by Adam Vine
We are in the sky, pinching clouds apart with our fingers. They have no flight suits, and didn’t allow me to bring mine. But I don’t need anything. I am riding on one of their backs. The experience is strange. I feel like I am riding a blue whale flying upside down, on its belly made of stone, watching the red, blue, and yellow Trifecta Suns through a mask made of pea soup.
While we were at sea, I tried learning their language. I gave myself over to its study. But I quickly found my lungs were too small to sing an entire saga any time I wanted to ask for a glass of water. I thought I would die trying to speak their tongue, would be exhausted to death trying to sustain the notes of their meandering, elegiac songs. But my Hosts all spoke English anyway, usually better than my friends did back home. It was easier to just communicate the way I always had, in my own language.
Now we are in a forest, walking. The Hosts laugh at the trees and rustle their branches like the hair of ancient younger brothers. The streams pour through the older ones who stopped to meditate, where the water carved holes through them a million years ago. The Hosts live a very long time, longer even than this forest. My pea soup mask reveals young forests blooming within them, so long ago did they stop to listen, and they listen still. I wonder over the spectrums of light and sound they are able to see, so far beyond my own.
While we were at sea, I tried understanding their culture. But I quickly learned even the basics border upon the incomprehensible. The Hosts spend hundreds of our lifetimes contemplating single works of art. Their theater is set on stages comprising hundreds of stars and planets, distances we humans cannot hope to cross without their ships to carry us. Their cities are older than age, and the human mind is instantly lost in the folds of their architecture. They can travel without moving, while we can still barely move well enough to travel.
My Hosts are to us humans what we are to invertebrates, so much farther on the evolutionary path that I often wondered when I first came here, to their world, if they actually intended to bring me here at all, or if I wasn’t just some accidental hitchhiker, a cosmic bedbug riding unknown in the hidden corners of their luggage – if I didn’t simply imagine their offer.
My Hosts assure me I didn’t.
We are in a lake now, swimming. They teach me how to make a wake-painting with the algae blooms trailing my fingers above them as they swim. I have to hold on with one hand, and it isn’t easy because of how fast they swim. But after a while, I get the hang of it. My design is simple, a quincunx. Their designs are superb. One of my Hosts blows a bubble and recreates the spiral of the Milky Way, accurate to a star. I ask how. My host says, “When you look at something long enough from a distance, all mystery about that thing fades away.”
We dive deeper into the lake.
As part of our agreement, I am supposed to consume a hallucinogen derived from a creature native to this lake which looks like a rainbow being squeezed through a keyhole. The Hosts say it isn’t necessary, but will help quicken the process of what is to come next. The creature latches onto my arm. I feel no pain. My pea soup mask fogs and the toxin enters my bloodstream. We dive deeper, deeper still, until I hear a familiar voice in the green fog of my mask.
At the bottom of the lake there is a house with walls made of bone. My Hosts gently usher me inside. They wait at the door. My mom and dad are waiting in the kitchen. My parents smile and tell me they miss me, they love me. My mom made pea soup. My favorite. It’s sitting on the table. She gives me kiss on the cheek. My dad shakes his head and reluctantly, shakes my hand.
“We’re proud of you, Cal,” he says. “Tommy would be, too.” My dad chuckles. “I remember when he gave you that box of his old science fiction books. Your eyes just lit up.”
I feel tears I’ve choked back for a decade begin to swim through the fluid of my mask, but the mask isn’t there. “I couldn’t save him, dad,” I say. “I tried. But I didn’t know how.”
“I know,” my dad says. “He knows. But do you think, if he were here, that he would want you to be thinking of him??”
“No,” I say. I can hear my brother’s voice echo in my mind’s ear. “He’d say, Buck up, Little Bro. There’s a whole world out there. Put on your big boy pants and go outside.”
My dad puts his finger into my shoulder like he used to do when I was a kid. I look down at it and see that I am a kid. My conscious knows this isn’t real, that I’m at the bottom of an alien lake tripping balls on the Hosts’ rainbow-hued magic mushroom eel, but the thought is so distant I barely hear it.
My dad says, “So go outside.”
The dream dissolves and again we swim.
While I was at sea, I was sad all the time. I was alone and far from home. I thought of sitting at my big brother’s starched white bedside, watching lines on a screen spike and spike and spike, part of me always knowing that he wasn’t there anymore and never would be again. While we crossed the stars I knew I was going to a place I would likely never return from as well, not because I physically couldn’t, but because Earth to me now was nothing but pain.
I always knew couldn’t go back. The question was, would I be able to go forward?
We are flying again. But this time, through my pea soup mask I see only darkness. A vast shadow stretches over the land and sea alike before us, devouring the planet’s blue curve like a silent maw. Dread fills my stomach. I forget the wind hammering shut my pores. There it is, the thing I came here to destroy. It never gets easier to look at.
They remind me there is nothing to fear as long as I abide by our agreement.
We skirt the edges of the Bore flying high where the atmosphere is thin and twilight sky eternally wanes into the black dust of space. From so high, I can see that the Bore has consumed over half of their world.
The Bore, they call it. The hole that is swallowing the land, and the forest, and the sea. The hole that is growing, and is beginning to swallow them. But they are not supposed to die. My Hosts are evolution’s pinnacle; they outgrew death millions, if not billions of years in the past. Yet the Bore rots everything from the inside out, and it is killing them, even though they are immortal, even though they are the ones who created it.
They did not poison their atmosphere or their oceans the way we did back on Earth. Nor did they mine every vital resource until their planet was barren. They did everything right, from a conservation perspective. They eradicated poverty and war and disease and social injustice. They surpassed science and philosophy and became enlightenment itself. They evolved until their very existence was one with their planet.
Now their world is dying, and they are dying with it, because they depleted a resource far more valuable than minerals or fresh water or gas. When this planet dies, so will they.
When they first came to me with their offer, I was surprised. I had switched my graduate studies from medicine to physics in order to finish the PhD my brother never could because of his accident. I never loved it. Tommy was the smart one. I loved space, but I was never very good at math, just good enough.
I was a graduate student when they made contact. The first alien species ever to make contact with mankind. The parades, the news specials, the documentaries, the pictures of the President shaking hands, all of it had been predicted by the sci-fi novels I used to read as a kid, and to be honest, it was more exciting in the books.
My professor didn’t pass the quarantine requirements, so he sent me to meet with them in his place. I was so nervous. I made extra sure to speak slowly, with good eye contact and confidence. It was hard because their eyes aren’t like ours. I had to constantly fight the urge not to stare like they were creatures in a zoo, and they noticed my effort. They said they liked me, and I was exactly the person they were looking for. They told me not to be alarmed that they could see my memories.
I didn’t know what that meant, but before I could ask, they offered me the job.
And what kind of little brother would I be if I said no?
We don’t have to fly far for me to see that their plan is working. The Bore has stopped its advance to a dead halt.
We take some measurements, and already it is clear that in some places, the Bore is actually receding. A week ago, when we were still in the mountains, its advance was speeding up. For the first time since leaving Earth, I am happy.
I ask what we will see next. They say, “Whatever you want to see,” and I tell them, “I want to go to the stars, and see it again from outside.”
The Bore was created when my Hosts stopped learning, when they depleted the greatest resource they claim to have had: awe. The deep well of their world’s mystery was tapped dry. Evolution took them to a place where they finally knew everything there was to be known, had seen everything there was to be seen. They and their world were one and the same, and as their curiosity withered, so did it, and the Bore was born.
Every solution, every variable, every outcome was already known. There was nothing they could do to stop it. Not on their own. They needed us.
They may know everything there is to be known, but we do not.
So they brought me here, across the sea of stars, naked and confused. I was the first, but there are many others now, humans who have come here to learn and play, and through their wonder, return that invaluable spark to our Hosts who have lost it.
When I crossed the sea, I was in mourning. But the pain dissolves a little more with each new experience. The loss becomes joy as I think about what Tommy would think if he could see me here now. Nothing would make him happier. He’d laugh that big chest full of laughter, and say to me, “You’re crazy, Little Bro. When I told you to put your big boy pants on and go outside, I didn’t mean skip the ballpark and jump all the way to goddamned Andromeda.”
The Hosts tell me they are hopeful that if our progress continues, the Bore may be eradicated completely. But the outcome is uncertain. They say everything depends on a variable they can’t predict, an unknown that they have no way of measuring: the awe inspired in us, their visitors, who are seeing their wonders for the first time.
The plan may fail. The Bore may consume them, destroy everything: their species, their world, their galaxy, or the entire universe given enough time. But there is a light in the strangeness of their eyes at the possibility it won’t, a gleam I have never seen before. A change. I am convinced it is possible.
I go outside.
Adam Vine was born in Northern California. By day, he is a game writer and designer. He has lived in four countries and visited thirty. He is the author of two novels and many short stories. When he is not writing, he is traveling, reading something icky, or teaching himself to play the mandolin. He currently lives in Germany.