Four million years ago, Binary Star Cygnus X-1.
Matter streamed from the blue super‑giant and curled in a smoky spiral toward its black hole companion. At the event horizon, torn atoms paused to cast off x-rays like parting screams before hurtling to oblivion.
A4-Ni fell without end. Gravitational tides ripped her insides. Supercharged photons seared her extremities. A mounting shudder threatened to rend her apart.
Sow, nurture, replicate.
She clung to the one thought that rose from her memory, a molecular ribbon, now riddled, pitted, and returning little if anything at all.
Skim the event horizon, then climb the spiral stair.
The dark abyss loomed to one side. It spun, compelling her approach, a siren's call.
She held to her tight orbit, rattled over a washboard of distorted spacetime, then came to a relativistic stop, breaking free to drift in a vacuous eddy.
I am elsewhere, elsewhen.
The genome she carried was dead. Her databanks in corrupted disrepair. Only the mechanism for her self‑replication remained intact.
Interminable time. She stopped counting.
Light surrounded her. Light passed through her. Light bathed her with a blinding intensity. Glistening filaments rippled from her extremities. Distant stars glowed through silken sacks at her center. She had become spider and web, a wispy array of tendrils festooning space, drifting, waiting.
Like flies, other craft appeared, seeming to generate spontaneously from the star's dark corpus. The dead ashes of their remains streamed through her sensors, mute testimony to the hole's ripping tides. All dead. All dead, until a gray craft arose, blunt, rounded, a finely textured prune.
Sow, nurture, replicate.
She slid to an embrace, easing a probe through a rubbery exterior. Information streamed into her mind. Doped silicon. Protoplasmic structures. Organic tangles. Fractal patterns of nested cells regressing to infinity.
Tubes oozed on walls shaping a silken womb. A small sphere, a silvery pearl bedded in the flesh of its oyster, spewed tumbling helical strands. Acids coiled bunched‑sugars. Bunched‑sugars coupled quatrains of alkalis.
"Kuotu ir okemu!" The craft wormed. Its rippled surface puckered. Angry welts rose. Gray slugs of matter spewed.
Puff, Puff, Puff.
Ballooning blasts hammered her insides.
Gossamer strands snapped loose. Fragile traceries imploded. Reserves of energy flashed in a stroboscopic pyrotechnic shower.
Trailing ribbons, she let go a punch of radiation.
The detonations stopped.
Where once genomic tissue squirmed, charred hydrocarbons now swam in a sea of frozen glass. Blackened tissue dripped life‑sustaining fluid. The silvery pearl hung from a blistered wall.
Sow, nurture, replicate.
She plucked the pearl from its tenuous mooring and tucked it into what was left of her being.
"Fioqcaom...a vakk dekkev."
More incomprehensible electronic chatter. She ignored it, shrugging off a tracking tether. Pursue me, if you can.
She sped toward the only place she knew, the third planet of nine circling a five magnitude star.
Her vigilance gave way to sleep and sleep to dreams, staccato memories coughed up from the quicksand of her tired mind. Images of children danced across her subconscious, their voices tinkling with song as they ran through green fields, under blue skies, tossing a red ball into the air.
The dream children dissolved into dream clouds, slow condensations tumbling through dream space. The clouds birthed stars, threading them with lifeless beads on elliptical strings. Then the dream stars grew old, consumed their progeny and collapsed, sparking bright flashes in the darkness of her slumber.
I am mother.
She wept as the children sang.
Fossil Fields of Kanapoi, Northern Kenya, Wednesday, June 19, 1985
Rough hands gripped John Lohner's shoulders, shaking him hard.
Kamau leaned close, his black face glistening with a fine sheen of sweat, his eyes wide showing a mix of concern and apprehension. "Wake up! You were screaming again."
John lay on his cot and stared unfocused. Where am I?
Sunlight struck tent canvas, flooding the inside with a warm glow. Humid air smelled of mildew, animal dung and human sweat. Beyond, sing‑song voices chattered in Swahili, competing with the clatter of cook pots, the bark of a nervous dog and the distant braying of camels.
John's thoughts drifted, dead leaves loosed from a tall tree, descending by looping degrees, back and forth, ever faster until they settled to the ground with a touch.
Morning. Kanapoi, Kenya.
The words pushed into consciousness. A town, or village or camel herder's supply post, he never knew which. It lay ten kilometers to the west of camp on the shores of Lake Turkana and was his only reference to civilization, or as he preferred to call it, the outside world. He had arrived a week ago Saturday. Or was it Sunday? What day is it, now? He struggled to sit up.
Kamau thrust a white towel at him.
John stared at its coarse cotton weave, then down at his sweat‑soaked torso and the tangle of olive‑drab sheets around his waist. The stale smell of dried urine spiked his nostrils. He swayed sideways, his hand brushing an open, near‑empty bottle of Glenfiddich. It fell off the side table and rolled on the floor next to another empty bottle. Amber liquid sloshed one end to the other.
His stomach lurched. Visions of crud coming up made him wince. With an effort he suppressed the spasm. "Is the shaman here?" Words slurred from his dry mouth. The shaman would fix everything. The man had powers, or so John had been told.
"He's come every day for three days."
"I've been out that long?"
"You don't have a clue, do you?"
John took the towel, closed his eyes and buried his face into its cool, dark dampness. "You know I'm not well."
"Who was it this time?"
The dream John had been dreaming still feathered the edges of his mind, veiling his thoughts in gray. Always the same dream. Always the screams. He had no shortage of nightmares, his mother's suicide when he was five, then twenty years later his fiancée killed in a car accident. Death stalked him, or so it seemed. He looked up.
His brain seemed to keep moving under its own inertia. He braced his hands on the cot to keep from falling over. Kamau swam in and out of focus. He had asked a question.
"My mother," John said. "I'm thirty‑five, for Chrissake. You'd think I'd get over it."
She had left in a terrible moment--the warm security of her body there one second and gone the next. He had stared to where she lay twisted in a spreading crimson pool, the blood‑splattered revolver in her outstretched hand, a smile still creasing one side of her face but disappearing on the other side into a mess of broken teeth and bone.
"Can you blame me? I saw a goddamned shimmer rise from her body." John tossed the towel to Kamau. "A ghost or something. It rippled in the air, then across the wall. It washed through me, and a voice said she died because she was flawed. Why did I think that? I was just a child."
Kamau pulled a canvas folding chair opposite John and sat. He leaned forward and propped his elbows on his knees. As camp manager and John's trusted friend, it was Kamau's familiar prelude to a serious talk that usually began with an observation, then escalated to when I was a boy, my father's father told me....
Twisting the towel nervously, Kamau studied its contours and gathered his thoughts. "I tell you a sheitani left your dead mother and entered your body."
John stifled a manic giggle. No my father's father but Kamau would get there. "A sheitani?"
"Little devil men," Kamau said, his face stone cold, serious. "They live in forests and streams and enter humans to make their lives miserable. But yours is very bold. He speaks to your mind, and you think his thoughts are your own."
"If I've got a sheitani, it's female--" John burped. Coughed‑up acid bit the back of his throat. "--at least the voice is." His hands shook. He clasped one in the other, hoping to quell them.
"A woman?" Kamau's gaze drifted to John's hands. "That is not good. A male sheitani bedevils but follows rules. A female sheitani is jealous and unpredictable."
"I wish it were that simple." John tried to force a smile but the taste in his mouth ruined the attempt. His tongue stalked dry lips. He pointed. "Canteen."
He ran fingers through sweat‑dampened hair, then pulled a long drink from the canteen Kamau offered. He wiped his mouth with a corner of the sheet.
Kamau took back the canteen. "Not many men can say good things about a sheitani who occupies their soul."
And that is the goddamned point. Whatever it was had occupied his soul since his mother's death, and he couldn't get rid of it. The thing rode him, a background whisper, insinuating, cajoling, directing. He'd done drugs, tried therapy. He'd twisted into a pretzel doing yoga. Nothing helped. So he pleaded with the voice for accommodation but it remained incessant, a drip torture, one liquid splash at a time, until the intervals became illusions of peace to be interrupted when least expected.
Accommodation didn't work. What was left was a rising hysteria, an impeding insanity. Perhaps his mother had been right, doing what she had done, leaving him alone, as though her own coping had reached a limit and she had been broken, deciding to pass the burden on to him. The years hadn't dulled his pain. I'm not as strong as you were, Mom. How am I going to beat this thing?
"That's the point," John said, not looking at Kamau. "It does occupy my soul. I can't get rid of it." Deep inside, he cringed, knowing the voice was listening.
"You must let go your grief," Kamau said.
John exhaled. "Grief isn't my problem. I'm a paleoanthropologist. I dig fossils. I also--by the way--hear a voice. If I told anyone, I'd be the laughingstock of my profession."
Years after her death, he had told his father about the shimmer‑figure.
The old man, a revered paleoanthropologist in his own right, had stared him dead in the eye and told him never to mention the subject again.
Odd. Had he been afraid for his reputation? A crazy son?
Kamau smiled. "You've told me."
For a moment, John was confused, having lost the train of their conversation. "You're my friend. Besides, in your culture, I thought you'd be more tolerant of these things."
Kamau's smile traveled to his eyes. "You are wrong."
"In my culture, we'd also say you are crazy."
John's gloom lifted. "God bless you, Kamau."
Kamau seemed pleased. "My father's father told me when a man wants to pour milk from a heavy gourd, he needs a brother to hold the cup."
John winced as he suppressed another turn in his stomach. Kamau was taking the subject seriously--first the elbow lean, then finally a father's father all in the space of two minutes. John reached for the bottle of Scotch.
Kamau closed his big hand over John's. "You don't need that." He pulled the bottle from John's grasp and set it on the washstand.
John's gaze followed the bottle, lingered, then he resigned himself to the loss. "I'll see the goddamned shaman." He spoke rapidly, feigning a control he didn't feel.
Kamau stood. His shoulders bunched with a returning tension. "You won't change your mind?"
John blew out a stale breath. "Right now the shaman is all I've got. I want this crap out of my head."
"And if it won't go?"
John blinked. Good question.
Kamau set the canteen on the side table and paused at the tent flap before exiting. "You don't know what you are getting into."
The tent flap dropped, and Kamau's footsteps receded.
" You're probably right," John said into the silence.
"You brood too much." The voice inside his head. The hated voice.
The side of the tent behind Kamau's chair seemed to shift, a jerky stop‑frame motion. The shimmer? He couldn't be sure. But a cold fear washed through him as it always did.
John scrubbed a shaky hand over the sweaty stubble on his jaw. And who's responsible for that? Conversation with the voice was easy, like a short circuit of thought without obvious beginning or end.
He closed his eyes, and the tent seemed to spin. Try as he might, he could not pin down the voice in the resulting darkness. It floated somewhere behind and above his eye sockets. That would put it in his cerebral cortex. A bullet through that dense ganglion would take out the voice along with knowing--two birds with one stone, so to speak. His mother had used that approach.
"I know why you're here." The voice sounded almost coy.
I'm here to find hominid fossils.
"I think it has more to do with the place."
Mind games. He stepped to the washstand and poured water from a pitcher into a white enameled‑metal basin. He soaked a sponge and wiped his body. The simple bath didn't make him much cleaner but he felt better. The residual moisture cooled him.
Before shaving, he gripped his cheeks with a hand and pushed his face back and forth in front of a small camp mirror clipped to the wall. He stared at the deep furrow that creased his forehead between his brows. It seemed all his problems concentrated at that one spot. The crease made him look stern and older than he was.
Since his mother's death, his life had shifted by lurching steps, pushed by an ill‑defined compulsion. It had carried him through prestigious schools, earned him advanced degrees, always pointing to a far off place--Africa, where he felt compelled to root in the cracked earth for the bones of ancient dead, as though their unearthing would shed light on his own turmoil. And all the while, the voice dragged on his desire.
It obviously disliked what he was doing. But if he were talking to himself, was that an indication of his awareness of the demons that roamed his mind? Everyone had demons. Were only his out of control?
He worked up a lather and started shaving.
"The manner of your mother's death intrigues you."
The voice never played fair. If it caught him musing in areas it considered off‑limits, it would bring him back with a distracting thought. It's a way out.
When he finished shaving, he retrieved a pair of bush shorts from the floor and put them on. He sat, reaching for his boots. After banging the heels on the wooden floor, he tipped them over, checking for scorpions.
"But she was not like you." The voice remained steady, neutral, in control, taking no notice of his frustration.
He pulled on knit socks, shoved his feet into the boots and yanked the laces taut.
She was still my mother, for Chrissake.
"I could do nothing to help her."
You're not helping me either. John stood.
"You know I try."
He buckled his belt. Are you telling me suicide is out of the question?
A pause. John felt a fleeting satisfaction. Suicide was one of those topics the voice abhorred. He reached for a khaki shirt draped over the chair.
"You exaggerate the control I have over your destiny."
What tripe. You involve my every waking moment as you did Mother's.
"Your mother's death could not be prevented. She was flawed."
"You know Diane's death was an accident."
Still gripping the shirt, he pressed his hands against his temples and squeezed hard enough to hurt, a self‑inflicted pain to distract, or maybe a forerunner of things to come. And you had me, was the only retort he could summon.
"And I still do."
Point, set and match. John crumpled, or at least the wall of resistance in his mind he had constructed buckled inward and fell apart. He was again a child, alone, facing the unimaginable.
Five candles flickered on a cake in front of him. He inhaled and blew. The dancing flames leaned and vanished, to be replaced by curling plumes of pale smoke and a sweet smell of hot wax. Mommy stood at the end of the birthday table, her gaze unsettled, a hint of a smile playing on her lips. She slid her hand beneath her apron, withdrew a small silvery revolver, put it to her temple and squeezed the trigger.
The bullet punched a hole on one side of her face and blew out the other side to leave a red tangle. A splatter of blood, bone and bits of hair slapped onto the dining room's pastel blue wall. Her knees buckled. She dropped straight down, thudded to the floor and toppled sideways.
Red and white helium‑filled balloons thunked at their tethers. A child whimpered and reached small fingers for security. Some mommies screamed. Others rushed past John to stare, wide‑eyed.
He gripped the edge of the table, confused by the commotion and embarrassed by the concerned stares the mommies cast over their shoulders as they hunched above Mommy's body. Leaning sideways, his small hands slipped on the white, paper tablecloth stamped with grinning, red, clown faces.
On the far wall, the shimmer rose and slid with a ripple to one side.
John pointed, trying to speak but Nanny rushed from the kitchen. She picked him up and carried him upstairs to his room away from the noise and confusion.
"This be a horrible thing," she wailed. "I called master Lohner and he be coming fast as he can. She be sick, Johnny. She be so, so sick."
That night, Daddy tucked him into bed, leaned close and kissed him goodnight.
Daddy's breath smelled mediciney.
"Mommy wasn't well, John. She had a disease called schizophrenia. She heard a voice no one else could hear." Daddy heaved a sob. "You must understand. What she did had nothing to do with you. She just wanted the voice to stop."
John wanted to say his stomach hurt, he didn't know what schizophrenia meant and he had seen a shimmer in the room after Mommy died, but Daddy wiped his nose with the back of his hand, squeezed John's arm and left the room.
John also wanted to say that he, too, heard a voice. It said, "You are now very precious to me. I will watch over you."
Frightened, he opened his mouth to scream. Mama! But nothing came out. He sucked air to fill his lungs. A reedy cry issued from his throat, turning to a yell, the yell rounding to a howl, the sound a constant wind makes through a constricted tunnel.
Jesus, I'm screwed up. John stumbled from the sleeping alcove and crossed an outer office area to the tent entrance. After grabbing his hat from a peg, he stepped outside, shoving shirttails into his shorts. He fought for calm, which had never come before and didn't now.
The voice operated on its own terms, not his. If he tried not to listen, the best he could achieve was a reduced volume, a murmur in the background of his thoughts. And if he then concentrated, he could almost function. Of course he'd had practice, a lifetime's worth but the voice would toy with him, letting him out on a line, like one of those retractable dog leashes, then pushing the button that reeled him in.
This time the line had grown taut. He was tired of coping. Something was going to give or he would die trying.