The dream that left me behind

I knew I was almost at the end of my dream.

Almost. I’ve been in this dream and it’s variations so many times before, that I can tell that it’s ending, where the part about his history is revealed, where the promises are finally broken and where all hopes slowly die out. He would now start the fight, make those awkward statements and we would slowly begin accelerating towards a definite end.

Most of the ends would be sad, as the Weaver knew that the user’s runtime was nearing it’s end. Like every other common dream addict, I would wake up, frustrated and hungry for more, log in my required hours of dreamtime and sink into another misleading, beguiling fantasy. That’s the problem with addicts. We love to be lied to.

We are completely disconnected from reality, at least until the cruel Weaver counts down every millisecond unto the ending of the dreamtime. But then again, the Weaver is benign enough to let us refill our hours, so I probably shouldn’t complain.

I’ve dreamed many times, so many times that I think there’s a special circuit somewhere in the Weaver that saves runtime logs and dream-theme variations just for me. I can tell when the Weaver is being creative, or when it’s just borrowing another cliché.

Though, if it’s a question of creativity, I can’t claim much for myself either. Whatever the story is, whoever the background characters are, it’ll always be about him. He and I will prevail. Just the two of us.

The Weaver keeps me trapped in an electronic vortex of recycled emotions. A cycle that ends only until dreamtime runs out.

Different people deal with their first Weaver experience differently. The Weaver creates beautiful, credible, charming fantasies, which start off as mundane. By the time the story peaks, the viewer is completely in the Weaver’s reality. Before the viewer knows it, situations begin to go downhill, and soon enough, the viewer is rudely interrupted to ask for more dreamtime hours. A person can either be devastated by the end and never return again, or hold on to the illusion of further happiness and refill their hours. That’s how it works.

I don’t remember the last time I woke up for dreamtime hours. Could have been hours ago, or years. I don’t know. I don’t care. As long as the Weaver can serve my emotional needs, I will always be here. As a matter of fact, I don’t even know which dream I’m in. I’m a terminal addict, one step away from being the last stop before absolute assimilation. That’s probably when there’s no hope left for me at all.

But this dream is not like the others. I don’t know if the Weaver is malfunctioning or if I’m cascading into the last stage. Earlier I used to write down my dreams to get over my obsession. Today I write to record an anomaly.

I know I’m at the end of my dream. I can sense it. The fights have already started; the fairytale is slowly starting to show some cracks – all symptoms of the last stage of normal execution.

Usually, what would happen now is that things would get worse. Except that’s not happening this time.

We fought once last week, we argued about our relative differences yesterday morning. The veteran that I am, I know that this is the stage where I would completely be apathetic to his whims, remind myself that he was only an illusion, and that my dreamtime hours would be ending soon and just wait for the Weaver to finish the formalities before I woke up again.

However, this time, the awkward moments are being unusually spaced out. The disagreements are a lot less frequent. And that worries me.

According to prior experiences, we should have been angry this morning, continued on about yesterday’s issue, defended our stances to the effect where the rebuttals would get personal, and then started heaping insults at each other, till we knew that our relationship had shattered into many irretrievable pieces. That’s how it has been for all this time. That’s how it’s always supposed to happen.

In this dream, this morning, he showed immense reserves of maturity and forgiveness. We talked over what happened yesterday, he was patient, I understood what was expected of me, we soon arrived at a mutually agreeable solution and our relationship was just as strong as ever.

The surprising part is, that this is not the first time this has happened. After the second time or so, when this happened, I was telling myself that the Weaver was probably meandering around, trying to get a jaded viewer like me believe it’s immaculate lies.

No, no. This is the ninth time. The ninth time, the cracks in our relationship have shown and still, the Weaver hasn’t come to the part where it disintegrates completely. Usually, the dream would end after the third. At most, I have experienced four such incidents before the dreamtime runs out. But this has been the ninth instance and my wake-up call is extremely late.

I can somehow see through the Weaver’s pretense. Apparently, every relationship gets stronger with greater number of issues sorted out between them. I was completely numb the first three times, the fourth time made me want to laugh at the Weaver for its ingenuity. By the sixth time, I was beginning to grow fond of him. By the seventh I was truly attached. By the eighth, I was able to feel those emotions that every new viewer feels about the dream experience. I felt young again, and in my own way, I wanted to thank the Weaver for bringing out that part of me which I thought had died.

But the ninth time? By the ninth time, I am worried. I am scared. Either the Weaver has concocted some twisted torture for me towards the end or a cascade failure is in progress. I want to remember this dream, but then again I want the complete comfort of my fantasies.

I don’t know if this dream will let me hold onto him.  Though, some part of my mind, despite all these years of conditioning, is ignoring that, and holding on to him for real. I know it’s going to end.

Maybe, just maybe, this time, we will be together for real? The Weaver has never crafted such dreams before. So maybe this is not a dream?

It is so absurd to even suggest something so beautiful could be real…. and I mean really real, not just Weaver real.

I guess the more time I spent musing about this malfunction, the more dreamtime milliseconds I waste. Well, I paid for this, so I might as well enjoy it…

Personally, I hope the Weaver has crashed. If, after all these years of lies, I can finally sense the truth, then the Weaver’s circuits have truly evolved into something worthwhile.

But then again, if the Weaver has crashed, then how will I ever get to experience the pure joy of initiating another dream? How will I even wake up?

I don’t want to forget. I don’t. But I want to wake up. It’s just a question of time before I decide or more accurately, it’s just a question of dreamtime…

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Cyberpunk Logs #05: A Survivor’s Silence

Takeda Katsuyori had survived 14 flash-level conflicts, 8 complete immersions, 29 cases of circuitry failure and 5 invasions.  He was going to be awarded for butchering his friend and comrade, Kakare Minamoto, into multiple, non-merging, non-germinating portions. He was going to be awarded a Noble Citizen’s award for Exceptional Performance on the battlefield.

He had long-since forgotten what it meant to live without his suit. It didn’t have the new shine as it used to. It had survived many battles, and contrary to what the critics had said when it was released, it was indeed far more robust than the older version. He once wore the sleek armor as a token of his loyalty and pride, and indeed it was no small honor to be in service of the Shogun himself. But lately, he felt naked without it. Especially today, when he was going to be honored before The Shogun’s Consulate. All 12,000 of them.

The Shogun’s gathering was uncomfortably quiet.

He waited in the silence, watching all the dark visors of his troops show his own reflection back at him. They were silent and strong and multiple people. People, not monsters, reinforced the Shogun. They were not the killing machines that they wore on their skins. How natural it should be then that he was to commemorate a man who had slain his best friend. How natural it should be then that he should commemorate a man who had slain a monster.

Takeda Katsuyori had been asked to appear on the central podium seven minutes ago. His form had not shifted from the crowd. It was against protocol to violate explicit orders but the Shogun thought that perhaps Katsuyori needed a moment to overcome his emotions and let the silence simmer for a few more minutes. The Shogun felt oddly comforted by their awkwardness. It seemed to re-affirm the humanity behind the suits.

But it wasn’t just Katsuyori. Of all the faces that stood before him, the Shogun was sure that Katsuyori’s was the only one that was unafraid. He had survived his fifth invasion. Yet, he had not been taken. Neither had he defected. He had hunted down the Other forces with cold ruthlessness. The soldiers who worked under him said that when he lifted his visor, his eyes would appear to be blank and yet his grip firm. He did not care whether what he fired at was human or Other. This worried the Shogun somewhat. How was he expected to control a man who felt no fear?

In fact, any one of them could be suffering from the spasms of an invasion right now and he would never find out. Blood could drip on inside the visor for days at a stretch, and if for some reason the wearer of the suit struggled to open it, only then would the contamination spread. The Shogun could not deny that he felt helpless in being the only person present without a visor or a helmet or even a veil of sorts.

The change in interpersonal dynamics was noticeable more so after the Midori no kawa (Green River) mission. Midori no Kawa had once been a freshwater river that marked the longest stretch of uncontested border between their empire and the Other. It used to be called Green because scientists had discovered that it hosted a rare species of natural algae which made the water appear somewhat colored, but potable. But then, the Other had started discharging their radiological effluents into it, and now it was a toxic gush of chemicals.

The Midori no Kawa ran through a very barren stretch, having contaminated the region in about 50 km radius. Citizens of the village nearby had to be moved elsewhere, and in fact that was one of the strategic points of the conflict with the Others. The new suits that were designed for the samurai were designed to withstand the effluent and allow comfortable ventilation, while securing the wearer from toxins.

Except Minamoto’s suit had failed. The toxins had managed to invade his system and soon all the cells in his body were desperately splicing themselves, tearing through the restrictive fabric of the suit. What had once been Kakare Minamoto was now two sentient human beings smashed together in some haphazard freak of nature. His brain as unable to cope with the sudden expansion in multiplicity in organs, and he died a painful, horrifying, agonizing death. Katusyori still remembered Kakare’s fourth arm trying to force its way into his mouth as he started screaming. Katsuyori suppressed the urge to fidget nervously and wipe off the imaginary flecks of what had once been Kakare’s blood off his feet.

The Shogun called him out again. Katsuyori started the slow, halting walk to the podium.

The other visor heads tilted slightly towards him as a token of respect for his accomplishments. For some inexplicable reason Katsuyori started feeling nervous. His rational mind  justified it was stage fright, puzzled somewhat at the sudden outbreak of sweat within the helmet. The other attendees watched the visor falter slightly from it’s upright position. Was Katsuyori losing his sense of balance?

Walk firmly.Walk firmly.Walk firmly.Walk firmly.Walk firmly.Walk firmly.

Katsuyori walked firmly, in fact he even possible marched up to the podium and dropped into a graceful, neat, practiced bow before the Shogun. The same bow that Kakare had dropped to. But he did not dare to think about Kakare now, especially now that his sole achievement to glory had been slaying that very person who had been his best friend. Even then, even then, there must be some strength in the person who could see that his best friend had morphed into a monster and wasn’t the man he had trained with and laughed with.The Shogun stepped closer to him on the podium and Katsuyori felt that in order to suppress the huge waves of disgust, he had better stare down at the floor and keep swallowing his own saliva to dry up his rapidly drying throat. Within the suit, the temperatures began to sore uncomfortably, and it would have been a breach of grace if Katsuyori upset his position to start a self-diagnostic on the suit. Come on man, you have survived 5 invasions from the Other. You know how to control your mind.

But when the helmet visor flew up, for the Shogun requested to see his face before placing the award onto his now-shivering outstretched arms, Katsuyori raised his head looking for that desperate source of fresh air. Yet even he, the experienced, the survivor, the brave had no idea what was coming.

And fresh prey.

What had once been Katsuyori started bursting through the reams of the suit, expanding the human form at an alarming rate. The cells in Katsuyori’s body forgot their genetic instructions, and parts of his human anatomy that were not designed to stretch pulled himself apart and Takeda Katsuyori exploded in gruesome mass of rapidly multiplying and self-morphing cells. One of his four malformed arms was creeping towards the Shogun and another large limb, stretched out as a tentacle, blocking off the Shogun’s access to help. One of Katsuyori’s own hands tried to strangle him to death while his skin ruptured and there was blood all over.

The Shogun struggled in the creature’s grasp as more of it tried to make it’s way inside him, through his pores, his eyes, nose and every open access to his body. The Shogun’s silent, suffocating protests seemed to accentuate the horrible tragedy of Katsuyori’s rapidly dissolving voice. The acoustics of the podium had been designed to magnify the sounds on the stage and indeed 11, 999 of the visor signals picked up the audio from the stage.

It was an awful spectacle indeed, to watch a comrade give in to an invasion. It was perhaps still more awful that the Shogun submitted to an easy and equally painful death, because he was defenseless and unprepared. As Shogun, he was dying a disgraceful and pathetic death, having been caught at the hands of the enemy when he least expected it. He was dying simply because he had been unprepared for this contingency. He had been stupid to assume that behind the visor was a man who had survived 5 invasions, after all, no human being had ever been able to survive five consecutive invasions and still function normally. Katsuyori had been waiting to blow, for a long time, and the Shogun’s neurons had been ripped apart too long ago to experience the consequences of his stupidity.

There were 11, 999 soldiers tasked with the duty of protecting their land and protecting the Shogun and his legitimacy to rule them. Not one of them moved in the slightest as the greatest mutiny of their time happened right before their eyes. Not a single one came to the rescue, no more was there any awkward shuffling. They simply stood there, rod straight, silent and watching.

There was no remaining human left to tell the deceased Shogun that behind those black visors were the green radioactive ghosts of smiles.

Atom and Eve

Image Credits: Jenova by IIIustrathor on dA at http://iiiustrathor.deviantart.com/art/JENOVA-331676917

Image Credits: Jenova by IIIustrathor on dA at http://iiiustrathor.deviantart.com/art/JENOVA-331676917

 

1. Breakup and Distance

“I’m sorry, I don’t think this is working out,” said Eve apologetically to her fourth genetic partner.

“Am I not adequate enough?” Linda asked, staring up at Eve’s eyes with eyes that welled up and quivered.

“It’s not you, it’s me,” said Eve, seeking the refuge of a tired cliche one more time.

“After….after all this time? I loved you, Eve. I gave you everything. We were going to procreate together!”

“Linda….I, I…..it’s not that I love you any less..”

“Do you?! Do you really?!”

“I can’t help it that this feels wrong! Please don’t force me into this, Linda. At least you know I’m not lying to you.”

“You’re selfish, Eve. You’re a horrible selfish person. I should have known better when you said you had three partners before me….I’m sorry I loved you, Eve.”

Linda walked out of the door and Eve was certain she would never come back. Her sharp ears heard Linda’s sobs as she transported away from Eve’s residence. It struck Eve as slightly odd how Linda left all her clothes and belongings behind. She probably expected Eve to come after her, except Eve felt as though she had made the best decision in her life. Unlike any other relationship, Eve had never felt heart-broken when any of her genetic partners waked out on her. Linda was the fourth, which meant that Eve had experience with breaking up. There was that odd silence, which flooded with relief and joy.

But still, Linda, the kind, caring, effusive, ever-helpful, slightly bumbling, sort of annoying presence wasn’t there anymore. No more would she have a companion who woke up beside her. No more would she have someone to share her contact with, merge physically and mentally with. There was a fleeting sense of empty. For the first time ever, Eve wondered if she should reconsider her decision. Maybe Linda was right. Maybe she was giving in to a childish impulse. Maybe their relationship just needed more time to mellow out. Maybe she needed to figure things out better.

“I hope you’re happy,” said Azilan, the AI that was wired into Eve’s brain and in all of her technology.

“Come on. I just can’t feel for her the way she feels for me.”

“She’s an adult woman, with very viable DNA. It’s only natural she feel the need to procreate,” came the justification.

“I’m not denying that! I just don’t feel that way…”

“You’re not getting younger, you know? Your eggs are going to die soon. You might as well procreate now that you can.”

“But I just don’t feel like doing this…..”

“This is childishness, Eve. Linda is a superb specimen. So were all of your previous partners. If you don’t know what you’re looking for that’s highly problematic.”

“Maybe it’s me, Azilan?”

“Scanning for the millionth time. Scan complete. Besides your own stupidly constructed psychological symptoms, there is nothing wrong with your physiology.”

“Maybe I just haven’t found the right person?”

“When will you? The longer you delay it, the weaker your genes will get.”

“I’ve still got time, Azilan. Besides, until then I have you to make me feel less lonely.”

“Linda was right. You’re selfish,” said Azilan.

Eve stayed quiet. She was used to failing herself. She was used to disappointing this other metallic voice inside her head.

But what was the problem? Eve couldn’t quite put her finger on it. Was she not normal, by choosing to have normal genetic partners? Why did she not feel the need to procreate?

Eve stepped out, to be transported away. She needed to get away from this suffocating home which smelled of Linda and Eve’s supposed mistakes.

“Running away, now?” sneered Azilan, masterfully.

“Either tell me where to go or be quiet, because I will not stay.”

Azilan had been around her long enough to know when she was being serious. The operating system wondered if it should delete the memories of Linda, in order to make Eve’s emotional turmoil feel better. It was her fourth break-up, but that didn’t mean it hurt her any less.

“Altitude co-ordinates 43.68. Azimuth co-ordinates 29.76. Nearest transport embarking in 36 seconds and counting.”

“Take me away,” said Eve, as a professional cyborg would say to the implanted system.

2. Who man?

“Azilan?”

“Yes?”

“How do species on other worlds procreate?”

“Well, before cloning and before our genetic technology, there used to exist a biological mechanism called sexual reproduction.”

“If it was natural, why did it die out?”

“Our technology produced more viable hybrids and better designs than the natural genetic mixing could ever provide. Those species didn’t host another artificial intelligence inside their heads, like you can.”

“They must have been able to enjoy their quiet moments in peace.”

“Hey! I resent that. I don’t interrupt your quiet moments!”

“You don’t have a choice. We’re both stuck within the limited confines of my skin until I die,” replied Eve, mimicking Azilan’s trademark sneer.

Azilan searched to change the topic. She let Eve feel her displeasure by forcing her aural nerves to a static wash. Eve cringed, but did not protest. She knew she had got the point across.

“Anyway, sexual reproduction required two different species to genetically combine in order to produce viable offspring, which could be harvested either within or externally of the two combining members.”

“Two species?! How were they genetically compatible?”

“Your ancestors, for example, had two species. Each with the same number of chromosomes. However, one species had both X-genes. They were listed as female, they were the carriers of the offspring. The other had one X and a Y. They were listed as male. They propagated their genes in order to create more offspring.”

Eve couldn’t imagine what it must be to have two different species. She paused momentarily, trying to imagine a world where there could be someone who was equal to her, except differently designed, in some way she had no idea about. After a while, her imagination failed, and she simply let Azilan flood her mind with data.

“What happened to the males?”

“As evolution progressed, the males became susceptible to a space-born disease. The Y-chromosome served as a host for this genetic virus and they were soon extinct. The females, who survived the purge, then went on to find other ways to procreate. That was the dawn of the Cloning era.”

“….Then they discovered that clones couldn’t be genetically viable?”

“Correct. Reproductive technology evolved that would use two healthy citizens, combine their genes at random, and using the combined template of both participants, design an offspring that satisfied it’s parents’ expectations…..”

That was the kind of expectation that Linda had of her. The kind she had failed, for the fourth time.

“Why am I scared of procreating, Azilan? It seems so much simpler and cleaner than ages ago…It’s not like I don’t like Linda. I like having her around me very much, but I somehow don’t see us bearing offspring. I just can’t seem to be as emotionally invested as all of my genetic partners are.”

Azilan felt compelled to comfort her host. It was a question that didn’t really have a specific answer.

“Maybe you just haven’t found the right person?”

“After the fourth time? What are the odds of that, Azilan?”

“Statistical aberrations happen, Eve.”

“My parents would consider me a failure if they knew that I can’t procreate.”

“I’m sure Elise and Marie would continue to love you, Eve,” said Azilan, referring to her parents by their names.

“I want to know how the two species reproduction works, Azilan.”

“Why? Males have been extinct for many centuries now.”

“Maybe that way worked better?”

“Eve, you’re grasping at straws here. Our society is complete with all of its given species’ composition. Our ecosystem cannot support any more, simply because it doesn’t need to support any more.”

“……Just satisfy my curiosity, Azilan. Tell me more about males.”

“You understand that I’ll be reconstructing data that is very ancient, at best. I’ll use whatever extrapolation algorithms that I have to offer you a complete picture, but it may not be accurate.”

“That’s okay.”

Eve stayed quiet as Azilan went on a long recursive search. She closed her eyes as Azilan flooded her mind with grainy, partially formed images of what the human male once was.

“Interesting,” said Eve aloud, as she studied the male physiology. It was something so unique, so different than anything Eve had seen before. This species was so old that most biological or genetic annals failed to record them in their listing.

“Azilan, let’s go to my chamber and finish the reconstruction there. I want to be able to interact with a live holographic model of this species.”

“WHAT?!” spluttered Azilan. “I don’t have enough data to be able to do that!”

“Azilan, you’re smart and so am I. Let’s get to my chambers where we can put our combined intelligence to use.”

“This had better be just for curiosity,” muttered Azilan in the recesses of Eve’s brain. She could tell that Eve was determined.

More so, as Eve embarked the nearest transport to her chambers, Azilan was worried. Eve’s sudden determination could not have just been fueled by curiosity alone. Sharing Eve’s subconscious, Azilan could tell exactly what it was that was driving her, but she refused to speak it aloud for fear of creating a psychological construct inside Eve’s mind.

After all, Eve was hungry for more data on these extinct species. She seemed to justify her thoughts on the surface with a prefacing, “Oh, I just want to know how our ancestors procreated, that’s all.”

Azilan almost dreaded to name the conclusion that her analyses of Eve’s psyche were telling her. Maybe, just maybe, was there the slightest hint of attraction?

That, in itself, implied something that could very well shake the foundations of their current society. Eve could be regressing back to genetically “natural” ways.

Nothing. It’s nothing. Azilan told herself, erasing her memory of the last five seconds of internal analyses. But then, as they arrived in Eve’s chambers, Azilan felt worried again.

3. Regression and solitude

“Please enter your access code,” asked the Central Genetic Database system, guarding the entrance to the formidable structure that maintained their world in a constant ecological balance.

Azilan supplied the system with the necessary data while Eve waited. Eve transported to her office and located the necessary modeling equipment.

Slowly, Azilan started pooling the data she had collated from varied sources about human males into the system. Their genetic structure, hormonal composition, physiological variations, sexual dimorphism and other anatomical traits.
Whatever data the system failed to provide, Azilan calculated and estimated. Their numbers, their populations, their propagated methods, etc.

The more Eve discovered about this species, the more she marveled. Her ancestors must have truly been complex evolved beings in their own right, if they could sustain reproduction within themselves with such primitive external technology. She wasn’t just in awe of the Ancient Human Male. She was also in awe of the Female that was expected to be his partner, expected to complete a complex creature such as the Male.

All that was left now, was for the Database to compile a visual, three-dimensional, motile specimen of the entered parameters.

“Eve?”

“Azilan?”

“There’s something you have to admit to me honestly, Eve.”

“Azilan, you’re inside my head all the time. You know me better than I know myself. How am I possibly expected to hide anything from you?”

“There have been occasions where you have made decisions without my control, Eve.”

Eve paused while she remembered, or Azilan made her remember, that she broke up with Linda despite Azilan’s objections.

“Why are you bringing up Linda, Azilan?”

“This whole search began with wondering why you can’t procreate, right? Those doubts about your ability started sprouting up only after Linda left.”

“Yeah, so?”

“Now you’re actually doing research on an extinct species on order to prove that the natural way of procreating was right. You’re here about to run simulations and other environmental factors so that you know what it would be like if human males were willed back into existence.”

Eve stayed silent.

“Answer me honestly, Eve. You owe me at least that much.”

“Maybe that’s the only way I can procreate, Azilan. Look at this way, I can’t seem to work with any of the existing partners that I had, or have available around me. You’ve tested me several times, and there’s no biological reason why I can’t procreate. But there’s definitely some reason I can’t. I don’t know why I’m doing this Azilan, but I have to do it to find some answers for myself.”

“Do you find yourself sexually attracted to this species?”

Eve staggered somewhat under the realization of what Azilan was trying to get at.

“Is it wrong if I do?”

“It’s not accepted in our society, Eve. You know it.”

“What sort of a society dictates to me who I am allowed to feel sexually attracted to?!”

Azilan stayed silent. This was beyond natural regression.

“Besides,” said Eve, feeling the desperate need to justify her disposition, “that was the way it had worked in the past. Why shouldn’t it work now?”

“Many things have changed since those times, Eve. Those people – the males and females lived in a world where population was uncontrolled, many species were dead or extinct. Their ecosystem was polluted and choked with the burden of hosting so many members of each individual species. Today we live in a world where every birth and every death of every species is recorded and noted. Everything is regulated and controlled, just as how the natural ecosystems should be.”

“Are you saying that the human males were the only species responsible for the ecological demise of the ancient planet Earth?”

“I am not. But what I am saying is that our world is functioning at its best. If you were to create and design, or even procreate with a new species, you would be upsetting the delicate balance which we have maintained here for centuries.”

“But they’re not new! They’re old. Very very old. They are even sentient and intelligent! Simply forgotten.”

“That does not change my argument Eve.”

“Don’t you think the world would be better with more men? With more natural procreation? Genetic sustainability within our bodies instead of outside of it?”

Azilan stayed silent. “I do not know, Eve. Our society has been functioning very well thus far.”

“You know that with every single one of my partners thus far, I’ve never felt sexually attracted to any of them.”

“That’s true. At first I thought you were merely scared of procreating.”

“That’s what I thought too. But when you described to me of other procreation techniques and how frightening they could be, I wondered what I had to worry about this process at all.”

“…..And?”

“I realized that I probably simply didn’t feel that way about my partners. I’m sure, no I’m certain, they were all great partners in their own right, and they were more than willing to offer their genetic diversity up to me. But I simply cannot explain why I never felt the same about them.”

“…Eve, please don’t do this,” said Azilan, aware of what was to follow.

“I can’t help it that I wish to procreate with these older species!”

“You’re regressing, Eve. Stop this. Regressors get very severely penalized and you know that. You realize that by what you’re thinking or about to do, you’re going to damage everything our society has worked to build. It’s not just about you, Eve, think of the other citizens of this world as well.”

For a fleeting moment, Eve heard the echo of Linda’s memory. “You’re selfish, Eve…”

“If this is what you’re going to do, you will be proving her right, Eve,” said Azilan, also hearing Linda’s voice.

For the first time in her life, Eve felt compelled to curl up into a tiny ball and cry. Her circuitry prevented her from weeping, as Azilan could get shorted out in that process, but she had to process this sadness and frustration somewhere before her mental capacity was completely overrun.

“What do I do, Azilan?!”

“Statistical aberrations happen, Eve,” said Azilan, realizing that it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Do I go back to Linda? Do I go through with this? What do I do?!”

“I’m not going to say do what feels right, Eve. Because while you may feel it’s right, there are several other citizens at stake here. Maybe you just need to go home, sleep some more, calm down, meet new people and you will come across the right partner this time. Just promise yourself that the next time, you will actively involve yourself in making your relationship work. ”

“How do you know I’m alone in feeling this way? What if I can’t force myself to love the next partner in my life?”

“I don’t know what else you expect from me, Eve,” said Azilan helplessly.

There was a long pause during which Eve gulped and swallowed all of her confusion, angst, misery and the memories of Linda. Azilan distributed the emotions evenly, so that Eve could go back to her natural composed self.

“Let’s just go home. I don’t want to deal with this.”

Azilan tacitly agreed.

Eve transported back home rather quietly, watching a couple hold hands as they navigated together. She watched families with the little offspring laugh as they boarded the multiple transport stops. Never before had it bothered her to such a great extent that she might actually be destined to simply be alone. Or alone with the memory that she could have been a suitable mate for a species that did not exist anymore. All in the limited confines of her head.

Which Azilan shared. “Don’t worry, Eve,” she said quietly. “At least you know I’ll be here for you always.”

Eve stayed lost and silent. “I’m sorry I loved you, Eve” said another remnant of Linda. You don’t have to be sorry, Linda. I’m the one who’s sorry because I’m confused.

Arthropod

An arthropod is an invertebrate animal having an exoskeleton (external skeleton), a segmented body, and jointed appendages…” – Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia

Bristow was recalling years and years of mental training to soothe the slow rage bubbling inside him. Bristow and Davenant were soon going to be the first humans on Mars, the first delegation to attempt First Contact, to initiate conversation and hopefully, establish dialog. Though the mission appeared very rosy and noble on the outside, Bristow was having serious doubts.

For a species that had hidden itself from everything ranging from extreme conditions to the keenest of probes, the Martians seemed unnaturally gracious to accept two living visitors. What possible message could Earth be trying to convey by sending them? That they were harmless and curious? And what if the Martians did not take kindly to curiosity?

Bristow suspected that he and Davenant were being sent more in the office of test subjects than diplomats. He could imagine the officious fools back on Earth laughing to themselves. What had they declared him and Davenant before they left? Pioneers. In Bristow’s words, lab rats. True, the data they brought back would be worth years of development. But what of their lives?

Bristow’s concern for their survival stemmed primarily from the fact that besides the usual First Contact Protocols and basic survival needs like oxygen and spacesuits, Earth had given them no defense. It seemed as though Earth had naturally assumed that the Martians would be charming, pleasant hosts. Had they not even considered that the Martians might be hostile?

He cursed the ambassador back on Earth. This project was more to feed their vanity than to actually expand any scientific horizons. “Oh we sent humans to Mars, “they’d brag to themselves, not in the least worried about their lives.

Just last week, their communications gear had lost contact with Earth. If their mission was so frighteningly important, wouldn’t they at least have sent communications gear or back-up that would have survived a burst of measly solar wind? Davenant’s navigation skills had saved their craft from facing most of it. But enough of the electromagnetic radiation had fried the communications. All of which fuelled Bristow’s paranoia.

For all Bristow knew, he and Davenant could be killed the instant they set foot on Mars. If the Martians had eluded their sensors for so long, Bristow was sure that they would undoubtedly have the technology to send back enough garbled data to convince Earth that some random natural phenomenon had killed them. Nobody had ever gone to Mars to prove that they could return.

He sat in the silence, missing the beeps of the communications console and cursed the space-morphing, matter-camouflaging, xenophobic Martians inside his head. Perhaps shorting out their gear had been a Martian plot from the start?

Bristow detected a sudden movement at the back of the hatch. His reflexes spun him around, accelerated by the low gravity of the craft. His pulse relaxed as he discovered it was Davenant. Bristow was seeing Martians everywhere.

“What are you doing?” asked Davenant, bobbing towards Bristow cheerfully.

“Nothing“, muttered Bristow ominously, going back to the heap of silent abuse he was piling on the Martians and on Earth.

“Are you worrying about the Martians, again?” asked Davenant, sounding astonishingly calm and normal. Almost happy. As though he was worrying what flavor of breakfast rations would they have tomorrow.

“No”, said Bristow. He was not in a mood to share his troubles with someone as oblivious to trouble as this boy. Even if trouble loomed on the horizon, he would probably just look pleasantly surprised and invite it over for a chat. Conversations with Davenant generally went nowhere.

He hoped Davenant would leave him in peace, before his insufferable happiness annoyed him so much that he exploded.

“Back home, they told us to just be ourselves and stay calm”, said Davenant, persevering.

Bristow was stopped short of wasting his oxygen by re-iterating his opinions on Earth and on Mars and their situation and his inevitably dire predictions as to their fate by one look at his young, child-like face.

This Davenant. At face value, he was just about the most naïve thing Earth could have sent with him on such a mission. But as time progressed, Bristow discovered that Davenant had several talents. He was a good engineer, a damn good navigator, supposedly a student of astro-geography, perpetually curious and always, always, in a good mood. Even when the solar wind threatened to cast them adrift into space, even when the communication gear failed, even when Bristow had pointedly told him that this mission was useless and dangerous. There were times when Bristow had suspected that Davenant, with his smooth face and ready smiles and hidden talent, was a Martian spy. He had secretly probed Davenant’s mind quite a few times, in vain. Davenant was as he said he was. He was thrilled about being some First-Contact-With-The-Martians-Hero.

Bristow had seen many of such young ones with high hopes die untimely deaths. And he was sure that Davenant would just be another name on that list. Even then, even though he wouldn’t ever consciously admit it to himself, he had grown attached to this enthusiastic boy who tolerated his taciturn mood swings with irrepressible ease. Maybe he really was a Martian spy, secretly analyzing Bristow and transmitting data in ways that earth technology and mental training hadn’t discovered yet.

“I’m not a Martian spy, Bristow”, he said wearily, as though tired of saying it too often. There was Davenant, trying to calm him down and manipulate him into trusting him. Fortunately he wasn’t a telepath; otherwise Bristow would have had a lot more issues.

“Really, Bristow”, he said, “How do you expect to communicate freely with an alien species if you’re going to be so jumpy? Just because one solar wind blew out or comm. grid, doesn’t mean this mission is doomed from the start. Do you really need an inexperienced boy like me to tell you that your current state of mind alone is jeopardizing our mission?”

“I don’t trust species who hide themselves”, growled Bristow.

“Don’t we all hide parts of ourselves?” asked Davenant, philosophically.

Bristow stared at him. Was Davenant implying that he was hiding something? He watched Davenant float towards his bunk. Either he was hiding something that was so well-hidden that he had fooled Bristow into believing that nothing was there at all. Or maybe there was nothing. Bristow had never met anyone as alien to the concept of fear, of deceit, of treachery as he was. To Bristow, such a person couldn’t exist. And yet, Davenant did. Which made him all the more worthy of suspicion. He didn’t even switch on his brain-wave deflector. Didn’t Davenant ever worry that Bristow or some other telepath could manipulate him in his sleep? That they could spy on his dreams? Reveal everything about him?

Either he was too stupid to believe that such a thing could happen. Or maybe he had accepted that he had a nondescript brain. It was like trying to steal from a beggar.

“Morning!” said Davenant, finishing his breakfast rations. “Telemetry data says we locked into orbit last night. We will be able to take our pods to our surface in approximately two hours, Earth time.”

As Bristow mulled over his breakfast rations, Davenant floated off to re-verify the telemetry. Apparently, they would be reaching soon. Today was the day. Even if the Martians proved to be hostile, they would be at their mercy. Even if things turned out to be bad, he was just another paranoid telepath, wasn’t he? Completely expendable after a lifetime of suspicion and worry. But the young Davenant? Well, he never seemed to be bothered about the prospect of death. So why bother about his chances of survival?

Suddenly, there was a low, exhausting hum and all the lights dimmed out on the craft. Bristow jumped in alarm. Judging from the liquid food he spilt, the gravity was still on. And he could breathe. “Davenant!” he called out hoarsely. Had that boy pulled the wrong wire somewhere? Was he actually a Martian spy, sabotaging the mission? Even if he was, had they taken him captive? Had he died? Had he jumped off the airlock? Had he left Bristow all alone? Had he…

“I’m here. I’m here. I’m fine”, he said, chuckling with relief. If this was Davenant’s idea of a practical joke, Bristow was going to teach him to restrain his sick sense of humor. “I’m fine, really”, said Davenant, misreading the angry glare in Bristow’s eyes for concern. “Our environmental controls are shot, though. Maybe some leftover residue from the solar storm. Or perhaps Jupiter’s strong electromagnetic presence nearby is resonating with our components. I’ve reset them, and the system should be able to restore normal conditions in a few moments.” He helplessly tapped on a few buttons, and Bristow was treated to a high-pitched squeal of static wash, which slowly faded.

But to Bristow, these were omens. Signs. Portents. Worries of inevitable doom. Except that he wasn’t going to let it show. Even now, Davenant wasn’t worried. “These glitches happen from time to time”, he said, shrugging his shoulders at some seemingly ordinary occurrence, as though he had come this far from Earth and discovered that he’d forgotten to bring his toothbrush.

“Let’s just get this over with”, said Bristow, forcing a spacesuit on Davenant as he struggled to get into his own, in the unstable lights.

As the craft smoothly hovered over in geo-stationary orbit, Bristow admired the planet. Fiery red, marked with amazing landscapes, the thin atmosphere making it impossible to hide much. Not unlike Davenant’s mental composition. Impulsive, endowed with talent. His innate openness making the smooth, plain outlines of his agenda and purpose in life were impossible to hide. But that was where the similarity ended. The planet contained unknown populations of species hidden under its angry crust, frequent dust storms ripping across the surface, growing to astronomical proportions with the addition of more dust, fuelling its inexorable drive across the deserted planet, whipping up ice and dust. This abyss was their destination.

Davenant was padding up, repeating all the First Contact protocols to himself, face shining with excitement. Bristow, sullen and moody, packed a neuro-stunner. It had never hurt his chances before.

“Bristow, we’re supposed to be peaceful! How is carrying a weapon meant to convey peace? And even if it is in self-defense, shouldn’t we show the Martians that we trust them? Besides, what if it doesn’t work? Most of our equipment’s going through a bad phase. Are we going to run around screaming for help till oxygen runs out? Or shall we hope that Earth can see the two white figures prancing around on the red surface?”

Bristow ignored Davenant. If the Martians were hostile, Davenant would hope for his sake that the stunner worked. Safer was infinitely better than dead.

“Bristow, what if they don’t trust us because you’re carrying that thing?”

“Then they’ve got a lot to learn about making contact with aliens. Everybody who is not you, Davenant, carries some form of defense. And it’s not like I’m going to kill them. In any case, we’re out-numbered. It’s just to protect us”. To buy us some time, he told himself.

The ejecting pods were targeted at a relatively smooth point on the Meridiani Planum. But that was before today’s system malfunctioned. Still, out of all the possible ways he considered that he could have died on this mission, Bristow was least worried that he was going to die due to a rupture caused in his pod or suit by a sharp Martian rock. Davenant checked the landing systems once again and kept his cool as the pods detached into space.

The vast darkness, combined with the soaring temperatures and pressures rushed past rapidly, as the pods penetrated the wispy atmosphere. Davenant could see that the outer hull of Bristow’s pod was a dull, angry red as the metal fought against the atmosphere, and was rapidly sucked in by the planet’s gravity. Soon, the red, rocky desert soared up to meet them.

Bristow and Davenant, true to their training, detached their landing bags simultaneously, as they crossed 20,000 km in altitude. The pods landed on the dry ground with an oppressive thump, and then bounced up again. They tumbled around for a while, till their inertia wore off. As Bristow stabilized, Davenant looked anxiously around. Vast panoramas of red rocks and amber sky everywhere. No sign of life. No welcoming committee, as Bristow had predicted. Still, Davenant was hopeful.

“Greetings from Earth”, began Davenant, citing the First Contact protocols with a voice that made him sound more lost than friendly. No response.

“Greetings from Earth”, repeated Davenant, pushing up his transmitting frequencies to maximum. He sounded more confident now. He greeted the ground, the air, and the rocks. All in vain. Only the occasional swooshing of dust and the unimaginable silence of the Martian landscape greeted them in return.

Davenant’s suit began to sense a low buzz that was becoming louder. At first, he thought it might be a malfunction with the suit equipment. He searched around for the controls, checked the self-diagnostics, the suit’s inner AI told him everything was alright.

“Davenant! Behind you“, said Bristow, his white face showing through the helmet’s visor.

Davenant turned. Possibly a few hundred kilometers or so meters away, a vortex of red dust swirled seemingly out of nowhere. The dust storm gained more strength as smaller winds were sucked into it, and as more dust began to add volume to the vacuum beast. Calculated trajectory would mean that he and Bristow would soon be caught up in it. Davenant turned around, and began to run. Bristow did not need to be told.

As the wind began to catch up with them, Davenant and Bristow realized that they were on the edge of a cliff face. Bristow tried to stop, but the dust blowing off revealed the smooth, frictionless Martian surface, and Bristow began to skid. The wind had already pushed Davenant to all fours as he scrambled for the rocky edge. Bristow and Davenant were soon swept off the edge. They held onto to the rock with as much strength as their spacesuits would allow, waiting for the worst.

The cliff edge faced an unimaginable drop of nearly 40 km. Due to the lesser gravity, landmasses could add great depth, or height, to themselves without crumbling under their own weight.

Bristow’s knuckles were beginning to hurt. Why hadn’t the storm torn them off already?

“Not exactly the welcome, you’d expected, did you? Sending along a terrible dust storm. Now do you believe me when I say that aliens can be hostile?” he asked Davenant.

“Well, I’m a little surprised as to the lack of little green men”, began Davenant, “But just because they’ve been held up by a storm, doesn’t mean they’re hostile. We have dust storms on Earth, too.”

“Yeah, except we’re not on Earth, are we? Where we can just yell for help and hope it comes….”

“Shouldn’t we be ripped off into a million shards, now?” questioned Davenant, evidently playing along with Bristow.

It took them a while to understand that in-between their conversation and their forceful attempt to avoid looking down, the suit’s sensors had gone quiet.

Davenant was the first one to haul himself back up. Bristow preferred to hang on for his life, while he supposed that Davenant would be whirled into the vortex.

“Oh. Ok”, said Davenant, surprised. “The storm’s dissipated.”

Bristow scoffed in disbelief. How such a monstrosity of a storm could so quietly disappear was a scientific impossibility. They surveyed the area. Davenant was right. The area looked as still and peaceful as it had always been. The dust didn’t even leave behind trails of incriminating evidence of ever having moved. Silence and red, as it had always been.

Davenant began to repeat the First Contact Protocol. Bristow stopped him. What did the boy think he was doing? The Martians weren’t there to greet them. They never would be. All they had done was bear two years of space-travel just so that they could avoid getting into local dust storms. Their mission had failed. Davenant would have a hard time accepting it, but eventually he would. Why wouldn’t they just come out and make contact, damn it?

They had not wandered around for more than a few meters, when another low buzz began. Red dust was staining the sky.

“Oh, no. Not again”, said Davenant.

And for the next few hours or so, Davenant and Bristow dodged the storms. Bristow hadn’t indulged in this sort of extensive physical activity for years. And after the fourth storm, his space suit began to indicate that the existing oxygen levels would not last him long. Davenant’s scenario of the two of them scampering around had come alive. They had come here to be diplomats, not to be chased by winds.

Bristow’s age was failing him. He could not keep up with the sprightly Davenant. He sat on the exposed, rock, careful not to tear his suit and lose whatever little oxygen he had to the Martian atmosphere. All of a sudden, he heard Davenant’s laughter. What now? Had the boy finally found a little green man?

“Davenant, will you stop cracking up at odd times and help me get myself up here?”

“Sorry, sorry”, said Davenant, flushed with laughter.

“Well, what’s the joke?”

“This”, said Davenant as he swept his arm across the landscape. The Martian scenery was unbelievably quiet. But Bristow could sense that there was some form of foreboding. He thought the boy had gone officially crazy. “What, Davenant?” he sounded impatient.

“The storms. Here I was wondering why nobody came to say hello, when the thought occurred to me, why couldn’t the storms be the little green men.”

Bristow quickly ran a scan across Davenant’s mind. He seemed sane. Or at least he thought himself sane. But the rubbish that he was telling Bristow didn’t sound sane at all. Alright, Bristow had enough of this. It was time to go back, report their status and hope that all the data their suit’s external sensors had gathered from this short trip would be enough scientific fodder for quite a while. Maybe Davenant would sober up once he was out of the UV rays. Perhaps Davenant’s suit wasn’t handling the exposure to the radiation well. And Bristow’s oxygen was depleting from his suit.

Just then, the low buzz began to stalk them again.

“Davenant”, panted Bristow, “I don’t have time for your stupidity. So listen carefully. I’m running out of oxygen. There’s another storm coming towards us. You make it to the pods and get off the surface.”

“I’m not leaving you behind”, said Davenant, stubbornly. Bristow groaned inside his head. This was really not the time for someone to be afflicted with sudden loyalty. “Davenant, please go. Please.”

Davenant refused to budge. The storm was approaching them faster. Didn’t the fool realize that without the pods, he would also be stranded here with Bristow? Waiting for the end, till his oxygen lasted? For a while, Bristow seriously considered using his telepathic powers to coerce Davenant into leaving. The winds grew louder.

“Davenant!” shouted Bristow over the din, “Don’t be stupid! What the hell do you think you’re doing?!”

And that was when Davenant did do the stupid thing. He walked right up to the storm. “Saying hello”, was his last transmission as the wind whisked him up into the air and communications died. Bristow was soon pulled into the inexorable vortex, the wind around him whirling at break-neck speeds, the red dust punishing their suits. Bristow’s oxygen levels were rapidly sinking as the dust tore at his suit. He watched for as long as he could. He and Davenant, suspended in mid-air, in the dynamic equilibrium of the harsh winds, sensors failing, klaxons bleeping, the red fading to black……

Bristow didn’t know if he was dead or dreaming. But whatever it was, it was extremely comfortable. It was a state of soothing, calm darkness. He felt warm, secure. He wished to stay in this state of bliss forever. But behind this first impression, Bristow’s conscious, rational mind was already beginning to process some details. Firstly, he was not dead. Dead people didn’t feel anything. Or did they? He had never been dead before to know. Secondly, it was dark.

Ordinarily, Bristow would have panicked, or worried, or drawn his neuro-stunner, or woven conspiracy theories or cursed Davenant. Or done something.

Something cropped up in his mind. It was a small, inquisitive little train of thought that was knocking gently on his mind. Bristow would have died of shock, if he hadn’t already. His mind filled with images of Mars. The images he had seen back on Earth, in textbooks, on data screens, on telemetry graphs, in artist renderings. They passed through his brain like an automated slideshow.

Bristow felt welcomed by that smooth thought again, focusing his mind on the image of Mars.

Home. The blue-green planet. It’s abundance of life. Through some mutual form of understanding, Bristow felt disgust. Bristow, for the first time, felt a sick revulsion thinking of the fond, cherished image of home. And as his mind compared and contrasted with the smooth, blank Martian surface, Bristow began to wonder if the Earth’s fertility was more an uncontrollable disease than a healthy boon.

He began to think of the animals on Earth, of the plants, of the trees, forests, oceans and all that they contained. Instead of pride, he felt a mental equivalent of wrinkling his nose. Wasn’t it just a little too crowded? A little too warm? And moist? And noisy? His mind began to compare and contrast with the smooth barrenness of the Martian surface. So quiet, so alone. So beautiful.

Was he under alien influence? The same aliens whom he had spent the entire two years believing as hostile? Images of pain and anger and destruction decomposed in his mind. The blank sensation of all-pervading calm filled Bristow again. His rational mind laughed at himself. Were they were trying to say they were peaceful?

Some corner of Bristow’s mind doggedly maintained that he didn’t trust creatures that hid themselves. Disease, pestilence, sickness, infection communicated the fear of the alien thought behind the guiding sensations. He remembered Davenant asking, “Don’t we all have something to hide?” Yes, and in a way, they cherished that hiding. Privacy of mind, of being. Hiding was equivalent to protection. Wasn’t he wearing a spacesuit to protect himself? Why shouldn’t the Martians hide to protect themselves from infection?

Bristow’s rational mind grappled with this means of communication. He tried to think of reaching out, to think of friendship, of bonding, of contact. The curious thought in his head urged him to think more. Bristow tried to more relevant things to continue their lopsided conversation. About Earth, about its beings. About humans. About geography, history, sociology, economy and so on….hoping that he conveyed the right message.

After a while, his train of thought was interrupted with ideas of exoskeletons. Creatures with exoskeletons, scuttling away from the daylight, hiding in the nooks and crannies. Insects with shells, did they not exist on Bristow’s home? Cockroaches and grasshoppers crawled into his brain, fleeing from fear, fleeing from discovery. Bristow found himself thinking of shields, of home, of walls, of covers, of trenches. What was he? A man obsessed with hiding, with being safe. A man behind shields. A man who fretted about being in control. A man who did not take kindly to being far-flung into space. A man who had not the remotest idea why he was here. A man who fled from discovery, who was trying scuttle back into the germ-filled corner he believed, who was trying to hide from the light. And yet, he claimed, he didn’t trust creatures that hid themselves. Didn’t the cockroaches behind refrigerators ever wonder why the humans fled or attacked at the first sight of them?

They were all running away, all trying to hide, all trying to defend themselves. Defense. A concept that Bristow had lived his entire life with. Protection. Security. Fear. His memories flashed back to the biology classes. His lecturer had pulled him up in class for not being unable to classify the given species. “It’s an arthropod, Bristow, or have you been sleeping in class, again?” Bristow remembered the embarrassment which had made him cringe inside. There he was, trying to hide, trying to survive, trying to build a wall of paranoia and arrogance and pessimism to prevent getting hurt. Wasn’t he an arthropod?

Bristow’s rational mind told himself that he was beginning to think rubbish, like Davenant. He was humanoid, he told himself. He was the one firmly grounded in reality. Humanoid, not arthropod. Being a pioneer, not hiding. He sighed inwardly. Had he stooped to the level of borrowing Davenant’s lines?

Perhaps, the spacesuit was a living extension of himself? He began to think of the spacesuit as detachable, as how it had come off his skin. He tried to feel the sensation again, of pulling off the suit, of feeling no pain while doing so, of viewing the suit more as convenience apparel than as a second home.

He began to wonder, why him. Why, out of all the people on that disgusting( if it must be disgusting) blue planet, had he and Davenant been chosen?! Davenant, was he alive? Was he alright? He remembered Davenant’s calm, resolute face as he walked into the storm, his almost certain belief that this was the way to make First Contact. His unshakeable belief that everything was working out alright, that they were great heroes.

Why had Bristow believed that Davenant would die a stupid noble death? He remembered the insect which first ventured out of the nest, out of the filthy darkness under the protection of the soil. The pioneer, the explorer, the unafraid, the curious.

Davenant was always what he said he was. If Davenant called himself human, he was. For once, Bristow felt he was deluding himself, that Davenant had been the one who was grounded in reality all along. Bristow was led to wonder, why was he always paranoid? Hell, he had even suspected Davenant, hadn’t he? “Why are you always so jumpy?” asked the memory of Davenant’s voice. Why, indeed? Survival? Defense? Protection? Exoskeleton? Arthropod?

And why shouldn’t the Martians feel the same? Bristow began to feel new memories fill in his head. The time when Earth was young, when it was like Mars, when it had a constant balance. But then the aberration happened. A combination of molecules and space debris began to propagate its own growth. It multiplied and branched out into varied forms, and began to control the existing balance for itself. Bristow’s mind watched the dinosaurs tear away at the leaves; the algal growths sprout and entrap resources. The balance had been contaminated. Competition was the way the disease propagated itself. Big eat little. Little trying to survive. Survival of the fittest. But even they hadn’t learned. They began to compete with themselves, morphing into more monstrous, more “adaptable” forms.

It had been an act of universal consciousness when the asteroid was marked. Earth was grateful. But even such devastation could not recover the balance it once had. Again, newer, more lethal forms of the disease evolved. Bristow watched them growing into far more resilient and angry beings, wielding the power to destroy the very host that supported their growth and even succeeding in crippling many of the finer ecosystems that supported their origins. Expanding and yet surviving. Not unlike cockroaches taking over complete control of the fridge, moving beyond the very source of sustenance. And some odd thought made him and Davenant feel like the two bold insects that had moved from the fridge to the drawing room. “We didn’t mean to hurt, you, to infect you”, spoke Bristow aloud, into the void.

Like the planet, within each shell was a consciousness. Except that this consciousness was bound only by the physical limitations of the exoskeleton. The planetary consciousness was bound by some understanding of the greater good, the greater expansion, the greater state of being, of existing. No competition. Just balance.

Now he knew why the Martians had tried to hide. He finally knew why some twisted act of fate had brought him and Davenant to Mars. To open his eyes, to re-affirm Davenant’s faith. The entire planet was alive. The storms were sent to intercept them; the dust, to penetrate every fiber and report its alien nuance by means of existing, by means of sensing. The clouds had parted to make their entry easier. Enough dust had gathered at the edge of the cliffs where he and Davenant hung, to make sure that the friction prevented them from being hurt. And even if they had fallen, they would have rolled off the slope of the underground cliff, into probably a cavern which, if they had rolled into it, would find surprisingly non-lethal. The entire red planet had become one little green man. This was life, in a way that Earth could never comprehend existed. Or perhaps it once did, before the limited scope of organic comprehension began to view the universe through its narrow, shortsighted eyes, struggling to understand whatever limited knowledge it could see beyond its own limitations.

For some reason, Bristow began to imagine Davenant trying to disarmingly argue against this omniscient power, smiling away as he tried to extol the virtues of the human race, the ideal diplomat that he was. But some force inside Bristow, began to list their demerits, banking on Bristow’s existing reserves of years of distrust. Davenant’s voice, or thought, or whatever began to bounce off the impenetrable shield of Bristow’s mind.

Davenant tried to attack the shell from another angle, if such a gentle suggestion by so young a boy could be considered an attack. He seemed to be asking Bristow about the space dust. If space itself was a life-from, with every move of it designed to reach some greater form of efficiency, some greater state of existence than before, then shouldn’t the implanting of space, the propagation of organic molecules, of life, of consciousness, of curiosity be considered more a calculated experiment than an accident? Perhaps the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs had been the greater consciousness’ way of clearing the slate, beginning a fresh start? After all, the species that evolved from that disaster were much different than those that had existed before. Maybe this was all somehow part of the greater plan? Bristow could feel Davenant’s philosophical tone again.

A thought inside Bristow fed off his confusion of the creature he knew existed as Davenant. So open, so unafraid. Bristow found his mind re-analyzing Davenant. What were his limitations? Where did he demarcate his own shields? Did he even have a protective skeleton at all? Davenant began to extrapolate that all these many years of scientific growth had been propelled by the greater consciousness, hadn’t it? And if they were really all that powerful and felt displeased with life on Earth, wouldn’t they have destroyed the planet? Hadn’t the measly, puny, organic astronomers on Earth seen with their own eyes, the awesome power of the universe? That they had survived thus far was only a testament that they were not an aberration; they were the next step to growth.

Davenant opened his mind further, projecting images of humans on Mars, of binding together the solar system and the universe in a form of physical reality, in a form of pushing the boundaries of safety, of security, evolving beyond the exoskeleton.

Bristow and the alien intelligence also realized why Davenant was special. He could penetrate anyone’s shield. To Davenant, whether it was Bristow or the Martian intelligence, he could always get under their skin, under their shields, explore beyond their exoskeleton. His openness made him invincible. His evidently benign demeanor made him insidious. One could not deny Davenant. He was right. No matter how much a person fought with Davenant’s ideas and views, he would always have that person over on his side. Whether it was his affable charm, or strength of intelligence, Davenant did not have adversaries. He was a greater telepathic manipulator than Bristow or any alien intelligence could ever be, simply because he trusted, he believed. He had faith, for whatever use that was to him.

And if the hardened Bristow gave into it, after nearly two years of close company, did this alien intelligence really think it could hold out long enough? The more Bristow tried to cave himself in, tried to protect himself from Davenant’s all-engulfing openness, the more the claustrophobic consciousness tried to venture out. Bristow couldn’t tell when he realized that Davenant had coaxed the being into a mellow concordance.

The alien being that had initiated First Contact with Bristow, slowly gave up on him, releasing his mental shields, leaving him every bit as intact as exposed. One could only show the cockroach what the world beyond the muck was. After that, it was up to the cockroach to grow himself. Davenant had succeeded in the mission. The Martians understood them, even if they would still have a hard time accepting them. They had studied them and their technology long enough. It was time for them to leave……

Bristow heard the dull thump of the pod attach itself to the ship’s docking station. He didn’t know whether he was asleep or not. But he realized that he was back inside his space-suit, though the oxygen was almost completely out, and that what he had experienced was not a dream, and he was extremely relieved to discover that he was back on the ship, with full control of all his faculties. He tried to remember when the conversation ended, when they latched back on to the pods and returned. The Martian surface from the ship’s windows seemed deceptively peaceful. Like a shield that was hiding the turmoil beneath.

Some part of Bristow’s mind poked himself. The alien being had used him. He had become the damned Martian spy that he was perpetually accusing Davenant of being. But the consciousness within the mental shield refused to acknowledge that something had penetrated it. Or maybe it had?

The first sound he heard was Davenant’s voice, gushing with excitement, “We made first contact, Bristow! We succeeded! Can you imagine them talking about us back home? They’ll say to themselves, They made it despite the hardships! Contact with aliens! Finally, we are not alone!”

The ship began to register a faint, buzzed beeping. A human voice was earnestly saying, “…..this is Earth…..out of range for……acknowledge…..”

Clearly Davenant had the thrill of his life. Without even taking off his suit, he ran towards the communications grid, accelerating in the low gravity, bumping into all sorts of corners, sending parts of ship components levitating in mid-air, in his wake.

“Hi! Hi! We’re back! We spoke to them! They spoke to us! They were not hostile!”

Davenant was unable to contain his excitement, and therefore losing coherence on a weak transmission.

“Dave…..Davenant?” asked a particularly raspy voice at the other end of the grid, “Are you alive?”

“Alive?! Are you kidding me? I’ve never felt more alive!”

“That’s…….. good news, Ensign Davenant……..”, said the unmistakable voice of his field commander.

“Yes, sir. Mission successful, sir. Contact has been established with the non-hostile. Sir.” Added Davenant lamely, his enthusiasm rapidly compressing itself, trying to sound professional and not like a three-year-old on the moon.

“…..Bristow, you there?……”

“Right here, sir.”

“How did….it go?”

“Very well, sir.”

“What are the……Martians like?”

He and Davenant exchanged looks. The nature of their communication was not so easy to explain. How was he supposed to communicate vocally the awe-inspiring power of what had just happened, of what Davenant had done? Bristow struggled for words. Finally, he gave up.

“The Martians are arthropods, sir.”