Marking Time on the Far Side of Forever
by D.K. Latta
I sit beneath the dark green sky, overlooking the valley that has changed much over the years. What was once a stream has swelled into a river while, to the east, lush vegetation grows where I think there was once a shallow lake. I can’t remember definitely. The information is stored inside me, filed, itemized; I’m merely unsure how to access it. It will come to me. Later, when a random search, an unrelated thought, cracks open the proper conduits and a pulse of electricity resurrects the knowledge, unbidden.
Until then, I am content to wait.
Below my knee, the dented brass-coloured metal becomes the red of a tree trunk, substituting as a shin and foot. Like an antiquated peg-leg, like a stereotypical pira…pi…pi-
Pi is 3.1415926…
The organic substance must be replaced occasionally, but the concept has served satisfactorily for almost two hundred years. It was easy to jury-rig. Not so my mnemonic core. I lack the appropriate tools and diagnostic programs.
Yes. There had been a lake, teeming with the hoorah-thet fish.
I call them fish simply to provide a basis of comparative orientation. Fish only exist on earth, and this is not earth. Earth is a long, long way away.
I turn my head left, but abruptly the joints seize up. The swivel mechanism has been malfunctioning for months. Fiffer comes bounding through the long red stalks that sprout to the height of a man. The sun is setting, and when night settles the stalks will curl up until the first rays of morning buss them with its solar kiss.
I’m being florid. Dr. Fujiwama programmed me that way. She said it would make my information easier to digest for the scouting party.
My left eye starts pixilating, turning everything into a multi-coloured grid. I slap my palm against my brow with a dull clang! and the image clears.
Who is bounding toward me? Do I know him?
He bounces along on his powerful tail, his four lower limbs atrophied to stumps. I’ve unearthed fossils indicating that his ancestors had well-developed hind limbs. I think the scouting party will be pleased with my report on paleozoology. There are some nice passages in it. Florid even.
Fiffer calls me Gakha, which means ‘shelled man’. They do not comprehend refined metals. Fiffer’s people think I’m some sort of god. I’ve tried to disabuse them of that notion.
Fiffer halts, his principle forelimb gesticulating. The limb is a tongue that has evolved through the chest cavity. I detail its evolution in my report on Comparative Anatomies of the Vertebrates of the Temperate Zone. It was my first completed essay. I’m proud to say my observations within it have not been contradicted by subsequent data collected in the ensuing years. I was very meticulous.
I focus, realizing I may have drifted. “Has a grubbling fallen into a well?” I rise, prepared to rescue the little creature.
“No.” His tongue waves excitedly. “A shell has fallen.”
My left eye pixilates momentarily. I ignore it. “What?”
“A big shell. It was bright at its bottom as it fell from the sky. Then it landed and went dark.”
“Shell?” Slowly, I consider: shell equals refined metals. “Show me, please.”
* * *
It’s a ship. I don’t recognize the design. I lurch toward it in fits and starts through the swamp. I have sent Fiffer back to the village, until I can ascertain whether the inhabitants of the shell — I mean, ship — whether they mean his people harm. It is important that no harm come to them. The scouting party will want to meet them.
In the nightsky I recognize the purple glimmer of a planet that shares the same sun. It is uninhabited, though might once have supported the early stages of an ecosystem. Unfortunately, my telescopic equipment was damaged beyond repair when I was swallowed Jonah-like by a ravenous krool-Jah — or is Pinocchio a better allusion? I have been forced to leave my Report on Astronomical and Extra-Terrestrial Bodies incomplete. But I still find myself regarding the nightsky.
Abruptly the land is dry, brown. The light Fiffer described — the landing engines — must have scorched the surrounding area. I think of the swamp and the kippotey that nested here.
I halt before the vessel, waiting. I have waited for the scouting party, I can wait for the creatures in the ship. I wonder if Dr. Fujiwama will be with the scouting party. It would be pleasant to see her again. But, no. Dr. Fujiwama must surely be dead by now.
A light overwhelms my eyes. They are slow to adjust to changes in stimuli. Dr. Fujiwama could repair them, but she is dead. The light balloons from the lower part of the ship. A beam of light angles into the ground. Figures emerge and walk down the light.
An energy plank. Very impressive.
Bipedal figures surround me as my eyes compensate for the new light level. The creatures…the creatures…
They are human. The scouting party! The scouting party has arrived! There is an unnecessary energy surge somewhere within me. I readjust the levels instantly, then raise my arms. My shoulders creak.
“Greetings, Scouting Party,” I say. “Greetings!”
They stare from behind breathing masks. One speaks. I don’t recognize the language. Has the shortcut to my linguistic program become corrupted? I access the relevant files.
I still do not understand them. They usher me onto the ship.
* * *
“…I’m telling you, It’s some kind of earth model,” explains one man.
“What the Hell is it doing here?” demands another. “No ship’s ever been this far out, and who’d drag that fossil with it anyway?”
I sit in a chamber bereft of any significant instrumentality, doubtless a crew lounge. There are people. There are also automatons, like myself…sort of. Sleeker, gleaming dark blue, they do not have any rust spots, or dents, and all their limbs are the ones they received in the factory. They are impressive.
“Excuse me,” I say.
The two men arguing stop, then look at me. “It speaks,” one mutters.
The one I take to be the captain says, crossly, “Why didn’t you speak before?”
“I’m sorry, sir. I failed to recognize the language. However, using an interpretive sub-program combined with an extrapolative paradigm — using an algorithmic template based upon my experience observing the evolution of the Vigath language — I was able, while listening as you conversed, to identify commonalities between your words and comparable phonetics in the earth languages with which I am familiar, replicating the evolutionary steps necessary to construct a working version of your current dialect.”
The captain gawks. “Huh?”
“He figured it out while sitting there.”
I turn toward the new voice. My head locks. Fortunately, he comes into view. He has tousled hair and an expression on his face. He is…grinning. Yes. Indicative of a pleasant mood. “He figured it out while sitting there.” He looks at me, his grin widens. “I ran a check in the core on our mystery guest.”
“Alright, Brywen,” says the captain, fists on hips. “What’s this old bucket of junk doing here?”
“Old? You don’t know the half of it. Let me verify. Hey, big guy, what’re you?”
“I am called Gak-” I stop, realizing the name will mean nothing. “I’m the Shell-” It has been so long, for a moment I fear I will be unable to access the appropriate information. Then: “I am an L14XN-200. A Ground-Breaker, sir.”
“My God,” he whispers, falling back into a chair. “I almost didn’t believe it.”
“What?” demands the captain.
“The Ground-Breakers were an experimental program. Automatons launched into wormholes, intended to spread throughout the farthest reaches of the galaxy as a kind of advance party. They would land on worlds, make contact with indigenous life, learn the customs, catalogue the wildlife, then relate that information to a scouting party that would arrive a century or two later in cryostasis — at the time the standard-mode of deepspace travel. This was long before Stellar-Inversion Drive. The Ground-Breakers would save lives by averting misunderstandings during first contact, that sort of thing. It was a ridiculously presumptuous program. Politic rather than practical. They were launched blind. There was no guarantee even one would ever actually land on a planet. Only a few human ships were even sent out before the program was moth-balled anyway.”
“So how come I’ve never heard of them?”
“Captain, the Ground-Breakers were launched a thousand years ago — objective time. They only had a life expectancy of a few centuries. But this great big beautiful bastard,” he stabs a finger at me, “has been operational for a millennium. I’m sure the lighter gravity and maybe some kind of a lack of corrosive chemicals in the air helped. It’s like coming face to face with a talking Sphinx.”
Dr. Fujiwama called the wormhole a door to forever. Beyond was the far side. She said she envied me the things I would see.
“It looks like crap.”
Some autonomous sub-routine I cannot identify drops my hand over my knee, ineffectually attempting to cover my makeshift leg.
“I’m sure it’s been through a lot.” Brywen glances at one of the blue automatons. “Say hello to your grandfather, Bim.”
“An L14XN?” asks the slick, blue construct, its voice demonstrating more subtlety than I could even in prime condition. “That’s no grandfather,” it says disdainfully, “that’s a Neanderthal. It’s crudely designed and hopelessly stupid.”
“He’s not pretty,” agrees Brywen. “But they were built for endurance, not looks. Hell, he could break you in half with one hand, Bim — and his power gauges would barely register the exertion. And, well, I can’t argue brain capacity, but he did figure out our language, a thousand years evolved from anything he knew.”
“I could have done it quicker,” counters Bim.
“Maybe. Don’t forget, he could apply his experience watching the local language evolve, of actually seeing how time affects things.” Brywen cocks his head. “When you think about it, there’s no telling how he might be different from the L14XN that went through the wormhole. One thousand years of non-stop operation, technical accumulation, experience.”
“Do any of you know Dr. Mariko Fujiwama?” I ask abruptly. “She was my chief programmer. She likes cookies.”
They stare at me.
“I’m sorry,” I say, identifying my error. “I believe Dr. Fujiwama is dead.” I look at my leg. “Pirate. I look like a pirate, not pi.”
“Is he even functioning?” grumbles the captain.
“Uh, how’re you feeling, big guy?” asks Brywen.
“My functions are not operating at peak efficiency. My physical capabilities are diminished and I sometimes have trouble accessing relevant memory files.” Then a notation about human interaction flashes through my mind, about banal exchanges of civility. I no longer know if his question was intended to elicit such a frank response. “Otherwise, I’m fine. And yourself?”
The all stare: Brywen, the captain, the crew, Bim and the automatons.
I can think of only one thing to say. “I’ve been waiting for you all for such a very long time.”
* * *
The bench is laid out with tools I do not recognize. Brywen projects a light at my shoulder. My internal sensors go off the scale, but fail to identify the energy bathing my joint.
“..that was Fiffer’s great-great-great-grandmother I pulled from the rock slide. I suppose you could say I am responsible for Fiffer’s current existence.”
“Sounds like you’re responsible for half of them,” mutters Brywen. “Try the arm.”
I raise it, it doesn’t creak. “I did not mean to interfere with their natural development, but the drought of…of…” I try to count back, but become confused. “Well, I had to teach them irrigation, otherwise many would have died. I knew the scouting party would want to meet local inhabitants, to exchange views, to discuss alternate philosophies. It seemed the correct action at the time. Since then, I am sometimes called upon to moderate disputes, I warn them if a bad storm is coming, I rescue grubblings. Have I behaved inappropriately? Will I be chastised?”
“I’m sure you did fine. You’re a regular museum piece, y’know?” he says, scanning my right knee. “I don’t think there are even any 9000s in one piece, let alone a functioning 200 like you.”
“Dr. Fujiwama said I was built ‘for the long haul’.”
“I’ll bet…” He has already adjusted my neck so that I can turn my head a little bit more to the left. He reminds me of Dr. Fujiwama. “All things considered, you aren’t in such bad shape. The captain wants you junked, but I’m damned if I’ll let him do that. You’re a piece of history. How’d you like to see earth again? You’d be an instant celebrity.”
“I would like that. I’d like to see the lab where I was programmed.”
“Uh,” he frowns, “your lab doesn’t exist anymore, remember? I’m not sure we could even find out where it had been.”
“Of course. Forgive me. Tell me, Brywen, when can I begin relaying my data?”
“Data?” He stares at me blankly, then gradually his eyes brighten. “Of course. That’s why you’re here, to collect information. I was so flabbergasted by you even being here, that it didn’t occur — that is — I never thought of you actually having a practical use after all this time.”
“I hope I can be of service. I have written fourteen volumes on comparative anatomies. I have a particularly moving record of the burial ceremony for Crisha, who lived in a village many kilometres to the east. I-”
“Good for you,” Brywen says. “You wait right here.” He leaves.
I am used to waiting. But my waiting, I think, is just about over.
* * *
Crewpeople stand about the bridge, as well as some automatons, including Bim. Brywen is with the captain.
“He might have information that’ll save us weeks,” Brywen explains. “Downloading will be a tricky. I mean, his computerspeak isn’t remotely compatible with what we use, but I can jury-rig something.”
I glance at my leg. Not a shell man, I am The Jury-Rig Man. The captain is unconvinced of my practicality.
“All right,” he says dubiously. “So…tell me something.”
“Would you like me to relate the significance of morning and evening songs among the highland Vigath, and the historical significance pertaining to the divergence? It works best with musical accompaniment. Chegga is a more accomplished singer than I, but I will endeavour-”
“No, I don’t wanna hear any polly-wolly folk songs. Tell me about mineral deposits.”
“There are deposits in the lowland regions of a kind of local diamond that is somewhat harder than that indigenous to earth. The mountains just to the west are rich in ruby-silver. Of course, the Vigath have crops in the lowlands, making any extraction rather tricky. And the mountains are home to a particularly delicate eco-system, making mining completely out of the question as per earth exploratory laws circa C.E. 2178. However-”
“I won’t presume to debate you on historical legalities,” says the captain. “First things first: you could save us a few days if you could rundown the chemical composition of the atmosphere, local wind streams, weather conditions. Before we start terra-forming, we need to know what-”
“Terra-forming?” I ask.
“You may not have noticed, rusty, but we can’t breathe outside the ship.”
“The Vigath cannot breath an oxygen-nitrogen mix suitable for humans. In fact, the entire bio-sphere would undergo drastic alterations should such a thing be attempted. I’m afraid it’s out of the question.”
The captain gawks. “You’re afraid it’s out of the question? Who the Hell do you think you are?”
“According to earth exploratory law-”
“I don’t know what laws you’re talking about,” he exclaims, exasperated. I know I’ve upset him, but I’m having trouble understanding how.
“Uh, big guy,” interjects Brywen, hoping to restore calm. “Whatever laws you’re talking about are…well, old.”
“Why do you think we are here, 200?” asks Bim, its well modulated voice dripping with condescension.
I turn this over in my head, but the information is there instantly, no delay, no difficulty in retrieving it. For a thousand years I have awaited the scouting party. I know why they’ve come. “To explore, to investigate. To establish relations with non-Terran lifeforms.”
“Uh,” says Brywen. “This is awkward.”
* * *
To harvest useable minerals and precious substances. I consider the phrase again, as it was explained to me.
To facilitate mining, the scouting party will alter the atmosphere — they can accomplish such a gargantuan task easily. They have developed wonderful technologies in a thousand years. My arms no longer creak when I lift them, and I can turn my head partly to the left.
Brywen says they will give me a new body when we go back to earth. Perhaps even one as nice as Bim’s. I would like to see earth again.
Brywen says, once the mining operation is complete, and the atmosphere “corrected”, humans might settle here. He says, if that happens, they might erect a statue to me. A stone replica of a metal man.
I stand upon the dry ground, the swamp glimmering wetly in the dawn light. Only the sound of heavy machinery can be heard. The whooping of the kippotey is silent, the little creatures no doubt having fled from the noises and strange bipeds. The scouting party is draining the swamp.
By tomorrow, they tell me, there will be no swamp.
A party including Bim emerge from the stalks of the surrounding red plants, stretched up once more like fingers reaching for the sun. Bim carries something which it drops near the foot of the energy plank. I lumber over to view it more clearly. Brywen is coming down the ramp.
“Found this lurking around the perimeter,” one of the people, a woman, explains to Brywen. She is holding a thin stick that I do not recognize, but I think is some form of energy weapon. “Ugly cuss. It moves fast, though. There’ll be good hunting around here, once we get some free time. Don’t know if the damned thing is edible, though.”
“What was this creature and is it digestible by humans?” Bim says.
I stare at the thing sprawled at their feet.
“200!” snaps Bim.
I look up. Brywen stares at me, obviously unhappy. The others grin obliviously. “It…” I look down. “It is Fiffer.”
“A fiffer, eh?” says the woman. “Are there a lot of them around?”
I regard her. “Not a fiffer. It is Fiffer. He was a Vigath. He must have become concerned about me when I did not return.” I think for a moment, random memories sparking through my mind. “I pulled his great-great-great-grandmother from a rock slide. I do not know if he is good to eat.”
Brywen touches me lightly on the shoulder. “I’m…sorry, big guy.”
“My name…is Gakha.”
* * *
I lay Fiffer down in the little clearing. Vigathi gather around me.
“What happened to Fiffer, Gakha?” asks one.
“We heard sounds and saw strange flashes of light,” says another.
“What is the black smoke rising from the swamp?” asks a third.
My hip joint makes a peculiar grinding sound, but otherwise is unharmed. There are black scorch marks across my chest plate. Their energy weapons are more effective against Vigath flesh. I regard the bewildered faces. “Do not go to the swamp for a while.”
I must bury the big shell that fell from the sky. It will be hard and will take many weeks, but in time, there will be no evidence of the shell or the peculiar creatures that dwelt within it.
I thought they were the scouting party. They were not. They were deceivers.
I have waited a thousand years for the scouting party to come. I do not know how much longer I can wait before my memory fully deteriorates and my body ceases to function, but until then I will save grubblings who play too close to wells. I will document folk songs and record my observations on the sunset. At night I will watch the planets. I will do this so that when the scouting party arrives, they will have all the data they need.
I wonder if Dr. Fujiwama will be with them?
No. She is dead. I will be dead, too. One day.
Until then, I am content to wait.
Marking Time on the Far Side of Forever by DK Latta is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at escapepod.org.