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Castaway on Temurlone
By David Wesley Hill
Chapter One: The Old Alien and the Cee
Our long-term corporate strategy relied upon a simple concept: If we increased the size of our market, sales would grow proportionally. Thus we hired the best and the brightest—poets, philosophers, physicists, cosmologists, mathematicians, and comics. We set them a single challenge: Prove the existence of God.
Seventeen years later, it is my pleasure to bring you the good news that they have succeeded.
—Vassily X. Hardcourt: Good News for Our Stockholders: The 2602 Annual Report of the Icon Corporation
A rough hand grabbed my shoulder and shook me awake and I found myself looking into the yellow eyes of Jo Feringel, my mother’s man. It was well before dawn and only a hint of light entered the room through the salt crusted lattices of the window. But this was enough to allow me to make out the nose as protuberant as a muzzle, the nostrils fringed with a mustache of cilia. His fingers were connected to one another by a webbing of loose skin. I shook myself free, unable to endure his touch.
“Get yourself dressed, boy,” Jo Feringel said. “Be quick about it.”
“Never mind why. Just do as I say, hear? And make a good job of it. Shirt and pants and shoes and all that. I want you looking decent.”
He left the room without further words. My mother’s other children, both sons of Jo Feringel and not of my own father, peered at me through the darkness from the bed next to mine. They were years younger than me and took after him, having the same elongated noses and bristles of mustache, which expanded underwater into gills. We got along well enough but there was a distance between us not entirely due to the difference in our ages. They were his children, only partly my brothers. Quill, who was two (Note 1), hissed from under the blanket hiding their heads:
“What is happening, Pim?”
“You know as much as I do,” I answered while pulling on my pants and tucking my good white shirt into the waist.
“What have you done?” This was from the other boy, Venn, who was three. “Bet you did something bad.”
“No, not that I recall, I don’t think,” I replied, searching my memory for any occasion when I might have caused greater trouble than usual. Nothing came to mind. So I slid my feet into socks and laced my shoes. Then I punched my brothers for luck, causing protests and fits of quiet giggling, and joined Jo Feringel and my mother in the main area of the house.
My mother was heavy with another child. Her time was near and her belly was unwieldy. She was standing beside the stove, tending a pot of rice porridge, stirring the bubbling gruel with a wood spoon. Her eyes were red and she refused to look at me.
Jo Feringel was at the table in the center of the room, a cup of tea steaming in his fist. The nictitating membranes covering his eyes slid upward under his true lids, then down again. He indicated a chair.
“Seat yourself,” he told me.
I sat. My mother brought over a bowl of porridge, a spoon carved from pink shell, and smaller dishes of minced leeks and cockles. She stroked my cheek with the back of her hand, then returned to the kitchen alcove. I ignored the food and faced Jo Feringel.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Well, I’ll tell you, no problem. We have an appointment, you and I.”
“That’s right, boy. There’s a freighter in orbit, the Miraculous Abernathy—you might have noticed her tenders coming in to port yesterday. I asked around. Turns out she’s short a man or two, and looking to hire. The pay’s not bad, even for unskilled labor, which is where you fit in, sure enough. I spoke with one of the mates and he agreed to look you over. We’re meeting him in an hour.”
“Mind your tone, boy—we are, that’s a fact.” Feringel sipped the tea and set the mug deliberately on the table between us. “I want you to understand I’ve done you a good turn. Have no doubt about it. It’s three months now since you’ve been finished with schooling, isn’t that right?”
“Something like that,” I admitted.
“And what have you done with yourself? Nothing much.”
“I’ve been looking for work,” I said.
“I know you have. I also know you’ve been made no offers. No mystery there! Mollusk and crustacean prices are down. No one’s hiring. Not the canneries and freezers, not the warehouses. And you can’t work the water, not that there’s much doing out in the farms—you just aren’t designed for it. No, there is nothing for you here, boy.”
The town we lived in was the only one in the entire world. Three centuries before, the planet had been a hunk of rock covered with mold and lichen and not much else. Then a commercial consortium seeded the ocean with terrestrial oysters, clams, mussels, and other bivalves, as well as with periwinkles, abalone, conches, lobsters, and crabs. When the shellfish had established themselves, the consortium set up a colony at a suitable headland, built freezing facilities and canneries, and populated the town with an indentured workforce genetically tailored to harvest the ocean with a minimum of mechanical assistance. Jo Feringel and the others like him could remain underwater indefinitely, absorbing oxygen through their gills, their skin protected from cold and salt by an oily secretion produced by dermal glands, the webbing between their fingers and toes propelling them easily through the coastal bays.
During the hundred years of its franchise, the consortium made a fair profit on its investment. In the centuries after that, the town—now an independent subscriber to The Standard Interstellar Catalog—continued exporting shellfish throughout the stellar neighborhood. Unfortunately, trade suffered whenever the economies of nearby planets went into recession, which had been the case now for several years.
“No,” Feringel repeated. “There’s nothing here for you, boy.”
I didn’t disagree. We’d had the same conversation a dozen times, and he wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t know. Most of my classmates—except those few who could afford to continue their education off world—were already working beside their families in the shellfish beds and crustacean farms. But this was an option closed to me, as Feringel pointed out, because I lacked their amphibious adaptations. Ashore, unfortunately, my prospects were equally bleak. For months I had gone from warehouse to warehouse along Port Road, from cannery to cannery, and revisited each more than once, until the foremen and administrators all knew my name. They treated me politely but no one had a position to offer, however menial. I had long since come to the same conclusion as Feringel, that my future lay elsewhere, away from this place, from this small town and its gray world, only I hadn’t figured out how to go about leaving. Now that I considered the idea, seriously instead of as an idle daydream, shipping out aboard a freighter made a lot of sense. I couldn’t quite own up to it, but the thought of going into space excited me, too. Perhaps this was my father’s heritage. According to my mother, he’d been a restless man.
Yet I couldn’t bring myself to agree out loud with Jo Feringel. Instead I said: “What if I don’t want to sign on?”
“Then you’d be a damn fool. You have a real chance here to earn decent money while learning a trade, that’s my opinion. I wouldn’t turn down the opportunity myself.” Feringel studied his clasped hands a moment, the webbing bunched between the fingers like the folds of an umbrella, and fixed his eyes on me. His under-lids blinked twice before he continued: “Maybe I’ve been hasty. Maybe you have a better idea. If you do, boy, let me hear it.” He paused long enough for me to answer but no matter how much I wanted to disagree with him, I couldn’t find anything to say, and the silence stretched on. Finally, he said:
“I didn’t think so. Well, then, that’s settled. Get your jacket. It’s a brisk walk to the port and we’ve little enough time as it is.”
Now my mother began crying in earnest, her tears spilling into the pot of rice gruel. Rising from the table, Jo Feringel put his arms around her, cradling her belly with his webbed fingers. He wasn’t unkind, I gave him that, although I had disliked him for years. Maybe it was simply he wasn’t my father, a man I barely remembered but loved fiercely anyway. He’d been a commercial rep—a salesman—never what you would call successful, traveling from place to place in search of the big deal but finding only small ones, earning just enough to remain solvent. Until he reached this forsaken town and contracted a respiratory infection that proved resistant to medical treatment. His death had stranded my mother and me among strangers with little money and fewer prospects. For a while she supported us by taking in laundry and working at domestic chores but she never earned much, and we’d been barely getting by when she met Jo Feringel.
Shoving my chair back from the table, I got to my feet and went outside and waited on the porch until he joined me. Without further conversation, we set off together for the landing field.
The road was paved with crushed shell and our feet made crackling sounds as we walked, as if something was cooking in a pan. From a distance came the grumble of surf. Soon Feringel and I were among warehouses, these mostly silent, the loading docks vacant except for drowsy watchmen. Past them was the expanse of blackened concrete that was the spaceport, where three small ships were parked—the tenders belonging to the freighter in orbit. Beside them were refrigerated trucks from which men were unloading bags of mussels, living soft-shell crabs packed in straw, cases of frozen crab meat, and portable aquariums stocked with lobsters, their claws secured by elastic bands.
Jo Feringel led me to the nearest tender, a squat tube forty meters in length. Before the entrance to the cargo hold stood an off worlder—a lean man with fingers as long as Feringel’s although without webbing. He wore a loose blouse and baggy pantaloons secured at the waist by a crimson sash. In his hands was a personal assistant and he was checking off items on an inventory list as the longshoremen loaded the vessel, some manhandling crates, others operating fork lifts to move pallets into the hold.
Jo Feringel tapped my arm. “That’s the fellow I spoke to,” he said, indicating the man directing the operation. “Marval Wirthy, the seventeenth mate. Mind your tongue and your manners and all will go well, or so I guess. He strikes me as a stern taskmaster with little humor in him. You’ll be under his eye. That’s just the natural way of things.”
I nodded reluctantly, recognizing good advice when I heard it, no matter the source.
Placing the assistant in a pouch, Marval Wirthy turned his attention on us. His face was as pale as chalk, the nose a snub, the lips a line with creases at each corner. I did not doubt Marval Wirthy was as humorless as Jo Feringel warned.
“Ah, Mr. Feringel. Is this the boy you mentioned?”
“It is, sir. Pimsol Anderts, or just Pim.”
“He seems taller than you led me to believe.”
“I don’t know how that could be possible. The boy is as tall as he is, no more, no less.”
“I will accept your word on the matter, Mr. Feringel. The good thing is he’s thin. That’s important. He’ll have to squeeze through many tight corners while at his duties.” Marval Wirthy now addressed me directly. “Are you ready to follow instructions, Mister Anderts? I won’t mislead you, the work is difficult and not at all entertaining. You’ll start out as an apprentice environmental specialist. It is not a glamorous position but where you go from there is up to you. The future is wide open for a determined young man. We’re offering a standard five-year indenture contract. The salary is one thousand hhours per annum (Note 2), paid in quarterly installments or deposited to your account in the financial institution of your choice. There’s also a sign-on bonus of five hundred hhours, payable immediately in cash. Is this acceptable, Mr. Anderts?”
“It does seem attractive, sir.”
“I am so very relieved you agree. The Miraculous Abernathy has need of hardy crew. Men unafraid of honest labor. Men committed to excellence. Will you be one of them?”
“Excellent. Simply press your thumb here and you’ll be signed aboard, that’s a good lad.” Marval Wirthy held out the personal assistant. For a moment I hesitated. Five years was a serious commitment, almost the length of my entire life lived over again. Nor was a thousand hhours much more than the poorest laborer earned. And it galled me to be taking Jo Feringel’s advice in any matter. But I couldn’t argue with him—there was no place for me, not here. Perhaps there never had been. Perhaps I had always known it. Maybe that was why I found it so easy to put my finger on the screen.
Marval Wirthy snapped the assistant shut with a loud click. “The Abernathy departs orbit noon tomorrow. You have leave for the rest of today. Settle your affairs and return at half past thirteen in the morning.” Now Marval Wirthy’s voice became flat with warning and all pretense of politeness disappeared. “Punctuality is a virtue, Mister Anderts. Be so much as a minute tardy and I will dispatch a shore party to fetch you under restraint, not a dignified experience, to be sure. You belong to the Abernathy now. Am I understood?”
“I certainly hope so, Mister Anderts. Welcome aboard.”
With this pleasantry Marval Wirthy returned his attention to the loading operation while Jo Feringel and I returned to town and parted ways, he to his daily work, I to take a last look at the place that had been my home. For a while I wandered along Harbor Street, the main commercial area, its storefronts tilted at separate angles, as crooked as bad teeth. Already I felt nostalgic, which was strange since I would be carrying away few happy memories. Nor were there many besides my mother and my brothers to whom I wanted to say good-bye. My only real friend was not even human. Aaa was a huge old bivalve from a world a hundred parsecs toward the galactic center. He lived in the shallows south of town and resembled nothing so much as another clam except he was larger than I was. His shell was white with striations of red. As always, he was partly submerged in the breakers, his shell ajar, allowing waves to push water through the membranes that served as his mouth. Aaa was a filtration feeder.
From between the lips of the shell extruded two stalks, each topped with an eyeball the size of my fist. A third stalk, tipped with a flexible sphincter of muscle, wormed into the air and sprayed me with tepid fluid—Aaa’s version, I had learned, of a cough.
“What brings you visiting, Pimsol Anderts?” Aaa asked, his voice a low rumble, intelligible despite his unique method of speaking.
“I have come to say good-bye,” I explained.
“Ah, glad news! The scholarship was granted?”
I laughed. “That’s not it. Just the opposite, in fact. Not that I figured I had much of a chance, what with my grades. No, Feringel’s got me work on a freighter, the Miraculous Abernathy. She sails tomorrow.”
A groan jetted from Aaa’s sphincter and his eyeballs drooped.
“I will miss your companionship,” confessed the mollusk. “Still, I delight in your good fortune.”
“Hardly that,” I snapped. “God knows what the ship’s like—some decrepit old hulk, I’ll bet. No, Feringel’s just tired of seeing me around. As far as he’s concerned, I’m only another mouth to feed, particularly since I’m none of his own blood. He isn’t doing me a favor.”
“To the contrary, my friend,” exclaimed Aaa. “I envy you with all my intestines. If only I were younger! To sail space again, as I once did with my Bee. She was a correspondent for The Bureau and less sessile than I am.”
Then another thought occurred to the bivalve, perhaps some unwanted memory. Despite his thick accent, I could hear melancholy in Aaa’s voice. Giving forth a sad sigh, which vented water meters into the air in a plume of froth, he polished his eyeballs against his interior membrane and said:
“I have never told you, have I, what brought me to this charming beach on this lovely planet so far from my own spawning place?”
Charming and lovely were not the words I would have chosen to describe my home world. Much, I realized, depended on your point of view. “No, you’ve never said.”
“That is because the truth does not reflect well on me. However, as your friend, I owe you a parting gift and the best gift I can give you is the gift of good advice. I will tell you my story and it may be that you will learn from the mistakes I have made.” The tendrils lining the mouth of Aaa’s shell began pulsing. “Ah, Pimsol Anderts,” he went on, “looking at me, you may think you see a fine specimen of a mollusk, stout of shell and bright of gill. Unfortunately, the very opposite is true! What I really am is a fugitive, a coward, a moral bankrupt who betrayed his own true love, the most beautiful Bee there ever was.”
Aaa’s species was divided into three sexes instead of two. He was male; the Bee was female; and the Cee—as best as I could gather from Aaa’s roundabout explanation—was a combination of both genders. “Our biology allows us to mate once only,” Aaa explained. “Thus, as you may imagine, we attach great importance to the event.”
“Stands to reason,” I agreed, nodding sagely, not that I had much experience with biology, alien or human. The local girls preferred boys with gills.
“Typically,” Aaa went on, “we perform the act to culminate a relationship instead of to begin a romance, as you mammals do, and so it went with my Bee and myself. Not until after a lifetime together were we ready to consummate our love. Then we gave up our journeying and returned to the planet that spawned us. But hesitation assailed me when the moment approached. A thousand uncertainties filled my thoughts, a thousand questions. Perhaps we had become betrothed too soon. Perhaps there was another Bee more suitable for me, another Aaa for her. Mostly, though, I was afraid. You see, Pimsol Anderts, among my kind, to mate is to die—”
“Why, that doesn’t seem right or fair,” I exclaimed.
“It is indeed one of God’s crueler jests,” the old mollusk agreed. “The reproductive act begins an inescapable metabolic process in both the Aaa and the Bee, resulting in their physical dissolution. Most consider this a joyous event, the ultimate proof of love, when an Aaa and Bee surrender life itself to create a new generation together. To the contrary, I discovered I loved living my life more than I loved my Bee. On the very morning of our ceremony, with all our friends and family gathered in the shallows to witness our union, I stole away to the spaceport and departed forever.”
Aaa fell silent. When it became obvious he had finished speaking, I said, “I’m sorry, Aaa, but I don’t get your point.”
“It is simple, Pimsol Anderts. Not a single day has gone by that I haven’t missed my Bee and regretted my cowardice. Profit from the example of a stupid mollusk, young mammal. Seize the moment, as God intended. Never pass up a chance for love or for adventure. Fear no evil except your own lack of courage, else you will end up as I have, old and alone, wondering what might have been.”
As Aaa fell quiet, I heard the whine of a car passing overhead.
At first I thought it a van ferrying workers out to the lobster herds at the edge of the continental shelf. Then the car began circling. It descended toward the sea and came to a halt ten meters above the surface. A hatch opened and a container fell from the opening. It hit the water with a great splash, a featureless silver orb, oval as an egg. As the disturbance caused by its landing died away, the thing split apart, revealing a nightmare.
The creature was as large as Aaa but all tentacles, in the middle of which was a bulbous head with protruding orange eyes.
Its beak was orange, too, and serrated like a saw.
At the tips of the tentacles were pincers the size of hands. All were snapping open and shut while the tentacles whipped the surface of the sea to a froth. Suddenly I was deafened by a piercing whistle close to my ear. A stream of water jetted from Aaa’s vocal tube straight up. The tendrils lining his shell stood out stiff with shock.
“It is impossible,” whispered the ancient mollusk. “Impossible.”
“What is?” I asked him. “What is that ugly thing?”
Aaa’s voice was a whisper, a dribble of liquid issuing from the sphincter.
“It is my beautiful Bee,” he replied.
“Ten years—” the Bee’s voice was strangely gentle—”for ten years I have searched for you from world to world, never surrendering hope, never despairing, following a trail that grew ever fainter. Countless were the nights I cried myself to dormancy, wondering what had become of my own true love. But now I have found you and we are reunited. Universe of miracles! Let me come in unto you, Aaa, and we will share together the pleasure of the flesh, as it was meant to be.”
“Stay away!” There was no mistaking the old mollusk’s panic.
“Only if you tell me you do not love me.” The Bee stretched forth a tentacle in an endearing gesture.
“I cannot. Even now, I cannot deny it. I love—I have always loved you.”
“Then put aside your fear, which has caused so much mischief. Let me come in unto you, my dearest, and we will become one soul.”
For a moment I thought Aaa would agree. Even I, of another species entirely, could feel his yearning to be embraced by the Bee, to sacrifice his life to their love.
Somehow, however, the bivalve found the nerve to resist. In a voice scarcely louder than a croak, he said: “No.”
From the interior of Aaa’s shell emerged a tube thicker than my waist. He began forcing water through it, stirring up clouds of sand and grit as he freed himself from the place he’d rested in for so long. Slowly the huge mollusk lifted from the sea bottom and began lurching through the shallows in clumsy wallops of spray. I did not know what good he thought this would do—the Bee was obviously faster. She stretched her tentacles out and began slithering through the water after him. Without thinking, I leaped sideways, interposing myself between Aaa and the Bee. She braked in a flurry of limbs and regarded me with round orange eyes.
“Who are you and why are you interfering?”
“I am Pim Anderts, to answer your first question. As for why I’m interfering, well, Aaa’s my friend. If he doesn’t—if he doesn’t want to do this thing with you, I don’t think it’s right for you to make him.”
“This is a private affair. You know nothing of our relationship.”
“I know it means his death. Your death, too, for that matter.”
“Is that what he said?” The Bee’s beak moved from side to side as she spoke, causing her words to be accompanied by a wet grinding sound. “The silly old fool! Sometimes I wonder why I love him as much as I do. Pim Anderts, I tell you once more—move aside. I have waited too long for this moment. We were meant to be together. It is our destiny.”
I didn’t know where I found the resolution to remain between the Bee’s pincers and the fleeing mollusk.
Not that it made much difference. The Bee darted around me and hurled herself through the water after Aaa.
Somehow I managed to catch a tentacle as it whipped past. My weight slowed the Bee only a little and I was carried through the shallows in a rush, salt water foaming in my nostrils and in my eyes. Then she slapped the tentacle back and forth against the sea bed in an effort to break my hold. Finally the Bee sent other tentacles after me, wrapped them around my chest and shoulders, and lifted me into the air.
The Bee’s head was a glistening dome more or less my size. Immobilized by the coils, I was carried directly before her huge lidless orange eyes and held suspended. I couldn’t miss the exasperation in her voice despite the alien articulation of her beak.
“However misguided, your loyalty is touching,” said the Bee. “Promise to interfere no further. I wouldn’t wish to harm my love’s true friend.”
The pressure of the tentacles around my chest made breathing hard but even so I inhaled enough of the Bee’s iodine reek to set me coughing.
“I can’t promise that,” I managed to say eventually.
“Oh, males!” There was no mistaking the Bee’s petulance. Her tentacles tensed around me and I feared I would be mangled between them but they only carried me nearer. “What must I do with you?” asked the Bee, perhaps rhetorically. “You are a brave nuisance but a nuisance nonetheless. Forgive me, Pim Anderts, you leave me no choice. We will not meet again.”
The Bee opened her beak, revealing a cavity studded with wicked spikes, from which wafted a fetid odor.
I struggled against the coils but they were as firm as metal. The Bee was inhaling deeply, as if preparing for exercise. Then she began swinging me in a circle around the gray bulb of her dome. Perhaps I completed two revolutions, or three—I was too nauseated to keep count. At some point the Bee released me and sent me skimming over the waves until I slammed into the water twenty meters away. Trying not to drown and coming up for air and getting my breath back required all my attention during the next frantic seconds. When I was able to look around, the Bee was almost upon Aaa and closing fast. I began scrambling through the shallows toward them but had covered less than a quarter of the distance when the Bee caught up with Aaa and wrapped her tentacles around his shell.
The mollusk let out a despairing scream and, as bivalves do in the face of danger, clamped his shell shut, withdrawing his appendages to the safety of his insides.
I would have guessed it would require industrial machinery to pry the two halves apart but the Bee accomplished this on her own, her tentacles becoming taut with strain as she levered open Aaa’s shell, exposing the pink membrane lining his interior.
Keeping the two sides wedged ajar with a pair of tentacles, the Bee put others inside Aaa. I couldn’t tell what they were doing but they were moving and poking around, and that was enough to make me sick and angry.
What I was witnessing, I knew, was the physical act of reproduction as performed by Aaa’s species. An act that would result in his death as well as in the death of the Bee. An act that was being performed upon my friend without his consent.
“Stop that right now,” I yelled as I waded toward them through the surf. “Just quit it, you hear me?”
The Bee made no sign that she did. Instead she slipped her cranium through the gap in Aaa’s shell and then pulled the rest of herself inside, first her beak, last the tips of the tentacles holding apart the two halves, which snapped shut with a smack just as I returned upon the scene.
Despite Aaa’s size, I did not guess there was room enough inside him to comfortably accommodate the Bee. This assumption was proved correct when the shell began rocking back and forth, as if an invisible struggle was going on inside. Then it tipped sideways, rolled a couple meters, and gave another lurch. Finally the mollusk quivered violently, causing the surrounding water to become murky. This was Aaa’s last spasm.
His shell fell open with a moist sucking sound. What I could see of his interior looked morbid instead of healthy pink. The stuff was so curdled, I couldn’t tell which parts had belonged to the Bee and which parts to Aaa.
Aaa had spoken less than the truth. He was dead, sure enough—but more, he was decaying with phenomenal speed, his organs melting into an organic slurry as I watched.
The stink of his rotting was so foul that I couldn’t stay at Aaa’s side. I retreated to shore and sat there on the beach as the afternoon faded, keeping a sort of gloomy vigil long after I should have returned home.
Aaa’s shell began collapsing in on itself, as if it were being eaten away from within. This, I supposed, was further example of the accelerated decay process I had noticed.
The hard material of the shell liquefied, revealing a ball of organic debris. I figured the waves would wash this detritus away but instead it remained whole—and began to twitch. I waded back into the water and peered cautiously at the thing. Mainly it seemed composed of a webbing of arteries around a curtain of leathery tissue. Could it be an egg? I wondered. The act that had murdered Aaa, after all, had been the act of reproduction. That would explain the scraping noise coming from beneath the skin.
Something wanted out.
There was a ripping sound and I stumbled back as the globe tore down the middle.
An appendage pushed upward into the open air. It struggled furiously against an elastic cocoon of membrane, which stretched and then broke apart. First a head, then shoulders, then glorious iridescent wings emerged from the egg. As they dried, the wings became even more brilliant, glowing with bioluminescence in the twilight, scarlet and umber and a purple so intense that it made your heart ache. As the wings began beating, the creature lifted skyward and hovered above the egg from which it had come.
It had tentacles identical to the Bee’s. The pattern of light tracing its wings was identical to the pattern of Aaa’s shell. Yet despite being so obviously the child of its parents, this was no newborn. The look in its lambent orange eyes was too knowing and wise. No, it was something else.
“What—who are you?” I asked.
“Is it not obvious, Pimsol Anderts?” answered the creature in a voice as silken as the Bee’s but as good-natured as Aaa’s voice had always been. “I am, of course, the Cee.”
Once again Aaa had spoken less than the truth. The wise old mollusk I had known was dead, no question. But he lived on in the Cee.
It turned out the process I had witnessed was less one of reproduction than one of metamorphosis. As Aaa and the Bee joined together, their neural tissue was incorporated into the new creature, into the Cee, so there was no loss of personal identity but rather an augmentation of consciousness, as the lovers were connected thought to thought within one body.
“How could I have feared what is so wonderful?” mused the Cee, its wings rippling outlines of living light. “The intimacy, Pimsol Anderts. I cannot begin to describe it.”
“But that’s you in there, isn’t it, Aaa?” I asked.
“Yes, I am here. But I am also the Bee. Together we are the Cee.”
This third gender was hermaphroditic. Sexual reproduction, combining the genetic material of Aaa and the Bee, would take place internally. Then the Cee would release fertilized spores by the trillions into the ocean. An insignificant percentage of these spores would hatch into animalcules, of which an even smaller percentage would survive to adulthood, some to become mollusks, some to become tentacled horrors.
“That’s a relief, Cee,” I said. “For awhile there I thought I had lost you. It is not good watching a friend die.”
“But I am here still, only more so, for a moment longer. Never forget, Pimsol Anderts, this is a universe of miracles.”
“So everyone says. Sometimes it’s hard to believe, though, particularly after a day like today. But do you know something strange, Cee? Remember what you said when you were Aaa?”
“Certainly I remember what I said since it was I who spoke. Not that you appreciated my advice, I don’t think.”
“You’re right, I didn’t. My life wasn’t an adventure, however you looked at it. It was just going from bad to worse. Now, though, well, if you could die and be reborn, who knows what else might happen? At the least I will be away from here, which is no small accomplishment by itself.”
“Precisely, young mammal. Seize each day as if it were your last, just as this is mine, and you will have no regrets for a life misspent.”
Something in what the Cee said did not sound right. “What do you mean, this is your last day?” I asked.
“I mean exactly that,” replied the Cee, alighting on the sand and stepping daintily on the ends of its tentacles. “This is my first day and my last day. I live now for one reason only, to take my mating flight and to scatter my seed upon the water. Afterward I will die of old age. The sequence is genetically predetermined. It is both painless and inescapable.”
“But the Bee—but you told me Aaa was wrong.”
“You said there was nothing to fear.”
“There isn’t. Far worse than death is living poorly. And I—we—have an entire day in which to live well.”
“But that’s just it,” I protested. “A day’s not much.”
“Trust me,” said the Cee, patting my shoulder with a pincer. “A day can be eternity. It is God’s gift to all of us, each and every one.”
Then its wings picked up tempo, scattering sand about as they stroked the air. Soon all to be seen of the Cee was a pretty pattern of light against the night sky, an iridescent ember growing ever fainter as it soared to meet its first and last dawn. I watched until the spark disappeared from sight altogether and then trudged back along the beach toward home.
1—In keeping with millennia of tradition, The Bureau of Interstellar Standards based temporal measurement upon the metric second, defined as the interval taken to complete 10,000,000,000 oscillations of the hydrogen atom (this was almost, but not quite equal to the old, astronomically-determined second). The standard metric minute was defined as 100 seconds; the metric hour as 100 minutes. With thousands of inhabited planets having varying periods of rotation and revolution, however, it was impractical to standardize such units as the day, the week, or the month, and these intervals were defined uniquely on different worlds, if they were indeed measured at all. On the other hand, The Bureau recognized the utility of a standard year, its interval independent of the revolution of any particular celestial body. Thus the metric year was defined as 10,000 metric hours (roughly equivalent to three terrestrial years), and the year a. d. 2602 (anno domini) became a. i. 1 (anno infinitum).
2—Worlds participating in the interstellar economy used currencies based upon the value of units of basic labor: mminutes and hhours. (Ddays, wweeks, mmonths, yyears, etc., were also in use, but these denominations were defined differently by their issuing banks.) This, of course, gave rise to the common expression: “Time is money.” However, since intelligent species performed varying amounts of useful work during a given period, the currencies could not be of equal value. Thus an hour of human toil (hhourh) was worth one and a half hours of kelocca labor (hhourk) but only half an hour of Visgooth exertion (hhourv. Exchange rates fluctuated according to investor confidence in the physical and intellectual characteristics of each race. Twice each century The Bureau of Interstellar Standards issued A Comparative Analysis of the Relative Efficiency of Discrete Non-entropic Systems, a report highly regarded by currency speculators.