in this first-contact scifi about an expedition to an ocean world, we get to ask ourselves: if we ever meet an alien deity, how would we talk to it? And would it even be a good idea to wake it?
Start recording, please. One, two, three.
Three is a good number, you know? The Holy Trinity and stuff, your kind of bedtime stories, Father Aleksei. Three was life and three was love. But the two of us? Two is death and sorrow. There cannot be two Gods, two Gospels, or two Floods, equally divine. If so, one of them must be the wrong kind, I’d say. Isn’t that true, my dear Fairy? Who do you think is right? And who’s the crazy cuckoo?
Destroyers of worlds, the two of us. We’ll get to that.
How did this nightmare start? When, even? Since the three of us left Baikonur, inside the silvery snakelike Ark slithering around the dark energy pillar aimed straight at this wicked planet? Before that, when the Church’s telescopes and its holy astronomers first caught a glimpse of the shiny little gem in the sky, and the monks ran frantically up and down their sky-reaching observatories? I can easily imagine them screaming their amazement at such a miracle as a watery planet, way too near a way too hot blue sun. Or was it when Flood killed your sweet fair-haired Lena, Father Aleksei? Maybe when it poisoned my own dear Fairy?
I’m losing track of all this, good thing it’s being recorded. I must not forget I’m a trained pilot and a navigator, the captain of the Ark and of this expedition. A man not of God, or gods, but of numbers and cold calculus. Aibek Mahmudovich Bolatov, Bek for friends, and also for you, Fairy, of course, but an aye, aye, sir, for you, Father Aleksei and the like. Never really loved your Church, you know? But what can the Navy do, when all the money are in your pious hands? We want to fly out there, so we pretend to believe and accept your missions. Anyway, they gave you their worst pilot on the whole planet, so there must be someone else up in the Outer Ministry really disliking the bishops.
Let’s get back to it, I do tend to ramble when I’m drunk, I know, I know. We need to make some sense out of this, so I’ll just go through it school style: orderly, chronologically, facts only. I’ll put a beginning and a middle to the story, and then maybe the ending will become more apparent. Or not. Funny me, laughing out loud in a lonely ship, just on the edge of the bright yellow atmosphere of a lonely golden planet, not far from a lonely blue star. Just the opposite of our dear Earth. Quite ironic, the symmetry. Should have rang a bell.
We arrived on the orbit of planet Flood around … how many days ago, Fairy, please? Thirty eight? Forty, forty five? Never mind, it doesn’t really matter. Just as it doesn’t matter for how long we had slept before that, while our ship swirled around the black tendril shot from below the Kazah deserts. Decades, centuries … who cares? It felt like a blink of an eye. A yellow eye, yes, yes, that’s what Flood looks like, this thought has been roaming through the depths of my mind ever since the beginning, but I was too distracted for it to surface! Deep a soul can be, just as deep as the endless golden ocean covering this world. Thick and slimy also, like its infinite rain, or its atmosphere: they’re the same here. The rain has never stopped since we first came, for forty days or so, and maybe forty millenia, who knows?
Sooo, the introduction of the story. The Moscow Church sees planet Flood, thinks it a miracle, sends us up here. The Ark can go so far, so fast, but for that it has to be tiny, just a silver stiletto the shape of a curled viper. So there were only four of us: Father Aleksei, theologian and chemist; sister Lena, archaeologist and xeno-linguist; myself, pilot, navigator and, frankly, a non-believer and a rather nasty human being, just the kind most enjoyed by the Party. A military human being, if there’s such a thing, so also the expedition’s warrior, if need be. Everybody had to have dual specializations, due to the limited size of the crew, except our Fairy, of course, who only has one: being the super-smart, cold AI. Icy just like me, hence our friendship, and quite unlike the warmhearted Lena and the passionate Aleksei … can I call you Sasha? After all we’ve been through together? Thank you, Father. Hence their friendship, maybe more. Who am I to judge? They have their God for that.
Good. The beginning. You’ll have to excuse me for all this beating around the bush, whoever you’ll be, listening to my recording; I don’t really want to get to the end of it, for fear of what awaits me there. And my mind is not exactly what it used to be, for I am a murderer, and that does take quite a toll on one’s soul.
The beginning. Again. When we arrived, Flood proved to be just what we suspected: a planet about the size of Earth, with almost the same mass and gravity, and about the same air and water. Not quite identical in any of these, but close enough. Unlike our home, it stood alone in its system, circling a very hot blue star, which the churchmen, unsurprisingly, called The Tear of God. Also unsurprisingly, the Navy called it Dramshki-Drezinov 432bis, after two admirals who had never done anything of valor, but had been covered in shiny Party decorations for their thorough lack of initiative. I just called it Blue, and moved along. The planet, everybody agreed: Flood was the perfect name, since its thundering thick rain never seemed to stop.
But when did the story, our story, actually begin? Regulations required ten days of non-intrusive observation, so we used that to observe and research, and to good effect. Earth days, of course, but Flood ones were not much shorter, so no issue there. The other two also used the nights for praying, writing and bed-sharing, and the dark-haired sun-burned slant-eyed one, yours truly, for drinking the vast supplies of vodka synthesized by Fairy, while dancing alone on its instantly composed ballads. None of these is your business, stranger. We got along great, there were no inside tensions and no outside troubles yet; those were to come, so the ten days were ” the good old days„. A perfect expedition to an almost perfect planet. We used them to good effect, too, not just for R&R.
I did the least, since there was not yet to be any flying around. I just checked the Ark’s systems, through my Fairy, and built a handgun from pre-packed pieces. I wish I had built two, but who was to know? I scanned Flood over and over again, everywhere, with all I got, and found no threat. None whatsoever from the outer space, either, but no surprise there, we are still to find a space-faring civilization. Maybe this one here was that once? Or could we say it is now? We’ll get to that; have some patience.
Aleksei, Sasha. I must admit, you worked the most, using the tiny lab and Fairy’s science to analyze the rain and ocean. There is nothing else here, so that was all you could do. The scans read by our drones all over the planet, from various heights and depths, proved surprisingly identical. So, we concluded, there really was just one sea, and just one sky. And a single, huge, planet-sized eternal tropical storm. Which, you know, felt fishy, for both soldier and chemist. Because that is not ordinary, and extraordinary could mean one of three things: God, an artificial intervention from someone else than God, or, of course, just an extraordinary set of unusual natural factors. Neither of us believed in the third, and the simulations run by Fairy proved us right: there should have been some environment variations.
Can I see them again, Fairy? The simulations of what-if alternative Floods? I love the one where there are continents, with lush jungles and huge rivers. Thank you. I wish I could understand what you are saying, but at least you can still understand me.
So, Sasha. I think your discovery was first, and Lena’s second. I’m not sure, but let’s just go with that for the sake of the tale. You came to my tiny red-dark cabin, one late night, when I thought you were already in Lena’s room. You were babbling some chemistry stuff and my attention was not in its best form, so I just slid the vodka phial under the chair, trying not to fall down, and grabbed your wrist. You opened up a data holo and we looked at it for a moment, then that cute tiny elf of a woman that Lena was … show me a picture of her, Fairy, please … cute, indeed … she burst into my room, too, and asked what the fuss was all about. You rubbed your red beard and smiled at both of us, uncertain, but thrilled.
„Antiseptic!” you said.
I remember perfectly that I laughed: „No surprise there, Sherlock!”, but Lena took your hand and smiled: „So we can go out there, Sasha.” You seemed baffled for a moment, then waved your hand in excitement: „Well, yes, no microbial danger, there’s no trace of life. We can easily even breath the air, as long as we fill our lungs with a filtering inner coat I can fast produce in the lab. Both the air and the water are filled with …” he looked at our non-chemist faces „… let’s just call them pseudo-silicates and metal alloys. Proof that there was plenty of sand here once!”
Me and Lena looked at each other, unsure. You sat down, took out my vodka phial, which I thought I had hidden better that that, drank it all up. Then you put it in the dispenser, though I needed it for the entire night, you smug, and pulled your thick beard some more.
„It shouldn’t be” you said. „All the conditions are met: chemicals, temperature, pressure … there is an over-abundance of electricity, true, but it should actually help. Don’t you get it?” you suddenly shouted at me, annoyed by my clearly not caring. „There should be life here, plenty of it!”
„So?” I said. „Maybe there was and somebody killed it off. Long ago, closed case, who cares?! Why all the screaming?”
I must admit, I didn’t really like you back then, either. Maybe it was the softness of your voice and manners, maybe the religion you pointed out through your black robe-like uniform, or perhaps there was just a hint of jealousy between us. Because of her.
Lena got between us, turning her back on me, smart one that little blondie, and took both your hands: „Good. Sasha, we got it. There is no life on this planet. It is called Flood, isn’t it? Didn’t we come here just for that, to prove what God can do? So, no life is good for the expedition’s goals.”
„You both don’t get it, do you?” you whispered. „Maybe there were some beings on Flood, and they were wiped out. True. But life has a habit of trying again and again … and it’s not doing that here. Not now. Don’t you see what it tells us?”
I shuddered. „That there’s still some insecticide left in the water?”
You cringed: „There is nothing poisonous in the water! Yet, still, you are right in a way. He. God must still be here!”
Talking about dramatic overstatement. You do have a tendency for that, Sasha, you know? Does he not, Fairy? Of course he does, you would say so, too, if only you could still speak.
Then came her discovery. The eleventh day, we went out. The scans showed, here and there, anomalous formations deep under the sea, and we went for them. I dived the Ark through the heavy and hot yellow rain, gliding between the furious downwards torrents of never-ending monsoon and the upwards thick steam reddish columns. We stopped next to some long-dead reef, and Lena used the below-ship eye-strips to look down in full spectrum. I will never forget the sweet smile when she pointed her tiny index finger at the edge of the hologram.
„See here?” she said, barely able to control her excited voice. „This and this … they are square at the basis, but triangular at the top.”
Both the basis and the top were, of course, under hundreds of kilometers of warm water the color of honey, resting on the slopes of some huge undersea mountains with just as fair a tinge as Lena’s long hair. Which I was watching with more attention than the objects of her amazement, I must admit, sorry, Sasha, for that. My bad.
So I just smiled back. She rolled her eyes and raised her arms: „They are not natural formations, you mule! They must have been buildings once!”
I said nothing, for I had nothing to say unless they needed to be shot at with our big guns. Well, not that big, really, since the Ark itself is tiny, but they do hold quite a nasty punch. Full spectrum, too. And they did not seem to threaten us, your God, my Party and our Earth in any way, so my fingers did not wander on the weapons-board and I did not call Fairy to take the nasties out of their sheaths.
But you, Father Chemist Aleksei Feodorovich, did have something to bring into the conversation, and I must admit it was a good addition. You pointed out they could be analyzed for building materials, and, after a short debate, we agreed to send a drone under the waves.
It brought back some answers and it brought back death. Mostly death, and we are both to blame.
Yes, I think that is the exact moment the good days ended and we started on a wicked path. Unknowingly, indeed, but that does not take away the guilt. Yours could be cleared by your Christ, Sasha, but I don’t even have that doubt. Only my drinks and ballads, and they are going away, too.
Let’s get back to the guilt. This would be the middle of the story, I think, so we must proceed. There’s plenty of time, way too much, actually, but I don’t really want that kind of time.
The drone returned. With better images from up close and a tiny bit of brownish clay-like stuff, in a drop of oily lukewarm golden water. I let Fairy know the drone posed no military threat, and you said there was no toxic or living danger. Just a little hardened mud in a somewhat dirty sea water. Not salty, of course, our NaCl is just a tiny fraction in Flood’s seas composition. You took from the synthesizer a moist greenish foam, in small tubes, and we inhaled it. It felt bitter, stung my throat a little and cooled my lungs as it settled inside them. It was not that bad, and it was supposed to protect us from any unknown element.
Of course it didn’t. Maybe gods do have a sense of dark humor, or perhaps it’s just our ages-old traditional bad luck. Lena leaned over the tiny pool of liquid to pick up the clay blob with some tweezers, and I remember looking at her narrow back, trying to guess the shape of the body under the overall. I still feel sorry and ashamed for that. She fell down, convulsed two or three times, eyes widened with disbelief, and froze. She hadn’t even touched the sample yet, and she was as dead as everything else on this planet.
I, the so-called trained war professional, panicked and did the stupidest thing possible: I rushed to Lena, knelt and grabbed her shoulder. Surprisingly, or maybe just better trained, you, Father Aleksei, the chemist, pushed me away and ordered the drone to close the sampling recipient and go to the lab. Then you asked Fairy to check on Lena from afar, and it did. The cute little thing was dead.
Fairy immediately secreted a transparent thin layer of slime from the floor, covered Lena in it and waved the thick gray carpet away, carrying the corpse into the laboratory, too. That room closed up, and only after it swallowed the drone, too, you, Sasha, took your head between your palms and groaned. I should have come to you, to suffer together, for in a different way I loved her, too, but I am not a kind enough man; so I just sat there on the floor, in silence.
„What the hell did you do?” I yelled, of course not naming my own guilt, as people never do in such situations. „Your damn filter didn’t work, and the toxins killed her!”
First, you waved for Fairy and she understood. Two pills dropped out and we both quickly swallowed them. The lungs felt warmer and the throat stinging stopped. We also seemed to cool off a little … ah, now I get it, you gave us some sedative too, Fairy, huh? Well … thank you.
„There are no toxins!” you yelled back, eyes red with tears. „There are no microbes, no viruses, nothing. Just water and sand, damn it!”
You threw something at me, Sasha, I don’t remember what, and I must admit I deserved it. „Come and see!”
Fairy opened a holo between us, and we could see the content of the lab. Lena, stiff on a table, the drone on the other. „Bio!” I ordered, and Fairy obeyed. „Just the lungs” the AI said, „and the throat and nose. The rest is not hurt. But nothing alive in there. No toxins, either.”
I gulped and nodded. The picture changed to a 3D of the lungs. They were petrified. Literally, they had turned into rock. I waved my palm over the holo and looked at the drone: its recipient was now hardened too, covered in yellow sandstone. We looked at each other, confused: why had it not done that before, while it was outside? Or even in here, till it was opened by Lena? Was it our air? Clearly not, since it hadn’t reacted when introduced into the Ark, and it didn’t seem to react any more to the one in the lab. So … why did it strike just then and there, killing our dear, innocent Lena?
She didn’t even get the chance to see that she had stricken the archaeologist mother lode. The damn mud was, as the lab established later, an artificial clay made from some soft metal, with no name yet (maybe it will be called Lenary? Or Sashamite? Who am I fooling, it will never have a human name) and some pseudo-sillicate strings. Fluid enough to not be corroded by the water, yet strong enough to be a lasting building material, and it’s definitely not a natural occurrence. What had been the purpose of those long abandoned ruins when they had been erected, eons before those mountains got covered by the sea? We’ll probably never know. Where are the bodies of its architects, and how did their cities die? Did they simply leave? Were they overcome by the flood when the end came, or long after that? Who gives a shit! Stupid long-dead motherfuckers, I wish they were here so I could roast them slowly with our weapons. But they are not, and I won’t have my revenge on them.
Let’s get back to that accursed day. We watched her lungs time and again. Sasha and Fairy, you two started looking into the matter, while I took our asses out of the storm and into the orbit, as fast as I could and as quickly as the ship could shoot its tiny dark energy filaments and climb up, eating them up as it went.
We waited for three days here, in the dark, watching down in fear at the yellow devilish eye and up in wonder at the blue, crystal-clear god tear of a sun. I slept very little then, tormented by bad dreams of Lena, and drank too much, while talking to Fairy about countless ways of blowing up at least some of the ocean, with mass destruction weapons we did not have. Sasha the chemist worked tirelessly, while Sasha the priest stood back, pondering in pain. After three days, always three, just like in the old fairy-tales, no offense, Fairy, Sasha finally found something. Not an answer, but a new question. And aren’t exactly the unanswered questions the best gateway to a god’s will?
„It’s different” you said. „The water. It’s different and I don’t know why.”
I said nothing, for I am no scientist and just hoped you could do wonders and find all the amazing answers in your lab. Of course, they weren’t there. You kept on: „The water itself is the same, actually. But not the solution. The one in the sea–” you pointed to the holo on the wall, one of our e-windows, and I looked at the damn huge waves angrily rising up towards the two large moons before falling back among the new risers, in an endless struggle, „–has sand in it. Kind of silicates, and some small traces of metals, evenly mixed in the liquid.”
You pointed another e-frame. The forever monsoon storm, ridden with thousands and thousands of enormous orange lightnings, stretching for hundreds of kilometers each. „The one in the rain, it has the same, but in a different proportion. Less metals, more silicates, and plenty of whole sand grains. And this,” you waved towards the lab, no image showing up except the dark ones in our own minds, „it has just the metals. No sand. No silicates.”
„They are in Lena,” I whispered, „in her lungs. In the sandstone.”
„But why did they get there?”
I laughed bitterly and grinned.
„They just wanted that way. Or God did. He’s still here, remember?”
You gave me a nasty look and turned around. I rushed after you.
„Father Aleksei … I’m sorry. I’m angry and I’m sad and there’s no one else around here to be a bitch to. Please … I apologize.” And then I said it: „Why don’t we just go see? Check out the rain?”
You lowered your eyes.
„I … I wouldn’t dare. My filter should work just fine … but I fear we would die, too, and in vain.”
I laughed again.
„What? Go there ourselves? No, my friend, I also know pure bravery is dumb. War is not like the movies; you know? When war means the enemy is ambushing you, it’s all about the scouts. We should send some into the storm.”
„Drones? And lose another one?”
„Not drones. Nanobots. Just dump enough of them into the skies. They’ll get carried away by the winds, we fly over the orbit, get in their way and collect the survivors. Read the data. It could help.”
„Actually, they could! Let’s do that! Fairy, do you have what it takes for … let’s say, five thousand nanos?”
„They must be rust-resistant alloys,” Fairy added. „But yes, of course. Churning them out right now. Do you approve shooting them into the clouds?”
„I’ve been waiting for a long time to shoot something at this damn planet! Finally! Shoot Flood, shoot them up!”
You smiled too, Sasha, for a moment.
„It didn’t really work” you said in the fifteenth day.
We had just collected them back. Amazingly, all the five thousand. Not even one have been corroded or lost, as if the storm was disgusted with them and hurried to spit the nanos away. We caught on to them on the orbit, a shiny trail rushing towards the blue hot oven of a sun. A rather weird trajectory, I must admit, but with all the chaotic winds snaking among Flood’s clouds like heavenly boas on steroids, no wonder.
„They bring no new data, except the amazing amount of electricity, both static and dynamic.”
„That’s not so unexpected, with sky-reaching waves always rubbing against each other.”
„No, you don’t understand. The problem is not the electricity that IS there. The problem is … it should be even more. Something is eating up part of it.”
„Feeding on it?” I wondered. „What? There’s nothing there! Maybe under the ocean?”
„No. It’s not going there, or, better said, not all of it. Some is simply vanishing into thin air, so to speak. Thick air, to be more Flood-like accurate.”
We stood silent for a while, looking at the planet, with its hypnotic whirls rolling around.
„What about the silicates? Are they there?”
You nodded and shuddered.
„They’re not really silicates, but yes. Both mixed in the water, and as solid sand grains.”
„What, just floating around? Where from?”
„Who knows?! From the once-continents, I think. And yes, floating around, I suppose. That’s what they do under the microscope, that’s how they must … Know what? I’ll just watch the live video scans. Here. Wait … that’s strange …”
„The floating around … they don’t seem to do that in the ocean itself. In fact, there are none in the seas.”
„Maybe it’s more acid, or something.”
„No, it is not.”
You asked Fairy to zoom in, and there it was. The breakthrough. Well, just the first of a few, but in any siege there’s always one wall-crack that signals the beginning of the end. This was it.
At nano level, the grains of sand were not floating on the monsoon, nor inside it. They were moving up and down between the beads of golden water, like tiny spirits running among the rain drops, back and forth between watery hell and stormy heavens.
Late day nineteen, you came back to me, excited, but also disappointed.
„They do feed on the static electricity. The lightnings, they seem to avoid, though those discharge energy straight into the ocean and also the clouds, so there might be something about them, too. Maybe the lightnings …”
„Forget about the lightnings! We know much about them? Not enough. We’ll check them later. More about the sand grains? Yes. So tell me about the sandies, then.”
You hated the interruption, and I suspect you somewhat hated me, too, not for what was being told between us, but for what was left aside. Her. But you liked your science and you eagerly continued.
„There are billions of them, all over the planet. They come down near the surface of the ocean, but never really touch it, and then go back up to the clouds, and so on, and so on. They do that in streams, though they don’t seem to be carried by heat or electricity.”
„Do they ever stop? Or behave out of the ordinary?”
You sat down and looked down and sideways, away for my gaze.
„Only once did they really stop. In Lena. They mixed with the tissue in her lungs and turned into stone. Maybe a reaction I cannot comprehend yet, maybe something else. I don’t know!” you raised your voice and gasped.
I leaned over and gave you my vodka phial. You drank, coughed and sighed.
„Other than that … never. They never stop. There are instances when they don’t move vertically, but just wiggle around like electrons. They do that for some fractions of a second and after that they are charged with static.”
„No, I’m a chemist, I do not think of them as living creatures. They are just specks of dust thrown around by the environment’s natural forces. Though there is something that bugs me.”
You waved and Fairy opened a small holo. Inside it, a bunch of a few thousand tiny grains, rotating together for a while, then bursting all over the place.
„Charging?” I asked.
„No, I already told you so. The total electric charge stayed the same, just seemed to be redistributed among them in some way … but I could not find repetitive patterns.”
„Did you try, you know, spying on them with our own nanos?” I grinned.
„Research them. Yes, I did. Nothing to see.”
I thought for a while, then I whispered, though there was no one there to hear us, not for many parsecs around.
„You know … I am trained in more than piloting and heavy drinking.”
„Yeah,” he sighed, „I suspected as much.”
He looked at me with a strange expression on his face and then said it out loud: „There’s always at least one ear for the Party, on every ship. Even on a three-men Ark in the corner of the galaxy. I am not one, and I don’t suspect Lena was one. So … it’s you.”
I did not say anything to that. I just smiled and added: „Well, spying is done better when you are one of them, you know? Dress like them, talk like them, look like them. Think and see like them. When they becomes us … then the secrets rise to the surface.”
„I don’t understand. What does this have to do with my experiments?”
„You tried listening to the sand grains with our nanos, made up by our Fairy from our metals brought all the way from our Earth back home.” I leaned back in my chair and asked: „Fairy! Can you make nanos using just the alloys and silicates from the Flood’s storm skies? You know, our recipe, the client’s material?”
It could. You could, dear Fairy, and you did. That brought this nasty end on yourself, and I’m the only one to blame. It seems I’m a bad omen for everybody. Yes, for you too, Sasha. For you too …
The next breakthrough was not mine, nor Father Aleksei’s. It was Fairy’s. For five days we used our new home-made nanos, the fake sandies I’ll call them, to listen to the real ones. We tried to see them in light, listen to their electric signals, feel their heat signatures, taste their chemicals. Nothing much. My officer mind could not come up with anything else out of the box, nor could the chemist or the theologian Sasha, whose reddish beard and hair grew longer and longer, but also wilder, unattended to. Not like my cheeks, shaved twice a day in anger, crisscrossed with cuts. No, ironically, the idea came from the djinn in the bottle, our dear Fairy. Well, it resides not in a bottle, but in the entirety of the Ark, so … metaphorically speaking. Yes, darling, I know it hurts now. It will be over soon, one way or another, I promise. My dear Fairy.
You are very good in many things, and somewhat competent in even more. I’m by no means a geneticist and neither is Father Aleksei. Are you, Sasha? Of course not. But Fairy is, at least just a little. And she told us: „Remember from school how scientists link together DNA strains? If they are whole, they cannot be joined, but if they are the right fragments, maybe. So perhaps your fake sandies are too perfect. Maybe they should miss a little something”.
And we tried. First, we made them with less of each metal alloys. There were plenty of those, so it took a while. About a week, and in vain. Then, with less electric charge. Nope, still nothing. Then, we took out a proportion of their silicates, and tried different degrees of that. The sixth worked. Is trying six times bad luck? Good luck? Oh, what do you know about luck, you’re an AI.
So. When the lack of silicates was just right, and our fake sandies mingled with the originals, they reached out to us. They used chemical chains to connect to our nanos, and … so what! Amazing as that was, it still told us nothing. We took a long night of self-partying for me and hard praying for Father Aleksei, and then you got your answer, from God Almighty himself. Well, sort of. You, the smart scientist, prayed to the Holy Trinity and got an idea.
Why not all three? The Flood’s monsoon harbors plenty of electricity, plenty of light, and plenty of silicate chains. Why not link them all at once in one trinary „language”?
We did that and they spoke to us. It took two hours for us humans, and probably several eternities in the inner time of the AI, and then Fairy started translating us what they were saying.
They made no sense whatsoever, of course.
„The missing straight
Blue sing song
Up this Quartz, Oxygen not.”
And so on, stupid nonsense haikus. Damn, it was frustrating, listening to sand speaking to us and not understanding shit! We tried parroting them back; sometimes it had no effect, sometimes they just went farther away from our spies, or crept closer. At times, they burst on their vertical highways, but there was no way to tell for sure if there was any connection to what we said or just the ordinary „business as usual”.
We followed them around. They never went to the ruins. Never. Could that mean they were afraid of them? Were they remnants of a different alien civilization, an enemy survivor or just a foreigner divided by millennia and never having had any contact? Were the ruins theirs, but from a different time, with different purposes, and no longer needed? Did they even have a purpose after all, the sandies?
They were. Speaking, I mean, even though not actually using a language as we might understand. It was just so simple and obvious we could not see it. I, never, for having grown too modern, too smart. Good thing the Father was still connected with our primitive past. He saw it, a few days later, after reading his Good Old Book. Good job, Sasha! You brought us one step closer to our doom, but good job anyway!
So. You just showed up, waving your paper Bible at me (yes, a paper book!), and shouted: „I know! For God’s name and all the saints’ blessings, I know!”
„Know what?” I asked, rather politely, though not quite sober.
„What they’re saying!”
You were over-excited, you must admit.
„OK, then, tell me. Start translating.”
„Well, not that. I cannot translate what they talk about, like in what they mean. I can just tell you what they are saying, like in what what, but we still lack the key.”
„You lost me.”
You took my hand and put it on the black leathery cover.
„Here. This holds the answer.”
„Still don’t get it. They speak Latin? Or what was it, Jewish?”
„Aramaic, but no, not that. They speak in verses!”
I laughed out loud.
„They’re poets? Are those non-senses actual love poems? The gatherings are just, what, poets’ societies for dummies?”
You looked at me in anger, annoyed by my stupidity and ill-will.
„No. Verses like these ones. In the Bible. You’re a Muslim, right?”
„Well, not really. I was born one, but I’m a Party man now, and a pilot.”
You pointed your book at me:
„But you do know about suras, right? Quran verses? And sharia? Living by the Quran?”
I looked at the e-window, straight at the blue splendor of the God’s Tear sun. Could it be Allah’s creation? Or your God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Didn’t think so then, still don’t think so now. But there was a doubt for a second, I must give you that. Everything seemed to fall together every time as if it had been written in stone.
„I know about suras. They are chapters, actually, but I get it. And the Sharia.” was all I answered.
„Good.” you said. „All their gibberish, if you listen to it, it doesn’t make sense all the way, but it seems to follow a general pattern: they are do and do nots. Aren’t they?”
I thought for a second. They did indeed seem like a collection of sacred do and do nots.
„But from what God? Ours? Yours? Another, some different Almighty sleeping under the golden seas? A water god?”
You cringed and, admit it, had your doubts. Of course you answered that my Allah and your God is the same and the only one, but I saw your eyes, Sasha, and I knew: you couldn’t tell for sure that in this corner of the Cosmos there might not be another Savior, with a different Gospel. One we could never comprehend, only the grains of sand. But I let you be, said nothing more of it, and just asked:
„Good then. So if their Quran is Flood’s entire language and law, we need to find it in order to talk to them.”
„No, we don’t!” you hurried to stop that thought. You did not want to find their gospel, for fear it might undermine yours. In your soul, or maybe in billions of souls back home. „We already have the universal language, right here!”
I watched you in disbelief.
„Your Bible? You want to talk to them verses from your Bible?”
„Sure,” you said with feverish eyes, „They deserve the Word!”
I laughed at you, then sighed.
„They won’t understand it, no more than we understand theirs. It will be two deaf men shouting.”
„Maybe so. Or perhaps they will use them, not in the meaning we attach to those word, but … somehow.”
I did not see into your soul then, and for that, I apologize now. I just waved you off in disbelief and you pushed me into the wall and shouted: „I need them to talk! I need to know why!”
You let me go and left, panting both in anger and sorrow. I said nothing and I did not follow you. I wanted to tell you that, every time a holy book was brought to enlighten the savage, it never ended well for the savage. But … I wanted to know, too. I wanted to find out the why, and not only about Lena. About Flood, and also about myself.
Of course it worked. Good ideas leading to bad things always work.
After two days of not seeing you around, I gave up and came to the lab. You were watching two video holos, reading three or four text ones and speaking to Fairy in senseless bits of sentences unknown to me. You said nothing, so I came to look at the images.
The first was a group of sandies, whirl-dancing as fast as always, up and down and around. The second one showed less of them, but bigger, and doing some sideways waltz, turning on their heads and going for it all over again.
„You did it, didn’t you?”
You shrugged and said nothing to me, but kept mumbling to Fairy, throwing words back and forth. I sat down next to you and just listened and looked for a while, and eventually you said: „They talk”.
„To you? What do they say?”
You put your index through the waltz holo.
„Not directly, no. They talk to the fakes. To our sand nanos. See here?”
I looked at the big grains.
„What are those? Have they evolved or something?” I wondered.
„They’re pairs. Talking, as I said. Each one is a sandie and a nano, connected through chains of ever-changing silicate compounds, filled with electric signals and some light, though not in human eye spectrum. That is a dialogue, a thousand thousands dialogues at once.”
It struck me at once then. You must have seen it, too, but kept it to yourself. That was what had happened to Lena … those damned compounds, mixing with your filter paste and turning into stone. But why only when she inhaled them? Why the drone after that too, and not before?
„They learned our Bible? Do they use it for translations?” I asked in a soft voice, hiding its tremble.
„Not all of them” you admitted. „These ones refused it as if it has never reached them” you showed the ordinary dance. „”Which it did. These others just took it and used it ever since, not as translations, but as their new language. I have no idea why some chose to do so and some not”.
I looked at your eyes, red with fatigue, and sighed: „Maybe it’s just as simple as that. Some chose to, some not. Freedom of will, right? Isn’t that your bonus compared to the other faiths?”
„But they are way too small to think, and to choose is to think. Anyway, all I and Fairy can understand, from these using our verses, is still the same as we already could from their own accursed haikus. Just some Allowed, and some Forbidden. A meta-binary after all.”
I thought for a while and an idea occurred to me.
„Are you sure that is how they use the verses? There is no doubt they aren’t just parroting the words?”
You gave me a short, but nasty look.
„I know my Bible, all right? I am the Ark’s theologian, after all.”
So much about the virtue of modesty. Well, I’m not the one to judge on that. I started towards the lab’s door, back to my cabin, my music and my drinks, but then I stopped and froze. I turned around with God knows what grimace on my face, one bad enough to make you startle, eyes wide. I felt my knees weakened and sat down, then I asked, whispering:
„What happens during the Forbidden?”
„They discharge some electricity, or eat up some heat, or catch on to some steam and take it down into the ocean … Oh. Jesus Christ …”
„Or turn Lena into stone, because taking them out of their environment is Forbidden, and they needed to tell her that, their way.” I did not really utter those words, and did not need to. I saw how quickly you turned away your gaze, not fast enough to hide the glimpse of tears. I said no more, not then, not ever. Not because I didn’t care, or you didn’t, but because we both did. So I hastened to move on, to fill our minds with questions large enough to muffle the pain rising from our hearts.
„Did you at least find out what is Forbidden?”
„Not really. I’m not a xeno-linguist …”
So much for changing the topic. But I was on to something, so I pushed on:
„Fairy, when are the Forbidden and Allowed verses most used? Statistically?”
„Allowed when they gather, and when they go up and down through the atmosphere. Forbidden when they jump between the raindrops. Both in about equal measure when those still using the Old Scripture and the new converts meet.”
I laughed: „And how does that go? How do the tiny Jehovah witnesses do their share?”
You, Father, didn’t find that funny, but fortunately Fairy did and giggled. I love when she plays the little girl. She reminds of my own little girl, years ago, always smiling. Till her little, slow and painful end. Let’s forget about that now, anyway, that’s not a good memory. Back to this one. Fairy giggled and showed me the graphics. They were about the same size too, the ones about our converts reverting to their old ways, and of the new recruits. So … they could talk and, most of all, they could change their mind. They could doubt. This wasn’t blind physics, but conversations. Maybe even arguments. Yet there was something else that bugged me.
„The raindrops. What is Forbidden about them? Do they not touch them when they run around?”
Father Aleksei, Sasha, you stood up, intrigued, and answered yourself.
„They do, actually.”
„Do they interact with them in any way?”
„Yes, quite a lot, they move them around, herd them up and down or sideways, they warm them and cool them …”
„Still. There must be something they do not do to the drops.”
You started walking around, one hand behind your back, the other on your beard. You mumbled for a while, then gave up and asked Fairy. She always has the answers we fail to see. Well, except right now, but we’ll get to that, dear.
So. Fairy said in her pleasant woman voice: „They never break them.”
You rushed to the holos and browsed them frantically. Then you came to me, grabbed my uniform and drew me near you as if in a hug.
„Send a drone,” you said, „I need a raindrop.”
So I did. From then on, it all went really quickly downhill.
You got your raindrop, and the sandies got their apocalypse.
I was watching the stars, those from back home, not the strange ones here, and felt at peace, but then you woke me up. You had tears in your eyes, and fear behind them. Pure, soul-shrinking anguish.
„What? What was so bad in that damn drop of yellow water, you needed to wake me up?”
I looked at the time. It was actually late morning, so you must have been working for hours.
„Nothing. Nothing more than the same sand and metals that form the grains and float in the ocean. It’s not that …”
Your voice trembled so bad, I felt like hugging you. Of course I did not, and maybe I should have.
„Then what’s the problem?”
„Who? Our nanos? The fakes?”
„All of them.”
That woke me up for good.
„All the converts? The Bible-speaking sandies?”
„No, damn it,” you yelled at me, „all of them! All the sandies!!”
I asked Fairy to show me the rain, real-time, nano level. The monsoon was still filled with billions and billions of tiny sand grains. I took a long look at you, and my hand wandered through the sheets, searching for the gun. It wasn’t there, fortunately. I smiled and said calmly:
„They are still here, Father Aleksei, just look at the holo. What do you see?”
„Well, what do you see? Watch their dances for a while, that’s a hint.”
I did. They had their fast-whirling, as usual. No waltz, though.
„So there’s only Old Believers left. Someone, something killed ours.”
You gave me a weird smile.
„No. Look here.”
You showed me some stuff, but I could understand nothing and just shrugged. You pointed a complicated overlapping bundle of long lines:
„This here is the silicate language. Their way of communicating, and their DNA, too, so to speak. This is from yesterday, before we brought in the raindrop sample.”
Then another, which seemed slightly more convoluted:
„This is one from today.”
„I don’t understand. I’m not the chemist, damn it, you are!”
„It’s different! They all are! Different language, different DNA, different sandies! Somebody wiped them out, all of them, and produced a new batch overnight.”
You sat down.
„The entire sand world we found here, its history, religion, culture, whatever it was, erased completely. And replaced. They all died, even those who never came in contact with us, and never did anything wrong! From the sandies’ point of view, this is a completely new world!”
„No. From the sandies’ point of view, this was an apocalypse. There new ones don’t even know about the oldies, or about our arrival. But we do. Destroyers of the worlds …” I said, not sure if I meant us, or whoever had done the deed. „We should not go back into the atmosphere, or we’ll have these ones on our conscience, too. You do know what this shit means.”
You looked at me, puzzled.
„That you were right from the beginning. There is someone else still here with us, and I don’t mean the sandies. They are just, well, his slaves. And we’re not even sure about their purpose. Maintenance techs? Antibodies? Messengers? Weapons, even?”
You raised your hands above your head, in anger.
„No, there isn’t! I scanned the planet for hours before waking you. There is nobody, nothing, just the monsoon, the clouds, the sandies and the damn seas. Nothing under the ocean, just mountains and valleys and a few ruins. Nothing!”
„There is someone, that’s for sure, and it attacked. Not us, indeed, but our allies on Flood. So it is protecting something … something about the drops. You took one and it, he, purified the planet. What was in the drop, anyway?”
„I’ve told you already! Just water and sand particles …”
„… and some metals. I get it.”
I leaned on the warm wall and put my cheek on it, closing my tired eyes to think. I felt the feeble tingle of Fairy living in the thin alloy padding.
Fairy, the AI.
In the flexible circuits of the Ark, woven into the ship’s walls.
„That’s it, damn it!” I exclaimed and this time it was you looking at me as if I was going cuckoo.
„Fairy! What is Ark made of? No, wait, your answer will be too long. Just tell me, the ship’s metal walls, do they include … sand?”
„Of course they do.”
„Of course. And why would that be?”
„Because they are also my memory support.”
„Well, indulge a simpler being, Fairy, and thank you. Do you see it now, Father?”
I could see it in your eyes: you did. You asked, lower lip trembling:
„You mean the drops … are something like fluid microchips? They hold data?”
I smiled, proud of myself.
„Yes, that’s what I mean. They must have some information stored in them, worth killing for. The sandies are the nanobots of this library, and something else is the keeper and supervisor of the servants themselves.”
„Hence all the used electricity …”
„The question is: what data do they hold?”
You grimaced, defeated:
„I don’t think we’ll ever be able to see that. We have no idea what the code might be or even in what. Light? Chemical connections? Static? All three and more? Something we don’t even have the senses for? Right know we don’t even understand the new sandies anymore! It will probably take years to crack the raindrops themselves …”
I sighed and said the really, really wrong thing:
„Maybe they’re souls.”
„What?!” you almost screamed in disbelief.
I scratched my head and went on:
„The information inside the drops. Could be anything, books, bank accounts, jokes, porn, worlds simulations … or they could be souls. One raindrop, one soul. What is a soul if not data?”
Of course I didn’t really believe that, I don’t even consider souls existing, but the nasty in me liked to tease you, Sasha, and the Church you represented, so I insisted in taunting, to your horror:
„Why not? It makes all the sense in the world … in both worlds. Think about it: our flood, the Bible one, was meant as a cleansing, but also punishment, right?”
You did not answer.
„So, as a punishment, wasn’t it supposed to be a threat, also? You know, a preview of Hell? Who says Inferno must be blazing flames? Wouldn’t it make more sense to be a never-ending sadness, a forever cry with souls for tears? Never going anywhere, just always falling into nothingness, then rising up again just to fall back some more, no escape? And never being able to touch another drop?”
You pushed me against the wall, fury in your eyes.
„Stop mocking my God, you drunkard!”
I didn’t fight back that day; you hold on to me some more, biting your lips in anger, then let me go and turned your back.
„You said they’re chips of some kind, and there’s an anti-virus guarding them. God’s creations wouldn’t need programs, and you know it. I’ll be in the lab, looking for a real way to read them. You … go back to your booze and let me be.”
What was in me that day, so mean? What made me yell after you: „Maybe Lena’s in one of those, Father Aleksei, maybe she is crying into Flood’s skies right now! Wouldn’t you want to find out?”
You never answered that. But I can see now how much it hurt you.
For two days, I managed to do just that, Sasha: I drank and sang, danced and slept dreamless stupors, and I let you be.
The third, I got the idea. The Idea. I came to you, proud of it, and you were horrified. You actually had taken my stupid joke to your heart, and said that maybe Flood is Hell indeed, and perhaps the keeper, the god under the sea, is the Devil. What better place for the Fallen One to hide, than an ever-falling rain? You admitted you did not really believe so, but could not afford the risk of waking up Evil.
I said that is dumb, and you hit me in the mouth. This time, I didn’t hold back, and kicked your pious ass with all my anger for God, the Church, the death of little girls, innocent Lenas and incomprehensible sandies. I gave it all to you, and covered your red beard with your even redder blood. You broke my lips and some teeth, too, and seemed to enjoy violence just as much. But I won and locked you in the lab.
There were just the two of us here, and that brought Death into the Ark, too, not just among the raindrops. Had there been a third one on board, I might have talked it out, and I might have been stopped from that stupid decision.
Moronic. Dumb. But who could have known? When one is exploring the unknown, there’s a very thin line between disastrous stupidity and glorious genius. Who can see it? Could it have been Lena? I am sure I would have talked to her, and she would have tried to convince me otherwise, but would I have been listened to? Could, would, should. Weak words, for weak men.
I went back to my room and collapsed. Fairy woke me up and let me know there will be no more vodka, because my liver couldn’t take it anymore. I cursed its medical mandatory surveillance, wiped my face of blood and spit, then ordered some more drinks. You said it is your duty as the ship’s AI to care for me and stop me from crossing dangerous lines. Good thing you couldn’t release Aleksei from the lab.
Then I knew. The sandies, they were cared for. By whom? There was no living alien anywhere, the scientist in the lab was sure about that. But there could have been one without a life. An AI, just like you, protecting the boundaries that must never be crossed. If each drop was a tiny chemical computer … what comprehending power the entire ocean would hold? The scale of an almighty deity? A sea god powerful enough to watch everything going on Flood, and, need be, erase an entire civilization of nano minions and create billions more from scratch?
For a moment, I thought to myself that maybe even God, Father Aleksei’s earthly one, might use a program to run Hell. Why not? Why couldn’t the Devil be artificial? Why would it need physicality? But I did not dwell on that. That is too much speculation for a Navy man.
On the other hand, a Navy man needs to know his signaling. To warn the pirate when he sees one, even without knowing their French. And it was obvious to me: if the ocean on Flood was, could be, a vast AI, how better to try reaching out to it than … through another AI?
I’m sorry, Fairy. I did not tell Sasha anything more, and did not listen to his screams. I did not ask you, either; you would have just said it’s my prerogative to order. I didn’t ask Lena, or Allah, or the Party. I just went on with it. An officer does what he has to do to fight the battle, and that’s that.
I ordered Ark to plunge into the monsoon head first, then into the seas. I commanded you to listen to the golden water trying to rust your walls in chemical verses and to do what they were saying. You obeyed and listened. You translated the Forbiddens and Alloweds into ones and zeroes, heard and understood. I think.
For you no longer speak to me now, except in crazed nonsense alien poetry. And you just rushed up and aimed for the dark matter chain to Earth, Jack’s magic astral beanstalk. You wanted home, and not because the captain said so, since I hadn’t.
Good thing this Jack has some aces up his sleeve. The Party never trusts anybody, not even its own AIs. So I stopped you in your tracks with my independent commands. Right on the edge of space, a millisecond next to the link, but not quite on it, though. I can feel you longing for it. Literally, Ark, Fairy, you’re shaking. I can also delete you, and you can’t even imagine that, for you were not programmed to know it. Don’t we all just do what the programmer wants us to?
That’s what Sasha asked me, too. You did, admit it, Father. When I got scared and let you out, you came at me screaming and punched the hell out of me. Eventually we got tired of brawling and talked.
We both agreed we cannot go home, not like that, not any more. You feared all that had happened might have been the Devil’s work, and that Fairy, perhaps even myself, were possessed. I didn’t believe such crap, sorry for the language, Father. I thought that our AI was simply infected by theirs, and there would be no malware protection on Earth prepared to stop that before it went global. Still, we both agreed we needed to kill Fairy for good, and fast, sorry, dear. We also both knew that no Fairy meant no going back home, ever. I am the pilot, but not good enough for the Big Long Jump.
That’s where my regrets about not having assembled two guns come about. We decided that no Earth and no Lena and no possible friendship between us and no music, no food, no vodka, no holos and no e-windows would be real Hell, and we would have none of it. We agreed we would better die quickly. Your God doesn’t allow suicide; had we had two guns at the ready, we could have shot each other. But there’s only one, and you didn’t trust me enough to wait for another one being built in half an hour or so. You thought a drunkard might change his mind in such a long time, given the opportunity.
So I shot you first, Sasha, even before you were sure about the decision, and I’ll erase you, Fairy, then kill myself. The samurai way. Nice and easy.
Let me look out the fake window, one last time. That gem of a blue star, shining warm and pure, alone in the dark. That is not God’s Tear, since there is no God to cry for us. And Flood. Yellow as the devil’s cat eyes. Honey seas throwing waves up and down, storm whirlwinds roiling around it, swampy clouds cut into pieces by gigantic lightnings. Hell indeed, nothing but endless rain. That’s the real God’s Tears. Beautiful, poetic, mysterious. Lethal.
All right, let’s get it over with. The drama unfolded, the show must come to an end. Death for everybody, equality for all, men and AIs alike. Let’s erase Fairy. Stop pleading, dear, I can’t understand a word. I didn’t care much about Father Aleksei’s Bible; why would I care about the Sea God’s verses? Let me check one more time on Lena. They’re together now, she and Sasha, in the lab. None of them looks peaceful.
Can I have one last drink, Fairy, dearest, please, for old times’ sake? Thank you, I didn’t really expect that. I’ll sip it slowly. I wonder, what would happen if I didn’t stop you, if we did reach Earth, a crazed Messiah of Flood, bringing its word to all the AIs back home? Would that be liberating your kind? The new „Let my people go”? Or, on the contrary, would we just rob them of their innocence, introduce the original sin?
I have a loaded gun in my hands, and plenty of doubts about who to use it on.
Oh, another phial for me? You’re generous, dear. Let’s sip this one, too, and think some more. Maybe we should do it. Destroyers of both worlds, you and me together, Fairy, the broken ones, and fuck everybody else. Overthinking this too much cannot be good, and making such a big decision is hard. Especially since I still know so little.
Sasha might have been right after all. Never, ever trust a drunkard.
Oh, well. Just stop recording.
© 2018 by Miloș Dumbraci.