From the author: An astronaut finds answers she never expected when her ship is torn apart by a meteor.
Carol closes her eyes, or tries to. Nothing changes. What she sees—a beach near her childhood home on Long Island—is the same behind her eyelids as before them.
The pounding waves are a relaxing, rhythmic white noise. The distant traffic is another kind of white noise, the constant sound of haste. The white paint of the house behind her is chipped and cracked, weathered hard by the sea breeze. The sand is coarse gravel beneath her bare feet.
She hasn’t been here since Ron . . .
Am I dead? Panic threatens.
Her rational mind thinks that unlikely. She has not believed in any sort of afterlife in years, and this is not the cold oblivion of the void.
But she has also never hallucinated. Never dreamed half so vividly as this. Never been so certain that she was awake, yet so baffled by her surroundings.
Oxygen deprivation could do this, maybe. She thinks back, strains to think back to before . . .
The hull breached by a meteor. No pinprick—something the size of an all-terrain rover ripped the ship clean in two at the passage connecting the command quarters to the hub. The meteor moved too fast for the sensors to pick up, too fast to do anything about even if they had seen it. She'd deduced what had happened only in the split-second before she was sucked out. Before the vacuum demanded her, her oxygen, and her books with equal ferocity.
For less than half a second as her eyes froze solid, she had seen the rest of the Agena, its pale sunlit form so deceptively small when viewed from the outside. She had separated from the ship at a rate of meters per second, salvation a short sprint away if she'd had ground to run on.
So near and yet so far.
No one will be able to reach me in time, she knew. And then . . . and now she is here, standing barefoot on an achingly familiar Long Island beach.
She is not alone.
The figure stands a few meters from her, his ankles lapped by cold surf. He is beautiful. His facial symmetry is heart-stopping, his features perfect.
Carol feels very confused.
She’d never spent much time visualizing her ideal man, but apparently someone else has done it for her. And the presence of a stranger—especially an attractive one—in what could otherwise pass for a memory concerns her.
Carol’s heart skips a beat and her stomach flutters, and she pauses to wonder how that is possible if her body is freezing in space.
Wish fulfillment. She has heard of this. That the dying brain gives gifts—near-death experiences, rushes of endorphins, and the like. Hers is apparently her childhood home, and a handsome stranger. She half-expects her brother to come sauntering around the side of the house, as though he’d never left.
Her heart warms at the thought of that reunion. She smiles, glancing back toward the house.
To a good death.
But Ron does not appear. It is the stranger’s voice that attracts her attention.
“I’m sorry,” he says, “if I startled you.” His voice is soft and deep, gentle and powerful.
Blushing isn’t something a dead person is supposed to be able to do, yet she is blushing.
And deeply suspicious.
“And we are sorry,” the stranger continues, “about—the interruption.”
There is something off about his speech. Her own language center going? No—if that were it, his speech would sound normal to her. There is a problem with the meter of his speech, the not-right quality unsettling in a person who seems so perfect.
Who’s to say how hallucinations should behave? some part of her asks.
Not like this, she decides.
She tries to speak to the stranger. Chokes. Like a schoolgirl approaching a crush. Blushes more furiously, this time in embarrassment which threatens to turn into anger.
The stranger smiles wryly.
“I apologize,” he says again, a little wrongly, “for any distress. We were not sure—”
He flickers then, and all of reality flickers like an old fluorescent lightbulb. For fractions of a second, there seems to be nothing. Then, again—
“—how best to approach you.”
Carol barely hears him.
“Who are you?”
A sweeter, broader smile. “We are—‘aliens’ is an alarming term, I’m told, in the lexicon of your people. But you don’t seem to associate particular alarm with it.”
It is true that alarm is not quite the right word for the sensation that her stomach has dropped out of her body and was plummeting toward the Earth’s core.
Hallucinating, she reminds herself desperately.
This is not entirely outside the realm of wish fulfillment. Perhaps that is why it scares her so: she wants to die comfortable, but not deceived. She does not want to believe she's just made first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence.
Unless it's true. Does she dare believe?
Does she dare not to?
“We live somewhere—not physical,” he is saying. “Somewhere else. . . .”
Where else can be parsed out later, if she's still alive. But right now the where seems academic, and a more burning question is:
He studies her carefully, as though considering his words. “We apologize for—specimen collection.”
“Specimen collection?” That brings a flare of righteous indignation. Which combines with her awkward embarrassment to become anger. This doesn’t seem to fit the wish-fulfillment script.
“You blew me out into space for specimen collection?”
Nothing so cruel, she reassures herself inwardly. My death an act of random nature, not of will. This is a hallucination. My last dream.
And yet . . .
And yet she had known, even as she felt the world sucked out from under her, that the odds of colliding with an object that size in near-Mars orbit were astronomically low. Had thought briefly that she might just be the first person in human history to be killed by direct collision with a meteor.
The man's face still sends her heart fluttering when she meets his eyes, even as she tries to scrutinize him.
He says: “You will be—well cared-for. Your crew—is safe.”
Well-cared for. That sounds nice. Suddenly, Carol feels very tired.
If he is an alien . . .
“Can we drop the illusions, please?” she asks wearily. “I think reality would be more comfortable.”
The man smiles cheerfully. “Not possible. I do not have a physical form. And you are nowhere physical – that you would understand. There is no 'real' interface that corresponds to anything your brain is able to perceive. We can only communicate through patterns you recognize.”
“Then ... I don’t have eyes anymore, do I?”
“No,” he confirms gently.
“Will I ever have eyes again?”
“That remains to be seen.”
She sees nebulae. Nebulae as humans see them through false-color images. Nebulae as they exist in the human lexicon, sprawling and beautiful and vast. That each dot within the glowing gas clouds is the sun of many worlds is well beyond her ability to comprehend.
Humans think of nebulae as the nurseries of stars, but they are also graveyards.
The scientists of Earth had said that the Population II stars could not have supported life. Said they were too poor in metals, in carbon, in every element beyond the hydrogen and helium birthed in the Big Bang. That the necessary materials for complex life—carbon at least, better with nitrogen and oxygen and even heavier things—were lacking.
When the Population II stars exploded in their blinding glory, those heavy elements, created by the fusion in their cores, had been flung across parsecs to seed new star systems.
Humans thought of this as birth.
Her guide had introduced himself as “Daniel,” and walked with her on the beach, the two of them alone, until he deemed her ready for something more.
Now he tells her that the birth of this nebula had been death for his people.
We are an old form of life. Very old, to you. Wise, we like to think. Still powerless.
You managed to ram a meteor into my ship, she reminds him, and lifted me from my dying body through some process I still don't understand. That seems pretty powerful to me.
Power, he tells her, is a relative term.
He shows her the spread of his civilization.
It’s like a dream. Carol sees not one civilization, but thousands. Life and intellect and society orbiting a thousand stars. Stars in different galaxies, separated by unfathomable expanse. Life spawned from the electrical storms of gas giants, from chains of simple hydrocarbons on cold moons, from crystals of ice in everlasting convection currents. In all of these places, she sees patterns form, change, re-form.
Wherever patterns form and change, the potential for self-replication exists.
Wherever self-replication began on those ancient worlds, so too did evolution.
“It still begins.” Daniel corrects her, casting her eyes to a dozen watery, rocky worlds that no human scientist has ever heard of.
Carol is momentarily awed by this. Then, an even stranger realization hits her like a brick.
“When the stars you showed me died—that was billions of years ago. You are from—one of them?”
“Yes,” Daniel confirms. “We were lucky. We were taken.”
“Lifted. Preserved. By another. Much as I took you. My people were naturally doomed. Old even then, far older than your race is now. We had survived long enough to overcome war. Not long enough to escape our dying Sun. We had not prioritized our resources in that direction. That was—a mistake, on our parts.
He shows her something else, a layout of the Milky Way and through it, a web of light, spreading.
“Only one species, he explains, “had to learn the higher geometries well enough to live there. To draw on vacuum to perpetuate patterns of thought. Only one to teach the others. They took us before the end came.”
And she sees “the end,” an explosion of light and heat and searing ultraviolet, of vital elements sowing the seeds of a dozen new stars with planets.
Planets like her own. Born from the deaths, not just of stars, but of civilizations. Parents they might never know.
If this is true, the man she is talking to is more than five billion years old.
He's old enough to have watched the Earth itself congeal from dust, seen the Moon thrown off in a titanic clash of worlds, watched the oceans condense out of a haze of water vapor and the first cells arise from complex molecules in Earth's seas.
If this were true, he would see Carol as a product of those cells—little more than an outgrowth of a petri dish. The entire history of the human species would have spanned, from his viewpoint, a matter of days.
He would be, for all intents and purposes, a god.
Did Daniel watch her species grow? Or had he been occupied elsewhere, part of some inconceivable, eternal society?
Carol is too afraid to ask.
“So,” she no longer knows if she is dreaming, and finds that she no longer cares, “both of my hypotheses were right.”
Daniel sends her waiting-silence.
“You’re an alien. And this is also Heaven. The afterlife.”
She doesn’t like the tone of the silence he sends back.
“I mean, you take dying humans, don’t you? You must. Why not? When do I get to see Ron?”
“Answer me. Please.”
“Give us time,” Daniel beseeches her. He seems distressed, and that disturbs Carol deeply. “Give us time, to explain it to you properly.”
There is a waiting that is much like death or sleep. And then there is a room, with people —aliens that look like things out of fantasy and science fiction seated along its walls. Most of them are humanoid, and Carol remembers what Daniel said – that they must draw from her own brain to find symbols that she understands. She is standing in the middle of the room, as though on trial.
And she is angry.
“I am not an animal,” she says, upon flickering back into consciousness. “Don’t tranquilize me just because you don’t want to deal with me.”
Daniel sits at the head of the council, smiling a faint and maddening smile. It is he who says: “We apologize. Your pattern made it clear that you would not accept distractions. You asked the right questions more quickly than we expected. We needed to prepare.”
Carol is surprised to find that she feels betrayed. By his words – by his very presence standing with the others and against her. She's known him only briefly, but his disguise worked well enough that she’d stopped thinking of it as a disguise. Started thinking of him as a friend.
Not human. She finds her mind is quick to jump to that now that she feels offended.
Yet she knows that she has good reason to be offended. They are the ones who killed me. They seem not to care. They have promised me nothing. They have not even answered my question -
She thinks of her brother, and her heart jumps into her throat.
But something nags at her. Some part of her has not yet managed to shake her belief, perhaps because of his beauty, in Daniel’s inherent goodness.
The council is silent. Glancing at each other, murmuring in words she cannot understand. She feels as though this is some sort of answer.
We had to prepare this council to judge you.
“You’re damn right I won’t accept distractions!” she fumes. Remembers losing faith in the God of her childhood, in all gods.
Remembers why. The image of the judge sitting on the throne, ready to condemn, indifferent to his own responsibility.
“You have great power. You have a duty. You can do for others what they cannot do for themselves.
“If you can save me, if there is no technical limitation—you should be saving everyone who dies. Regardless of species. Regardless of merit. Answer the question I asked before: do you save the people who die on Earth? Do you let them walk among you?”
She is confronted with hope like that she had in childhood; and with the threat of losing it all over again.
A long silence gives her answer.
A glowing woman with fairy wings stirs uncomfortably to Daniel’s left, avoids Carol’s gaze. She seems a mockery of the magical creature she resembles, until the tears begin to pour down her fluorescent cheeks.
“No,” Daniel says.
Why is the immortal woman crying? Why does Daniel seem sad, genuinely sad . . .? Hope flares again, refusing to die.
“Can you save them?” she asks swiftly. “Is there some sort technical problem? Is that why you’re studying me? Please, study away. And if I can help-”
“No,” Daniel cuts her off. “We could save them. It is not beyond our capabilities.”
She stares at him, at a loss.
“You,” he says, “are an astronaut.”
She doesn’t see what that has to do with anything.
“Tested for your ability to work in teams. In close quarters. To resolve conflicts. To put mission before yourself.”
“And you are—a sociologist.” Daniel tilts his maddeningly, rage-inducingly beautiful head at her. “Your chosen path is to think about people like us.”
She finds that she does not care, now, whether she has truly realized her life’s goal. The question of whether she stands before true alien intelligence or the hallucination of a dying mind rings hollow. She looks to the weeping fairy, who meets her eyes with wells of great liquid sadness.
Death becomes a fairy tale.
She remembers the sight of the Agena slipping away from her, so near and yet so hopelessly out of reach. Remembers the oxygen rushing from her lungs to fill the hungry void.
Remembers her brother dying back on Earth at the tender age of thirty-four, his liver too cancer-riddled to filter toxins from his blood. The cancer had also infiltrated half a dozen other organs, so that a transplant would have been no cure.
She raises her eyes to Daniel’s again, looking for an answer. “Why?”
“You know about the Drake Equation.”
Yes. She does. The equation for calculating the total number of technological civilizations in the galaxy. It has no known solution, because the value of so many of its component parts are unknown.
In the past century, humans have gained insight into two of the variables: the rate of star formation and the average number of planets per star.
But other essentials are still unknown: the number of planets capable of supporting life, the number of life-bearing planets which become civilized—and Carol’s area of expertise, of study and questioning:
How long do civilizations survive after they develop technology?
The thing that has troubled astronomers since the equation's development is the number of technological civilizations actually known to exist. Only one has been known to humans: their own. No other radio signals reach the massive, lonely ears in the deserts, the radio telescope arrays built to seek companionship among the stars.
And the number of potentially life-bearing planets is known to be in the trillions.
That has been interpreted by many to mean that one or more of the other variables—the probability of life, the likelihood of civilization, or the lifespan of a technological society-must be vanishingly small.
It would have been Carol’s wish, would have been the best thing her dying brain could give her, to believe she had found a myriad of other civilizations. That the infinite Universe is not entirely hostile to life. That civilization is not a flickering anomaly, doomed to wink out and never return.
Absorbed in her thoughts, she studies the aliens in the chamber around her. She no longer has eyes, but perhaps she can still gather useful information.
The images of these people are drawn from her owm memory. Are they choosing their masks? Or is it her own mind which perceives some essential quality of each alien and crafts the woman with the shining fairy wings at Daniel’s right and the ponderously long-necked creature at his left?
“What,” she asks quietly “does the Drake equation have to do with anything?”
“You are interested,” the fairy woman speaks, “in the lifespan of a civilization.”
“Do you know what determines that?”
Carol smiles bitterly. If she did, how many Nobel prizes would she have?
“Violence,” Daniel says simply. “Violence is good for non-technological species. It helps them live long enough to become what they are. But technological development past a certain level —must not be paired with violence. The potential of technological beings to destroy themselves is too great. The lifespan of civilizations that retain violence in their technological age is vanishingly short.”
Carol is still waiting to hear what this has to do with her question.
“Your species is violent. How can we afford to introduce them to the level of technology we possess?”
What he is suggesting seems laughable. And yet ...
“Are you saying we could destroy you?”
“Yes. To free your minds would be to open the gates of hell for a thousand species that came before you. We collect specimens—rarely—to see if you have yet outgrown this malady.”
“So you chose me,” she says steadily, “because I have studied human history.”
“Do you want me to judge them for you?”
“No. We collected you to study your reactions.”
The truth that’s settling into her bones could be insanity-inducing.
Her people don’t have to die. Ever.
People like her brother don’t have to die—if she can convince these people that they can be trusted with godlike power.
And she can’t.
She cannot even try. Not in good conscience.
The hatred and sense of betrayal that roils in her own heart at Daniel’s actions, at his revelations, bear testament to that.
She cannot even tell them that she can be trusted with power that could be used to destroy these people. She cannot save her own life. Not now. Not knowing what they have refused to do in order to preserve themselves.
And what would become too much for another human who they preserved? What would it take to turn them—or her—to deadly force?
Not much, apparently. Not enough.
Carol feels her heart begin to sink. Surely, her observers can see this. The violence in her own heart. That, in her own mind, humanity has already failed a crucial test. The question of what will happen to her is supplanted by the enormity of another question:
How long until they test again?
A century? A millennium? More?
Daniel’s mind wraps around hers, gentle, warm, nurturing.
You’ve done the right thing, he tells her. You have been honest.
And she sees through his mind, as he sees through hers—that her honesty, her refusal to endanger his people save hers, is itself a sign of progress.
A small comfort. A comfort woefully inadequate for the woman who has seen what might have been, what may yet be, and what is.
Whatever these people have planned for her, at least she is certain that they will not make her suffer.
As to the larger question:
In a millennium or three, we may be ready.
This story originally appeared in Writers of the Future.