"Who has not succumbed to this? Who is unsure of our privilege on this planet? Who doubts...who will question the integrity of the constructs of our age, and the validity of our self-perceptions?"—Ray, Address to the 31st Congress of the World Cooperative, February 22, 2089
The day after tomorrow is the day before yesterday, yesterday is tomorrow, this evening is this morning, and that's how we ended up where we are now.
I look over the great expanse of blazing trees and wonder: did Armageddon really smell like this? Taste like this? Or is it still to come? So much has happened so quickly that I ache for peaceful, plodding days to overtake me and silence my guessing. Others must feel this way, but I haven't seen any of my old friends in over three weeks, three years, almost a decade now. It's very hard to remember why I don't mourn anymore, although it was a careful decision. I just can't do it. With all my hoping and frailty, I reach for the distant yearning of a younger self and find long, narrow roads whose weary gravel ruts extend beyond the last day of my life. How can I go any further than that? I can't. I must rest and prepare for our next meeting, so I sit on a bluff that frames my placid valley and watch the trees burn into the night.
° ° °
My child was born in August. I don't know why I kept being pregnant, but suddenly (or it seemed so at the time) I was panting and moaning and pushing and bleeding. The pain was incredible. My MEDwife told me I'd forget the pain afterward, because of some drug my body would release. Bullshit. Those hours of agony are burned into my memory with the acuity of "now", and I've sooner forgotten what the MEDwife looked like than her feculent assertions. After twelve hours they gave me a spinal because I'd refused transuction in the pre-op agreement. Now, why had I done that? I think it was because of pride; the arrogance of a young mother willing to reject all statistics: barely a third of white women during the previous decade had been capable of "natural" birth. So I finally succumbed to the mean and let the gravitational flux simulator, i.e. suction, do the work. My full-term, American, burly bouncing baby boy burrowed forth into the world at 2:22 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time.
To hold my infant, my infant, in my arms was pure elation in utter exhaustion. I was never fascinated with other people's babies, never attracted to the drooling, fatty, screaming little faces, but this was Creation. This was the mystery of the universe incarnate, the alpha and omega of a justified existence, and as they laid this new life, this wonder, across my stomach, I felt adult, amazed, and for the first time in my life, totally and irrevocably in love. I could never give up those feelings, or that moment, for anything.
° ° °
From my view on the bluff, I watch another thicket disintegrate. The timber whines and spits in cacophonic mockery of the regal stature it once held. Wind carries a stinging smoke so heavily across my face that I duck below it, eager to glimpse each exploding trunk as it crashes to the ground. I can't miss that: Oooh, the sparks! I cough through my smile and look to either side and behind me, hoping he has not crept too near unnoticed. Nothing. Only sand and scorched grass.
° ° °
I think I was last to find out. Is that how it is for other people? You search and pry beneath the layers of cheap fixes and social conditioning until the clear, immutable image of self emerges? Meanwhile, everyone else has known all along. . .all along. My parents didn't know, though. When the press announced I was a genetically engineered, illicitly conducted experiment of the Gresner Institute and select biotech firms, my mother went catatonic and my dad just sobbed for hours. I was enlightened at a bus stop, shocked and titillated to discover my own picture smiling out from a USA Today, then mortified by the first few lines of the adjoining article. I ran, confused, terrified of being recognized, sure that my whole life was ruined; I ran the dusty streets of Boston.
My thoughts riveted on Ray. Would they do something to him? Kidnap him? Would they. . .? My terror spawned icy rage, and I commandeered a cab full of teenagers.
"No, ma'am, I can't—" said the driver, but I threw the stunned and groggy kids into the street and shoved a fifty in the driver's face. He took it.
The news hadn't hit the day-care yet, and it was my uttermost to keep from spitting hatred at the happy, benevolently programmed CAREtakers. No one challenged me, though, and a teary-eyed Ray and his overwhelmed mother sped out into the sunlight of a long, long journey home.
° ° °
Far off to the east, I think it is the east, a foamy red gashes the sky beyond the mountaintops. It's probably clouds reflecting the fires below, or worse, some ill-advised assault on the containment periphery high up in the stratosphere. I don't know. I look at my meager collection of food, the charred and brittle Nexus locator, and the jugs of detoxed water and hope it will be enough.
"Oh, Ray," I say aloud into the night.
"I'm here, mother," replies my child. I turn quickly, startled, but see no one. Am I hallucinating? I wonder if the stress of these last few months has scarred my mind to match my heart.
"Ray?" I try to hide my anxiety.
"I've had to learn this, mother," he says quietly, very near, "so they can't find me."
I'm afraid now, searching the charred waste of the bluff. Where is he? Then I see it: the vague patch of soft, healthy grass just off to my right.
"Can't I see you?" I ask.
"No . . .no. I think they follow you each time, track you, and now it's not safe. It's not safe for either of us. Will you come with me?"
I'm stunned. How could the movement go on, how could he survive without the food I bring him?
"I. . ." I hesitate.
"New ground, mother, new ground for a new world."
I have to chuckle. "Always the politician. If you couldn't sell it to anyone but destitute loonies and cultish freaks, what makes you think I—"
An explosion throws me through the air; sand and larger chunks of earth pelting me like hot rain as I hit the ground and roll.
"Ray!?" I choke on the dirt that fills my mouth. I try to rise, but my leg is broken and I fall heavily. I can't see anything as smoke from the forest fire is sucked over and around me. "Ray!" I start to cough. I'm sure I'm bleeding somewhere, everywhere.
"Mom!" The voice is far away. I see a yellow glow beyond the smoke. "Where are you!?" he calls again.
"He-ere!" I cough. The light rushes closer, resolves itself into a human form which kneels and touches me.
"Oh mom! I'm sorry! I'm sorry. . ." says my son, choking back his grief and hugging me close. I force myself to focus on his face, to reassure, to stay awake, but the pain and darkness. . .I can't. . .
° ° °
What is privacy? Is there anything noble about splattering a person's innermost secrets across the morning news? Like any commodity, there would be no supply without demand, and the Great Majority gleans their vicarious sap and seed from the ruination of human lives. So the ratings soar, people get rich, and the invasion goes on. I was grateful to learn more about myself over those next few weeks: that Dr. Amelia Selena had developed a "trait threshold revision tag" for each of my relevant chromosome fragments, defining beyond every hope of previous science the specific template for my being. Who was I? I was a perfectly normal human who was tailored to be just that. No defects or abnormalities. Average height, weight, intelligence, physical ability. . .all that parents have wished for since the beginning of humanity's long trek through absurdity. I was supposed to be conclusive proof that Genetics—banned in twelve Provinces of the World Cooperative for over three decades because of previous, less subtle experiments in determinative human biology—could be successful at "nice, friendly medicine.”
Damn them, it wasn't nice at all.
Leaks. Leaks had started during political upheavals within the Institute once the birth of my son had circulated. Someone, or many people, had been lied to during the project: I wasn't intended to reproduce. The "tags" weren't reliable beyond the first generation, or when mixed with "wild" genes from my mate. But I had malfunctioned and birthed a healthy child . . . and Ray, the news reports said, would have to be tested and monitored and. . .
I watched my three-year-old son grin over his new Leggo set— colorful plastic strewn all over the living room floor—as the Cooperative Investigators made their half-hourly drive-by, the Supreme Council debated the legitimacy of my existence, my parents called hourly to reassure and console, and the press stalks my life from a motel six blocks away. By then I had grown vicious, launching every friend and acquaintance out of my stormy life, feeling I could neither trust them nor expect them to share my plight, and so I sat alone, my comset visor blaring each new development into my face, while Ray played with his Legos. I have never experienced such morbid depression.
° ° °
Death. I forget who I am, who I was. Something tentative lingers within, a kernel of awareness and tepid emotion, but my volition flows out of me like blood from a wound. I am alone.
When Ray was seven he explained reality to me. We had been relocated three times by then for protection, and because I couldn't risk working, the settlement from the Gresner Institute was slowly being eaten away. It takes a long time, though, even with rampant inflation, to eat away sixty million dollars. That was what the Supreme Council had ruled my life, or the corruption thereof, was worth: sixty million dollars. Incredible, isn't it? So Ray, my parents, and I spent most of our time swimming, camping, playing games and renting old vids. Dad even took up skeet-sonication and had a private range built for himself.
One afternoon, Ray and I walked together through a blustery fall day.
"Mom," he began, nervously twisting a small twig with his fingers, "don't be mad, okay?"
"Uh, sure, pumpkin. . .what is it?"
"Well. . ." he bit his lip and looked up at me, taking a deep breath. "Well, I think I'm supposed to be like a leader or. . .like a person who starts things, um. . ."
"You mean, you want to be a leader?"
"No, I mean, yes, I guess so. But I'm supposed to, even if I don't want to." My son looked as resigned and grim as a soldier going off to war. It was almost comic. Almost.
"I don't understand, Ray. Who told you this?"
He looked very uncomfortable. "Well, these Spirits. . .um." His face turned red and he ferociously studied the mutilated twig.
A step or two in silence.
"Spirits?" I asked.
"Mom, I just know, okay?" He was embarrassed, exasperated, and sure his mother wouldn't understand. Not a new experience.
"All right, but could you try to help me understand? I want to," I said, stroking his hair.
He sighed. "I'm supposed to show you first, like practice," he said eagerly. He stopped, grabbed my hand, and held it out before me.
A gigantic sphere of a zillion tiny lights flashed into existence on my outstretched palm. I gasped, tried to withdraw, but my arm was frozen, my body rigid. Blinking at the incredible image, I waited fearfully for the thing to explode or suck me into it. Then came a voice, the voice of my son, from within my mind:
This is our universe, he said, with lots of stuff in it. A long time ago was the "Center", when everything was born. But it's not like we think, see, because time started then, but went in both directions, not just one. It was moving forward, but also backward. Neat, huh? So what happened really, really a long time ago hasn't happened yet, just like what will happen really, really far from now in the future hasn't happened either.
Intricate patterns of color and movement expanded outward, twisted in on themselves, and disappeared. I tried to speak, to question. . .
. . .Wait, mom, you'll see.
Another image formed: the planet Earth. But unlike the fuzzy holos from our moon stations, this image was concise and richly colored. Wavering cones of light issued from the planet's surface and extended beyond my view; I didn't know what they were.
Because human people are second order, we can't see how time really is. It's even worse for third order people. But we have to find a way to see it, because if we don't, then we're gone mom. Everything will be gone.
At that the translucent cones blossomed into radiant umbrellas, flaring out and converging with each other in violent surges. Soon the earth imploded, oceans and continents ripping apart, riddling the Eden of homo sapiens with crazy explosions until it was reduced to churning dust and steam.
I can help, mom. That's what I'm supposed to do.
The streetlamps and sidewalks returned, and after a moment I took a breath.
"Jesus, Ray," I said softly. He was staring at his feet.
"Sorry, mom," he said.
° ° °
I awake to early evening. I hear strange, wonderful music, and look to where a cardinal serenades the russetting sky from the branch of a nearby tree. The air is honeyed with warm, virid smells, and I sit up to find myself on a hilltop of low grass, dandelions, and tickling breezes. Blackberry bushes are scattered hither-thither along the hillside, rustling and dancing in slow counterpoint to the grass. The cardinal takes flight, and I watch him descend passed a small pond and settle high up in a large, lonely oak. Far below me a wide, marshy valley cradles whispish fog. In all directions are grass, hills, sky, and random sentinels of oak and birch. Where is this place? I can feel the wild of it, the untamed rush and weave of life, and nowhere in the endless expanse is there the slightest hint of humankind. Where am I? I remember nothing of how I came here, or why I am alone.
I get up, walking easily down the gentle slope. The blackberries are ripe and pungent, luring me. I giggle as a sticky purple flood consumes my chin and drips across my naked breasts. I feel whole, and somewhere among the intimate expressions of my conscience I know this is a good thing, a long-awaited thing, a most desirable and satisfying thing. When I reach the pond, I sit and dangle my feet in the soothing freshness. Tiny fish scatter and regroup to watch my toes wiggle. I laugh at them, throwing my head back, opening myself and spilling out earnest-felt joy into the broad, cool strokes of oncoming night.
° ° °
I couldn't stop him from leaving. While other parents agonized over curfews, credit cards, drug abuse and venereal disease, I spent each fearful, sleepless, angry night wishing my own child were so tame. But Ray was traveling through more terrifying realms at age fourteen than most of us would encounter in a dozen lives. He vanished for days or weeks, exploring worlds to come; the myriad paths of the ancients; the endless, worming gateways of an incredibly expansive universe. As any adolescent, he wouldn't share his visions with me, or explain the reason for his missions, but I saw him age into solemn reserve in the span of months. We fought about it many times: me screaming and him nodding and crying. I did learn that his purpose, his gift to the world, was to see the cycles and complex patterns of existence; to somehow become them; to exemplify them. But he never had a chance to be a child, damn it! And I held that resentment like a flow of molten rock within my heart, hating these "Spirits" that would take my son and mold him with such jaded sorrows.
One day he brought something back with him.
I looked up from my book to see a disheveled, dusty boy grinning like the sun.
I smiled back. "Hi Ray. Have you been out again?"
He nodded, still grinning. I noticed that he held something behind his back; my smile broadened; mother-warmth and excitement vying with uncertainty.
"I've brought you something interesting," he said, raising his eyebrows and stepping closer. With an abrupt flourish he swung his arm toward me, offering me, in all the energy of teenage pride and embarrassment and love, the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
"Oh! Ray, it's. . .I've never. . .what. . ." I took the glass box between my hands.
Slowly I turned the exquisite gift around, watching with growing amazement as intricate patterns of brilliant blue, purple and gold shifted and sparkled behind the glass.
"A butterfly?" I asked timidly.
"It's called a Whe-aa-nu," he said, "it's from a place where living things are made of . . . well, they have crystals instead of cells . . . actually, it's really fascinating—"
"It's beautiful, Ray, it's really the most beautiful thing I have ever seen!" I grinned voraciously at him. "Is it still—" I began, but as if to answer my question, the large, delicate, double set of butterfly wings stirred, pulsing ever-brighter. The creature turned slowly on it's pedestal within the cube and faced me.
Ray and I laughed.
"It'll keep that way forever," he said, "well, at least for few millennia."
"Thank you, kiddo, this is. . .amazing! Wonderful! Oh, thank you!" And all those antagonists—fears of abandonment, loss, and the creeping vines of age—vanished in a teary smile and a kiss to my son's face. We were victorious in that moment, and we spent the afternoon talking and joking as if the universe were really a friendly thing.
° ° °
An enormous bison nuzzles me awake. He snorts and shifts nervously in the tall grass, and his rich, oily smell comforts me. It's night now, and above me a starless, all-consuming black condemns the chilly air to ruin. I'm puzzled, and search in all directions for a hint of moonlight or rebel sun, but nothing reaches out to me.
"Aa!" my heart cries, and the bison's rapid bursts of breath are nearer, warming my back. He is concerned, and I sense his strength, his size, his confidence in the things that are. I lean against him, and his tightly woven coat is rough and warm against my skin.
"Oh, friend," I say, hugging close, not knowing if it's true but wanting it to. His massive head pins me gently against his side, and, when the moment is over, he turns and leads me off into the dark.
° ° °
Ray turned twenty. His journeys became more frequent, and each time he brought back some new evidence that humanity was hopelessly unaware of its own galaxy, and that mystery could still challenge convention.
"We need this stuff!" he told me one day, "People have to understand that our nature, or whole purpose, is to explore what's out there, not to pick at the zits on our genocentric ass!"
I gave him lots of room, and he used it to show off his discoveries around the globe.
ComNet introduced most of the world to his face, but not his ideas, trying to place him somewhere between "freak" and "hoax". And, wow, did the government ever hate him! The Cooperative repeatedly tried to confine his travel and his access to ComNet, insisting that he either classify whatever technology he was using, or desist in his introduction of radical artifacts. The tacit threat was obvious.
"What are you going to do?" I asked him.
"Play the game," he replied. "I'll give them snot if they want it."
And he did. Ray never had to hold a Stillgredeska, Phention, or any other alien exhibit before a ComCorder again, instead, he quickly organized groups of credible academics and scientists from all over the world and sent them out to examine the universe. And not once did the travelers demand to know how the flatgates worked, or insist on understanding the biofields that protected them from alien environments; their greed and excitement wouldn't let them. This infuriated the politicians and their corporate constituents, but what could they do? The tendrils of material comfort and spiritual and intellectual apathy coveted by the general populace were being violently severed by Ray's magic, and those pervasive harbingers of change, Thought and Hope, ravaged the fickle social climate of the late twenty-first century, and people began to wake up.
° ° °
Bison and I reach the Meeting a short walk later. Puma is already speaking to the crowd, and her quiet, silky voice carries easily to us:
"Hmm," she says, stretching lazily across the top of a boulder, "I find the policing/predator arrangement unsuitable to an otherwise uncompetitive system." The great cat's eyes glow a faint amber in the darkness.
"I also object," says Eagle in a dry monotone, "I don't see the point."
Many of the others murmur agreement.
"But that relationship is too well established, we can't just throw it out!" Wolf announces. There is real passion in the Spirit's words.
"Everything 'well-established' will be totally undermined, Wolf," Puma retorts quietly.
"Feh!" Wolf says angrily.
As I listen to their arguments, Bison lets me lean against him to keep warm. The wind is cool and damp, and the voices of the Spirits are muffled by the night and shifting grass. I wonder why I am among them, but am too frightened or tired to speak. Many forces are gathered tonight: Panther, Eagle, Bison, Puma, Wolf, Beaver, Frog, Elk. . .some fifty in all, crowding into a broad circle on a broad plateau. I remember this place now, as if from childhood vision, and as they speak I know their names, their realms, their gifts. I wonder if even Snake has come tonight, silently waiting for the proper moment to assert himself, but how I've come to know all this is a mystery to me. Their power is real, though, and a velvety muzzle clamps gently but firmly over my every conscious thought.
". . .to be allowed those freedoms. It isn't a question of whether it will work, it's more. . .more," Wolf fights for the right words, and no one dares to interrupt him, "the fairness that I question; the equity of it."
"I agree," Puma says, "if we disallow one creature's autonomy—even a predator's—then conformity is imposed on each subsequent link in the chain. It's unlikely that anyone will feel truly free."
I feel Bison's great bulk rumble beneath me as he speaks:
"No one will ever be free, Puma," he says slowly, "when there is abundance there is still contract, to share the abundance." Bison shakes his great skull slowly from side to side. "If there is no law, the lazy or incompetent will benefit along with the diligent."
"I suppose I must be an anarchist, then," giggles Frog, and half the circle laughs quietly.
Bison-hoof slapping stone echoes into the distance, and I jump at the feel and force it.
"Not anarchy—" Bison begins loudly.
"Now, friend, you must appreciate humor at this late hour," Eagle says. "Besides, you frighten the Person."
Bison turns to me and grunts a soft apology, and at that instant I feel the Spirits' summed gaze upon me: cool and reticent, cautious but utterly confident. I somehow know it is time for me to speak, and images from my life on Earth dance around me.
"There were those. . ." my voice falters and I start again, "there were those among my people who thought anarchy was a. . .a transitional solution: something to undermine the status quo long enough for new ideas to take root. But it didn't work, as you I'm sure know." I wait, then, for a greater revelation, but this is enough. I feel the force of their attention shift away from me again, and this time Snake's thin, silvery voice rises over the crowd.
"No living thing has breath enough to recount the follies of her race," he says smoothly, and some begin to object. "Ah, ah, forgive me, but my point is simply this: the human anarchy did sort out ancient problems, and made painfully clear that mortal authority could not sustain itself. Who, after all, will enforce any law which we design?"
Beaver interrupts the ensuing silence with a rushing shrillness: "I don't know. I don't know, Snake. If you're concerned about an authority that excises itself from the system, I agree. I agree, yes. But if it knows, intrinsically and irrefutably, that it is part of the integrated structure of ecolife, then how could it escape the consequences of it's actions? Consider. . .consider. . ." the Spirit trails off.
"Excellent point!" Wolf bellows. "Even People couldn't outrace their actions, they were just too good at cocooning themselves away from the consequences. So, we don't allow it!"
"Who, Wolf?" Snake cuts through the excited murmurs. "Who won't allow it?"
Their yearning is my yearning, and I try to shout over the mixing voices. But my time is passed, I am not allowed to speak. As my frustration crests and ebbs, I let the milky sleepiness of fatigue overtake me until the Spirit voices soften into dreams.
° ° °
After my parents died I built a cabin for us in the Cascade mountains. It was quiet solitude I sought, and peace from the ever-watchful gaze of the media and security forces. Life just got more complex, however. Ray continued to defy physics and the authorities, and for nearly a year the world riveted its attention on him. Then it fell asleep again. Oh, there was oodles of legislation, education reform, increased support for space exploration, and a surging participation in scientific forums and conventions, but in an incredibly short period of time people just forgot about Ray. They forgot! He just wasn't "news" anymore, and like the birth that had launched him into the public eye, the novelty of my son just faded out of sight. It hurt him deeply, and after forty days and forty nights of inconsolable agitation, he emerged from his gloom with a purpose.
"It's time," he said, handing me a small beaker of dimly glowing liquid. The substance frothed and sloshed happily, smelling of yeast.
I stared at it and laughed.
"Ray, April isn't for another four months," I said, and laughed again.
He returned a childish simper. "April? Oh! Well, I'm not fooling, at least not on the scale your implying."
I looked at him quizzically.
"Well?" I asked.
"It's Manna, you know, what the Israelites ate in the desert."
"Manna?" I looked at the beaker again. "You mean, you're finally going to end hunger or something?" I regarded him hopefully.
"No, I'm going to start a war."
Sixth months later the World Cooperative disintegrated.
The "food from Heaven" charged our cause with religious fanaticism. Millions waited for the Word of Ray, if only to receive the smallest tidbit of heavenly food. It healed sickness, revived the spirit, and never ran out. The Manna became not only the physical, but ideological sustenance of our campaign, and around the globe fires were set, bombs laid, equipment destroyed: all in the hope of obtaining Manna. Earthly food became increasingly scarce, as did slavery to the dollar, and soon every sub-economy in the world was obliterated, every orderly system corrupted, and every centralized authority disassembled. Anarchy. Wild, religious, fervent, stupid anarchy. No wonder Christ insisted on recovering all his left-overs!
And all the while my son estranged himself from the world he was destroying, and from the love of his mother. His mood sagged into ambivalent moping; his health worsened; his eyes seldom met my own. Oblique fear nested itself between us, and I struggled desperately with the knowledge that I was Ray's only link to humanity, to compassion for his race. But still I helped him. I brought him food, like an offering to my child-god, in the alters of the mountain passes. I saw him naked to the core and did not turn away, because even as a strange, haunted young man he was still my flesh, my Creation. I devoted what remained of my life to his purpose, to the manifestation of a hope that a new world could be born from the ashes of the old.
° ° °
When I awake the Spirits are gone, but I feel less alone. The day is warm and wet; it is the rain which wakens me. As I stand up, my joints grudgingly and painfully straighten, and I realize with some surprise that I am old. How long have I been this way? I look at my hands and stomach and breasts, and know them as familiar, but still I am uncomfortable. Was this body once a child? Did it give birth? What can it do now? And where is my son, the proof of my dwindling vitality? The morning brings me all the night before: the Council, my dreams, and a dim foreboding about things to come. What now?
As I start back up into the hills a peel of thunder rocks the earth. Rain spills fitfully from the grey sky and a hawk calls shrilly. I stop.
"What do you want!?" I yell at the sky, shaking my fist and squinting through the rain. "What am I doing here?"
I believe I have regained myself. When I first arrived, I did not remember who I was but was content to accept each moment for itself. Now, as awareness of my former experience grows, I question the complacency of a peaceful afterlife. Is this the "new world" Ray speaks of? Am I truly isolated from all humanity here? How should I participate? Was I dreaming last night? How could I know or understand those beings otherwise? I want to panic, to throw a tantrum and invite some recognition or affirmation from these "Spirits" that carefully plan chaos. But instead I pause under a leaning oak for shelter, and watch the thrashing torrent of a nearby stream spill down the glistening hillside.
° ° °
Ray transfigured and transcended, and they worshipped him.
"I can't help it," he said to me, "I glow a little and people think it's supernatural." He shook his head ruefully.
"Oh, and you haven't done anything else to provoke this hysteria?"
"Nothing that I know of," he said, grinning at me.
"Mom," his tone was serious, "I've never asked you, I suppose I was afraid to, but. . .do you think this is all immoral? Somehow wrong?"
I had thought that many times, and had carefully talked myself out of confrontation. But what could I tell him now?
"Ray. . ." It was hard to look at him for any length of time, he shimmered so brightly, but I tried: "I don't honestly know, Ray. How can anyone judge things of this magnitude until years. . .maybe centuries later."
"But what do you think?" he pressed.
I took a breath. "Well, a lot of people are dead, many more will die. Sometimes I find that. . . very sad, Ray." I looked away. "Very disappointing."
He started to reply, then stopped himself and slowly nodded.
We sat in silence for a while, listening to the mountains and watching the evening. Far overhead the containment sphere blocked occasional volleys from orbital defense stations. The principles of this sphere were still a mystery to me, but it's impermeable presence was artfully evidenced by the tiny green bursts of deflected CLBs and the brilliant white blotching of warheads.
"It's like fireworks," I said into the fading day.
"Yes...Independence Day for our race," he said quietly.
° ° °
After the rain, sunlight flashes from crystalline flora. Each breath of air is so sweet and clear I chase after it, filling and refilling my aching lungs with its complicated richness. I giggle through my growing headache, stepping carefully amid the wet, working toward the hill top. I shiver and my naked body coats itself with goosebumps. Strange things, goosebumps: hair follicles erecting vague, dwindled protection from the elements. Will I grow any more hair? I wonder.
A flash above stops me and I look. Nothing but scoured blue. . .no, more like cobalt, and very harsh. The grass has stung my thighs with tiny cuts, and my hand rubs at them absently as I move on.
"Where are you, my love?" I whisper at the sky. Will he ever come here? Has the destiny he's woven barred him from this peaceful haven? Somewhere irrelevant the Earth dies, consumed by the fire of human fear, and there my child-god furies in destructive salvation. But what can a mother do? Children must be so willful because they know, intuitively, that experience is the best teacher. Ha. But now. . .now I just wish he were here with me. . .
I reach the summit.
Why am I here?
I can see for miles in all directions: always copses and valleys filled with small, lazy rivers and shiny green. There are other soft, round peaks off to my left that seem higher than my own, and I resolve to visit them. Why not? The flash again above me.
This time a great, glowing arch spans overhead, filling my vision with its shimmering translucence. Within the arch a broad stair made of the same insubstantial dreaminess cascades like water out and down, flowing toward me until it reaches solid earth. I can't breath or move for fear of everything that might be my future, for I know this thing -- it brought me here. Other things hold their breath, too: the air is still and charged with anticipation, so too the motionless grass and trees; the frigid cobalt sky; the endless prairie; the very spittle of existence.
Everything is waiting for me to decide.
My choices clarify themselves somewhere deep within, and my hands clench and shake; my arms cradling each angry, spiteful sob.
"Damn you! Damn you! Damn you!!" I scream at the Spirits, those selfish gods, and know in utter clarity what they are asking of me: to sacrifice my son, to leave him on the other side of the veil, in order to allow humanity a chance to reach this place. I am to stand weeping at his feet. No more.
"You bastards! You probably ARE bastards! Where the hell did you come from, anyway? And what give you the RIGHT?!" I stomp and dance my outrage into wet earth. "Why DID you create us, if you're going to treat us like THIS!" I scream.
To no avail. Past and future are yet to be, resting plaintively on the fulcrum of this irrevocable moment; on this naked, lonely old woman.
"Thmpf!" I scrape at my mind for words, but language is too frail for this.
Slowly, painfully, I calm to pouting indignation. This is their message, engraved on my heart, the chorus of animal voices speak:
"Woman, you cannot bring your son here. He shines too brightly. He is too frail, now, to exist among us. If you return to Earth through the arch, then all your race will perish without a hope of finding this haven. There is only loss for you, but redemption for your kind, if you so choose."
How can this be? How can my choice be so stark and absolute? And what empowers me to make this decision, anyway? What do I love so much or so little?
I test the first step, then the next, and soon I am before the arch itself. I can hear something from the other side, some vague and peopled sound, but I see only a delicate, shimmering veil hung against the sky. I shake my head.
"Why?" I ask again, but the gods are waiting silently, along with the rest of Creation.
How many poor decisions could be blamed on impulse? How many awe-inspiring feats? Have any of history's honored personages ever known, at the instant of their setting something into motion, the temerity of their moment? I suppose I must consider myself privileged in understanding the gravity, at least, of what I am about to do. One thing is very clear: I can only make one choice and its result is irremediable.
"Just another chance...please...for anything! Let me speak with him one last time!" I ask. And I will pay attention, I promise myself, I will be present.
In answer, a small, fluttering disturbance ripples through the veil. . . there! What is it? Almost too quick to follow, bright color flashes past me toward the hilltop. I turn to glimpse it. . . Lifting higher with each rolling, hopping flurry of wings, the Wheaanu butterfly plots a random course out over the still valley. I do not lose sight of it until sheer distance steals it from me. Ray has spoken his last to me.
A long moment passes.
Acquiescence slowly undermines my anguish, like a bitter sludge it seeps beneath a door shut tight and locked against all certainty. The door of my heart. Summoning all the strength of my resolve, I rip the veil asunder and step through. And all the rest you know as history.