Illustration: “Scanman” © 2005 by Romeo Esparrago.
“We used his soul to mend the hole
bound the fabric of time…”
When he first came to us, his mind was contorted by conflicting ripples of thought. His tiny body arrived packaged carefully in amniotic fluid, the limbs curled and foetus-like, the head grossly expanded. A genetic defect had caused the cranium to develop rapidly in the womb, sucking sustenance away from the withering body. If we had allowed the child to be born he would have died, the tiny heart and lungs unable to pump oxygen to the oversized head.
So left, his mind had grown in on itself, stagnating with the lack of external stimulation. It was a mind gone circular, insane yet of vast intellect.
We did what we could to unravel the thought pathways that had built up — constricting logic — while the boy lay unborn in the still-bag. We diverted unnecessary cross-links in the neural patterns, replaced them with ones that would impart a basic understanding of language, fed the mind enough information to interpret environmental stimuli.
We spared no effort to retrieve him from his inner world; we had foreseen that one like him could help us. If not for that knowledge, we may have faltered in our search for him in the crowded human world of Hubbab. Knowing the stakes, our seers forwent recuperation to maintain the search.
We concocted a suitable body, and having removed the boy’s cranium and tail-like spinal column from the useless body, employed a team of Nuverhanian neurosurgeons to fuse the two together.
We named him Elam, in our language “healer”. We faced ruin, not the end of an era, but annihilation from the fabric of time.
We watched as they put Elam together, waiting for our turn with him.
* * *
Over the ten years Wynall DeSputÈe had been a representative of the Agency for Human Dealings, he had often dealt with alien intelligences. This was different. The Elusives were obscure, difficult to work with, physically insubstantial, brimming with latent power.
Wynall stood mid-row with the two representatives accompanying him to witness the transaction, the silvery hems of their formal robes overlapping. To his left stood Tem of Jahaunt, a burly economic diplomat on sejour from the eastern enclaves; to his right, Oschwald M., a lesser noble who kept his fingers in many profitable pies. All three were required to witness the procedure. Payment would be received if the product proved satisfactory. The misshapen room was dark and clogged with thick Earth-approximation air. Wynall stifled another sneeze and looked away from the activity of the surgeons working on Elam. Hovering peripherally, shadowy Elusives darted about.
Wynall had sold a human before. Much of the Agency’s profit came from such transactions. But the person had always been a willing client seeking the adventure of far-flung worlds. If the reality of their fate was not so rosy…. the risk had been theirs.
Not so here.
Wynall objected to selling Elam to the Elusives, who would mould him like putty in their hands. It was a crime against humanity, a fraying of the thread that bound it together. The Elusives were powerful and had demanded the sale with voracious appetite. Humankind had not the collective strength, nor will, to turn them down. Besides, the Agency wanted the money. After all, Elam was a freak destined for early death.
Wynall DeSputÈe believed otherwise.
* * *
For that first split-second moment, Elam saw only a writhing mass of light and shade, heard only white noise. Then the neural algorithms the Elusives had installed translated the stimuli. He recognised shapes, understood up and down. Sounds clarified into voices.
He recognised the slightly repulsive, wart-covered Nuverhanian neurosurgeons, and the Elusives. When they were thinking at him or sensing him with infrared and ultrasound, he’d see flashes of colour bursting from them.
The designated communicator rose before him, appendages thin and spreading. “We are pleased you now breathe of your own lungs, Elam,” it said, its ‘voice’ like wisps of smoke. “You may refer to me as Leeshia, whisperer of the ways. Although you have absorbed a great deal already, we have only begun.”
Elam looked at her (he thought of it as a her) and felt warmth. Her emanations were reassuring. “Hello, Leeshia. I am ready. When can I begin?” He remembered faintly the nightmare of his previous existence and the Elusives had healed him. He would do anything for them.
Leeshia’s movements equated to a smile. “Soon Elam,” she said softly, “but first it is important we discuss the seriousness of your role. You can save us.”
The other Elusives quivered. The surgeons had finished packing their tools and were filing out. “Save you? I don’t see how. You know so much more than me.”
“There are things even we cannot do. There is a great rent in our world. It grows incessantly, and there is nothing we can do to stop it.”
“I don’t understand. How can a world have a rent in it?”
Leeshia was all patience. “To answer that, we must tell you of our nature.
“We are more than even you, Elam, can yet perceive. What you see of us is the barest tip of the iceberg, the tiny three-dimensional projections of our minds into the physical universe. Beyond this, connected to it, we extend virtually infinitely throughout the multitude of dimensions, our thoughts spanning future and past at will. Do you understand?”
Elam nodded, “Yes,” although his understanding was purely tentative.
Leeshia continued, “Our world is very different than this one, but we rely on the physical world to support our existence, like the roots of a tree rely on soil. That is why we keep a close eye on things here. But we have a problem.
“Now is the time to reveal it and seek help. Somehow, at the edge of the place we inhabit, the borderline between home and a chaotic place where thought cannot exist, there is a tear in the wall; the wall we constructed to keep uncertainty and destruction separate from our domain.
“We understand nothing of how this rent was made, or how long it was there before we detected it. We know not if it appeared by chance, burnt away by an expanding bubble of raw chaos from beyond, or was put there by some great power we have not met. The hole is fraying and growing. Already, we have lost some to its vacuuminous forces. It sucks away our memories, committing them to the black void, allows the chaos to lash further inside with every fiery storm.
“We must mend it before the entire wall collapses and we lose ourselves, surrounded for eternity by black void, separated from the physical universe that gives us our powers.
“We think you are the one that can do it. You have the strength of mind and the intellect to reach into that grey place and bind the edges together with your thoughts, make us whole again. We see no other hope.”
Elam’s eyes filled with tears that stung before they spilled onto his cheeks. He felt for the Elusives, and feared what he would have to do. The void Leeshia spoke of sounded alien and frightful, worse than the one he’d been retrieved from. He didn’t want to experience it.
* * *
Wynall DeSputÈe couldn’t have understood a word of the whispery vibrations passing between Elam and Leeshia if not for the probe the Agency had placed in Elam’s brain — a tiny neuro-transmitting organism that translated Elam’s thoughts and sent them to the representatives’ own implants. What Wynall heard appalled him. He had half-guessed the Elusives intended some sinister use for Elam, but hearing it made his stomach boil. The Elusives were convincing and manipulative traders, but they had failed to woo him, and the Agency had taught him ways to negate their tactics of mental interference. He understood that if Elam did as they asked, his mind would be destroyed — a waste when he could serve humankind.
If the Elusives were dying, let them. The universe was better off without their constant interference and temporal adjustments.
They took Elam away, and the rules of trade allowed Wynall to step forward and be heard. Many of the Elusives had left and the room was silent, echoing with Wynall’s footsteps.
“Leeshia, oh whisperer of the ways,” he called to the remaining mass of shadow, uncertain which particular fragment belonged to the communicator. “I request further negotiation.”
A needle-like fragment removed itself from the rest and approached him, immediately attempting to cloak his thoughts with love and submission. Focussing on what he wanted to say, he managed not to succumb.
“You may speak and we will hear you,” she said in human-tongue.
“As principle witness for the Agency, I wish to withdraw our offer of sale of the young human.”
“We are upset that you would suggest this,” she replied. “The in-principle agreement is binding and we have invested far too much in Elam to allow you to renege. What possible motive do you have to request a re-negotiation?”
“Your intended use will damage the merchandise.”
Leeshia communicated thoughts of confusion. “We believe otherwise. However, the condition of the merchandise after purchase is not your affair. We cannot return Elam under any circumstances.”
Wynall knew he could not move its position by further argument. He decided to change tactics. “In that case, I request immediate full payment, witness bonuses included. We have other deals to attend, and the trip back from here is a long one. What do you say? Are you prepared to pay up, or are you reneging on the deal?”
“We are confused by your request. As we declared from the beginning, we require testing of the merchandise before making any formal transactions. We are happy so far and you will receive payment in full when we are ready — no sooner.”
Wynall clenched his teeth. Not only would he have loved to throttle the communicator — if there had been any way to physically grapple it — but he was receiving disturbing emissions from Elam’s transmitter. They made no sense, but he didn’t like the sound of them. The broadband blasts of distress suggested torture, but the Elusives’ evil was more subtle than that. Probably, they had begun his ‘education’.
“We suggest you learn patience,” Leeshia lectured as she moved out of the room, ending the conversation. “We will otherwise have to enforce restrictive measures on you and your team.”
Wynall signalled for Tem and Oschwald to follow him back to the unpleasant space assigned to them while in residence, and there they stood restlessly to discuss the build-up of events. Wynall was in charge but it was the accompanying team’s role to counsel him.
“You are edgy, Wynall,” observed Tem seriously. “I have never seen you so impatient.”
Wynall shrugged. “I can’t bear to see this transaction go ahead. It’s just not right. I didn’t join the Agency to sell souls.”
Tem had stooped to one knee as though the burden of carrying himself erect had become too much, yet the pose was graced with the bold musculature of his bare arms. “Well, it is far too late for such sentiment. The deal is all but done. Leeshia wanted nothing of your requests.”
“Hmm,” Wynall grunted. “There may still be time to get Elam back. If the transaction so far is anything to go by, the Elusives are a slow lot. But we appear to have no leverage with them whatsoever. If it came to it, I suppose we could take direct action. “I doubt they’d be prepared for that.” With his elbow tucked in his side, he felt the hard outline of his Wig-Stick, a hand-held weapon made from the strongest wood known to man, the end of the shaft carved to deadly sharpness. Each of them carried one, an effective weapon and undetectable by typical weapon scanners.
Tem scowled, removing any hint of good humour from his face. “Bah… hardly worth the risk is it? We’ll lose a good transaction, not to mention the reputation of the Agency.”
“I meant it purely as a last resort.”
“I agree with Wynall,” Oschwald piped up. Until now he’d been standing silently, the side of his fist abutting his chin. “It feels like we’ve been roped into this one. I don’t like it one bit.”
“Easy for you to say,” Tem retorted, “you’re not relying on the witness bonus to take home like I am.”
“Easy boys,” Wynall interrupted, making calming motions with outstretched hands. “Let’s not make the debate personal.”
Tem said nothing further but his jaw was bunched with tension.
“It could be done — a snatch,” Oschwald said. “If we activate the neurotransmitters correctly, they could drown out our thought-presence. That’s how the Elusives keep track of us. They’d be blind….”
“Well it’s not quite time to make that decision yet, but I think we ought to know where we stand.”
“Tem?” Wynall prodded, looking down at him.
Tem regarded both men vigorously. “Let there be no doubt — whatever course you choose, I’ll be with you. I am nothing if not loyal to my own.”
* * *
Our tests showed Elam could fulfill our needs. His mind was useful because it had not been tram-lined by long-term experience.
It is rare for us to invite one of another race to join our ranks, glimpse secrets protected at great length, and so it was with great celebration that we welcomed Elam.
The apparatus that would transport his awareness to the realm of our kind had been housed here, unused, for millennia, collecting dust.
Proudly, we gathered to draw Elam out from his humanity. We are all of us descended from one of the million races that inhabit the physical universe. Each of us at some time in the past — or for some the future — have taken the same steps (or made the slithering trail). We brought him to the final step, trimmed with gold-leaf, and unveiled our greatest asset, the equivalent of a birth canal — his future. Guided by senior acolytes, he entered our most holy shrine.
We opened to him the Elevator to Eternity.
* * *
Elam’s lips quivered as he was crowded towards the steps subtending a great platform. His new body responded well but felt cold and unattached. It would take time to grow used to it, yet he was about to give up that physical connection. His new body would house him here, but he would be unaware of it.
The Elusives urged him forward. Each step felt like a mountain, draining him of energy. Finally, he was there, standing out of breath on the summit. Hesitantly, he took little steps towards the ball of light.
He stepped forward with an awkward lunge…
First there was darkness, silence. He was alone. Soon, he was able to perceive his surroundings. No longer did he define his position in space by the location of clumsy limbs, the meagre reflection of light. His tendrils cut through the void in a thousand different planes, his ears collected whispers of welcome from a million other souls. He was swamped by wordless thought and data flow — magnificent.
The Elusives taught him how to navigate without becoming disorientated. Otherwise, he would have been lost, insane. They directed him towards the perimeter of the realm, a billion-billion light years distant, yet at his fingertips. He turned and faced the wall as they turned away, wishing him luck. The fear he sensed in them of what lay ahead was wholly palpable.
Elam was nervous. He hadn’t shaken that dreadful cold feeling. He pushed on towards the wall, and the gaping rent open to the void.
He saw it.
It was worse than he’d imagined. Explosions of its dangerous fabric spilt over him, singing him with deep-frozen non-energy.
But he was still alive. The void may as well have been water spilling over oil.
The tear was immense, a jagged hole through which large chunks of void had seeped through, mixing with the intelligible world, fizzing where the two forces met. He was alone. No Elusives dared come this close to death. Those that tried had been sucked away into nothingness. Elam held steady and made himself big, sail-like, as he drifted for the centre of the hole.
He reached out, and sought to sew himself to the edges of the torn fabric. Infinite algorithms computed and re-computed as he decided how best to knit the two fibres together, finally creating a bonded substance that repelled the void and made the wall strong again. He continued in a great circle, pulling all his tendrils together to zip up the gap.
He had mended the hole.
Eternity was safe.
He looked around, calming himself and listening for praise but heard and saw nothing. Around him lay darkness. He cried out, but the cry was silent, unreflected.
In his haste, Elam had bound himself to the wall backwards, his multi-dimensional blind side facing into the realm of the Elusives. The rest of him was resting against the void.
It should have killed him, at least rendered him useless with pain. Instead, he felt only mild surprise to discover he was not afraid. He had lived with such a darkness from birth, embraced it and survived. Its nonsensical patterns were familiar. He could manipulate them as he could the world of the Elusives. Unlike them, he was as comfortable here as on the other side. He was alone with his thoughts, unconstrained by the physical or the logical.
He had returned to the womb.
Aeons or perhaps only moments later, the silence was broken by a rasping emanation that didn’t belong in this place, an intruder. It searched for him but was lost. It was terrified but didn’t leave. It had no control. Was this blithering intelligence the thing that had blasted the hole?
Furious, he tried to locate it. Who or what dared interrupt his solitude?
There, half among the realm, half insane in the void, he found a human: Wynall DeSputÈe, the one who had sold him to the Elusives.
Latching onto him like a frightened child, Wynall blurted, “Elam, is that you? You must listen carefully.” The voice of thought was strained, panicky, dizzied. “I only have a few moments, then they will find me. You must come.”
“Come where? I am bound to the wall.”
“No, you are not, only in thought. Your body rests freely here in the Elevator. If you wish, you can free yourself, return to the real world.”
“Why would I do that? Why are you even here? How are you even here?”
“I couldn’t let them take you, not for good. They put you into the Elevator before I had a chance to get you back. The Elusives are evil, self-serving. I want to take you back home, introduce you to the human world, your people. I had to risk coming for you. You are far too important.
“I have entered the Elevator myself, but I maintain a mental connection with my colleagues and they are physically holding me partly out of the light so that I can be retrieved whole… so I hope. You must come now.”
Elam paused to ponder the sudden change of events. He had been led to believe the realm was sacred, open only to the chosen. That a mere human could have reached him so easily seemed to defy this. Yet he didn’t want to betray his owners, who had returned him to the beauty of his own inner mind.
“No. It’s not true,” Wynall barked, apparently able to read his thoughts. “You are a prisoner, an eternal slave here. The Elusives used you because they would not sacrifice one of their own. They have returned you to madness, the horrible state you were in to start with. Come with me and I’ll show you true happiness.”
For a moment Elam felt inclined to give in, then he shook it off. He was an Elusive now, not to be commandeered by a mere mortal. He pulled away, battering Wynall with negative thoughts.
It didn’t work. Elam yelped as the void split into overlapping fragments and dissolved before him. There was a shearing pain that divided his persona ten-fold before re-uniting it, each Elam now marginally unique after that split-second of independence, the layers refusing to meld. Internal conflict slowed his thoughts.
He found himself back in his physical body, eyes stinging in the smoky light. Next to him, Wynall was grabbing at him with both hands, his face baffled and blinded.
More hands dragged at them both until they were pulled free of the Elevator and lay panting on the cold step. Wynall’s men lifted them to their feet and Elam fought against them as they tried to lever him down the steps.
“What are you doing?” Elam yelled at Wynall over the ringing in his ears. “I no longer belong in this world.”
Wynall gave no reply. Suddenly, at the edges of Elam’s blurred vision, Elusives appeared, shimmering patches of black against the light. Their movements were swift and erratic, agitated. They swarmed around the four humans, trying to produce feelings of hopelessness, make them stop.
The effect was strongest on Elam. He felt as though nothing he did mattered and he almost forgot his anger at being removed from the Elevator, yet Wynall and his friends managed to buffet the thought messages and move forward with minimal difficulty. Combined with his already confused mind and a body jittery from being in the Elevator, Elam was weak. The men had little difficulty dragging him along.
The Elusives crowded closer and tried to prevent their exit, but their physical bodies were insubstantial, and their cold touch had no effect. There had been no reason to arrange special security measures to protect the Elevator. The Agency had arrived with Elam voluntarily, and no race would be so rash as to cross the most powerful force in the world. It was unheard of. The Elusives had underestimated both the intelligence and stupidity of humans.
Some alarm sounded, Nuverhanian warriors piled into the chamber. They looked like the surgeons, only broader, with armoured hides. They ran crying towards the humans, wielding a host of vicious tools.
The humans formed a triangle, keeping Elam between them. From inside their robes they withdrew curved wooden clubs, setting them into spinning motion, a blur in their dexterous hands.
The Nuverhanians tried to intervene, but with Elam there, they were unable to risk energy-blasters and every time they approached to attack by hand, the humans fought them off with lightning-quick swipes of their clubs.
The humans forced their way along the wall until they reached the exit, then raced through interconnected corridors and finally through a rubbery ring that led into their interstellar craft, chased all the way by a cohort of warriors. Wynall fought with the first two attackers then leapt in himself and sealed the hatch. Tem and Oschwald flung G-nets over Elam and Wynall, fusing them to the wall, then charged off to prepare for a launch, before nestling themselves in nets. “Hang on everyone,” Tem called out, “we’re going to accelerate hard.”
Almost instantly, the engines fired.
Wynall leaned towards Elam from his own adjacent net, screaming, “This is the best thing that could have happened to you.”
Elam shook his head. He didn’t feel well. He felt something like Wynall looked — pale and nauseated, moisture-beaded, like his insides had been squeezed out through the pores of his skin. “I don’t belong.”
Wynall looked at him intensely. “We can do better with that head of yours than the Elusives. We can develop your mental powers, use them to our own benefit. Imagine the potential of humankind with you under the observation of our most superior scientists. Even the Elusives will be frail in comparison.”
“They will be dead,” Elam corrected, imagining again that rent to the void which must now be gaping open, perhaps larger and sucking away souls right that very instant.
“Leave them to sort out their own problems, eh?”
Elam felt betrayed. He had thought Wynall’s motives genuine, believed he cared for Elam. Instead, Wynall wished to enslave him for his own purposes, no more or less than the Elusives.
Elam’s new body was stronger than a normal human body, and he had regained composure and self-will. With peremptory strain, he broke the grasp of the G-net, and while the three others remained helplessly restrained in theirs, he approached Wynall, grabbing him through the pores of the net.
“What are you doing?” Wynall screamed, struggling uselessly to free himself from Elam’s powerful grip. “Let go. We’re trying to help you. Don’t you understand that?”
“It is you who doesn’t understand,” Elam said. “You’re not even capable.” With one squeezing motion he crushed Wynall’s throat in his hands, cutting short his final gasps.
Tem and Oschwald, witnessing the attack, tried to reach for the controls to stop the acceleration burst so that the nets would release them. Elam forced his way to each man, crushing their skulls in his bare hands, oblivious to their hysterical protests.
Tenderly, he wiped his bloodied hands and moved to the control deck.
He didn’t know what to do. He knew nothing of the world. He thought about the chaos and raw power of the void, wondered why it had been so similar to what he had known before birth, why he was master in both existences.
The answer was staring him in the face: the two were the same. Elam had a latent ability to transcend the physical world, like anyone who entered the Elevator. He was as powerful as the Elusives — more, since he could survive the void. By definition, that made him their enemy. It had almost certainly been his calculations of pure illogic that had severed the Elusives’ wall. He faintly remembered contacting something there, a detestable pattern–sawing straight through it. It had felt good to burst its fabric, like popping a balloon. If the Elusives realised what he had done, they would not let him live.
Suddenly, Elam felt himself being pulled apart, like when he had left the Elevator, only now his separating personas spread through time in both directions, a regression along which he could witness any moment in his life. He felt cries coming from that other world re-opened — Elusives wailing as they were sucked out to blackness. The rent in the wall was unstable and splitting faster than ever.
Time became jumbled up, nonsensical.
It was too much. There was only one place he could be left in peace for eternity. He turned the vessel around and headed straight back towards the world they had just left, increasing speed as he charged towards it.
He felt only a split-second pang of doubt before bracing for the impact that would destroy him. It never came. He sailed straight past, warped space misdirecting him. He looked at the controls and saw that he was traveling at 19.5 c, an impossible speed in real space. The stars had become streamers that concertinaed and stretched alternately, sparking rainbow colours along their lengths.
He saw another way to reach safety. He could return to the Elevator and find that place he knew so well. The vessel’s read-outs were flitting chaotically, unable to read the changing reality surrounding the ship. The vessel began to phase in and out of existence like a virtual particle in the vacuum soup. This made him giddy and he wished it would stop, but there was nothing he could do. The damage to space-time was too great. Neither he, nor the Elusives, had the power to control nature now.
Elam let go of the present and retreated through time to a safer existence, back to the womb, back to darkness.
A million years but only seconds later, he was born. For a split-second there was only a writhing mass of light and white noise. Then he remembered…. *
About the Author: Greg Guerin was born in Adelaide, South Australia, and is still there. He is the editor/moderator of the Australian Science Fiction Forum (http://www.ozscififorum.com), and as a writer has not come to terms with the job of handing out rejections! Greg appeared in the October 2004 issues of Aurealis and Borderlands (the Australian magazine).
(c) 2005 Greg Guerin firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Artist: Romeo Esparrago has his feet on the ground and his head in the Oort Cloud.
(c) 2005 Romeo Esparrago http://www.romedome.com