Mandala

by Scott Davis
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“My name is Andre Gremauld, and I ply the Cloforn line. I don’t need to tell you it’s lonely work, but it has its compensations: to be present at the birth of a star; to swing by a planet for a few minutes every seventy-five thousand of their years and watch them go from a scared little settlement to teeming alabaster cities before they even begin to get boring; to listen in the dark for messages beyond space and time only those on the cusp of light speed can hear. Is it like that for you?”

I awaited her reply. A courier is patient, he has to be.

The first time I saw her, she was only a dark speck moving across the bright backdrop of the bulge. She had just reached the threshold of my sensor array. My lower-order computing power got interested by the way she acted. She was far ahead and to the left, moving right as I sailed toward the center of the Milky Way. My scout classified her as a possible threat. Only artificial bodies make course corrections and she looked to be cavorting among the overlapping gravity wells thick and dynamic through the periphery of the core.

How we happened to get just light minutes apart in all the galaxy I’ll never know. Providence, fate, luck, or chance must have had something to do with it. She was probably trying to get the course just right for the highest velocity possible. I know those steps, danced them myself a few times. It’s hardly a matter of just math. It takes quite a bit of finesse. I admired her from afar.

I rang. At first I thought she wouldn’t talk to me, but I was wrong. She had called, I just wasn’t listening aright. She had been transmitting a while before the scout, having a clear signal, identified the source. I didn’t monitor that frequency, because it was unusual. The signal was from her direction, strong, and artificial so it had to be hers. It was obeying no protocol or syntax I knew, and I knew a few. I started recording, but wondered what good it would do. Foreign frequency, foreign tongue most likely.

And maybe calling was a bit impulsive. For all I knew, she was a bug-eyed wallaby with a taste for gallium arsenide: the stuff my brains are made of. Good luck if you are, sweetie. My only defense is the same as the gazelle’s: speed. Right now she had that on me, but I would be ahead of her if my course extrapolations were correct. There was a Wolf-Rayet almost exactly in her path. She was going to use the monster as a slingshot: a gutsy move.

It was going to be a struggle to outrun her, but I should be able to accelerate quite spectacularly if need be once I got a hearty hydrogen meal in my belly.

We’d meet along side the bulge. I knew it not from anything she said, but the way she moved. She broke off from that risky close-approach to the Wolf-Rayet. She had passed behind my port side, distant but gaining with tremendous speed, stolen from the Wolf-Rayet. The gambit had obviously worked. She was now at a constant heading at my six, plus a fraction. I was on my way inbound. I’m guessing she was outbound. If that were her final heading, she was headed for the far side of the galaxy. I wasn’t sure if this was a good idea, but we’d meet soon.

I hadn’t seen her before. She was another rammer, but with a style all her own. Chances are, either she would arrive somewhere, or our routes were different lengths, so this meeting would be our first and last. I didn’t detect any weapons, but that wasn’t much assurance. Who knows what she could be hiding?

My planners had the foresight, or maybe it was just that computer memory was so cheap, to include exolinguistic software for a first contact situation. It looked like she had also anticipated the difficulty of learning a language without referents. She sent kindergarten vids. pointing out periwinkle-leafed stunted trees (vot!), water (lees) and ice cream truck. I wish. Working through the visual dictionary, my programming had the Rosetta Stone it needed.

I spared some brainpower for message composition, since my life might depend on my eloquence. I could now talk in her language and frequency. I just didn’t know what to say. The playbook for this situation was hopeless. I didn’t want to read a proclamation by long-dead bureaucrats to a fellow traveler, so I approached her as a colleague. At length I received her reply:

“Hailing ship ahead. They call me Glievea. I journey for Erunsion Prime and the colonies through the center and out every 3,750 duo-decades. I will pass by shortly. I would be honored by a conversation. I concur that we both observe much from a distance while voyaging. I carry the stories of the worlds, and trade what is plentiful on one planet, rare the next. Is it the same for you?”

For the first time in eons, I had a date. I looked up Erunsion in her dictionary. They were mostly human. The chances of that are, well, the floating point just kept going left, being pushed by zeroes to the right. It became an infinitesimal probability. It couldn’t be chance. I always took evolution for granted, and would not accept the idea that she was not a bug-eyed wallaby. Different source, different planet be where monsters live. I’ll allow some common chemistry because viability is hard to make out of tin and iodine. But, an almost-perfect match?

First up on the consideration block, common ancestor. No way. Earth is approximately sixty-thousand light years away from Erunsion Prime courtesy of my pieced-together map of her and my sides of the galaxy. The idea that some DNA hitched a ride inside some asteroid poking along at a million miles an hour? That’s a forty million year trip: BIG time mismatch. The dictionary didn’t say I was looking at a long-extinct creature of the same name. If we came from their DNA, we would look like their earlier primates, not like them. Same problem in reverse if our DNA made the trip to them. Time the creator, time the destroyer, are both good characterizations, but one thing for sure: He doesn’t stand still. There’s way too much time for genetic drift, for evolution or devolution to completely remake man and woman, if the words would apply at all.

Yes, life changes in that amount of time. Two genomes that far apart can’t arbitrarily match up at the same time. Not to mention the hazards on the way, detours, and the pesky fact that spew from a meteor impact can’t conceivably leave a biosphere at a million miles an hour without burning up the point of all this: intact DNA. No, even if the wildly improbable DNA transfer happened, it would occur much slower–exacerbating the timing/evolutionary problem.

What about seed ships? After all, Crick himself thought DNA was an alien design. Wouldn’t Earth have heard from long-lost cousins all around the arm of Orion by now if so? To only seed Erunsion and Earth smacked of idiocy, and I don’t mean the savant kind. Nothing in-between? My capacity for ignorance is unlimited, but I go a long way, talk to all the couriers, and many worlds. Not a peep from any long-lost cousin. And you still have the time difference.

Put a Deux ex Machina in the mix, and you can say that aliens carried our forty-six chromosome cells from here to there through wormholes by dinner. But, I’ve never seen a stable, ship-sized wormhole. They aren’t shortcuts, they’re Venus Fly Traps. And those convenient aliens? They’ve had a few hundred thousand years to show up, and they’re very late for dinner. Out of sheer pity don’t you think those FTL hares would have stopped by, said “Hi!”, and given this tortoise a clue?

Next up, common maker. Never showed either, but a better bet than a merry old Johnny Appleseed of Sentience who disappeared without a trace. I suspect the unseen world is greater and grander than the seen. I just don’t have the equipment for confirmation. God can’t just do something and then duck out of sight. It makes him a sneak, not worship-worthy. One may as well substitute the word mystery for the word god; both were no explanation at all. Next!

Common anatomy without a maker? Parallel evolution? It kept the makeup budget low for the earliest vid. space operas, but plausible? Bilateral symmetry may well make the best use of only so much DNA, but these Erunsions looked nice: No three opposing three claws for hands, no bug eyes, et cetera. Nature, the creator of the starfish and the bat, wouldn’t put cookie-cutter people on every orb. She’s an artist, not an assembly line.

Reasonable facsimiles of humans showing up this far out has to be given the Occam’s razor treatment. It is simplest to just stop denying that I’m insane. It’s finally come. Tail gunners shooed gremlins off their turrets in some ancient air war. Even earlier, wooden ship crews were so desperate they made mermaids out of walruses sunning on rocks, which is pretty desperate, if you ask me. What made me think I was immune, after all this time?

I had defeated all kinds of dangers. Micrometeorites? I had a scout ship pushing those away out front. The real danger was between my ears, figuratively speaking. But, I argued with myself, if I doubted my sanity, that means I’m sane, right? The really crazy ones think they’re just fine, right? Alone, you can second-guess yourself to distraction. The ship’s designers had anticipated this. I put the ship on station keeping, which was all it needed for the moment, and checked in to the virtual clinic for a full diagnostic.

I was troubled by the report of normal. Maybe I was hallucinating that too? No, the best I had to go on was that I was passably sane, and accept, provisionally, that she was as represented. A grand dream, and real. I would’ve sobbed with happiness if I could. I looked at pictures of these folks again: light skin and hair, large eyes, ears, and a slight build. There was quality about the way they stood: expectant but not tense. Well, that was as much as you could see in a photo. They were as modest as we. Underneath those simple clothes I hoped they had nothing scary, no second head of a Erunsion jackal, poison tipped tongues coming out of their bellies, or something scarier.

Fresh shave, Sunday best, candles burning, and filled glasses: suitable prep for wetware life, but how does one charm an Erunsion? My ever-ready reference, her visual dictionary, was a bit shy on the subject. Well, she showed me hers, so I could share my hastily-assembled foreign language dictionary, re-indexed according to the Erunsion alphabet. Then, a small encyclopedia in translation, based on a child’s version so it didn’t assume prior knowledge. I’ll save that for a welcoming gift. OK, what else? The ship designers had given me the Hyssop Library: a million or more books of world literature, vids., and more, but best not to overwhelm her. We both liked to travel, so a travelogue that I kept updated with the latest on my worlds might be appreciated, fully illustrated. Any more than that, and I think I better know her tastes before expecting to delight her with gifts.

In my rush, am I being too trusting? Should I show her where my people are? Small chance she’s a killer, or runs with the wrong crowd, but the probability is greater than zero. She trusted me first, and I could surmise a lot from the apparent tech. of her ship. My info. will have to be sanitized of specifics about home world and colony locations. I can always append…better safe….

We came together. That is, if you stretch the meaning of together to within a few million kilometers. While she was still behind I struggled to accelerate to her speed before she passed me. But, it would happen as inevitably as Newtonian physics. This would only be for a while. I must put a tight rein on my virtual mouth. Loquaciousness is a hazard of my occupation, with everything to read, all the time in the galaxy and scant company. At first, our conversation was hesitant with caution, attenuated by the delay light speed, time dilation and distance added to our interchange. Doppler effects were wicked. I compensated. Still, I couldn’t contain myself completely. “This is exciting. I’ve never been so close to another ship,” I blurted out.

“I have, but not a near-light speed voyager. Local ships come to me all the time, bearing gifts,” Glievea replied.

“Oh, I wasn’t counting those. The ones that catch up, almost, to give me cargo aren’t great conversationalists.”

“You also provide material transit between worlds?”

“Yes” Steady boy, don’t give away too much.

“You are biological? Not integral with your ship?”

“I began life biologically, but am now, as you say, integral.”

“The same is true for me. To facilitate conversation, we are now close enough for moving images. Others are most comfortable with my first life appearance. With your permission, I will increase bandwidth to accommodate 2D.

“By all means.”

I made ready by translating between video formats. Before I activated the virtual camera, I needed a deep breath, so to speak. Stage fright I guess. We’ll get to see what we look like. Not the general characteristics of our respective kinds, but Andre and Glievea. Here goes!

“Hello,” she said, craning her head to peer curiously around my virtual residence. “Are you alone in there?”

“Yes, there’s just me.” I moved aside to show her my room. Her place was rich: color, art, plants, fabrics and even a view of what I’m guessing was her home world, which was all creamy greens and blues. Then, I saw her eyes.

They were two contented swans gliding across a pond in the evening quiet. They were mostly indigo, though lapis lazuli ringed her pupils, and sent forth cerulean fire to the outer edge of her iris, which hinted vermillion. She blinked, and I mourned for them in the moment they were hidden. Voices raised in rapture echoed through the Sistine Chapel. Pomegranate tasted sharp and sweet in the deep mid-winter. A fountain’s rainbow mist glowed in the sunlight.

“I didn’t know the Hoyalvon had taken to exploration,” she said.

“Who are the Hoyalvon?”

“Artists who withdrew from Erunsion Prime to pursue their craft undisturbed. You are not of their number?”

“No”

“I thought I was unique among the Erunsions journeying to the galactic center and out.”

“I wouldn’t know one way or the other.”

“Then where do you come from?”

“I am from Earth.”

“Surely your language has drifted, and you mean Erunsion. It is the planet whose language you are speaking, and except for that mispronunciation, you speak Scoin well.”

“I learned it from the dictionary you provided.”

“You study quickly! Please turn off the translator and let me hear your language.”

“I am speaking English now without translation.”

“Anyone can babble incoherently. You have gone to a lot of trouble for a practical joke. Please be serious. Time is limited.”

I turned the translator back on. “Here is your side of the galaxy. Here is the other side. Here is Earth.” I pointed in the general direction of the map I made appear beside me. I hadn’t completely lost my senses.

“I cannot believe it.”

“I can think of a convincing proof. Please accept a small encyclopedia. Do you really think someone would go to this length?” Her eyes unfocussed momentarily while she skimmed the contents of my message. Smart lady, and fast! I’ll have to be on my toes, so to speak.

“Oh-h!” Her eyes widened. I didn’t think she could become more beautiful, but I was wrong. Her cheeks turned pink. “I have defensive weapons only, but they are quite capable.”

“I wouldn’t dream of ruining our nice chat, even if I could.”

“So, it is true.”

“What’s true?”

“I always thought our Wise had spoken figuratively. They predicted there would be other forms of symmetry to the galaxy than form and light. Intelligence and spirit would also be found on the opposite side. You are, of course, imitating my appearance so as to minimize our differences. Did you edit your encyclopedia accordingly? If you think I will be shocked or frightened by your actual appearance, you are mistaken. Can I see what you really look like?”

“This is really how I look, or did, as you say, in my first life.”

“You appear as we do, but darker? How is this possible?”

“Some of my people are as light-skinned as you.”

“Now you are humoring me! Are you saying I would be able to walk among your people unrecognized?”

“You’d be better off with earmuffs and sunglasses, to avoid unpleasant stares, but yes, passable.”

“This revelation astounds me. I will rejoin our conversation momentarily.” She faced down, eyes closed, perhaps in some state of meditation or prayer. I waited.

When she looked up I said, “It hit me like a ton of bricks too.”

“Ton of bricks. Yes, being struck by falling building materials would compare well with how I have been feeling since I knew.”

Throwing caution to the stiff solar wind crossing our paths I asked, “My base computers inform me that we are close enough for VR, and since I live by quartz vibrations, not heartbeats, and presume your pace is similar, shall we make the most of this meeting?”

“Oh-h!” Her face fell, this time in sorrow. “How much time have we wasted already!”

She sent another instructional package. She was so clever! She leveraged all lightwave and electromagnetic spectra from gamma through long wave with tough compression algorithms. This was petabyte-width transfer. If the intervening space could keep quiet, it was yottabyte per minute capable. Even with interference she was going to make the most of what she had, giving ground only at the offending frequency, and then only as much and as long as necessary. A fine design. I thought I could keep up with her. I went to work on co-opting and tuning my sensor array. I was hoping timidly. She was way ahead of me. This arrangement was capable of reality: cyber-style. The exaflood would soon fill my additional storage blocks, so I went about cleaning house for company. I fell into synch with her negotiations, and rapidly accelerated to the highest common denominator of our data transfer capabilities.

Just as I was finishing up she called and said, “Are you ready? Can I visit?”

“I’d love the company.”

In moments she walked into the room, still a bit fuzzy around the edges, but I wasn’t complaining. She stabilized quickly.

She started coughing. “This air smells all wrong. Where am I?” Her voice shook. I worried about her. She, like me, exists because of the stability of the belief we do exist. We are really just swarms of electron bees, but it is dangerous to dwell on that. As cyber beings, we could of course change into trouts in a stream, or, in a moment of whimsy, Mr. and Ms. Pac-Man. But, appearances and normalcy matter. Just as amputees feel phantom pain in their lost limbs, I longed for the body I had lost. The mind that was born human is bound to be fully comfortable only in that form. My Hyssop Library tells me we can recognize each other in heaven, with its pearly gates and gold streets, if you can believe it. As strange as my incorporeal circumstance was, I clung all the more to a semblance of a sensual planet-bound body and surroundings appropriate to that form. So, I guessed, did she. We had the capacity to splash 3D backdrops around us, and I’m sure we would travel to other places, sharing memories. But, right now Glievea was homesick, a feeling I knew all too well. I couldn’t help her too much without creating a co-dependency, compromising her independence and ending up talking to myself again.

“Make the place your own.” The words were hardly out of my mouth before the walls sprouted hibiscus vines–some more beautiful flower really. The air took on a smell of jasmine and damp earth. My bed lowered and the sides became rounded, with a futon-like mattress and a two-wide sleeping bag with a floral print. The ceiling rose to a high peak, covered in a glowing satin cloth gathered in the middle. The room lost its corners. Outside, through a narrow window with a round top, at an alpine pond, a great white bird like a vulture drank and looked at us with too much comprehension for my taste before flying off. Now, to me, the room was wrong. But, I never doubted that I was on my ship. She was in a strange place, and I wanted her to feel at home.

She inhaled luxuriantly, exhaled, then said, “That’s better.”

What do you say after you say hello? Oh, this was too awkward! I didn’t even want to think about how long it had been since I entertained, and this meeting was utterly unique, incomparable! To encounter your other half from the far side of the galaxy? It would lead me to re-question my sanity if I dwelled on it. I tried to keep it simple.

“Please sit down,” I offered, conjuring a table from a memory of a restaurant where I worked in my first life. I tried to make changes appear behind her: less jolting.

She looked where I gestured, and laughed–a musical sound in a minor, no chromatic key that was both fascinating and disturbing. “You people sit on those?” She walked to view my profile. “But, your spines aren’t straight. I think I can improve on that.” She melted the chairs into an oddly ergonomic padded rattan frame that fit the knees half-bent and slightly reclined the back in an S, contoured to our forms, with a laced upright cradle head rest that reminded me of a baseball mitt. I tried it. She was right. Her chair fit the human form better than my traditional furniture. Now why didn’t we ever come up with something like this? “Please make a couple of windows into your world,” she requested.

What would represent Earth best? I considered the pond in her window, so I thought water would please her. I spread aside some hibiscus to reveal a waterfall on Maui, and in the second window I put a curving alley between medieval Sienna townhouses with folk strolling along it. I kept the sound of each to a murmur, an echo of vitality.

She walked over to each as though appreciating gallery paintings. “Your natural places have no people, and people live among bare cut stones?”

“I’m sure you have a thousand questions. I’ve got a few myself. Shall we sit? Would you like something to drink?” I asked while my subroutines scoured her dictionary for any hint of what she might like. Did Erunsions drink anything with caffeine, dairy, or alcohol?

“Surprise me,” she said. I set a goblet of mango nectar before her. When in doubt, a healthful drink seemed safest. I had a lower-order subroutine slip her the ingredients to win her trust, or at least minimize her distrust. I’m sure she had safety protocols to guard against any pathogen or poison.

She looked at me expectantly–I couldn’t guess for what. All I could do is try to be as polite as I knew how, still realizing at any moment I could commit a faux pas. “It is customary,” I said, “at occasions of import to offer–there wasn’t an Erunsion equivalent so I used English–a toast.”

“A toast?” She asked. “Ah, second meaning. A remembrance of persons present or absent, well wishes, and suchlike. Shall I supply you with drink from my world? Perhaps you would honor the occasion by offering this… toast?”

On the table before me was a container of something black and effervescent. The container formed to my hand as I gripped it. She was left-handed, I right. Our arms as they brought the glasses together appeared as they would looking through a magic mirror. The movement was strange but distantly reassuring.

“Fair winds, full sails, tales to tell and homes to dwell,” I offered. We clinked glasses. She save me a smile that looked like and probably did come from one of my 2D movies she could watch, multitasking, for background info.. I would do the same if I were her. No wonder she asked to come my ship rather than invite me there. I couldn’t shut off her access now without arousing suspicions, so she had the informational advantage.

“Inoffensive, but timid,” she said after she sipped.

I drank then spasmed and coughed like an underage kid who raided his parents’ liquor cabinet. I’d say it was a hundred proof, had intense flavors a little like chocolate and jalapeno, but really neither, carbonated and freezing cold. A firecracker of taste. I could tell something about a person who made that choice.

Her laugh was completely different this time. It ascended. I imagined the Italians outside would turn to stare if they could, but the sim. was one-way. Her voice seemed to carry emotions somewhere between joy and derision, I didn’t have the cultural referents to know for sure.

“A nice joke on me,” I said. “Let me return the favor.” I produced a selection of Bourbon on ice, Ouzo in chilled mineral water, and a warmed Cognac. “See what you like.”

“It is our custom, at a grand occasion, to plead with the host for a story,” she said, nodding appreciatively at the drinks but making no move toward them.

“I think I can do one better. I rose and stepped aside to reveal an anteroom, with an old-time pot-bellied stove and frosted windows, growing dim at the sunset of a short day in late November. “I’m guessing from your comments that your people are closer to nature than us, and it looked colder where you live, so I hope you like it.”

“My colony world experienced winters long and severe. We are going outside?”

“Yes”

Her simple, shimmering opalescent shift morphed into a brown felt jumpsuit. She reached for a long black coat of some kind of glossy skin or fabric, hanging in mid-air. I helped her with it, which seemed appreciated. I didn’t know if I should’ve, though gradually I was starting to relax around her. At least she bought in to the game that what I meant was not truly outside, in the hard vacuum of space, but a sim of Earth under the open sky.

We transitioned to the cottage. “You might want this first.” I handed her a creamy hot chocolate.

“Cloyingly sweet, but warming,” she said after a sip. “Am I sufficiently dressed?”

“Yes, it will only be negative five C.”

We went outdoors and stepped into a horse-drawn sleigh, to clop through a winter wood in 19th Century New England. I took this trip on an anachronist tour, back in my wetlife days. We passed a flask.

“What kinds of things are you carrying?”

“Oh, you mean on the ship? I have paddocks of horses in embryonic form for our Eden colony. In fact that’s what brought back the memory of this ride.”

“Haven’t they knowledge of gravity lensing?”

“They did, but their computers got hopelessly diseased. They’ve reverted to agrarian and aren’t very good at it.”

“Oh-h” She looked at me worriedly. “How can you make that delivery safely?”

“I had a thousand plans to outsmart the rogue computers before realizing I didn’t have to take the risk. Before I’m within signaling distance, I’ll have my maintenance ‘bots disconnect my antennae at the first coupling. I’ll just spend time in the library until well past the danger. The paddocks grow the horses without computers. Earth had to reinvent some very old tech. for that.”

“Horses running free on a newly primitive world. I would love to see it.”

“They’ll be tamed soon enough. I hope the Eden colony climbs back up, but the memory will have to fade before they trust computers again. They’ll also be physical textbooks in the package. Imagine something so primitive! Other than that, nothing unusual in the hold this trip. An alchemist to make diamond hulls for planet Lohengrin, since ships made of anything else seem to get torn open by the denizens of their deep, and some bioengineered terraforming plants for virgin worlds. What about you?”

“I have countermeasures for Sloven, my old colony world.”

“Is that a weapon?”

“It neutralizes a transmitter the dictators of Sloven use to infantilize the rest of the colony. Erunsion fears that Sloven will get a taste for empire if their ruling methods go unchallenged.”

“I try to stay neutral, carry no arms. Aren’t you worried?”

“We can’t all be Hoyalvon, strong enough in mind through the disciplines of the arts to resist such attacks. The alternative is psionic enslavement for all Erunsions. I hope that the folk of Sloven, once free, will put the dictators on trial for crimes against personal sovereignty. If I am wrong, I do take a risk. I won’t want to courier if the Sloven dictators subdue the Erunsion worlds. It is a dark possibility. Can I enjoy this moment?”

“Yes, let’s not talk shop on holiday. The nip in the air, the sound of sleigh bells, the taste of whiskey for warmth, the horse’s snort, the smell of warm animal and leather, the lurching of the sleigh over rough ground and the scratchy woolen blanket over our legs, are all part of the fun, wouldn’t you say?”

“Compared to Sloven, a warm winter. Only water solidifies, not the air? You would choose to go out in it?”

“Yes, in commemoration of this old method of transport.”

“The animal does this willingly?”

“Horses don’t have language.”

“Or maybe you people never learned it. Oh, I think he does mind. See how he speeds up now that his home is in sight! I understand the beauty in contrasts: the heat the liquor makes, the cool air, the warmth of the body beside me, and the contained chaos of the sleigh’s movement. Strange, I like it. No stars?”

“It’s a cloudy day.”

She looked up. “That is suspended water, or ice?”

“It has too much air between the water molecules to form ice crystals, as it gets denser, and other atmospheric conditions are right, it snows.”

“Can you show me a snowfall?”

I pulled on the reins. We got out and stood, looking up and around the whitened meadow.

I came close to her. “Do you think you would mind if?”

“Could you be more specific?”

“We kissed?”

She paused. “Do you want me to respond like Greta Garbo, or Randie Delight?”

My face grew hot and it wasn’t just the whiskey. “I didn’t think you would access THAT stuff! In a Doris Day way. NO! In your way.”

She looked down at her gloved feet and pointed the little finger of her right hand up. “This action has a language all its own for your people,” she said, looking up at me again. “Perhaps we should talk about this?”

Ahh, the moment could be lost in analysis. “Just follow and sort of imitate what I do. It will be alright.”

“May I ask–”

“Anything!”

“What made you react, when I mentioned those entertainers, Garbo and Delight? You invited me to your ship. I am here among the memories of your people. If you wish to hide some of their ways, we will be reduced to trading illusions, a joyless exchange. Since my incarnate experiences ended, I have insisted at least on faithful copies. If your commitment to the truth is any less, regrettably, I should leave you in peace.”

“Don’t…please! Let’s not worry about anyone else. Everyone else is so long gone, so far away, it horrifies me to think how long I’ve been alone…” I faltered. The idea of being without her made me so weak. She took a firm grip of my torso, to hold me up. I had difficulty modulating my body’s resilience.

“Not too hard, or soft, but like living flesh, Andre,” she said gently, as though reading my mind. Was I that obvious, or was she reaching through to my thoughts?

She kissed me. As stars come out, one by one behind retreating indigo-black snow clouds, my hope stirred. Sky of ink, falling tiny round laces of snow, and in the center of it all, us together, the still point on the spinning world, in the twirling galaxy. We looked at each other, very close. We breathed out gray fog that mingled and hung in an air so cold it that made my cheeks tingle and heart pound. It’s okay, nervous child, I spoke to my inner scared self. Chatter quelled. I’m with you, Glievea, at last at last. In gathered strength, I returned her kiss. Cold lips, warm together tentative, then sure of the touch, then the kiss went deep.

In the all-but-forgotten real world, her ship passed mine. She took the lead. We would not have better synchronization and communication speed than this. How much of her was in her ship, how much here? “We need to do a little housekeeping,” I said when we were done. Her expression was open, soft, and hard to resist. I pulled a little of the scene aside to show a small 3D of the two ships with lines for their paths. I said, “To keep it simple, why don’t we match trajectories and calculate this only once?”

“Agreed. For now your way and mine are close, but in time we’ll diverge,” she said.

“Let’s not talk of farewells,” I said.

“No, plenty of time yet,” she agreed. “May I show you a favorite place of mine?” A cave appeared on a new hillside. I conjured a handler to lead the horse to shelter from the snow. I stumbled in the gravity threshold to her world as I entered. As my eyes adjusted the cave became a tawny cone that extended deep into the ground, getting smaller as it went diagonally down, or was that just due to perspective and its great length?

Caches carved out of the live rock of the walls resembled two meter-high intaglio of scallop shells. The flat bottom supplied footing. The rock that once filled the void was somehow kept in one piece, forming a second, high relief shell that was flipped down, doubling the balcony floor space. Together they formed a symmetrical shape with a horizontal centerline. I looked down the cone space and only then realized its vastness, with all those shells in it. The furthest point was filled with a organized group of Erunsions.

It was warm. I noticed she had restored her opalescent shift. I made my clothes change also, imitating the jumpsuits of the Erunsion males in the audience.

Here and there on the sides were small cultivated gardens, filled with things resembling mushrooms or fungi every color but green. I thought they were plants until passersby brushed their hands against them. The things in the garden responded like affectionate cats.

“We don’t have animated plants on Earth,” I said, gesturing toward the gardens. Well, I suppose we have some, if you count pitcher plants and such, but the others move too slowly for the naked eye.

“Neither do we. Those are closest to your corals. Let us join the quiet since the music is about to begin.”

We ascended stairs carved in the same fashion, and found seating in a shell, in two of five of those rattan kneeling chairs. The balcony was perhaps made for a family; the chairs were different sizes. As I sat down, I noticed the give of the chair also adjusted it to my proportions. It may have been virtual trickery, but looking at the jute-like, fibrous cords strategically attached to the frame, I think that’s the way they worked in the real world too.

I asked, “Where are we?”

“This is the original symphonic horn on Erunsion. The music has begun.”

I hadn’t noticed; it started at pianissimo. I thought about her ears and softness of speech. Perhaps I was too loud for her? The music, like her laughter, was both beautiful and disturbing. It was in some modal, chromatic–may as well forget about analyzing it and just listen. I could hear the same cadences, ascending and descending she used to communicate a feeling in the different ways she laughed. I started to get inside the sound, understand its subtleties, I hoped. It still felt wrong, but not shockingly strange. Perhaps they were singing about Vot!, the trees, but such ardor seemed misplaced unless the trees symbolized something else, something more. Allusions were lost on me. There was so much I didn’t know. The concert concluded.

Outside, we were on Erunsion, not the November Earth we left. We joined some in the audience who entered a decorative labyrinth. It had a low border of those same tropistic corals that dotted the symphonic horn. It was paved with small white round stones. I tried their foot gear, and found the path a massage for my feet. The Erunsions seemed lost in thought. Perhaps it was their way of considering the music’s content. The turns felt wrong, then I realized and said aloud, “Our labyrinths generally start with a turn to the left.”

Glievea paused in her walk beside me, and tried English, smiling. “Also, our clocks turn counter-clockwise, which seems a contradiction within your language.”

I looked up. Rocks in the sky made a crescent like the Aleutian islands viewed from high altitude.

“Buoyed by gravity lens?” I asked.

“Yes, but the better question is why.”

“Scarcity of real estate?”

“In a way. They are residential parks. Some crave solitude.”

“A good recruiting ground for star captains.”

“Yes, if they were selected by disposition, not availability.”

“If it isn’t impolite, could you tell me how you came to be a courier?”

“That part of my story is bound up with the story of Sloven, a century of light from here. Sloven is a harsh place. Let’s not go there just yet.” She resumed her walk. I kept pace beside her, holding hands. “Sloven fooled the colony advance probes. They landed in the three-month summer. Sloven’s sun had a nemesis that threw it far from its primary star for most of its orbit.”

“Didn’t they have the three-body problem solved?” I asked. “All you need is the vector, velocity and mass of each then use the Brice equations to extrapolate the 3D gravitational center curve until it loops back on itself. Simple.”

“Most schoolchildren learn that by their tenth year. Sometimes boys understand by their twelfth. It was not a mathematical error; it was the distance of the dark star, which wasn’t detected by the robot probe. The first colonists arrived only to learn that they had to contend with a winter twenty times the duration of summer and so extreme it froze the atmosphere to the surface well after aphelion to the primary. The colonists expended the power resources of their ships before going underground. They used geothermal energy, steam production from holes drilled perilously close to volcanoes for heat. My mother died, and father was disabled in a blowout while I was in school to be a payload specialist. I could not grieve. There was no time. I went to work, but my pay was not enough to support both Lifue, my father, and me. I sold a kidney.

“The kidney operation was not entirely successful. I developed an infection. Life had become cheap on Sloven, survival dear, and sympathy weak for those who weren’t able to keep up. The criminals that enslave now have just continued on the path begun in my time. I was offered transcription to star captain in exchange for Lifue’s survival pension. I was dying anyway, but could save him. I asked them never to reveal the reason for his support. Say instead I died of the infection, I told the Doctors. But, the truth was the process killed me. Transcription was outlawed, I later learned, after an outcry over the practice. I was the last. I hope the Earth worlds transcribe consciousness only for the willing, or have found a way to let the biological donor live.” She turned to me. “Andre Gremauld, can you tell me how you came to be a star captain?”

Sad stories sad stories. The galaxy is surfeit of suffering, now I learn, on both sides. While she spoke I snuck into the files of objective historical records, finding a door she perhaps left open intentionally.

She was very modest. I saw entries of thanks in her ship’s log that gave her an honorific that, translated loosely, meant Virgin Mercury. Planets in her home world’s solar system were named for minor goddesses until the men’s movement raised an outcry. Glievea was a near-deity herself to her people, having been sacrificed before she knew much of life, only nineteen in our years. The outcry was not just against the practice, it was against the injustice done to her personally: an innocent deprived of years. In her journeys she had saved civilizations, bringing provisions to desperate colonies. She was a hero to her people, perhaps their greatest. I opened up to her.

“In my wetware life,” I began, “I never got far. Kitchen help in Quebec City. Tour guide of old Europe for snotty Australian schoolteachers on holleyday mait. A stint as an deck hand on a refurbished clipper ship that cruised the Caribbean with tourists. On one voyage the bratty daughter of a corporate elite went missing, the body burned so severely she could only identified by her dental records. Someone had seen a dark man nearby with a torch. Anyone accused of such a heinous crime is tainted already. Someone had to pay, and I was the correct hue. Justice may be blind but juries aren’t. Lawyers cost forty times minimum wage, and I made twice, so I got all the justice I could afford.

“All inmates are innocent. Ask us. Jailers know the few who don’t belong there, but they can’t do much about it. They gave me what mercy they could by offering transcription as a way out, so I could live on, after a fashion. It beat the chair. No, we’ve never been able to make a copy work while the original lives. Some talk of a soul. You can replicate so precisely the math cries for mercy, but cyber life destructs without the secret ingredient. When it comes to copying minds, use once only.

“My operation, unlike your donation one, was a success. The patient died as planned. I woke up here, on the way. The training is there, like the memory of a trip I never took. I suspect, but have never found, tripwires to catch a desertion attempt. I’m on the Cloforn line, and that’s where I’ll be, as long as there is need and I’m at least two steps from tumbling away as space scrap. I’ve learned to love my work, for the help I can give, and the sights. Compassion and envy are all part of the package, working with, but not being, a groundpounder mayfly. I never have the same friend twice, except the captains of the other five lines I never get within a hundred parsecs of, and–may I hope? You.”

We reached the center of the labyrinth. She was lost in thought, then replied slowly. “So, we are rare. I am the only one among my people, and you are one of only six. There could be others that circle the center at other times, departing for worlds at our left and right, taking Erunsion and Earth as our head and feet.” Tears came upon Glievea. “This may never happen again, and we have only minutes left?”

“Not minutes, hours of cyber life, thanks to your data transfer methods. After that, memories.”

She began to fall. I caught her before her knees struck the stones. She closed her eyes. I splashed my bedroom around us. I cleared the hibiscus from a part of the wall and made a old pendulum clock appear there.

“If yours go one way and mine the other, our combined clocks…”

Glievea smiled at me weakly and stopped the pendulum. The symbolism didn’t change the real distance growing between our ships, but it was important not to clockwatch our last hours. I kissed the salt from her cheeks. Her tears stopped flowing.

“Take me,” she said.

“It’s been awhile,” I started to say, but she placed two fingers under my jaw, closing my mouth. I helped her out of her dress, every inch revealed slowly, appreciatively.

“No man has,” she said.

“Is this okay?”

“I have already given my consent.”

“Beautiful, beautiful,” I marveled.

“Oh, such vanity! Let me be the judge of that,” she snapped her fingers and I felt the air all over my skin. I covered myself with my hands. She put her hands on her hips and asked, “How can I tell if you won’t let me see?”

I set the suns of the Maui and Italy windows, and she let the light go down in the opposite direction, the East in the window to her world. I folded back the sleeping bag. We lay together. She grew wild. I drew back. “Are you sure you want this? You were so very young.”

She sat up to face me, looked directly into my eyes and said, “I am older than any woman alive.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I saved my affections for spring in Sloven, waiting for a time that never came. I will not let the moment escape me now.”

“I don’t think I can live up to your anticipation–”

“I have no basis for comparison, nor am I ever likely to, Andre.” She laughed, pulling me into an embrace, speaking of so softly while her head rested on my shoulder. “I suspect you’re still fighting that criminal charge in your mind, Andre. Don’t hold back on me, be extra reticent to somehow prove your innocence. The jury is long gone, as is that poor girl. I believe you. You’re so shy, so very gentle. Please be present with me.”

The way of a man with a maid is a wonder always. While we used the same choreography, it became more profound union than bodies can find. For a flash I pitied those of mortal flesh. How could they ever know? Our souls were free to commune.

No time for sleep. I raised the sun. As she blinked in the light I checked the ships. Outside, her work was done; her ship was racing away on course. My work to steal velocity from the bulge had barely begun. I must curve away from this rendezvous to circle that great well of stars with darkness in its heart.

“Good morning,” I said, propping up that sleepy head with fluffy pillows. I set a breakfast on a white wicker bed tray that bracketed her hips. I served Ceylon tea, banana bread with cream cheese and orange slices.

“Hold fast to your dreams,” she said, and stretched.

“So tell me, is this exactly how you looked in real life?”

“There is no joy in trading illusions.”

I cupped her breast gently. “You didn’t perk these up even a little?” Two longish hands shot out of the side of the sleeping bag and hurled me against the viney wall. The half-finished breakfast was all over the bed below her triumphant expression. That’s how I learned Erunsion feet were as prehensile as their hands. I’d never need a reminder.

“Nice to see you in such good spirits,” I said with a sigh. “As much as I love a little jujitsu in the morning to whet my appetite, duty calls.” Truth is, I didn’t want a second bedroom skirmish with the same embarrassing result. “I have a swing around the bulge to navigate. I’d love to get lessons from you.”

The food reassembled itself on the tray as though nothing had happened. “Now let me try this exotic breakfast.” The pendulum moved. Her smile disappeared. “Can’t we just stay together?”

“How?” I said. The word ripped my throat as it passed through. I thought for a wild moment about deactivating the parts of me causing such anguish, but didn’t know how it would affect my self. If the clay takes a hand to the potter what will the wheel turn out?

It was never the eunuchs who led in battle, monks who won the West, or placid women who strode across the rockseas of Cleopatra’s World. I accepted the pain. For though I may have been able to cheat it, in the end the comfort gained could well cauterize the wound of love, and limp the iron endurance required of a courier.

She got up from bed, dressed. “How are we still obligated our killers? Are we fools?”

“Don’t tempt me, and don’t tempt yourself.” We weren’t a free as we pretended. The dogs had their run, but at the end of it the chains yanked taunt. Who can grant a pardon from Newtonian law? By the blackness around her, the simulation told me she was losing coherence. I reached out to her, only to feel the pain of freezing vacuum. To stretch across the chasm could disintegrate either who might try. I brought my hands back. “Now your ship is your refuge, my Glievea.”

She leapt through the void to indulge in one last dangerous embrace. I clung to her. Then, she tore herself away and fled into the dark. Her image shrunk, flattened, flickered, stuttered, then went out like a flame behind a cave-in.

I called to her, frantic she didn’t answer. Finally, she said, in sotto voce, “You spoke wisely, Andre Gremauld. If to our vocations we are untrue we are nothing, and nothing to each other. I carry vital items for my colonies, as you do to yours. Deliver them I must. Let us agree on a place and time for the next.”

My lower order subroutines and hers synched. We both made adjustments in our schedules to arrange a second meeting, so painfully far in the future.

“I’ll try to get close to light speed, and doze often to make years fly,” I said, trying to keep the lump in my throat from being heard.

“No, Andre, love. You must remain alert. Dangers await I fear. They must not find you napping. Promise to do all you can to return to me.”

“I promise, but how can I vow not to change in the eons between? The galaxy is so large; we are so small and the future so uncertain…” I was condemned again for eons uncertain to pace my ship’s bridge a useless passion, a ghost banging around in this great machine, with a new, fresh punishment. I could never be sure if I would ever see her again. Maybe there’s a bit of slippage in the universe, to let the miracles in. I’ll try to believe. But, there’s no such thing as a welcome surprise in my work. Sailors love fair weather, myself included. I never knew for sure which star would go nova, or whether some back hole would get lucky. Worst of all, I could live on after she was gone. Seconds remained.

Her voice ebbed and surged like radio reception among mountains. “We did come together once, despite nearly impossible odds. I dare hope for more.”

What could I say, but, “In this hope we are one.”

“Yes, I will meet you at the place of my first message to you, Andre Gremauld, at the time agreed. I hope you will correspond as our relative departure velocities approach lightspeed. I will write also. Do not be discouraged by the delay of my replies.” She sent a secure packet protocol that would protect long distance communications. “Remember me by this.” She sent a still, 3D image of us at the center of the labyrinth, her looking up at me. I should have seen the love in her eyes then. The labyrinth’s circle became, when viewed from different angles, a snowflake, or the spiral star arms of the galaxy, sized accordingly. It was to me a talisman and a pictorial of hope that I would come to cherish as age moved on to age.

“Thank you. What can I give you?”

“Tell me stories.”

“I can send you many books on history.”

I had to sift a roar of interference to hear: “No, Andre Gremauld, I want you to be my storyteller. Only by stories do we distinguish the important from the trivial. Information is a poor substitute for wisdom.”

And so, as to a child needing a comforting voice to find repose, I regaled her with an old tale of a sailor who battled a one-eyed monster, trusted his shipmates to restrain him when he risked to hear irresistible women’s’ songs, and returned home after twenty years wandering at sea, greeted by his loyal dog who could, only then, pass away in peace. The sailor went on defeat the interlopers who wanted his faithful and longsuffering wife just for her wealth, finally finding rest with her, home at last. When I finished there was silence.

5 Responses to “Mandala”

  1. Helice says:

    Oh My God this was so beautiful and sad, it made me tear up! This reminded me of Anne McCaffery’s work, with a good dose of Orsen Scott Card. Excellent!!!

  2. That was stunningly beautiful. A great hook, strong middle and tear-jerking ending. I really liked it. Your description is top-notch and the characters wonderfully realised. You get the sense of fate with their chance meeting between the stars. This has a conceptually different take on virtual reality life-forms to be original. It’s a great world – universe – you’ve created here. Thanks for the read.

  3. Believable first-person protagonist with a strong narrative voice; this one took me to a place I’ve never been

  4. [...] In Genre on June 27, 2010 at 7:30 am For all I knew, she was a bug-eyed wallaby with a taste for gallium arsenide: the stuff my brains are made of. ▶ No Responses /* 0) { [...]

  5. Fallon Crowley says:

    Having Andre tell Glievea the story of Odysseus was simply perfect. I really enjoyed the entire story, and that was a brilliant way to end it.

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