Mr. Siegel brings us a tale that is reminiscent of Stephen Spielberg’s AI and just as melancholy…
The Stars Shine Brightly
By Mark C. Siegel
He noticed the cold first. A numbing cold that started in the tips of his fingers and quickly spread through the rest of his body. He tried to tell Ellen to turn up the heat, but his lips refused to cooperate. His arms and legs were just as useless. His heartbeat thumped in his ears as panic set in.
Where am I? he thought. Was I in an accident?
Now he could begin to hear things. Heavy footsteps on a hard surface. The footsteps stopped near him. Simon wanted to open his eyes, but they too were paralyzed, leaving him in darkness. He was suddenly aware that he was naked, with only a thin sheet covering his prone body.
“I see that you are beginning to wake,” said a strange voice. The voice was deep and rumbling, but with a hollowness that seemed unusual. “Are you in pain?”
Simon could do little more than utter a barely audible grunt. “The paralysis will begin to fade in a matter of hours. You will feel weak for several days, but that can be remedied with appropriate exercise and nutrition. But for now, you must rest. I must check your bioscans.”
Simon felt a slightly uncomfortable prickling sensation along his spine. “Do not be alarmed,” said the voice. “It is simply the scanning field.” The prickling disappeared. “We have not fully synchronized our scanning instruments to your nervous system, and thus the discomfort. But do not fear. We are quickly learning.”
Simon was confused and afraid. The last thing he remembered was eating dinner with Ellen in their small kitchen. He could not piece together the events that had brought him to this moment.
The stranger seemed to sense his anxiety. “I know you must have many questions. In time, everything will be clear.” Simon felt a slight pressure on his neck, followed by a whisper of air. “This will help you sleep. When you wake, some of your movement may be restored.”
Simon did not want to go back to sleep. He wanted to know where he was and why he couldn’t speak or move. He wanted to know the identity of his caretaker with the subtle echo in his voice. He wanted Ellen to hold his hand and comfort him. But he could feel sleep approach like a rising tide and the world, or what little he knew of it, fell away.
Before he completely lost consciousness, he heard the stranger say, “Rest well, my friend. We have many questions, as well.”
“Baby, you’re getting old!” said Ellen as she collapsed next to him in the wet grass.
Simon laughed. “You’re older than me, remember?”
She rolled on her side and rested her head against his shoulder. “Yes, but I don’t get breathless after one mile. When we were in college, you could run circles around me. Now you can barely keep up!”
“I’m just holding back,” he said. “I figure I’ve already humiliated you enough over the years.”
She tilted her head back and glared at him. Without warning, she leaned in and playfully bit his right earlobe.
“Hey!” He tried to push her away, but she grasped his hands and pinned them above his head. In one fluid motion, she was straddling his chest. “Now what’re you going to do, huh?”
Simon was content to lie motionless. The sun was beginning to set behind Ellen and it cast a shimmering penumbra around her body. A few strands of her ebony hair fell across her eyes and he silently hoped that she would not brush them away. He could feel the perspiration on her thighs against his bare chest. In that brief moment, Simon marveled at his friend Tim, who had recently divorced his wife after claiming to have fallen out of love.
For Simon, that concept was remarkably foreign.
Ellen smiled and slowly released his hands. He began to knead the muscles in her thighs, gradually sliding his left hand under the cuff of her running shorts. She looked around a bit nervously. The park was relatively deserted. A few children played on the swings some distance away. An old man sat on a bench behind the swings, dozing. “You’re gonna get us arrested, you know that?”
“No problem,” he said, his hands continuing their journey. “I’m an attorney.”
She closed her eyes and rocked against his touch for a moment. Then she quickly rose and stretched her arms up to the sky. “We should get back. I need to get some things ready for the conference tomorrow .”
Simon sighed and got up. He watched his wife finish stretching and wondered why he hadn’t been able to stay as fit. Too much time behind a desk writing briefs, he decided. Ellen had always been more disciplined, whether it was exercise or her work at the lab. She wasn’t even forty and yet had published as many papers than some of her more senior colleagues. When Simon had first met her when they were both undergrads at Northwestern, he had been struck by her fierce ambition and the depth of her intellect. On their first date, she had said, “I want to be one of the best minds working in neural cybernetics. I want to unleash all of that bottled-up potential that lives inside our brains.” And then she laughed at herself, saying that she hoped she didn’t seem too arrogant. In the eight subsequent years they had been together, she had never wavered from that goal. Simon liked to think that their children, if they ever had any, would inherit a much better world because of their mother’s work.
“Think you can keep up this time?” she asked while flexing her calves. “I want to get home so you can finish what you started.” She shot him a mischievous glance and took off at a brisk pace before he could answer. Simon grinned and began running after her amidst the dying light and growing shadows.
Simon woke with a start and realized that he could now open his eyes. His vision was a little blurry, but he could see reasonably well. He was lying on some kind of oddly shaped bed in a darkened room. Above his head was a display that showed a continuous scroll of indecipherable symbols. There were a couple other beds in the room, but otherwise the room was empty. A large circular indentation covered much of the far wall and Simon guessed that it was a door. The air was warm and dry and he no longer fell like his body was drenched in ice water. He heard the faint whoosh of air that sounded like a ventilation system.
Simon turned his head from side to side slowly. His muscles were stiff and achy, but otherwise he felt nothing unusual. He wiggled his fingers experimentally, followed by his toes. So far, so good he thought. He had a burning curiosity to see what injuries, if any, he had sustained. A thin, silvery fabric still covered him, but Simon managed to kick it off. In the dim light, he scrutinized his naked body. He couldn’t find any wounds or scarring. His skin was much more pallid than he remembered and he seemed to have lost some weight. But otherwise, he seemed to be fine, except for a headache that was blossoming at the base of his skull. Yet he still could not fathom how he had ended up in this strange room.
A chime sounded and the circular door irised open. Simon reached frantically for the sheet and threw it over himself. A towering figure strode through the doorway. Simon’s eyes were immediately drawn to the visitor’s face. It was long and narrow, covered in dark scales that gleamed like onyx. Its eyes were pools of jade green that upturned slightly at the outer corners. The creature had a narrow vertical slit in the middle of its face that might have been a nose or airway. It stood on two fragile-looking legs and it wore flowing robe of crimson. Around its slender neck hung a small oval-shaped pendant.
The visitor stopped at the foot of the bed and stared at Simon for a moment. Simon’s hands trembled with fear and he drew his knees up to his chin. He desperately wished that he was dreaming and that he would soon wake up in bed next to Ellen. “Who are you?” said Simon in a strained voice. “Where the hell am I?”
The visitor’s short snout opened to reveal rows of yellowed teeth looked perfectly capable of tearing his throat apart. It began to speak in a series of guttural clicks and grunts that frightened Simon even more. But then it seemed to switch to English, even though he still heard it grunting and clicking. “I will not hurt you. You are safe. I am a…healer. You may call me Tiska.”
Simon recognized the voice. “You were in here before, weren’t you?
Tiska bowed its head. “Indeed. I have been privileged to bring you health. Are you feeling restored?”
“Where am I?”
“You are aboard our ship, the Rohtann.”
“Your ship,” said Simon. “You mean like a spaceship?”
“I believe that term is appropriate,” said Tiska.
Simon felt the room spin around him. The room turned gray and he found himself gasping for breath. From a long distance away, Tiska said, “You are hyperventilating. Please try to focus on your breathing.”
He was falling. Streaks of blackness stretched across his vision. “Listen to my voice,” said Tiska. “Slow breaths. Air enters the body. Air leaves the body. Slow breaths.”
Tiska repeated these words for what seemed like ages. Gradually, Simon’s breathing slowed and the room snapped back into focus. Tiska stood next to him, its expression unreadable. “Is your breathing satisfactory?”
Simon nodded. “Yes. Thank you. I guess I’m a little overwhelmed.”
“That is understandable. First contact is difficult for many species,” said Tiska.
The alien paused for a moment before continuing. “It is a pity that we did not arrive sooner. Much suffering may have been avoided with our intervention.”
Simon gave Tiska a puzzled look. “What? What are you talking about? What happened?”
Tiska tilted its head to one side. “You have no memory of the events on your world?”
“What events?” said Simon.
“You were found deep beneath one of your world’s cities. In a cryotube. Do you remember this?”
Simon furrowed his brow. “Cryotube? No, that’s not right. I live with my wife—“ And then he remembered lying on another table with a light shining in his eyes. You’re going to feel a little prick in your arm, Mr. Krenz. “Wait! Where is she? Is she okay?” His fingertips were suddenly numb.
“You are inquiring about someone?” said Tiska.
“Yes, my wife! Is she here too? Can I see her?”
Tiska said, “You were found in a large cavernous structure with many other cryotubes. Yours was the only one with a functioning emergency power supply. The emergency power conduits on the other units had failed. Their occupants are dead.”
Simon closed his eyes. “Are you sure?”
“Our survey team searched the entire facility. You were the only survivor.” Tiska’s tone was matter-of-fact.
“What caused the power failure? Goddammit, they promised me that their systems were foolproof!” He pounded his fist into the spongy material of the bed.
Tiska watched him impassively. “I was not on the survey expedition. I will take you to our vessel’s captain later and she will provide more information.”
Simon glared at the alien. “How do I know you’re not lying? Why am I here and not in a hospital on Earth?” His shoulders slumped and he held his head between his hands. “This isn’t making any fucking sense,” he said.
Tiska raised both of its hands. The eight digits bore a striking resemblance to talons. “Your body has experienced much stress. You require nourishment.” Tiska went to a small recess to the left of Simon’s bed and touched a series of keys. A panel slid open and Tiska removed a squarish bowl. Steam was rising from the bowl and a pungent smell similar to cabbage filled the air. Tiska turned to Simon and offered the bowl to him. “We have had the opportunity to study your body chemistry to some extent. This should satisfy your dietary needs for the moment. Will you eat?”
Simon shook his head. “I’m not hungry.”
“If you eat, I will bring you to our captain. She will be returning from the surface of your world soon.”
Simon examined the contents of the bowl with suspicion. The thick pudding-like substance and its eggshell color reminded Simon of tapioca. “What is it?”
“A processed form of a vegetable we call szat. It is a staple on our homeworld.”
Simon took the bowl and said, “I don’t suppose you have a spoon.”
Tiska indicated the pendant around its neck. “My translator could not render the last word of your sentence. What do you request?”
“A spoon.” He thought for a moment. “A utensil used for eating.”
“Of course,” said Tiska. “My people do not typically use such devices. I will attempt to fabricate something for you. In the meantime, can you eat without mechanical assistance?”
“I’ll try.” Simon raised the bowl to his lips and gently tipped the bowl. The thick consistency of the szat made it possible to eat from the bowl without much difficulty. The food was starchy and saltier than he expected, but it was more than tolerable. The sensation of having something hot in his stomach calmed Simon and brought him more fully awake. He also realized that he was hungrier than he had anticipated. Simon quickly slurped down the contents of the bowl as Tiska stood by and watched.
“I am pleased to see you take nourishment,” said Tiska as Simon scraped the bowl with his index finger and licked off the remaining morsels.
Simon set down the bowl and gave a short laugh. “You would get along great with my grandmother. She was always hovering over us while my brother and I ate her matzo ball soup.”
Simon waved his hand dismissively. “Never mind. Can I see your captain now?”
Tiska bowed its head. “I will be honored to bring you before her.” The alien studied him for a moment. “Does your species wear garments? I inquire because we have encountered other mammalian species that do not.”
Simon chuckled nervously. “Yes, we do. I would appreciate it if you could find me something to wear.”
“A moment is all that is required. I will return.” Tiska headed for the door, but then paused and looked back at Simon. “Do you have a name, sentient one?”
The question caught Simon off-guard. “My name? Oh, yes. Of course. Simon. Simon Krenz.”
“Sy-mahn,” said Tiska.
Simon nodded. “Yes. Simon.”
“The stars shine brightly, Simonkrenz. We welcome you as an honored guest of the Serka people.” With that, Tiska left the sickbay, leaving Simon in confused silence.
He found her in the rehab unit of the University Hospital. Ellen was perched on a stool at the bedside of one of her patients. Simon loitered in the hallway, not wanting to interrupt. He enjoyed catching her at work and watching her easy grace as she encountered bodies ravaged by trauma or disease. Simon had always felt uncomfortable around sick people. When his father had been in the final death grip of colon cancer, Simon would visit him only after enduring tearful pleadings from his mother. It wasn’t that he didn’t love his Dad. He could remember the rainy afternoon (Simon must have been seven or eight) when his father sat him at the kitchen table and taught him to play chess. And the impromptu soccer matches that they would play in their small backyard, his father laughing and encouraging Simon to “control the ball, son. Football’s all about control. You don’t kick the ball, you instruct it. Here, let me show ya.”
But Simon, who was just entering the minefields of adolescence as his father lay dying, could not bear to watch the slow wasting of a body that had once carried him eight blocks to the ER when he fell off the jungle gym in the park and fractured his leg. He hated to see his dad, who had come to the States with a hundred dollars in his pocket after fleeing the devastation of Sarajevo, weep after he soiled the hospital bed or vomit uncontrollably after another futile round of chemotherapy. On the day of the funeral, Simon tossed flowers into the freshly dug grave and turned away in shame because he felt relieved.
Ellen noticed him shuffling his feet in the hallway. She smiled and leaned over and whispered something to her patient, a twenty-something Asian woman with a tube in her throat and eyes the color of tilled earth. The young woman also began to smile and nodded slightly. Ellen motioned for him to enter the room.
“Hey,” he said, giving her hand a squeeze. “You ready for lunch?”
“Just about,” she said. “Simon, this is Kyoko, one of my favorite patients. Kyoko, this is my dashing husband, Simon.”
Kyoko mouthed hello to Simon. “Hi, Kyoko,” he said. “Is my wife treating you okay?”
Kyoko nodded emphatically. “Yeah,” said Simon. “She is a pretty decent doctor, but don’t tell her that too often.” He raised his hand to his mouth and said in a stage whisper, “It gets to her head!”
Ellen slapped his hand down. “Kidder! Actually, you’re just in time to see Kyoko give her implant a test drive.” She looked at Kyoko. “You ready to try again?”
Kyoko nodded again and turned her attention to a flatscreen display that sat on a table alongside her bed. A series of random letters lined the top of the display and a cursor blinked patiently at the right margin. “Start with something simple,” said Ellen in a hushed tone. “Whatever you feel like.”
The cursor moved to the next line. Letters creeped across the screen. KYLK.
Kyoko’s brow furrowed in frustration. “It’s okay,” said Ellen. “It takes time to train your cortical neurons to interact with the implant. You’re doing good. Try again.”
Kyoko stared at the display with a burning intensity. Simon watched as the cursor advanced to the next line. KYOKO.
“Great job, Kyoko!” said Ellen. “That’s wonderful! Now, let’s try a short sentence and then we’ll take a break.”
Kyoko nodded. Simon noticed that a faint sheen of sweat glistened on her forehead and her cheeks were flushed. The cursor moved again. YOR HUSBND IS CUTE.
Ellen laughed and looked at Simon over her shoulder. “Yeah, he’s not bad, I guess.” Simon tried not to look embarrassed, without much success. Ellen grabbed a tissue from the bedside stand and gently wiped Kyoko’s face. “I’m really proud of you, sweetie. I couldn’t have asked for more.” She took Kyoko’s left hand and held it between her own hands. “You get some rest. I’ll be back later and we’ll do some more exercises. Before too long, you’ll be talking nonstop!”
From the doorway, Simon waved. “It was really nice to meet you, Kyoko. Thank you for letting me hang out.” Kyoko flashed a weary smile and mouthed Bye. Ellen stood up and dimmed the light over Kyoko’s bed. They left the room together and walked down the hallway to the elevators. As they walked, Simon slipped his hand around her narrow waist.
“I’m so glad you had a chance to see that. She just got her implant last week,” said Ellen. “But she’s learning to use it at a remarkably fast pace.”
“What happened to her?” asked Simon.
“She had a stroke that originated in her brain stem. Massive cerebrovascular damage. One minute she’s sitting in class at the U and feeling fine; seconds later she’s almost completely paralyzed.” Ellen shook her head. “But I never see her give up or lose hope. If I let her, she’d be practicing with her implant for hours at a time. Some of my other patients can’t do full sentences even after several weeks. But they’re usually older than Kyoko.”
The elevator arrived and they rode it to the top floor. The hospital had just completed work on the new cafeteria and Simon actually enjoyed coming here to eat lunch with his wife. An oversized picture window dominated one wall, offering a spectacular view of the Mississippi and the rest of the campus. Ferns and rubber trees were scattered throughout the brightly lit dining area. Coming here was certainly better than eating in his cramped and cluttered office at the Government Center.
Simon and Ellen made their way through the cafeteria’s serving line. Ellen, as usual, ordered a tuna melt and mineral water. Simon, in the mood for something spicy, opted for the chili. At the pay scanner, Ellen happened to run into one of her colleagues and they spent a couple minutes in animated discussion regarding a recently published paper. Simon tried to follow the conversation, but he soon became lost and turned his attention to the scenery beyond the window. The snow had diminished to a few errant flurries, but the sky remained a mottled gray that stretched to the horizon. The newly fallen snow had covered the Washington Avenue Bridge in a swirling white cloak that spanned the frothy waters of the Mississippi. Simon watched students brave the icy December wind to traverse the bridge that connected the stately grandeur of the East Bank to the more modern and brash West Bank. For a moment, Simon yearned for his student days, when he had the time to spend long winter afternoons in the warm, still air of the library reading and dreaming of his life to come.
Ellen waved goodbye to her colleague and they found a table near the window. Ellen took a bite of her sandwich and said, “I spoke to Mom today.”
“How’s she doing? She ready to quit the Senate yet?” Ellen’s mother, Gretchen Khalid, the daughter of a wealthy data haven executive, had trounced Illinois’s incumbent in the 2028 election after he became embroiled in a nasty scandal involving his eleven-year-old niece. As one of the few Humanists in Congress, Senator Khalid had been the focus of much media attention in her first two years. Her politics made her a frequent target of the old-school Republicans and Christian Dawners.
“She sent me this article from a Dawner newssheet. It basically accused her of orchestrating a homosexual coup d’etat that would put a lesbian in the White House.”
“I bet that got her going,” said Simon as he scooped up a spoonful of chili.
“Oh, a bit.” Ellen laughed. “She’s thinking about having sponsoring a bill to make U.N. Day a federal holiday, just to get a reaction from them.” She sipped some water. “She’s thinking about coming up for Christmas. What do you think?”
Simon chewed thoughtfully for a moment. “She’s not spending it with Carol?” Ellen’s younger sister lived in Georgetown and worked for a fashion magazine.
Ellen shook her head. “Carol is going to Phoenix with Matt to visit his parents.”
“Has Gretchen met him yet?”
“Yeah, she had dinner with them a couple weeks ago. Carol said they couldn’t stop comparing their jazz collections.”
“Sounds promising,” said Simon.
“Well, at least she didn’t make him cry like the last one. So about Christmas.”
“Yeah, of course. She hasn’t seen the house yet. We can put up some lights. Maybe even get a real tree.” Simon swallowed another bite. “All very secular, natch.”
“Good. I’ll call her tonight, assuming I don’t get home too late. We’ve got some new implants that we’re prepping for phase three trials. They interact with the speech center of the brain. The implant passes the signal on to a tiny voice emulator in the larynx. Soon we’ll be able to maintain someone’s speech even if they’re completely paralyzed.”
Simon pushed his bowl away. The chili was a bit too greasy for his taste. “Do I sense another paper in your future?”
Ellen shrugged nonchalantly. “Depends on how the trials go. First we have to find suitable candidates and then—” She stopped abruptly and lifted her hands to her temples. “Goddamnit,” Ellen said with a sigh.
“Simon leaned forward and touched her shoulder. “Another headache?”
His wife nodded while massaging her temples vigorously.
“That’s the third one this week. Has anyone here at the hospital checked you out?”
“I’m just tired, Simon. That’s all.” She intertwined her fingers with his. “I haven’t been sleeping because we’ve been so busy getting things ready for the trials.”
Simon wasn’t convinced. “You should have someone look at you. I mean it.”
Ellen reached across the table and laid the palm of her hand against his cheek. “You worry too much, you know that? You’re like your mother, but worse.”
“Ell, c’mon, I’m not—”
She hushed him with a finger over his lips. “Okay, okay. I’ll get Sujata to give me a brief exam. Happy?”
She rolled her eyes. “Yes! I’ll do it this afternoon, I promise.”
“Good. Thank you.” Simon checked his watch. “I gotta get back. I have an evidentiary hearing at one.”
“Not really,” he said. “Some kid from the burbs got caught trying to sell bliss patches at school. He was dumb enough to leave the stuff in his locker. Pretty open and shut.”
They stood up and dropped their trays into the disposal unit. Simon accompanied Ellen to the elevator and rode with her to the Neuro wing on the fourth floor. The doors slid open and she kissed him softly on his mouth. The clean vanilla smell of her soap lingered on her skin. “See you tonight,” she said as she walked out the elevator.
“Don’t work too late,” he called after her, but she had already disappeared around the corner.
As predicted, the one o’clock hearing was unremarkable. Judge Gomez continued the matter for trial and Simon took a little pleasure in watching the kid squirm under the her stern gaze. Simon worked in his office at the County Attorney’s for the rest of the afternoon. He left at five and took the train to St. Paul. He walked the few blocks from the platform to their converted loft on Summit.
Ellen was already home. She was seated at the kitchen table, her face pale and tear-stained. She clutched a wrinkled printout in her hands. Simon knelt down before her with his heart in his throat and a terrible certainty building like a storm front in his mind.
Tiska returned a few minutes later bearing a brown cloak that was similar to the one it was wearing. Simon got out of the bed and tried to stand up. His body swayed and he nearly fell to the floor before Tiska steadied him. “Can you walk?” asked Tiska.
Simon leaned against the bed and closed his eyes. “Yeah, just give me a minute.” A few minutes passed and Simon decided to attempt a few steps. He wouldn’t be running a marathon anytime soon, but he felt reasonably certain that he could walk without collapsing. He took the robe from Tiska and put it on. He frowned; it was much too big. The sleeves hung well below his hands and he had to hoist the lower portion above his ankles so that he wouldn’t trip. But it was better than being completely naked. He thanked Tiska for the garment.
“It does not suit your form,” said the alien. “But alterations can be made. Now, we must go. The Captain is returning from the surface of your world. We shall meet her in the docking bay. Are you prepared to go?”
Simon nodded. “Yes, I’m ready.”
“Please follow me. She has been notified of your wish to see her.”
Tiska led Simon out of the infirmary and into a wide, dimly lit passageway. They walked for a moment in silence. Simon’s legs felt wobbly and he struggled to keep up with Tiska’s long strides. “How long have you been here?” he asked.
“We arrived in your solar system a few…weeks? Yes, weeks is the correct term. A few weeks ago. The Many Worlds send probes throughout the galaxy to discover cultures worthy of further study. After extensive surveillance and analysis, contact will be initiated with those worlds that are deemed suitable. We are a contact ship.”
“You were coming to make contact with us?”
“Yes, and to offer you Fledgling Status within the Many Worlds.”
They came to a T-junction and took a left turn. Simon was slightly startled to see other beings like Tiska moving through this section of the ship. They were all of similar size, but some had eyes that glowed a fiery red or yellow. Their scales also seemed to vary in shade from rich brown to dusky gray to jet black. Tiska growled an occasional greeting to some of them in their native language. The aliens unabashedly stared at Simon as he walked past. Some bowed their heads ceremoniously. The attention unnerved Simon and he wasn’t sure how to respond. “Why are they bowing their heads?” he asked Tiska in a hushed voice.
“As I said before, you are our honored guest.”
“But I’m not important! Your people don’t know anything about me.”
Tiska looked back at him over his shoulder. “You are the first member of your species aboard our ship. You are the first of your kind with whom we have been able to communicate.”
“First? Listen, Tiska, I’m trying really hard to not go totally insane. Part of me still thinks I’m hallucinating or dreaming, even though I know that’s probably not true. So I’d appreciate it if you would quit being so fucking cryptic and tell me what’s going on!”
Tiska stopped and turned to face him. “I regret any confusion I have caused. I assure you that Captain Salla will be ready to answer many of your questions.” Tiska continued down the corridor and gestured for Simon to follow. Feeling like he had little choice in the matter, Simon limped after him.
They came to a lift at the end of the hall. The door slid open and Tiska explained that the docking bay was a few decks below. They boarded the lift and Tiska barked a guttural command. The doors slid shut and the lift accelerated, creating the vague sensation of weightlessness for a brief moment. The doors opened with a whoosh and they stepped out onto a catwalk overlooking the cavernous docking bay.
Simon stared in awe. The docking bay was easily a half-kilometer long and wide. Vessels of assorted sizes lined the perimeter of the bay; Simon counted at least thirty. The vessels were sleek and angular. Some had swept-back wings while others were long and tapered. Dozens of Serka were scurrying about as they made repairs to the various craft. The bay didn’t have any doors or portals that allowed ships in and out. Instead, the entire far wall was missing and Simon realized that he was looking directly into space.
“Tiska, is there anything between us and…out there?”
“A force field keeps atmosphere contained. When a vessel enters or leaves, the field breaches to accommodate the vessel’s contour, but there is no need to depressurize the bay. Ah, the Captain’s skiff arrives. You can observe for yourself.”
A larger craft drifted into view beyond the docking bay. It was similar in design to the other vessels, but its flared engine nacelles and swooping profile gave it a more regal appearance. The ship’s hull gleamed like quicksilver against the refracted light of countless stars. It gracefully turned and Simon noticed a slight ripple of distortion around the skiff as it glided through the invisible barrier. The skiff touched down in the middle of the bay with a soft thud.
“Come,” said Tiska. Simon followed the alien down the sloping catwalk. As they approached, a portal on the skiff irised open and a short ramp slid out. Several Serka descended from the ship and formed a line at the foot of the ramp. The last Serka to exit the ship wore a scarlet robe with ornate geometrical patterns woven into the sleeves. It was slightly taller than Tiska and its scales were a sandy brown.
Tiska leaned close to Simon and said, “That is Captain Salla.”
The Captain stepped off the ramp and bowed to the other Serka lined up in formation. The crew bowed deeply in return. Salla turned to Tiska and Simon and bowed again. Tiska bowed and while Simon stood rigidly, uncertain of the proper protocol to follow. Tiska offered the Captain a pendant similar to the one it wore around its own neck. Simon noticed that another burly-looking Serka standing just behind Salla was also wearing one. Salla fastened hers in place, all the while studying Simon with an impenetrable gaze.
“The stars shine brightly, honored Captain,” said Tiska.
“And may their light guide you, Healer Tiska,” said Salla in a formal tone, still surveying Simon.
“Simonkrenz, it pleases me much to present you to Captain Salla of the Contact Ship Rhotann. Captain Salla, this being is Simonkrenz.”
“The stars shine brightly, sentient one,” said Salla. “Has my healer attended to your needs?”
Simon nodded. “Yes, he—er—” He stammered for a moment. “Tiska has taken very good care of me.”
Salla made a rumbling noise that sounded like water rushing through a subterranean passage. “You first impulse was correct. Tiska is indeed a male Serka, as I am a female. The differences will become more obvious to you in time.”
“Tiska said you could answer my questions,” said Simon hesitantly.
Salla tilted its—her!—head. “Tiska has told you how my crew found you?”
“Yes,” he said slowly. “But I’m still not sure what exactly happened. Why am I the only one here? Where are the other people like me? Other humans.”
“Your questions are worthy of a response. I will attempt to answer them as best I can, although I’m afraid we still lack vital information.” Salla made a dismissive gesture to the Serka standing at attention behind her. They broke formation and walked away in separate directions, except for the burly-looking one that remained at Salla’s side. “This is Reth, my executive officer.” Reth bowed in Simon’s direction. “He was with me on the first expedition to your world. He will accompany us to the bridge, where we can speak in more comfort.”
Simon was growing increasingly impatient with his inability to get any direct answers from his hosts. “No! I’m not going anywhere without some answers! I feel like there’s some big secret that you people are keeping to yourselves.” He felt the eyes of every Serka in the cavernous docking bay upon him, but he was past the point of caring. “You will tell me now, understand? I’m through with waiting. What has happened down there? “ He suddenly felt exhausted. His shoulders went limp and tears pooled in his eyes. “Please. Just tell me.”
The three reptilian aliens exchanged looks among themselves. Salla stepped forward. “This is very difficult news to share. Your world has been ravaged by an extremely lethal contagion. We believe that it was some form of a genetically engineered virus, although we cannot be certain. It moved across your world swiftly. Most of your people are dead.”
Simon struggled to comprehend what he had just heard. “No.” He shook his head emphatically. “This isn’t happening. I’m dreaming. The cryotube’s REM inhibitor failed and I’m just having a really bad nightmare. They’ll fix it and I’ll go back to sleep.” He sat on the floor with a hard thud and let out a giggle that bordered on hysterical. “Yeah, it’s just a dream.”
Salla knelt before him and spoke softly. “We do not know exactly when this tragedy occurred, but your cryotube’s fusion pack shows evidence that it had been in operation for several years. Had we not found you, your power supply would soon have exhausted itself and you would have perished.”
Simon stopped giggling and, on an impulse, ran his fingers over Salla’s prominent snout. Her scales were cool and hard like small bits of glass. The captain remained still as he did this, showing no sign that his touch disturbed her. Tiska and Reth observed their interaction in silence. Simon withdrew his hand and looked at her with wide, glistening eyes. “This isn’t a dream, is it?”
“No, it is not.” Salla rose and gestured to the other two Serka. Tiska and Reth bent down and helped him to his feet. “Will you come to the bridge? I have some things I want to show you.”
He said nothing for a minute. The devastating reality of his situation descended upon him with a terrible weight. “What is it?” His speech was sluggish.
“Our probes detected the first signs of this tragedy. I was hoping that you could help explain the content of some of the broadcasts they recorded.”
“Alright. I’m not sure I’ll be very helpful, but let’s go.”
“Would you prefer to get some rest first?” asked Tiska.
“No, I think I think I’ve slept enough,” said Simon with a weak smile. “I want to see what you have.”
“As you wish,” said Salla. The alien captain led the way back up the catwalk to the lift. It carried them up several levels to another corridor that seemed identical to the one where sickbay was located. They walked in silence; the three Serka seemingly content to allow Simon to confront his grief privately. The doors slid open and they entered the bridge.
The bridge was a wide, oval-shaped room with polished alabaster walls. Computer displays lined much of the room’s perimeter and were monitored by roughly a dozen crewmembers. In the center of the bridge stood a slightly elevated platform with three Serka-sized chairs built into it. Simon guessed that this was where Captain Salla and her senior officers sat. As with the rest of the ship, the lighting was dim and the air was almost uncomfortably warm.
The bridge crew bowed their heads as the four of them entered the bridge. Salla returned the gesture without breaking stride. They crossed the bridge and passed through a smaller door tucked away in a corner. This room appeared to be Salla’s private office or conference room. A long table and several chairs occupied one half of the room. Several ornamental pedestals were scattered throughout the other half. The pedestals displayed an impressive array of sculpture and other works of art. One object was a small, delicate-looking figurine carved out of a pink-hued substance similar to marble. The figurine was in the shape of a creature with a barbed tail and a pair of majestic wings that were poised in mid-flight. Its slanted eyes were serene and somehow reassuring. Another pedestal held a piece of silky parchment covered in columns of jagged script. The lettering glowed with a strange luminosity of shifting colors.
Serka came over to Simon and said, “These are objects that have been given to me by other species with whom we have made contact.” She indicated the radiant parchment. “That is a blessing of safe journey written by one of the great poets on Bassti, an aquatic world many thousands of light years from here.”
“How long have you been doing this?” said Simon.
”This? Do you mean how long have I served on Contact ships?”
“I have been traveling the stars since I was a pupil in the Shining Halls. That was long ago.” Salla appeared thoughtful. “Yes, a long time. I have been captain of this vessel for fifty of your years. But we can discuss this more later. Will you be seated?”
Simon took a seat next to Tiska while Salla and Reth sat opposite them. “Let us begin. Primary Reth, would you summarize?”
Reth bowed his head. “You honor me, Captain. Computer, activate imaging unit, Briefing File Reth Three Seven.”
Above the center of the table materialized a floating image of Earth. The North American continent was flecked with clouds that slowly drifted eastward. It gave Simon some comfort to see the familiar shapes of the Great Lakes. “As the Captain and Tiska have told you, the Many Worlds have been monitoring your species for decades,” said Reth. “Our probes were concealed with technology that ensured your defenses would not detect them. Your transmissions were analyzed by the probes and relayed to the Many Worlds for further study. This is how we learned much of your language and programmed it into our translators.” Reth held up the small pendant hanging around his neck.
Reth continued. “Our Council decided that your people were a suitable candidate for Fledgling Status. Preparations were made to dispatch a contact ship to Earth. Unfortunately, those plans were delayed. Other matters demanded the attention of the Many Worlds.”
“The matter Primary Reth refers to is a war,” said Salla. “The Many Worlds is not the only power in the galaxy. We were attacked by a belligerent species bent on expanding its territory.” Salla clicked her talons together. “It was a long, brutal war and many sentients were killed. The Many Worlds emerged victorious, but much was lost.”
“I’m sorry,” said Simon as he shifted his weight in the awkward-fitting chair. “But I thought you were going to show me some things about Earth.”
“My regrets,” said Reth. “Clarity is at hand. During the war, we had lost communication with our probes scattered throughout the galaxy. Many of our relay stations were destroyed, along with records describing the location of many probes. When peace came, the Council made efforts to rebuild the relay network and find the probes. Our leaders were greatly alarmed by the data that arrived from this world. Please observe.” Reth directed Simon’s attention to the hologram of Earth suspended above the table.
A small red point of light blossomed on the West Coast of the United States, somewhere near San Francisco. It quickly grew in size and spread across Northern California. “Despite being unable to transmit information, the probes continued to collect and record data,” said Reth with a trace of pride. “They are equipped to scan for life signs on a constant basis. They monitored this sudden decrease in population density near one of your coastal cities. Such a sudden change usually indicates significant casualties. As you can observe, the event was not limited to the city and further losses were detected in the surrounding region. This is the beginning.”
A second splotch of red appeared over southern Florida. Then another near Chicago. Seattle. New York. Dallas. Montreal. Soon, much of North America was pocked with rapidly expanding blemishes.
Tiska broke his silence and said to Simon, “What you are witnessing occurred in a matter of days. In urban centers across this continent, something was swiftly killing millions of your people. And once the cities were ravaged, it moved across more rural areas. But it did not confine itself to this one land mass.”
Simon watched in horror as the model Earth rotated, revealing new patches sprouting and marching across the globe at a frenetic pace. Wide swaths of Asia and Africa were quickly overrun. Much of Europe was now obscured by red pall. As eastern Asia moved across Simon’s view, a brilliant while light filled the room. When it subsided, Simon squinted to see columns of holographic smoke and flame rise from several spots along the Korean peninsula.
“What the hell was that?” asked Simon, his voice quavering.
“The probes detected a series of powerful nuclear detonations,” Salla said. “They detected several launch signatures that suggests a military confrontation. It may have been precipitated by the cataclysm spreading around the planet, but we cannot be certain.”
“In thirty-nine days, over ninety-six percent of the planet’s sentient population was decimated.,” said Tiska. “Our probes do not have the capability to detect contagions in the atmosphere, but we confirmed the cause upon our arrival. A viral agent.”
“What kind of virus?” said Simon. “There was nothing like this going on when--” He faltered for a moment. “When I was put into cryosleep.”
“That is useful information,” said Reth. “Healer Tiska has been able to analyze some tissue samples we brought back from the surface. Tiska, will you explain your findings?”
The alien physician swiveled his chair to face Simon. “The virus was most likely the product of genetic modification. Its designers modified its protein structure so that it would only infect human hosts. Once the virus penetrated the bloodstream, it attacked the lungs, which would quickly hemorrhage, resulting in a quick but extremely painful death.”
Simon shook his head. “I don’t understand. I don’t understand this at all.” He spread his hands plaintively. “How did this happen?”
“In the midst of this tragedy, the probes overheard many broadcasts from the planet’s surface,” said Salla. “That is why I asked you to join us. We understand much of what is being said, but we do not grasp the context. Here is a sample.”
The hologram of Earth faded away and a new image resolved into focus. A young woman with short blonde hair and a protective mask over nose and mouth was standing on a street corner. Simon recognized the Arc de Triomphe looming behind her in the background. Cars were jammed against each other on the road and he could hear the chorus of horns blaring at each other. People were running through the streets in a panicked state. The young woman was speaking into a camera.
“This is Giselle Calais reporting from Paris.” Her voice was thin and tight. “It has been eight days since the first reported deaths resulting from the Dawn Plague. Six days since the UN-imposed quarantine that was meant to confine the plague to the North American Zone. And now it appears that the quarantine has failed. French and EU officials--” A gunshot echoed in the distance and the reporter nervously glanced over her shoulder before turning back to the camera. “French and EU officials have confirmed several fatalities in Strasbourg and Nice over the last twenty four hours. Officials are unwilling to say how the epidemic has spread, but rumors persist that Dawner cells released the virus across Europe in a coordinated effort. As you can see behind me, many Parisians are ignoring orders to stay in their homes and are fleeing for the countryside.”
The scene shifted to a television studio where a dark-skinned man sat behind a desk. His face was weary and dark circles lined the flesh under his eyes. The letters ITV hovered in the lower right corner of the image. “Giselle, this is Walter in London,” he said in a clipped British accent. “We are receiving reports that EU Security Forces have been stationed around several cities, including Paris, with orders to kill anyone who attempts to get past them. Can you confirm this?”
“Walter, I can confirm that troops are positioned around the city, but I can’t verify that they are under orders to shoot to kill. We haven’t been able to even get near the outskirts of Paris. Meanwhile, we have word that the UN Security Council is meeting at an undisclosed location in the Alps to discuss remaining options for containing the plague. We expect—”
In a blur of motion, a teenage boy flew into the picture and struck the back of her head with a length of pipe, screaming, “C’est le fin!” She collapsed to the pavement. A friend must have accompanied the boy because there was another shout followed by a sick gurgling sound. The camera hit the ground with a loud thud but kept recording. It showed the young reporter sprawled on her side with blood pooling under her left ear. Her eyes stared ahead blankly. The camera picked up a quick exchange of adolescent laughter and then the body was quickly dragged away.
The scene switched again to the studio, where the man named Walter looked visibly shaken. “Giselle, are you there? Can you hear me? Tommy, what about you? Are you okay?” After an uncomfortable silence, Walter looked stoically into the camera and said, “It appears we have lost contact with our crew in Paris. I ask that our viewers, what few of you remain, join me in praying for their safety.” He smiled wanly. “At this point, I think payers are all we have.”
The picture faded away. “I regret the violent nature of the recording,” said Salla from across the table. “This is just one example of the many broadcasts that reference a Dawn Plague or a group known as the Dawners. If our translations are accurate, we believe that they were responsible for spreading this plague. Do you know of this organization?”
“Yes, of course,” said Simon. “They were a conservative religious group. Very politically active around the world. But they were never violent. I had friends who were Dawners, for Christ’s sake!” He slammed his fist on the table. “Do you have any idea when this happened?”
“Your calendar system is still something of a puzzle to us,” said Reth. “But many of the broadcast display a number that would appear to be a date: two-zero-five-nine.”
“Twenty fifty-nine?” said Simon. He hesitated before continuing. “And you said that several years have passed since then?”
“Our probes recorded another twenty-three revolutions around your sun before we arrived,” said Reth matter-of-factly.
Simon felt like he had been kicked in the stomach. “So you’re telling me it’s now twenty eighty-two?”
“That would appear to be the case,” said Salla. The Captain looked at Simon with her sea green eyes. “How long were you in cryosleep before we found you, Simonkrenz?”
“Over fifty years.” His words were barely audible. “They told me not to worry. They told me it was safe.”
Tiska rose from his chair. “You do not look well. I shall accompany you back to the sickbay.”
“There are other recordings that require his interpretation,” said Reth.
Salla made a clicking sound. “Such things can wait, Primary Reth. This sentient has endured much, both in mind and body.” She rose and walked around the long table to where Simon was sitting. He was staring listlessly at the floor. “Is anyone left?” he said without looking up.
“We have detected scattered pockets of human life, but the virus still roams free. We suspect that they are immune, but their bodies serve as carriers. The stasis field on your cryotube protected you from infection, but you would die if you now came into contact with any of the survivors.”
Simon’s mouth twisted into a bitter smirk. “The news just keeps getting better and better, doesn’t it?”
Tiska offered one of his taloned hands to Simon. “Let me assist you to stand.”
With Tiska’s help and some effort, Simon got to his feet. The two of them started for the door when Salla said, “Forgive me for posing just one question, Simonkrenz.”
Simon looked back over his shoulder, his face pale like the moon. “What?”
“Why were you in cryosleep? The facility’s records were damaged beyond repair.”
“To be with my wife. She was dying and we were waiting for a cure.” His eyes became moist as he spoke. “I guess time wasn’t on our side.”
With that, he turned and walked out of the room, his right arm slung across Tiska’s back for support.
“What will you do after I’m gone?”
The question came out of nowhere. They were sitting together on the antique swing that hung from their back porch. The sun was dipping below the horizon and a few crickets were beginning to chirp as twilight settled in. He gave her a sidelong glance. “You’re not going anywhere.”
“Simon.” She said his name with a mixture of impatience and tenderness. “Don’t tell me you haven’t given it any thought.”
“None,” he said, staring straight ahead, but he could feel the heat of her gaze.
“Because you’re going to beat this, Ell. There are still treatments we haven’t tried yet.”
Ellen snorted. “What? Like those Chinese herbs your nutty cousin the naturopath suggested?” She clapped her hands together. “Oh, I know! We can fly down to Mexico and try an untested gene therapy that might create even more tumors. Won’t that be fun?”
Now he did look at her. “The articles on the Net mentioned some positive results in animals. I wish you would at least consider it.”
Ellen grimaced. “And risk spending my last few months in more pain than I’m in now? No thanks, I’ll pass.”
They sat in silence for a moment. For the past five months, Simon had watched Ellen slowly lose hope of winning the battle against the malignancy growing deep within her cerebral cortex. Each unsuccessful round of radiation or gene therapy served to feed her defeatism. They had been to clinics in Rochester, Los Angeles, and Cleveland and exhausted much of their life savings, but that didn’t concern Simon. What concerned him was the expression of melancholy serenity on her face as they sat in the offices of various oncologists and neurologists, hearing variations on the same theme of I’m sorry, it’s not working. Her medical training and professional experience, as she constantly reminded him, had given her several opportunities to study the very same type of tumor that was now pushing against her temporal lobe. Ellen knew she was dying. And deep within himself, when he was lying awake in bed at two in the morning, he knew it too. But Simon was always a stubborn man and it was not in Simon’s nature to give up so easily.
Ellen curled up against him and rested her head on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, baby. I don’t mean to sound so dismissive. I’m just feeling a little run down today.”
He gently stroked her back through the fabric of her sweater. Even on warm spring evenings like tonight, she had trouble staying warm. “It’s okay. But I want to ask you something and you have to promise to hear me out.”
“What is it?”
“Promise me first. “
She sighed. “All right, fine. Now tell me.”
The last sliver of sun had dropped below the horizon and the edge of sky was turning from a rosy pink to a delicate purple. Simon pulled his wife close to him and said, “You remember my friend Ian Phelps from college? We saw him when we were in Denver a couple years ago.”
She thought for a moment. “Yeah. We had dinner with him and his boyfriend at some Mexican place.”
He nodded. “Right. Well, Ian is a biologist specializing in cryoncs.”
“Oh, Jesus Christ, Simon.”
“Hang on. You promised you’d let me finish, or did you forget?”
Ellen rolled her eyes. “No, I didn’t forget. Go ahead.”
“Thank you. There’s a company called BioNova and Ian is one of their chief scientists. BioNova puts people with severe illnesses into cryosleep until medicine has something better to offer them. They’re opening a small facility here in Minneapolis.”
Ellen pulled away from him. “Simon, I know where this is going. No way. Uh uh.”
“Listen, Ian can get you on the priority list. He knows about your condition and he said you would make perfect a candidate for cryosleep.”
“Oh really?” Under the glow of the porch light, he could see her cheeks flush as she glowered at him. “And just how the fuck does he know about my ‘condition?’”
“Well, we’ve been exchanging e-mails over the past couple weeks or so,” he said reluctantly.
“And you just thought you would share my private medical information with your college buddy without telling me?” She was almost shouting now.
Simon held up his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “Ellen, I know you’re angry with me, but I needed to know if this was something worth exploring. I didn’t want to say anything earlier because—”
“Because you knew I’d say no!” She rose from the swing and stomped down the porch steps and stood in the yard with her arms crossed and her back to him.
“Ell, c’mon!” Simon had accurately predicted her angry reaction, but he still felt hurt. “Don’t be this way. I think we should talk about this more. Ian said they already have about two dozen clients and there haven’t been any problems.”
“Well, good for them,” Ellen said without turning around. “But let’s see if they’re still bragging in a few months when their clients go into neural shock and become psychotic when they’re revived!”
“It’s not like that. These aren’t some crazy Chinese scientists experimenting on political prisoners!” He got up and leaned on the porch railing. “These guys all did their postdoc work at Harvard and Stanford.”
“If that’s supposed to impress me,” she said, “it doesn’t. Most of the Chinese who got dragged before the World Court were Oxford educated, but they still turned eleven innocent people into babbling psychopaths.”
“That was over ten years ago, Ell,” said Simon. “Ian says they solved the issue of dream suppression long ago. You just go to sleep and that’s it.”
Ellen pretended not to hear him. “I worked with some of those patients, remember? Right before we got married.”
“I remember,” said Simon. While in her last year of med school, Ellen had had the opportunity to follow one of her professors to Hong Kong for three months to join an international team of scientists sent to study and treat the victims of forced cryosleep. She came back with horror stories about people who were irrevocably insane because their brains had never completely shut down in three years. No amount of drugs, implants, or surgery could restore these people to their former selves. Ellen treated a former university professor who, soon after being brought out of cryosleep, had attempted to cut off his own genitals with a shard of glass in a fit of paranoid rage. Ellen had railed against the inhumanity and arrogance of the scientists who had tortured these people under the guise of “research.”
“Then you should understand why I will not consider cryosleep, no matter how safe your friend says it is.” Her tone was defiant.
Simon walked up behind her and placed his hands on her shoulders. She had lost so much weight and she felt as fragile as glass beneath his fingertips. “Please talk to him, baby. He can show you their data.” He took a deep breath. “Ellen, we’re running out of time. We need to look at every option, no matter how crazy it might seem.”
She spun around to face him. “I know that! Do you think I don’t know that?” Tears were welling up in her eyes. “From the moment I saw those scans in the lab, I knew time was running out! And I’m trying to face this thing with some modicum of dignity, to make these last few months meaningful in some way. But you keep pushing for some kind of miracle, Simon! And now you expect me to try something as insane as cryosleep?” She shook her head in bewilderment.
“Ell, this isn’t insane,” he said firmly. “Remember what Doctor Pahlavi said? That a treatment could be ready in five, maybe ten years? This would give you that time! For the past five months I’ve been trying to find something, anything, that would give us some hope! This is the best thing to come along yet.” He wrung his hands in frustration.
She stepped closer to him. “You really think this is worth pursuing?”
She chewed on her thumbnail pensively. “Simon, if I did agree to this, we don’t know for certain how long I would be in stasis. You could be waiting for me a long time. Have you thought about that?
Simon gathered her in his arms. “Ellen, if I have to wait until I’m an old man to see you again, it’s still better than facing the rest of life without you.”
They held each other for a while, not saying anything. The crescent moon was peeking over the oak tree that stood watch in the middle of the yard. Finally, Ellen pulled away and said, “Something like this must cost a fortune.”
“We have enough,” Simon said reassuringly. “We can sell some of our retirement funds. Maybe rent out the cabin in Ely.”
She looked up at the stars scattered across the darkening sky. “It’s beautiful tonight, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is,” he said. He gazed at the stars with his wife. On their first date, he had taken her to a field to watch the Perseid meteor shower. He could vividly remember lying next to her on the soft earth as they admired the spectacle above them. They had talked for hours, slowly revealing themselves to each other. Driving back to campus just before dawn, he had been filled with a tingling certainty that he was going to marry the woman sleeping next to him in the passenger seat.
“Okay,” said Ellen, brushing a wisp of hair from her face. “I’ll talk to your friend tomorrow. But I’m not promising anything. I’m still not convinced this is a good idea, but I’m willing to listen to what he has to say.”
Simon hugged her tightly. “Thank you, sweetheart.” He kissed her on the lips and her eyelids. “Thank you so much. I know this can work. I know it.”
She caressed his cheek lightly. “Let’s just see what happens, okay? But I’m sorry I was angry with you. You have been my rock through all of this, and I know I can be a real self-centered bitch sometimes.”
“Stop.” He silenced her with a kiss. “I love you. I’ve always loved you. And I’m going to do everything I can to keep you here with me.”
“I know,” Ellen said, tears running freely down her cheeks. “And I love you.” She shivered noticeably and wrapped her arms around herself for warmth. “It’s getting cold. Can we go inside?”
Simon smiled and said, “Of course. I’ll make some popcorn and we can put on The Princess Bride, just like back in college.”
“That sounds good,” Ellen said with a laugh. Simon took her hand and led her up the porch steps and into their small house. After the movie, they made love slowly and deliberately. As he drifted off to sleep, his limbs intertwined with Ellen’s, Simon felt hope coursing through his veins like a brushfire.
The next few days passed in a haze for Simon. He spent most of the time lying in bed in the infirmary, his mind still reeling from the sickening knowledge he had gained from the aliens. He had no appetite and ate sparingly. He was listless and refused to do the exercises that Tiska insisted upon. The alien physician became deeply concerned for his well-being. On one occasion when Tiska returned to the infirmary and saw that Simon had barely touched his food, he asked, “Is there some way we can make our food more pleasing to you? Perhaps our technicians can attempt to replicate something more palatable. Our probes have some information on the chemical composition of certain foods on your world.”
“The food’s fine, Tiska,” said Simon. “I’m just not very hungry.”
“You cannot continue to refuse nourishment, Simonkrenz. The body loses much while in cryosleep. Your strength will not return if you continue this course of action.”
“Is that so?” asked Simon.
“I am still not adept at interpreting human vocal cues, but your statement seems to imply a lack of concern. Am I mistaken?”
Simon sighed. “Look, maybe I’ll eat later. Can we drop the subject?”
“Very well,” said Tiska. “But I must continue making reports to the captain. She requests constant updates on your status.”
Simon rolled on his side. “Tell the captain I appreciate her concern. I’m really tired, Tiska. Please let me sleep.”
“I have also noticed how you spend an inordinate amount of time sleeping,” said Tiska, ignoring his request. “I do not think this is advisable.”
Simon sat up in bed. His face was flushed with anger. “Look, I know you’re trying to help. But right now, I just want to be left alone. My wife is dead and so is everyone else I knew. Jesus, I can’t even go back to Earth! So excuse me if I don’t feel like socializing.” He rolled over again and brought his knees up to his chest. “Just go away. Please.”
Tiska seemed unfazed by Simon’s outburst. “I respect your desire for solitude. I will return later to monitor your bioscans. Rest well.” The door slid open and shut and Simon was alone.
He slept fitfully. He dreamed of Ellen brushing her hair at the bureau in their bedroom; the morning sun filling the room and streaming through her hair. She was humming a nameless tune and she smiled gloriously as she caught his reflection in the mirror mounted above the bureau. But then his dream changed. Ellen rose from her chair and walked downstairs. He felt compelled to follow her, and so he did. He followed her to the front door and watched as Ellen turned the knob and flung the door open. He couldn’t make out anything past the door because a thick gray fog obscured everything. She stepped outside and disappeared into the mist. He called after her and, after a moment’s hesitancy, walked out of the house. The fog suddenly lifted and he found himself in a cornfield, his house nowhere in sight. Night had fallen and the cornstalks rose above his head on all sides, encasing him in shadow. He called Ellen’s name again, but all he heard was the wind rustling through the corn. He blindly ran through the stalks while screaming her name. He desperately wanted to find his way out of the field, but it seemed to stretch on forever…
He awoke with a start. His skin was covered with a fine sheen of sweat and his heart was thumping in his chest. He was further startled to see Captain Salla standing over the bed and staring at him with her unblinking reptilian eyes. He rubbed his own eyes and said, “Captain Salla? How long have you been standing there?”
“The stars shine brightly, Simonkrenz,” she said by way of greeting. “A few cycles. Please forgive the intrusion. I did not mean to interrupt your rest period.”
He didn’t feel like asking her how long a “cycle” was. “It’s okay.” With a grunt, he sat up in bed. “I haven’t been sleeping that well anyway.”
“You seemed rather agitated,” said Salla. “You were saying a particular word repeatedly. Ell’inn.” The translator cut out as Salla spoke the last word and Simon heard the throaty rumble of her unmodulated voice.
“Ellen,” said Simon grimly. “That’s my wife’s name. I was having a dream about her.”
“A dream, of course,” said Salla. “We Serka also dream, although many other species in the Many Worlds do not experience such phenomena. Was it pleasant, this dream of your mate?”
“Not especially.” He carefully eased himself off the bed. He was wearing a loose-fitting jumpsuit that Tiska had created with some help from the ship’s assembler. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better than the oversized robe. “But I don’t really want to talk about it. Was there a reason you came to see me?”
“Yes,” said Salla. “I was hoping you would join me for a meal and conversation. There are some things I would like to discuss with you.”
“I don’t think I would be very good company,” he said doubtfully.
Salla bowed her head. “You would bestow great honor upon me if you accepted my invitation. We have prepared food that will be to your liking.”
Simon eyed the captain suspiciously. “Did Tiska put you up to this?”
“Healer Tiska has been apprising me of your condition, as is his duty.” The translator made it difficult to read Serkan emotions, but Simon detected a hint of reproach in Salla’s words. “Your health concerns me, but it is customary for the captain of a Contact ship to dine with representatives of a newly contacted species. Considering the circumstances, I did not feel it was appropriate to issue an invitation until now.”
Simon felt a little foolish for questioning Salla’s motives. Despite his own emotional turmoil, he was beginning to realize that the whole situation was uncomfortable for his hosts as well. They had not come here expecting to find a ravaged world, and its only representative a traumatized and grieving middle-aged man whose only knowledge of extraterrestrials came from the occasional episode of Star Trek he had watched as a child. “Forgive me, Captain. My parents did raise me to have some manners, believe it or not. I will certainly join you.”
“I am pleased, Simonkrenz. All the preparations have been made. Shall we proceed?”
Simon nodded in agreement. They left the infirmary and made their way back to the Captain’s private chambers adjoining the bridge. As they walked, Simon was a little surprised to discover that his gait was a bit steadier and he didn’t tire as easily. They arrived at the bridge and the Captain paused at one of the terminals to exchange a few words with one of the crewmembers. They spoke in a staccato rhythm of rough syllabants that was completely unintelligible to Simon. The Captain finished the conversation and led Simon into her chambers. The long conference table had been shortened considerably and a chair had been placed on either end. After they were both seated, two Serka entered the room carrying large platters of food and an ornate decanter filled with a pale amber liquid. They set one platter before Simon and he gasped in astonishment. “Chicken! This looks like roasted chicken!”
“Please try it and tell me if it is satisfactory,” said Salla.
Simon sliced a piece of meat with the sharp-looking utensil that also rested on his platter. He popped it into his mouth and chewed while the Captain and her subordinates looked on. The texture of the “chicken” was slightly waxy and it tasted a little too salty, but it still bore a remarkable resemblance to the real thing. He smiled broadly while he finished chewing. “It’s fabulous,” he said sincerely. “And mashed potatoes, too! How did you do all this?”
“Our probes had the opportunity to gather a great deal of information from your data libraries scattered around Earth,” said Salla as the stewards placed the other platter before her. It held small chunks of a brownish meat and spears of a pale yellow vegetable. “It required some effort, but our assemblers were able to recreate the necessary chemical components.”
“Tiska mentioned that you might be able to do that,” said Simon as he took another bite. “But I didn’t believe him.”
Salla impaled a piece of meat with one of her talons and brought it to her mouth. The sight of her rows of pointed teeth still unnerved Simon. She gulped down her food without chewing and said, “The technology is remarkable. The Many Worlds have enjoyed the benefits of nano-assemblers for only a few centuries, which makes it relatively new compared to much of our technology. I will show you how the process works, if that would interest you.”
“Yes, I’d like that,” said Simon.
The stewards left and they ate in silence. Simon poured himself some of the amber liquid. It was cold and sweet on his tongue. “It is the nectar of taali, a flowering plant from our homeworld.”
“It’s very good. Where exactly is your world?”
“I believe you would refer to our star as Tau Ceti, approximately twelve light years from here. Would you like to see an image of my world?”
Simon nodded. “Absolutely.”
Salla uttered a short command and the room grew dark. A shaft of light rose from the floor next to Simon and resolved into a planet resplendent in various shades of blue and green. Two large continents covered much of one hemisphere, connected by a thin strip of land that resembled a comma. As the image rotated, Simon saw a chain of islands come into view. There must have been dozens, maybe hundreds, of big and small islands scattered just below the equator. The rest of the planet was water with small polar caps of ice. Three moons circled the planet in a graceful ballet of physics and gravity.
“It’s beautiful,” said Simon.
“It is called S’rak, which means ‘nest’ in our language,” said Salla. “My travels have brought me to many worlds and I have seen wonders too numerous to count, but the view of the Great Western Sea from my family’s home, under the light of the Three Watchers, is what I see in my dreams.”
“Is it difficult to be away from home for such long periods of time, Captain?”
Salla tilted her head to one side. “I have a mate, but he is an ambassador with our diplomatic corps and is stationed on another world. We see each other as time permits. But I have always wanted to be out among the stars, ever since I was a young one. My people have a long history of exploration and service on a Contact ship is seen as a noble occupation. Someday, I will return to S’rak and perhaps train the next generation of officers in the Shining Halls. Someday.” Salla made a low rumbling sound that Simon was beginning to associate with amusement. “And you, Simonkrenz? Tell me about your life on Earth.”
Simon cleared his throat nervously. “Well, I was a lawyer.” Salla stared at him blankly. “I, uh, prosecuted those who were accused of committing crimes.”
“Ah, yes,” said Salla. “We have gathered some information on your codes of laws, although much of it remains incomprehensible to us. Our cultural surveyors have requested some time to interview you. They have many questions, as you can imagine.”
Simon shifted in his seat. He had been searching for a way to ask the question that was burning on his tongue and finally decided that being direct was the best approach. “Captain, I’m not sure how to ask this, but what is going to happen to me?”
Salla’s jade eyes narrowed to slits. “Now we come to the reason I asked you to dine with me. To discuss your future.” She pushed her platter of food aside. “My crew’s survey of Earth is nearing completion. The data that we have gathered will be brought back to the Council for further study. And we are due for repairs as well.” She leaned forward slightly. “It is time for us to go home, sentient one. And, if you will permit us, we shall take you with us.”
Simon looked bewildered. “Take me with?”
“Surely you did not expect us to bring you back to the surface and abandon you?” said Salla.
“I—I’m not sure I want to leave,” said Simon.
“Simonkrenz, consider your situation for a moment,” said Salla patiently. “Your world is not as you left it when you entered cryosleep. The people you knew, including your mate, are dead. Much of your world lies in ruin and those who survive live a precarious existence. One of my junior officers was nearly killed by an armed band of humans while surveying one of the cities on your eastern coast.” Salla regarded him closely. “If we left you behind, you would be dead in a matter of days. Both humans and animals carry the virus and you would inevitably come in contact with it. As Captain of a Contact ship, I would be derelict in my duty to allow something like that that to occur.”
He knew Salla was probably right, but how could she expect him to just agree to something like this? “But if I go with you, then what? I don’t have any skills that would be of use to you. I was never very good at science. Hell, that’s why I went to law school. I’d be like a caveman to your people.”
The Captain made a clicking sound. “You judge your own value too harshly. You survived the tragedy that has nearly annihilated your race. You remember how things were before the virus. While you may not realize this, you have much to teach us. Scholars from across the Many Worlds will be competing for your time for years to come.”
“You make it sound like I’ll be on display,” said Simon warily. “I’m not sure I like the sound of that.”
“No, you misinterpret my words,” said Salla. She rose from her chair and walked to one of the pedestals that displayed her art collection. She came back to Simon carrying a small black cube. “I want to show you something.” She handed the cube to Simon. He turned it over in his hand. It was perfectly flat and had no discernible markings or features.
“What is it?”
“Many years ago, soon after I had completed my training at the Shining Halls, I was assigned to a survey vessel. The Council was searching for possible candidate worlds for colonization and our mission was to explore far beyond the borders of the Many Worlds. If we encountered a new species during our journeys, we were instructed to summon a Contact ship.
“We eventually found ourselves in a sector of space that had not been previously charted. Our ship’s sensors picked up a weak, undecipherable radio signal originating from a nearby solar system. Our captain quickly informed the Council of our discovery, but we were informed that no Contact ship would be available for some time. We were instructed to investigate the source of the signal, but not to establish direct contact with any sentient race we might find. We traced the signal to a desert world orbiting a star preparing to go nova.”
“What did you find?” asked Simon, wondering what this story had to do with him.
“The Council needn’t have been concerned with us making accidental contact with anyone,” said Salla. “The planet was barren of life. Completely sterile. Our scans of the planet showed high concentrations of radiation usually associated with nuclear and plasma weapons. We surmised that the inhabitants of this world had destroyed themselves in a massive conflict many centuries ago. But the signal was still transmitting from the surface. I joined the survey team led by our captain to search for the cause of this mysterious signal.
“Some structures had survived the holocaust. We tracked the signal to one such structure standing alone in the middle of the wastelands. What its purpose was, I cannot say. It may have been a shelter or a military facility or something else entirely. The structure was airtight and we found some preserved corpses and this black cube that you now hold in your hand.”
Simon understood. “The cube was sending the signal.”
“Exactly. And it stopped transmitting as soon as we removed it from its niche in the wall. We tried to make it broadcast again, but all of our attempts failed. After our survey was complete, we brought it back to the Council, where some of our best scientists studied this little cube. But its material is impenetrable to our scans. We had recordings of its transmission, but it seems to be just a series of random pulses with no recognizable pattern.
“Time passed and then war came. I forgot about our journey to the dead world and the strange little artifact we discovered there. After the war, when I became Captain of the Rohtann, my former captain gave me this cube as a gift. He was a Dentari and close friends with the Council’s Science Minister, who had permitted him to give the cube to me. He told me to keep it as a reminder.”
“A reminder of what?” asked Simon.
“A reminder of why I choose to serve on a Contact ship,” said Salla. “Life is fragile. For every species we invite into the Many Worlds, there are probably ten that destroy themselves before discovering that they are not alone in the universe.” She took the cube from Simon and placed it back on its pedestal. “We were too late to save the people who left behind this cube. And now we can do nothing but mourn their passing.” She turned to face him. “Although it may not be evident to you, Simonkrenz, we have not totally failed your race. You will be the living voice for those who died as well as for those who remain. You will be an ambassador of sorts.”
“An ambassador of a dying world,” said Simon bitterly.
“Perhaps. But we have encountered other species who experienced similar calamities and endured, even prospered.”
“And we have to leave everyone else behind?”
Salla bowed her head slightly. “You must understand, we cannot take anyone else with us. We do not yet know enough about the virus and we cannot risk exposing other species to it.”
Simon sat back in the humongous chair and shook his head. “I don’t know anything about being an ambassador,” he said in exasperation. “I’m just a government worker, Captain.” He covered his face with his hands. “I miss my wife so much it hurts. Part of me wishes I had died along with her.”
“A famous Serka poet once wrote that grief is the fire that smolders but is never quenched,” said Salla. She walked over to where Simon sat and gently pulled his hands away from his face. “You honor your mate with your grief. You can also honor her by sharing her memory, the memories of all that you knew, with the people of the Many Worlds.”
Simon looked up at Salla and nodded. “Maybe you’re right.” He stood and ran his hand nervously through his thinning hair. “Okay, I’ll go. But I have one request to make before we leave.”
“You have only to tell me and I shall do everything in my power to grant it,” said Salla, her tail swishing excitedly.
Simon told her.
“I do not understand why the Captain approved this,” said Tiska after they cleared the docking seal. “You are placing yourself in unnecessary danger.”
“Everything will be fine, Tiska. The hazard suit will keep me safe” said Simon as he peered out the cockpit window. “My God, your ship is beautiful.”
Reth was seated next to Simon at the navigation controls. He briefly looked up from his displays to admire the view of the Rohtann. “I agree with your assessment, sentient one. I have seen her from this vantage on hundreds of occasions, but I never grow weary of gazing upon it.”
The Rohtann had a similar, swooping design as the shuttle they now occupied. Its bow curved gracefully upward like the neck of a swan and the stern was split down the center to form two swept-back wings. Its size was difficult to measure, but Simon marveled at its enormity. The ship reminded Simon of the origami cranes his elderly neighbor, Mr. Takeshi, had always given to him as a kid whenever Simon shoveled his sidewalk or mowed his lawn.
“Preparing for descent,” said Reth. He tapped a few controls and Simon felt himself being pressed back into his seat as the shuttle’s thrusters fired. The Rohtann spun out of view and was replaced by a stunning panorama of Earth. Simon instantly recognized the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Pearly gray clouds roiled over the Indian Ocean and he saw dim flashes of lightning within them.
“Amazing,” whispered Simon. He was nearly moved to tears by the grandeur displayed before him. This is how the astronauts must have felt, he thought. And then he realized with a pang of sorrow that he would probably be the last human to enjoy this view for many years, centuries even.
The Earth grew rapidly in size as the shuttle made its approach vector. Simon unconsciously gripped the arms of his seat. “Are you enjoying your first view of your planet from above?” said Tiska from the seat behind Simon, perhaps in an attempt to calm his nerves.
“It’s spectacular,” said Simon. “I never expected I would ever see something like this.” He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “Ellen would have loved this.”
“We will be entering the atmosphere momentarily,” said Reth.
The shuttle descended rapidly over western Africa. Simon noticed patches of white-hot plasma flickering just beyond the forward viewport. They were coming down on the nightside, so the sky remained dark and it was impossible to see what lay below. If not for Reth’s instruments, they would be flying blind.
“I have entered the coordinates of our final destination,” said Reth. “It will be a quick journey.”
The shuttled raced across the sky. They had now descended far enough that Simon was able to discern the waters of the Atlantic flowing beneath them. They soon crossed the terminus into daylight and the world was suddenly filled with a ruddy orange light.
Simon looked over his shoulder and said, “Tiska, can I ask you something?”
The physician made a clicking noise that Simon was beginning to figure out was the Serka equivalent of nodding one’s head. “Certainly.”
“How many species are in the Many Worlds?”
Tiska considered this question for a moment. “The membership of the Many Worlds is constantly expanding. We currently have representatives from over sixty species spanning across a hundred star systems.”
“Are there any species similar to us?” asked Simon.
“To humans? The evolutionary path of each race is unique and it is difficult to make comparisons. But there are species that share some biological characteristics with humans. The Azzqi, for example. They, along with the Serka and a few other races, are one of the founding members of the Many Worlds.”
“And the Callenth, as well,” said Reth. “Humans remind me a great deal of the Callenth. Except for the wings.”
Simon wasn’t sure if Reth was trying to be humorous. “Wings?”
“Indeed,” said Reth. “The Callenth are a remarkable species. They were nearly exterminated in the war, but they are a proud species and fought bravely in many key battles.”
“May I ask why you wish this information?” said Tiska.
Simon shrugged. “Just wondering what to expect.”
A thin gray line had appeared on the edge of the horizon. Simon pointed and said, “Is that the coast?”
“Yes,” said Reth. He entered a command sequence and the shuttle dove to a lower altitude. “I am moving closer to the surface so that we will not be as visible to any hostile forces on the ground.”
Simon, who had been watching the coastline draw closer, snapped to head around to look at Reth. “What the hell is that supposed to mean? Almost everyone’s dead. How can you be worried about ‘hostile forces?’”
“The virus did not destroy the weapons left behind by your military forces,” said Reth patiently. “One of our shuttles suffered some minor damage after being hit by small arms fire near the city you call Los Angeles. We cannot be certain that they do not have more potent weapons capable of bringing us down in mid-flight. The precaution may be unnecessary, but Captain Salla ordered me to take every measure to ensure your safety.”
“Have you tried making contact with any of the other survivors?” asked Simon. “No offense, but they’re probably scared to death by the sight of you and you can’t expect them to welcome you with open arms.”
“We have attempted to communicate with them, but it seems to be a futile effort,” said Reth with resignation. “I do not blame them for their hostility. These people live in a constant state of fear and are not prepared for the likes of us.” Reth made a small course adjustment and the shuttle turned slightly to the north. “I often wonder how we would have been received under more normal circumstances. Would your people have been more receptive to our visit?”
“I’ve thought about that too,” he said. “I don’t know. Maybe. We’ve certainly imagined such things in books and movies. But in real life?” Simon spread his hands. “Who knows? I’d like to think most of us would have been able to handle it. But then you have the fundamentalists. The Dawners. I think they would have had a tougher time.”
The navigation console beeped softly. Reth checked the displays. “An interesting topic for further conversation. We are approaching the landing site. Excuse me while I prepare for our approach.”
Simon nodded and settled back in his seat. The silver-gray waters of the Atlantic had given way to a blur of browns and greens. On one or two occasions, Simon thought he caught glimpse of a town, but they were traveling much too fast for him to make out any detail. Looking over at the nav display, he could see that they had just crossed over the Virginia coastline and were heading north by northwest. The sun rose higher in the sky and Simon could begin to make out ribbons of road and highway. They were clogged with the rusting carcasses of abandoned automobiles and trucks. In some places, the asphalt had begun to crumble away as the surrounding brush reclaimed the land. The sight of the ruined highways suddenly made tangible for Simon the true extent of Earth’s devastation. Until now, he had a glimmering of hope that perhaps things weren’t quite as bad as what the Serka had told him. That maybe some areas had managed to isolate themselves from the virus and survive unscathed. But now, looking over the miles and miles of desolation, he knew that this was probably not likely.
Why? he thought. If this was the work of the Dawners, what did they hope to accomplish? He remembered Will Montoya and the other Dawners he and Ellen had known. They had been good, thoughtful people. They had strongly believed in the Dawner Code of Morals and its harsh criticism of what they termed the “accommodationist” branches of Christianity, but they had never come across as hateful or enamored with the apocalypse. Had their friends and neighbors participated in the events leading to the deaths of billions? Or had they been innocent victims of a small group of zealots? He would never know.
The shuttle slowed noticeably and Reth said, “We have arrived. Proceeding with landing cycle.” Simon snapped out of his reverie and saw that they were hovering over downtown Minneapolis. The glass pillar of IDS Tower rose before them and he saw that hundreds of its glass windows had been shattered. Much of the city’s skyline remained, although they were dark, empty hulls of concrete and steel. The city had changed some during his years in cryosleep. He was surprised to see that familiar landmarks like the Government Center had been demolished and replaced by crystalline structures that sprouted from the ground like shafts of ice.
They slowly descended into the old Warehouse District on the north end of downtown. With a soft thud, they landed in the middle of a deserted street. Tiska pulled out a small rectangular device from the folds of his robe. He touched its side and began to make a low thrumming sound. He studied it for a moment and said, “I am not detecting any life signs in the immediate vicinity.”
“Very well,” said Reth. The three of them stood up and moved to the airlock at the rear of the shuttle. Reth turned to Simon and said, “You should seal your hazard suit before I open the hatch.”
“Right,” he said. The hazard suit had been created by the ship’s nano-assemblers with some design input from Tiska. It was a one-piece jumpsuit that clung tightly to every inch of his skin. It had a transparent hood that he now swung over his head. As soon as the hood touched the collar, the fabric shifted to create an airtight seal. “All set,” he said through the suit’s throat mike.
Reth touched a switch and the airlock swung open. They stepped out onto the empty street. The sky was milky white and a thin layer of newly fallen snow covered the ground. Even through his hazard suit, Simon could feel a slight chill in the air. It feels like late February or early March, he thought.
“Is this location familiar to you?” said Tiska.
He nodded slowly. “Yes.” He looked up and down the street, which in his time had been lined with small office buildings and warehouses converted into lofts. A few buildings had been renovated or supplanted by newer structures, but he still knew exactly where he was. He pointed to the west and said, “It’s a couple blocks that way, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Reth. “Follow me.”
Reth led them down the street to a squat building that sat on the corner across from the burnt shell of a department store. Part of the building’s façade had been torn to rubble, possibly by the same calamity that had destroyed the store. The engraved sign hanging above the main entrance was worn away by time and weather, but a few letters were still legible:
They carefully made their way through the scattered shards of blackened glass and brick to a reception area inside the building. “This is where my survey team first detected the power signature of your cryotube,” said Reth. “We had trouble localizing the signal until we realized it was coming from underground. Come.”
A tidal wave of memory washed over Simon as he followed Reth and Tiska down a darkened hallway. He remembered walking down this hall before.
They reached a doorway at the end of the hall marked Stairs. The door’s rusty hinges creaked loudly as Tiska swung it open. It was too dark to see anything inside, so Reth passed out three small pen-sized objects that turned out to be powerful flashlights. They stepped through the doorway and onto the top landing of a long metal staircase.
“This staircase leads down to the facility’s main storage area,” Reth said to Simon, his crimson eyes glowing like twin rubies. “You must remember that the stasis fields on the other cryotubes, including that of your mate’s, failed long ago. She will not appear as you remember her. Do you still wish to proceed?”
“Yes,” he said resolutely. “I need to do this.”
“As you wish.” They began descending the staircase. Simon’s flashlight beam danced against the walls as he tried to get a sense of where they were. The room was a large octagon with a high ceiling and divided into several levels lined with catwalks that branched off from the stairs. Jutting from the walls of each level were long rows of bullet-shaped cryotubes. Simon estimated that there were three or four thousand tubes resting in the darkness. And the people in them are all dead, he thought. Including Ellen.
Their footfalls echoed throughout the cavernous chamber. Tiny particles of dust drifted through the shafts of light probing about the room. “This is my first time in this place,” said Tiska, trailing Simon on the stairs. “I did not realize it was so expansive.”
“Neither did I,” said Simon. “This wasn’t here when I went under. Cryonics was just beginning to enter the mainstream and lots of people didn’t trust it because it had been misused in other countries.”
Tiska moved his light across the silent rows. “It would appear that those fears eventually dissipated.”
“I guess so,” said Simon.
“I am not certain, but I believe your mate may be down on the next level,” said Reth from up ahead.
“What makes you say that?” asked Simon.
“That is where we found you.”
They moved past a couple dozen cryotubes before coming to one with its lid raised up. The padded interior still bore his body’s indentation. Simon gazed at it for a moment before casting his flashlight on the other nearby tubes. He brushed a thick layer of dust off of one of them and read the engraving on the lid.
“Trice, Albert J.,” he said. “Process date July twenty-third, twenty thirty. That’s about six months before Ellen.”
He found her without having to look much further. He stood over the cryotube with his heart pounding loudly in his ears. “This is it,” he said flatly.
The two aliens, who had been inspecting some of the other tubes, came over to join him. “Shall we open it?” asked Tiska.
Simon thumbed the latch release, but nothing happened. “I don’t think it will open without power.”
“Then we will cut it open,” said Reth. “Stand back, please.” He touched something on his flashlight and a narrow beam of blue light shot out and struck the side of the tube. Reth slowly guided the beam along the tube’s length. Showers of sparks flew off the tube’s hard metal surface and their fiery glow briefly illuminated the entire storage chamber.
Reth finished slicing and shut off the beam. “Simonkrenz, would you care to help me lift the lid?”
“Okay.” The two of them gripped the seam that Reth had created and pushed up. The lid was surprisingly heavy and Simon felt the muscles in his arms straining as the raised it off the tube and let it drop to the floor. Tiska and Reth stepped back and time seemed to slow down for Simon as he approached his wife’s tube and he bent over to look at her remains.
She was naked on her back with her hands folded over her abdomen. Even though the stasis field had shut down, the vacuum-sealed tube had minimized her body’s decay. The flesh on her face was sagging and the skin was ashen, but her long black hair still cascaded past her shoulders and he could still see the small comma-shaped blemish just above her left nipple. Her lips were slightly parted as if she was dozing.
Simon reached out and cupped her cheek with his hand. Her skin felt dry and fragile, like tissue paper. “Hey, baby,” he said softly. “It’s good to see you again. Been a while.” His vision blurred and he felt warm tears streaming down his face. He gripped her hands tightly in his. “I’m sorry, Ellen. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I didn’t know this would happen. I didn’t know.” He wept over the body of his dead wife. For how long, he could not say. Reth and Tiska said nothing, but their presence gave him some small measure of comfort in the midst of his overwhelming grief.
Simon wiped the tears off his face and looked down at his wife. “I have to go now, Ellen. I’m going away with some aliens, if you can believe that.” He chuckled at his own words. “Life is pretty strange, isn’t it? All of this still seems like a bad dream to me. I keep thinking that I’ll wake up and find you lying in bed next to me. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.” His expression grew somber. “I wanted to see you before I left, baby. They’re taking me to another world and I’m not sure when I’ll be back. And I wanted to get something from you, if that’s okay.”
He slipped her silver wedding band off her finger. “Something to help keep you close to me,” he whispered. He put the ring into a small pocket on his jumpsuit and then leaned closer to her, his lips brushing hers. “I love you, Ellen. I always will. Goodbye.” He stood up and nodded to Tiska.
Tiska approached the tube holding a snub-nosed device. He regarded Ellen for a moment. “The stars shine brightly, Ell’ennkrenz. We free you of the burden of flesh, so that you may begin your journey to rebirth. Travel well.” He pointed the device at her and it emitted a low, pulsing hum. Simon watched as an ethereal glow surrounded Ellen’s body. The light increased in intensity until Simon was forced to look away. When it faded, he looked back and saw that the cryotube was empty.
Night had spread over the city by the time they emerged from BioNova’s underground facility. They returned to the shuttle and Reth prepared for takeoff. Simon collapsed into his seat and pulled off the hood, letting the cool recycled air dry the sweat on his brow.
Tiska touched him on the shoulder “May I see the object you took from your wife?”
Simon eyed him uncertainly. “It’s not contaminated, if that’s what you’re worried about, Tiska. It was in an airtight cryotube and I doubt it had the opportunity to pick up anything in the time I moved it to this sealed pocket.”
“I am not concerned about that,” the alien said. “My studies of the virus indicate that it does not easily bind to inanimate objects. I am simply curious.”
Simon shrugged and pulled the wedding band out of the jumpsuit and handed it to Tiska. “It’s Ellen’s ring.”
“What is its significance?” said Tiska.
Simon paused for a moment, uncertain how to explain the concept of marriage to him. “Well, in my culture, it’s customary for a husband and wife to exchange rings during the marriage ceremony. It’s a symbol of love and devotion to each other.”
Tiska held the ring up in front of him. “There is something inscribed on the inner circumference. I must admit that I am not as adept at reading your language as Reth or Captain Salla. What does it say?”
“Hmm? Oh, that’s just our wedding date. March third, twenty-twenty-two.”
“A simple yet elegant adornment,” said Tiska, giving the ring back to Simon. “I am considering writing a brief analysis of Earth’s cultural practices for an upcoming scientific conference on Baasti. Perhaps you would be willing to assist me?”
“Uh, sure. I’m sure we’ll have some time on the journey back to S’Rak.”
“Excellent.” Tiska’s head bobbed enthusiastically. “It will be my honor to designate you as a co-author.”
Simon smiled politely and turned to watch the landscape fall away as the shuttle ascended. They broke through the low-lying clouds into a sky glittering with stars. Reth plotted a course back to the Rohtann and swung his seat sideways to look at Simon. “Simonkrenz, I mean no offense, but I overheard you saying something on the surface that I did not quite understand.”
“What was that?” he asked.
“When you were speaking to your mate, you said ‘I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.’ I do not wish to pry, but what did you not tell her?”
“No, that’s okay.“ He took a deep breath before continuing. “Ellen was very sick when she decided to enter cryosleep. I told her that a cure was coming soon, just to reassure her that she wouldn’t be away too long. But I wasn’t too confident about that myself. I became more and more scared that she would be in cryosleep for decades. And I would be very old or dead by the time she came out. I never told her my fears. She never would have gone through with it otherwise.”
He vividly remembered walking beside Ellen as they wheeled her gurney into the prep room. He remembered whispering soothing words into her ear as they set up the intravenous line and administered the first course of retardants. I love you so much. Everything will be fine. I’ll be here when you wake up. Just relax and go to sleep.
He remembered returning home to an empty house and being unable to sleep that first night with her gone. He remembered lying in bed and how easy the decision suddenly seemed. How it unfurled across his mind like a banner.
Will paced up and down the length of the waiting room, which was visibly annoying some of the other people sitting in the cushioned chairs. “What’s taking them so long?” he said as he glanced at his watch in agitation.
Simon looked up from the book he was reading. “We’ve only been here twenty minutes or so. Now sit down. You’re making me nervous. “
“Sorry.” Will squeezed his stocky frame into the seat across from Simon’s. “These seats aren’t very comfortable.”
Simon set his book aside. “The seats are fine. You just need to lose some weight.”
His friend rolled his eyes. “As if I don’t get enough of that from Sujata. You’re lucky I’m such a good friend, or I might have been terribly offended by that little remark.”
“You’re right,” said Simon with a grin. “Please accept my most sincere apologies. “
Will leaned forward and said in a low voice, “You’re sure about this?”
“Yes, for the nth time!” Simon loved his friend like a brother, but Will was beginning to exasperate him. “Everything’s arranged. I submitted my resignation ten days ago. The money from selling the cabin and the house is safely tucked away in interest-bearing T-bills and a couple low-risk mutual funds. And whatever isn’t in storage I’ve given away or sold. You sure you don’t want my motorcycle? It’s a classic.”
Will shook his head. “Thanks, but no. I wouldn’t feel right taking any of your things. But I’ll tell you what. I’ll keep it safe for you until you come back. Whenever that is. Okay?”
“I appreciate that, Will. And thanks for taking on some of my caseload. You didn’t have to do that.”
“Don’t mention it. With the budget the way it is, Chen is going to have a difficult time finding another county attorney.” Will snorted in amusement. “He tried to get me to tell him where you were going, but I played dumb.”
“Good. I don’t want anyone to know what I’m doing except you and Ellen’s mom.”
The door next to the receptionist’s desk opened and a pretty young lab technician stepped out. “Simon? Simon Krenz?”
He waved at the technician. “Here.” The two friends stood up and followed her through the door to a small examination room.
“Mr. Krenz, my name is Darcy and I’ll be prepping you for cryosleep,” said the technician cheerfully. “Would you please remove all your clothing and place it in the bin next to the exam table? All of your personal items will be kept in a secure location until you’re revived. After you’re done, just lie on the table. I’ll be back in a couple minutes to check your vitals. Any questions?”
“Is Dr. Phelps here?” he asked.
“Yes, he is. He’ll be in to see you shortly.” Darcy repeated that she’d be right back and then left the exam room, closing the door behind her.
Will turned away while Simon stripped off his clothes. “What did Ellen’s mom say when you told her you were doing this?”
“She wasn’t thrilled with the idea,” he said. “She told me I should go on with my life and just hope that a treatment is developed for Ellen before too long. She said she had already grieved for Ellen and she doesn’t want to grieve for me too.”
“So she doesn’t think this will work?”
Simon tossed his clothes into the bin marked PERSONAL BELONGINGS and stretched out on the exam table. “I don’t know. I think she’s worried that the cryotubes will malfunction or that she’ll be dead by the time we’re revived. “ He covered his lower half with a thin sheet that was draped over the edge of the table.
Will turned around and looked for a place to sit. He found a stool with wheels and pulled it up to the table’s side. “Well, you can’t blame her. Neither you nor Ellen will be truly dead, but it will feel like it to her.”
“And what do you think?”
Will scratched his balding head. “Well, like most good Dawners, I believe that cryonics is an unnatural way of prolonging life and that it’s just one more piece of technology that further separates us from God. But you already know that.” He looked directly at Simon and said, “I think you have to ask yourself whether you’re doing this for Ellen’s sake or your own.”
Simon nodded in agreement. “I know, and I’m not sure I can answer that either way. But I can’t bear the thought of coming home to an empty house, day after day for who knows how many years. I thought I could, but the reality of it hit me after she was gone.” He made a sweeping gesture. “I know this is a little crazy, but it feels right to me.”
Someone rapped on the door and it swung open. A gaunt-looking man with a mop of curly dark hair and a crooked nose sauntered into the room. He wore a white lab coat with the words Ian Phelps, Ph.D. stitched above the left breast pocket. He shook Simon’s hand vigorously and said, “Simon! It’s good to see you! You ready to do this?”
“Hey, Ian. Yeah, I’m ready. This is my friend Will Montoya. I was hoping he could stay with me during the procedure. “
Phelps reached over the exam table and shook Will’s hand. “Of course, of course. Good to meet you.” He picked up the chart hanging off the table’s railing and quickly scanned it. “This is kind of sudden, Simon. I assume you’ve considered your decision carefully?”
“Yes. I’ve been through psych testing and I’m not clinically depressed. The report should be in there.”
Phelps nodded as he continued to pore through the chart. “Yes, I see it. Well, that’s good enough for me. Has Darcy been in to see you? Ah, here she is.”
The door opened and the technician rushed in. “Sorry, got held up with another client. She was feeling a little apprehensive.” She stuck a thermometer in Simon’s mouth and began applying monitor patches to his temples, chest, and abdomen.
“Anything I need to know about?” asked Phelps.
“I gave her a mild sedative and her son is with her. She should be fine.” Darcy pulled out the thermometer and glanced at the readout. “Temp’s normal.” She switched on the table’s display and studied it for a moment. “Heartbeat is a little elevated, though.”
Phelps donned the stethoscope that had been hanging around his neck (Ellen always told Simon that modern science would never replace the elegant but simple device) and pressed against Simon’s bare chest. He listened for a moment and then removed the stems from his ears. “Yeah, it’s a little fast. You feeling nervous, Simon?”
“A little, maybe,” he said.
“Well, that’s not too unusual. Darcy, let’s start the IV.” As she set up the equipment, Phelps explained that the IV was a cocktail of drugs that would greatly slow his metabolism in preparation for his body’s entry into the stasis field. “It’s a bit like going into hypothermia,” he said casually. “But it won’t hurt. You’ll just start to feel a little cold. The cocktail also contains a tranquilizer, so you’re going to get sleepy pretty soon. Do you have any questions before we begin?”
Simon looked at his friend. “You know how to access my will? Just in case?”
Will nodded. “Yeah, but don’t you think like that. You’ll wake up before you know it with Ellen’s pretty face smiling down on you.” He gave Simon’s shoulder a squeeze.
Simon patted his friend’s arm and said to Phelps, “Okay, let’s go.”
Darcy switched on a bright overhead light and swung it closer, causing him to blink at the sudden brightness. “You’re going to feel a little prick, Mr. Krenz,” she said. But he barely noticed the needle slip under his skin. Simon’s thoughts had been racing in a million different directions just a few minutes ago, but now, for some inexplicable reason, his memory drifted back to that one afternoon in the park a few years ago. The smell of wet grass filled his nostrils and for an instant he saw Ellen’s lithe body silhouetted by the setting sun. He wondered what had stirred this particular memory from its slumber in the deep recesses of his mind. The light?
Darcy checked the flow of the IV pump and made a minor adjustment. Satisfied, she raised the side rails on the exam table. Phelps leaned over him and smiled thinly. “How you feeling now?”
“Alright.” Better than alright, in fact. He felt like he was floating about two inches above the mattress. His fingers and toes were gently tingling. “Feels good, but kinda weird,” he said thickly.
“Well, nothing wrong with a little buzz before you spend the next few years in cryo, eh?” said Phelps with a dry chuckle. “Let’s get you to the processing room. Mr. Montoya, you’re welcome to follow us.“
They wheeled him down the hall to a larger room with more sophisticated monitoring equipment. With a little effort, Simon turned his head to the left and saw the waiting cryotube with its lid swung open. Its interior was filled with a luminous blue haze that Simon, even in his growing stupor, guessed was the stasis field. He turned back to Will. “Thanks for staying with me,” he said, the words forming ponderously on his lips.
“Don’t mention it. Christ be with you, Simon. You and Ellen. I’ll be praying for both of you.”
“We’re increasing the IV drip, Simon,” said Phelps from somewhere far away. “I want you to start counting backwards from twenty.”
“Twenty.” And now the cold Phelps had promised was creeping throughout his body. “Nineteen.” God, he felt cold! He pictured his blood freezing into microscopic rivulets of copper-tinged ice. “Eighteen.” He tried to recall the warmth of Ellen’s skin, but the chattering of his teeth distracted him. “Seventeen.” Had it been like this for Ellen? Had she been scared? Was this…?
Simon slept and did not dream.
Tiska and Reth accompanied Simon to the bridge, where they found Captain Salla seated in the command chair, still wearing her translator pendant. She saw them enter and invited Simon to stand beside her on the elevated platform. “Tell me, did you accomplish your task, sentient one?”
“Yes, thank you, Captain,” he said somberly. “Tiska and Reth were both very helpful.”
“I am pleased. Primary Reth, please assume your station and prepare us for departure.”
“Yes, Captain.” Reth sat in the chair to Salla’s left and began issuing orders to the rest of the bridge crew.
Tiska came closer and said, “If you do not require my presence here, Captain, I shall return to the infirmary.”
“Honored healer, perhaps you will stay to witness our departure.” She glanced sideways at Simon. “I think our new passenger would appreciate his presence.”
Tiska bowed his head. “Of course.” And Simon realized that he was glad that Tiska was here. For some reason that he couldn’t quite articulate, the alien physician felt familiar to him. Perhaps it was just because Tiska had been the first Serka with whom he had come in contact.
“All stations report ready for departure, Captain,” said Reth.
“Very well,” said Salla. She studied the forward viewscreen for a moment. Earth with its twisted rivers and vast oceans and wreaths of clouds. “I should like to return here again, Simonkrenz,” she said softly. “Given time, we may develop a cure for this virus and deliver it to your people. And perhaps they will be more receptive to us. We were sent here to bring your world into the company of other sentients.” Her crimson eyes glimmered like jewels in the dim light of the bridge. “I do not like leaving a task undone. When the time comes to complete this task, you shall be our envoy. That is your calling, Simonkrenz. I am almost certain.”
Simon tried to think of something to say, but words eluded him. He simply nodded and hoped that he wouldn’t begin to cry again.
“Navigator, break orbit and take us out of the system.” The navigator acknowledged the order in Serkan and the hull of the ship vibrated almost imperceptibly. On the screen, Earth grew pale and distant.
A few minutes later, the screen showed nothing but stars. “Captain,” said Simon in a shaky voice. “If it’s okay with you, I’d like to go to my quarters for a while.”
“Permission granted. I shall look in upon you after we enter jumpspace. Tiska, will you accompany him?”
Tiska and Simon left the bridge and took the lift down a few levels. Salla had insisted that he could not stay in the infirmary for the entire voyage and had assigned him to one of the quarters reserved for visiting dignitaries. They had even furnished it with a bed and a desk with a link to the ship’s library. Reth had promised to teach him Serkan and Galactic Common in his spare time.
They stopped at the entrance to his quarters. “I shall be in the infirmary if you require anything,” said Tiska.
“Thanks, Tiska. I just need to rest for a little bit.”
The healer bowed and turned to leave. “Tiska, wait,” Simon called after him.
“Would you have done what I did? Would you have put yourself into cryosleep?”
“My friend, it matters not what I would have done. Things are as they are. You had no knowledge of future events and you cannot blame yourself for what has happened.” Tiska tilted his head slightly. “Your mate was devoted to you, and you to her. That is all that matters. Now, I will bid you good resting. I believe Reth has left something in your quarters that you may enjoy.” Tiska bowed again. “The stars shine brightly, Simonkrenz.” And with that, he left.
Simon watched him go and then triggered the voicelock on the door. It slid open and he entered the spacious living area. He sat on the edge of the bed and pulled Ellen’s wedding band out of his pocket. He was about to lie back when he felt something hard press into his back. He sat up and looked behind him to see what it was.
He marveled at the portable datapad. It was almost identical to the one he had used in college. He switched it on and found that Reth had left a message on the small display:
I INSTRUCTED THE NANOASSEMBLERS TO BUILD THIS FOR YOU AFTER WE RECOVERED A SIMILAR OBJECT ON A FIELD SURVEY. ONCE WE DISCOVERED ITS PURPOSE, I THOUGHT YOU MIGHT FIND IT USEFUL FOR RECORDING YOUR THOUGHTS. AND PRESERVING YOUR MEMORIES. RETH.
Simon fiddled with it for a bit before remembering how to activate the virtual keyboard. Just then, he felt a touch of vertigo, like he had lost his balance for a moment even though he was sitting down. Jumpspace, he thought. He set the wedding band on the bed and flexed his fingers briefly.
He and Ellen had written letters to each other frequently when she had been in China. They had eschewed the more common voice messaging or e-mail in favor of ink and paper. They somehow seemed more intimate, more substantial.
Paper and ink weren’t handy at the moment, but this would do. He sat back on the bed and began writing a letter to his dead wife. It would be the first of many.