No Cord Or Cable
by Bud Sparhawk
The call came in the middle of the night. “He’s dead! Sergio is dead!” my mother screamed, her voice bordering on hysteria. “You must come home. I need you,” she sobbed before her voice dissolved into disconnected tear-racked babble. I could not understand how such a vital man like my father could die without warning.
Mother was still distraught when I flew into the hab, barely functional from the heavy sedation they’d given her.
Carl took me aside while they put mother to bed. We went into a side room where we could have some privacy. “Sergio cut his own throat, Hal,” Carl whispered. “He killed himself. Right in front of her.”
“No, it isn’t possible!” Suicide was so dishonorable as to be unthinkable. “She’s hysterical. There must be some other explanation. She’s confused.”
Carl shook his head. “No mistake. I saw what he did. Your mother called me immediately so no one else would learn what happened.”
“We can’t let this get out,” I said.
“And no one will learn how Sergio died,” Carl assured me. “We’ll do all we can to protect Sergio’s reputation, even in death.”
I nodded to show that I understood the pact we must honor. Then the tears began, despite all I could do.
Sergio’s deathburn services two days later were all too brief and perfunctory. It was a ceremony with more formality than any honest feeling. My highly medicated mother sat vacant and dry-eyed throughout, my brother’s empty seat beside us.
Near her, always near her, was Carl. I disliked the way this man, this red-haired, weak-chinned, scarecrow, rested his hand lovingly upon mother’s arm. This display of affection, no matter how innocent, was an affront to Sergio’s memory. Had Carl no feeling for propriety? Had mother no respect for the dead?
I knew it mattered little for the man I loved so much as I poured torrents enough for three of us.
“Hal, you must understand,” mother explained soon after the deathburning. “For months before, Sergio was mad, confused. I didn’t know what to do.”
“I should have been called,” I replied. “I would have come. I could have helped in some way.”
But mother shook her head. “I wanted to, but Sergio refused. He didn’t want anyone, especially you, to know of his depression and fantasies.” She sniffed. “Sergio swore he would overcome his affliction. He tried – oh, how he tried! Doctor Zg tried to steady his mind with exercises for months and …”
“Doctor Zg?” I didn’t recognize the name.
Mother shrugged, momentarily distracted by the question. “Doctor Zg’s a Capellan who was abandoned by explorers. Your father decided to take care of it.”
“He adopted an alien? That doesn’t sound like something father would do.”
“Perhaps. But Zg has a certain . . . influence.” She fiddled with a bit of lace. “Maybe that’s why Sergio thought the alien could help and, for a while, he – we – thought the exercises were succeeding” She looked away as if the answer might be written on the wall. “It was horrible, what he did, Hal. Sergio stood there, staring at me and …” she stopped, as if she were struggling to recall something else, but could not bring it to mind.
“What?” I asked.
Mother shook herself. “He said the alien was your brother. He called that thing his son.”
Soon afterwards I met Doctor Zg at a formal dinner. The alien had adopted a human form to appear an ordinary man, quite unlike Max, thought. I did not see how father could have mistaken him for my brother.
Zg looked doubtful when I was introduced as Sergio’s son. “Yes, I see you have your mother’s eyes.” He finally said, dismissively, as though I had failed some test.
We spoke of inconsequential matters for a few moments. “I need to talk to you about my father,” I said.
Zg looked around at the others. “Now is not the time or place. Let us speak instead of other things.”
“Such as what you think of Earth?” I suggested.
“Yes, yes indeed. I find your young civilization much different than my own,” he continued. “The Capellan race has a long and glorious history. We had our own empire, for a time.” A note of wistfulness entered his voice. “But our race outgrew that infantile urge. Ever since, we have pursued a moral and balanced life, at peace with ourselves and the universe.”
“Yet you depended upon our explorer’s technology to bring you to Earth?”
Doctor Zg sneered. “More because I was interested in what drove their frenetic behavior. Once they left I found Sergio’s company more compatible.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“Truthfully, your advanced technology is to me as a stone axe would be to you,” the Doctor smiled. We passed beyond technology when your kind were savages. We developed the Tau drive, that same method that now propels humanity across the stars, when you were barely more than animals. Since our planet is a paradise that meets all needs, all desires, and makes all dreams real we no longer have a need for technology.”
“But you still want to explore, don’t you? I can’t think of another reason you’d choose to leave your idyllic world.”
Doctor Zg’s smile disappeared. “My departure was not of my own choice, but due to my shameful act – or lack of action, to be more direct. You see, I could not perform my duty as a son and thereby shamed my sire to the death of old age.”
“What do you mean? What duty couldn’t you do?”
“I could not kill my own father,” Zg said softly.
“Did you say you could not kill him?” The idea of patricide was appalling, horrible, especially in light of Sergio’s recent death.
Doctor Zg held up his hands as if to defend himself from my question. “It is a shameful act of omission. Due to my cowardice, my reluctance to do my duty, my father now faces years of increasing decrepitude that will eventually leave him blind, addled, and crippled before he mercifully dies. That is why I had to leave my home. I could not bear the guilt and thought I would find a better home here, among you strange, immoral humans.”
His words made no sense. An all-embracing moral and ethical code was pounded into our minds from birth and enforced with all the pressure society could bring to bear. There was not a soul alive who failed to respect honor, family, and tradition. There was not a soul who could fail to respect the code. Save Sergio, I added sadly, thinking of his final deadly, despicable act.
“Immoral? In what way are we immoral? We are the most moral race in the universe.”
Doctor Zg acted surprised at my anger. “I meant no offense. But let me try to explain before you think badly of me.”
At my nod, he continued. “I do understand the strange biology that prevents your females from properly dying when they give birth to sons. In itself that is not immoral. However,the consequences of this are that your females mock their husbands with multiple sons, sons who fail to do honor to their fathers, much as I failed my own.”
While I understood his words I could not imagine the emotions, the concepts behind them. “If you mean killing your sire, that is abhorrent. We could never do such a thing.”
“I understand, and that is the biological immorality that will doom your race. You have no way of constraining your outward growth and, in time, you will be overwhelmed by your own excesses.”
I doubted that. So long as technology kept pace humanity would never lack for space, for living room. We would never become like Capellans, turning our backs on empire in favor of a single paradise planet where growth must be constrained.
What a sad lack of family must exist on Zg’s world, where every father saw his son a murderer and mothers were never there to comfort. I found it hard to believe that this was someone who thought they could help my father regain his moral balance.
I, for one, was not influenced one bit by this alien creature.
I quivered with rage when Carl and mother informed me that they were going to Jortleshom to be married. I pleaded with her to refuse, or at least delay for a decent period. “Do this for form’s sake, if nothing else. You should respect father’s passing.”
Mother refused to listen. “We will depart in two days, Hal, and I need you to come with us.” She clutched my arm desperately. “Listen to me: We all need to leave this place, leave these terrible memories.” I tried to pull away, but she held firmly. “Hal, please try to understand.”
What was there to understand? This marriage, before father’s ashes were cool, was an affront to decency, a slap in my face. How did she expect me to understand?
But perhaps I should have expected this. Mother’s union with my father had as more to do with commercial interests than lust fulfilled. Still, I think father loved her in his own way.
When I was old enough to grasp this I realized that mother never truly loved Sergio as much as he did her. Although Sergio catered to her every whim I never saw her express excessive fondness in return. Not once.
Nevertheless they had three children. Maximillian, my older brother had inherited father’s tall, dark looks and, unfortunately, his independent disposition. I was the skinny, retiring one, taking more to mother’s side in appearance and personality. The final sibling was Esther, my two-year old sister, who bore no resemblance to Sergio, but possessed the same shock of red hair as Carl.
Our transport to Jortleshom was just over five hundred meters in length and a third of that across her beam. Along the ship’s backbone was the Tau drive, a linthicum-clad mechanism that tapered to needle sharpness at the stern.
There were four decks, the lower one dedicated to cargo while the others were for passengers and serving crew. About the periphery of each deck was a walkway from which you could observe the stars and, beyond that, unseen to the naked eye, was the protective nimbus of energy that kept the universe at bay.
The forward portion of Ship was a bulbous globe that housed the recreational areas, dining facilities, and an extensive library. It was here that I stood and watched the Earth disappear when the Tau drive engaged and twisted space-time.
Behind me were the ashes of my dishonored father, so quickly dead and burned. I bid him a sad farewell as we began to span the stars to Carl’s home world.
The other passengers aboard ship were so curious about our Capellan that they manipulated, wheedled, and bribed their way to be at our table. So it was no surprise that, during the first dinner grouping after departure, the Doctor was asked of his activities and avocation.
“I have become fascinated by the force of circumstance upon human will,” Zg announced. Thus introduced, he then expanded on the subject in such depth of detail that he soon lost all fascination, and much of his disappointed audience. One by one they announced that matters with more importance called them away, until only he and I were left among the remains of the meal.
“How well did you know my father?” I asked. “What can you tell me of his last days?”
He was silent for so long that I worried that he was ignoring me. Finally, he spoke; “I noticed nothing unusual in his behavior prior to his death. He became quite interested in Capellan philosophy. He even tried to comprehend our view of morality.”
He was about to go on when I interrupted, for I had no desire to hear more of his sociological theories. “Did you observe any signs of insanity, of father losing his bearings?”
The Doctor shrugged. “I would not know. My understanding of the norms of your bizarre human behaviors are still in their formative stages. But no, based on my limited knowledge, I would say Sergio hewed close to what passes for normal among you humans.” He paused. “Of course, he had clarified his mind through certain exercises I taught him. Perhaps that is why he appeared different to others.”
“Yes, they enable one to perceive reality objectively, to see things as they are, not as we’d like them to be.”
These must be the mental treatments mother had mentioned. “My father was endowed with a supremely rational mind. I doubt that he needed Capellan philosophy to see things clearly.”
Doctor Zg smiled. “Ah, you are a skeptic. Perhaps you could use my help as well. For example,” he added, almost as an afterthought, “Were you aware of the importance Sergio placed on honor? Do you clearly understand the manner and reason for his actions and why he chose the manner of his passing?”
Why had he brought up father’s suicide? But, now that Zg mentioned it, it did seem strange that, if honor had been so important, father would chose suicide.
“I don’t know how he died.”
Zg smiled. “Exactly. And you should consider that fact very carefully.” With that he quickly walked away, leaving me puzzled by his answers. Was there more to father’s death that I should know? The question seemed quite important.
As the voyage progressed I became fascinated by the view outside our protective bubble of energy. It was the history of the universe.
According to Doctor Zg, the view was an illusion. The medium through which we moved shared none of the qualities of our universe and hence could not be observed directly. Consequently we perceived something more akin to our own interpretation of reality.
Despite that, the illusion was fascinating. I discovered that the observed universe’s time line varied with distance. As one moved from the prow the timeline increased geometrically.
Surrounding the prow, but a handsbreadth away from a small dot of nothingness, was a brilliant, uniform glow of light, unbroken by detail. A meter back from the prow the bright light became a sparkling band, which represented the time where quarks and bosons joined the photonic mix. A short distance behind that particulate condensate were the first stirring of actual atoms, scintillating with energetic fury.
As I watched the brilliant play of light I imagined that the ship’s passage was molding the forces that shaped space and time itself, manipulating those forces to build a universe in which we could exist, bending time and space to human needs and desires.
I did not need the Doctor’s explanation to appreciate the beauty of the universe’s nebulous beginnings – a necklace of glowing, streaming globules that, still further along, exploded into stars and galaxies.
The midships view was the pedestrian instance of the known present, the familiar planets, stars, and galaxies. This vision slowly deteriorated as one continued sternward into a dull universe of scattered stars, enlivened here and there with a nova or vision of colliding galaxies and finally see all this magnificence, all this glory, fade gradually into meaningless, infinite darkness.
As a consequence of the drive’s effect the ship was elongated. I could walk a far greater distance from the prow than the original length of the ship and, no matter how far that trek might be, still before me stretched deep time; that dead, dark future extending unimaginably far into the distance.
“Has the ship really changed?” I wondered, “Or is that another illusion?”
“In fact,” the pesky Doctor Zg informed me unnecessarily, “the ship is merely imposing itself on the fabric of space-time to create a nexus of redefined existence that would alter the now-where state of being.”
I didn’t understand.
“Consider the ship as a single thread in a universe where time is realized as a concrete dimension and this ship an abstraction,” Doctor Zg continued. “The thread extends from one end of the universe’s space-time to the other. It is infinite in length and contains only the abstract information about the ship and its contents. The drive simply translates this information instantaneously to our destination.”
“Hardly instantaneous,” I answered. “This trip seems interminably long already.”
“But that is not time – that is duration. Inside the ship we still reckon time as always. But Ship will emerge the instant it departed, having merely shifted dimensions of distance and time.”
I knew nothing of workings of the Tau drive and, in truth, cared little. But some of what he’d said made no sense. “But this is not a one-dimensional thread,” I said indicating the very real three-dimensional volume surrounding us.
Doctor Zg smiled. “We are as much illusion as the vista about us, Hal. You only think we exist as always because your mind is not equipped to deal with reality. The probability field that permeates the ship is simply another simple mathematical construct.”
For an instant Zg disappeared, vanished before my eyes. “You see, a minor adjustment of a tensor, a minor transformation function, is sufficient to alter reality,” he said as he reappeared.
Did it actually happen? Or was his apparent disappearance simply a manifestation of Zg’s mental influence?
Two weeks into the voyage, as we experienced duration, the sleepless Doctor Zg reported that an anomaly would appear at mid-watch. I must, he insisted, accompany him to observe this unique event.
“There, just off the third rail post,” he said, directing my attention to the necklace of globules marking the birth of elemental materials, the explosions of the first stars that lighted the universe. “Notice how the ripple extends down from the third bead on the string.”
Try as I might I could see nothing abnormal about the display. To me they were the same pulsing globules of the pre-elemental universe as before.
“The divergence of energy propagates from one to the other, but there should be no transfer, not at such an early stage. I should know,” he continued. “After all, cosmological dynamics is my area of investigation.”
Hadn’t he said otherwise earlier? I was certain that my memory was correct. But, perhaps his remark about studying human will merely indicated an avocation, much as statecraft was of mine, so I let it pass.
“It is almost as if a spirit were being born,” he remarked casually. “A close observer would say that the shape of that ripple resembled Sergio’s profile.” His finger traced a curve. “There.”
As I stared I began to see that he spoke truly, for a pattern began to emerge. There, his rounded nose, and here,the sharp chin. Twin spots of light defined the wide-set eyes and, dare I imagine it, full lips that moved, forming soundless words that spoke of murder and formed a name – Carl!
I cried out and, in that instant, the phantasm disappeared into the meaningless miasma of protophotonic splendor.
“Are you well?” Doctor Zg asked, touching my arm with surprising gentleness.
“Did you see what . . .” I began and stopped. I looked again and saw nothing, not even a glimmer of my earlier perception.
“The anomaly seems to have dissipated,” Doctor Zg remarked.
The image might be gone, but the memory was as clear as it had been a moment after I first saw it. There was no doubt in my mind.
The image of my father’s face, the spectral lips speaking of murder, and my own inner feelings that this image was truth distilled, filled my waking thoughts. Was this the clarity of knowledge that Doctor Zg had described earlier? Could father’s alleged suicide have really been murder?
I observed Carl carefully thereafter, looking for some indication of his guilt, some sign. But, to my disappointment, he behaved as usual.
I spoke peripherally to mother, asking of father’s last days while watching for any indication that she suspected Carl’s involvement. “You were there when father . . .” I began.
“Yes,” she replied timidly, weakly, softly and turned away from me to hide the tears that I knew would be forming in her eyes.
“I know you don’t want to talk about this, but I have to know what happened. You saw …” I hesitated.
“I saw the blood on his hands. I saw the way it spurted up, the way his eyes lost their life. I saw him fall.” She was talking like an automaton, emotionlessly.
“There was no one else in the room?” I knew what this must be doing to her, but something was driving me to learn exactly what had happened. “You and father were alone?”
“No, I mean, yes,” She didn’t sound so certain. “We were alone, just the two of us. He was mad, Hal. He wasn’t himself when he severed his bounds with all he loved.”
Strange choice of words, I thought, little knowing what would follow. “But what happened?” I pleaded.
Mother removed a velvet case from a drawer and handed it to me. “Doctor Zg suggested you might want this,” she said sadly.
Curious, I opened the case. Resting inside was a knife, a beautiful work of art that melded handle to haft to blade in one flowing lazy ess curve of sculpted wood and metal.
The knife rested easy in my hand, balanced and deadly. The curve of the handle fit palm and fingers naturally and let the sharp blade curve below to sweep up to a point. Its razor-sharp edge ran from haft along the curve and halfway back along the spine. I could not help but admire it.
“This is how he took his life,” mother said. Her voice was ice. “A quick stroke across the throat. Death was instantaneous. I was assured that he did not suffer.”
I nearly dropped the case. My first reaction was to destroy the knife, to rid myself of this horrid, grim memento that was the last thing my father had touched. An instant later I knew I could not to destroy. It was too meaningful. Zg must have understood how I would feel when he suggested it to mother.
“Thank you,” I choked out and closed the case. She had answered my question. She had been there. She had seen father perform his despicable act and that meant the vision had been a trick of my imagination, sparked by sorrow and loss.
Then we fell into each other’s arms and cried the evening away until all tears were gone and only sadness remained.
For days after I wandered, gazing at the heavens, and wondering at the truth that lay behind the mask of illusion. Was the medium we traversed so different, so unknowable that we could not so much as gain a hint of what it might be? Was the view a true representation of our universe or something else? For that matter, was our universe merely an illusion as well, hiding some hideous truth that we could never see?
“All of that may be true,” Doctor Zg said after I’d voiced these thoughts. “One can never know the truth explicitly. You can only grasp as much as your mind can contain. That is the advice and instruction I gave Sergio – that he should accept that the deepest truth is always unfathomable.”
“More of your Capellan philosophy, I suppose.” As much as Zg irritated me with this sort of mystical babble I found that talking with him helped me bring clarity to my mind.
Perhaps that was why father listened to it, hoping to gain a clear insight to mother’s heart and thereby entry to the love she would not give him. Love can be a powerful motivator.
It was as if Zg read my thoughts. “Consider, for example, your mother’s friend. After Sergio applied my lessons, he realized that he could no longer deny the truth of their relationship, no longer be blinded by his love for her.”
“Esther, my dear young sister,” I said dryly. “I suspected as much. I am surprised that father did not.”
Doctor Zg said nothing but looked at me strangely. “One can easily hide from the truth with rationalizations. It takes courage to face what is objectively true.”
I spoke with Zg many times, but could remember little of the details afterward. I recall mentioning the vision, of the accusation father’s image made and of its false accusation. “Mother was there,” I said to prove my case. “She watched father kill himself.”
Zg considered this. “True, but perhaps there’s more to it than that.”
“Are you suggesting that she wasn’t alone?” She had told me that there had been no one else with them.
“I make no accusations, young Hal. But you should follow your thoughts to the truth.”
Why did he evade my questions when it would be simpler to just make a statement? Surely he, better than anyone else, knew my father’s mind, his actions, his knowledge in the final act of his life. Why wouldn’t he tell me?
“How is it that Carl knows the details of what happened?” he asked. It was amazing how Zg could probe and open up vistas of clarity and logic. Of course, I realized with absolute certainty. Carl knew the details because he had murdered father. Yes, he had done it so he could take possession of who he had already bedded.
Now that the certainty of Carl’s guilt had taken root I fertilized it with memories of my careful observations; the way his hands were always in nervous motion – trying to wash them clean of father’s blood, no doubt. And what about the strange way he stared at me? Was that because he suspected that I would somehow learn of his crime? The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced until, finally, I had no doubts. Carl had killed father.
And mother had been there with him! That is why she was so confused about it, trying to hide the truth from her own son.
“I’ve enjoyed our talk, Hal,” Doctor Zg said, unaware of the turmoil of my thoughts. “I feel we are growing as close as I was to Sergio. In fact, I’m starting to think of you as I would a son.”
“Thank you,” I replied. “I am honored.”
Talking to Zg might have clarified my mind, but it did little to alleviate the frustration and anger that raged within me. There was no way I could prove Carl’s guilt without revealing the facts of father’s death. I still could not believe that mother would protect him, would stand by while he murdered father. This was the woman I loved. This was my mother! I could not believe she had done this willingly.
“It is curious how certain transitory phenomena occur but once,” Doctor Zg remarked during one of our walks about the ship. “Such isolated events are of great interest and this environment,” he encompassed the heavens outside with a wave of his arm, “enables me to predict some such events. By carefully examining the early state forward I can tell when its consequence will appear further aft.”
Despite my preoccupation with how I could prove Carl’s guilt, I was curious. “Is that possible?”
“Of course. The application of certain q-dimensional tensor equations give rise to…. But I see that you are not interested in such abstract mathematical constructs. No, I see you are a man of action, much like Sergio, and interested only in results.”
So he thought I was like father? No one had ever made such a flattering observation before, but here, a creature who had worked closely with him, had given his objective opinion. I felt a curious glow of pleasure at this remark. “And the results are?”
Doctor Zg smiled. “Wonderful. You reply exactly like Sergio would have. Well, should you find yourself at,” and here he described the precise location along the outer shell, “at the 0347.5th hour, you will see the result of that ripple that so intrigued you earlier.”
I vowed I would not miss this event he’d predicted. “Will you be there?”
“No, there is something of greater importance that I must do.” He smiled, gave me a awkward bow, and departed.
The corridor was empty at an hour when all were deep in sleep. Strange how we humans, despite having parted ways with our Sun’s cycles for centuries, still follow the ancient agrarian habits, captive to our circadian rhythms, captive to a primitive urge deeper than instinct.
I’d come early to the place Doctor Zg had described and rested with my back against bulkhead. It was strange that I had that same clarity of mind that accompanied Zg’s presence even though he was nowhere to be seen. The hours passed slowly and I used the time to ponder Carl’s obvious guilt and mothers involvement. Love and hatred warred within me, feeding frustration that grew dark moment by moment.
I tried to divert my thoughts and pondered how the earlier vision of father’s face could possibly propagate itself into this late instance of the universe. What would it mean? If the earlier image had been false would this one be any more truthful?
I sensed someone approaching and rose. Perhaps Doctor Zg had changed his mind and decided to join me.
Mother let out a small gasp of surprise when I stepped from the shadows, but quickly regained her composure. “I didn’t expect to find you here,” she said and glanced about. The tone of her voice told me that she expected someone else.
“Who did you expect?” I said. “Who are you looking for, dear mother?” I demanded and stepped closer. Suddenly the anger that had been building for days finally broke through. “Would it be that murdering bastard who killed my father? Is that who you expected?”
She backed away a step. “What are you saying?”
“I know what happened. I know the truth, of why my dear young sister bears so strong a resemblance to your new husband.” She flinched. That was a telling blow – proof that she’d borne a bastard daughter. “Where is the man who murdered my father?”
As if summoned, Carl appeared. “You are wrong, Hal,” he said. “I had no part in your father’s death. It was a suicide, a mad irrational impulse.”
“No!” I screamed and leaped at him. “You are lying. I’ve seen the blood on your hands and the guilt in your eyes. You are a murderer, a cuckolding killer, a man without honor.”
With each word Carl backed away, his face paling as the truth assaulted his ears. He raised his hands to fend me off, but I, screaming with rage, continued to advance, throwing accusation upon accusation at him, trying to force him to admit his crime.
I did not expect what happened next. Carl retreated until his back was pressed against the restraining field that held the unreality at bay. I was half a step away when, suddenly, the field collapsed and Carl fell outside. An impossibility!
There was a puff of wind at my back as he disappeared in a flash of actinic light. Nothing remained but his residual, red-spotted image burned on my retinas.
The sudden disappearance of the target of my ire disoriented me. It was only mother’s screaming that brought me back to the moment. “What have you done?”
I turned toward her to explain that Carl’s disappearance was not of my doing, but she backed away, fear in her eyes. “I did nothing,” I insisted, but she continued to retreat.
“Hal, why, how did you do this? My God, Carl! He’s gone! What happened? What have you done?” she screamed.
Then, on the other side of the barrier, I noticed a distortion in the heavens. It was black on black, an absence of light in certain regions as if a large object were obscuring the distant stars. This must be the event Doctor Zg had foretold. In seconds it resolved into a negative image of that beloved face.
And it was smiling.
I grabbed mother’s arm to spin her about. “Look! father knows he has been avenged!” I used my finger to trace the outline of the image that was even now beginning to fade. “See! See!”
“I don’t see anything.” She struggled to free herself from my grasp and, when she failed to do so, began sobbing hysterically. “How could you do this? Carl was a kind, gentle man who loved and cherished us.”
“No, he was a killer, a murderer.”
She finally freed herself and backed away. “How did you come by these insane accusations, Hal? What is wrong with you? My God, I can’t believe my own son would . . .”
“He murdered my father,” I insisted. But how to explain what I knew? I’d no evidence save my own suspicions and those damning phantom images – a transient ripple in space-time and an equally fleeting black on black reverse image as proof of my suspicions. “He killed my father,” I repeated.
Mother let out a terrible cry. “How ironic. How horribly, horribly ironic.” Her quavering voice echoed from the walls, mocking my lack of understanding. Had the horror of Carl’s disappearance unhinged her as well?
“You are the one who murdered your father,” she shouted through her tears. “You’re the one with his blood on your hands.” She was speaking nonsense. I’d been far away when father died. Everyone knew that.
“Carl had a terrible accident,” I insisted. “It was an accident.”
Mother stared at me. “An accident? An accident on a ship where chance never plays a role?” She started to move away, but I pulled her close.
“It was an accident, mother.”
“No, you did something. You caused his death.”
“Accuse me, then, and I’ll speak of your complicity in father’s murder.” There, I declared a willingness to preserve her honor, such as it was.
“I had no hand in Sergio’s death, none!” she protested. “Nor did Carl.” I couldn’t deny the sincerity in her voice.
Was it possible that Carl was innocent? Had I caused an innocent man’s death by surrendering to baseless suspicions? Half of me wanted to believe her. I still loved her, despite what she’d done, what she knew and would not speak.
“Oh Hal, I’ve lost so much that I can’t accuse my own son, my flesh,” she cried. “You’re all I have left of him.”
“It was an accident,” I repeated, not knowing what else to say..
Mother nodded. “I’ll do what you ask. I will say it was an accident.”
We parted then. She to the prow to report the accident and I to the stern to try to sort out my confused and contradictory feelings toward her.
I walked for days, it seemed, several hundred times the resting length of the ship, wrestling with my troubled thoughts. I cared little for food or cleanliness. Here, with the eternal blackness outside, there was no differentiation of day and night, no sense of time – or rather, duration, as Doctor Zg would have it.
The thought that the woman who had loved me for so many years, who had always been comforting in the face of father’s stern discipline, could have been a part of his murder was appalling. The idea of her guilt warred with the love and respect I’d always felt for her. On alternate hours I oscillated between suspicion and denial.
But what still puzzled me was why she made that ridiculous assertion that I, my father’s innocent son, was his true murderer! Had she gone mad as well, unhinged by Carl’s abrupt disappearance? Or was it simply a wild accusation to hide her complicity in father’s murder; complicity born of her love for Carl and desire to protect him, even in death?
Carl haunted my thoughts. Once I imagined I saw a distorted image of him reflected in the mirror-like rail. He appeared younger and with just the fringe of a beard barely started. His image was dressed much as I and moved jerkily, pacing himself to my own moves. I averted my eyes from reflective surfaces thereafter for fear the image would again appear.
I was startled by the appearance of Doctor Zg. A disturbingly alien cast had begun to dominate his features.
“An awesome sight, deep time.” He indicated the bleak view. “It humbles one to the brief chronology of life, does it not. One moment we are full of it and then,” he waved his hand in dismissal, “we are gone.”
“You’ve heard of Carl’s disappearance, then,” I replied. “What brings you here?”
“A continuation of my examination of the entire continuum of the universe during our brief trip. Having adequately covered the universe’s earlier ages, I decided that the later ones might be as interesting.”
Curiosity over everyone’s reaction to Carl’s disappearance overcame my reticence. “How . . . Are they speaking of me?” I asked, returning the subject to the mundane.
“Ah yes, a terrible happenstance,” he replied. “Ship apparently has no record of a field failure and, truth be told, doubts that is really what happened.”
“But surely mother reported what she’d seen.”
“Of course, but most suggest that she may have seen only what she was intended to see. There might be other mechanisms at play, some say. After all, you were involved.”
“She denied that I had anything to do with it, of course.”
Doctor Zg paused. “Perhaps, had she bothered, but she never did. I’m afraid that your mother has become quite distraught. She has sequestered herself, mourning for her lost love, no doubt.
“Of course,” he added a moment later. “She is also effectively and efficiently taking control of Carl’s assets. I suspect that keeps her from dwelling excessively on her loss.” There was no trace of sarcasm in his voice, but I suspected such was not far from his mind.
To be honest, I hadn’t thought of the consequences of Carl’s death, accidental or otherwise. With his disappearance mother would become even more powerful; entire systems could suffer should she become displeased over some trivial slight.
“And my own holdings?” I wondered as to where my own fortune might reside.
“You retain Sergio’s inheritance, in name. I believe your mother is acting as agent until some determination of fault for Carl’s misfortune is determined. But again, what do you make of it that the ship has no record of a screen failure? Most curious, isn’t it?”
“Sergio often said that one must reply to adversity. You must continue to uncover the truth.”
As before, simply talking to Zg clarified my thoughts. I had no doubts about what he was suggesting. “You say I should accuse my own mother? Do you think her guilty as well?”
At this Doctor Zg shook his head. “I cannot draw such a conclusion, young sir. Just the same, her actions seem strangely at odds with the situation. There must be a reason for her refusal to deny your guilt.”
I could not conceive of a single reason why mother would wish her own son harm. Was it not enough that she had lost two husbands, that she was now without family, without anyone close to her except my absent brother, my toddling sister, and I? No, she would not have accused me!
Zg rose. “But now I must leave. There is an interesting interaction among certain passengers that I must watch. I have, after all, an intense interest in human will.”
I contemplated the heavens long after he departed. I searched for some sign, some future consequence of the ripple that had started me on this path and surely must extend even into this deep, dark future. Wistfully I hoped that it would grant me guidance. But nothing appeared and, after considering the alternatives, I decided to return.
There were no confrontations, no open accusations that greeted my return. No one bothered because I was unable to flee until Ship reached its destination they probably concluded, assuming that I, a nearly blameless participant in Carl’s accident, was somehow responsible for his death.
Mother remained sequestered, unapproachable by me. As I awaited the opportunity to speak to her a question occurred to me; What had mother and Carl been doing in that dark corridor? Neither of them had ever expressed interest in the vista outside, and I doubted either of them would understand it. Business and managing affairs was their universe, a logical universe where laws of economics and politics were stronger than the fundamental forces of physics and cosmology.
In the midst of gnawing at this thought, Doctor Zg appeared. “Have you resolved matters with your mother, young sir? I fear you must do so before we reach our destination and these suspicions of your assault on Carl become horrid accusations. As you said before, your society takes a dim view of patricide.”
Patricide! Unbidden, my mind flashed back to those haunted days in the stern, when I imagined Carl’s image stalking me. Was that truly a phantasm or had I suddenly seen a reflection of myself with new eyes, seeing the similarities between us rather than the differences? Suddenly mother’s words became crystal clear. There was no doubt as the brutal truth burst upon my soul: I was bastard as well.
The implications of this insight astounded and horrified me. Suddenly mother’s hysterical words rang true. I had caused the death of my true father when I drove Carl backwards into the field.
I was stunned. “You knew! You knew the truth from the beginning. Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you warn me somehow? If you were such a friend to my father how could you let his son be so shamed?” No, not my father at all.
Doctor Zg remained calm. “You had to follow your own path, just as Sergio honorably did before you.”
“A man of honor does not kill himself.”
“That conclusion I leave to you, my son.”
I wondered about that. Would Sergio have become so depressed at being cuckolded twice that he took his own life? I would think that he would rather have confronted the pair and demanded an accounting. Divorce was out of the question, so intricately entwined were the family fortunes. Still, an accommodation could have been made. Mother and Carl residing elsewhere, separate in all but law. The arrangement would have been shocking, but not unusual.
But father had died instead, leaving Carl clear to marry mother, his mistress for so many years. Clearly mother, my adulterous mother, was the sole beneficiary of all that had happened. Had that confrontation turned ugly and left Sergio dying while mother stood by? I could picture the scene in my mind; Carl, knife in hand, standing over the body while mother smiled at her victory. The image had the feel of truth, just as that vision had.
“One should consider what could happen next,” Zg suggested.
The implications of what he said burst on me like a nova. Mother had been present at Sergio’s murder and she had been present when Carl met his accident. She had caused it all; controlling Carl to murder Sergio, and then forcing me to take care of Carl.
Logic dictated that I was to be her next target. Best to strike first, I concluded.
“Do the moral act,” Zg said, confirming my own decision. I had never felt more certain of anything.
Mother did not hide her anger at my sudden appearance. “How dare you force your way into my quarters. Didn’t I make it abundantly clear that I want nothing to do with you?”
Upon seeing her, my resolve faltered. I wondered if I would be able to do what I intended as my fingers caressed the knife in my pocket. It would be a mercy to both of us, but the thought of killing my own mother, of spilling her blood, filled me with disgust. This was the woman who bore me, who loved me and, despite her sins, despite the despicable things she had done, I still loved her.
She still looked angry, but I could tell that her resolve was crumbling. Finally, she took half a step toward me. “Hal?”
I reached out and took her in my arms, bringing her breast closer to the blade that had taken her husband. Her arms went lovingly around me, as they had so many times before. I hesitated, my mind so torn between hatred and love that I could not do this, not yet. I needed time to steel myself for the final act of this gruesome play.
“I know about Carl, about myself.” My voice quavered with an emotion I couldn’t define.
Her arms stiffened. “Ah, so you know the truth,” she sighed. I could read the shame in her posture, her guilt at the conventions she had flouted for so many years. “Yes, it was Carl,” she admitted.
I resolved to act now, before further doubts hobbled my actions. The handle of the knife curled into my palm like a lover snuggling spoon-like in the night. But I could not do this brutally. First I had to distract her.
“Why were you and Carl there, that fateful night?”
She shrugged. “We were told we would see something interesting.”
“What was it you expected?” I withdrew the knife and tilted the point upwards, toward her heart. She would not see the blade. She would only feel a moment’s pain. That granted her more grace than Sergio was given. I slid my thumb along the back of the blade to brace it for the thrust and tensed my arm.
“It no longer seems important why Zg wanted us to be there,” she replied and lay her head against my chest.
Her response distracted me and I hesitated again. “Doctor Zg?” He’d said nothing about that. Strange that he would be so reticent when he knew my anger. “He wanted me to see a ripple in space-time. It was supposed to be related to another we’d seen,” I said.
Mother pulled away. “Strange, he promised Carl it would be a double ring nebula that would symbolize our union. He said it would be remarkable in its clarity.”
I was shocked that Doctor Zg had told a deliberate lie. Carl wouldn’t have known there could be no such object at that point of the universe’s history. All such energetic outbursts were far forward, far in the past.
“Why would he want us together that night?” she asked. “Hal, why do you look so strange?”
I had the knife poised to strike, to take her life, but could not force my arm to move. My mind was in turmoil. The Doctor knew my distraught state of mind that night. Had he set this up to find out what would happen – or did he know the consequences, the rage that would explode when I confronted Carl? I could not imagine that anyone would be so cold and calculating. But then, Doctor Zg was hardly human.
Suddenly the absolute certainty of mother’s guilt faded. I realized that I had no evidence save my own emotions and conclusions reached after each encounter with the alien. Had he been influencing me, feeding my suspicions, leading me to act against her? Had he subtly sparked those ghostly images of my father? Had he been guiding my darkest thoughts, using my own mind to do what he wished? It was more than chilling and certainly within the range of possibility. Was that supposed clarity evidence of his influence?
And if it had done that to me, what about others?
“How did Zg learn of father’s death?” I asked as another horrible thought sprang to mind. “Was he . . . there?”
“Of course not!” mother declared, and then added. “No, that’s not right, but . . . It’s all so confusing. He came in after, I think. I don’t really remember.”
I took her confusion as evidence that he’d clouded her thoughts as well. “Forgive me, mother,” I said and enfolded her in my arms, regaining the love I almost lost.
When she returned my embrace all my so-called certainty about Sergio’s death, of Carl’s guilt, of mother’s involvement faded.
And what replaced it was cold as the deep time and as boundless. Zg had meant for me to murder my own mother, a violation of everything human. I felt unclean, a dull blade nearly sullied with innocent blood.
Doctor Zg stood a short distance beyond the mid-ship line, near the spot where Carl had disappeared. He didn’t turn as I approached, but must have sensed my presence.
“A moral act is not always pleasant, is it, young Hal?” I noted that his face was completely alien, inhuman in all senses. “You should not feel badly for what you have done. It would have been immoral for your mother to live.”
That, if nothing else, was confirmation of all my suspicions. “I did not kill her. I did not do what you wanted.”
He started. “She was as guilty as Carl and must pay for her immorality,” he declared. “You were to act upon that fact.”
“Not when I discovered what lay beneath your truths.” I tried to hide my anger and keep my voice level. “Why did you do this to me, to us?”
“My role is only to enlighten, Hal. Your own code demands that an accounting be made for honor besmirched, does it not?”
Was he actually admitted to manipulating me into causing Carl’s death? “Why do you continue to blame Carl for father’s death? You were there. You must know he didn’t kill Sergio.”
“It doesn’t matter if Carl was present,” he admitted. “Sergio was dishonored because of him, and, once he truly understood the size of the horns he wore, the depth of his cuckoldry ate at him.”
He paused and a strange sad note crept into his voice. “I could not bear to see him suffer so, this man who thought me his son. Honor demanded that I should help him, to see that he should not suffer.”
I was astounded. “You helped him?”
“Sergio treated me as a son,” Doctor Zg repeated. “Because of that I had to ease his pain!” There, the bald truth; the damning words that marked him as alien. I suddenly pictured Doctor Zg wielding the knife, the very knife that rested in my pocket, cool in my hand. How distraught father must have been to allow an alien to do this while mother stood by.
“It was a moral obligation,” Zg continued. “I swore to avenge him on those who had brought such dishonor, such pain.” He could only mean Carl’s death and, almost, mother’s.
“You manipulated me! You used me as the weapon against my own father and mother.”
Zg shrugged. “A son must act to bring about moral resolution. I merely helped you along a path your mind had already taken.”
“You are a monster,” I screamed. “Don’t you realize the pain you have caused, the agony you have brought upon us? Don’t you realize that your stupid Capellan morals don’t apply to humans?”
Zg smiled, a grimace made more horrid by his alien features. “On the contrary, young Hal. You should rejoice, for we have proven ourselves honorable and moral beings in both Capellan and Human senses – both for properly dispatching our fathers, and you for vindicating your father’s honor. There is one final act you must fulfill, however.”
I felt my doubts begin to fade and recognized his attempt to regain control. Without hesitation I lunged forward and plunged the knife into his breast. Then I struck again and again, slashing away at his alien ugliness, uncaring of where my blows fell. With every stroke I screamed my anger, my pain, my hatred of being used so badly until, finally, my arm tired and I had to stop.
Dark brown fluids streamed from the deep cuts in Zg’s body. One of his arms hung uselessly at his side. Half of his face was gone and gore stained the floor. Despite all that I had done he stirred. Wounded as he was, he still lived. “You honor me,” he wheezed. “A Capellan act.”
“I hate you,” I replied. “You used me. You twisted my love for Sergio, my love for mother, for your hideous Capellan moral code.”
“And you learned well,” he choked up a gout of brown fluid. “You have done all a Capellan should do. Even this,” he paused to cough his last. “Like . . . my . . . son.”
I watched as his life poured onto the deck, staining my clothing, covering me with his blood. Had this been his last bit of manipulation – to drive me to kill him as his son never would?
Finally his breathing stopped and the blood stopped flowing. My mind was clear, my thoughts finally my own, unaffected by his alien manipulations. No, I decided, it had been love that drove my actions, not his influence.
And love, not an ethical code, was a deeper truth than any Capellan could ever know.
Bud Sparhawk is a part-time short story writer who has sold about seventy science fiction stories to Analog, Asimov’s, several “Best of” anthologies, and other print, audio, and on-line media both in the United States and Overseas. He has also written articles appearing in various books and magazines.
He has two short story collections and one novel (Vixen: released in December 2008.) He has been a three-time Nebula finalist.
Bud is currently the Eastern Regional Director of SFWA, a member of SIGMA, and Senior Vice President of Macfadden. A complete biography, lists of stories, copies of articles, and other amusing material can be found at his web site: sff.net/people/bud_sparhawk.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish