Aphelion Issue 260, Volume 25
April 2021
 
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Become Like a God

by McCamy Taylor



"Enkidu, You are become like a god"

from The Epic of Gilgamesh

Gnawing pain in my shoulders. Itchy crawling sensation all over my face and scalp. The pilot of the antique space freighter mumbled something about a problem with the pressurization. He handed out masks, and I huddled in the hold with the other passengers, breathing pure oxygen and trying not to pass out.

Particles of food and liquid floated around the cabin -- the remains of my breakfast. The air filtration system onboard the Jezebel was as antiquated as everything else, and so I was forced to watch the regurgitated food for an hour before the last drop disappeared into the vent.

It was my first trip off world, and with any luck, it would be my last. Leave space to the Albions. Naturals like me were not meant to fly among the stars in tin cans. We needed planetary gravity beneath our feet and an ozone atmosphere to filter out deadly radiation. Room to move, clean air to breathe. Goddess, the air inside the ship smelled foul! The head was even worse. My face in the mirror looked unfamiliar, pasty and puffy. My eyes would not focus right.

I crawled back to the hold and pressed the oxygen mask to my face breathing deeply. Pure oxygen was supposed to help the DCs, but I felt like shit. How much time had passed since takeoff? I peered at my chrono. Only four hours? How would I survive another eight hours of this hell?

I leaned back and tried to concentrate on something besides my physical misery. Twelve hours in space was nothing, I told myself. My wife was in labor thirty-six hours -- a day and a half of pain that left her too exhausted even to scream at the end, and for what? All that agony to give birth to a child that lived for only eighteen minutes. The baby tried to cry before she died, but her lungs were malformed and so was her heart. That was what happened when you mixed natural DNA with the genetically engineered stuff --

They said that spacers were part rat. Their DNA incorporated bits of genetic material from the naked mole rat, an albino creature that lived in burrows on old Earth. Mole rats did not age or get cancer. They did not feel pain, either. When oxygen levels in their burrows were low, they could shut down their metabolism to almost nothing. They lived for over a twenty years -- ten times as long as ordinary rodents.

Almost as soon as the mole rat's DNA was mapped, Earth scientists set to work snipping genes and inserting them into other animals in an attempt to adapt pets and livestock for life in space. Once they bred the first hairless, albino chimpanzees and proved them resistant to stellar radiation, it was only a matter of time before human experimentation began. In secret, of course, human genetic engineering being illegal in almost every civilized part of the galaxy.

The result was the Albion, the first and so far only humans designed specifically for space. Because of their modified DNA, Albions never developed tumors, no matter how much radiation they were exposed to, and -- except for their eyes, which were light sensitive -- they did not suffer from the premature aging that afflicted naturals who went to space. Because they did not get cancer, they could take enormous amounts of hormones to keep their bones and muscles strong during extended periods of weightlessness. They did not get the DCs, either, lucky bastards --

I groaned and tried to find a comfortable position to ease the ache in my shoulders. The captain appeared. A short man, like all spacers, he was bald and hairless with milk white skin. His eyes were hidden by goggles to slow the development of cataracts, the cornea being the only part of an Albion's body not resistant to radiation. They said that all Albions went blind, sooner or later. You could tell how old they were by their eyes. By forty, most of them had prosthetics.

"Try this." He handed me a film-tab. Sopor. It took away the pain in my shoulders, but not the ache in my heart. Poor Isha. Raped by an Albion, left to give birth to a deformed child -- she could not bear the grief or the shame, and so she ended her life, a mortal sin.

Soon the man who sent her to Hell would be joining her. I fingered the carbon polymer pistol which I carried in my backpack. Projectile weapons were forbidden in space, where a bullet could breach the hull of a ship and bring instant death to everyone on board. But it was the surest way to kill a man. A laser weapon or stun gun could be deflected if the target wore the right kind of shielding. No force field could stop a bullet. That took body armor -- and who on a space station would bother with body armor when projectile weapons were not allowed?

I travelled twelve long hours in the Jezebel to reach the space station. Fortunately for me, the orbiting city was equipped with gravity generators. Once I could tell up from down, the nausea stopped. But my shoulders still ached, and I felt like a wrung out towel even after downing a liter of water.

The woman at customs was an Albion. She wore a wig, long pink hair piled on top of her head. Her pale face was dotted with silver and gold sequins. Eyebrows and lashes had been implanted in her skin, making her look more human than most of her kind. Her lips were ruby red as were her eyes. "Business or pleasure, sir?" she asked as she examined my documents. The nape of her neck was decorated with tattoos.

"Pleasure," I mumbled. I held my breath as she waved a scanning wand over me. The merc who sold me the gun claimed it would not set off weapon detectors. He was right. No pat down -- very few farmers from Uruk went to space looking for trouble.

"Everything seems to be in order." The customs agent handed me my papers. Her jaw was prominent, her nose slightly long. One of the side effects of growth hormone. Change her clothes, get rid of the pink wig, and she could easily pass for a man -- a young man with baby smooth skin. How old was she? Less than forty, because she still had her own eyes.

Smiling, the Albion said "Remember, we recommend that you wait at least seventy-two hours before shipping out. You can get decompression sickness if you experience even a modest drop in pressure too soon." She talked like a spacer, clipped consonants, short vowels. Perfect enunciation was important for pilots who had to communicate with space traffic controllers.

Three hours later, I was at the docks again, making the rounds of the bars. Grim, dimly lit holes in the wall, where spacers met to arrange their business -- much of it shady. After four tamarind fizzes, I was close to feeling rehydrated. At least my vision did not go dark and my legs did not turn to jelly when I stood up. Shoulders still ached. I bought another couple of doses of Sopor at a pharmacy.

Fourth bar, I got lucky.

"I'm looking for Roi Gil -- "A distant siren sounded. No one in the bar moved or even looked up. I relaxed. " -- an Albion pilot. Keeps a pet rat."

The bartender was a natural with caramel colored skin, dark eyes accentuated by kohl and nice hair, shiny and black. She wore an eight pointed star of Ishtar on a cord around her neck. The corners of her eyes crinkled as she smiled. "All pilots are Albion. And all of them keep a pet rat for good luck. Check out hangar D17. Once you finish your business, maybe you and I could get together --"

"Sorry," I told her.

"Gay?"

"Married." My chest tightened painfully. Poor Isha. She deserved better. I had never cherished her when she was alive. Now that she was dead, all I could do for her was avenge her.

The bartender rolled her eyes. "Why are the good looking guys always taken? Goddess be with you."

"And with you."

D17 was not far from the bar, but the alleys were crowded. Lots of ships getting ready to take off. The weather forecast called for solar storms starting tomorrow, and though the Albion pilots were impervious to radiation, their passengers were not.

I finally reached D sector and began counting off the hangars until I found number 17. The ship inside was a late model Nergal planetary cruiser, sleek and shiny, without the add-ons and up-grades that made older space ships so ugly.

"Roi?" I asked.

The spacer glanced up from the fuel module. "Finally! I thought you wouldn't make it." With skin white and smooth as marble, Roi Gilgamesh looked about eighteen, but he was obviously a lot older than that. His eyes had been replaced with shiny, black artificial orbs, the kind that detected light in a wide range including infrared and ultraviolet. Since there were no white parts to his eyes, it was difficult to tell where he was looking, but his smile seemed to be directed at me. He wiped his hand on a rag. "Well, go on. Turn around. Let me see the rest of you."

What the hell? I did as he ordered. Clearly, he mistook me for someone else. Maybe I could play that to my advantage.

"My," he said. "You are a big one. What have they been feeding you? Whole oxen?"

I flushed. Even by the standards of Uruk, I was tall. On the space station I was practically a giant. It occurred to me that I could probably beat Roi Gilgamesh in a hand to hand fight. If I could take my revenge silently, there would be no sound of gunfire to alert security. But I had never killed a man with my bare hands. A gun made it so much easier. Pull a trigger once, and it was done. No time for second thoughts. No time for the victim to plead. It was even easier if the enemy was wearing a helmet. The Albion's artificial eyes were like a helmet. They concealed his emotions. Stripped away his humanity.

"I need a ride," I muttered.

"I know," he replied. "To Eridu. You were supposed to be here two hours ago. What kept you?"

Mumbling something about food poisoning, I moved closer. The second dose of Sopor was starting to wear off. My shoulders ached. Would I be strong enough to finish him off with my bare hands? Albions were tougher than they looked, because of all the hormones they took. Better to use the gun. My finger found the trigger through the flimsy material of the hemp bag in which it was concealed. I tried to keep my expression bland, as I aimed at the man who had killed my wife. Trying not to imagine what that pale skin would look like splattered with bright red blood --

A pink nose appeared from the breast pocket of Roi's silver coveralls. The nose was followed by a wrinkled white head and two bright, inquisitive eyes. A rat. A hairless, albino rat. The rodent sniffed. The pilot glanced down. Smiling affectionately, he held out his hands. The rat leapt onto his palms. It stood on its back legs, as if begging a kiss. "This is Wisp. I hope you're not afraid of rodents."

I relaxed my trigger finger. "No, they don't bother me." Getting sentimental over a pet rat. An ugly, hairless albino rat at that. What was wrong with me?

"Good." He beamed. "I like you already. Welcome aboard."

I followed him into the Nergal. The ship was elegant compared to the junk freighter that brought me up from the planet. Two plush chairs before the console. A vid screen that wrapped halfway around the cabin. There was enough headroom for me to walk with my shoulders only slightly hunched. The air was stale, but it did not smell of shit, urine or vomit.

"Is that all the baggage you're bringing?" asked the Albion. By the console lights, his pale skin was motley, green, red and blue.

I was travelling light, since the freighter charged by the kilo. Just a single small bag to conceal my weapon. The authorities on the space station would provide for my needs, once I was in police custody. That was the plan. But a new scheme was slowly forming in my decompression sickness-addled head. If I waited until we were in space, then I could ditch Roi's body after he was dead. Claim that he had to go EVA to repair a missing solar panel or something, and his harness broke. Without a body, they would not be able to convict me of murder.

Wisp peered at me from its master's shoulder. Its nose twitched. Did it sense what I was planning? Animals were supposed to have instincts for danger, but the white rat looked calm and content, as if there was no place it would rather be than on the pilot's shoulder as he prepared the ship for takeoff.

"Buckle up. Use the blue button on the left arm if pressure drops and you need oxygen. The red switch if you need to get up. The clear tab is a monitor. Self-adhesive. Press it against your wrist. Ready?"

"Ready." I gritted my teeth and tried to prepare myself for what was coming. On second thought, maybe I would shoot him now and let the authorities deal with me. Jail would be better than space. The nausea. The dizziness. The pain --

Takeoff was so smooth that I did not realize we had lifted off until Roi said to the tower "Nergal Alpha Omega73 departing Uruk station."

As the force of acceleration lessened, I began to experience weightlessness. My stomach heaved. I closed my eyes.

"Transferring communications to Space Relay Station 9 Beta Tau. Do you read me, 9 Beta Tau? This is Nergal Alpha Omega 73, Captain Roi Gilgamesh requesting clearance to proceed through to the Ur corridor." In a slightly less formal voice, he added. "Do you need something for motion sickness?"

Without opening my eyes, I nodded.

A capsule was pressed into my hand. I swallowed the tab without looking at it. Gradually, my stomach settled. I opened one eye experimentally, then the other. The control panel was more complicated than I had expected. Dozens of switches, knobs and blinking lights, no labels to tell what they did. Would I be able to handle the controls after he was dead?

The vid display showed two of the three moons of Uruk, Tammuz and Kir. Tammuz, named for the consort of Ishtar, a terraformed low G playground for the rich merchants who bought the food produced on Uruk for a song and then sold it throughout the galaxy at inflated prices.

The second moon, Kir was originally named Anu, after another of the Goddess's divine consorts. However, something went wrong during its terraforming. Some chemical not yet isolated had contaminated the water. People who spent more than a few weeks on the moon went mad. And so, Anu was renamed Kir, after the land of the dead, and people stayed away from it.

With the ship on a set course for the Ur corridor -- the near light speed super highway that connected the planets of the Ur solar system -- Roi could relax. He leaned back in his seat and put his feet on the edge of the console. His boots were larger than mine, though I was a full head taller. The effect of growth hormones. His all black eyes could have been looking anywhere -- at the console, the vid screen -- but his next words were addressed to me. "You're not what I expected."

"Not what you expected?" I echoed, to buy myself time.

"Most companions dress better. Is there a lot of demand for 'fresh off the farm' in Eridu?"

Companion? Did he mean prostitute? Did the Albion think that I was a male prostitute?

Roi seemed amused. "What's the matter? Is it supposed to be a secret? Don't worry. The vice laws are very liberal on Eridu. As long as you're eighteen, anything goes. You are eighteen, aren't you?"

"I'm twenty-one," I replied through clenched teeth.

"See? No worries."

I did not like the direction the conversation had taken. "Excuse me. Where's the head?"

I staggered/swam to the toilet. The ship was one of those that used acceleration to simulate gravity. Right now, it felt like about point three Gs. Once we reached the Ur corridor, we would travel at a uniform velocity about one tenth the speed of light. That meant weightlessness. The Albion captain would have a physical advantage. If I planned to kill him, my best opportunity was now.

In the toilet, I emptied my bladder. Weightlessness caused water accumulated in the legs to shift around, making it easier to excrete. I had learned that, years ago in elementary school health class. As the only son of a farmer, I had never expected to put that knowledge to use. I knew why my joints ached, too. Decompression caused dissolved gases in the blood to form bubbles that acted like tiny clots. I knew what would happen if I experienced another decompression episode -- more pain, possibly a stroke or paralysis, maybe even death. It did not matter. Nothing mattered. My old life was over.

I checked to make sure that the polymer gun was ready and loaded, then I returned to the control room. Roi was on the optical. I glanced up at the vidscreen. The display was coded. My eyes strayed to the simulated images of Tammuz and Kir. There was something odd about the two moons. I stared up the screen, trying to figure out what was different. The mountainous Tammuz was still red with patches of blue sea, and the watery Kir was still blue with a few wisps of white and grey clouds. We would pass between them on our way to the Ur corridor --

The two moons had switched places! Kir was now on the left and Tammuz was to our right. That meant that the ship had turned around and was heading back to the Uruk station.

Stay calm, I told myself. "Problem with the ship?"

Coolly, "No, there's a problem with the ship's passenger. Who are you?" No doubt about where Roi was looking now. I saw my own face reflected in his shiny, black synthetic eyes. "Are you on the run from the law? How did you know that my passenger had been delayed?"

"I didn't. Not until you told me." The anti-emetic was making it difficult to think. I seized the one thing of which I was sure -- Roi Gilgamesh was a rapist murderer. Or, as good as a murderer. On the planet of Uruk, a woman's value lay in her ability to produce healthy children to help run the family farm. A woman who gave birth to a mutant baby was considered unclean, and the taint clung to her other children and their children's children.

The first shot missed, though not by much. The bullet tore a hole in the back of Roi's chair, sending bits of fluff floating through the cabin. The sound startled Wisp, the white rat, which ran under the console. Bracing myself, I adjusted my aim. At the last moment, the Albion ducked, and the second bullet grazed his scalp. A trickle of red flowed down his milk white forehead. I pulled the trigger again. Simultaneously, Roi's hand slammed down on the control panel. The ship lurched. The third shot went wide. There was an explosion, followed by a roaring in my ears. My lungs felt as if they were on fire. My vision went black --

I woke to pain. Every inch of my body was on fire. My shoulders felt as if they had been torn apart and then put back together with rusty nails. A mask covered my mouth and nose. Something cool flowed through my arm.

"Don't try to move."

Clipped consonants. Perfect enunciation. Who --?

I opened my eyes. Two Albions leaned over me. I saw my own face reflected four times. With difficulty, I resolved the two spacers into one, an albino with a streak of dried blood snaking down his forehead like a lightning bolt. A white rat was sitting on his shoulder. Behind him, I saw night sky and a canopy of leaves. Uruk? No, the gravity was too low.

"Breathe," the Albion said.

"Where?" I tried to ask.

He misunderstood my question. "Why am I saving you? One, I want to know who sent you to kill me, so I can return the favor. Two, you owe me one Nergal IP class cruiser, and once we get off this Goddess forsaken moon, you're going to work for me until you pay me back. And three, if we don't get off this moon, I don't much fancy the thought of spending the next twenty or thirty years here alone."

I fumbled with the oxygen mask. My fingers felt three times too large. "Where?" I croaked.

"Stop that!" Roi tightened the straps that held the mask in place. "We're on Kir."

Kir. The forbidden moon. The place where people went mad. At least I would not have to worry about finding a way to kill Roi Gilgamesh in my weakened condition. In a few weeks, the moon would do the job for me. I just hoped that I retained my sanity long enough to watch him kill himself.

The place was eerily silent. No cries of night birds. No humming of insects. The air was still and humid. As if Kir was holding its breath. The grass beneath me was soft and damp. It would have comfortable, if not for the pain that wracked my body.

Roi injected something into the IV port. "This will help the pain." It did. Almost at once, the burning in my skin faded, and the rusty nails in my shoulder dissolved. The pilot checked the monitor attached to my wrist. "That's better," he murmured. "Try to get some sleep."

Roi stretched out beside me on the grass. With his arms behind his head, he closed his eyes. Within minutes, he was asleep and snoring softly.

My eyelids grew heavy, but I fought sleep. Trying to make sense of what had happened. It would have been so easy for Roi to kill me. Simply stand back and do nothing. The DCs would have taken me, screaming and clawing at my skin. But instead, he had pulled me from the wreckage of his ship and treated my injuries. Even though I had tried to kill him.

I owed him my life.

He had all but killed my wife.

Goddess, I prayed, tell me what to do.

When I woke again, the sky had lightened from black to dull grey. No sign of the planet Uruk, meaning we were on the dark side of Kir. The Albion was asleep beside me, lying on his side with his head on his hand. Skin bone white against the blue tinged grass. Wisp curled up on his neck. I offered my finger to the rat. It sniffed, yawned, then tucked its head back under Roi's chin.

Something was wrong with my hearing. My right ear was roaring like wind through a tunnel. I touched it, and my finger came away crusted with dried blood. The eardrum must have ruptured when the ship lost pressure. If I concentrated, I could hear alright with the left ear. The rhythmic sound of Roi's breathing. Water lapping against a distant shore. A rustling of grass. Something creeping slowly towards me --

I tried to leap to my feet. That was when I realized that I could not feel my feet. Or my legs. Panic set in. I cried out "I can't move my legs!"

"You're fine." Roi leaned over me. His pale skin seemed to glow in the dim morning light. "Temporary spinal paralysis. I gave you a dose of neurotropin when we landed. In a few days, you'll be on your feet again. You feel like telling me who sent you to kill me?"

My head was too fuzzy to formulate a plausible lie. "No one."

He frowned. His all dark eyes were fixed on my face. "You don't remember trying to shoot me?"

"No one sent me. I did it for Isha, my wife."

No shock of recognition. "Should that name mean something to me?"

"You raped her. You impregnated her --"

"That's impossible," he interrupted. "I don't do women."

"-- The baby was born deformed. It died --"

"Ah, now I understand. Do you know what a mule is?"

The question took me by surprise. "A mule?"

"A mule is what you get when you cross a horse and a donkey. A healthy looking animal, but sterile. Albions don't reproduce the way that naturals do. We're bioengineered. Even if I raped your wife -- which I didn't -- she wouldn't conceive my child, because I don't make sperm."

That had to be wrong. "I've heard stories --"

"Stories about virgins ravished by white demons from space? If you gave birth to a child with a cleft lip or a clubbed foot, you'd want to pin it on someone else."

My fists clenched. "You're saying Isha lied?" Move just a little closer, I thought, and I will break your neck.

Gently, "Maybe she was trying to protect you."

"The child wasn't mine. I was away in the army." Earning money for the farm I had inherited from my father. Two years of drought had put me in debt. Isha's bride price took up the last of my savings. Within a month of the wedding, I left. When I came home after a year away, Isha's belly was huge. I did not say a word. Never asked about the father. Was that a kind thing to do or a cruel one? Only afterwards, when the child was born and died -- then she told me about how the spacer came to the farm. Finding her alone, he raped her. I blamed myself. If I had been at home with her rather than a thousand miles away on the other side of the continent fighting a senseless war, I could have protected her.

It was a simple thing to discover the identity of the three spacers who had delivered merchandise to the nearby town around the time Isha conceived. Two of them could be ruled out immediately -- they were women. That left the Albion who called himself Roi Gilgamesh, after the ancient Earth king. How appropriate, I had thought, upon learning his name. Gilgamesh raped the women of Ur. Roi Gilgamesh raped the women of Uruk --

Except Roi Gilgamesh claimed he did not "do" women. I recalled the way he looked at me on board the Nergal, when he thought I was a companion, and I felt the blood rise to my face.

"You look flushed. Do you have a fever?" The Albion checked my wrist monitor. "Temperature's normal. So is your pulse. Maybe she made up a story about being raped in order to protect the real father."

He had to be lying.

"Once we get rescued, you should go home," he said. "If your wife just lost a child, she needs you."

His words were meant to be kind, but it was like turning a knife in a wound. "She's dead. Killed herself."

"Ah. And you blamed me, so you decided to kill me. I admire your guts, but you should have done your homework. No one uses a pistol on board a space ship. It's suicide."

"So what if I die? I don't have anything left to live for."

Roi gave me a reproving look. "Wrong. You have plenty of reason to live. For one thing, you still owe me a Nergal IP cruiser."

Was he out of his mind? Talking about his space ship when the two of us were marooned on Kir? "We're both gonna die. This place drives people insane. You should tell the truth. Beg the Goddess for forgiveness. Maybe she'll be merciful."

"I have told the truth." Impossible to tell if he was lying. His smooth white face and black artificial eyes gave away nothing. "What's your name?"

Offworlders could never pronounce my name. "They call me N. K."

"Enki? Like the god? Funny name for a farm boy from Uruk."

"No stranger than Gilgamesh."

"True enough. Do you need something for pain?"

I needed peace and quiet to think. And I needed two functioning legs. Otherwise, I would remain dependent upon the man I had tried to kill. Why was he helping me? If I worked ten lifetimes, I could not pay for another cruiser. What did he have to gain by keeping me alive? Companionship? I don't fancy the thought of spending the next twenty or thirty years alone here. As if either of us would live that long. My head felt heavy, and my thoughts were confused. Was it the first signs of insanity that Kir caused, or was it a lingering effect of the DCs? Would I realize when I began to slip into madness, or would the hallucinations seem real?

Roi took my silence for a yes. "Take this." He held a Sopor tab to my mouth.

The filmtab dissolved under my tongue. The ache in my shoulders eased, and I slipped into unconsciousness.

When I woke, I could wiggle my toes. Sigh of relief. I pulled the IV tubing from my arm, then I crawled/dragged myself to the nearby lake where I stripped off my clothes and washed away the piss and sweat. My reflection in the water was dark. Only the whites of my eyes showed clearly. Four days growth of beard made me look like a primitive, one of the feral humans that were sometimes discovered on planets that were settled in the first wave of space exploration then forgotten until the second wave of refugees fled the dying Earth.

I gazed out at the mist covered lake. Some of the low lying clouds were vaguely humanoid in shape. A hallucination? My mind felt clear. I flopped on my back on the damp earth beside the lake and gazed up at the storm grey sky. Still no sign of animal life, though the vegetation was lush. No insects. What pollinated the flowers?

"Enki?" It was Roi.

I propped myself up on my elbow. "Don't call me that. It's sacrilege."

"Then I'll call you Enkidu, after my namesake's companion. Why did you take out your IV?"

Fussing over me like a mother hen. The thought made me laugh aloud. It was the first time I had laughed since I found Isha's body hanging in the barn. I sat fire to the building, as a funeral offering and as a way of covering her shame -- suicide was a mortal sin. The flames spread to the house. I turned my back on the inferno and went looking for revenge.

"I've brought food," said Roi. He crouched beside me. Wisp peered out from under the spacer's hood. The rat held a morsel of food between its front paws. Delicately, it nibbled at its meal with two, long, white front teeth. "Try to eat."

Real food. Sweet tubers dug fresh from the earth. Pine nuts. Watercress. The terraformers had done their job well. Kir was a garden. At least we would not starve to death as we waited to go mad.

"How's the ship?" I asked.

Roi grimaced. "A wreck. I salvaged some supplies. The optical is broken, but I improvised a radio, and I've set up a beacon. If anyone lands on this side of Kir, they'll hear the signal."

"Who would come here?"

"Smugglers. Outlaws. People who want to conduct their business in private."

His patience puzzled me. If some crazy farmer from Uruk had shot a hole in the hull of my Nergal cruiser, stranding me on a deserted moon, I would be out for blood. "How old are you?"

"Too old for this shit. Eat."

As I swallowed a mouthful of sweet tuber root, I remembered. This was Kir. Once you eat the food, you can never leave the land of the dead.

A few days later, I was back on my feet. We improvised a shelter using bits of the Nergal and fallen tree branches. Roi's clothes were too small for me, so I went naked. Kir was warm, even at night. The mist which shrouded the moon kept in the heat.

I was gathering wood for the cook fire when I had my first hallucination -- a woman, stoop shouldered, dressed in a hooded robe, her body translucent like sand scoured glass. When she saw me staring, she turned and walked away, leaving a trail of glistening water in her wake.

I dropped the branches which I had gathered and ran back to camp. "Roi! Roi Gilgamesh! I saw someone. An old woman. She looked like a ghost."

The spacer looked up from the stew pot. His pale skin was flushed from the heat of the fire. "So you finally saw them."

"Them?" I crouched beside him. "You've seen them, too? Why didn't you tell me?"

"I didn't want to scare you. Pass the red peppercorns."

His calm was reassuring. If the creature which I had just seen was a cause for alarm, Roi would not be kneeling beside a cook pot making supper.

"Next time you see one, tell me," I said. "If we can both see it, then it's not a hallucination."

"Oh, they're real. They register on a molecular scanner. I think they're made of water."

"Creatures made of water? Is that possible?"

"You and I are mostly water. If we had a few less carbon molecules, we might look exactly like one of those -- whatever they are. Maybe the material used for terraforming was contaminated by an alien life form. Dormant spores that needed water. Food's ready. Hand me the bowls."

I slept fitfully that night, startled awake again and again by the creaking of tree limbs and the rustling of leaves. There were sedatives in the medicine locker, but I was afraid to sleep too soundly. What if the water creature came back?

Exhaustion finally overcame fear, and I fell into a deep sleep shortly before dawn. I woke in midmorning to the smell of roasting corn. Throwing aside my blanket, I climbed to my feet. There was a puddle in the grass beside my makeshift bed. I recalled the shimmering figure beside the lake and the trail of water which she left in her wake.

I spent most of the day constructing an eight pointed star of Ishtar around our shelter, using rocks. Roi rolled his eyes and muttered something about superstitious farmers. But I slept better than night, knowing that the Goddess was watching over me. And when I woke the next morning, the grass around our camp was dry.

I don't remember exactly when I stopped blaming Roi Gilgamesh for Isha. Days passed. I no longer waited for him to take the first bite of food so that I could be sure that it was not drugged or poisoned. When he gave me neurotropin injections to help heal my injured spine and brain cells, I no longer cast a furtive glance at the syringe to make sure that it contained what he said. At night, when he slept, I did not lie awake wondering if I should seize this chance to get rid of him. He was strong, but I was stronger. In a hand to hand fight, he would not have a chance. Especially after the effects of decompression sickness faded, and I regained my usual good health.

Days passed, and I found that I could no longer imagine myself strangling him. It would be like killing Wisp. The albino rat took to sleeping with me some nights. Roi pretended to pout. He called Wisp "faithless." He inquired, almost casually, about my relationship with Isha. I found myself telling him things that I had never confided to anyone else.

"I didn't really like the killing part of soldiering, but it was easier being with other men. I never -- understood Isha." Sometimes, she seemed like an alien species, maybe because I grew up on an isolated farm with just my father for company. The only woman I knew was the Goddess -- all powerful, all knowing, complete in herself, lacking nothing. "Isha was so -- fragile. So needy."

Roi nodded. "It's hard being a woman on Uruk." Hardly the kind of thing a rapist would say.

Days passed, and I stopped hating Roi Gilgamesh, but I never quite stopped hating myself.

The days turned to weeks. The water people, as I had started to call them, appeared from time to time, but they seemed to take little notice of us. There were also water birds, water animals, water insects. Transparent "bees" would fly from flower to flower as if sipping nectar. If I turned the earth, I found worms made of liquid. Presumably, the lake was full of watery fish.

Our beacon continued to send out radio frequency distress signals. If Roi's theory -- the rulers of Uruk had quarantined the planet in order to study the alien life forms -- was true, shouldn't they have sent someone to get us off Kir, before we could contaminate their experiment?

When we weren't making improvements to our shelter or gathering food, Roi taught me to play board games from ancient Earth. Or he told stories. He had visited every inhabited planet and moon in the Ur solar system as well as most of the space stations and artificial planets in this sector of the galaxy. By accident, I figured out his age -- at least one hundred-twenty five -- because he described seeing Shido the Great in the flesh the day he was assassinated by Holy Land zealots.

"Is it true Albions never grow old or die?"

"We don't age. And we don't have a kill switch gene. That part's true. But we can die the same way any human can die. It just takes a little more to kill us."

I thought about the bullet which had missed blowing off the top of his head by inches. Thank the Goddess I was not a better shot. Born on Uruk, the son of a farmer, I had expected to end my days plowing the same fields over and over, praying for rain that never fell and begging the seed vendor for a little more credit. Though I was now homeless and saddled with a debt I could never repay, I was more optimistic than I had been in years.

"Once we're rescued, we'll go to Eridu." said Roi. "Have you ever seen the Thousand Mile Forest?"

"Only in pictures."

"In the forest, a special kind of fungus grows. Red truffles. A rare delicacy. It's the favorite food of the Two Mile High Boar -- no, they aren't really two miles high. They just seem that way when they're breathing down your neck with their tusks pressed against your spine..."

As Roi talked about the future, I let go of the past. My life on Uruk was over, my last link to the place severed when I burned down the family farmhouse and walked out on my debt to the banker who held the mortgage on the farm. By now, some other family was trying to eke out a living from land that had ceased to be fertile decades ago. Eventually the frontier farms would be bought up by the big agri-coms, which could afford to let some fields go fallow, and people like me would be pushed eastward, towards the desert.

"... you wouldn't know it to look around this place, but there are parts of the sector where water is worth its weight in gold. But you can't haul liquid water through space. That's where the ice comets come in...."

I imagined Rio throwing a lasso around a comet and hauling it to the nearest space port. I imagined myself beside him. If I could not be him -- afraid of nothing, nearly immortal, immune to most of the illnesses that plagued humanity -- I could tag along. It beat returning to Uruk, where I would probably end up back in the army, shooting people being the only thing I had ever been much good at.

After six months on Kir, we got a reply to the distress beacon. Smugglers with whom Roi had worked in the past. They arranged to pick us up after dark. We began to disassemble our camp. I took my only set of clothes down to the lake to give them a thorough scrub so that I would not look too much like a primitive. The face that peered up at me from the water now had a full, black beard. Albions had no facial hair, so Roi carried no razor. I was looking forward to shaving.

A transparent dragonfly hovered over the water. It was pretty, like blown glass. I held out my hand, and it darted away, just like a real insect. A hawk made of water was circling overhead. Occasionally, the predator "birds" would try to attack Wisp, but their claws and talons had no substance.

Washing done, I hung my clothes on a low branch to dry. I was about to return to camp when I noticed one of the water people nearby. A woman. Her wet hair clung to her shoulders. A puddle had formed at her feet. It was the one I had dubbed "Shy Woman", because she kept her head bowed as if trying to hide her features. Sometimes, when I woke in the morning, I would find her standing just outside the star of Ishtar. Today, for the first time, I noticed that she was carrying an infant made of water in her arms.

"We're leaving today," I told her. I don't know why I said it. Something about the mother and child struck me as incredibly sad, and it seemed important that I acknowledge her existence at least once before I left Kir.

Shy Woman lifted her chin. Her translucent face seemed familiar somehow.

I took a half step forward. "Do I know you?"

In Isha's voice, the Shy Woman said "Don't go. Please, don't leave me alone."

My blood turned to ice. Was this the madness of which I had been warned? Why now, after six months, when rescue was on its way? "Isha? Is that you?"

"I'm sorry about the baby. I should have been more careful. But I was so lonely out there on the farm all by myself. And Aaron's wife was too sick to see to his...needs."

Aaron. The owner of the farm next to ours. His third child had a weak heart. No wonder she lied about the identity of the child's father. She must have feared that I would kill Aaron in a fit of jealous rage. Poor Isha.

She held out her watery arms. "Say you forgive me."

I thought my heart would break. I should have been the one begging her forgiveness. I married her, because farmers were supposed to have wives. "I'm so sorry."

"Say you forgive me," she repeated.

"I never should have left you alone on the farm." How she must have suffered. Sold by her family to pay a debt, and then married to a man who did not want her.

"Say you forgive me." Like a computer program that could not advance until given the proper command. Was this really Isha?

"I forgive you," I said, because that seemed to be what she wanted me to say. ThinkingI forgive you for being someone I could never love.

Her watery lips curved in a smile. "Say you'll stay with me."

Shivering, I stepped back, away from her outstretched arms. "I don't want to die."

"Say you'll stay with me." More insistently this time.

"Please don't ask me to do that. I can't stay with you. You're dead."

I hoped that my blunt words would drive her away. In ghost stories, once the deceased realized that they were dead, they departed this world for the spiritual plane. But Isha only grew larger, less watery and more real. "Say you'll stay with me," she commanded.

As she grew in power, my will to resist shrank. I had driven my wife to suicide. I was a monster. I was a killer. Everything I touched turned to dust...

Stay.

I could see the distant trees through her semi-transparent body. A small lake had formed at her feet. Water dripped from the ends of her long hair and from her fingertips. Kir had created the water people, but I was responsible for this lost, sad, lonely woman.

"I'll stay," I told her. As soon as the words left my mouth, I wanted to snatch them back. Roi and I were going to the Thousand Mile Forest. We were going to hunt for red truffles by tracking a Two Mile High Boar. I could not die yet --

But my body had a will of its own. I reached for her hand. It was cool and liquid, and its shape dissolved at the lightest touch, water snaking up my arm, filling my nose and mouth, making it impossible for me to speak, to breathe --

.... Roi Gilgamesh is calling my name. He finds me standing beside the lake. "Where are you clothes? And why are you wet?"

Water pools at my feet and drips from my beard. A sudden breeze causes my insubstantial form to shiver. It takes all my concentration to keep my body intact. I must warn Roi. Tell him to stay far away from Kir, if he does not want to join me in death. I open my mouth to speak. Water gushes out. The Albion stares at me with wide, black eyes. I see myself reflected twice, a phantom made of tears and regret....

"... Enki. Enkidu! Damn it, breathe!"

A canopy of trees above me, almost black against grey twilit sky. Two spacers leaning over me, their four arms pushing against my chest. I saw myself reflected four times in black orbs. Concentrated, and then there were only two of me and one of Roi. I coughed and water poured from my throat. The first breath tore at my lungs.

"Who was that woman?" Roi demanded when I could finally speak.

"You saw her?" I croaked.

"She almost killed you."

"It was Isha, my wife."

"Bullshit! Your wife is dead. You were hallucinating. One of the aliens tried to kill you. Get up. Our ride is here." He grabbed my clothes and helped me dress.

I left a trail of water behind me as I staggered back to camp, one arm over Roi's shoulder. My wet beard and hair clung to my face and neck. My limbs were heavy but no heavier than my heart. I had failed Isha once again. I started blubbering. At one point, I tried to turn around and head back towards the lake, but Roi's arm around my waist was like a band of iron.

"Oh no, you don't. We're getting off this moon. Do you understand? And you owe me a Nergal cruiser. You don't get to die until I say you can."

While tracking a Two Mile High Boar on Eridu, we stopped in a forest inn, a two story wooden chalet with a huge, roaring fire in the front room to drive away the chill and kitchen that served a decent bowl of mutton stew. We ate, and then we visited the taproom. There, we met a man who had helped with the terraforming of Kir.

"Did you see them?" he asked. His name was Hi-lel. He was old, grey haired, skin like leather. He had lost part of one ear to skin cancer, and another tumor was growing on his cheek. One of the occupational hazards of being a terraformer.

"The water people? Yes." Roi was old enough to be Hi-lel's grandfather, but with his smooth, pale skin and bald head he looked like a child beside the ancient engineer. Strangers usually assumed that I was the older of us, because I was so much larger, and because I had decided to keep my beard which I wore braided with shell beads in the Eridu style. Both of us wore thermo-suits, a necessity on a planet where nighttime temperatures dipped well below freezing even at the equator.

"We had to abandon the project when it was almost three quarters done," the old man said. "Too many workers committed suicide. And then the suicides would come back to encourage others to die. The bosses never did tell us what was going on, but there were rumors." Hi-lel glanced over his shoulder to make sure that no one in the crowded tavern was listening. "We found ruins. Ancient alien artifacts. Millions of years old. The VIPs tried to keep it under wraps, but people talk. I heard..."

"You heard --?" Roi prompted.

"The moon was a necropolis for aliens. Their race was dying, so they found a way to capture the souls of those who died on Uruk and imprison them in bodies made of water." He drained his beer mug. "At least that's what their pictographs said. When we started working on Kir, it was dry and deserted. The water people started showing up shortly after the first ice comet arrived." He peered into his empty mug.

"Another round," Roi called to the barmaid. "Tell me more."

The old man shrugged his bent shoulders. "There isn't much else I can tell you. We started calling Anu 'Kir', because it was full of ghosts. Animal ghosts. Bird ghosts. Bug ghosts. Anything that lived on Uruk including people eventually ended up on Kir. Some folks swore that the ghosts spoke to them. Tried to convince them to kill themselves, so they could become water spirits, too. Lost my best friend on Kir. Night before I left, he came to me. Tried to get me to commit suicide. Said I had eaten the food of the underworld, and so I had to stay. Scared me half to death. I couldn't get away from there fast enough." He emptied his mug and passed it back to the bartender. Roi nodded his head, and she refilled his beer glass a second time.

Hi-lel's words made my hair stand on end. If what the old man said was true, maybe I was not suffering from a hallucination when the Shy Woman spoke to me in Isha's voice. Maybe my wife really was trapped on Kir, a watery spirit crying for the husband who had abandoned her in life. Maybe the infant in her arms was the tiny daughter who never got a chance to take a breath before she die. Would she be a baby forever, or would she grow up among the water people?

"Ghosts?" Roi asked skeptically. "Why not an alien life form? It wouldn't be the first time people have mistaken aliens for ghosts or monsters. Fear makes people see and hear things that aren't there. Fear and a guilty conscience." He glanced at me as he said those last two words.

Hi-lel shrugged. "Maybe. But how do you explain this? One of the animal ghosts we saw was a species that no one had encountered on Uruk. Ten months later, they discovered it on the ice continent. A huge flightless bird with fangs instead of a beak. How did someone know to 'hallucinate' a bird that no one had ever seen?"

I wanted to believe that he was lying. I wanted to believe that Isha's spirit was at rest and not trapped in a watery hell...

"I don't buy it," said Roi. "If I found alien artifacts that could bring the dead back to life on my newly terraformed moon, I would turn the place into a resort. Imagine how much money you could make from tourists. In the first couple of years, you could recoup your costs, and then it would be pure profit. Why keep it a secret?"

The old man squinted at Roi. "Guess you wouldn't understand, being an Albion. Us ordinary folk, we die so easy. And along the way, we lose wives, kids. If the folks on Uruk knew that their loved ones were on Kir -- hell, if they even suspected that they might be on Kir, they'd leave their crappy farms and their shitty factory jobs and head for the moon. And then who would raise the crops that make all those merchants so rich?"

We left him to his beer.

The twin moons of Eridu were up over the forest. The air smelled of frost and pine. We located the tracks of the Two Mile High Boar and followed them into the woods.

"I've never heard such bullshit," said Roi.

I said nothing.

"In the first place, there is no such thing as a soul. Once you die, you die. And if there was a soul, why would it leave Uruk after death? Why not stay on the planet to be reincarnated? And even if they did find million year old alien artifacts, there is no way they would still be functional. More likely, they rehydrated the spores of an alien life form. One that secretes neurotoxins. There's a four foot long reptile on Sumer with saliva that can convince a man that he is standing in the presence of God. Paralyzes him so that he does not move an inch, even while the lizard is eating him alive."

His reasoning was sound, as always.

Roi stared at me for a long time. "Don't get any ideas about going back to Kir to rescue your wife."

"I won't."

His pale face was luminous in the moonlight. His eyes were two pools of darkness. "I mean it. If you go back there, you'll die. Why are you laughing?"

"I'll die whether I go back to Kir or not. Death comes for all of us."

"Yes, well you don't have to give it any help."

The ground beneath my feet began to tremble. An earthquake? No, the footsteps of an enormous beast. Birds flew from the trees in alarm. Snowflakes began to fall. If it stuck, the snow would make it easier to track the boar to its subterranean feeding ground. One good haul of red truffles would give us the money to put a down payment on a new Nergal IP cruiser, and then the galaxy would be ours.

I had never felt so alive.

About an hour into the hunt, something made the beast turn. Maybe it smelled our scent. Its beady black eyes stared at us. Then, with a bellow that shook the undergrowth and made the snow fly, it charged at us, knocking down trees in its haste.

"Move!" shouted Roi.

I froze, mesmerized by the size of its tusks, which resembled the white pillars in the Temple of Ishtar. I pictured myself skewered and then tossed up into the sky, my body lifeless and broken, like the fallen trees. And then I remembered Roi's words. Death comes for all of us. You do not have to give it any help, and I dodged at the last possible moment.

A flash of light. The boar stopped in its tracks, stunned. Roi holstered his weapon. "Shit!" he exclaimed. The boar was a protected species. "I don't think it's dead, but we better get the hell out of here, just in case."

As we ran through the forest, I realized that if I stayed with the Albion, I would almost certainly die young. But better to die living than to live like one already dead.

THE END


© 2012 McCamy Taylor

Bio: McCamy Taylor is, of course, Aphelion's reigning Serials / Novellas (fiction longer than 7,500 words) Editor. She is also the author of many stories and articles that have appeared in Aphelion and various other publications too numerous to list here. Her most recent fiction contribution to Aphelion was the short story The Cistern in the July 2012 edition.

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