Escape Pod 706: Rule of Three (Part 2 of 3)

Rule of Three (Part 2 of 3)

By Lawrence M. Schoen

“I have been exploring your solar system for most of a century,” Foom said.


“Cataloging.” Foom led me down to the riverbank. A giant pearl sat in the water not ten meters away. “You would call me a completist. Visiting each and every one of Jupiter’s moons alone took more than a decade. Some were truly majestic. Which is not to say your own moon is not interesting, but I am still processing what I learned there. It was my penultimate destination in this system. I saved your world for last.”

We stepped into the river and were quickly engulfed above our waists. The water was cold but the current not especially swift.

“Did you find life anywhere else in our solar system?”

“Life, yes, but nothing alive that was also self-aware and sapient as you are. And I found death, too. But only on your world is there unlife. Your pardon, can you swim?”

“Excuse me?”

“I would have you step inside my home but the river bottom drops away deeper before we will quite reach it.”

“Yes, I can swim.”

“Very good. Let us do so now.”

And so we swam. As we drew closer I could see the pearl did not rest upon the bottom of the river, but floated partially submerged. Before we reached it, Foom dove down a meter or so and swam straight into the curve of the pearl. It passed within without a ripple. Closing my eyes, I followed.

I didn’t hit anything and a few moments after I should have struck the side I opened my eyes and swam up for air. I broke the water’s surface and found myself somehow inside the giant pearl. The nacre of the inner walls glowed, revealing a curving ramp that wound up the middle, opening onto ledges and alcoves above. Foom had already reached the ramp and climbed out of the water, waiting for me on a low bench extruded from the inner wall.

Foom was an alien. It had come to Earth from the stars, which meant that I was inside its spaceship.

“Explain something to me, please,” I said.

“Of course.”

“This is your home?”

“It is.”

“But it’s also a vessel, right? It’s how you traveled to my world.”

“Yes, your understanding is true.”

I shook my head and followed him from the water. “I don’t think it is. How can a vessel that travels between stars not violate the Rule of Three?”

“Because I made it myself.”

“How is that possible? Sure, you say you’ve been in this system a century so you’re longer lived than my kind, but how could one person make something as complex as a spaceship by themselves?”

“It’s my home. Who else would make my home?”

“But how?”

It waved me to the bench, the twin thumbs of its hand wiggling in an odd gesture. “Yours is not the first dark world I have visited. Everything you know of technology exists in the dark. Your people have breached your atmosphere, even stood upon your moon, by means of this technology, and spread unlife along the way. I cannot perceive such vehicles directly, or the people I assume traveled within them, only the darkness they define. You force your technology to shackle the universe to do your bidding, rather than work with those same forces to express themselves in ways of mutual benefit.”

I waved at the gleaming surface all around us. “I don’t understand.”

“Do you understand beer?” Foom asked.


“A beverage. The children brought me some. It is . . . refreshing.”

“I know what beer is.”

“Do you know how to make it?”


“The ingredients. The process.”

I flashed back on my sophomore year at university and the roommate who turned his half of our dorm room into a brewing den. “Um, grain, barley I think . . . and hops . . .”

“So you simply bring together barley and hops and you have beer?”

“What? No, you have to ferment it.”


“Uhh, you heat and crack the grain, then you mash it, which means soaking the grains in hot water so the sugars come out.”

“Why do the sugars do that?”

“I don’t know. Enzymes? My chemistry isn’t very good.”

“Then what?”

“You pour off the hot water with all the sugars, then you add the hops and you boil everything. You cool it and filter it, and then you add yeast which turns the sugar into alcohol. That also releases carbon dioxide, which is why it has bubbles. And you get beer.”

“Do you enjoy beer?” Foom asked.

I couldn’t help but grin. “I do, sure. Most people do.”

“If you had never seen beer, never tasted or smelled it, had no knowledge of it, do you believe you could look at the components, the barley and hops and yeast and water, and see the thing they could become?”

What kind of a question was that? Beer was . . . beer. It was omnipresent, had always existed, hadn’t it? But thousands of years ago, maybe not. Someone must have discovered fermentation, airborne yeast landing in a rain barrel that had some rotten fruit in it or some such. Maybe something like that had happened many, many times before someone took a swig that led to the first hangover.

“No, I guess not.”

“It is a natural process. To brew beer you work with the substances of nature, following their own paths. In the case of beer those parts are external, but even so the Rule of Three is present at every step. I created my home in much the same way, though perhaps more directed. An internal pathway.”

It held out its hand before me, pressing the tips of its thumbs together. A tiny whitish drop formed where they touched. It grew into a small bead.

“You asked before about the thing I taught the children that made the grass float. This is like that, but more so. Whereas they taught the grass to change its nature, I have taught myself to change mine. Like barley and hops giving way to something unimaginable until it occurs, so too did I create my home.”

The bead had grown to the size of a fat pearl, grayish and iridescent. Foom parted its thumbs and the newly created pearl hung in the air. At a flick of its fingers it floated up then down then twice around its head before coming to rest upon my hand.

“How . . . ?”

“It is like your beer. A miracle until you know the way. To be fair, this is a small thing. It would take you at least a year of practice to make one as large as my home.”

“You’re kidding, right? You’re saying I could do this?”

Foom reached out for my hand again, pressing the new-formed pearl against my palm. “Surely there are things your people do that are not all dark, things of wonder like your language and beer. These are precious and I hope to experience more of them, but in truth what interests me more is art.”


“Every sapient people manifest their culture, producing records of who they are. Such art transcends mere language, often outliving the organisms that produced it. I hope to encounter some in this narrow slice of your world untouched by unlife. This is why I have come.”

I returned to my grandmother’s home late in the afternoon trading my western clothes for a simple shirt and trousers that had belonged to my grandfather, lying untouched for longer than I’d been alive. Both were short on me. Decades earlier my grandmother had acquired the cloth from another neighbor and then sewn them herself, making me the third in the chain of possession and thus acceptable under the Rule of Three. I ate a dinner prepared by her hand from food she had grown herself. I slept better that night than I had in years, probably the result of my exertions hauling water up for my grandmother and applying myself to chores that at her age went undone until some neighboring teen was sent over to help. I dreamed that the dark was leaving me, replaced by nutrients that met the alien’s rule, or sweated out of my body in service to exertion that served that same rule. And I dreamed of beer, appreciating it as I never had before.

Foom had been unacquainted with beer before meeting the children. It had immediately grasped the process of water and sugar being transformed to alcohol and carbon dioxide, but fermentation itself was new, a miracle. And clearly, it wanted more miracles. So much of the world’s food had converted over to manufactured production. Even naturally grown products were transformed. Something as simple as corn was not left alone but converted into high fructose corn syrup, an additive that by alien standards darkened everything it touched. But surely other natural processes remained. Bees still made honey and wax. Milk and rennet produced cheese. Foom would regard any of these as miracles, and what knowledge might it offer in trade?

I returned to the river in the morning. No children awaited me, though whether they’d taken the day off or Foom had sent them away I couldn’t say. The alien swam from its pearl home and clambered onto the shore, naked as the day before.

“There is less of the dark about you,” it said. “Do you feel it?”

“I suppose I do. I’ve been thinking about that, and about our conversation in your home yesterday. I have a proposition for you.”

“What specifically? We spoke of many things.”

“Trade. I could show you things, like the making of beer. What kinds of things could you show me in turn?”

Foom’s face broke out in a wide toothless smile. “I would teach you new ways to view your world, and skills with which to experience it.”

“What would that mean, pragmatically? Are you talking about ending disease? A stop to aging? Space travel?”

“Yes, all these things are possible, but I will expect a fair accounting, an introduction to processes untouched by the dark, such as the creation of beer. Or better still, some example of art, if it is to be found here.”

“I think I can make that happen. What do you know of batik?”

With no small portion of apprehension, I persuaded Foom to return with me to my grandmother’s home. She’d finished her work with the indigo yesterday and was carving designs into cloth in preparation for dyeing. She met us at the door with more of my late grandfather’s clothing.

“You are a funny man,” she said. “And I am an old woman. But you are no child wearing your innocence instead of clothing. If you wish to come into my house you will put something on. Or you can go away. I don’t care which.”

I flinched. I hadn’t expected any of this, and my imagination flared with the horror that generations of diplomats would have experienced at my grandmother’s handling of the first alien to visit the Earth.

Foom didn’t so much as blink—could it blink?

“Of course, Grandmother. Your generosity honors me.” It turned its back to her, much as it had seen me do when the children had presented me with shorts to wear yesterday, and donned the ancient trousers and shirt. The faded colors accentuated its pale skin but my grandmother was satisfied. She welcomed us into her home, taking a seat at her worktable and gesturing for us to watch her as she picked up a small knife and dipped it into a tiny pot of boiling wax. I’d seen her do this a hundred times. My mother had learned to do it as a child and practiced the technique well into her teens until a social program had sent her to school, ultimately leading her to meet my father.

“What is she doing,” asked Foom.

By this point my grandmother appeared to be attacking a large white cloth stretched before her, the blade of her knife imparting a delicate pattern of wax where it touched.

“This is batik,” I said. “The style dates back more than a thousand years, back when nothing on this planet was dark.”

Foom nodded with approval. “Unlife has never touched it. But what is it?”

“Art. She is creating a pattern on the cloth with the wax.”

“And the art is the interplay of the wax and the cloth? It tells a story?”

“Not exactly. The wax is temporary. It gets melted off.”

“So this is ephemeral art? The art is the memory of the pattern of where the wax previously had been?”

“No, something else entirely. When she has completed the pattern in wax, the cloth will be boiled in an indigo dye.” I directed his attention to the pot of leaves that would soon produce the dye.

“The white cloth will become blue,” Foom said. “But you said it will be boiled? Surely the wax cannot endure. The intricate patterns lost.”

“The wax is lost, yes, and deliberately so. But before that happens, it will have blocked the dye from staining that portion of the cloth. Where it had been, the cloth will still be white—”

“And the pattern preserved!” Foom practically shouted. “Do you have examples of this? Please, I must see.”

This was my mother’s family’s calling. Generations had spent their entire lives weaving cloth, making indigo dye, and designing the most astonishing batik patterns. Some of the greatest art of the Miao people had been created in homes like this, saved up week upon week and carted over the mountains from tiny villages into the towns and cities where time and progress existed, where commerce replaced barter, where unlife had developed and spread.

My grandmother was an artist—though she would have scolded me to be called such—with decade upon decade of experience and expertise. A buyer in distant Shanghai sent an agent twice a year, buying up everything she’d created for a fraction of its true worth. But there was little my grandmother needed or wanted. A few chickens, seed for her garden, a whetstone to sharpen her knives once in a great while. Some money too, but she never touched it, letting it accrue in an account to pay for my mother to fly in once a year for a visit or to be spent on scholarships for the village children who opted to leave this life behind and attend school in the distant city.

While my grandmother sat engrossed in her work, I led Foom to the trunk at the back of the room. I hadn’t been here in years, but there was nowhere else for her to keep her finished work. I lifted the lid and revealed what I can only describe as vast tapestries of her art.

Silently asking permission, the alien took them out of the trunk one by one, unfolding them and holding them at arms’ length. The designs were flawless, intricate, breathtaking. Some were fanciful, birds and fish and scenes of nature. Others were purely abstract, complex patterns that predated Mandelbrot’s awareness of fractals but spoke to the same geometric subdivisions going smaller and smaller. Each was a piece of perfection.

“This,” said Foom, “this is what I hoped to find. This is all from one.”

“From one?”

“One source, one origin. The cloth, the dye, the vision. All from her.”

“Right,” I said. “Your Rule of Three. So, she could give one of these to someone else and it wouldn’t go dark?”

“No, it could pass to yet another’s hands and still not be dark.”

“Would you like one? Something to decorate your home?”

“Such a treasure?” Foom’s voice dropped to a whisper, not that my grandmother had given any indication of hearing him before. “She would gift me with such a thing?”

“If I asked politely,” I said. “Especially if I explain that you have come from so very far for just such a thing as she’s made and already forgotten about in this trunk.”

“That would be wondrous,” it said. “But, might I ask some more? Is it possible she might share her knowledge, teach me to do this batik myself?”

I smiled, thinking back on all the times she forced me to sit at that same table with a knife and a square of practice cloth during one of my mother’s visits, when all I wanted to be doing was playing outside with the local children.

“I think that would make her very happy.”

Grandmother agreed to teach Foom, but would have none of its finger-melding knowledge transfer. She taught it as she’d been taught, as she’d taught my mother and tried to teach me, sitting at the same table with her, a knife in one hand, a small pot of liquid wax within easy reach, and a blank cloth on which to practice the most simple of designs. Foom was an apt pupil and I’m not sure who was more pleased.

The next day the alien arrived at my grandmother’s house at first light, joined us for a simple breakfast, and then set to work which usually involved a brief lesson and hours of practicing what it’d learned. Maybe it was the extra thumbs, maybe the fact that its remarks hinted that it was several hundred years old with several times the experience any human being could amass. Maybe the alien was just a batik prodigy waiting to happen. Whatever the reason, after five days of learning basic techniques and simultaneously observing my Grandmother’s work, it seemed to be patterning its cloth with the confidence and speed of its teacher. The proof of it came at the end of that fifth day when its cloth was stained with dye and the wax boiled away leaving unmarked cloth where it had been.

The result was breathtaking, a miniature tapestry of blinding white and brilliant blue, a set of panels that showed the solar system and Foom’s pearl home spiraling ever closer to the Earth.

“This is good,” said my grandmother. “You possess a gift limited only by your dreams.”

“My people do not dream,” said Foom.

“Funny man, perhaps you just don’t remember them when you awaken?”

It smiled. “That might be. Certainly I have thought about what it might be like to dream.”

“That is a good start. Next time, draw your thoughts upon the cloth.”

“The cloth?” I said. I’d been sitting at the same table with them, scribbling notes in a handmade notebook I’d bartered from one of the neighbors.

“The patterns we make speak more clearly than words,” she replied. “If you were a better student you would understand that. The funny man does.”

Foom bowed its head. I pushed back from the table to make tea for all, as that was about the extent of my contributions to the batik these past several days. After I’d poured their cups and sat back with my own, the alien looked up and placed his hand over my grandmother’s, not in the laced fingers way it had used with me and the children, but a simple and direct touch to add significance to the words that followed.

“What knowledge may I offer you in turn, Grandmother?”

“Knowledge? Pfah! I am an old woman. I live as my mother lived and her mother before her. The world has changed. As my daughter and grandson insist, but not so much here. There is no knowledge I need that I have not had since his mother was a little girl.”

“But this is a great gift you have shared, which I will share with many others when I return home. Surely there is something I know how to do that you would like.”

“I am content that you have learned so well so fast. My grandson hungers for new things. If you want to teach something, teach it to him.”

The alien turned to me. It still hadn’t tasted its tea and I set my own cup down under the weight of its regard.

“I have only learned this batik because you suggested it. It seems a reasonable solution to share knowledge with you, and when you visited my home you expressed an interest in how I had made it. Shall I teach you?”

“Too much talk,” said my grandmother. “If you insist on yammering, do so beyond my hearing. Go. Away with you.”

We left our tea and slipped out of her house, taking the path back toward the river.

“Everything I can do stems from a simple precept,” said Foom. “The mind shapes the body.”

“I’m not sure I understand. That’s pretty broad.”

“Do you still have the bead I gave you? You saw me create that. I could not always do so.”

“Wait,” I said. “I thought that was just something your people can do. A biological ability.”

“It is, but not innate to us. The mind shapes the body. We have learned new processes, taught ourselves to create what we need rather than suborn the environment to meet our needs. Thus we preserve the Rule of Three.”

“You make . . . everything? But how?”

“Think of beer, the miraculous chemical processes that transform water and grain and hops. You are aware that your body performs many processes of similar astonishment, from transforming the nutrients you ingest into the energy necessary to move you about, to encoding your sensations into memories that can be stored in complex networks and accessed in a myriad varieties.”

“I . . . suppose. But those are all just biological processes. It’s all internal.”

“Not always. Your females produce milk to nurture their young. It begins as an internal process but the result exists outside the body.”

In that moment I thought my brain might explode. Was Foom suggesting that a lactating mother’s breast milk was on a par with its space craft? I thought again of bees making honey and wax. I thought of beer, from the perspective of the yeast converting the sugar. “I suppose that makes sense.”

“So. What if you could teach your body a new process? To produce something you desired, within yourself rather than having to rely on your environment?”

I laughed. “What, you’re saying I could train my body to brew beer?”

“Why not? It already knows how to break down much more complex matter than grain. But that’s not what you want, you want to be able to create your own home like mine. Perhaps one day to travel beyond your world as I do.”

“And that’s possible?”

Foom laced its fingers with mine. “The universe is nothing but possibilities. But what you desire requires much practice. Let us hope you will be a better student of this than you were your grandmother’s batik.”

The next several days blurred together. This wasn’t like when Foom had shown the children how to manipulate blades of grass, how to change their nature. That had been rote memorization, revealing a simple truth, a fact. What it was teaching me was the underlying structures that would allow me to alter my own biology to achieve my desires, and to do so without conscious thought. The goal, in the end, was to make it as effortless as taking an evening stroll. That’s all well and good for an adult who’s been walking his entire life, but not so easy for an infant whose world has only been crawling. And yet, in time, all of us learn to walk and scarcely think about the how of it for the rest of our lives. Those first days were like taking my first stumbling baby steps again, certain that at any moment I would land on my face. Except this time I was mucking about blindly with my own biochemistry.

On the third day, I had learned to sweat at will. By the fourth, I could control the process so that only my palms perspired. On the fifth day, I could alter my sweat glands to produce other substances and that’s when the real change happened. It wasn’t just what I was doing, it’s how it made me feel. Bliss. That’s the only word that can describe it. Using the Rule of Three internally, to create from my own body the thing I desired was . . . numinous. Like everything in the universe was right where it was supposed to be, and that my small actions were a contributing part. The sensation overwhelmed me at first, but quickly receded into the background, leaving me free to continue.

I focused on the bead Foom had given me, probing it, trying to understand it in ways that I can no more describe than I can tell me how to play piano or ride a bicycle. I just did it. And on the sixth day, after an hour’s effort I could cup my hands together and produce a hollow bead of shining nacre that defied gravity and responded to my will. I’d like to say that on the seventh day I rested, but it was more like a coma. I passed out on the grass by the river and Foom must have carried me back to my grandmother’s house. I awoke on the morning of the eighth day and saw her expression go from worry to a scowl. I knew I was fine.

“This is difficult for you,” said Foom later that day, as we sat once more by the river. “There is no more complex substance on your world. It will take a year or more of practice before you can produce a vessel like mine, but the same principle applies to convincing your body to produce anything you like.”

“You’re saying I could sweat beer?”

It smiled that toothless grin. “Easily. And unlike the beer you’ve described from your homeland, the kind brewed in factories and transported vast distances to be sold in warehouses and then moved to stores and only then to the individuals who will drink it, your beer obeys the Rule of Three. It isn’t dark. Nor will its consumption contribute to the darkening of others.”

“But I can only learn to make it if I have actual beer to work from, to teach my body the template.”

“That is true of anything you produce. It must adhere to the Rule of Three or you will be unable to master it.”

“And you’re the same way? With the things you make?”

“I am.” It pressed the fingers on its left hand together, and as it pulled them apart drops of indigo dribbled free. “I have learned to make your grandmother’s dye. Prior to meeting her and being exposed to it I could not do this. But now that I know it, I can teach others. This is what my people do, why we travel the galaxy.”

That was key. This ability I’d gained, it wasn’t just limited to me. Everything Foom had shown me, and everything I did with it going forward, I could share. “So, while it may take me a year to create a ship like yours, I could be showing others the same thing and with enough of us working on it, we’d have a fleet of ships. Enough vessels for humanity to join your people out among the stars!”

“Oh. No, that’s never going to happen.”

“What? Why not? You said I could do it. That it would just take time.”

“And that is true, but you need to understand, most of your planet, most of your population, is dark. The most ‘advanced’ human beings are also those who are most distant from the Rule of Three. You are a blight and you are killing your world. That’s part of what drew me here—your efforts to leave your own gravity well, to travel to your moon and one day to the other worlds of your solar system. If you had been content to remain here, I probably would not have come to such a dark place, not even to complete my cataloging of this system. But you were not, and the risk of you using your technology, dark and unliving as it is, to spread into space, that is too great.”

“I don’t understand,” I said. “What are you going to do about it?”

“What needs to be done. Better for your species to die out, even if that includes some members of humanity who do live by the Rule of Three. When you are all gone, when the only inhabitants remaining live by the Rule of Three, your world will heal itself of the dark. It will become a paradise again. In time a new sapient species will rise, and Earth will have another chance.”

“But . . . human beings will have been eradicated?”

“You understand me perfectly. That is my task while I’m here.”

“I can’t let you do that!”

Foom tilted its head, first right and then left. “You’ve already been a great help to me. Just as you’ve been learning from me, I’ve been learning about human bodies from you.”

With a sudden burst of energy it leapt to its feet and jumped into the river, waving for me to follow and calling out, only his head above the water. “Come with me. The thing I’ve been waiting to show you is ready. And I cannot advance things to their next stage until you see it.” Without waiting for me to follow it dove beneath the water, surfacing several meters away as it swam toward its home.

“This isn’t happening,” I said to myself, maybe to the river. “I misheard or didn’t understand. It can’t seriously have a plan for exterminating the human race.”

I hit the water and swam after Foom. I came up at the bottom of the giant pearl as I had before, and ascended the ramp in a slow spiral. Halfway up I found Foom waiting for me on a bench in one of the alcoves opening off the central ramp. A naked man sat with him, slumped as if asleep. I stared at them both and Foom grinned back at me. Moments passed before I found my voice. “That’s . . . me!”

“Yes,” said Foom. “I made a clone. It was simple, really; your cells already contained their blueprint. I just nudged them forward to aid me in the next stage of my work. But first I require your assistance to quicken this body.”

“Quicken it?” I averted my gaze from the clone. It was like seeing my own corpse.

“The body lives, but isn’t alive. I’m sorry, the language I have from you lacks the nuance I need to explain.”

“Try,” I said. I didn’t know where to look. “Try real hard.”

“I accelerated its growth to bring it on a par with your own age, but it is not otherwise a reflection of you. To continue my work, I need you to connect with it, bring it in accord with yourself.”

“And how am I supposed to do that?”

“Everything in it is primed to recognize you. We need only give it a push to connect. Give me your hand.”

It spread its fingers for me as it had before, all while lacing the fingers of its other hand with those of a hand of the sleeping clone. There was no tingling this time, rather a sense of falling. Not a flailing or tumbling kind of fall, more like a plummet, the personification of my lifelong relationship with gravity. I plunged into myself, nonsensical as that sounds, as if I had just dove into a pool of me, a lake, an ocean. I didn’t surface, I just kept falling ever deeper.

When I came back to myself it was to discover I had laced my free hand with the clone’s. Foom had released both of us. I was staring at the clone, but also staring at myself from its eyes. And it was like looking upon the face of creation, like being fully aware at the moment of one’s own birth. The earlier sensation of bliss I’d experienced working the Rule of Three paled by comparison. I was suffused with a rapture beyond my own comprehension.

I let my hand drop away from my doppelganger’s.

“This is impossible,” I said, and heard two voices. The clone’s rasped a bit, speaking its first words. My words. My clone.

The alien gave me one of its toothless grins. “I would suggest you forget that word. It will only hold you back.”

In other circumstances that would probably have been encouraging. But even overflowing with the exponential joy coursing through me, I still wanted Foom’s creation of my clone to be impossible, because more than anything I needed its plan for extermination to be impossible. And if I admitted the reality of the one, what would hold back the other?

“So . . . are you saying all things are possible with your Rule of Three?”

“Ask yourself rather, how can you realize the concept of free will if you accept limits upon yourself?”

I wanted limits. I desperately wanted to limit Foom’s ability to wipe out humanity. “And you’re going to teach me that? To transcend all limits?”

“Nothing would please me more. I believe you have the potential, with sufficient practice. And the clone should be an aid in this. Meanwhile, I can continue my own research, with the help of you and your double.”

I shook my head. “What research? Is that why you made a clone of me?”

“Your duplicate will be the proving ground for my work, but before I can begin that piece of it I must first obtain a detailed understanding of the workings of the human male reproductive system. And I can’t do that without your help.”

It was a day of casual threats of extinction, of feeling my consciousness centered in two separate bodies, of drowning in euphoria, but even still the non sequitur of Foom’s reply stopped me cold. Was I being propositioned by an alien?

“I don’t know how to respond to that.”

From between the thumbs of one hand Foom conjured up a palm-sized nacre cup. “As soon as you provide the sample we can return to the riverside. Then you can resume your practice and soon realize there is no such thing as impossible.”


“Yes, please. A sample of your ejaculate. I will analyze it and perfect my understanding. I cannot use your double’s; because of the accelerated growth I utilized, it would be unreliable.”

It handed me the cup.

The less said about providing a sperm sample for a sexless alien, the better. Suffice it to say that I did what was necessary, with my clone miming my every movement, and then the three of us wound our way down the ramp and swam out of the pearl and back to the riverbank.

Controlling the movement of two bodies is crazy difficult if you try to do both at once. I started swimming and then switched my attention, seeing the world through my clone’s eyes and started it swimming, too. Back and forth was odd but easy, and we made it to shore without incident.

Foom busied itself with its analysis for the rest of the day, encouraging me to use the time to practice my new knowledge of generating floating nacre beads as a template for shedding my concept of impossibility. Somehow having two bodies at once was oddly synergistic, as if I was both watching another person doing it and adding my clone’s efforts to my own. More, the feeling of bliss that filled me while I worked helped to distract me from Foom’s ultimate goal. The result was that my clone and I both produced hollow beads twice as large as I’d managed only an hour before. My control over the beads also grew. I sent the pair of them—mine and my clone’s—soaring high into the sky, feeling a connection to them long after they were lost to sight. I must have remarked on this out loud because Foom looked up from its own wool gathering to say “Automaticity” and then went back to work.

That first pair of larger beads had to have taken more than an hour—I’m not certain, I’d left my watch with all of my other dark items, back at my grandmother’s home. The next pair took less than half that time and were a third larger. The third set was fully four times the size of the first one I’d made, and accomplished in less than ten minutes. Automaticity, yeah.

I was getting . . . well, not tired, exactly, but I needed a break from sweating balls of flying, alien nacre. Now that I had the knack of it, Foom had said that I could make anything I was familiar with. I gave a pass to its idea of producing beer, but thought instead of my grandmother’s soup. I closed my eyes and the memory of it was still vivid in my mind, the range of tastes from the pickled chili to the succulent fish pulled from the nearby river. It was so vivid I swear I could smell it. My clone made a throat clearing noise and I looked over to see it sitting there with both hands cupped together. He held soup. I shook my head at him and we both focused. Nacre formed in his hands, encapsulating the soup. A similar ball appeared in mine and when it was complete I caused it to fill with more soup, then set both to floating a few feet above our heads. I smiled from both bodies, the absurd idea popping into my head that if I ever got back to the USA, I was going to make a killing in soup delivery. I tried producing other foods and failed. My memories were vivid, full of taste and temperature and mouthfeel, but when I tried to actually exude them I fell short. They were all foods from back home, tainted by too many hands and time and distance and thus far removed from Foom’s Rule of Three. I didn’t understand how that should matter but it did. The technique came easier with each creation and I was getting used to the feeling of universal joy that using it brought. I felt certain I could make anything now, provided I’d experienced it personally and that the past event subscribed to the Rule of Three. I saw a lot of locally sourced restaurants in my future.

It was a silly and charming thought, and almost enough to distract me from Foom sitting across from me working on a method of ending the human race to keep us from spreading our madness throughout the rest of the galaxy. Almost.

About the Author

Lawrence M. Schoen

Lawrence M. Schoen holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, is a past Campbell, Hugo, and Nebula, nominee, twice won the Cóyotl award for best novel, founded the Klingon Language Institute, and occasionally does work as a hypnotherapist specializing in authors’ issues.

His science fiction includes many light and humorous adventures of a space-faring stage hypnotist and his alien animal companion. Other works take a very different tone, exploring aspects of determinism and free will, generally redefining the continua between life and death. Sometimes he blurs the funny and the serious. Lawrence lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with his wife and their dog.

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About the Narrator

Christopher Tang

Christopher Tang

Christopher Tang lives in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia with his wife, son, and three cats who want desperately to interrupt any recording he is doing. During the day he helps sell role-playing games at DriveThruRPG and and during the night he helps slush read over at Cast of Wonders and is trying to write his own roleplaying games.

Find more by Christopher Tang

Christopher Tang