Waste Land - A short story
One : The Burial of the Dead
We fell out of the void toward the planet that Hugo had named Eliot. Its G-class star, Pound, hung like a fiery jewel in the void. I was frozen, and Pound thawed me from an eon’s sleep, gossamer photovoltaic arrays drinking in light and heat and literally, though indirectly, warming the frozen sludge of my blood.
It brought me back to life. Five thousand and eighty-one others slept on. Eighteen corpses thawed, and bled.
There had been a mutiny.
We were not where we were supposed to be. And we had slept far, far longer than anyone, save one, had intended.
My first sensation was the condensation in the cryopod pattering down on my face, my first thought a muddled memory of spring rain and nightingales, and the scent of lavender. They say there are no dreams in cryosleep, and they would be right. They never said anything about memory. Or desire.
"Marie, wake up. Wake up. Are you awake?" Hugo’s voice from everywhere and nowhere.
I swallowed, or tried to. Made a vague assent.
"There is a problem, Marie." The pod chunked open, sudden pressure equalization spearing my eardrums. "You are needed on the bridge."
As I stumbled out of the ‘pod and into Cryobay One, I looked on a nine hundred year old mass murder. The blood was still fresh.
Starnberger had recorded a long, rambling manifesto/confession before he’d opened up his veins in the chemical shower in Engineering. It wasn’t nonsense or frothing madness. I couldn’t disagree with any of the facts: Earth, overpopulated and polluted and suffering from climate change, was essentially dying. Corporatocracies ruled every facet of an individual’s life, from cradle to grave- for those lucky enough to find and keep a place in the system. Billions more survived at a subsistence level - or didn’t. The colonies were just company stores in the sky.
So our resident computer genius had co-opted Hugo, the ship AI, got himself woken eighteen weeks out from earth, just before the superluminals kicked in, and pointed us into the void.
Sixty days later, he’d changed course again. And again sixty days after that. We might conceivably go back to Earth (two millennia on from when we left it), but Earth would never have been able to come after us.
Before Starnberger had killed himself, he’d ripped out of cryostasis anyone he thought might feel obliged to try and reverse his decision. Or, maybe, be inclined to replicate the mistakes of Old Earth — the Captain, the First Officer, three security officers, and all thirteen members of corporate HQ. Ripped them out, which they would never have survived anyway, and used a bone saw from Triage to saw part way through their frozen-solid wrists - so that as they thawed, they bled out.
As Astrogator, I was the ranking crewmember now.
I stared at Eliot on the main screen for a long time, a mottled tan ball six months out. Hugo whispered things to me - first estimates on gravity, atmospheric makeup - until I interrupted him.
"Why did I name the planet Eliot, Marie?"
"The Turing sub articles devolved responsibility for naming newly discovered—"
"I know all that, Hugo."
He was quiet for a moment. Shyness? Embarrassment?
"I like T. S. Eliot’s writing. And Ezra Pound was a contemporary of Eliot’s."
A ship AI with a fondness for poetry. I rubbed my face with a trembling hand. “Show me Starnberger.”
"Show me when he killed them." And Hugo did. I watched him go from pod to pod, shucking out occupants like frozen oysters. Watched him work the saw in businesslike fashion. Watched him stop at mine, and stare at me for what seemed forever.
Watched him move on. I shuddered.
I’d never passed more than a dozen words with him before we shipped out. I couldn’t help wondering why he’d spared me.
"Did he leave any further instructions for you, Hugo? Anything I should know about?"
"No, Marie. He said that he had given all of you a chance to start over, and that it was up to you now."
"You’re sure there’s nothing else he did to you."
"Yes, Marie." Pause. "As sure as I can be."
"I want you to run over every line of your code and make sure."
"I don’t have code in the way you’re referring to, Marie. What makes me is more like your own DNA."
"Damn it, Hugo, I know that. Just do it."
"All right, Marie. But it will not be a quick process."
I went to clean up the corpses. I had no idea what else to do.
That night I dreamed of Abbie in the Hofgarten in Munich, the night before takeoff. She had run through the lavender beds that day, and their scent had clung to her flower-print dress. Night had fallen by the time I’d convinced her to leave. As we approached the park gates she’d suddenly stopped, transfixed by the song of the nightingales they’d recently reintroduced.
Twit twit twit
Jug jug jug jug jug jug
"Mama, what IS that?"
"That’s a bird, baby."
It was the first time she’d ever heard one.
She’d fallen asleep in my lap on the train back to Geneva, where her grandmother was to collect her and raise her for the next three years. I’d buried my nose in her soft curls, and her tiny hand had lain like a seashell in mine.
My baby girl was more than nine hundred years dead.
Two : A Game of Chess
Three months out. Philo hunched over the tiny magnetic board, grimacing, as if considering his next move gave him cramps. I stared at the cheap holo of a carved dolphin above his bunk. And thought of nothing.
Finally he moved, spasmodically, as if to keep himself from being paralyzed by second thoughts. Bishop took knight.
"Something I’ve never understood," he said, apropos of nothing. "All ship functions are essentially automated. Why do they need an Astrogator? Why do they need you?"
"Because things happen. Superluminals cut out. AIs develop issues. Very, very rarely, but situations arise. Think of me as travel insurance."
"I don’t think we are going to be able to collect."
"The insurance wasn’t for us, anyway. It was for the Company."
That killed the conversation for a while.
"What are you thinking?" he asked me, but kept his eyes averted.
"I’m thinking of all the things I’d give for a bottle of bourbon," I lied. "You?"
"I’m thinking I wish you’d left me frozen," he said. But had the decency to look me in the eye when he said it. Hard for him, I know. Brilliant exocologist. Had Asperger’s syndrome. Really not good with people.
"I needed you."
"I know." Not pride. Just truth.
"You wanna go back under?"
"Yes." He carefully arranged the slain pieces along the side of the board. "And no. Eliot is… bizarre. I need to know more."
I sighed. “All I need to know is if it’s habitable.”
"Yes. And no."
"What does that mean, Philo?" But he just shook his head, eyes somewhere, anywhere other than my face. I lay my king down. I’m a shit chess player.
"In fourteen days we need to decide if we’re going to slingshot around Pound and head back to Earth. If not, in eighty-seven days we need to decide whether to park Hugo in orbit or take him down. I need a clearer answer. And I need it soon."
He rocked a little in his chair. He was quiet for a long time. Then, “Thaw out Lil. And Albert. I need them. If you want your answer in time.”
Eliot was habitable. But they couldn’t figure out why it was habitable.
Gravity, 97% Earth standard. Mass, 67.1% Earth standard. Atmosphere so close to Earth’s as made no difference. It had seasons, but not much weather. No surface water, but fresh water in aquifers there for the drilling. Chilly, but usually not much colder than, say, Munich in autumn.
But no life.
Not a germ, not an amoeba. No trees or moss or lichen, no algae, no fucking flora at all that our scans could detect, much less fauna. Hugo was a terraformer/colonizer hybrid; we could build up a rudimentary Gaia-web over the course of a few years. Child’s play compared to our original assignment, though greater in scope. Infinitely easier to start with a blank slate, Lil informed me. That wasn’t the issue.
The issue was, Eliot was an impossibility. Everywhere humanity had gone, we’d seen nothing that didn’t support the idea that only life begets life. Eliot’s atmosphere should not have existed without at least the most rudimentary life forms to support and regulate it.
"Maybe it all died out," Albert said.
"Without leaving any traces?" Lil countered.
"I’d say the atmosphere itself is a pretty big damn trace, Lil."
"Look, the Gernsback analysis should show…"
I tuned them out. I was just a glorified map reader, and their scholarly tiff didn’t affect the choice that lay before me. It was almost time. I was making my way down the aft corridor towards my cabin when Hugo spoke up and made the choice for me, in a manner of speaking.
"I’ve been running routine maintenance and performing diagnostics, as you inst-"
"Just tell me, Hugo."
"It’s Starnberger again. He did something else. To me, and to all of you."
It was in a Cryo subroutine. Some sort of dead man switch he’d wired into Hugo’s silicon genes. Once a sleeper was woken, the cryopod was rendered thoroughly useless. Once Hugo discovered the hijacking, he’d tried to reverse it - and discovered Starnberger’s poison pill of a subroutine that would essentially lobotomize him if he tried to proceed.
No sleeping our way back to Earth, whether we wanted to or not. I put my hand over my eyes for a while and just floated in the corridor, ignoring Hugo’s soft “I’m sorry, Marie.” Then I went to tell the others.
I began to understand then why Starnberger had spared me. He knew Hugo would wake me first. Sure, I could astrogate Hugo back to Earth. I could send him on his way back with the remaining sleepers. But I’d be centuries dead before they ever made it back. And now so would Philo, Albert and Lil.
Maybe I should have been grateful he’d left me that choice, a choice he’d taken from all the other crew; living, dead and silicate.
I didn’t feel gratitude. I felt a burning hate.
Three : The Fire Sermon
Hugo roared down onto a tan, featureless plain on the northern hemisphere on a cloud of smoke and dust and fire. It was dawn, and in what passed for spring on Eliot. A deep aquifer lay less than a klick below the surface, billions of gallons of fresh water there, just waiting to be drilled and pumped.
I’d decided to take a page form Starnberger’s playbook and not wake the remaining sleepers, crew or cargo, until we’d already landed. Albert complained about this fait accompli, but wasn’t willing to shoulder the responsibility. Lil dithered. Philo said nothing and looked at no-one. But his jaw was always tight, and his physical twitches had intensified. I worried about him keeping it together. When I could spare time from worrying about keeping myself together.
Hugo went through all the automated procedures, setting up a perimeter (‘what for, Hugo? There’s not a damned thing out there’ I said. ‘It’s automated, Marie,’ he said with an AI shrug in his modulated voice.) and sending out various probes and drones at Albert and Lil’s request. Philo sat, passive, in his work cubicle and studied the data that poured in, but spoke not a word. Just shook his head, and twitched.
I managed to find enough things to do to put off waking the rest for almost a week.
Albert, Lil and I settled on a process, and implemented it on the remaining crew, one by one. Philo refused to help. Albert was surprisingly helpful, considering how much of a bastard he’d been about the decision to wait on waking them.
We woke the remaining crew and the colonists’ Operations team first.
Seventy-eight iterations. Seventy eight responses to the situation, ranging from full-on hysteria to studied indifference. Took us three days. One woman tried to kill herself, so we kept her sedated in the infirmary, and woke Doc Margate next. Most everybody else was at least functional.
In three more days almost everyone was up and about doing the job they’d been trained for, if not where, or when, they’d been trained to do it.
For a while, I thought things were going to be all right. As all right as they could ever be. We had base camp set up quickly enough. Colonial Ops had a well drilled and pumping out fresh water within hours, and survey teams out doing whatever it was they had been trained to do. Nobody I spent much time talking to felt much like talking about what had happened, or what was going to happen. But then, once Hugo had set us down I’d become superfluous to the mission. Everybody else was busy. I was invited to attend Ops meetings, but my participation wasn’t something that was expected. Or appreciated. Events gathered a momentum of their own. And just like anywhere humans get together in groups of two or more, some politicking began.
Most considered Starnberger to be a murdering lunatic. Not a few had come to view him as some sort of Messiah. There were two or three fights about it, one physical. There were many more fights about how to proceed with the terraforming of Eliot - what was possible, what was desirable, what was practical. I ignored it, just as I ignored the invitation to sit on the executive council, just as I ignored all the data that poured in about Eliot from the probes and the drones, and the satellites we’d set in orbit on our way down. Hugo was needed to process most of it, and I had to sign off on requests for Hugo’s attention. That was the extent of my contribution. I thought that I might go mad with the boredom.
Then I started hearing nightingales.
They’d made a pond, and seeded the bank with pseudo-rushes. Various experiments were ongoing involving bacteria and algae and such, and most of the pond was off limits. But a slice of the bank was roped off for people to visit, properly suited, so they could look at something other than the featureless tan sand of the surrounding plain.
I’d go there in the evening and squat just above the edge of the ankle-high reeds and watch the placid water reflect the darkening sky. I’d been maybe half a dozen times when I first heard it.
Jug jug jug.
On the other side of the pond, maybe three hundred meters away.
Twit twit twit.
Jug jug jug jug jug jug.
I stumbled to my feet and ran around the shore. Someone was yelling at me to stay off the reeds, but I barely heard them.
By the time I’d got to the other side, it had stopped.
I stayed out there for another hour, but I didn’t hear it again. I checked with everyone I could think of, and no-one knew anything about any avian releases - the first wasn’t scheduled for months at a minimum. What would they eat? There were no insects, no grains. There were just the rushes, a few mundane bacteria, and us in all the world.
I went back to my cabin aboard Hugo and curled into a ball on the hard bunk. I lay awake all night, and feared for my sanity.
When I heard it again the next night I didn’t chase after it. I sat down on the sand and listened all night.
It stopped with the dawn.
I stopped going outside after that, if I could help it.
People began acting strangely. Seeing things. Hearing things. After the fourth reported hallucination, Doc Margate started running every test he could think of. Tox screens came back negative. Everything came back negative. But somehow, somehow Eliot was screwing us up.
A geologist named Leicester nearly chopped off half his own foot with a pickaxe. He said he was trying to kill a rat that had suddenly appeared and started crawling on him. He had a morbid fear of rats, due to a traumatic childhood incident. He was forty klicks away from basecamp when it happened, and nearly died of blood loss.
It was decided that no more sleepers would be woken up until we got a handle on the situation.
It was decided that no more solo work would be performed.
When the trees appeared overnight on the western horizon, and beyond them a salt sea, the camp went apeshit.
Four : Death by Water
Philo woke me.
"Come with me," he said, turned sideways in the doorway and looking over my head.
"What? What are you talking about?"
"You need to come with me, Marie. It’s important. Bring Hugo on a tablet."
"Where are we going?"
We left the ship and made our way through a base camp in an uproar. Porter, the executive council chairman, had forbidden anyone to leave camp and visit ‘the phenomena’. That went over like a lead balloon with most of the scientists on staff. She’d detailed three of the bigger ops staff to guard the rovers.
They tried to stop us.
For the first time ever I pulled rank, reminding them I was Captain now. They didn’t care. Then I told them I’d cut off their access to Hugo.
They let us go.
Philo drove us out to the trees, gnarled acacia from what I could tell. We stopped for a few minutes, and stared. They were just trees, remarkable only for being impossible. And then he drove on until we were among dunes and around us were the cries of seagulls and the low roar of surf.
"This is not possible," I said.
"Absolutely. Not possible," he agreed.
"What the fuck is going on?"
"I have no idea."
"So why drag me out here to show me this? Beyond the obvious, I mean."
"What? Oh. Not this. Or not just this. Hugo, show her what we found."
The tablet I’d stuffed in the front pouch of my poncho chirped and I pulled it out.
"Good morning, Marie." Hugo’s voice, smaller, lessened outside his metal and plasteel body.
"Morning. Please tell me what Philo’s talking about."
"Certainly. Philo has had me correlating all the data gathered so far about Eliot. A substantial amount, most of it uninteresting. But we did find something. An anomaly."
"What kind of anomaly?"
"A magnetic and gravitational anomaly located about fifteen hundred kilometers from here, Marie." Hugo displayed the location of the anomaly on the tablet’s screen. "It’s something that has no reason to be there. Indeed, should not possibly be there. Unlike all the other impossible phenomena, it has been there all the while. But it has been growing stronger, more anomalous."
"Philo? You think whatever’s causing all this is there?"
"Nothing should be causing… this." He gestured aimlessly at the newborn sea. "Whatever this is." He mustered his will and looked me briefly in the eye. "I’ve been sifting data for weeks. This is the only thing that is constant in its impossibility. So I think we need to go there."
I laughed, a little shrilly. “Go there and do what?”
He flinched. “I don’t know. But not going there isn’t going to do us much good.”
I heard the soft, droning whine of another rover approaching. I looked back, saw Eric Phlebas, a marine biologist who’d been even more useless than me up until then, driving towards the water at full speed, which wasn’t much for the rovers. I didn’t even suspect anything was wrong until he hit the water.
Momentum and the weak hydrofoil effect that helped keep the dust out of the rovers’ innards let him get about twenty meters out before he sank. He never even looked around.
I didn’t get over being stunned until he’d disappeared beneath the water. I jumped out of the rover and stripped off my poncho and shoes as I ran down to the surf.
It took me too long to find him down there, and longer still to get him unbuckled. By the time I got him back on shore there wasn’t any hope at all. Philo pulled me off of him after five minutes of CPR. I pushed him away, and screamed “What the hell is going on?”
"I don’t know. I don’t know." It looked like it pained him to say it. He always looked like he was in pain of one sort or another. He grabbed a handful of sand, and squeezed. "Let’s go to the anomaly site, Marie. At least it’s something. If we just stay where we are, I can connect nothing with nothing." He stared at the broken fingernails of his dirty hands. "Nothing with nothing," he said again, and pointed to the corpse of Eric Phlebas.
I looked. Those dead, staring eyes had turned to pearl.
"That came from in here, Marie," said Philo, pointing at his temple. "That’s one of my recurring nightmares."
"Here, said she, is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor. Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!" Hugo ranting out of the tablet I’d left in my poncho on the sand, a few meters away.
"What the hell are you talking about, Hugo?"
"It’s Eliot. The poet, not the planet. Or perhaps both, Or Starnberger. I don’t feel well, Marie."
Shivering and wet, I stared at Philo. He stared back at me, for once. Shook his head, shrugged his shoulders. I went to the poncho, pullet out the tablet.
"What’s wrong, Hugo?"
"Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks. The lady of situations."
Nothing, for a long time. Then, “I think you’d better call me Tiresias now, Marie. It suits me better.”
"Hugo, I need you to go into safe mode. Captain’s orders. Authorization code Aleph-"
"It’s too late for that, Marie. Too late for me. HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME."
The distant rumble of sustained explosions reached us. They came from base camp. We saw the smoke rising up in the still air long before we got back.
The automated defenses had destroyed everything and everyone in base camp, including themselves, leaving only smoking wreckage and corpses.
Only Hugo was left. And us.
Philo and I loaded up the rover with supplies and equipment from the ship and set out at dusk for the anomaly. Neither of us said a word the rest of that day. Neither did Hugo, though the tablet continued to display the anomaly, and our location in relation to it.
Philo drove through the night. I pretended to sleep. Who knows what Hugo did.
Five : What the Thunder Said
At dawn we stopped and stretched, and it became apparent that Eliot was changing.
The tan, featureless landscape had given way to an uneven plain dotted with rust-red boulders as big as houses. This area had been surveyed time and again, and hadn’t been any different from base camp in any appreciable way. It was different now.
Philo heated up some Kcals and we ate in the shadow of a red rock, and gulped some caffeine. Then I took the stick. We’d gone maybe four hundred klicks. Just over a quarter of the way.
Philo put his head back on the seat rest, closed his eyes. He was quiet for a long time, but I knew he wasn’t sleeping. His breathing never changed. Finally he spoke.
"You’ve heard the saying that technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic?"
"I used to believe that statement was just so much semantic masturbation. Are you familiar with Thomas Aquinas?"
"Not personally, no."
"You’ve heard of the Big Bang theory?"
"Philo, can you get where you’re going? The end of the world seems imminent. Or something just as shitty, if less comprehensible. Either way, it’s bad form to ramble."
"Aquinas formulated the argument from contingency for the existence of God. He argued that, since the universe could conceivably not exist under different circumstances, the fact that it does exist means that its existence has a cause. He called that cause God. We call it the Big Bang. I’m starting to think the difference there is semantic as well."
"What is this about, Philo?" I asked quietly. "Is this your version of the old ‘no atheists in foxholes’ saying?"
He smiled a little. “Maybe. But not how you mean it. Whatever created the universe, call it God or the Big Bang or the Prime Mover or the Uncaused Cause, it doesn’t really matter. It’s not something any intelligence as limited as ours will ever be able to fully understand. My god, if I have one at all, has always been life. The stars you navigate, the planets, the asteroids - all of that holds very little interest for me, Marie. Sure, the origin of the universe is a pretty puzzle. But far more interesting, far more exciting to me is the origin of life.”
He shifted in his seat. Put his hand on my shoulder. “On Eliot, we’ve seen massive cases of spontaneous generation. Evolution and the very foundation of biology thrown out the window. You see it as something fearful. Something deeply wrong. I admit, I do too. But I also see the possibility of something else. That’s what brought to mind the quote about technology and magic.”
"I don’t understand."
"And I’m not sure I have the right words. Something like this: Life, sufficiently evolved, is indistinguishable from godhood. I don’t think Eliot was ever barren, Marie. I think Eliot is the stuff of life itself. I think our coming here has woken it up, or started some sort of reaction, or… something."
"And I think you need to get some sleep," I told him.
Day turned to night, and another day. Endless plains, cracked earth ringed by flat horizons. At dusk we came in the violet light to mountains that had not been there an hour before.
"We’ll have to leave the rover," I said, and he nodded and put together our packs.
I knew without looking we wouldn’t have enough water for the last hundred klicks. We didn’t even talk about turning back. What for? What was there to turn back to?
Hugo hadn’t said anything at all, but I put the tablet in a cargo pocket just the same.
Above the mountains, a thunderhead was forming. Philo noticed it as well.
"Perhaps we’ll get some rain," he said, and I nodded. But I didn’t believe it.
It was a hundred kilometers as the crow flies. But we were not crows.
Philo made me drink the last of the water on the second day. He smiled at me. He had no trouble meeting my eyes, now. But I was having trouble meeting his.
By the end of the third day, I started seeing things, and hearing things. On Eliot, who knows if they were real, or brought on by dehydration? I saw drowned London hanging upside down from the clouds. I saw faces in the red stone around us, leering. I heard bells peeling in the still air. And whenever we came to a place where we could walk side by side, I knew - knew - that there was someone else walking beside Philo. When I looked, no-one was there.
The time came when I couldn’t go any further.
He propped me up against a rust-red boulder that looked for all the world like some demented chapel, spires spearing the cloud-choked sky.
"I can’t keep on," I told him.
"Yes you can." He stroked my hair. His voice was hoarse and thick, his lips cracked.
"I don’t want to, then."
"What do you want, then, Marie?"
"I want my little girl. I want Starnberger to give me back my Abbie." And he held me. And I cried.
"What is that sound high in the air, murmur of maternal lamentation?" It came from the tablet in the cargo pocket of my pants. And from the scree-littered slope ahead.
He made his way toward us, old, wrapped in coarse brown cloth. When he leaned down to put the jug to my lips, the loose folds of the cloth exposed shriveled breasts. He saw that I saw, and smiled.
"Hugo," I croaked, but he shook his head.
"No more, Marie. Hugo is now Tiresias. I have struck apart the serpents, and am changed."
"I don’t understand."
"I know, dear Marie, lady of situations. I know. Dry bones can harm no-one. Come, Philo, and I will help you to help her. It’s not much further now."
"The Peace that Passeth Understanding. Shantih."
In the distance, thunder spoke. Then a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust, bringing rain.
My memory, from this point on, is fractured. Philo says his are as well. Hugo -Tiresias - who can say, now?
We came down onto a wide plain. I don’t know how long it took. Minutes, days, all the same. The sky was leaden, clouds boiling just a few meters above our heads. I remember Tiresias patting my hand. I remember thunder so loud, so near, so continuous that the ground we stood on vibrated. The very air shivered. I felt as if I would be shaken apart.
"Listen," said Philo, screaming in my ear. I could barely hear him. Stupid with exhaustion, I thought at first he was telling me to listen to him, but he said nothing more.
But the thunder was speaking. And once it had my attention, it speared me with its intent.
WHAT WOULD YOU
I fell to my knees on the muddy ground, my body jolted by the essence of the question. What would I? What would I?
"Mama, what IS that?"
Oh, my baby. What would I? What wouldn’t I -
"Give," I told the thunder.
WHAT WOULD YOU
The thunder drove me face-first into the raw earth. Mud filled my nostrils, mouth, eyes. Eyes. Pearls that were his eyes. Poor Philo. His condition making every human connection a struggle writ plain on his tic-ridden frame.
"Sympathize," I mouthed around the mud, tears leaking, merging with the rain.
WHAT WOULD YOU
The thunder drove the very breath from me. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move. I felt my heart stop. Indignation rose up in me. Such power as this, bearing down. What for? To see my terror? To force me to beg, to plead? To see raw emotion strip me of my -
Sudden silence, louder than thunder. And then Philo was there, pulling me up, wiping the mud from my eyes, cradling my head in his lap as I spat Eliot out of my mouth, and cried.
"These fragments I have shored against my ruins," said Tiresias. Then, "Goodbye."
I knew nothing more. Nothing but Philo’s arm under my head, Philo’s hand wiping the mud from my face. Then, not even that.
"Tickets, bitte." A gentle hand on my shoulder, a warm, soft weight in my lap, smelling of lavender.
"Tickets, bitte." A soft voice, a gentle smile. The train to Geneva. Impossible.
"Was? Wo bin ich?" My terrible German creaked out.
"Ah, English, eh?" The conductor spoke quietly. "We have left Munich forty five minutes ago."
I dug the tickets out of my purse. Abbie stirred in my lap and I rocked her gently, made shh shh noises until she settled. Held her and stared out into the night and cried.
Philo was waiting at Cornavin station. It was only then I knew I wasn’t insane.
He had no problem looking me in the eye. He carried Abbie to the taxi stand.
The next morning we resigned our positions on Hugo together. Corporate said we were breaking our contracts. Lawsuits are imminent. Philo tells me not to worry. I look at Abbie, playing in his postage stamp garden in La Jolla, and I don’t.
On the news, there is an item about the sudden appearance of nightingales in southern California. Speculation on the reemergence of species outside of their traditional habitat. Rogue geneticists taking nature into their own hands. Philo shakes his head and switches it off.
The date is approaching when Starnberger hijacked Hugo. We’re waiting to see what happens this time. Whatever happens, I’m at peace, even if I understand almost nothing.
Abbie is calling from the garden. She’s found a butterfly, and a snail.
Guest Post by Michael McClung