Rule of Three (Part 3 of 3)
By Lawrence M. Schoen
Late in the day Foom laced its fingers with my clone’s and I felt my consciousness pushed aside. Not entirely out, but no longer in control of my doppelganger. There wasn’t the exchange of knowledge and insight that had accompanied this gesture in the past. I followed the alien’s focus, using everything I’d learned in the last few days. I could see what it was doing, but not understand it. “Can you explain what’s happening?” I asked.
“I am crafting what you would call a retrovirus from your double’s cells. Actually, many variations of this retrovirus. If I am successful, one of them will rewrite your gonads and ultimately alter the viability of any spermatozoa they produce. He’ll still produce semen in the normal fashion, but it will be inert for reproductive purposes. No ‘Jing’.”
Foom grinned as it said that last word, lapsing from the Miao tongue into Chinese for an old word from Chinese medicine for ‘sexual energy’ that I must have picked up years ago and long since forgotten. Apparently, it had pulled more than just the one language from me.
“Shooting blanks, as the Americans would say,” I added.
“Thus ensuring the extinction of your species without causing any physical harm to the living.”
“Maybe not physical, but what about emotional? Most people want children, long for them. Millions, maybe billions, will be devastated when the world comes to understand what you’re setting in motion.”
The alien pulled its fingers back and my full awareness snapped back into place, leaving me regarding it from two perspectives. But something had changed. I hadn’t returned to being one mind in two identical bodies. Something was wrong with my clone, which meant something was wrong with me, just not the first me. I pressed my hand to my double’s forehead. He was burning up. I turned to Foom for an explanation, but it was oblivious and still caught up in our conversation.
“It is not that I lack empathy,” it said. “But nor can I predict how the members of another sapient race will react, most especially not a race that has no knowledge of the Rule of Three and is so dark and wrapped in unlife. They exist beyond my awareness. Perhaps an effective analogy would be to liken them to the ants that live beneath your feet. When you walk upon the grass here, do you consider what impact your passage has upon them, their tunnels, their dwelling places?”
“So, we’re ants to you? So far beneath your notice?” I suddenly felt chilled, or rather, my clone did. It made no sense. I could feel the warm sunlight on my skin.
Foom frowned. “You focus on a portion of the analogy I did not intend. I was not expressing superiority but rather ignorance. I can no more plan for human emotional suffering than you can take into account the daily acts and aspirations of ants. The virus I have crafted will ensure there is no pain. That much I can do. It is why I made your clone.”
My clone began coughing and couldn’t stop. He took a drink of water from one of the clay jugs we replenished from the river. It didn’t help. “What, it’s okay for my clone to suffer?”
“You are not dark. You have purged the unlife from yourself. I did not wish to risk harming you in the event that my first attempts at producing the virus damaged you in any way.”
“What about emotional damage? Don’t you think I’m upset by your plans for humanity?”
“Not directly, no. You have no children. No plans for any. Your major empathic ties are to older relatives, your parents and your grandmother. They will, in all probability, expire well before you do. They will feel no impact from the sterility imposed on your species. You are of an age such that your friends who are likely to wish offspring have already conceived and birthed them. Again, no impact. The same for associates of these friends. The Rule of Three applies. Any further and your upset is abstract and irrelevant.”
It was becoming more and more difficult to argue with Foom as the clone’s physical distress grew. By now he was lying on his side, still coughing. He was shivering uncontrollably. I felt aches in his arms and legs, his neck. His head pounded and his throat felt raw. All of it was vivid and real but also removed, confined to that other body.
“What’s happening? Why do I feel so sick?”
For the first time, Foom looked genuinely concerned. “You are unwell?”
“Not me, him!”
The alien spared a glance at the duplicate it had made and nodded. “Ah, my apologies. It is temporary, I assure you. Your double is serving his purpose as a proving ground.”
“Why is he sick?”
“His body is responding to the assault of two hundred thirteen variations of the virus I have developed. I am confident that one of them will be successful. Once I determine which, these trials will conclude. I will only inflict a single virus on humanity, with no more additional impact than a mild instance of influenza.”
“So, that’s it? You’ll be done and all of humanity is screwed? No appeal?”
Foom rose and laced its fingers with the clone again and again I felt my awareness of the body shunted aside. The sudden relief from his symptoms stunned me with just how sick he was. “A moment . . . yes, the testing is complete. I have isolated the successful virus.” It freed its fingers from the clone’s hand and the chill and fever and ache and nausea all rushed back to me. Foom resumed speaking but I couldn’t fully focus on its words.
“There is nothing to appeal. If your people could embrace the Rule of Three then they would be able to effortlessly counter any virus. Doing so would be proof that they will not succumb to the unlife that covers this planet.”
“How long do we have?”
“Do you mean your double, or are you asking me about your species?”
“Wait, what? The clone is dying?”
“Of a certainty. His body’s attempts to fend off so many distinct viral attacks have triggered a cascade failure. He is burning himself up. I can terminate your connection with the body if you like.”
“Yes. Wait, no. Just no. What about the rest of humanity. How long does it have?”
Foom raised both hands, palms up, directing one at me and one at my clone. “That depends. Will you continue to aid me?”
“Of course not. I’m not going to help you to wipe out my species.”
It nodded. “I understand. Then it will take longer, several hours at least.” Nacre spheres the size of softballs grew upon each outstretched palm. Something sloshed within them. “These vessels will contain the virus in a sustaining aqueous medium. I will need to produce thousands of them, pausing to replenish myself several times before I complete the process. When I am done I will scatter them throughout your stratosphere, blanketing the planet. Without a mind to guide them, the ozone there will begin to dissolve the shells, releasing the virus to rain down upon your people. Within days, every male of every age will have been exposed and rendered infertile.” It tossed one of the spheres to me. I slapped it aside and it landed in the grass.
“And I suppose you’re just going to sit back and watch?”
It frowned again. “No, I will have left before that. I intend to take my leave of you once I have launched the virus into your sky. I had hoped you would understand, I take no pleasure in denying you the stars. You yourself may one day manage to use what you’ve learned to leave here.”
Lost in some fever dream just a few feet away, my clone moaned. I’d just been offered the stars and I felt myself dying.
There was nothing more to say. Foom excused itself and went off to its ship, to rest or replenish or whatever it needed to do before beginning the seeding process that would destroy humanity.
“What am I supposed to do?” My clone turned back to me with a look of complete helplessness that I knew showed on my own face. I pondered the question and then answered myself, letting the words fall from my double’s lips as he slipped in and out of consciousness. “Our grandmother would chide me for tackling such a difficult question on an empty stomach.” At a thought, a pair of my soup spheres fell into our respective hands and irised open, delivering a welcome ripple of bliss. “Our grandmother is wise,” I said, and ate the soup.
It’s a difficult thing to hold your dying self in your arms. To feel your own life trickle away and yet continue to live. To sip comfort food from an otherworldly bowl and know there is no comfort to be had. My mind slipped free of him, returning my previous singularity. I sat there, rocking him silently, until his body grew cold. It took a long time. When I could at last let him go, I eased his lifeless body down and left him lying supine on the grass. I looked up to find Foom sitting near, hundreds of virus-filled nacre spheres already floating above its head.
“He’s dead,” I said.
“Of a certainty.”
“Why? You said that knowledge of the Rule of Three could save him.”
“Yes, easily. You would only need to focus on the attacking virus while it remained in the host body, engineering a counter virus from it to reverse and restore what had been changed.”
“Then why didn’t you? He didn’t have to die!”
Foom paused, two new spheres finished. “Why does this upset you? He wasn’t truly alive, just an outgrowth of yourself, and you are fine. He served the purpose I created him for.”
“To kill all of humanity!”
“No, to spare you. I told you, I needed your biology to produce the virus. But I consider you an ally. You have shared your grandmother’s art with me, taught me your language, introduced me to marvels here on your world. I could not repay that with your death.”
“So you just had me experience it from a slight remove? Is that your idea of kindness?”
“I offered to sever your connection earlier. You chose to decline. I’m sorry if the outcome is other than you expected. I thought you understood how things would end from the beginning. Now, please, I need to focus and continue my work.”
“Finish your death spheres,” I said.
“The virus will not result in anyone’s death. Your double succumbed to the sheer weight of hundreds of viral attacks, not a single one.”
“Fine, sterility spheres.”
“An apt name.”
Foom continued producing the nacre spheres that would destroy humanity. It’s not like I could have stopped it. Instead I positioned my clone so that he looked like he was asleep instead of dead. I plucked handfuls of grass, and using the external version of the technique Foom had shown me caused them to weave into a shroud. More trickles of bliss. I wrapped my double once, twice, then bound the grass closed around him. I’ve never been especially religious, but I’d attended plenty of funerals. I spoke prayers for the dead in three languages, wondering if there was an afterlife for cloned bodies that had never had a soul of their own, wondering if, when my own passing came, my spirit would be divided.
When I was out of words and empty of emotion, I did a variation of the tricks Foom had taught the children. The grassy shroud around my clone flared with light and began to rise into the sky. It would precede Foom’s virus spheres. Indeed, I intended it to go far higher, carrying my double beyond the Earth’s grip. At least he would get to space.
“I am done,” said Foom.
“With the sterility spheres. All I have left to do is send them on their way, and then depart myself.”
Like a magician performing some big reveal it crossed its arms over its torso and then spread them wide. Thousands of spheres that had been hanging motionless just above its head took off, flying straight up. In the last instant before they were lost to the eye, they spread out in all directions and kept climbing. Then they were gone.
“That’s it, then. End of humanity.”
“Do not be despondent,” said Foom. “The last generations of your people will still endure for many years. And the rest of the galaxy will be spared the inevitable dark that your continuation would have brought. Nor will you be forgotten. I will share your grandmother’s batik with my people. I cannot properly describe how much you have enriched us.”
“Right. And you’ve killed us by way of thanks.”
The alien ignored me. “I will always treasure the gift you asked her to give me. As you have seen, I keep few personal mementos of my travels, but this will inspire me for centuries to come. As will the memory of the time I shared with you. Thank you.”
I glared at it, but Foom just stood staring back at me, waiting for some response.
“Right. Got it. ‘So long and thanks for the fish.’ Will you just go?”
The alien nodded. It walked to the river, dove in, and swam toward its home floating in the water. Moments later that magnificent pearl rose up from the river and drifted lazily away, rising above the valley, over the mountain tops, higher and higher to visit other worlds, study their wonders, maybe take home a few treasures, maybe leave behind a promise of extinction for its next hosts.
I think I sat there in the grass for hours, staring up into the empty sky. But the sky wasn’t empty. It contained thousands of nacre spheres waiting to decay and infect every man on the planet. How long before nations began realizing that the birth rate had ground to a halt? The limited reserves at sperm banks would only delay the inevitable. In less than a hundred years, humanity would be wiped from the Earth.
I didn’t know what to do. I could flee, rush home armed with the knowledge that the future had been stripped from us. I could try to warn the government, here in China, or back in the US. They wouldn’t believe me at first, but a quick demonstration of creating my own nacre spheres would silence some of the doubts, and the utter lack of new births would do the rest. Not that it would do any good.
And yet . . .
I went looking for that first sphere full of the virus that Foom had lobbed at me, and found it right where it had fallen. The alien hadn’t sent it off with the others. Was that an oversight or had it left the sphere behind deliberately, intending for me to find it? I unsealed it, ignoring the trickle of joy that using the technique brought, pressed my face to the opening and inhaled a dose thousands of times greater than would reach anyone over the next several days. I switched my focus inward, awash in bliss as I tracked the infection spreading through me. Time fell away and I dove deeper, seeing the mechanism that performed a tweak that would work on any adult male. I should have been impressed by the masterstroke of genetic engineering, but it all looked so easy when you knew what to look for. I touched a portion of the virus, held it tight, changed it, and set it free. It quickly attacked the original virus, rewriting it to undo the sabotage, leaving me whole again. Or whole until other bits of unaltered virus still in my system rendered me sterile again. Another touch and I’d suborned more of Foom’s work and repaired myself again, then purged any remaining trace of the alien’s original virus from my body.
I focused on what I’d changed, concentrated on creating a new sphere in my hands, and filled it with the antivirus I’d envisioned. I had a cure. I just didn’t have enough of it.
Foom had said the thing was possible, that an antivirus could be used to reverse its virus while it lingered in its victims. I’d made the cure and seen it work. But how much time did I have to produce and distribute it to the entire world? How long would the original virus linger after it had done its work?
I was running before I even knew where I was going. Down the dirt paths where days before I had seen the children scatter. It was nearly dusk, but that didn’t matter. I ran until I came across the first house and pounded on the door, calling for any children inside to come out and play, babbling about glowing grass. An adult opened the door and began shooing me away. Behind him a child peered out, one of the ones who’d first taught Foom to speak a human language. I ignored the adult and called for her to find her friends, all of them, and meet back where Foom had shared his magic. I conjured a quick nacre bead and sent it flying over to her. She snatched it from the air, darted around her father, and vanished further down the dirt path. I spun around, ignored the angry man behind me, and headed back to the clearing where, with luck, the children would find me.
Soon five of the original seven had arrived. It would have to be enough. I didn’t think I could spare the time to wait for the missing two. One by one I laced my fingers with theirs and shared knowledge the way Foom had with me. I showed them the nacre bead that I had managed on that first day. It was one thing, one substance, a tiny hollow sphere. A pearly, empty marble. I made up a song on the spot for them to sing, about dancing beads floating above their heads, making a game out of how many they could manage. And as they filled the air with their creations I gathered them to me, one by one, and poured my retrovirus cure into them and sent them flying away to rendezvous with Foom’s spheres. Night had fallen but I didn’t care. The kids kept making their hollow beads, getting better and faster at doing so, and I kept filling them up and casting them into the sky. First hundreds, then thousands. We worked through the night, the older children taking a moment now and then to set some of the grass aglow.
By dawn I’d long since lost count, but surely we’d launched more than five thousand tiny packets, each instructed to seek out Foom’s larger spheres, punch through them, and rewrite its virus. Three of the children had fallen asleep and the other two had slowed down. I was exhausted as well, drained. I felt like I hadn’t eaten in weeks, drunk in days. But we’d done it. Or I thought we had. Maybe not all of them, but nearly. Most. I hoped so, anyway.
The next morning found a gathering of children clamoring for me outside my grandmother’s door. The five who had helped the day before had been joined by the missing two from that first day in the clearing, and another six besides. They’d brought water from the river to free me up from that chore and plaintively asked if I was free to come play. Several of them held out hands full of nacre beads for my inspection. The new children looked at me with yearning and hopeful eyes.
I led them back down the path to the spot where Foom had held court. I began by lacing fingers with all of them, bringing the new recruits up to speed on the game of illuminating blades of grass and making them float. I shared the concept of exuding the nacre and the first hints of how to make the resultant beads fly. In turn, I asked them for the stories of their lives and their families. I asked them for their hopes and dreams. And I asked myself how the Rule of Three might best be tailored to serve them.
It became apparent that they couldn’t do the work internally. They could learn to copy anything put in front of them, as they had that first day with the nacre beads that I’d then filled with the retrovirus. But they could not imagine a thing they had experienced and produce it fresh as an act of will. I didn’t know if this was a talent that came with adulthood or something I could do because Foom itself had taught me and I lacked some necessary piece for imparting it to another. Time would tell. Meanwhile, there was plenty to do with the things in front of and all around us.
Several days later, after starting our morning session, I left the children and paid a visit to Mrs. Liu, my grandmother’s blind neighbor. She very generously allowed me the use of her phone, which I discovered she kept charged using a single solar panel on top of her tiny house. I phoned home. Specifically, I called my boss in the state department. After a few minutes of her yelling at me that I’d worried her by vanishing, yelling about my failing to show up for work, and yelling with relief that I wasn’t dead from the mystery strain of influenza, I learned the important details. All over the world people had come down with what looked to be the flu. Men and women both, though men fared worse. Most people recovered after a day. Even so, a tiny percentage had died, much as happened with every flu, but the sheer number of people affected meant the deaths reached into the tens of thousands. Then, just as quickly as it had begun, the pandemic had passed. She asked where I was and I told her I was visiting family. She asked when I’d be back and I told her I’d always liked her laugh. Then I ended the call. I returned the phone and asked Mrs. Liu if she needed anything. I helped her with a few minor chores for less than an hour and then returned to the children.
They’d come a long way in just a few days. I had, too. Together we were altering some of the local trees, teaching their limbs and leaves to absorb light throughout the day and return it as radiant heat from their trunks after the sun set. We were changing grass to grow longer and weave its blades into rounded walls and floors and roofs, creating living houses more durable than anything the Miao people in this valley currently enjoyed. And we all learned to copy the food that each child brought so that they returned home with enough to feed their entire families.
As the days turned into weeks, weeks into months, I shared and taught other things I knew. Every day was something different but topics included Mandarin and English. Arithmetic and basic algebra. What I remembered of philosophy and economics and astronomy and the scientific method from my college classes that seemed so very distant now. We talked of outer space and had sober discussions of what it meant to have met an alien. And every day, at one point or another, we’d all grow quiet and gaze upward and speak of visiting the stars. I was getting better at creating my own nacre spheres now, producing orbs the size of beach balls that I could wrap around some of the smaller children, giving them giggling rides high above the trees.
Foom had promised to share my grandmother’s batik with people throughout space. I intended to bring her soup to them as well.
About the Author
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.
About the Narrator
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.