I dislike leaving the estate empty.”
“Yes. Do you have many possessions to pack?”
I sat down and sipped my tea. Thoughts spun through my aching head. Curiosity and exhaustion warred. “May I ask you something?”
“Who was my father?”
Lord Ruthgar had never made my list of possible fathers. Rich and insane didn’t seem like my mother’s type. “Really?”
“Yes. And you are Lady Ruthgar, now.”
I blinked at him. “My name is June.”
He shrugged. “You are the Lady of Ruthgar.”
I thought of the castle, huge and dark and isolated, and shuddered. I’d been wanting to move out on my own, but that wasn’t the destination I’d had in mind.
“Who are you, anyway?” I asked.
“I am Angus. Your manservant.”
My mother opened the door and came inside, stomping mud off of her boots. “I do wish that these herbs grew somewhere other than the swamp.” She stopped and stared at me and Angus, sitting at the table. “We weren’t expecting company,” she said. “Can I help you?”
“Hello, ma’am. I am Angus–”
“I know who you are,” my mother said.
“He says that Lord Ruthgar has bequeathed me his estate.” I took a deep breath. “And that he’s my father.”
My mother sighed. “I didn’t expect that.” She moved to the sink and rinsed dirt from the herbs she’d collected. “I thought the castle would go to some cousin or something.”
“The estate was his lordship’s to do with as he pleased. And he wanted it to go to his daughter.”
“Well, she’s not taking it.”
“What?” I stood up, and pain spiked through my head. “What do you mean, I’m not taking it?”
“You don’t really want to move to that castle, do you?”
I glared at her. “Well, I can’t decide about that till I see it, can I?”
“Very good,” Angus said. “Let’s go.”
“I’ve seen it,” my mother said. “It’s rubbish.”
I downed the last bit of my tea and followed Angus out the door.
“Promise me you’ll be back for dinner!” my mother called.
Somewhere not on the physical plane, there was a long room filled with machines, raw materials, and assembly lines: a factory. Its small, gray workers were stirring random mixtures of the black oil of various sins and the warm, sweet syrup of myriad virtues into a thick clay which could be molded by the machine at one end of each assembly line into the correct shape. Soulmaking: A tedious and exhausting job.
The soulmakers existed only for this job, though, and there were hardly ever complaints or transfer requests filed. The last worker to transfer out was one by the name of Chip, and the soulmakers idly discussed him as they worked.
“He said,” recalled the storyteller, a female soulmixer named Gold, “that this job had no meaning. What do you think of that?”
She got a round of shrugs in reply. It wasn’t that any of them were unhappy with the job. It was that none of them could imagine feeling strongly enough about anything at all to file a transfer.
“Got to be done,” grunted a worker called Smoke as he and his partner, Brick, lifted a huge vat of viscous black sludge between them and dumped nearly half of it into Gold’s mixing bowl. Brick and Smoke portioned out the more unpleasant qualities of the souls of men.
The Soulmakers were equipped with sharp minds in order to make decisions about how much of each material to pour into any given mixture. Their only task was to make sure that it all came out even at the end of the day, not for the individual souls, but for the net amount of each material used. In this way, the Soulmakers kept the balance of good and evil as new souls came into the world. What happened to the balance after they got there was the affair of the human race.
Smoke’s laconic answer reflected the group’s general sentiment. It had to be done, and who else was going to do it? They were the Soulmakers. There was no point, they thought, in not doing what they were supposed to, what they had been expressly designed to do.
This was why Chip’s story had reached the status of a legend among the workers. His choice to change careers would forever be a mystery to them.
Gold stirred a few more times and then pushed the mixing bowl toward Flint along the conveyor belt. Flint had the job of allotting talents and abilities, and had a brightly-colored selection of vials on his worktable.
The mixture before him was thick, dark and ugly. He looked up to glare down the line at Smoke and Brick, through the tinted lenses of his protective goggles. They just gave him twin shrugs of unconcern.
“Had to use it all somewhere,” Smoke said.
Brick just nodded. For some reason that no one cared enough to figure out, Brick never spoke.
Flint turned back to the task at hand and frowned briefly in thought. There were few substances that would be compatible with such an unpleasant mixture. He carefully poured in a large portion of a clear liquid from a bottle labeled Intelligence. It was absorbed quickly into the black mass and the conveyor belt whisked the bowl away.
Records indicated this particular concoction would be shaped into the soul of one whose heartlessness and hunger for power would drive him to rule over and crush a small nation. But Flint and the others did not imagine this future as the Soul Clay was molded by the machine and then deposited into the chute.
It never occurred to the Soulmakers to wonder about the fate of the souls they concocted. Destiny wasn’t their job, after all. Their attention was always focused on the next task.
Another bowl came whirring toward Flint and he could see from a distance that this one would be much easier to work with. The solution in this bowl was translucent and tinted with a pleasant purple color. He poured in some sweet-scented magenta Music and some gently bubbling Resilience. He was pleased with the new, smooth texture, though his face, like every Soulmaker’s, was all but unreadable behind the wraparound goggles and the pall of factory pollution and chemical residue. He sent the bowl along for its final mixing before it went through the molding machine.
The records showed that this soul would belong to a girl born in the poorest part of a city. Her unfailing positive attitude, sincere kindness, and remarkable musical ability would help her get out of the city, though, and she would make a brighter life for herself. But she would get sick before she was middle-aged, and her soul would leave the world too soon.
“Looks like you’re almost out of Intelligence,” Gold remarked, squinting over at Flint’s work station between mixing bowls.
“I can see that,” he replied shortly.
Gold had an irritating habit of commenting on things which were not only obvious, but also frankly none of her business. They all knew the assembly line didn’t run efficiently if the workers were constantly looking at each other’s work or in any other way trying to keep the big picture in mind. It was death to everyone’s concentration.
“Messenger?” Flint said, without taking his eyes off the bowl of clay he was perusing, “Could you fill this bottle, please?”
Yet another small gray Soulmaker, in goggles and coveralls, took Flint’s Intelligence vial and disappeared into the maze of workers and machinery, heading for the mysterious filling station which existed somewhere in the cavernous room.
The Soulmakers who had the job of refilling everyone’s supplies knew all the secrets and shortcuts of the vast Soul Factory. The rest of the Soulmakers, however, knew almost nothing about what lay beyond their specific assembly line, beyond the one task to which they devoted all their concentration.
That messenger could have vanished in any direction at all and Flint would not have known the difference, even if he had bothered to watch him walk away. What difference did it make what the outer reaches of the factory looked like, anyway? He was sure it was all in perfect working order.
“Brick,” Smoke spoke sharply from the other end of the conveyor belt, “Carry that over here.”
There was a pause, then, “What’s the problem? It’s not that heavy, is it?”
Flint sent the bowl along and glanced over, despite himself, feeling as curious as he ever got.
Brick was standing next to a big tub of something brown and thick; it looked a lot like mud, and it certainly looked heavy. But Smoke had less compassion than most Soulmakers, which wasn’t much to begin with, and he just said impatiently, “Come on, Brick. I need that, and I can’t get up right now.”
He was looking down intently at his work as he put a scoop of gelatinous green Envy into a bowl and recorded a measurement.
Brick reluctantly gripped the edges of the tub with both hands, lifted it, and began to walk around the conveyor belt toward Smoke.
Flint returned his eyes to his work as another bowl was deposited in front of him. He studied the solution and reached for the vial he wanted without looking up. His hand found an empty space where it should have been.
“Where’s the Intelligence?” he asked aloud, speaking to no one in particular.
The great events of the universe have started out with the tiniest of triggers. Brick’s foot slipped. There was something on the floor.