Natius and the rest of the refugees found the accommodations on Camilan’s ship surprisingly spacious. For all that the Ghilostri were a unique species with different needs and bodily functions from nearly any other in the settled universe, each survivor was made to feel at home. Camilan showed them all how to modify their quarters, using commands they could select from a touchscreen console.
“We were once quite cosmopolitan,” said Camilan, “in the broadest sense, and often hosted dignitaries from many other worlds. I can’t imagine how my fellow Ghilostri are viewed by the rest of the universe, now.”
“Where will you go after we’re resettled?” asked Natius.
“I have been fortunate enough to make contact with Hepthalos,” said Camilan. “It was once our most populous colony planet, where I hope to find acceptance.”
“Good luck, then,” said Natius. “We owe you our lives.”
“As I do you,” said the Ghilostri. “In light of that, I have a small gift for you.”
A compartment on Camilan’s cylinder opened and an auxiliary mechanical hand reached out toward Natius. In its palm was a green sphere about the size of a lime.
“If ever you find yourself in need, anywhere in the universe,” said Camilan, “speak into this device and I will come to your aid.”
Natius thanked him and would have said more, if the Ghilostri hadn’t turned away and hurried off. If Natius hadn’t known better, he might have thought that Camilan was overcome with emotion. If so, it would have been a first, as far as he could tell.
Meanwhile, Verthani had worked her connections and drummed up support among the Jolatrins and their allies to help relocate the survivors of Camilan’s disastrous experiment. Within a few weeks, the Jolatrin government had built a large shelter on an asteroid at the edge of their solar system. Between advanced-design replicators, robotic construction platforms and a variety of prefab structures routinely used to get a new interstellar colony off the ground, they’d made short work of it.
Regardless, there was one refugee who required special attention. With Athcarone’s help, Verthani discovered a tiny enclave of believers in the cult of Jolatrinaar, the ancient god that Lorneavi had served so long ago. Tucked away on one of Jolatrin’s earliest space colonies, the roughly one thousand celebrants were as overjoyed to receive her as she was to find a receptive audience. As a precaution, the Jolatrins sent along two androids that were indistinguishable from real Jolatrins, to help Lorneavi adjust to her new surroundings. For Natius and the others, though the asteroid-based shelter offered no more than the bare necessities, they were relieved to shuck off the burden of daily survival in the wild.
All told, the Jolatrin shelter was a marvel of compact design. Each tenant’s private room made maximal use of available living space. Pivoting cabinets revealed entertainment centers. In the morning, the bed platforms flipped up to make way for matched sets of collapsible tables and folding chairs. Though the communal bathing and sanitary facilities were less than ideal for Natius, they were a thing of wonder to those residents who hailed from pre-industrial times on their respective homeworlds. By any measure, each member of this temporary community was well looked after, safe and healthy. If the shelter’s bland, pastel color scheme wasn’t exactly to Natius’ taste, his exhausted soul simply forgot to worry about it.
Seven months later, the question of resettlement came up and posed a different set of problems for each inhabitant of the shelter. Even for Natius, who’d grown up in a highly evolved interstellar civilization, the transition to his new life wasn’t easy. Two thousand years had brought changes in technology but also in social custom. When he was eventually transferred to a colony founded by humans, he had to adapt to an entirely new way of life. Whereas he’d been used to navigating the world on his own, he was placed under the care of psychologists in a kind of half-way house.
Though the accommodations were impersonal and utterly devoid of anything resembling “culture,” he was comfortable, warm and lacked for nothing essential. If he’d been partial to the color white, he might even have been content. For every single wall, cabinet and appliance was as white as the snow that, owing to strict climate controls, fell only in precise quantities, as required by the planet’s ecosystem.
At least I have my own place, he thought.
At the same time, the realization that he had to be grateful for something so basic was discouraging. And in other ways, his transition to this new world was full of setbacks. Like every other citizen of New Bayonne, he was assigned a strict schedule for nearly every hour of the day. It included milestones like “Waking,” “Garment Selection,” “Morning Meal,” “Exercise,” “Hygiene,” “Citizenship,” “Community Upkeep,” “Social Hour…” the list went on and on, with slight variations throughout the week.
Driving me insane, he told himself.
More than once in the first few months, he was subjected to unctuous lectures about his “inability to bond with beneficent societal policy.” Then there were the innumerable violations of petty protocol that dogged his every step. Had he eaten too much, exercised too little, failed to inquire about his neighbors’ needs, neglected his personal hygiene, spoken too assertively, laughed too raucously or boasted about his past accomplishments?
For each of these behaviors, Natius was given several hours of “empathy readings” intended to show him the error of his ways. Ultimately, he was most severely reprimanded for his “failure to project the cheerful demeanor of a willing participant in the common good.”
And if that were not enough, his new homeworld’s micromanaging government put him under the constant surveillance of a floating, deep red sphere. True to form, the sphere’s AI core, designated NDG-E1, was brimming with suggestions deemed by society to improve the former musician’s sullen mood.
“You should find a hobby,” it told him. “Wasn’t there anything you liked to do before your accident?”
Natius stared at the hovering device and briefly weighed how much trouble it would cause if he tried to flush it down the commode. He shook his head.
“Can you get me a musical instrument?” he asked.
“Possibly,” said NDG-E1. “Here is a selection of the available options.” Natius was taken aback by the holographic catalogue, filled with images of various instruments that popped up in front of him. “Do you see any device you recognize. I’m afraid much has changed since you last….”
“There,” said Natius.
The three-dimensional image of a breath-activated instrument, almost exactly like the emerald-green Oscillot he’d lost track of, hovered within arm’s reach.
“Take it,” said the sphere. “Pluck it out of the catalogue.”
Natius was astonished to feel the image take solid form in his right hand.
“That, Mr. Tomlin,” said NDG-E1, “is what we call touch-activated transmat.”
Natius examined the instrument closely, still not convinced it was real. With nothing to lose, he put the device to his mouth and tried it out.
“That melody is well-known in our time,” said the sphere. “It entitled Star Love for some reason. I can’t understand how you would know it, considering….”
“I wrote it, you stupid ball of … of I don’t know what.” said Natius.
“In fact,” said the sphere, “My shell is composed of a combination of….”
“Skip it,” said Natius. “Now leave me alone for a while, will you?”
“Out of the question,” said NDG-E1. “I am your constant companion.”
Natius put the Oscillot to his lips and played some more, his eyes streaming with tears. He put the instrument down and glared up at the sphere.
“And what,” he asked, “if I want a different kind of companion?”
“That,” said the sphere, “I will have to take up with your counsellor.”
Natius turned away and lay down on his quarter’s soft vatleather couch.
“You do that,” he said. “And while you’re at it, get me a Time Machine. I want to go home.”
“Time travel, in the sense you apparently mean it,” said NDG-E1, “is strictly forbidden by interstellar law. I would think your own experience would help you to understand why.”
“You would think that,” said Natius. “So, let’s go out. I don’t need a psychologist to meet new people.”
Without wasting a second, Natius grabbed his new instrument, yanked a sauce pan out of his kitchen cabinets and headed downstairs to the polyslate sidewalk surrounding the steel and concrete building that had become his prison. Over the objections of NDG-E1, he sat down on that sidewalk, put the sauce pan in front of him and began to play. Within minutes a small crowd had gathered, drawn by the music, as well as the sheer novelty of the situation.
As a consequence, in this distant future, after everything he’d ever known had been washed away by a series of bizarre catastrophes, Natius Tomlin was back in his natural element, serenading the universe, outside of Time. Like many a moment of peaceful self-realization, however, this one was short-lived. In a few minutes, a team of orderlies from the halfway house hustled him off the street and into an isolation booth. For the next three days, he was bombarded by reprimands and made to endure a grueling battery of psychological tests.
On the fourth day, he was released to his quarters and locked in until he could “again demonstrate a commitment to the values of the community.” As part of his punishment, he was told, he would have to make do without the advice and counsel of NDG-E1. For that, Natius was grateful.
I was better off on Ghilos 4, he thought. Too bad I can’t go back.
His heart pounding, he ran to his bedroom, opened the bottom drawer of his bureau and reached all the way back under his T-shirts to retrieve Camilan’s parting gift. He held it up to eye-level and whispered into it softly:
“Camilan, I think I need a change of scenery.”
The next morning, the ruling board of the halfway house was startled to notice a large spacecraft of unfamiliar design hovering a few meters above their headquarters. Even more unsettling, the ship departed a few minutes later as abruptly as it arrived and, later that day, they found Natius’ quarters empty.
Up in space, as the alien ship veered out of orbit, Camilan greeted the beleaguered human with a stiff imitation of a human wave. Natius was glad to see that the Ghilostri’s mobile tank was completely restored.
“I hope the transmat process wasn’t too disturbing,” said Camilan.
“I’m fine,” said Natius. “Except you missed one of my toes.”
Camilan seemed stunned until a synthetic laugh rang out from the Ghilostri’s mobile tank.
“Oh, you are being humorous,” s/he said. “I fear I am never quite prepared for such things.”
Natius apologized and Camilan surprised him with a precious gift: an exact replica of the instrument he brought to the Encounter.
“Thanks,” said Natius. “I wish I could be sure the rest of my band survived, and everyone else onboard.”
“Based on our own experience,” said Camilan, “It is reasonable to believe that many of them were also displaced to other parts of the settled universe, at one set of spatiotemporal coordinates or another.”
“I guess,” said Natius. “All I can think of now is how glad I am to be out of that … prison.”
“A regrettable situation,” said Camilan. “However, I see from the work of my colleagues that human society has gone in and out of several phases of severe social constraint. We may hope that they will eventually come to their senses.”
“I wish there were a way to break that cycle,” said Natius.
“That, my young friend, would be a ‘tall order’ as you would say,” said the Ghilostri. “In the meantime, would you do me the favor of playing a bit of the music I heard on the Encounter? It might do us both good.”
“Sure,” said Natius. “Just tell me, where are we headed?”
“Since the incident with my probes,” said Camilan, ‘I have longed to make a tour of the Cosmos, to broaden my perspective. I see now that my assumptions, and those of my team, were based on a model of the universe that was much too narrow, for being purely logical.”
“Logic has its limits,” said Natius. “Every musician learns that early on.”
“Then teach me, too,” said Camilan, “and if you care to join me, you will find much to wonder at that also defies logic.”
“Let’s go,” said Natius.
As the human put his new instrument to his lips, the Ghilostri banked his/her sleek vessel out of the planetary plane and raced ahead to engage the ship’s space folding engines. The unlikeliest companions in the universe were off on a tear to explore new worlds of experience.
Mark Laporta is the author of Probability Shadow and Entropy Refraction, the first two novels in the science fiction series, Against the Glare of Darkness, which are available at a bookstore near you, on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble. He is also the author of Orbitals: Journeys to Future Worlds, a collection of short science fiction, which is available as an ebook.
Illustration by Steven S. Drachman