Saturday, April 24, 2010

All the King's Horses

Oranges never used to have that little mutant orange inside. They used to have seeds. They used to be not so sickly sweet. Things change. We change things. And we don't think about what we're actually doing. We are mindless.

A hundred years ago, give or take, I remember sitting in the grass, in summer, by the edge of the forest out behind our house. The sky was blue, birds were singing, the scent of pine trees lingered in the air and I was playing with clover flowers. I was just past being a toddler, and I don't know why I was alone -- maybe I had wandered off. It was one of the most peaceful moments of my life. I was unfettered, unburdened. The most technology I had ever encountered at that point was the family car and our thirteen inch black and white television. No, I'm not actually being nostalgic. I'm just remembering something that I lost that I never really knew I had when I had it.

Right now, I'm sitting in a hospital bed. The sun is streaming in the window and glinting off various instruments. It seems cold inside, as hospitals have always seemed. I am lying on my back, doped up on pain meds. There are clouds scudding by. There is an arrow of a plane heading for the stratosphere.

This is my ninth time with cancer. This is the ninth time I will beat it. I should be dead. I should have been dead sixty years ago. The first time, I was treated with chemotherapy. It made me want to die, but somehow I survived. The doctor said I was lucky. The next time was radiation. That was pretty awful as well. The burning. To think of it again makes my skin crawl. I was fine for a couple of decades. Life moved along, and I worried about my wrinkles when I saw them in the mirror. A little harmless vanity. Other things happened of course, but I don't like to speak of them. Other people in my life; well they died. It was a tragedy, yada yada, moving on.

The next time, all I needed was a vaccine. One little puncture in my skin was all it took, and my body learned what it needed to know and it took care of the tumors. The next time, and the time after that, it was the same. It worked. The third time they tried it, I had a bad reaction that nearly killed me. The doctor called me a statistically anomaly. It shouldn't have happened, but it did. They had to revert to more traditional methods, and I endured chemo again. At least there were better pain killers. Lovely, wonderful, angelic pain killers.

For the sixth occurance, my doctor entered me in a new clinical trial. I was the perfect candidate. Healthy except for the cancer, and having proven that the vaccine would be too risky (they are all tailored to the individual as well as the specific form of cancer). I'm not sure exactly what the medication did, but it worked splendidly, taking over the function of my immune system. It did a number on my liver though, so I had to have that regrown and replaced, but I recovered.

I went back to my life. I got rid of the wrinkles. I got my eyes enhanced. I got my bones and muscles strong and healthy again. I was able to run a mile without wheezing -- and I had never been able to do that before, even when I was eighteen. I even replaced all the follicles in my head with healthy young stem cells, and now I have my old, natural hair color back -- although sometimes I think it looked better just stark white -- but that's not the fashion. Nobody these days wears their hair like that. All of these things I could do because somebody in some lab somewhere, a lot of somebodies, worked it out and figured out how to do it. We still haven't solved war or violence or poverty, but we sure as heck figured out how to permanently remove wrinkles like it was the most pressing problem human civilization ever had.

By the seventh time, I began to feel cursed. Surely, I thought, this could not be normal. Each cancer had been different. Seven single cells, somewhere in my body, all happened to freak out and mutate. There were people older than I who had as many cancers, or more, but I was getting it at an alarming and unusual rate. My parents, my grandparents, all died of things other than cancer, so I don't know why I was getting it so much. It was really pissing me off.

The seventh time, it was in my brain. The new medication that had worked so well before was useless since it couldn't cross the blood-brain barrier. My doctor wanted to try the vaccine route again. I consented. I was monitored like a hawk. I got really sick. I lost a third of my body weight, and I needed to be fed intravenously. But it worked. I felt ravaged inside, but it worked. I went back to my life.

I was broke at this point, my retirement savings eaten up by living excessively past my best-before date. I was able bodied, so I took a variety of jobs. I did the things I always wanted to try, and I traveled to the places I always wanted to go. The war broke out. I actually considered signing up, out of some romantic notion that it was one of those good fights -- or maybe to honor my grandfather who fought in the last world war, or my great-grandfather who fought in the first, but then I realized that I really didn't have a dog in the hunt, as they say. I moved north and tried to stay away, but then Juneau was bombed and it was on our doorstep, knocking loudly. I was far enough away that I didn't die instantly, but I remember the light, and being knocked off my feet and into the snow. I had to go and help.

When I got to the city, it was surreal. In the dark of winter, with just our flashlights, those of us that came in from the surrounding communities saw just the hulking remains of cement buildings, the glowing embers of pyres of wood, the dead houses. All around the snow was melted, and ice was forming again. The smell of incinerated asphalt burned inside every breath. We found survivors, but not many. I tried to pull one woman out of the rubble, but I pulled her skin off instead. It was a bleak time.

Thankfully the war ended a few months later. Nearly a billion people died. There were only a few places like Juneau, but if I had a preference, I'd rather die quick like that, than the long drawn out battles that crept across continents. Of course, everyone says there will never be another big one like that, but people said that about the first two as well. I suppose we'll see.

I think Juneau is where I picked up cancer number eight. It had to have been. I went south again, to my old doctor. He was looking considerably younger. It was a little unsettling, but I felt comfortable with him treating me. I had to have a transplant this time. I got new marrow from some genuinely young person in Napa Valley. He wanted to meet me, so I said fine. I had a hard time pretending to be grateful, and I think I might have made him feel bad. I feel awful about it, but I kept thinking I should have just given up. I didn't know if it was cowardice to keep living, or if it was cowardice to give in and die. I came to the conclusion that it's just a matter of perspective, and not an absolute.

This time, I will not be operated on. I will not get a transplant. I will not be radiated, or pumped full of toxic chemicals. I will not be vaccinated. No, we have apparently moved even beyond that. All our lab coats in all our labs have come up with some new, better, and amazing. And they haven't thought it through. To them it's shiny and new and cool.

This will be my last cancer. I will be leaving my body behind entirely. There will be no more cells to mutated and cause havoc. I will not be gone, I will never die, and I may even live in a pure state of thought. I am being translated, and I will live in the cloud, the great beyond in the sky, literally. All the dreams and prayers of all those dead ancestors who sat around the fire at night, in the savanna, in the forest, on the glacier, wherever it was they were on their journeys out of Africa thousands of years ago, each one of them who looked up into the night sky and wondered what the stars were, and what was there, and thought up heaven and immortal life -- well I get to fulfill it.

The technology was first developed to unlock people in comas, or anyone with a body so useless that it threatened their life, like with MS, or any of the other diseases that ate away at the body and for which we have yet to find a cure. They were translated out of the old body, held temporarily in a massive, distributed, processor, then translated back into a new, dormant body. While they waited, some people found a way out, and when they came to their new bodies, they told stories about the immense freedom they had out there, in the cloud, and someone had the bright idea to just skip the last step.

There was a massive investment in infrastructure. There were limits on who could do it at first, but plans were put in action to so that anyone, once ill enough, could be translated. Not one of us, need never die. Eventually, sometime in the next few hundred years, the people in our new heaven would exceed the people on Earth. I suppose, maybe part of me is just curious to see how it turns out. Or maybe I was tired of being sick and tied to a frail body. And maybe I'm a coward. So I signed up. And here I am, looking at the blue sky for the last time. And now, this time, I'm beginning to miss it already.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Anachronomist

I saw myself sitting, straddling the ridge line of the roof with physics books splayed around me. Some were suspended in mid-air, pages held apart as if by static electricity, but they weren't. I don't remember exactly what I was reading at the time.

This is not how it was supposed to be. Not at all. I used to worry about how much I procrastinated in life -- all the promises to myself of things I would someday do -- but someday never seemed to come. I was worried at the moment I died, when I had no time left, and my last possible someday had arrived, that I would think about all the years and years of time that had just evaporated. Time has a friction to it, it pulls you from where you want to be. It is only through immense effort that you can resist it. And yet, even with my worries, I had never wished for this fate. Who could have possibly predicted this? It is simply not possible -- physics does not allow it, yet it has happened. Time has a friction...I can't overcome.

If it is possible for anyone to find me, if this has just happened to me, and not the entire universe but me -- it should be known that it started without warning.

I watch her again -- me -- steadily running. She has a perplexed look. She looks to each side. The birds have stopped moving and making their noises. There is no sound but what comes from her and even that is slightly thudded, slowed and lowered, as if the air grew suddenly more viscous. She slows and then stops. After a moment, she puts her arms around herself -- she feels neither cold nor warmth, there is no temperature, but she shivers with the odd sensation. She squints ahead at a point in the trail. She begins to head towards a tiny object suspended in the air. When she is closer she sees that it is a butterfly in mid-air, frozen with its wings fully spread. Her mouth is agape with astonishment. She blows gently on it. It's antennae move slightly. Then she pokes it with a finger, nudging it. It moves, twists, but does not react. When she removes her finger the butterfly remains tilted.

That was my first real memory of this place. I call it a place since I don't really know what else to call it. In the moment before it started, it was normal Earth, with rain and sun and lapping oceans, grass growing, people dying of preventable diseases, babies crying, and would-be terrorists plotting things they think are revenge. After the butterfly, it was just a different place. Not another human around, though I did find plenty of life frozen in place, like I was trapped in a taxidermy museum. For awhile I occupied myself with making maps of where all the animals were in my vicinity, but that was long after I came to accept the situation and before I memorized where all of them were.

I didn't need food anymore. It was disconcerting at first, but I realized that somehow the laws of physics governing the entropy and conservation of energy had changed, so eventually it made sense. Unfortunately, this made death by starvation impossible. There were other methods I could have tried I supposed, and maybe I did because I can't remember everything that happened between then and now and back again, but ultimately the curiosity of the situation wouldn't let me go.

This place has a boundary. Sometimes I think of it as an event horizon, but it's not really a thing but rather a where, and I can never quite reach it. I can see it a bit from a distance, but when I get near it, I feel pulled back. From what I can see, it looks blurry. I can sort of see objects beyond it, but they are hazy, gauzy, etherial, and dark. Sometimes I see movement, and my only hypothesis is that it is me -- either a mirrored surface reflecting me, or a transparent surface, showing me in a different time in the same place. I can't explain it as well as I'd like. It's strange though because even in my immediate vicinity I can see myself, like I'm looking at myself on the roof reading right now. She can't see me. I'm not sure when that happened, but she might not have known then that she could see back. I cannot see forward, and I cannot interact with my otherselves. It's a one way deal.

I think maybe that's why everyone else went away. As I have a barrier between me and my otherselves, maybe there is a barrier between all other people. I barely remember other actual people, other than what I see in books. Thankfully my vicinity contains a well-stocked library although I've been through that several times.

I remember electricity. I think that was the eeriest loss, even more so than the other people. So much of the world before this place came to be was integrated with it. I vaguely remember watching television, and using a computer, talking on a cell phone. All those are useless objects now. Awhile back I glued a bunch of TVs together in the middle of the street. I supposed it could be called art, but part of me was making it as a monument, a sacrificial offering to whatever caused this, if anything did, so that I could get electricity back. When I was done, I laid down on the asphalt next to it, looking up at the relentless gray sky. it never changed, and there was never any weather. When this started, the day was overcast, but not this solid gray. Whenever I go back to the time with the butterfly, I can never quite catch that change in the sky. It bothers me that I can't. I can't ever go further back than when it was gray.

My relationship with gravity changed. It's not gone, and it still acts the same most of the time, but if I think about it, or feel the urge, I can move around my vicinity without the influence of gravity. I'm not bouncing around like an Apollo astronaut on the moon, but I guess the best description is that I'm able to levitate, to glide, to float, or even to find myself suddenly in a different area. I remember having dreams like that when I was a child, and when I'd wake up, somehow I always knew that the ability was with me, but just that I couldn't figure it out. Now it's no problem.

I've tried to fly up into the sky. Usually I get a sick feeling inside if I go too fast. A little bit of me is afraid I might not be able to get back down, but from what I've been brave enough to explore, it's just gray. Even though my bravery was limited, no matter how high I'd push, the town and forest that make up my vicinity would never get smaller than that I could make out the detail of the roads and the tops of the trees.

I'm drifting away from watching myself on the roof. I feel the air blurring against me. There is no wind, but I can feel it moving around me as I move against it. I'm headed for the horizon. It's been bugging me. There is a dark spot at the end of one of the roads. I can see the road going through the event horizon, I can see a red car parked on the other side, and then the dark spot, frozen hovering about five feet up. I have a theory that it's a weak spot in the horizon but I don't know. I can't get near it. I'd really love to touch my hand to it.

I'm over the road now and I touch my bare feet to the gritty asphalt (I've abandoned wearing clothes for the most part -- I mean why bother at this point?) I see some of my otherselves in turn, watching, looking, trying to test out the theory. They cannot get near. They evaporate just inches before, and then another otherself takes her place. For me it's like picking at a scab. I can't not try it over and over again even though I know it does nothing.

I hold back. I sit down on the road, on the meridian line, just watching. The scene begins from the beginning and plays over again in a loop. I wait. Finally I decide to move forward, not in space but in time, to a time none of my otherselves have yet visited. I want to be alone, to try pushing through the spot alone, but then I have an epiphany, and I can't believe I've never thought of it before. Could this last forever?

I forwarded myself again, but this time faster and continuously. I watch the spot. At first there is no change, but then I think I see it changing, moving. It's not getting bigger or smaller, it's moving away. I stop and get up. How far have I come? I don't know, it feels as it always does -- there is nothing expended in exertion. Maybe I could learn to go even faster. I look at the blurry red car, and notice that part of the bumper is clearly visible. It's on this side. I stand next to it, reach down, and touch it. I am still here -- it is here. I push the bumper towards the horizon, and it slides through. It does not come back.

I leave, excited. I'm not sure what it means, but maybe that the event is not static, and I may not be stuck. Unfortunately, it looks like it will only continue to expand. Did it originate from a point? It must have exploded very quickly, imperceptibly quickly. I wonder where the center of the event is. Was it me or was it something else, something random? I thought about the geometry of my vicinity for awhile. The butterfly would not have been the center. I spent some time and measured the area of the vicinity, rather inaccurately I suppose, with a battered old yardstick from the elementary school. I drew a map of the area inside the horizon on top of my animal map. I'd always thought the shape was circular, or spherical, but it was more like three wobbly overlapping circles, like a Venn diagram. I couldn't figure out what the center was just by looking on the map, so I went with it and tried to dead reckon where it was. The most significant object to the center was a gas pump at the service station. It was labeled "Self Serve", which I thought was moderately funny, given the circumstances, but there was nothing else of note about it.

I was stumped for awhile, and went back to my old ways, watching my otherselves, occupying myself with various hobbies (I'm a kickass piano player now, I've taken to composing even, and my cello skills are coming along -- thank goodness for analog instruments), and generally trying not to think about the oppressive endlessness. I'm watching my otherself now that day I went to the gas pump map in hand. I have an idea.

I wait for her to evaporate. Then I go and sit down on the little curb next to the pump. I really do hope this is the center. I push back now, or maybe that should be called pull. I push back until I begin to get a little tired -- more of boredom than of any exertion. It's hard to tell if I'm actually going back. There are otherselves passing through now and then, but this was never a place I really lingered, so I don't see much of me. I try again, harder, concentrating. I start floating up off the curb, and this distracts me. I loop an arm around the curved metal pylon that was meant to stop cars from clipping the gas pump. I begin again. Faster I think. My feet leave again. Faster. My body falls upward in a quick jerk, as if gravity suddenly switched orientation (and maybe it did), but I'm still clinging to the pylon, concentrating. Faster.

I can feel the air moving gently around me. My skin begins to prickle and tingle. I can hear the thoughts of my otherselves, closing in on me. That has not happened before. They are not aware of me. I begin to feel that I'm the last otherself, finally. The voices are a loud cacophony, and my skin is on fire but I still push faster. My arm is falling alseep, holding me groundward. My grip is still secure. The air is buffeting me violently now. This is the most independent movement I've ever noticed in the vicinity. I'm suddenly cold, a burning cold, and there is light now. The gray is being seared away. I am still -- totally frozen, there is total silence.

Ahead of me is a butterfly. I'm mid stride, and I stop running, not knowing that's what my body was doing. I stumble closer to the butterfly. It's flapping it's delicate wings. I reach out a hand, and it lands on me. I can feel it walking around on my thumb. There are birds in the trees, I can hear them. I look up, and there is a bit of blue peeking out from between the clouds. It worked. I worry briefly. Having lived for an infinite period, and now facing a very finite life, I feel a bit wistful--but I'd trade it all just to have this moment now, with tiny little feet on my hand, and the sounds of the forest in my ears, and the sun on my face.

I wrote the first four paragraphs in a notebook probably three years ago. I remember it being one of the first few ideas I had surrounding a novel I'm working on, but that story ultimately turned out much differently. I expanded the rest just now, as I went to post it -- and just lost an hour of my life doing it--kind of want it back because I have other things to do, but I guess I wouldn't trade it ;-)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


The sun looked like it was searing into her skin -- there was a hint of sizzle where she was sweating with the heat and where the sweat beads evaporated. It was an unusually dry day, the omnipresent humidity missing even though there were no trade winds. Her skin repulsed me slightly. Who these days still sunbathes shamelessly? She was beginning to get a little past her prime. But she always did whatever she wanted, and it usually involved spending my money. I don't know, I guess I did the same, but what else were we supposed to do? Some days I just felt adrift. Too much money, too much time. You'd think that was a good problem to have.

She shifted slightly and sighed. She looked like she might be falling asleep, but I couldn't see her eyes under my aviators. She like to borrow my stuff. Annoying. It was like she was putting her mark on me through my belongings. I knew from the start that she was going to use me. I shouldn't complain though, I was using her just as much.

"I know what you're thinking," she said.

"No you don't," I said.

"Oh, I think I do." She sat up, pulled her knees up, stretched her arms forward, elevated one eyebrow, pulled off the aviators and tossed them to me in one graceful swipe, then stood, balancing from the slight rock of the boat, adjusted her suit bottom, and dove into the water. She didn't make a splash; a perfect Olympic ten. Everything she did, she did well, and she knew it. I watched her swim to the surface. She emerged, swept her hair back out of her face, treading water calmly.

"When are we going back?" she asked.

"The harbor or the mainland?" I asked. She thought for a moment.

"You said we were going to Italy."

"I'm going to Italy, you're not." She looked hurt and turned away. I got up and walked around the top of the bow of the boat and went down in the cabin to the fridge to get another beer. That's when she screamed--at first just a high pitched wail, then she screamed my name several times. I didn't fall for that manipulative crap of hers any more. I took my time on my way back up. She had climbed back up and was standing, dripping on the bow, clearly not half-eaten by a shark as I had hoped.

"Took you long enough!" she screamed.

"What?" I popped the cap off the beer.

"Look!" she pointed up into the sky, towards the island. I turned around and looked up, shading my eyes with my hand from the glare of the sun. There were spots in the sky, moving spots, thousands of them.

"You see them?" she asked.

"That's not natural," I said.

"I thought I might be having a stroke. What do you think they are?"

"Haven't a clue. Could be volcanic I guess."

"That far up?"

"I really don't know. Meteors maybe."

"That's an awful lot. Maybe we should head back to the harbor," she said. We were ten miles out at least, with the spots in the direction of land.

"I don't think whatever it is, is heading our way," I said, even as I thought it felt a little ominous in its unknowness. The dots did look bigger now. She moved closer, putting her hand on my shoulder -- not out of any feigned attachment to me, or even fear, but to bolster her balance as she stared up.

"Don't you have a pair of binoculars down below?"

"Yeah," I said. I moved to get them.

"Maybe they're just birds," she said. Big birds I thought. "Or an insect swarm."

"Over open ocean?" I called out. I fished the binoculars out of a drawer in the galley.

"They're bigger," she said, ignoring me. I came back up on deck, and she held out her hand to receive the binoculars. I put them up to my eyes instead, and adjusted the focus. I didn't understand what I saw. They were spherical, red, smooth, and falling slower than they ought to, like they were half filled with helium, carried on the slight breeze.

"They're closer than I thought."

"What are they?" she asked. I dropped my hands. Her arms were akimbo in response to my earlier snub.

"Well?" she asked. I handed her the binoculars. She held them up and looked.

"They look like plastic balls. I really don't know what they are."

"Hmmm," she muttered. "Would you mind starting the engine? I think we have to get out of here."

" They'll hit land first," I said.

"I'm not suggesting going back, but look over there." She pointed east. They were coming down there as well. I looked to the west, and they were there as well. They were enveloping the sky. We both looked to the north, and it was still clear blue.

"It's getting thicker," she said, and it was beginning to look like swarm. "You think we could outrun it?"

"There's nothing north of here, and I didn't bother to gas up before we left." She glared at me. "I didn't think I'd have to evade a falling sky."

"Well you're useless in an emergency," she sniped. She handed back the binoculars and went below. I didn't need the binoculars now to see the redness. They began blotting out the sun. I realized that they were coming in from a strange direction...had they been meteors. They shouldn't be coming from the south. They looked to be several feet in diameter, but it was hard to tell.

She emerged from the cabin, zipping up her wet suit. She had her mask and a knife in one hand.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"I don't think this boat is safe. We can't stay here, and we can't really leave, so I'm waiting this out under water. I suggest you do the same," she said. I hated diving in deep water. I had an irrational fear that some hideous kraken would creep up from the deep and curl a tentacle around my ankle and try to keep me as a pet until I asphyxiated.

"We don't know what this is," I said.

"What's to know? It's a bunch of large objects falling from the sky. We stay on the surface, we risk being hit. We go under, well, maybe the water will absorb the impact."

"I meant, we don't know how long this will last. The tanks have maybe a half hour of air."

"Well, do what you want," she said. "I'm not dying here, I'm not dying now. I'm diving." She checked one of the tank valves. I watched her a moment, then went down into the cabin and suited up as fast as I could. I took my credit cards, car keys, and a wad of cash and stuffed them into a freezer bag from the galley and shoved them into the front of my suit before zipping up.

When I got back up, all I saw were her fins before she splashed into the water. I checked the sky. The light was dim now, sort of brownish. The water was grayish instead of blue, and the red orbs were hitting the water a quarter of a mile away. The sound was loud and crushing, and they displaced a lot of water. Some of them exploded as they hit, and white streamers of some viscous liquid splayed out fifty feet or more in all directions. I was frozen in place. Somehow it was beautiful.

My heart felt like it was trying to escape my chest. I closed my eyes and looked away, trying to be calm. I was probably going to use up my oxygen in ten minutes if I kept breathing like this. The objects had arrived faster than they ought to. I threw myself into the tank harness and quickly tested the airflow in the mask. I couldn't find my fins. I found my way to the side of the boat, trembling, and pushed myself over.

I tried to push downward, but without fins, and with my buoyant middle-aged paunch I wasn't getting very far under. Then I felt something grasp my wrist -- my heart leapt to my throat. I looked down, and it was just her hand -- she was pulling me down. Well, maybe she did care something for me after all.

We made it thirty feet or so under when the first orb broke through the surface next to us. It descended, still whole, a good fifty feet. It brought parts of the boat with it, including the windshield, encased in a veil of air bubbles. Great. I looked up. Most of the boat was still there, the bottom of the hull intact at least.

The orb started rising fast past us, and popped to the surface, bobbing next to the boat. She pulled me further under, and I pushed as much as I could as well. More orbs were slicing through the water leaving vast contrails. The ocean was churning. One of the orbs broke as it hit, and it didn't descend as much as the others. Sheets of white material fanned out from where the red skin ruptured. It wasn't quite a liquid. It reminded my of half cooked egg whites.

She was treading now; trying to stay in place. She pulled me closer, held my head, and looked me in the eyes. I'm not sure what she wanted to say, but it looked like she was trying to get me to breathe more slowly. She pointed to my tank. I nodded. We stayed in place for what seemed an awfully long time as the orbs kept coming down. More bits of the boat swirled around us. The water was getting very dark. The sun was being blocked by a layer of the white stuff and the floating balls. Where the orbs burst, the skins floated down past us. They didn't appear to be connected to the material within.

Finally the ocean calmed around us. It was almost pitch black. She squeezed my hand. The only thing we could do was try to surface. We were probably really low on air, but there was no way to find out until it was too late. I squeezed her hand back. She started kicking upward.

We reached the underside of the white layer cautiously. There was a little more light here, but it was still nearly impossible to make anything out. She wanted to let go, but I didn't want let her go -- it meant I might lose her completely. I grasped her hand tighter. She pulled me up. She must have pulled off her mask because I could hear her muffled voice. It sounded like, I need two hands to cut. She pulled my hand to her tank harness. I grabbed on. I wasn't sure what exactly she was doing but within a minute I could see a crack light. We swam up through the hole and surfaced.

I ripped off my mask. The stink of methane was almost overwhelming. My eyes burned.

"Oh dear god, that is rank," she said. All the orbs appeared to be bursting, as far as the eye could see, as if contact with the water was a catalyst. The rupturing seemed somehow intentional. I examined the white stuff more closely. Some of it felt like citrus pith, and some was stringy. The stringy parts connected to millions of translucent balls the size of large capers. She watched me as I pinched one between my thumb and forefinger. It burst easily and oozed a thick clear liquid with tiny black spots. It smelled slightly sweet.

"Don't taste it," she warned.

"Wasn't going to," I said, "if I can possibly avoid it."

"It looks organic. And uh, reproductive."

"Yeah. Think we can make it to the boat?" It was just a few feet away, mercifully still mostly intact, but I wasn't sure how to get to it.

"Yeah, we can." She started cutting through the strands in the white material, towards the boat. I pushed the layers apart behind her, folding it up over itself, widening the breach. We made it to the boat in a few minutes. She climbed up first, then pulled me in. The boat was covered as well, so we set about clearing it all out after we took our tanks off. As we worked, the white layer took on a ruddy hue. The pithy parts were hardening. It wasn't quite brittle, but it was becoming difficult to pull apart the strands. For some reason it reminded me of that epoxy that comes in two tubes and has to be mixed together.

"It's oxidizing," she said. "Or something like that. I'm no expert in alien goo."

"What? You think this shit's from another planet?"

"Well, I never saw this stuff on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, so I'm betting it's not indigenous." She wiped her hands on her wet suit, then unzipped to her navel. "Do you have another theory Einstein?"

I looked down at the sticky, stiffening strands in my hand. I had been so preoccupied with my immediate survival that I hadn't really thought about it.

"It seems improbable. I mean, how did it get here? We're ridiculously far away from any possible alien planets. And interstellar space travel is unlikely."

"Wow, you really have a nerd side," she said. Scenes from my awkward teenage years flashed before my eyes. "I don't know, maybe it was just waiting out there for millions of years, and we just passed through a cloud of it."

"I just don't think we can jump to any conclusions." Her theory seemed as reasonable as anything though.

"Well, how much of it do you think there is?" We both look all around the boat. There was white in all directions, but to the south, where the island was, we could see its gentle mountains -- white-covered mountains. The sight of it made me queasy.

"You don't think it could be, everywhere?" she asked.

"Well, if your theory is right, then it probably isn't. Half the planet at most. Maybe just a small region here." She just looked at me, expressionless for a moment.

"So, half the Earth could be covered, in which case we're screwed, or, just this area, as far as we can see, is covered, in which case we're screwed. So either way, we're totally screwed."

"Maybe not totally. Maybe this stuff will dissolve in a few hours," I said. "Maybe it's not meant to be in the ocean. Or on a planet altogether."

She sighed and put her hands on her hips for a moment, looking down at her feet. She started scraping more of the harding pith from the boat.

"Maybe," she said, "we should just stop talking about it." I got back to work as well.

An hour later we had most of it out of the boat. I thought about trying to start the engine, but the lingering scent of methane warned me away from igniting any sparks. The orb material was a deep russet and very hard now. It was starting to wrinkle and crack over the surface of the water. Where the bottom of the layer showed through it was still white. The layer looked to be about three feet thick now. Maybe it had absorbed water, but it was still very buoyant.

She was scanning the horizon with the binoculars. She had shed her suit entirely and was wearing her bikini with one of my t-shirts thrown over it. Even though I was uncomfortably hot in my suit, I wanted the least amount of my skin in contact with any of the alien goop. Already, where it had dried to my hands and feet, just the thought of it there irritated me. The material itself seemed completely harmless, but I preferred, at all times, to be very clean.

"We have one bottle of water. And of course a whole fridge-ful of beer." She turned her head away from the binoculars briefly enough to glare at me. "We're going to have to decide some things fairly soon."

"I think we can make it back to land," I said. "We can get fresh water there."

"How are we getting there? Even if it were safe to run the engine without exploding ourselves -- although maybe that's not a bad idea at this point -- there's no way the motor can cut through this crap. We're pretty much stuck."

"The boat's stuck. We're not. I think we can walk."

"What? Do you not see those cracks? It'd be like trying to make it across an ice floe in the arctic."

"I think it's possible. I'm going. You can come with, or not. Your choice. You're the one who said you didn't want to die here."

"What's waiting for us over there then?" She pointed towards the island. "Even if we get water, there's still just more hardened goo all over the place. Where do we get food? Where do we get shelter? I mean, everything must be destroyed there, all the buildings, 'oh the humanity' you know. You saw how deep those things went into the water when they landed."

"Well, it'll give us time. If this just happened here, we're bound to be rescued." She looked at me for awhile, scrutinizing.

"You're uncharacteristically optimistic," she said. "Where's that coming from?"

"I feel kind of free," I said. I was. I was suddenly unburdened from future obligations and plans -- completely severed from my previous responsibilities.


"I don't think you'd understand."

"Well, whatever. I don't know. Maybe it's worth a shot. How far is it do you think."

"Five miles," I lied. I was beginning to want her around me, annoying as she was. Besides, I didn't really feel like dying alone.

"I think it's a bit more than that."

"Yeah maybe," I said.

"Alright. I'll go," she said.

I finally took off my wetsuit. It was making me sweat too much, and we needed to conserve our one bottle of water. We gathered up what we could salvage, which wasn't much, and bundled everything in a t-shirt. I tied it to two ends of another t-shirt and slung it securely over my chest. She carried the binoculars, my sunglasses, and nothing else.

She tested the solidity of the hardened goop first. She walked out several feet on the nearest patch. She looked a bit wobbly, but the layer didn't break or buckle.

"Seems okay," she said. She moved over to the nearest crack and examined it. "It's not broken all the way through. It's sort of stretchy. Still, we'll want to avoid them." She jumped over it when the crack was smallest with the oscillation of the ocean surface.

I slipped over the bow of the boat and tried to land as gently as possible. It did seem solid.

"Come on," she said. I didn't mind that she wanted to lead. She was much more surefooted than me and I tried to follow her path around the wrinkles.

We were walking carefully for a few hours before the sun started to set.

"I hope the moon is out tonight," she said. The western horizon was getting pink. "We could use the light."

"It's just past full," I said. My feet were starting to hurt. The surface was a little bit prickly, but mostly I just wasn't used to walking this much.

When light from the sunset faded, the moon rose. She noticed it first. I was too focused on trying to make out where my feet were going. She stopped dead and I bumped into her.

"Oh shit. That's not good," she said.

"What?" I asked. She pointed to the moon. I felt my stomach flutter. The moon was a dull orange. I could still make out craters, but the shadows were softer.

"I hope that's just something in the atmosphere making it look like that," she said.

"I don't know." I thought about the pink sunset, and how normal it looked. It seemed unlikely that this event had done anything to the atmosphere. And if this stuff had landed on the moon as well, it couldn't oxidize, although maybe the color change wasn't oxidization after all. Surely it didn't hit the moon as well, and not the entire near side, which was facing towards the Earth when all this hit us. That would mean the whatever we passed through was vastly large -- unimaginably large. It meant the worst. This was everywhere.

"At least it's some light," she said, and she started forward again. I followed.

We reached shore an hour or two after the moon passed its zenith. The alien layer was rumpled up in great ridges on the beach, presumably pushed there with the tide. We climbed over, and up towards where the highway should be. There was some tall wild grass poking up here and there, and I felt immense relief.

We rested at the edge of the blanketed road. We slept briefly out of exhaustion, curled up together, and woke to the sunrise. Even though we were in the tropics, it was a little cold. I hoped it was just my perception and not some permanent change in the climate. My stomach complained, and my head desperately desired some coffee. I stood and stretched, surveying the ocean surface. It was good that we decided to leave when we did. Over the ocean, the layer had grown fuzzy. Black tendrils extended a few feet straight up. The tendrils were only the thickness of grass blades, round, not flat, but they had nodules in several places up along their length. They looked like joints, and occasionally the tendrils accordioned at the nodules. The jerky motion made it look like they were trying to push themselves further up. Who knows.

Over land, the layer was just dry, crusty, and brown. I was hoping it was decaying. She stood up next to me, and slid on the aviators. She looked over the ocean.

"Interesting," she said.

"Yeah. We should probably head inland before those things turn into ravenous three-headed space monsters." The corner of her mouth twitched slightly at that.

Down along the road I saw something moving. I nudged her to look. We waited and watched. It was a man, another human. We both waved at him. He stopped for a moment, then waved back and came running up.

"Hey!" he shouted excitedly.

"Hey there," I said. He was an older man, portly, local. He had a big grin on his face.

"Isn't this just amazing," he stated, his smile widening. He held out his hand and we shook it in turn.

"How'd you survive?" she asked.

"I have a basement, that's how. Not many houses around here have one, but I made sure my house did when I built it. How'd you survive?"

"We were out at sea," I said.

"We stayed underwater in our scuba gear when they hit," she said, subtly taking credit for the idea.

"Wow, you must have been far out there. It's pretty shallow for a ways out."

"Yeah, we walked here last night," I said.

"Well, I'll be. That crust held your weight?" We both nodded. He eyes grew big, and his grin wider. Clearly, this was the most entertaining thing that had ever happened to him.

"Come on then." He started walking back the way he came, motioning us to follow. As we walked, he continued speaking. "We've got a sort of shelter at the elementary school. Running water, can you believe it? Don't know how long that will last though. We've got food too. Electricity's knocked out though. I guess that's to be expected." She stopped dead.

"To be expected?!" She yelled. The man stopped and turned to look at her, slightly confused.

"Oh," he said, "well you know what I mean." He started walking again. She followed, but was noticeably beginning to sulk.

"Did you happened to catch any news coverage of what was happening before the electricity cut out?" I asked.

"No, I didn't. I was out fishing when it started. Someone at the school said they heard something about it, but basically know one here really knows what happened."

"It's pretty obvious what happened," she said. The man was beginning to look a little tired with her.

"How many people are at the shelter?" I asked.

"Oh, about a hundred I'd say. Those of us who can are out looking for more survivors. There's a sort of plan to clear this stuff away. I guess we'll try to throw it, uh, onto the ocean or something. We tried burning it already, but it's not very flammable."

We walked along in silence, the dried crust crunching beneath our feet.

"It seems like it'll get all Lord of the Flies really quickly," she said.

"Huh?" He looked confused again. I wasn't sure if he got the reference.

"That many people, limited food. We're going to be on top of each other in no time. There will be problems," she clarified. He stopped and turned to face her.

"I don't know how you people live on the mainland, but out here we help each other. We work together, and we share. Keep that in mind." He started walking again.

"Sorry," she said meekly. I put her arm around me, and we headed off.

"I think we can make it," I said, "this might be survivable." In a way, it was a relief. It seemed like a potentially unpleasant future, but it was something new and different. I didn't have to be me anymore, I didn't have to uphold that rich-kid facade. Maybe I was just delusional.

"Yeah," he said. "We are like cock-a-roaches!" He laughed. "We'll survive. You can be sure of that." The man started whistling.

She reached down for my hand, and we walked together.