7920 words, novelette
And your very flesh shall be a great poem.
Jupiter’s immense horizon appears flat as a flitter, stretching beyond the reach of vision. Cloud banks the size of continents drift in what might be sky. Organic molecules paint them in autumn colors: oranges and browns and peach and gold. Behind the clouds, the rising sun shines like a silver coin.
Jen’s eight eyes close reflexively. The purple afterimage glows against her eye lids. She feels nine again, with that same gut-clenching mix of elation and fear she always had watching a storm approach. She hasn’t been nine in a long time.
One one-thousand, two one-thousand . . . Jen counts to herself. At twenty-three, thunder booms and the air tastes metallic.
She keeps her upper eyes closed as she reopens the four on her underside, where she senses phantom breasts. Her real breasts wait back at the station on her bipedal body. For the next few days Jen is the first human to skate the winds of Jupiter’s biosphere, the thin (by Jupiter’s standards) concentric shell nested between the freezing upper and hellish lower domains.
No. Not the first. The body she inhabits is proof of that, even if nothing like it ever existed among the thunderheads of Earth.
Kilometers below, burnt orange clouds stretch to infinity. For over an hour she’s observed a yawning vortex opening in the mottled cloudsea. Now it’s wide enough to swallow Arkansas, and Kansas for good measure. Deeper down, it’s fifty-seven thousand kilometers to a pressure of forty-five million Earth atmospheres, a temp of twenty thousand K, and a realm where hydrogen becomes monatomic.
For the hundredth time in the seventy-two hours since she left Callisto station, Jen thinks of her husband. How the curl of his black hair falls into his dark brown eyes. The dimple in his chin that he keeps because she likes it. The beak of a nose he refuses to fix, clinging to a vestige of ethnicity. She also thinks he wouldn’t want her out here.
This was our only chance, Ras. I wish we could’ve talked. But I’ll be back soon.
Clusters of colored beads rise from the Stygian depths. The creatures ride the updraft from the growing storm system. Eventually, they level off at an altitude just above hers, then float toward a finger of salmon-hued vapor budding from a cloud deck a hundred kilometers away.
Excitement flutters Jen’s hearts. This is it. She stretches into the cool hydrogen wind.
Pumping a gust of hydrogen from her anus, she jets toward the swarm. The looming cloud mass reminds Jen of the Tower of Babel. It was a seminal tale for the girl who’d grow up to become the premiere authority on interspecies communication. But these aren’t primates and cetaceans floating among the clouds.
Ras paced outside the office door. A wall plaque bore the ubiquitous tree-and-stars logo of NanCon, Inc. Beyond the door, some desk-bound cog was taking plenty of time before acknowledging him.
Every muscle ached. Ras’s neck cracked as he twisted it to ease the soreness. He wondered if he’d slept wrong. He dimly remembered a nightmare about suffocating and an urgent desire for home. Home was where Jen was, and she was away on vacation. Perhaps that was the answer.
Hurry back. He repeated the thought, wishing that it could travel the cold distances to Io. I don’t like sleeping alone.
He squared his shoulders and rubbed his bristly chin. His reflection glared back at him in the door’s shiny red surface, like an old Earth devil. Then the door chimed and his image shimmered as the permeable membrane allowed him entrance. Ras set his face in a grim frown, the one Jen called his “bad daddy” face. After years with university faculties on two worlds, Ras knew exactly how pissed to look.
The office inside included one mahogany desk, one Louis Quinze chair, a variety of irises growing from the carpet—in bloom no less, and a wall-sized window featuring a framed view of Callisto’s stark, rover-tracked landscape. Jupiter was rising over Valhalla Basin.
Ras confronted the assistant. “Well? You kept me waiting long enough.” He tried to control his irritation. Jen said it turned him into an asshole, and he knew she was right, dammit. She should be here to stop him acting like an idiot.
The assistant retorted, “Dr. Bodogom, you can’t demand to see Dr. Douglas!”
Anton Douglas’s assistant was either genuinely young, or else an old-timer tripping the faddie parade: illusory three-dee stars freckled his shiny indigo skin; his eyes—golden cat eyes—took up half his face. Shimmering lumiafields accentuated the assistant’s smooth blue groin. He—the male voice was probably original—stroked his bare crotch seductively.
Ras ignored the attempt at provocation. He liked being an old-style human. It gave him the right to be cranky. And at least the boy wasn’t a herm. The current trend of displaying a double set of massively enhanced, neon-colored genitalia was tiresome.
Young, Ras decided. We’ve created a lost generation. The irony of the thought was obvious.
The assistant’s golden eyes closed. “He knows you’re here.” When the young man opened them again, they were bright blue. “Dr. Douglas appreciates your patience. He’s waiting for you inside.” The green outline of a door appeared on a far wall.
Few people saw Anton Douglas. Ras and Jen hadn’t met him even when Douglas recruited them. The old man hadn’t netted in since he quarantined the Jupiter system for his own private purposes three years ago. Ras ignored the rumors that NanCon was run by an impostor. Or an AI. Or Douglas’s clone. Or gray-skinned aliens. You heard all sorts of things.
The other flyers haven’t noticed her. Yet. Jen studies them. They’re still heading for the cloud-mountain rising dozens of kilometers from far below. The scenery is achingly beautiful. Even though everything she sees, thinks, and feels is being recorded within a crystalline chip embedded in her skull, she won’t need sensemem playback to recall this. Jupiter will be part of her forever.
A powerful gust sends her reeling. She fights to maintain stability. Her wings are not at all like arms and legs. Pain tears through her flesh—flesh that now feels like what it is: nonhuman, and not meant for girls from Arkansas.
She falls, and between one second and the next remembers:
Rags of mist streaked the fjord’s cobalt water. If she walked off the cliff’s edge, she could touch them as she fell. The view from Preikestolen was spectacular, no doubt about it. Ras had taught her gliding, both in virt and in short-distance sessions. Still, the fear was surprisingly primal.
“You’ll love it,” he said, a huge grin illuminating his face. “It’s the closest you can get to heaven.”
“What does an atheist know about heaven?” she replied. “That water looks like it’d hurt.”
“Only if you hit it. Which you won’t.” Ras examined Jen’s straps and harnesses again. His touch reassured her.
She hesitated, then blew him a kiss as she launched herself into the wind, and then she was flying. She spotted Ras behind her, a silver hawk in pursuit. Laughter bubbled up as she dove to frighten him, before turning, as he’d taught her, to rise into the clouds.
That night, at home in the Canadian Rockies, they made love until they were exhausted, waking hours later in a bright patch of morning sunlight feeling as if they were gods.
Now Jen struggles to wrestle control away from the largest planet in the solar system. She drops like a rock. The cloud tops are no more substantial than fog, and she rips through them. If she doesn’t stop falling, the pressure and heat will crush the life from her. Her eyes, top and bottom, clench shut.
A voice rises from a place she can’t identify. Home. Remembering.
It speaks in images that touch her mind the way a child touches a butterfly: delicate, trying to be gentle. The creature, for all their care to remove its cognition, flows through her—seeing, feeling, and tasting what it finds. Jen trembles at the unexpected intimacy.
Carefully, it presses her aside and fills her body, their body. Home. Its longing is so strong Jen cries out, or tries to. Its thoughts are ill-fitting, yet unbound by language, she understands. Free. Released.
Impressions intrude into her mind. Jen stops struggling. Spread yourself on the Breath of the World. Feel the Winds. Allow them into you as your Old Ones allowed you into them at the Remembering.
Her wings change angle and the air pushes her up. She is flying, fast, faster than she’s ever flown on Earth. This colossal world lifts Jen higher with each stroke. Someone else—someone both blood-close and completely strange—shares her flesh. Together they rise, toward the other flyers.
Hormones flood her system sparking a physical reaction, orgasmic in its intensity, that she doesn’t understand. Something that was closed has been opened. Her body is readying itself for a Remembering.
Terror overwhelms her. A chittering noise clacks from her vocal cords. A sign of nerves? The consciousness tries to soothe her. Jen realizes she can’t manage, so she releases control, taking on the familiar role of observer. The green indicators hovering in her vision announce that data is being recorded and analyzed.
You taught me to glide, Jen pictures for Ras. Now let me teach you to fly. Just be alive when I get back.
Ras was alone in a suite that could have been a showroom for the Nostalgianet. Chairs and a fireplace built for an English country manor stood solidly on real wood floors; an Ormolu clock ticked on the mantel; ornately framed neo-impressionist paintings brightened the walls.
The largest painting was a portrait of a dark-eyed woman and four children, toddler to teenager. The artist had captured a haunted look in her eyes, even among her children, even surrounded by the accouterments of vast wealth. It was a study of loneliness.
Forty years ago, Tessa Douglas, wife to the most powerful man both on and off Earth, underwent a private suicide ceremony for reasons her biographers still couldn’t agree upon and her husband never spoke about.
Painting was Jen’s obsession, and Ras wondered what she would think. He strolled across the hardwood floor to pull drapes away from the floor-to-ceiling windows. Callisto’s panorama contrasted sharply with the room’s quaintness. Jupiter loomed, flanked by Ganymede’s and Io’s bright points.
Io. Jen was there in a NanCon soloship. Ras could visualize her, nude (as was her habit), her red hair pulled back, paintbrush in hand, working on her landscapes. Ras loved her boldness. Sometimes he feared it. Nothing fazed her.
Hurry back, sweetheart. Ras pressed his palm to the window. Even after all the decades of their togetherhood, she still thrilled him. Her touch on his body; the smell of her skin; the taste of her mouth. The morning before they left for Callisto, Jen had stood before their window, naked and fragrant with the scent of their lovemaking.
I need you.
Ras turned around, then inhaled sharply.
The aged man in the center of the room looked just as startled. “There you are,” he said, kneeling to set an armload of wood into the fireplace.
What Ras noticed first wasn’t his clothing (a stained Tharsis Dust Devils sweatshirt, shorts fashioned from cut-off plaid trousers), but the flesh he was wearing.
The jowly, hang-dog face with folds under the eyes that looked deep enough to hold water. Cottony white hair dabbed the back of his bald head, which reminded Ras of a chocolate egg. The topography of veins beneath the skin of his hands. Skinny brown legs that didn’t look strong enough to carry their owner.
Anton Douglas was a forceful reminder of how people used to age: wrinkled skin hanging like taffy; the pains accompanying cellular breakdown and the failure of subcellular functions; genetically programmed senescence.
That was before the biotech renaissance a century ago. Ras’s own legions of intercellular ribots kept his apparent age at thirty-five Earthyears, and had for four decades. Ras hadn’t seen anyone who looked old since he was a child.
If Douglas were still on Earth, he’d be approaching his 132th birthday. The oldest person in human history. Why would he, of all people, let this happen to himself? What terrible sin needed such awful restitution? Ras glanced at the portrait, wondering what tales she could tell.
The old man wiped his hands on his shorts. “Oak logs burn best, don’t you think? Burn longer.” He pulled a wooden match from a pocket and scraped it across the fireplace stonework. The stick flared and Ras caught an acrid whiff of burning powder.
The man grinned at his expression. “When was the last time you smelled that, eh? Probably never, I’d say. Pity. ’Course, these aren’t from oak trees. Grew ’em in the fablabs upstairs. Can’t tell the difference, though. I can’t anyway, so I s’pose no one else can either.” He stood slowly, pushing himself up by pressing his hands on his knees.
Ras realized he’d been holding his breath. He stepped toward the old man and offered his hand. “Dr. Douglas. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
Douglas shook Ras’s hand, but his grip carried no enthusiasm. He examined Ras as if he were a newly created life form. “So. Welcome. I hope my assistant didn’t annoy you. I took him on as a political favor,” he continued. “The boy’s as harmless as he is brainless. Take the ‘con’ out of ‘contemporary’ and what have you got?”
“It was fine, Dr. Douglas. I’ve taught too many of his ilk to be bothered.”
“Glad to hear it. Call me Anton.”
Despite the invitation, Ras could never call this man by his first name. it would be like calling God ‘Jo,” if he believed in God.
Douglas sat in the bentwood rocker next to the fireplace. With a simple gesture he commanded Ras to sit in the chair beside him. “I’ve been following your work, Dr. Bodogom. You were born in Aresopolis with a back yard view of Olympus Mons.”
He paused, and Ras couldn’t tell if it had been a question or not. “That’s right,” he finally said.
Douglas continued, his eyes unblinking. “You moved to Earth with a full scholarship to Harvard. Terminal degrees from Harvard and Copernicus U. You returned to teach at U. Mars with high commendations as well as a Nobel Prize for discoveries in Martian paleontology, specializing in the remains of water-dwelling forms from the Sigerson-Sachter deposits.”
He looked at him the way Lars Sigerson had so long ago at the base camp near Lowell Ridge. Annoyed and a little disbelieving. “You shared another Nobel sixteen years later for research on molecular manufacturing applications.”
So the Great One wasn’t infallible. “No,” Ras said. “For developments in neuronanology and their applications to cerebral interfaces, cognitive science, and neuronet augmentation. With Dr. Jen Kangeledes. Our cytext on neuronautics is still a primary source.”
Douglas nodded. “You’re good,” he said.
Of course I am, Ras thought, a little affronted. “Thank you. And my name’s Ras.”
“I know. What’s on your mind, Ras?”
He leaned toward Douglas. The man even smelled old. “Four months ago you hired us to head up your biotech team for a project we were forbidden to write about even in our personal files. To keep the creature alive at all costs—”
“Not ‘creature,’ Ras, the native life form.”
Ras talked over the interruption. “But this morning, I walk into my office to discover my task files are locked.” He fought to keep his voice even. “My lab door refused my ID. My PA was reassigned. What the hell is going on?”
Douglas answered calmly. “Have you been dissatisfied here?”
Ras blinked. He cursed himself for it. “No. It’s been the most rewarding work of my career. Our studies of the cre—, native life form’s genome verify its common Earth ancestry, and its genetic match with homo sapiens is purely astonishing. The implications for biology alone are enough to—”
Douglas’s hand waved through the air as if swatting gnats. “Yes, yes. Yet another revolutionary breakthrough. Have you any idea how many of those I’ve seen?”
Anton Douglas was a legend. He controlled NanCon when the corporation brushed aside government bureaucracy, corporate power-mongering, and scientific caution to pull the cork from the bottle of nanotech.
Here was the man who had either liberated the human race, or enslaved it. He’d loosed wonders, and terrors that didn’t bear thinking about. Of course Ras didn’t know.
Reflected firelight danced in Douglas’ dark eyes. “I thought not.”
He reached toward the cherry wood table beside him and lifted the lid off a round glass plate. “Would you like a slice of lemon cake? I made it myself.”
Ice crystals high in the cerulean sky paint a misty halo around the bright sun. With the short ten hour Jovian day-night cycle, local noon arrives quickly. In a few more hours, darkness will return to this side of Jupiter.
At night, the spherical creatures glow against the shadowed cloudscape, like spirit lights spied in the Ozark darkness. She follows them.
Jen is ten kilometers from the herd. Close enough to discern individual markings on the largest bodies. Each bulbous orb is a being at least two dozen meters across. Living hot air balloons with long threads fringing the bottom orifice. The filaments ripple in slow waves.
These leviathan jellyfish float surrounded by other life forms. They drift on the wind or bob up and down on waves of undulating flanges. From the first computer-enhanced images provided by probes, the Jovias research teams dubbed them ballooners. The ballooners probably metabolize cellular life, retaining and heating stores of pure hydrogen while utilizing heavier gases and molecules for tissue generation. As Jen watches, their colors change to match the brownish-orange and beige patterns of the towering cloud structure. Protective camouflage, Jen guesses. An unspoken Yes bubbles up.
The pressure of her companion’s damaged consciousness troubles her, but not enough to abort the mission. Its communications are simple, yet vibrant with meaning. They had miscalculated the effect of the brainstem remnant. She feels its thought, They’re like us, one flesh remembered.
She records the thought to the crystal embedded within. The Jovians have mind. Intelligence. And they can communicate. Given what she knows about life in Jupiter’s troposphere, the confirmation comes with little surprise. Of course they’re like us. They are us. Closer than chimps for all their unearthly shapes.
What do they think about? What does identity mean to them? Or death? Or love? The other doesn’t answer.
Smaller balloon forms, variations that might be young or perhaps sub-species, huddle in packs. Colors and patterns flow over their skins like oil on water.
There! Flitting among the colossal floaters. Manta ray-shaped flyers like herself. She watches them swoop and dive in random flight paths. No. Not random. They soar in an intricate dance that says—what? It’s a message that she can almost understand, like a word just out of reach.
There is only one solution. Move closer.
Then she realizes with a start her body is already taking her in, faster than she would like. Home. Remembering.
Douglas led Ras out of his suite and into an adjacent hallway.
The passageway stopped at an opaque field door. Douglas took Ras’s hand and walked into the reflective surface. The door recognized Douglas and flowed around them. Ras felt the tingle of reduced stunners as he passed through. He recognized the octagonal compartment they entered. He had arrived in a similar one, though less sumptuously furnished. They were in a private car in the ground-to-orbit tower. He and Douglas sat on opposite ends of an overstuffed couch behind a long glass-topped table.
“Top floor,” Douglas announced. He activated a display on the tabletop. “Goodness! It’s past lunch. Here’s the menu. We have time.”
Ignoring his suggestion, Ras tuned in a Solweb news channel. He had just come down from the labs. Why go back up?
Ras deliberately kept his eyes on the news while Douglas settled in with eggs and grits, watching him appraisingly. Weight slowly drained away from them as the car rose 4500 kilometers.
The Callisto orbital was an all-purpose complex. Its primary body perched atop the elevator tower like a four-kilometer-wide sombrero spinning at .6 gee at its rim. Its axis hub nursed a brood of modules and fablabs.
The car announced their arrival with a slight bump. Once the field doors shimmered, they drifted out. Douglas indicated they should access a flyway leading to the outer carousels. It was one of twenty radial connections between the station’s hub and the outer ring.
Ras stayed close as they headed for Main Bio. Passersby—even members of Ras’s team—ignored him. Kamilla Juarez stepped out of Xenomorphology, attention locked on the datapad she carried. She smacked into Ras. At least that was typical. Kami never noticed where she was going.
“Oh, sorry.” She laughed as always. A shadow crossed her broad, freckled face, “Everything’s ready, Doctor Douglas.” Kami then gave Ras a quick hug. “I heard you came through this morning. I’m so glad.” Douglas frowned and shook his head, and Kamilla actually blushed.
Fear speared through Ras. “Kami, what’s going on?”
She turned beet-red and walked, almost ran, down the sterile corridor. The old man took Ras’s arm and squeezed. “This way.”
They proceeded to the main lab. The place had been tidied since last night. Ras was never this neat. Of the ten people milling about, people he worked with every day—joked with, ate lunch with—none acknowledged him.
Ras checked the environment tank, then cried out. “What have you done?” he shouted. “Who killed it?”
Everyone hushed. He ran to the console. His hand halted in midair as the time readout snared his attention. “What the hell?”
According to the flashing date, last night’s research session—his most recent study of the now-gutted corpse splayed in the tank—occurred more than four weeks ago.
Across hundreds of cubic acres of sky, ballooners slew among the mists. Their tendrils sway like kite tails. Colored patterns slide across their huge translucent bodies. Orange, tan, gold, pink, creamy white. Jen wonders if it’s language.
Smaller floaters counter vagrant winds by belching from their underbellies. Flyers dart through the herd. The ballooners’ echolocation pulses rumble through her. It’s not unpleasant. Flyers chirp and whistle, reminding her of dolphins.
Night slides over the cloudsea. Far to the south, ghost light ripples—an aurora larger than a planet. The air quivers with impending thunder. A whiff of carbon monoxide and phosphorous compounds—rust and violets.
A change electrifies Jen; her skin shudders with pleasure as flyers gather near the huge ballooners. Their brilliantly colored wings almost touch the ballooners’ pictogram sides. Peristaltic waves ripple the ballooners’ bodies.
From within, the other sings. Joy. Rebirth. Remembering. Emotions pour into her. Jen feels a little frightened by her companion’s enthusiasm. But this is his world. These are his people.
As a scientist, she’s fascinated by the alien mind emerging from the Jovian’s cortex fiber linked to her brain. As an artist, she thrills to the spill of imagery. She’s already wondering how to paint this. As the girl who grew up in Arkansas, she’s terrified.
Comfort comes in a memory of Ras’s scent. She suspects the other dredged it up to calm her. Longing sweeps through her. I wish you were here. The chip traps the emotion in the amber of precise neurographic matrixes. Ras. Don’t leave me.
She releases control to the other.
In its way, it’s grateful. Know and be Remembered. Before the end we will all remember.
Her body inhales, and heats the air to maintain buoyancy. She’s carried toward a warmth of community. If she were on Earth, this would be a big ol’ picnic. As the world darkens, the floaters glow with a pale yellow light that shines through their flesh. For kilometers in all directions, hundreds of paper lanterns hang in the blue-black night.
Then it begins.
“Everyone leave,” Douglas said.
Everyone did except Ras. “Where’s Jen?” he asked. “Dr. Kangeledes. My wife.”
Douglas met his eyes. No emotion showed on his ancient face as he activated the console. “Four weeks ago there was an accident involving the native life form. You died. Here, let me show you.”
They are welcomed by a congregation of flyers whose great wings glisten with reflected light from the floaters’ bioluminescence. The nearest ballooner, as big as a barn, ripples its tendrils. Pale orange fog drifts from its opening. All the ballooners are releasing mist into the air. New scents surround her. Wood smoke. Mushrooms. Jasmine. Musky aromas she can’t identify, but they speak to her companion, and so to her.
Patterns play across the skin of the ballooners forming intricate pictures. Children are born. Hunters seek their prey, food-sharers raise new generations while flyers explore, always pushing further across the cloudsea. The ballooners keep memories, etched in light, preserved in flesh, enhanced with hormonal cues. It is as rich a history as any she knows from Earth.
Anton Douglas keyed in a playback sequence and Ras watched himself die.
The person working in the e-tank was definitely him. The figure, wearing a smartskin life suit and helmet, entered the tank where the creature lay suspended in a simulated Jovian troposphere. Its streamlined body was flattened dorsoventrally and almost four meters long. Each of its broad triangular wings could stretch to twelve meters. It hung with a Surrealist droop, resting on a cushion of utility fog. Alive, but not responsive.
Ras watched himself study the screens monitoring the probes and neurolinks woven into the life form’s brain. A fleshy lip just behind the upper eye pairs covered a natural, though puzzling, vent into its braincase.
Ras didn’t recall what he saw.
The image froze as Douglas said, “This is your breakthrough.” He indicated the computer graphics the “other” Ras was studying. “I mean that sincerely. A method of directly interfacing with the native life form’s brain is a major advance.”
Ras leaned in close to the screen. He shoved Douglas’ hands away to augment the image.
“You succeeded,” Douglas said. “Your neural mapping identified enough analogs to human cerebral functions that it was possible to directly access memories stored in the Jovian’s cortex.”
Skeptical, Ras looked at Douglas.
“You proved it,” Douglas said. “It is descended from Earth’s genomes. Human issue all the way down to the right-hand spiral of its DNA. The Jovian brain matches Homo Sapiens 98% and pocket change, even though analysis proves this species has existed here for fifty thousand years.
“You called me in the middle of the night. I told you—ordered you—to wait for your full support team.”
“On Io, around Jupiter’s far side. We tight beamed a message to her. By the time she arrived, it was too late.”
“Where is she now? She should be here.”
Douglas resumed playback. Ras closed his eyes against a sudden dizziness. He knew he would never do what happened next. He just wouldn’t. With the back of his hand, he wiped a sheen of sweat from his lip and forced himself to look.
Ras watched himself load a new program into the peabrain fiber linked to the life form’s brain; instruct it to rearrange node clusters intertwined with the limbic area; interface his own cranial links to the new config; then engage the program. He watched as he removed his helmet, and inhaled the high-pressure, hydrogen-dominant air. His face changed from an expression of calm, to exhilaration, then horror. The person on screen folded to the floor, blood pooling over his bloated lips.
He would never do this.
“The alarm sounded,” Douglas said. “By the time we reached you, you’d been dead for six minutes. Apparently, you thought you should be breathing Jupiter’s atmosphere.”
Ras hugged his body against a chill. He looked into Douglas’s eyes. “Where’s Jen?”
Memory is shared through a psychotropic hormonal mist, enhanced by moving colors conjuring pictures on breathing flesh. The hormone-laden smoke calls up a global disaster. Streaks of fire explode in light and sound and heat. Millions die. Jen lives the Remembered horror.
In a few hours, the species is condemned. The Wind Singers disappear—how they die is uncertain. The Hunters are killed. The food-sharers die protecting the young. Without the food-sharers, the children can’t survive. Mated adults try to feed their offspring, but that’s not the path evolution chose for them. Infant after infant starves. The loss is devastating. The adults stop breeding.
Jen weaves emotions into the memories, and records them. She remembers a story from her world of surface and solidity. October 1995. Comet Shoemaker-Levi 9. A broken necklace of ice mountains trapped by Jupiter’s embrace impacts the planet.
Mushroom clouds thousands of kilometers tall explode. The released energy was deadlier than that Earth civilization’s entire nuclear arsenal. The shock waves rang Jupiter like a bell.
From the floaters comes a final exhalation of mist. We will be forgotten.
“We placed you in regen biostasis. Your lungs were gone. There was extensive tissue damage, especially around the skull. You were in stasis for three of the past four weeks. You’ll be glad to know that your wife stayed with you every moment.
“You had significant brain damage. Dr. Niall was able to excise and regrow the necrotic tissue. Once that was done, he overwrote your neural map. You’ve become your own advertisement for nanolevel neural mapping.
“I had you returned to your suite where you woke up this morning.”
Rage made Ras’s bones feel light. “That’s why you recited my résumé. You were testing me. You’re a bastard, Douglas. You should’ve told me.”
“This is the first time anyone has undergone such an ordeal. Your insights on death and regeneration will be valuable. I have a particular interest in such things.
“Your own published texts say that every memory, emotion, thought, and scrap of self identity can be reduced to a color-coded model. Well, you’ve been rebuilt pretty much from scratch. Are you still you? And if not, who are you?”
“I’d like to see her.” It was all Ras could do not to punch this complacent old man in the face.
Panic hit him so hard he had to lean against the wall. What if he wasn’t himself anymore? What if Jen sensed a change? What if she didn’t love him? Ras touched his face as if that would tell him who he was. Douglas kept talking.
“You lost a few short-term memories, but nothing important. With safety precautions, Jen kept working with the Jovian. She determined the organism was self-aware, and wanted to die. Perhaps that’s why you did what you did.
“She proposed a way of expanding our knowledge of its kind. It took two weeks to prepare the equipment and develop the programs for the procedure.”
“She volunteered to field test the new consciousness-to-consciousness interface by physically transferring her brain into the life form’s body. Xiao was disappointed. He said you had him in mind for the initial studies.”
Ras didn’t want to hear anymore.
“We modified the life form’s braincase, then designed neural pathways to its limbs and bio systems. Jen created linkages between their cortex, thalamus, hippocampus, and limbic system. After several adaptation sessions, we released her into Jupiter’s atmosphere.”
“You let her?”
“We hoped to wait until you were recovered before proceeding.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“The Jovian was dying. Dr. Kangeledes determined that it was a now-or-never situation. She knew it was risky, but she hoped to be back inside her own body if you revived.”
Ras started to shake. “She should’ve told me this. She should’ve waited.”
“I wish she had. I truly do.”
I must tell them, Jen decides. They will be remembered. The ballooners’ memories are preserved in durable crystalline matrices. You will not be forgotten, she pictures to her companion.
By now, the division between her mind and the other’s is an abstract concept better saved for later discussions with Ras, Xiao, and a lengthy cytext article in the Journal of Cognitive Sciences. She is pleased. She thinks of Ras—his warmth, his smell, the feel of his skin. Soon, Jen promises.
The other moves them toward the ballooners. We will Remember you. Others will know. They’re too close. Jen struggles to reclaim her abdicated control. There’s a shudder, but the borrowed body isn’t hers anymore. She transmits the Emergency Retrieve beacon; in minutes the orbiting drone will take her home.
Throughout the sky floaters offer their tendrils, and flyers accept the embrace. Jen observes the ballooner-flyer unions. A transparent, sharp-tipped tube slides from the ballooner into the now-open cranial vent above the flyer’s braincase. The flyer’s wings twitch. A milky fluid slides up the tendril. After the fluid is consumed, the ballooner detaches, and the flyer’s corpse falls until it’s lost in the cloud deck below.
A nearby ballooner tenderly wraps filaments around Jen’s body. Its transparent tubule descends. Her companion holds their body rigid in ecstasy. The eyes refuse to close. Helplessly, Jen sees the knife-like tube penetrate her cranial vent.
Douglas walked to the tank. Ras followed. The life form was a gutted carcass except for the damaged mass of residual brainstem.
“The drone picked up her auto-retrieve,” Douglas said. “It brought the body home. There wasn’t much left inside the braincase.”
Ras refused to fall apart in front of the man who killed his wife. Douglas should have stopped her.
Jen, that was stupid.
Then: Jen. How could you leave me?
Douglas’s voice broadcast his discomfort. “The so-called ballooners secrete an enzyme solution that dissolves cortical tissue. They digest the semi-fluid mass, assimilate the memories, then distribute them throughout the species. It’s an astonishing method of information exchange.” Emotion surfaced on Douglas’s features. Anger. Grief. “It might succeed with human tissue. The biochemistries match that well.”
Ras stood hugging himself, shaking uncontrollably. He wanted to scream, to hit something, to die. Douglas opened his mouth to speak, and Ras walked away.
He waited by the door. It wouldn’t open without Douglas. From behind him the old man placed a hand on his shoulder. “Come talk to me when you’re ready. I know what it is to lose someone. Not a thing that happens much anymore. Psych ware is at your disposal. Her body is in Main Med.”
He placed something small in Ras’s hand. “This contains the sensemem record of her thoughts and experiences in Jupiter’s atmosphere. She loved you very much. She would want you to have it.”
The door opened. Ras tasted blood where he’d bitten his lip. When Douglas left, he was absolutely, irrevocably alone.
Capping Callisto station’s “north pole,” the EVA bay was loaded with sixteen serviced and readied off-station craft, from tiny scooters to soloships to a deep-space outrider recently returned from the Oort Cloud.
The vessels floated in their bays, tethered by umbilicals to far-away walls. Ras looked “up” at them from the bay’s master control station.
“I wasn’t expecting you, Dr. Bodogom,” the attendant said. “I don’t see your authorization in my log.”
Ras adjusted his grip on a handhold, re-orienting his perspective to the garage bay with just enough clumsiness to appear awkward in the local microgravity. The diversion allowed him time to consider the situation.
He nodded at the fair-haired man. “Just routine.” He pointed toward a craft that looked like an egg stuck to the top of an elaborate candlestick. “Dr. Kangeledes and I never got a chance to test the skyrider. Not before my . . . my accident, and Jen’s—”
He stopped. Pain swelled inside his chest. He pressed it down as he had so often during the past twenty-eight hours. The effort left hum gasping for breath.
“Oh. Jeez,” stammered the attendant, whose name patch said, “Bob Ngo.” “Condolences. I’m surprised to see you here. I’m so sorry.”
The look on Ras’s face stopped Bob’s nervous yammer as thoroughly as a slap. Ras worked to relax his clenched fist. He would not strike this man who’d done nothing but offer sympathy. Douglas would be another story.
“I’m sorry,” Bob apologized for the third time.
“It’s all right.” The hell it was.
Bob looked relieved. “I thought you were in psych, you know, after all you’ve gone through, who wouldn’t be?”
He meant well. Ras just couldn’t manage to care. And Bob Ngo was in his way. Ras said, “Dr. Niall advised me that work would help me deal with the grief. Who am I to argue?” He patted Bob’s arm. The young man smiled gratefully.
Ras had ignored Dr. Niall’s attempts to contact him. “So this is just doctor’s orders. I left something inside the skyrider’s pod there time I used it.”
“I need to see your authorization.”
Shit. “Mr. Ngo. Bob. Just let me pop over there, comb through the pilot pod, then we can both get on with our day.”
“I’d like to, Dr. Bodogom. But it’s my ass out an airlock if I don’t confirm.” He reached toward the console. Ras whipped a device from his pocket. The quick movement surprised Bob. He stared right into the pink mist Ras shot at him. Bob’s eyes glazed and he drifted away, loose-limbed in the low G.
Biobrains are easily tampered with, Ras thought with satisfaction. After inserting the coded wafer into the console, he launched himself toward the skyrider with acrobatic precision. Its hull puckered open. He slid into the pilot pod, then harnessed himself into one of the two control seats. Ras enabled the fusion engine. A multitude of thimble-sized thrusters fired and the craft moved into space.
Stars languorously revolved around Ras as if he were the galaxy’s center. Callisto was already diminished by distance. Here, he was shielded from the despair, grief, and anger that threatened to consume him.
Jupiter grew in his view screen, the only hint of momentum. The ship would hit the south temperate zone on the dawn side of the planet’s terminator, near the reproachful eye of the Great Red Spot.
As Ras moved his right forefinger, data displays and instrument screens annotated the view. One hour, sixteen minutes until atmosphere. He fingered the gold medallion attached to the front of his life suit. Within nestled a crystalline mnemochip, its contents uploaded and analyzed and cross-referenced by people who couldn’t look Ras in the eye.
Kami had retracted the top of Jen’s biostasis cell into the Main Med wall. Ras asked for her because she was kind. After Jen’s body emerged, Kami touched his shoulder, then stepped back to give him privacy.
Jen’s body lay on the translucent blue tabletop. Her naked flesh was warm. Ras knew her every curve, from her breasts to the belly she complained bulged. Her open eyes gazed sightlessly at the ceiling. They were left open to accept the gel that kept them moist. A futile care now.
A blue cloth shielded Jen’s open cranium. Ras squeezed her hand, waiting for her to squeeze back. Of course she didn’t. Ras asked, “Why didn’t they use her neural map? She had an update.”
“You know the limitations. We can fix it, we can augment it. We can’t create a working brain from scratch. Not yet.” Kami measured her words carefully. “We’ll keep her until you decide what to do.”
“Do what you like.” Ras dropped Jen’s hand. “There’s nothing here I care about.”
The pod’s comm shattered the hush. Douglas’s voice came through. “Dr. Bodogom. We’re sending a drone to retrieve you.” Pause. “Unless you come back. This won’t help. Nothing helps but time. I know this.” Ras clicked off the commlink. It was a futile gesture since Douglas could reestablish it, but it gave him satisfaction.
Jupiter centered itself in a trajectory display as the skyrider initiated a course adjustment burn. The skyrider’s hull skin hardened, protecting him from the planet’s monstrous radiation belts.
There were three hours till atmosphere. Ras tapped up a screen and enlarged its frame to encompass sixty percent of the forward view. There was only one thing left to do. He inserted the mnemochip from the medallion. Her voice embraced him. Excited, wistful, and a little frightened. He gasped, but kept listening.
At midcourse turnaround, gravity-like pressure returned and the ship decelerated ass-backwards on a spike of fusion fire. Ras opened his bloodshot eyes. Snot and tears slicked his face. His hands were puffy with bruises from pounding the solid arm rest. It was built to withstand forces greater than merely human.
The instruments could handle descent. Cloud formations lumbered like great armadas across the view screen. The pod’s walls darkened to filter out the sun and illuminate the instruments. Artificial synapses shot preprogrammed instructions fore and aft, and sections of the capsule’s body reconfigured. Soon Ras sat within something part airship, part bathyscaphe, created for this unearthly environment.
The mnemochip was warm against his fingers. With his free hand he tapped controls and adjusted the view projected around him. This is where they’d been seen many times before. Where Jen had been one of them. His fingers squeezed the medallion hard.
Douglas looked over Xiao’s shoulder. The fool’s actions weren’t entirely unexpected. He could have had him restrained. He could have required the psych treatment.
Tessa insisted Anton treat people with decency. “It’s not right to play with people’s lives.” That was their forever argument. Forever until Tessa decided he could bend the whole human race to his will, but not her. Douglas sighed.
That was a hole that nothing could fill. Ras was learning the dimensions of his particular hole, a Jen Kangeledes-sized emptiness. Douglas had his own abyss. Xiao glanced his way, worry creasing his forehead. Douglas put a fatherly hand on the man’s shoulder. At least he could act as if he cared.
Bodogom’s ’rider was at the proper coordinates. Situation normal.
They approached. Slow. Possibly fearful. The ballooners arrived, their skins shifting in patterns of bright colors. Jen thought it was a language. Each living airship possessed a cardiovascular system and a nervous system and digestion and . . . what? A brain? Certainly. Mind? Demonstrably.
Some part of Jen? To be determined.
He recorded, “There’s a herd ahead of me. They’re closer now than they were when I arrived an hour ago. I believe they know I’m here.”
Of course they did. The ballooners’ echolocation pulses ponged out of the computer like the beats of a kettle drum. External mics tracked the high-frequency chatter of the manta ray-like flyers.
“The herd is comprised of fifty-four ballooners ranging in size from ninety meters across down to just under fourteen. I make out three, possibly four, distinct somatic variations. Several varieties of flyers move among them in a roughly spherical halo with defined boundaries.”
They were not a “herd.” It was a tribe with hierarchies and language and history and protocols. They had needs and emotions. Jen had felt those needs, carried by a winged sentience that should never have existed.
Why were they here? Who were they? Ras rolled the questions around his brain, just as he had every day since Douglas first told him why he had brought him and Jen to Jupiter. What did these creatures mean to humanity? What did they mean to Ras?
Fifty-something thousand years ago.
During the Late Pleistocene, humanity hunted, fished, painted their bodies and gathered in caves and around fires. They carved wood and bone and stone. They loved each other and taught their children. They spoke in languages long forgotten. And they killed each other. In love. In anger. Sometimes to appease spirits Ras didn’t believe in.
His ancestors, and the ancestors of these creatures, shared the same long, chaos-twisted bloodline with all the generations that had fucked and bred and died until he was spat out into the world. These beings were lost strands of humanity’s genetic cloth. But fifty thousand years ago, their thread was pulled.
Ras expanded the image projected around him. To his eyes, he sat suspended in the Jovians’ home environment, on a chair with only a paper-thin console in front of him. He rotated the chair 360°, and endless cloudscapes revealed themselves. He could imagine himself as alone in the universe. He was alone.
Except for a faint upright rectangle of green light. It marked the pod’s door. Acid burned the back of his throat. He needed to know if any of Jen’s neural patterns still existed within the Jovian host. Did she live on in this alien community in some biochemical transcendence?
If yes, could Ras forgive her?
Tapping the console, he brought up a three-dee box near his left shoulder. Centered in the box was a realtime exterior view floating at arm’s length. Again he tapped the console. The model’s colors changed. Programmed images formed on the airship’s skin mimicking images recorded by Jen.
“I have initiated contact sequence. The program is based on a sim-version from the retrieved recording. He couldn’t say Jen’s name out loud. “They continue to close. Otherwise, no response.”
His hands shook. Good thing he disabled the psych monitors. For several minutes now Ras had a finger on the firing controls of the onboard laser emitter. Useful for both back-up communications and spectroanalysis, the free-variable laser could also burn through flesh at a hundred kilometers. The finger quivered.
He could destroy them. Watch their fragile bodies scorch and burst. Count the seconds as they fell into the deep atmosphere. They murdered his wife.
Were the ballooners and flyers paying attention to the display? Could they recognize Jen’s final memories playing out on the hovering metal alien?
He unlocked the firing program. The laser was set for a single narrow beam, maximum intensity. At a finger stroke, the image of the emitter gun appeared. A narrow blade would slice through as many targets as he chose. It would be so easy.
There was nothing left of his wife. Jen had never believed it, but deep down, he knew she was wrong. And now, wasn’t he standing, walking proof that when you die, you’re gone? Was he Ras Bodogom any more? No. He was a neuronet copy of the man Jen had loved, and would never love again.
He eyed the life forms. The ballooner’s skin colorings flowed against each other. Deep sea creatures with no more brains than snails could do that trick. The target display centered on the creature’s vast body.
He pressed the firing pad.
Ras smiled. He had deactivated the laser before launch. A chill passed over Ras’s body, like a fever breaking, as he “shot” Jovian after Jovian, imagining shrieks and gouts of blood splattering the clouds. It felt good. Panting, he tapped the console. The laser control display vanished.
“Dr. Bodogom, this is Jovias project.” Douglas’s voice. “Our system discerns no intelligible pattern in the native life forms’ dermal colorings. Come back home now.”
Ras floated among the cloud-castles. Jen would love this. She had loved this. The sun tinted the cloudscape peach and pale yellow. The beings out there waited for his next move.
“Jovias, don’t worry about me. I’m going to step outside for a while.”
He stood. The rhythm of his heart beat loud in his ears. Ras walked across the invisible floor to the upright rectangle of green light and stepped through it, vanishing into the Jovian morning.
Mark Bourne was a film critic and science fiction writer whose work was published in Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine, Asimov's, and a number of anthologies. Mark was a renowned expert on classic sci-fi films and silent comedy. If he could have been anyone, it would have been Buster Keaton. Mark Bourne's criticism can be found on IMDB.
Elizabeth Bourne has previously published short fiction in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Interzone, and Clarkesworld. She's currently working on a second world fantasy novel and a mystery set in prohibition age San Francisco. Bourne grew up in Lovecraft country and assures you that his work wasn't fiction. She lives in the Pacific Northwest and is advised on her writing by her dog, Kai, who eats the bad pages.