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biology

How I Became A Willow

by E. E. King

We learned the secret to eternal life. Hand washing.

This was the catch.  We had to wash our hands continually. We had to eat through straws. Pay others to attend to our bodily needs. Because if we were separated from soap and water we would perish, overcome by a sea of bacteria. Sunk in a tide of virus.

Those we paid to feed us were doomed to die, but that is nothing new. The poor have always bathed the rich.

And so, society evolved into two classes, the washed and the unwashed. The clean and the unclean. The saved and the damned.

Still, it wasn’t much of a life. Stuck at our sinks, we designed computers we operated with our toes. We converted our mirrors into screens. We wore virtual reality googles. But no matter how clever the sensoround, or how compelling the avatar, eventually, over centuries, we had to confront the reality. We were the doomed. The dammed. The isolated. Alone.

Some of us tried to reach out, metaphorically. We tried to become friends with our caretakers, but that always ended in death. Besides, by then our minds had changed. We were unused to conversation anywhere but inside ourselves.

And so we began again. We Invented mechanical feeders but that only increased our loneliness.

We had our keepers make biodegradable soap, so that we could venture out into nature. Carrying portable washbasins strapped to out chests, we were wheeled, or driven, to lakes, rivers, and tide pools. By then, over the decades, we had lost use of our legs. Only our hands, clean and ever moving, remained strong.

It was better, this connection with field and stream. But even the most biodegradable soaps are slow poisons. And so, we turned to plants. My favorite was the ceanothus flower, which only needed to be rubbed to produce a foaming wash.

We sat with our toes in water, scrubbing, creating a foam of flowers. Our feet grew red and long, weaving into riverbanks, drawing nutrients from the soil, and holding firm the shore. Others wept, and our tears filled ponds, creating new seas. Our roots spread and touched and linked and connected, to each other and to the plants we had considered so very different from us.

And so, the world was born again. And we were not alone.

~

Bio:

E.E. King is an award-winning painter, performer, writer, and naturalist. She’ll do anything that won’t pay the bills, especially if it involves animals. She’s been published widely, including Clarkesworld and Sci Phi Journal. Her stories are on Tangent’s 2019 and 2020 year’s best stories. She has been nominated for five Pushcart awards. Check out paintings, writing, musings, and books at: www.elizabetheveking.com and amazon.com/author/eeking

Philosophy Note:

I am more and more convinced that all beings, plants included, communicate in ways we don’t even conceive of. They have evolved longer- then can turn sunlight into food. This tale deals with that idea – the concept of evolving into plants, as well as the inevitable inequity of human society.

Apocrita

by Cooper Shrivastava

The day the last drone of the old generation dies becomes the Feast of the Renewed Eye, and the whole hive comes alive in dance and drumming. They pour from the ziggurat, every last bee tumbling claw over eyecluster, burning their feet on the sun-soaked sand outside. Today is the day the adult generation comes of age, and the youths are assigned houses and castes. Today is the day they drink the honeypus from the back of the Prophet-Queen. Today is the day they see the vision of the afterlife and are rewarded with knowledge of which of the six combs—two of world, two of heaven, two of underworld—will be their eternal home.

Today is Ruzig’s last day as a costumer. After the ritual, he and the other costumer bees of the older generation will become drones, and chosen members of the youngest generation will step into their shoes. Ruzig has never flown under the hot sun to search for pollen and nectar; his life’s work has been the hummingbird costumes arrayed before them, the symbol of Sygyzmur, god of his House. He has been a costumer since he ascended the southernmost side of the ziggurat and joined the House of Red Orb, leaving behind Aurzosh, Oddi, Uhar, his childhood friends.

Ruzig looks at the other costumer of the House of Red Orb, Agba. Together they tie off a costume, while the warrior wearing it sips nectar from Agba’s open mandibles. They move to the next warrior, chitin becoming feathers, exoskeleton becoming endoskeleton, compound eyes becoming simple lenses, mouthparts adapted for chewing and sucking becoming a beak with the tongue torn out, as the warrior becomes an avatar of Sygyzmur, the god of diplomacy, sisterhood, and the six cardinal directions.

Agba goes to the front of the swarm of the House of Red Orb, and Ruzig loses sight of him. He is still tying off a great golden hummingbird skin, which has taken on an almost punishing lustre under the sun’s rays.

To the left of Ruzig, the House of Map begins their dance, their warriors outfitted in the skins of beetles, the avatar of zTriibigzz. The rattle of wings both living and dead shakes each of the tiny hairs that grow on Ruzig’s body until he
can’t feel or hear anything but the House of Map. Ruzig feels as if the ground, the ziggurat, the whole world is vibrating. It has begun.

The bees of the House of Red Orb begin to crawl towards the ziggurat but the holy form is missing one hummingbird: the last costume is still clutched in Ruzig’s front claws, as the warrior meant to wear it has disappeared on ahead
rather than risk missing her one chance to taste honeypus.

Ruzig swivels around in alarm. These rituals are his holy responsibility, and he cannot expose the colony to the disfavor of Sygyzmur by failing to complete the set.

At the base of the structure the bees spin and then smack the ground, and the drumming intensifies. The Prophet-Queen has emerged from the top of the ziggurat and Ruzig is stricken with awe. He has loved her from afar, as all bees do, for his whole life, and the momentousness of this occasion suddenly strikes him, overpowering his fear of being left behind and his worry for the dance and the costumes and sacred geometry, and even overpowering his fear of what vision he will see of his afterlife.

She is gigantic, and the six pimples on Her back are swollen and ripe for bursting. Her antennae are large and pendulous. Her thorax is scarred from the fight with Her sister-Queen when She seized the hive. Her spermathica is full from Her recent mating flight. Soon there will be larvae. She flaps Her wings and the bees vibrate in ecstasy, roll on the ground, wave their antennae, share nectar mouth to mouth with one another.

The pace of the drumming accelerates further, and the bees of the younger generation start to push forward, converging on the ziggurat. Ruzig is left at the outskirts of the staging area trapped by the oncoming flood of younger bees, but unable to move without abandoning the heavy costume of the hummingbird god.

He pulls it along the ground behind him, frantic, allowing the sunset orange and lemon peel yellow feathers to drag on the ground, as the younger bees come racing up behind him. His heart breaks to think each house will reach the top of
the ziggurat with six sets of six dancers except for Red Orb.

The fastest of the younger bees has reached Ruzig, and steps on the wing of the hummingbird costume as he races by. He gets behind the costume and pushes with all his might, but he is no warrior bee, and it merely flops over. The young ones are upon him; Ruzig can’t protect the costume from their furry mass.

But then he sees a single body turning around, a warrior from the House of Orchid. The warrior leaves his swarm and takes to the air, managing for several long seconds to look away from the Prophet-Queen, and to come zipping low over the heads of the assembly to where Ruzig is huddled near his trampled costume.

Aurzosh is immediately recognizable even after all this time; his bony mid-tibial spurs, his slender hind basitarsus, his corbicula clean of flower pollen for the occasion. He nudges Ruzig with his forelegs, but the air is too saturated with odor plumes and pheromones and vibrations for them to communicate.

Aurzosh nudges Ruzig again, grabbing the costume in his mandibles. Ruzig is stunned. He is seeing two wondrous sights today: the Prophet-Queen, and member of the House of Orchid who is willing to take on the costume of the Red
Orb, willing to take it on for Ruzig’s sake.

They heave the costume over Aurzosh’s head and let off prayers of odor plumes from their tarsal glands. They are almost, but not quite, close enough to smell each other. Ruzig vomits nectar from their comb’s collective stomach into
Aurzosh’s mouth, and he can’t imagine it tastes good, he is a poor honey-alchemist, but Aurzosh swallows it and trundles through the crowd of young bees, with Ruzig in his wake.

Aurzosh doggedly pushes bodies out of the way. He will not take flight, for he, like Ruzig, will not destroy the sacred symmetries. Ruzig grabs the tattered tail of the hummingbird costume in his mandibles and lets himself be pulled forward, until his feet hit the waxy steps.

They are getting close, and Ruzig’s tiny heart pounds as he thinks they might make it after all. Aurzosh is climbing faster now, overtop the other bees so his legs land on furry bodies rather than the tacky wax of the ziggurat. He can see the great white pustules on the Prophet-Queen’s back; he is closer to Her than he ever has been before!

Ruzig’s eyes are fixed on the Queen, and that is why he doesn’t notice as fast as the other bees do. Bees take to the air from the sides of the ziggurat, disrupting the sacred geometries. For a moment he is consumed with rage at their
heresy, but then a shadow falls over him and Aurzosh, who have finally reached the middle tier, just steps below their Queen.

The shadow forms the shape of a paw, but with five long fingers and no claws. The warrior caste is fully in the air; even Aurzosh has shed his costume as they attack the intruder, but to no avail. It picks up the Queen in its monstrous grip
and pinches Her holy body upside down over a giant tub.

Ruzig watches on in horror as the pimples express. Six bursts of pus gush from her back, and into the monster’s collection tub, their prophetic power dissipating. The warriors are attacking frantically, and the workers and drones join
them, but it is too late. The Queen is tossed to the ground by the five fingered monster, Her holy body rolling through the dust.

The bees of the six houses swarm and sting, but the monster casually bats them away. Ruzig is in shock. Twelve warrior bees bear the body of the Queen back underground to the safety of the hive. She waves Her limbs in distress, the six burst pustules on Her back still oozing liquid. They are honorable bees and do not try to taste it.

The monster has retreated, taking their future with it in the tub. Ruzig stands on the ziggurat alone. All around him the hive is flying and mourning and moaning; the monster is gone and there is no one left to sting.

He does not know what he will become, only that he will no longer be a costumer. He does not know what he will face in the afterlife. He looks up into the red sun, so hot it burns his eyes, and searches in vain for the face of Sygyzmur.

~

Bio:

Cooper Shrivastava is a writer based in New York City. She was a member of the 2019 Clarion Writers Workshop, and her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Clarkesworld, Heavy Feather Review and Tor.com. She is currently working on her first novel.

Starborn, Starbirth

by Liam Hogan

The tired old star burns fat and hot and slow. Now, as the end approaches, as firestorms flicker and die and are born anew across its roiling surface, as, at its core, helium ashes are squeezed and the heat there builds and builds, stuttering with the idea of something new, we detach ourselves from the fields in which we have gambolled for countless aeons, where we have long feasted and bred, diving deep in our displays of courtship, kicking up great tendrils of supercharged plasma through which to leap and skip and dance, filtering out the heavier elements as we do. Now, we drift outwards, cooling rapidly in a vacuum that is thin and cold and hostile, hardening our hearts as we majestically unfurl our vast, fragile wings. Gossamer thin, we float past rocky planets, long stripped of their seas, their delicate atmospheres, whose once molten centres are hardened and still. There was life here, we are amused to note. Brief, faltering life, as ethereal as the waves from a solar flare, as short lived as our mating songs.

And on we riders go, to the next planet, the next rock. Life fled here when its cradle had grown too warm, too barren, too polluted. A brief respite only, a staging ground for the next tentative step. And on again we and the echoes of it drift, past the remnants from the solar system’s ancient creation to the next planet, to the moons that circle like clockwork around the gassy giant, itself too small to ignite, too cold to offer us any real sustenance. Though a few of us try anyway and are quickly swallowed by its dense, unpalatable clouds, wings ripped away and for a moment flaring bright, the imprint swiftly forgotten.

The giant, and its lesser neighbour, will feed the inferno that is yet to come. The shock-wave might perhaps briefly fire them into life, before stripping the clouds of gas, leaving them stunned and stunted in the dimming afterglow, finally exposing whatever those dense clouds conceal.

We wonder whether the life that is not our life ever attempted to go there, or escaped further still. There are no signs of it in the cold, outer fringes. Perhaps it went instead in search of new planets to taint, daring the void between the stars as we too are about to do. Perhaps we will catch up with it, beyond the point where the solar wind is snuffed out by the much softer, but more extensive, interstellar medium. Beyond the insubstantial border where you could truly be said to have shed the bounds of the star that even now is just a baleful, fat, reddened point. Perhaps. But there is no hurry.

Looking back, we watch as our brethren gather, our number too numerous to count. There is a sweet-spot, a place we all hope to be when the moment comes. Some will time it wrong, they always do. They will fill their bellies a little too full, rise a little too slow, too late, engorged and still soft and fragile, their wings only partially unfurled when the cataclysm comes.

Others have left too early. Billions of years too early, tired perhaps of waiting. They haven’t got very far and they will be cold and perhaps dead by now. Pushed only by the last beats of a burning heart, slumbering for an eternity, dreaming of what might have been.

This too is the way.

Only a few of us, a handful of the myriad, will fall upon more fertile ground, many millennia from now. But all of us will ride the death of the star we grew up on, and in, letting its final, dying light push us far out into the unexplored galaxy, looking for new homes, new stars, new life.

Rarer still, perhaps only once in a generation, one of us might find themselves not captured by another star but instead, surrounded by a veil of interstellar gases. With their wings stretched so thin it will be as though they’re not there, they will begin to turn, the steady rhythm creating eddies and gathering in more and more of the tantalising dust. Only one rider will sing the song of becoming as she slowly retracts her wings, cloaking herself within the thickening cloud, spinning faster and faster and faster until, the cosmos be willing, she gives birth to a brand new star.

~

Bio:

Liam Hogan is an award winning short story writer, with stories in Best of British Science Fiction 2016 & 2019, and Best of British Fantasy 2018 (NewCon Press). He’s been published by Analog, Daily Science Fiction, and Flame Tree Press, among others. He helps host Liars’ League London, volunteers at the creative writing charity Ministry of Stories, and lives and avoids work in London. More details at happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk

Silica Field Study SOP

by E. A. Lawrence

CONGRESSIONAL DISCOVERY EXPEDITION

AUTHOR and DIVISION PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR: Zephraim A. Mallory, Jr., P.hD

MISSION DATE:  2467_1.42.8

CDE CARRIER: PEREGRINE

CDE CARRIER DEAN: Zephraim C. Mallory, Sr., PhD

RESEARCH DIVISION: XENOANTHROPOLOGY

STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE OUTLINE FOR: FIELD STUDY INTERVIEWS

ON: SILICA [14.03.49.60.22.23]

WITH: Social Amphibian Ectothermic Digitigrade Biped Society

INDIGENOUS SELF-APPELLATION: Wannana

IN: Southern Hemisphere, Central Riparian Region, Bordering the West Coast Beta Ocean

DURING: Quinquennial Vernal Precipitation Event called “Anamee”

BACKGROUND: The Meteorology Division defined that five years are needed for Silica’s atmosphere to gather enough moisture from the ice caps and scattered seas for one planet-wide storm season. The xeric environment recedes, the seas rise, and the seeds thrive in loamy sand. The plants are efficient. Cell growth from germination to maturity in the Southern cirronns, a photosynthetic plant similar to the Bambusoideae, is effective enough to capsize a poorly placed hover ferry because it grows 91 cm an hour; operators must use care. It is strongly recommended that no field work be attempted until the cirronn groves are mature.

Silica is dominated by amphibious life forms. It is likely that Silica was an aquatic or at least a more water-abundant world between 1 to 2 million years before present. Based on the magnetic fields of the poles and the geologic record, it is probable that Silica’s axis of rotation shifted.  This cataclysm triggered widespread extinction when abundant terrestrial freshwater became a quinquennial sight. The amphibian vertebrates underwent an adaptive radiation event and two dominant species emerged (see related CDE Argos Geology & Paleontology Dual Division Ground Science Report, by Pichard, J. & Mallory, Z.C.): the omnivorous, sentient Wannana and the alpha-predator rotpar. These species differ genetically by 2.5% of novel genetic code (see related CDE Peregrine Biology and Xeno-Linguistic Division Co-Report, by Mallory, Z.C. et al). Wannana do not resemble rotpar beyond an equivalent camouflage of nutrient dependent chromatophores that facilitate dermis ranging between cirron-grove-green and loamy beige in color. At 3 meters tall, the average Wannanan towers over human field researchers but though obligate digitigrade bipeds, they prefer to crouch when casually conversing and human researchers are able to communicate with them well. It is comfortable for humans to read their wide, round faces. The Wannanan expressive brow ridges are hypothesized to facilitate a copacetic degree of micro-expression during conversation and their language is effectively translated by our software but the word Wannana is consistently translated as “dreamer” regardless of context.

Silican organisms reproduce synchronous to the Anamee. Both the Wannana and rotpar depend on the cirronn groves as well as the dynamic riparian ecosystem bordering the Beta Ocean to survive. Like the majority of Silica’s terrestrial animals, the Wannana estivate in the sand during the inter-Anamee years. Rotpar hunt and scavenge on the wing, in the water, and even in the sand without aestivating on the scale of the rest of Silica. The only amphibian on Silica with true flight, in appearance a rotpar resembles the extinct amphiuma of the North American southeast of Earth, with a conical head on the end of a muscular, serpentine neck. Rotpar have a long tail with a keratinized terminal spine. The anterior legs are short with excavating claws; the powerful posterior legs terminate in talons. The rotpar are obligate carnivores, highly intelligent, and opportunistic apex hunters. A wurnn, the juvenile rotpar, is a diminutive version of its parents. Rotpar fathers guard the growing wurnns while females hunt, and occasionally bring food to the males guarding their eggs. Every step the wurnns take is within sensory range of the father. However, the rotpar offer no recorded interpersonal nurturing behavior to their young. Rotpar actively hunt the Wannana. All field researchers engaged in Wannana interviews must follow standard off-ship safety practices with particular emphasis on wearing full personal protective equipment and working in teams to avoid injury (see Peregrine Field Safety Checklist, edition XII, sub-section 4, Predation Avoidance & Survival).

During Anamee, the Wannana congregate in the riparian zone parallel to the sea to dance, sing, and reproduce. Prior studies conducted by the CDE Argos and earlier work done by the CDE Peregrine have documented the natural history of the Wannana but have succeeded in only minimal xeno-anthropology. Couples mate and lay their eggs. However, the complete metamorphosis of Wannana-tadpoles to metamorphs must occur beneath the sand during estivation. Wannana-tadpoles have been observed burrowing beneath the muddy pools to estivate as the Anamee ends, using their powerful, fatty tails to propel them underground. During Anamee stubby-tailed metamorphs emerge at half their adult size and act familiar with their adult caregivers who do provide parental care. The females and post-Anamee metamorph juveniles guard the eggs at night, when the young wurnns and Rotpar females hunt. Guarding behavior consists of performing fierce threat displays of vocalizations and twirling cirron-trunk stave weapons. The guardians circle the eggs in shifts, relieving each other to sleep, eat, and otherwise relax. The mature male Wannana care for the elderly and act as sentinels of the eggs within their individual rookery pools.

Though the rotpar hunt the Wannanan rookery pools daily and the Wannana vigorously protect their eggs to a sufficient degree, they do not retaliate with lethal violence against the rotpar even after observed high depredations of eggs, Wannana-tadpoles, and metamorphs. Numerous observations and encounters with the Wannana provide evidence for a hunter-gatherer society with distinct language groups, complex social communication culture, and sophisticated cirron & bone-based tool use (see related reports from both the Peregrine and Argos Biology Divisions by Mallory, Z.C. & Goodel et al), but no formal Xeno-anthropology Division study has been conducted to better understand Wannanan culture. The landmark Mallory & Goodel studies posited in their respective Discussions that the societal development of the Wannana is constrained by the lack of surface time to technologically develop effective agriculture and long-term survival infrastructure to overcome the incredible predation of both the rotpar, meso-predators, and the harsh environment of Silica. However, their post-autopsy descriptions of Wannana physiology describe a large brain to body ratio as well as complex brain physiology that both Mallory, Z.C. and Goodel admitted defies an easy analog to known physiologies described by CDE missions. Given the complex social behavior evidenced in previous missions that suggest estivation acculturation due family-group behavior despite a presumed absence of direct contact. No artificial subterranean structures have been found on Silica during numerous geologic studies.

KEY QUESTIONS: How does a culture persevere when it is active only one-year for every five spent estivating? How do Wannanans complete metamorphosis and acculturation to their social band during estivation? Are there structures in their brains or body that allow for a way to socially function?

PROCEDURE: This is a broad scale procedural outline to direct plans on site.

  1. Arrive five days post-Anamee (coordinate with Meterology Division)
  2. Set up operations in the same area explored by both Mallory, Z.C. and Goodel to facilitate data comparison
  3. Make contact with Ziarrara (see attached photo)
  4. If Ziarrara is unavailable, Xharrara or Syggl, her kin are also good contacts
  5. Ask to be guests
  6. Interview every host group member and take detailed notes
  7. See attached interview form from the CDE Argos Xeno-Anthropology division mission to Alpha Centauri
  8. Offer every development stage possible of the host group the emotional imaginary communication set
  9. The more mature individuals show most curiosity about visible media, especially watercolor paint
  10. The adults are more interested in building bricks, pliable textured metals, and felt boards
  11. The metamorphs are most interested in the beeswax-based polymers
  12. The interests of the Wannana-tadpoles are unknown but will be explored 
  13. Catalogue and discuss all products of both steps five and six to build relationships and answer key questions
  14. Assist in everyday food gathering and predation avoidance activities to the safest extent possible
  15. See reports from both the Peregrine and Argos Biology Divisions by Mallory, Z.C. & Goodel et al for a comprehensive list of possible hazards and means of navigating same
  16. Ask individuals with whom a rapport has been cultivated to complete both EEG and MRI testing over the course of various stimuli like emotional imaginary communication, ordinary conversation, and song.
  17. Offer to share all results and be explicit about activities to build trust
  18. If possible, explore how the estivation process is prepared for and conducted

PROPOSED RESULTS ANALYSIS & FUTURE DIRECTIONS: A full portfolio of imaginary communication projects as well as all interview notes and brain activity records will be tabulated for analysis by both the Peregrine Statistical Division and its Analytic A.I., Quest. The results will be prepared to present at both the CDE Conference at Io and the Intra-galactic Research Symposium. A better understanding of cultural development in a periodically xeric, high-predation-risk environment and the intersectional role of physiology, ecology, and social behavior in survival will enrich the Xeno-Anthropology discipline across diverse worlds. Silica is a singular world in the experience of the CDE. Creative approaches to cross-cultural communication are necessary to truly understand a society that defies easy comparison to known terrestrial experience and there is much that we can potentially learn to inform future CDE missions across multiple worlds.

~

Bio:

E.A. Lawrence’s fiction has been published in the anthology ROAR 7, edited by Mary E. Lowd and in the August 2020 issue of Electric Spec. She lives with multiple sclerosis and many fountain pens in the upper Midwest of the USA. When she’s not writing fiction, she works in academia as a scientist to support medical research.

The Furry And The Damned

by E. E. King

Gerald was a sculptor, gifted with the fires of creation, cursed with fathomless canyons of despair. Unable to extricate himself from a lightless, twisting passage somewhere in his frontal cortex, he shot himself.

He’d come back as a graceful tortoiseshell cat.  The thing was…  it was after all, the Island of the Damned …he knew he still had it in him – the ability to mold a hunk of clay into something beautiful, something alive …if only he’d had opposable thumbs.

Many were trapped on the island. The furry and the damned – thumbless painters, caterwauling sopranos. Dogs and cats searching the island for inspiration and other prey. There was danger in every bite. There was no way to be certain who a rat might be. What undiscovered Milton lay behind sharp, yellow incisors? What Michelangelo peered from small rodent eyes? It was bad enough not to be able to create…but to destroy by dinner was both horrible and banal.

Once, after picnicking on a particularly feisty, russet mouse, Gerald remembered that the mouse had been missing its left ear. What if he had just eaten Van Gogh? Gerald had always worshipped Van Gogh’s mad, vibrant brush strokes, his almost sculptural dimensionality, his vibrant hews. He recollected a crazy, starry look in the mouse’s eyes.

Gerald lay awake on the cold gritty sand, stomach, and heart aching. The next day he was a wreak. He needed at least fifteen hours of sleep a day just to feel feline.

He became a vegan, dining on sea grass and kelp. But his stomach growled and his vision dimmed. Gerald recalled reading, when he was still able to read, that cats lacking the taurine found in meat and fish go blind. Gerald’s whole world was form and light and color. Blindness was worse than death, worse than murder. Also, the sea grass made him vomit.

That very night he went hunting. Limping on cooling sands at twilight in search of sustenance, Gerald did not hear the soft padded footsteps behind him. He was grabbed so quickly, and was by then so weak, that at the first pierce of needle teeth, this heart gave out. He did not even have time to notice, before final darkness descended, that the hungry, red furred, coyote who snatched him was missing its left ear.

~

Bio:

E.E. King is a painter, performer, writer, and biologist. She’ll do anything that won’t pay the bills, especially if it involves animals. Check out paintings, writing, musings and books at: ww.elizabetheveking.com and amazon.com/author/eeking

Three Scores And Ten

by Ramez Yoakeim

Nearly blind, the farmer navigated the forest floor by touch. Her gnarly fingers scattered the snow from the flaring trunks of ancient pines, in search of tubers and hardy mushrooms. When the concussive booms of atmospheric entry scattered the accumulations off the branches, she lifted her head, as far as her hunch would permit, and looked with milky eyes towards the horizon, and the arc of fire splitting the heavens.

The curious farmer followed the rivulets of molten snow up the low hill, to the cratered grave of the cometary fragment, where it lay sizzling from the ordeal of its extra-solar journey.

She caressed the fractured glassy exterior, and scraped her liver-spotted skin on the shard-riddled interior; sparing the meteorite’s fragile molecular passenger Sol’s lethal ultraviolet deluge.

Grim soldiers came knocking but the farmer’s sole surviving son answered only in grunts. Two weeks passed before he first noticed the beginnings of his mother’s metamorphosis. It took three-months more for her back to straighten, eyes to clear, and hair to regain its long-lost chestnut luster. Though imperceptible day-to-day, a crone more vibrant than blushing maidens could not go unnoticed by the villagers for long.

Word spread, drawing dour white-coated men brandishing tools to prick and prod, analyze and scrutinize. Within merely a year of its earthfall, the molecular traveler unveiled itself, for it never intended to remain hidden.

The cellular rejuvenation it imparted obviated the need for division, and the unavoidable accompanying risks of DNA degradation and runaway growth. Intensive study ensued, charting the molecule’s many boons. From immunity to pathogens, to heightened mental acuity, and elevated cognitive function. Medical types and philosophers alike whispered breathlessly, shyly pondering the demise of humanity’s most ardent foe. Short of accident or foul play, what avenues to those endowed remained for death to intrude?

A dozen months passed before the mighty could refrain no more. They drank thirstily from the interstellar gift’s fount, drawing the ire of all. Those once ailing at death’s door reemerged from intensive care wards flaunting vigor no surgeon’s knife nor physician’s elixir could bestow.

Overnight, those living under the yoke of presidents-for-life had an eternity more to lament their woes. Aspiring heirs to billionaires were left rudderless and distraught.

Clamoring masses–witnessing the monopolization of the ultimate prize by those who already owned everything–thundered in the streets. Make whole our broken, they roared, cure our ills. Let the heavens’ gift lift the downtrodden and lame, as it once did a gnarly penurious farmer.

Voices long-practiced at casting doubt on the tumult of a convulsing planet in the throes of calamitous change, suddenly discovered their inner conservationists. How could Earth cope with billions of immortals, with a billion more added every decade or two? Responsibility, stewardship, and stability all demanded that the miraculous gift be rationed; restricted to a few.

Only those who had earned favor may partake of life everlasting. Only those deemed worthy could be permitted to turn away from the indomitable Reaper. Prove yourself then, before praying for a reward, the mighty exhorted, as if the miracle was their own.

A pervasive ranking system sprung to judge the worth of all. Do as told and rise, fall short and have solely yourself to blame. For privation, infirmity, and death. Climb then, with your worthiness score, the rungs of an endless ladder, sprouting more steps than the stars.

Kicking those below and clawing at those above, humankind set to climbing, gleefully imagining eternity attained. Until the all-consuming race to the promised immortality spluttered to an uncertain fearful halt.  Long since grown accustomed to the benefits due the first immortal, one morning the farmer failed to arise from her slumber.

Shock and disbelief ensued. How could she perish? Had she been poisoned? Was it even possible to envenom the perdurable? Could her silks have spelt her doom? She had indulged to surfeit, the glitterati droned, eaten to excess, strained to exhaustion, rejoiced immoderately, lived too fully. Surely, the fault was none other’s but her own.

The autopsy showed frayed arteries and veins, liquified organs, and the decayed vitals of a crypt postponed. Cells once rejuvenated by the molecule were undone by its machinations; deconstructed to constituent biochemical ingredients. What it once bestowed, and more, the molecule slyly reclaimed.

Whilst they sought its largesse, none questioned whence it came, or to what end. Turn away from the gift horse, they insisted, avert your gaze from its mouth. With death within the stride, however, they dissected the horse; hide and all, uncovering isotropic timers buried deep within the molecule’s intricate innards.

All told, one hundred forty-four thousand received the molecule’s pourboire. Presidents and prime ministers, queens and princes, billionaires and celebrities, grifters and sycophants alike awoke to tidings of certain doom.

Frantically they counted the days since they received the molecule’s bequest, and the days that then remained till their eternity ended. They spared no effort searching for an antidote. At first, one that retained immortality while diffusing the accompanying fuse. Failing that, means to purge the molecule altogether, reverting to what once had been. Finally, any means to stave off a resurgent death; even if only until dawn.

The molecule’s makers’ aim had been to depopulate the earth, ready it for those who sought to conquer it with nary a photon beam. Using instead an irrepressible ailment disguised as a boon.

Their failing, and humankind’s grace, had been in gravely overestimating our community mindedness. Cooperative we might be when requisite, but only as a molehill stands at the foot of the Everest of our greed. We proclaim commonwealth even when our biology demands we hoard every advantage within grasp’s reach. Even those that spell our ruin. The farmer’s son witnessed the internment of her remains alone. After, in their old hovel, he retrieved a shard she hid in a wall, and pricked his finger. Then again, to be sure. It mattered not the manner of death he met, if for three scores and ten months he lived secure.

~

Bio:

Ramez Yoakeim’s academic research once involved engineering perfectly believable details out of nothing. Fiction seemed like the obvious next step. At one time or another an engineer, educator, and entrepreneur, these days Ramez devotes himself to charting humanity’s future, one tale at a time. Find out more about Ramez and his work at yoakeim.com.