Aphelion Issue 221, Volume 21
September 2017
 
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Found

by T. Richard Williams


After a while, all couples get gadgets -- accessories they use to claim a piece of independence.

Not that Seneca wouldn't share his Reader with Michael; no, not at all. Though he likes the idea of reading in his corner of their quarters while Michael is writing in his, if Michael asked to sit with him and share the Reader, he would. But it's the idea. Something is his. His corner. His Reader.

It's actually pretty remarkable -- or so their friends say -- how the two have re-invented the 10 by 20 foot space they've called home for the past decade. Imagine that! Ten years in one room without killing each other.

Of course, they're not there all the time. Michael works at the Base Newscenter; Seneca oversees the Hydrogarden. But when they're home, they don't feel overwhelmed or suffocated the way some of their coupled friends do. Part of the trick was creating personal spaces and putting them in diagonally opposite corners -- literally, if not mathematically, as far apart as they could get.

A trim-line corner desk, a comfortable chair, a toll lamp, bookshelves to the ceiling -- all in the deep, rocky marine colors of his native Iceland -- distinguish Michael's space. Two rich red and tan Morris chairs, wall sconces, three twentieth century watercolors from Trapani -- his hometown in Sicily -- and a state-of-the-art Music Unit make Seneca's corner a "den" of sorts. He sits alternately in both chairs to create subtle new perspectives when he looks up from his reading or prayers -- and to avoid the rut of one becoming "his" and the other Michael's when he "visits". But he also likes that he can look across the room at Michael's back when he's hunched over his desk submerged in his latest writing project. Does Michael feel Seneca's glance? Maybe, but he's never complained, has he?

In between, a couple of chairs and a couch placed at right angles around a faux Persian rug -- illumined softly by floating light globes -- create a living room space. A galley with in-the-wall FoodServe and a metal countertop extending from the corner on Seneca's side and a ceiling high armoire for their clothes in the other corner of Michael's side complete their home.

Home. Seneca loves the sound of the word. Not just living quarters, but home. Always the sentimental one, he thinks.

Seneca's Reader transmits Jovi Martin's latest novel in the space in front of his chair. It's a best-seller about pirates in the Asteroid Belt. Diversion after a day in the Garden, he likes to say.

When Michael, in his corner, laughs softly, Seneca looks across the room. "What's funny?"

"I just found this buried in my files." He points to his Screen floating above his desk. "Can you believe? After all these years?"

"What?"

"The story I wrote after the '08 Conference."

"Story?"

"You remember. The one about you and the Edict."

He still looks puzzled, so Michael adds, "The one where I tell about how you disguised yourself to convince me to re-write the Edict..."

He pauses the Reader, Seneca comes over. "Oh, that one. I'd almost forgotten. You were so afraid things might go bad."

"I probably shouldn't save it anymore."

"Why?"

"Because your real identity's long since been erased. If someone finds this, it could mean trouble."

"How? If the old guard wanted to make trouble, they'd've done it long ago. Besides, for all you know, they snooped this out years ago."

"True. But what if they didn't? It should disappear."

Seneca feels that twinge of sentimentality a guy can get remembering something thought lost or something that might become lost. "I'd feel bad. It's about us, about the Conference, about bringing down the old regime, about..."

"Yeah, but the new regime went to a lot of trouble wiping out your past. In the wrong hands -- like the Faithful leftovers -- this could fuel some old animosities."

"How? As far as today's average reader's concerned -- especially out here -- this'd be nothing but pure fiction."

"Someone might piece it together."

"Always the worry-wart, Brother Stefansson." Seneca leans down and rests his chin on Michael's head for a moment. "Those times are over."

Michael taps a three digit code on the keypad and the screen shrinks to a red dot that pops into nothingness above the desk. Swiveling in the chair, he stands to face Seneca, enclosing him in a loose embrace. "Sorry, Brother Tuscani." He gives him a quick peck on the lips, the emoticon kiss of lovers who've been together for over twenty years.

"Hey," Seneca whispers into Michael's ear, "do what ya gotta do." And after a pause: "But it would be sad, wouldn't it?"

Seneca pulls away from the hug; Michael walks to the galley. On the wallpad, he enters the code for green tea -- or what passes for it out here.

"Yes."

"Yes." Seneca repeats, walking over.

"And here we are." Michael smiles.

Seneca kisses him again. Longer. "And here we are." He tussles Michael's hair. "Can you believe? Twenty years?" Such poignance, he thinks to himself and then smiles. Such a dramatic word. Such an old-fashioned word: Poignance.

####

Brother Michael stared at the face smiling before him. He blinked. He winced, blinked again -- the way he had all morning. He argued that the light from the Sun, nearly 8 billion miles away, was faint, but might still cause refracted distortions -- that the weirdly crimson hills of Sedna, submerged in 400 below temperatures, glittering masses of blood-red boulders, frozen gases, traces of rust-colored ice rock were the cause of some luminous trick, some trompe l'oeil. Brother Michael was adamant: This is an illusion.

Unfortunately, the face still floated a couple yards before him.

"You're not real."

"A bit of undigested beef? A blot of mustard? A crumb of cheese? A Dickens moment?" The radiant face laughed.

"And if you're really Hildegard of Bingen how could you possibly know Dickens? You lived in the 1100s -- Dickens lived 700 years after that. Give me a break."

"You prayed for the miracle. It's happened. Now you're pissed off."

"Saints don't talk like that."

"You should only know how saints really talk. I've used words that might turn a shuttle pilot's hair gray -- just like that..." And the sound of snapping fingers crackled over Michael's Com.

"Leave me alone." He turned back towards the Base. "I'm fucking losing my mind."

"Now, now. Who's using naughty words?" and Michael heard a few "tsk, tsks."

Forgetting the low G's, he -- six feet tall but a mere 145 pounds -- started to run and launched a few yards into space, spindly arms and legs dog-paddling through the void. "Holy shit." And Michael descended in slow motion. He became more careful and walked gingerly towards the group gathered just outside the dome of the Base.

####

"I remember that," Seneca says. "So funny watching you nearly tumbling like a gymnast dismounting a beam."

"Wasn't funny then," but he laughs anyway.

####

Playfully, Hildegard's voice -- over his Com unit -- followed, first imitating a man's: "Then it doesn't matter which way you go, said the Cheshire Cat..." and then a girl's... "so long as I get somewhere, said Alice... " and finally as a male's again... "Oh, you're sure to do that, said the Cat, if you only walk long enough..." and then in her own soothing tone... "The Reverend Dodgson, also known as Lewis Carroll, circa 1865." A wondrous laugh echoed through the valley and wisped into nothingness.

####

"That's a nice scene."

"Maybe."

"Would you stop already. This is good."

"If you say so."

"Oi." He lets out an exasperated breath. "Hopeless."

####

Michael moved on as quickly as he could without soaring off into the rocky cliffs fortressing the ancient gorge.

He arrived outside the Base's airlock in a few moments, entering a cluster of about a dozen people chatting quietly -- he could hear snatches of conversation over his Com. Their nearly skin-tight, radiant white environmental suits shone in the dull light, the Sun merely a distant star barely the size of a seed or large grain of sand. They were on break from the Conference, a trip outdoors on this, one of the most distant planetoids in the solar system, an adventure not to be missed.

One old bore recited a history lesson to a captive group from one of the Venusian cloud bases: "...discovered two centuries ago, Sedna became a mining Base for rare alloys and an isotope of helium for fusion antimatter engines." A few meters away a newscaster was sending his report to Europa: "...and for the last week, Gerard Kuiper Base -- named after the Dutch astronomer who first named this region of space beyond the planet Neptune -- has been host to the biennial conference on the interplanetary peace initiative." And still another Telecom hotshot (one of those lanky guys from gravity-poor Ceres): "When colonial bases began to appear over a century ago, first on Mars, then Mercury, in the atmosphere of Venus, several of the asteroids -- including our own Ceres -- and ultimately on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, things went well."

Jesus, the guy's quoting the Base Info-Pack, word for word. What an idiot. Michael stopped for a moment to see where he would go with this.

Sure enough, the reporter recited the rest of the paragraph: "Goods, services, and research data got back to Earth without any problems. But as time unfolded, economic stress and colonial rivalries developed. At first, the battles were straightforward grievances against the United Nation's handling of the needs and wants of individual Bases. Then the complaints escalated into internecine feuds among the Bases themselves..."

Why the hell am I listening to this? Besides... Internecine? Do people still write like that? Michael continued his move towards the airlock, unable to avoid yet another reporter's drone: "...now this newest, most far-flung base is host to a hodgepodge of crusty old space salts, each unwilling to budge, each more than ready than ever to detach from Earth all together, the one thing that would not be tolerated by..."

"'Crusty old space salts'? Get me the hell out of here." He finally had the sense to click off his Com.

"Blessed silence, Brother Michael?" Hildegard's voice filled in the space. Michael pressed the arm switch a couple of times, but Hildegard broke into an old Broadway show song -- "You'll never get away from me, you can climb the tallest tree, I'll be there somehow" -- crooning in her best Ethel Merman imitation.

Of course, Michael wanted to run into the airlock and rip off his microfiber balaclava -- but part of him laughed at the notion. "She'll just find a way to talk to me there, too."

So Michael merely sauntered to the airlock -- as if nothing were out of the ordinary -- while Hildegard imitated the diaphragm-rich BBC baritone of some telecommers: "Like some ancient Roman emperor attempting to keep his insubordinate, diffuse regions in tow, the UN tries to keep its expansive empire intact through cajoling, bribery, and any other sleight of diplomacy that will ensure that resources like Helium-6 keep on flowing back to the Earth, a home world teeming with vast metropolitan sprawls that demand more power and resources than the planet itself can possibly provide."

Despite himself, Michael smiled broadly at Hildegard's pitch-perfect routine of what most people had to endure on the daily newscasts from Earth, Mars, or the Belt -- a combination of truth and overwrought writing that listeners had simply nicknamed News Schmooze.

He entered the lock, the door sliding behind him, the pressure stabilizing in a matter of moments. As he suspected, peeling off his visored balaclava didn't stop the voice in his head. It was now a seductive, smoky mezzo, the sound of a 20th century film noir actress -- Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck, perhaps: "This year Brother Michael Stefansson represents Moon Base 8. He had hoped to bring to the table a document simply called 'The Human Rights Edict.' That is until its author, Brother Seneca Tuscani -- purportedly Stefansson's romantic partner -- was assassinated and his 'Edict' destroyed -- every word except for 15 'footnotes' stored on another memory chip, probably unknown to the killers. A bit of irony that Brother Mike likes. You can kill an author, but you can never quite kill off a good piece of writing." Now Michael really wanted to burst out laughing, but he didn't give in to the impulse. Hildegard's voice dissolved as Michael entered the Base's rather expansive Quad, bustling with hundreds of people from around the solar system.

####

"Did you really want to laugh?"

"Of course, I did. You were hilarious."

"Did you really think that at the moment? Or is this a writer's liberty?"

"Maybe." Michael looks impishly. "But even if it wasn't immediately funny, it became funny in retrospect, for sure." He gets more tea from the galley. "I mean, think about it. You're chasing me around doing voices and shit. As much as it was driving me nuts, you sure lightened the mood."

Seneca looks at the text on the screen. "It's clever."

"What?"

"How you tell it."

"Meaning?"

"You slip in the backstory the reader needs to know right into the things Michael overhears on his way to the Base, like a hand slipping into a glove."

"Please. It could be better."

"Again with the judgments. Stop it already."

"What?"

"Someone compliments you and you find fault."

"No, I find balance."

Seneca rolls his eyes.

"I mean it."

"I know you do. That's the problem."

"What? That I try to see everything in perspective? A really good writer would get all that information into the story without making it seem so forced -- without trickery."

"After twenty years, you'd think I'd learn not to challenge you on this stuff."

Michael comes up and hugs Seneca. "But that's why you still love me, right?"

"Mostly," he says with mock disdain and then laughs. "Let's hear more. Wanna see it on enhanced mode?"

"That could be fun. Let's see what the system comes up with." Michael taps two additional keys and the screen is replaced by a 3-D holo-image of the Quad. There's Michael paused in mid stride. He enters two more numbers and the characters come to life, the words of the text scrolling across the bottom, while a pleasant male voice narrates.

####

Michael strode confidently across the artificial lawn broken with clusters of both real and holographic trees and shrubs -- brilliant greens, reds, purples, smatterings of orange.

Things were going well until this morning, when Hildegard -- a being who claimed to be a 12th century German mystic -- decided to make an appearance in Brother's tight guest quarters, the luminously gentle face hovering above his bed. Her introduction was straightforward: "Have you heard any of my hymns from The Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations lately? Bulky title, isn't it? But great tunes, if I say so myself." He's a little more used to the presence this afternoon, but this morning he was nearly unhinged.

"I've got something for you," Hildegard had said then.

"What?"

"The Edict."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"Well maybe not the complete Edict, but a good memory of it -- it pays to be an omniscient ghost," she chuckled, "you get to look over everyone's shoulder anywhere in the universe. I was intrigued by what Tuscani was trying to do. Let me help you work backwards from the footnotes to create the original text. I know that's what you're trying to do before you speak at tomorrow's plenary session."

Michael, sitting in the corner, saw the pale, haunting face suspended above his bunk. No torso, no arms or legs. Not even a neck. Just a wavering, incandescent visage framed in the veil of an ancient religious order, the veil wafting into vaporous nothingness.

"So do you want help or not?"

Michael asked, "Who are you? Really?"

"Like I've said: Hildegard of Bingen."

"Yeah, right."

"Right."

"Give me a break."

"I am. Do you want my help or not?"

"Re-writing the Edict?" He didn't know what disturbed him more -- the presence in his room or the fact that he was actually holding a conversation with it.

"Exactly."

"Even if I believed that you're real, how do I know you're not some sort of spy put here by one of the colonials?" I can't believe I'm trying to talk rationally with this -- this -- whatever it is. "People know the Edict was destroyed when Tuscani was killed. If you're a holographic mole put here by, let's say, Mars Base 5 or Europa Base, then if I start working on the supposedly lost Edict, you'll be able to let your superiors know. When and if I were to read the Edict this afternoon, you could blow the whistle with evidence and the Conference would collapse."

"Is it easier to believe that than to believe it's really me, Hildegard, appearing before your very eyes right here and now?"

"Frankly, yes." I'm losing it. I'm talking to a floating head. Jesus, I've snapped.

"O ye of little faith," she shook her head from side to side in mock disgust. "Mikey, Mikey -- why can't you just enter into something new and spontaneous?"

"Like a disembodied face floating above my bed swearing to be a wacky medieval nun who claimed to have visions of Jesus, nearly orgasmic prayer experiences, and who wrote music in the heat of hallucinations."

"Why not? You're going to need some kind of intervention to help you finish off your little lie. Is it likely you could really re-construct something from fifteen footnotes? That's like re-writing Eliot's Wasteland from his endnotes. Not likely, kid."

Michael was exasperated. He paced around the room -- as best one could in an 8-by-10 foot space filled with a bunk, a desk, a fold down galley, and an office chair. "Shit, I'm losing it. The recycling unit must be busted and I'm breathing too much CO2. Maybe someone slipped drugs in my lunch packet." He ran his hand through hair. "Something."

"None of the above. I was passing through the neighborhood on one of my visits to the solar system, heard that Earth might soon have a full-fledged rebellion on its hands -- not that they don't deserve it -- and decided to help. I saw the Conference in the corner of my consciousness, saw the dilemma you were in, and decided to help you out. Tuscani's Edict is short, clear, and straightforward, a basic bill of rights that respects the autonomy of each colonial base, that allows each world to export its resources fairly, that treats all humans equitably. Could you ask for anything more?"

Michael stared for a moment and then rushed out of the room, almost crashing into the door as it automatically opened, shut, and closed with a muted thud. Out in the bustling hallway, he tried to catch his breath.

####

"Shakespeare it ain't," Michael laughs.

"Oh come on. It's fun. It's not about being a masterpiece. You felt like telling the story of the Edict."

"Yeah, well, I'm glad no one found it -- or more stupidly, that I never tried to submit it to The Underground."

"You should have."

"After all the trouble we caused? Not likely. Besides, I'm surprised you or I really weren't killed off."

"Fortunately the authorities here on Sedna came through. Protected us till the storm blew over. Even the Anglicans. Gave us their blessing to boot."

"But beyond that -- it's not that great a story. It means something to us because it's about us. Everyone thinks they have a memoir in them. Only a few are really worth reading. The rest are about as thrilling as your next-door neighbors' Vid album of their latest trip to Mars. With the kids. Oi." He claps his palm to his forehead. "Spare us, please."

"You're being unusually hard on yourself today."

Michael shuts down the image. "Maybe."

"Don't close it. I want to finish it. This is the good part. When I drop my act."

"Geez, you are such a spoiled baby."

"Come on. Lighten up. It's fun to relive this."

"Oh, all right." Michael's character appears on the screen again, this time standing outside his guest quarters.

####

It's six hours later, and he's standing outside his door once again, here on this forsaken, icy rock, petrified that he'll snap before his speech later today.

Alone on this rock. Too far from the Moon. What the fuck is happening? A new mantra of thoughts and questions to replace the ones he usually would be saying at this hour.

He'd come here a few days before the Conference trying to make sense of those illusive 15 notes, trying to think of a simple text that might fit them. Then came Hildegard.

"Michael?"

"It's you again!" He dove into his quarters.

"Have you given it some thought?"

"What do you want from me?"

"Mikey. Come on. It's the moment of truth, isn't it? Do you try to go it alone -- wing some ridiculous speech in front of the delegates -- risk becoming the laughing stock of the conference? Or do you let some hallucinatory, millennium-old saint help you out?" With hands that materialized, she pointed to herself with a delicious smile. "That'd be me."

He shouted in exasperation: "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph."

"They're busy. You'll have to settle with me."

"And what?"

"Help you. Or do you want to take your chances? Construct an Edict out of thin air, a document that could potentially save the solar system from a nasty civil war?"

"Just leave me the fuck alone."

"Why do you find being spontaneous so difficult, Michael?"

"I do not find it difficult."

"Then prove it." And in a reverberating announcer's voice added: "Worlds lie in the balance. Will he do the right thing? Will he fulfill his destiny? Will..."

Again he screamed out: "Would you just knock it off!"

"But it's true," Hildegard added gently. "You could change many things by simply taking a leap of faith and not staying stuck."

"Stuck?"

"In your indecision, in the status quo, in trusting your supposed logic rather than your gut." Hildegard now materialized fully in front of him, in a flowing habit. "Brother Michael of Sedna, you know what you have to do."

"I'm Brother Michael of Moon Base 8."

"Not after today. That's what they'll start calling you on the Network; I'm willing to bet on it."

"Why do I suddenly feel like Christ being tempted by the Devil?"

"Ouch. Satan was up to no good. I'm presenting you with a possibility that can bring peace to billions of people. There's a difference."

Michael looked at the translucent form hovering in front of him. Hildegard smiled radiantly, reaching out a hand, "Come, Michael. Let's sit down and write this Edict. That's not a temptation; that's a blessing."

Then Hildegard pulled out all the stops. In a dervish of sparking electrons, it was Seneca Tuscani who was standing there, looking exactly the way Michael remembered him: Muscular for a lunar colonial, still wearing glass frames -- despite having had the nanosurgery that corrected his vision a decade ago -- tussled raven black hair, and a winning, flirtatious smile. And very, very naked, standing inches away from Michael.

Still speaking in Hildegard's voice, Tuscani said, "Perhaps this might inspire you."

Michael bolted up from his chair and tripped backward onto his bunk. "What the hell are you doing?"

"Getting your attention."

"Now I am going completely fucking nuts!"

"Mikey, why are you..."

"Stop calling me Mikey."

Tuscani moved closer, his voice now deeper, and very calm: "Sorry. I just want you to do this for everyone's good."

"By reminding me..." He lowered his voice. "By turning this into soft porn?"

"I could make it hard if you wanted it," Tuscani winked.

"Stop it." Michael buried his head into the pillow. "Just fucking stop it."

Tuscani sat down next to Michael, who -- surprising even himself -- began to cry. Long, deep sobs. He put his hand on Michael's back.

"Why are you doing this to me? What the hell is this about? I'm fuckin' losing it." He straightened up and looked at Tuscani. "Why? This is cruel -- and you know it -- whoever you are."

Tuscani's hand traced around Michael's eyes. "I'm sorry for all the games." He tried to lean in closer, but Michael got up.

"Stop it. Just stop it." His anger welled up. "Just who the hell are you? What are you? What the fuck's going on?" He added, "And for Christ's sake, put on some clothes."

Tuscani obliged. A brown jump suit identical to Michael's spilled over his body, a simple, stylized, silver cross glittering on his breast pocket. "Better?"

####

"Now that I'm hearing this again, it seems like you toned the story down."

"Really?"

"I seem to remember you running into the hall; then when you realized people might think something was wrong, you went back in. You nearly lost it."

"Well, wouldn't you? Your lover of ten years -- the one you thought was dead -- suddenly reappears naked in your room like some kind of weird hologram. Yeah, I'd say that qualifies as freaky." He shakes his head, then laughs.

Seneca puts his arm around him. "I wasn't critiquing, just making an observation."

"Sorry. I'm really off, aren't I?"

"Hey, this stuff brings back lots of memories."

"Jesus. We're just lucky to still be here."

####

Michael, a bit calmer, sat in the desk chair. "Who are you?"

"Seneca."

"He's dead."

"I'm not."

"Then why all the Hildegard crap."

"I needed to gain your interest and your trust. I didn't think you'd have accepted my presence right off the bat."

"Ya got that right." He avoided eye contact. The emotional pain was deeper than he'd felt in a while. He thought he'd experienced all there was of anguish when he first heard of Seneca's death. Now here he was again, opening the wound all over. Here Michael had in front of him what so many people only dreamt of -- the return of a once-lost lover. Real resurrection. Now that such a fantasy might actually be possible, he was terrified.

Michael finally had the courage to look him in the eye: "This better be good."

"It is." He smiled that smile Michael had once cherished.

"Stop it." Michael looked away again.

"Why? We could spend hours looking at each other once."

"Once. Yes. But you're dead now. And I don't know why the hell I'm seeing you. For all I know you really are some technological tour-de-force created to freak me out and bring the whole damn Conference to nothing."

"You're right. That's a possibility. That's a risk you're taking."

"No games. Just what is this?"

"That'll require some faith, won't it?"

Their eyes locked. Michael remembered those silver grey irises. "Seneca." He nearly cried again. "How can you be..."

Tuscan got up and knelt down, his hands on Michael's knees. "There's so much, but here goes. The assassination were obviously phony. What you're seeing is real. I am indeed a technological tour-de-force, manufactured by Earth scientists initially as a weapon against the colonials on Venus and Mercury."

"Oh please, that's ridiculous. Besides..."

"Unable to live with that, I let the Jovians stage my death so Earth would think that both me and my Edict had disappeared forever. When they found my supposed body, they also found the supposed evidence that the Edict had been destroyed, too."

"But Earth knew I was coming here..."

"Yes, they knew you were one of the few holdouts hoping for its passage. They sent you here in hopes of embarrassing you -- if you tried to reconstruct the Edict, they'd deliver proof that the Edict had been destroyed along with me and that you'd made the whole thing up."

"What about the 15 footnotes?"

"That was lucky. They really didn't know about them. But still, it'd be almost impossible to work your way backwards from them. They'd still cry foul and prove you didn't have the original."

"Which they could still do, even if I show up with the genuine article."

"Not if I materialize with you. Not if I show proof to the colonies that Earth really tried to create humans weapons like me -- that 2.0 humans aren't just science fiction anymore. Not if I can convince everyone that the Edict really existed, that I wrote it, that it could make a difference. Earth's hand will be forced."

"And if that's the case, good ol' Earth'll balk all the way to the signing table. No one wants to be forced into submission."

"True, but the Government doesn't speak for everyone. I'm telling you there'd be immediate popular support for the Edict, even on Earth."

Michael shook his head. "Aren't you forgetting something?"

After a moment, Tuscani smiled. "Oh, that."

"Yes, that. We could both get arrested for that."

"For something that's legal on every colony but Earth."

"Arrested for our relationship, for embarrassing Earth by revealing one of its top secret programs, for a whole bunch of stuff. Assuming you are who you say you are. Assuming you're telling the truth."

"Yes, faith's a bitch, ain't it?"

Michael wanted to smile. Everywhere he turned, Seneca was there with a counter argument. He drew in a breath and exhaled heavily. "I have no one way of knowing who or what you are, do I?"

"No you don't. It's my word -- and that's it."

They were sitting opposite each other, Tuscani on the bed, Michael in the chair.

"That's not very reassuring."

"No it's not." Seneca took Michael's hands.

"I remember his eyes -- your eyes," Michael corrected himself. "We would sit for hours like this in the Base meditation room, holding hands, looking at each other -- praying -- singing psalms."

"And then return to your cell and lay side by side through the night."

Michael shivered. How'd he know that?

"Do you remember?"

"You have no idea how I want to believe you. You have no idea how hard it was in those weeks after I thought you were dead."

"Michael, you have no idea how this whole deception hurt me. How I felt when I realized how you'd feel when you thought I was gone. Do you think that didn't kill me, too? Trust me it did."

Michael kept coming back to that agonizing spot: Do I trust this guy? Do I believe this whacked out story? Or am I being set up for some big-time disaster? "You know what the real kicker is? That in the end it's easier for me to believe in a God that I can never really prove except by faith than to believe that you might actually -- somehow -- have the technological ability to appear, disappear, and change form at will. I can believe in the Invisible One but not in something literally staring me in the face." He found himself laughing, one of those good, deep-rooted laughs.

Tuscani joined in. "Yeah. It's a kicker all right." Leaning forward, he rested his forehead against Michael's. Michael made no attempt to move away.

"There's no way I can prove any of this, Mike. You've seen the tricks, the transformations, the particle separations -- you've heard some of the scientific mumbo-jumbo, half of which even I don't understand. And there's still no way to convince you it's me, that I'm not dead, that I'm working against the people who did this to me, against the people who want to have the whole damn solar system kowtow to their wishes. Hell, I can't even tell you why they chose me to begin with. Why pick some historical scholar in a lunar monastery for their experiment?"

Michael pulled back a little, "You mean you didn't know what they were going to do?"

"No. They said I could help solve some of the social dilemmas that were beginning to develop on the Venus and Mercury bases. There was something seductive about being asked, for sure. And I fell for it. Now that was the Devil's temptation."

"But you didn't know."

Seneca looked surprised. "No, I didn't."

Michael was puzzled by the look. "What?"

"You said that I didn't know."

"Right. You didn't know."

"You believe me."

"What?"

"You believe me."

Michael realized what Seneca was saying.

"For that one moment you crossed the line. You believed what I was telling you. That the story was about me -- not someone else -- but me."

Michael leaned in, their heads touching again. "Yes. For that moment."

"Just a moment?"

"I want it to be more."

"So do I."

####

Michael gets up and walks to the galley again.

"You OK?"

"Sure." But Michael begins to cry.

"What's up?"

"I really don't want anyone to see this."

"Why?"

"Not because it might remind people of The Collapse -- or that your former identity might get reintroduced -- or that it's not that well written -- or even that we've lived together for twenty years, not that any of that matters anymore. The Church laws have changed on that, thank God."

"Then why?"

"Because it's so private. It means something only to us."

"But maybe that's what makes a good story -- that it's real."

"To us maybe. To any one else, it's a rather pedestrian story -- no great descriptions, no great actions, no..."

"What do you mean, no great actions? We're talking about the Edict that changed the course of our solar system."

"Exactly. And it deserves a grand vision, not such a pipsqueak."

"Pipsqueak. I haven't heard that word in a while." Seneca laughs. "Anyway, that's what I really like about this. Sure it's about us. I'm prejudiced. I admit it. But it shows that sometimes events that shake the system take place in a cramped room at the edge of the universe between two guys struggling to do something good."

Michael smiles. "That's why I love you. You can turn anything around, can't you?"

"It's the magic I do." He laughs and reshapes himself into Hildegard. "I haven't lost my touch, you know," the long-ago voice says before he whirls back into Seneca, all of this with the ease of snapped fingers.

####

Seneca got up and moved towards the galley corner.

Michael leaned back in the chair.

"This is quite a moment, isn't it, Seneca?"

"Indeed."

"Should I let you help me reconstruct it? Should I deliver it to the Conference? Should I risk someone trying to stop me, saying it's a pack of lies? Should I risk that you won't be there to save the day? Should I risk imprisonment for trying to deceive the colonies?"

Seneca turned from the galley counter. "Should you risk believing me? Should you risk delivering the Edict? Should you believe that I will show up and prove to the colonies exactly what kind of home world we're dealing with? Should you?"

Their long stare was broken when the intercom light activated, followed by a quiet buzz. "Brother Michael," a gentle female voice called.

"Yes."

"I'm so sorry to disturb you, but I wanted to remind you that you're scheduled to speak at 18:00 hours."

"Thanks."

"Is there anything we can do before then?"

"No. Thanks for the reminder."

"No problem, Brother." A click and the light blinked out.

"So there you have it. The deadline." Seneca sat down again.

"Yes. The deadline."

"And your decision?"

Michael got up and activated the port window. Above the desk, a two foot circle appeared that showed the grandly bleak world beyond the dome.

"I guess I've nothing to lose, do I?" he said, mainly to himself. "How could their prison be any worse than the presence of your absence?"

Seneca came up and put his arms around Michael. "Thanks."

"Such a risk."

"It is."

As Michael looked out the port at the lavish desolation, he felt a wash of reassurance slowly seeping through. It wasn't the scintillating mountains etched so sharply against the pitch sky or the steady strobe of infinite stars and galaxies that brought it about. No. It was something else that took a few minutes to decipher -- and announced itself as a simple, vivid truth: His was the absolute assurance that the deep, dense gravity of loss he felt nearly every day meant that once -- if only for a while -- something beyond measure had been found.

And could be found again.

####

"That's nothing to be ashamed of," Seneca says. "Not at all."

"Maybe."

"Maybe nothing. It's a good writing."

"It's about us." Michael blips the image shut one last time -- "And I think that's how I'll keep it." -- and hits the keypad one more time.

"OK, but don't delete it."

"Too late."

Seneca has a genuine look of distress. "You didn't?" He looks down at the keypad, as if he could touch something to undo the damage. "Why?"

"I know you liked it, but in the end it wasn't a very well-written story and..."

"It was our story, Michael."

"Yes. It was. We get to live it everyday -- it's wonderful."

"But you didn't ask."

"What?"

"Whether I might want to have it or save it. Maybe I could've put it in my files if you didn't want it anymore."

That stings. "Oh."

"Yes... oh. Maybe you want to move past what we went through; maybe you really are still afraid that something could happen to me or to you. I understand that. But you just went ahead and destroyed something I wanted to savor for a while -- maybe not forever, but for a while."

"I never thought..."

"No you didn't." Seneca's frown dissolves. "Don't worry. I still love you more than anything, but you should've asked." He adds, "Besides, I'll make you rewrite it."

"You wouldn't."

"That's what you think." He laughs, gently pokes Michael's shoulder.

But Michael's disturbed. It was impulsive. More importantly, it was selfish. Then a thought hits him, which he speaks aloud: "Because I wanted to keep you to myself."

Seneca -- who'd gone to the armoire to get his serge jacket (An evening walk with Michael, he thinks) -- asks, "What?"

Michael's eyes welled-up again. "I said I wanted you to myself."

Seneca puts on his coat, ties the hemp waist cord. "Me, too."

"What?"

"I guess I want you to myself, too. We're supposed to be past that. We should be detached from things and people and all that blah-blah. Guess we're not." He reaches in and gets Michael's jacket and holds it out. "We're walking, yes?"

"Yes."

Like they do nearly every day at this time, through the tunnels to the observation dome at the edge of the base. To sit under the wildly hued trees and flowering vines. To share supper. To talk quietly -- then pray in silence under such vivid stars.

"Maybe it's being out here," Michael says as they walk, checking his sling bag for the apples and rye loaf.

"How so?"

"If we were back on the Moon with its nine million people or living in the Jovian cloud decks among hundreds of floating villages and cities, it might be easier to detach. Detachment might even seem a blessing. Blessed silence away from all the noise and bustle. But on Sedna, it's different, isn't it?" He runs his hand through the electron waves of holographic flowers on the trail to the Dome. "Here, we're just 400. Everyone needs everyone. A guy doesn't want to let go of that."

"Your story might have made your writing known to the rest of the System."

"For better or worse."

"Still..."

"But that's the irony, right? You get so used to being out here that you actually like your separation, your separateness. You're far from all the politics and other crap out here. It's nice to think about having more people around; then it becomes almost frightening."

They arrive at a favorite resting point, a knoll near the far edge of the Dome. Two elms, both real, dip over the spot, dangling spindly branches and leaves, barely green despite the Growlights shining from the upper girders. No one will disturb them there because that's how the community treats private time and space on their small world.

"I'm sorry."

"Forget it."

"Maybe it would've been nice to save it -- or to give it to you as a present."

"It's done." They sat together under the trees. "Besides, now it's our secret. The story only you and I really know."

Michael leans his shoulder into Seneca's. "Our story."

"Nice ring to that."

After a while, they begin to chant their evening prayers.

A comet tumbles by, its trail of mist and ice vapor drawing a glittering line across the ever-midnight sky.

THE END


© 2008 T. Richard Williams

Bio: T. Richard Williams is the pen name for Bill Thierfelder, Professor of English at Dowling College, a liberal arts college on Long Island, New York. Mr. Williams has been writing stories and verse for over two decades. His recent work includes two volumes of poetry.How the Dinosaurs Devoured the Humans and The Letter S; a collection of science fiction and narrative fiction called Ten; and a memoir of his 115-mile bike ride across Long Island during August of 2005 called Deliberate Living. He has also published short fiction in Wild Violet, an online literary magazine. He lectures regularly on poetry and other literary topics in the Northeast and is a popular professor who teaches a wide range of topics, from world literature to science fiction. He is also the founder of The Diversity Project, an organization sponsored by Dowling College that presents regular town hall meetings on current issues of diversity, prejudice, and bias. He has been involved in various social causes for many years, including volunteer and activist work for the Momentum AIDS Project (New York City), GMHC, LIAAC, and LIGALY. He is currently a regular contributor to Outlook Long Island Magazine. He resides in Oakdale, NY and is an avid cyclist, gardener, and hiker. T. / Bill's (T-Bill? A better investment than most these days...) short story Mystic Canyon and its sequel, the novella No. 6 appeared in the June and August 2008 editions of Aphelion, respectively.

E-mail: T. Richard Williams

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