I’m continuing to post reprints of my fiction here on this blog. Watch for the tag “fiction,” as in http://jaylake.livejournal.com/tag/fiction.
The current installment in this series is my short story “Over the Walls of Eden”. At 3,000 words, this originally appeared in Descant issue 122. If you like the story, please consider supporting Descant.
Over the Walls of Eden
by Jay Lake
Emissary exits the lander, his first step carrying him thirty odd meters down with a gentle assist from the vessel’s inertial compensators. The tail-burning descent has brought him down on the Southern Temperate Massif, Karsage’s climatically idyllic plateau originally marked for human settlement — the missing colony that should have spread across the planet in the past two centuries.
Without video screens and telemetry to filter his observations, the world touches Emissary in myriad ways. Sunshine lays a gentle warming pressure on his arm as breezes tug his cropped gray hair and carry scents of loam, river and forest. It is a powerful reminder of the paradise of lost Earth, the story at the heart of the human experience. Memes buried gene-deep in his core weep for coming home to this place he has never seen before. He feels a smile steal his face.
Less than a kilometer to his east, children work unclothed among crops. They show a complete lack of interest in his towering vessel — a classic rapier-slim shape complete with tail fins and a burnished metal hull, consciously engineered imitation of a cultural archetype. He wonders if the children are of diminished capacity. He wonders where the adults are.
With a sigh and a smile, Emissary rapidly covers ground to approach the children, arms at his side and hands open. The children are concluding their labors down by the riverbank, the mid-sized accounting for baskets, herding toddlers and shouting at the sluggard oldest.
“Hello,” he says to the group.
A girl, smooth-chested and grubby, turns to face him, other children peering from behind her. She folds her arms. Her gray eyes are weary in her brown face. Her dark hair is dirty too, but neat — cared for. A pale flower wilts plaited into one lock. Her lips part, pause, leave him balanced on the edge of the moment.
“No,” she finally says.
No, thinks Emissary. No? There must be more.
Ship whispers in its low-bandwidth lander voice, “Inappropriate response. Retry.”
He is tired of orders from Ship, but Ship is right, as usual. “‘No,’ what?” Emissary says.
“You are Not.” She turns, fists on her hips, and favors him with her back. Around her, the other children turn away as well.
Not what? Children are…children. This one is well-fed but not over-fed, with a taut, muscular grace. Trying again, he calls to her prominent shoulder blades, “Where are the adults?”
She glances over the curve of her shoulder, eyes flashing in the last red light of the day. Emissary is suddenly absorbed by her transfiguration into beauty as she says, “Then who created thee lamenting learn when who can uncreate thee thou shalt know.”
Ship’s orbital voice kicks in after transmission lag. “Paradise Lost, Book V. John Milton, 1667 anno domini.”
For once, Emissary is glad that Ship is smarter than he. Unfortunately, understanding brings only more confusion. This is wildly wrong — children living naked in the fields, quoting Milton.
In the rapid dusk her hair, her back, her legs, dissolve into the trees at the edge of the field as she vanishes down a path, the last in a line of grubby, basket-carrying ghosts. He stands knee-deep in bushy native crops and wonders what has happened.
“Memory,” says a man in the dark.
Emissary jumps, wishing for a weapon he couldn’t use if he had it. This place undermines him.
“You were wondering, right?”
He glances around at the trees. Boles gleam with faint spiderwebbing of moss or lichen — some opportunistic saprophyte underpinning the native ecology. Ninnelil has long since tumbled below the western horizon, rendering darkness among the undergrowth, even on the children’s trail.
“I was wondering where you were,” Emissary replies.
“Milton. She remembers Milton for us. It is stories that make us human, but books are…difficult.”
“And you? ”
“I am in the tree to your left. Join me, it is comfortable.”
Emissary drags his fingertips across the bole of the tree, considering the climb. Up close it becomes alien, bark nubbed with clusters of tiny mouths. First Survey had reported that local plants feed in part off airborne particulates, straining like sponges. As in most biospheres, photosynthesis is still the underlying engine. Lacking insects to turn the soils and carry the pollens, Karsage adapts.
Ship, however, is uncharacteristically silent, a welcome change — almost. Emissary feels terribly unadapted himself in this cold, dark forest, chasing Milton’s ghost.
“Use your hands,” calls the man in the tree. “It has to be easy enough. I can do it, after all.”
Has to be easy, he wonders. What’s so hard about getting up in a tree? The nubbed bark does make for easy climbing. He imagines fire-hardened stakes plunging into the base of his neck from above.
Higher up in the tree, starlight filters in. The shadows have a double life, deep gray on silver. A man sits leaning against the trunk, naked as the girl Milton and her fellow children. His beard is prodigious. In the dark Emissary cannot be certain, but the tree man’s hair seems as wild as his beard.
Emissary settles himself onto a nearby horizontal limb. “Is Milton your child?”
The man in the tree laughs, a sobbing yelp unlike anything Emissary has ever heard before. “My child? You must be an outsider to ask such a thing.”
“Milton says I am ‘Not.'” He is suddenly desperate to know the color of the man in the tree’s eyes — are they gray like the girl’s, a hue that already fills his heart?
Ship whispers, orbital voice, “He is not tracking the conversation. Perhaps he is also of diminished capacity.”
“Milton knows much of what needs to be known, but little of what doesn’t.”
“Stories,” Emissary guesses. “Yours has become a colony of the mind. Have you no stories of your own?”
“The older children teach the younger, that we shall not forget what we once were.”
Why do the children teach, Emissary wonders? He studies the man in the tree’s body language, listening to his breathing, analyzing the tone of his voice. This stranger in the dark lacks hostile intent. “What happened? Why not write them down?”
“I already told you. Writing involves books, books require tools. All we have is memory. You met Milton in the fields. You are lucky she even noticed you.”
Words slip like fish from his mental grasp. “Before…there was a colony.”
“We’re still here.” The stranger is patient.
In the distant dark, hoots and the crash of branches.
“What?” Emissary snaps, glancing around in mild panic.
“Adults, moving through the forest. They avoid me because I talk to the children.”
There doesn’t seem to be an answer to this. Emissary sighs, stares into the darkness. “I am…”
These words fail him, too. He was a man, now made into a mission, Ship’s agent on the ground. His own story is lost. He uses the only name he is now permitted. “I am Emissary of the New Concordiat, seeking to reunite lost worlds of humanity. My mission is to the leaders of your colony.”
“You have already met her.”
“Milton?” A child leading children, while adults rampage through the night forests? “So who are you?”
A catch in the stranger’s voice. “One of the innocent. A failed innocent.” The tree man begins to weep.
Morning finds Emissary in the tree, alone. He has trouble pulling himself away from the bole. During the night the nubs have tried to eat his cloak, ingesting it in a hundred small twists. There is no sign of the innocent man.
He drops to the ground, stumbling, then follows the children’s trail in the daylight. There is no stealth or subterfuge — it runs straight through the trees to a clearing by a riverbank beach. Today the children splash in the water. He does not see yesterday’s baskets.
Milton sits on an old log, back to the forest, watching the swimming party. Admiring the lithe lines of her body — who knew children could be so beautiful — Emissary walks slowly toward her.
She looks toward him. “I heard you talking to Wolfe last night.”
“Wolfe? The innocent man?”
“He remembered Wolfe for us, when he was younger. Most lose speech when innocence finds them, but he’s…trapped in the change. He remembers the things he can no longer do. He helps us where he can, but we pain him.”
Ship whispers, “I have analyzed the implications of last night’s encounter. There is a serious threat to your safety. You should leave. I will prepare the lander.”
Emissary ignores Ship. This far from the lander, this close to Milton, it is easier to do so. He feels a surge of triumph in his minor rebellion. “And who remembers Wolfe now?”
She whistles, a complex five-note warble. A young boy splashes out of the river and runs toward them. Recalling them in the fields, Emissary realizes that none of these children have major scars. Karsage has no predatory megafauna, but do they never fight, or tumble from the trees?
“Remember,” Milton orders the boy Wolfe.
Wolfe cannot be five years old. The child still lisps as he chants, “When I was a boy my brother David and I had to go to bed early whether we were sleepy or not. In summer—”
“Enough!” snaps Emissary, suddenly unnerved.
“The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Gene Wolfe, 1972 anno domini,” whispers Ship after transmission lag. “I repeat, there is danger. You must leave now.”
Wolfe runs off. Emissary stares at sunlight flashing on water. “How does he know that?”
“Old Wolfe taught another boy, who then taught him in turn. We tell some of our stories every day.”
Emissary tries again. “But who tells you? Where are the adults? Who gave you birth?”
He can hear the smile in Milton’s voice as she says, “To wreak on innocent frail Man his loss of that first battle and his flight to Hell.”
It is no answer at all. He glances back at her, tries again. “You can’t live by yourselves. It doesn’t work that way.”
Her smile broadens, teeth peeking like discolored pearls between pale lips. “Within the walls of Eden, there are fruits aplenty.”
“Ship?” Emissary is becoming confused.
The whisper, with orbital comm lag. “In this fertile, temperate climate, with no predators, it is conceivable. I order you to return to the lander, now.”
“I won’t. You can’t.” Aloud, again. In Milton’s company, he cares less and less about Ship.
“You aren’t,” Milton says, deepening his confusion.
Emissary is flooded with sudden anger that he had to come here, find these children, uncover their private paradise. He knows his presence marks their end, in one fashion or another. The adults might be innocent, hiding in the woods, but these children have no fear, do not starve. The New Concordiat will bring them those improvements, at the least.
Breaking free of emotional and behavioral bounds laid down through years of conditioning, Emissary grabs for some weapon, a stick on the ground, seeking to vent his newfound rage at himself, at Ship, at his mission. His hands spasm, claw like a drunk at a wine bottle, as the stick eludes him as if made of rubber. Anger and humiliation collide inside his carefully balanced mind.
Milton laughs as he flees into the forest.
For several days after, Emissary watches Milton from a distance as he slinks through the brush, eating berries and wild grain. Sometimes he thinks she smiles at him. He is sure old Wolfe follows him, somewhere in the trees. Protecting the children? Protecting him? His fingers continue to progressively fail him, apparently having whims of their own. Emissary is tiring of his boots, the binding of his clothing. He finds it harder and harder to focus on his purposes, or even to remember them.
It is easy for Ship to be philosophical from a distance of 0.1 light-seconds. “At least you left our communications interface engaged.”
“Shut up.” He fumbles at the release tabs on his boots. His grip is no more effective than if his fingers had dropped from his hands. Milton’s laughter continues to haunt him. Scorn? Pity?
A few seconds pass. “You now exhibit nearly complete physiokinetic apraxia — an inability to use tools or even to grasp common objects. Similar to a well-documented form of stroke-induced neurological damage. You are experiencing diminished capacity.”
“Can’t get my damned boots off,” he whispers. He thrashes his right foot against a rock, trying to beat the boot free. Unexpectedly, pain lifts the fog from his mind. Lines of thought converge in the brief moment of clarity. Old Wolfe in the tree, telling him books couldn’t be used, tools were impossible. Now, his own hands failing him. Why hadn’t First Survey found something this basic, this destructive?
The children. Working the fields while adults, innocent preverbal animals, prowl the wilderness, except for a tortured few like old Wolfe caught in the change. He knows, with chilling certainty.
“Ship, log this.” Emissary groans, hitting the rock with his foot again to keep his head clear. “Hypothesis. First Survey never found this native microbiological because it originally affected only children. When the first generation of colonial children reached pubescence, it shifted to adult stage. It’s now infectious to anyone.”
A lag, brief pops of static in his ear, then, “First Survey made no observation of this effect.” Ship sounds almost prim.
“Survey brought no children. There was no transmission vector to infect them. To hell with First Survey!” Defeated by his own hands, Emissary limps back toward the river with both boots still on. Ship warbles comforting nonsense, raw telemetry as therapy.
“The gate of Eden leads only inward,” says Milton as she pulls his right boot off.
Emissary continues to enjoy a temporary lucidity, driven by the pain in his ankle. Ship is silent.
“How long for you?”
“Innocence?” She shakes her head, doesn’t wait for a response. “Once my blood flows, I will be lost. Perhaps two more years.”
“Like me? Or old Wolfe?”
She draws his other boot off. “You are Not. I already told you. The original adults died quickly, once their first children grew. Only we who are born here can survive the transition to innocence.”
“That’s why you didn’t see me? Because I’ve only got a little while to live?”
She smiles again, undressing him as if he were an infant, her fingers brushing his body over and over. “Once you arrived, you were already finished. The innocence takes you within days, so you didn’t matter. Once you came to our camp, it was different.”
“Ship!” Emissary bellows, as if the sound of his voice could carry into orbit. Has he accidentally disabled the comm interface in his earlier flailings?
A few seconds delay. “I am here.”
“I will die soon.” He hopes for rescue, a distant mechanical miracle. Anything.
Pause. “I tried to warn you. Now it is too late for me to risk helping you. You have already been written off. Your expiration will provide valuable reference data.”
“Ship,” he pleads. “We are friends.”
Pause, a longer one. “You are now of diminished capacity.”
Emissary realizes he cannot remember something important, something he had long ago forgotten. “Ship, please, what is my name? My real name?”
There is no answer.
Milton rubs his feet for a while, soothing his pain. He imagines a lifetime running through the woods, rutting with Milton in their mutual adult innocence, leaving infants at this camp or another to be raised by fellow children. That must be how it is for them here, except for freaks like old Wolfe, trapped in the change. And himself, soon to die in that change.
“Why do you remember the books?” he finally asks.
She smiles again. “O Sun, to tell thee how I hate thy beams, That bring to my remembrance from what state I fell, how glorious once above thy sphere, Till pride and worse ambition threw me down.”
He thinks about that, words once more slipping like fish. “It is who you…are…were…” Their colony of the mind.
“Otherwise, we are Not.” She shrugs. “Like you.”
She is correct, he realizes. He is Not — a man with no name but his mission, that mission now lost to him. Emissary tries to remember the words of command that would control the lander, override even Ship’s awesome intelligence, meant only for use if Ship experiences diminished capacity. If he could live long enough to survive the journey, he could rise upward and take himself home to human worlds and medicine and some greater hope. He suffers from a virus, he weeps, not diminished capacity. He is not a broken thing to be discarded. He hates the people who took away his name, who sent him here to be abandoned by a faithless machine.
There is no time left for him — his body tells him he will die soon. Milton, she has choices, for herself, for the other children. For him. If she returns bearing innocence, they will remember him back in the New Concordiat.
Emissary bashes his injured foot against Milton’s log. In the temporary clarity of his pain, blocked memories cascade. “Listen” he whispers, “you could have been so much more. In my world, you could have had your own story. Once upon a time, I had a name…”
Slowly, with the help of increasing pain, he tells her his story. Before the pain fades away, he instructs her in Ship’s command words and their use.
Old Wolfe gently holds Emissary as he drools away his life. In the distance a great stab of fire leaps from the ground, pushing a shining sliver into the morning sky.
Emissary tries to find a word, but the fish in his head have become minnows and his mental grasp is worn to nubby stumps covered with clusters of tiny mouths.
“Milton,” whispers Old Wolfe.
He smiles. That must be his name, the name that he had forgotten. “M-m-mil-mil…”
Blissfully, memory detaches.
© 2003, 2008, Joseph E. Lake Jr.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.