|Please see the image credits.|
Photography by Jodie and
Marcus Ranum (www.ranum.com).
Ekcolir had been warned and he had known for years that his time with Trysta would end. The pain caused by being taken away from Trysta and their children was tempered by the urgency of other waiting tasks, the unavoidable necessity of getting on with his life. Ekcolir was needed in the past.
Still, for a minute, Ekcolir allowed himself the luxury of thinking about Trysta and the fact that she would follow him into the past. Struggling against all rationality, they had wished and schemed and imagined possible distant futures in which they might once again meet and mingle their lives... if not they, then the artificial lifeforms that they would eventually become.
The door to the bed chamber opened, light flooded in and Grean spoke from the doorway, "Let's go." Her voice rang with impatience "We're on a schedule, here." She immediately turned and disappeared. The door remained ajar.
Thrusting aside his sweet memories of Trysta, Ekcolir rolled off the bed and stumbled. Tar'tron's gravity was not an exact match to Earth's. Warning himself not to jump wildly in response to every order from Grean, Ekcolir squared his broad shoulders and walked out of the bedroom, feeling once more the old sensation of nanofexive clothing assembling to cover his body. As much as he would miss Trysta, Ekcolir was looking forward to being on Tar'tron for a while and enjoying the luxury of its advanced technologies.
Ekcolir quickly found Grean at her work desk, staring into a Viewer. He glanced into the view tank and saw what looked like a freshly sculpted mountain valley, possibly in the Alps. The landscape was typical of high latitudes on Earth during the current glacial era, showing all the signs of recent obliteration of complex life from the valley by glacial action. Grean looked up from her examination of the tank and said, "This is your destination... Earth... 20,067 years ago." She pointed with one long, delicate Kac'hin finger into the tank. "This is the location and time that exactly satisfies the parameters of your mission."
Ekcolir looked dubiously upon the heavy glaciers that clung to the sides of the mountains. "It looks very cold."
Grean waved a hand and the scene changed from winter to summer. The valley floor was now green with vegetation and a dark blue lake glistened in the sunlight. "For much of the year you'll want to remain sheltered against the cold, but that fits perfectly with your mission goal." Grean made the viewer zoom in. Three human figures came into view, walking across the landscape. Grean stopped on one particular still image showing two of the three valley inhabitants: a mother and a daughter. "You'll find that you have no trouble speaking and understanding their language. One of your replicoids has been living with this particular group of Earthlings for the past 5 years. You'll have complete access to that replicoid's memories via the Interface."
Suddenly Ekcolir could put names to the strangers in the image. The mother was Dehla, her two daughters were Behgi and Suem. In a flash of recalled memories, he discovered that he knew well their personalities and all facets of their daily lives. The older daughter was already as tall as her mother.
Instantly Ekcolir felt a strong emotional connection to Dehla and a swarm of false memories flashed into his consciousness. He muttered, "Dehla," and knew that he had been programmed by infites so that he would fall in love with this woman who had died 20,000 years ago.
With her usual bluntness, Grean said, "Yes, your primary target is Dehla, the old cripple." Grean smiled enigmatically and added, "Sorry, but for this mission you ended up with a boring name, basically 'Mr. Smith'."
Ekcolir was puzzled. "I'm a smith, 20,000 years ago?"
"The local equivalent... you are an ereus, so your acquaintances just call you Ereus."
Ekcolir nodded. He had sharp memories of his replicoid pretending to be a scout; exploring and searching for new hunting grounds and new game to feed his tribe. This particular isolated valley had been carefully prepared for Ekcolir's arrival during the preceding century. Soon the growing mountain glaciers would choke the valley and its residents would have to depart and move south, but for a few more years this was a place where Ekcolir could live safely in near total isolation and accomplish his mission.
Ekcolir's replicoid had arrived in the valley shortly after the father of Behgi and Suem had died in an avalanche. At the point in time selected for Ekcolir to take the place of his replicoid, Dehla was expecting him to return from a trading journey that took him over the mountains for several weeks. Artificial memories flooded into Ekcolir's awareness and he knew that from the perspective of 20,067 years ago, the Ereus replicoid had just visited the land of the nearest tribe for the purpose of trading, just as he had done for each of the previous four years.
Grean handed a small vial to Ekcoli. "Smell that."
The vial looked like it had been carved from ivory. Ekcolir opened the vial and sniffed. His nostrils distended and he nearly choked. He quickly re-sealed the vial and asked, "Rotten garbage?"
Grean chuckled mercilessly, "That's what your shelter will smell like after a long winter."
Ekcolir sadly shook his head. "I suppose I'll get used to it."
Grean explained, "If you like, I can specifically ablate some of your olfactory receptors. That will help you be able to achieve your required biological function."
Ekcolir looked at Dehla and used the controls of the viewer to zoom in and achieve a closer look at her features. He asked, "She stinks?"
"It is a matter of perspective." Grean pointed at the image of Dehla. "I could also rewire your brain and make the smell of her cutaneous bacteria trigger your reproductive urges."
"I think you know how I feel about having my brain altered."
"Yes, that is why you've never been told about most of the ways your brain has been sculpted and tuned to mission parameters." Grean shifted the view a short distance up the valley. "Actually, making your brain respond to their body odor as a pheromone is a built-in feature of your femtobot endosymbiont that you can activate at will, if you ever need any help getting your job done." She said rather smugly, "However, I know you well and I've carefully analyzed your tastes in women. I doubt if you'll have any trouble with this mission... it should be easy for you." She flicked her wrist and shifted the Viewer from static mode to active.
Ekcolir was entranced by the view of the valley, now playing out in a kind of high speed time-lapse sequence showing a lovely mountain lake, a flowing stream and the adjacent field of grass, twitching in the breeze.
Grean pointed to a specific spot in the scene. "This is where you will emerge from Eternity at the last jump of the teleportation sequence." Grean bent down behind the viewer and picked up a heavy leather backpack. "And here are the trade goods that you will be carrying." She handed the pack to Ekcolir.
He looked inside the pack, but he already knew what he would find: salt, needles, seeds, nuts, dried fruit, thread, finely shaped points and other tools, all packed in among a mass of heavy fur clothing.
Grean said, "Go ahead and add in the stink vial. You have to slather that potion on yourself as soon as you arrive in the past." She pointed towards the bedroom, "The clothing that you will wear is in the closet. You can change now."
Ekcolir obediently placed the vial inside the backpack, but he complained, "Now? What is the rush? I have a thousand questions!"
"Save your questions. If you have any serious difficulties you can work them out with the assistance of your replicoids. They'll be carefully monitoring your progress." She spoke with amusement in her voice, "Did you really expect me to let you vacation here on Tar'tron? Such a delay would only make your suffering more acute when you arrive in the past."
Ekcolir sighed, knowing that Grean was correct. He slung the pack over his shoulder, turned away from Grean and returned to the bed chamber. He found his 20,000 years old "suit" of clothing in the closet and decided that, taking everything into consideration, his "new" clothes did not stink too horribly. After dressing, he put on the backpack and looked at himself in the mirror. He wondered: was there anything that might reveal him to be a man from the future?
Grean came into the bedroom and asked, "What's taking so long?"
"Well, 'long' is what I'm wondering about." Ekcolir's clothing fit well... it had obviously been made for -and had been worn by- his replicoid. But... "Was there anyone as tall as me on Earth 20,000 years ago?"
"Your target destination on Earth was selected, in part, because of the height of the local residents. Among that particular group, you are above normal height, but not outrageously so." Grean made an adjustment to his shoulder straps. "Dehla is over two meters tall herself. Let's go." She led the way to the sophisticated teleportation platform that was in one corner of her workshop.
Ekcolir stepped up onto the platform, turned, nodded to Grean and disappeared.
Ekcolir arrived beside the crystal blue lake in the unnamed valley, somewhere on Earth. After rubbing the "stink potion" onto his skin, he set out through the thigh-high grass in the direction of the nearby base camp and shelter that he has seen in the Viewer at Grean's workshop. Almost instantly he became oriented in space: the memories collected by his replicoid had all been transferred into his brain... now they bubbled up and entered Ekcolir's consciousness. The smell of smoke arrived on the gentle breeze and soon he could see the camp site and Dehla, who sat basking in the sunshine and sewing.
She noticed his approach and called out a boisterous greeting. Ekcolir had no trouble understanding the new language and he reminded himself that he was now Ereus. Dehla came towards him, hobbling at her best speed on one good leg and the shorter one that had been severely injured in a fall when she was 10 years old. That leg had never healed correctly, but she always managed to get around, if at a slow rate. She put her arms around his neck and gazed up into his face. "I was growing worried! You were away so long..."
"The mountain passes are still deep in snow. Travel was slow up there. Where are the girls?"
"They went off to collect berries." Dehla turned and pointed to a distant hillside. "There."
Ekcolir could see two dark spots on the green hillside. He said, "I wish you wouldn't let them go off like that. I saw two big hungry lions today."
Dehla took him by the hand and they walked into the camp. Dehla explained, "Behgi is no longer a child. She knows how to deal with predators. You taught her well."
Ekcolir took off his pack and set it down next to Dehla's sewing station. He picked up one of her worn needles and said, "You won't be needing this old thing any more." He opened the back pack and showed Dehla the goods that he had brought. She expressed delight at the yield of trade goods, apparently derived from application of his great bargaining skills. After just a minute with her, it became quite clear to Ekcolir that Dehla was seriously infatuated with him. After examining and commenting on each item that she pulled from the pack, she put her arms around Ekcolir and said, "My magical ereus. You are such a good man." She pulled back slightly, looked at him through narrowed eyes and said, "You seem different. Are you well?"
Ekcolir could see in "his" memories that during the past five years his replicoid had always been courteous and polite with Dehla and her two children, treating them like clan members. The replicoid had never been more intimate with Dehla than massaging her bad leg and occasionally kissing her head in a grandfatherly way. Now Ekcolir had his hands on her hips and his fingers had automatically begun to explore her powerful muscles.
Ekcolir knew that his behavioral programming differed dramatically from that of his replicoid. Gazing upon her deeply suntanned face, looking into her sparkling eyes, he felt a powerful sensation of love and sexual desire. He said, "I've been thinking that I should treat you better. If you think highly of me..."
It was a warm summer day and Dehla was wearing very little clothing. He held her close and kissed her mouth, bracing for the taste of her. Ekcolir discovered that she was a strange sort of spicy, both in her odor and the taste of her. In a hot rush of passion, he pulled off her thin tunic and took off his own clothing. Dehla looked towards the hill where her daughters were still at work, collecting berries. She asked, "Here?"
Ekcolir took her by the hand and led her to a nearby soft patch of short green grass and moss. They laid down together and began to explore each others bodies. Dehla said excitedly, "I'd given up expecting and wishing for this! You have changed..."
Ekcolir was pleased that Dehla liked this change she had detected. She'd recognized instantly that Ekcolir was behaving differently than had his replicoid. For just one moment Ekcolir resented the way that Grean had carefully programed them to like each other, but just then he discovered that he didn't care. He briefly wondered if Grean had actually gone ahead and programmed him to respond to her pheromones, but then he forgot about Grean and Trysta for a time. Now Dehla was the only woman in the world... a world that was fresh and new.
Later, they lay together resting and he asked, teasingly, "How have I changed?"
She looked into his eyes and replied, "Your eyes... the way you look at me. I now see hunger in your eyes. The kind of hunger that a man should have..."
He apologized, "I'm sorry that I never shared my hunger and desires with you previously." Ekcolir offered an excuse, "I did not want to horrify your daughters with my actions."
Dehla sat up and looked off into the distance, trying to locate Behgi and Suem. "I don't see them." She stood up and carefully scanned the far hillsides for tiny flecks of motion. "They must be returning to camp. Come! Let's put on our clothing." She pulled him to his feet. "And I want to prepare a feast to celebrate your return."
Soon the two girls arrived back in camp with a heavy load of berries. Behgi and Suem rushed to Ekcolir and threw their arms around him. Ekcolir pulled three finely carved pieces of ivory out of his pocket and gave one to each of them. They each immediately threaded strands of leather through the carved holes in the decorative ivory pieces and wore them around their necks.
The celebration feast was prepared and consumed and then into the night they sat around a fire while Ekcolir spoke about his trip over the mountains to trade with the nearest tribes people. Ekcolir found that he could let his replicoid do the story telling, the artificial life "copy" of Ekcolir speaking through his mouth while Ekcolir thought of other things. He sat next to Dehla and his thoughts were entirely focused on her. They had their arms around each other and they frequently kissed each other.
Behgi looked at Ekcolir with dismay and he realized that she was also infatuated with him. Behgi was the first to leave the fire and go into the shelter. Eventually Suem fell asleep beside the glowing embers of the fire. Under a great sparkling sky of stars, Ekcolir and Dehla quietly made love for a second time.
Ekcolir had not tried to count the days of his new life in the far past, but during that long winter, when Dehla's abdomen began to swell, he guessed that he had probably impregnated her within a few days after his arrival. Grean had left nothing to chance, including the start date of his mission on Earth, a date apparently determined by her ovulatory cycle.
Ekcolir knew none of the details of how the nanoscopic devices inside his body functioned, but they were designed to pass a few of his special Ek'col genes on to any human egg cells that his spermatozoa could reach.
Dehla was delighted by her pregnancy and speculated endlessly on the possibility that she might give birth to a boy.
During that long cold winter, Ekcolir and Behgi both spent much time out in the snow, hunting. Ekcolir did not enjoy being cooped up endlessly in the smoky shelter and Behgi was jealous of the now clearly intimate relationship between Dehla and Ekcolir. She could not dismiss from her thoughts the idea that had slowly grown within her during the past year: that Ekcolir should be her mate.
One stormy day in the spring Behgi went out and did not return before dark. Ekcolir started dressing to go out, but Dehla tried to talk him out of it. "You'll never find her in the dark."
Ekcolir knew that wasn't true. He was certain that his replicoid was watching from the Hierion Domain and could guide him right to Behgi. Dehla added, "She's angry. Behgi thinks that you want her to leave. Next summer she will leave us and go south."
Ekcolir was shocked by the idea. "But she's just a child!"
"No, she's a woman now. She set her heart on you and you treat her like a little girl."
Suem was listening and she spoke up, "I like Ereus, too."
Dehla said to her daughter, "Of course you do. Ereus is your magnificent father and he loves you as his daughter. But remember little one, your true father is dead."
Suem nodded. "Yes, I know. I do remember the other man. I like Ereus better."
"That's because Erueus is wonderful. Who wouldn't like him?"
Suem replied, "I don't know. Behgi told me that his own people must not have liked Ereus. They drove him away and so he came to live here. Lucky for us!"
Ekcolir laughed, "Sometimes I imagine that my own people were mean to send me here."
Dehla asked, "They sent you here?"
Ekcolir realized that he had said the wrong thing. "I was told to scout for new hunting grounds, unknown lands that I might find in this direction."
Dehla groaned and leaned back, her belly protruding. "The baby is stretching!" She had a strange vision of the future: she saw a strong young man with a spear and felt that she was seeing her son in a future time. She patted her taught belly and asked quietly, "Eager to get out and hunt?"
Suem sat next to Dehla and put her hand on the baby. She looked at Ekcolir and asked, "Where were you born?"
Ekcolir decided that he would dose Dehla and Suem with memory erasure nanites and then go out and find Behgi. Since he would soon erase their recent memories, he decided to try a little experiment in truth telling. He told Suem, "I was born far away, but my people could see the future. They knew that I would end up here."
Suem asked in wonder, "Really?"
Dehla admonished him, "Don't fill her head with nonsense!" Still, she wondered if what Ereus said might be true. What of her own visions of the future?
Ekcolir released the memory-editing nanites and they swarmed into the brain of the girl. He told Seum, "Now, my sweet one, it is late. Try to get to sleep."
Suem laid down and was almost instantly asleep, the synapses holding her recent memories being actively identified and those memories erased by the nanites. Dehla put her arms around Ekcolir, but she yawned. Her brain was also being invaded by the memory-altering nanites. With her eyes drooping, she pleaded, "Don't go out. The storm is not over-" Just then a horrible rumbling sound reached them as the warm rain on the mountains triggered a giant avalanche. When the shelter was again quiet, her eyes were closed and she mumbled a confused question, "Do you know the future?"
Ekcolir did not reply. Dehla fell asleep and he laid her among the furs on their sleep platform. Gazing down at Dehla, he muttered, "I must find silly Behgi." He put on his most weather resistant clothing and lit a torch at the fire. Carrying the glowing torch, he pulled open the door of the shelter. Stepping outside into a steady drizzle, he immediately he saw that Behgi was there, not far from the shelter, tramping a small circle in the snow. Ekcolir cried out in surprise, "Behgi! I was just going to search for you."
She pretended to ignore him. She kept marching. She was soaking wet and keeping warm by moving. Another loud avalanche let go. When the world again quieted, Ekcolir said, "Come inside and eat a warm meal."
"I'm not hungry."
"Well, just come inside and get warm."
She kept marching in the circle. Eckolir approached and said, "Behgi, I'm sorry if I've offended you. Please, don't be angry. I do want you to stay here with us. We are a family. Now, come inside."
She kept marching in silence.
Exasperated, he asked, "What do you want me to say? I'm sorry. Tell me what you want. Come inside now, and I'll listen to what you have to say." She started to walk away from the shelter. He followed after her, "I see that you are upset, but let's talk." She kept going. "Behgi, I'll carry you inside." She started running through the wet snow. He quickly caught her and tried to lead her back to the shelter. She kept trying to get away.
Ekcolir dropped the torch in the snow. He tried picking her up, but with her struggling and jerking he could not move well through the wet, deep snow. He set Behgi back on her feet and wrapped his arms around the girl in an effort to keep her from wondering off. Frustrated, he demanded, "Talk to me. Tell me what you want."
She asked bitterly, "Why did you select her?"
Ekcolir knew exactly what she meant. "Listen, Behgi, I love you, too. Like a daughter. Don't you understand that?"
"I understand. You are not my father. I thought you would select me... I'm young and strong and not a cripple."
Ekcolir sighed. "Okay, look... in a few months I'll take you south. You can join the tribes people, find a man who you will love. But now, let's go inside."
Behgi whispered, "I hate you."
Thinking that he was just making things worse by talking to her, Ekcolir prepared to send some of the memory erasure nanites into Behgi's brain. He released her, but then she turned and walked towards the shelter. Inside, Behgi took off her wet clothes and dried herself off by the fire, making an obvious effort to display her strong young body to Ekcolir. Now dry and bundled up in a warm cloak, she ate, occasionally glancing at Dehla.
While the girl ate, Ekcolir described the customs of the tribe living to the south. He let one of his replicoids take control of his speech and this was new information not already loaded in Ekcolir's brain. He listened with interest to what the replicoid was telling Behgi about the various young men who lived within a hundred miles. Behgi seemed to grow angrier the more he spoke. Finally, when she was done eating, she asked, "Why do you want to get rid of me?"
Ekcolir realized that it had been a mistake to let his replicoid tell her stories about other men. He sighed in defeat and said, "You must be tired."
"I am. But I need to talk." Again she looked at her mother. "Was Dehla worried about me? Why doesn't she wake up?"
"She was worried when you stayed out after dark, but she sleeps a lot now. Soon your brother will be here and Dehla will need your help."
Behgi suggested, "Maybe it will be another sister."
Ekcolir had decided once again to dose Behgi with nanites and make her forget the entire past hour. He spoke freely, "You have a brother. He is almost ready to be born." Ekcolir was simply repeating what he had been told privately by his replicoid.
Behgi moved close and knelt in front of Ekcolir. She asked with wonder, "How can you know such things about the future?"
"I know many things because the knowledge helps me take care of you and Suem and Dehla."
Behgi moved very close beside him. "That makes no sense. You taught me about cause and effect." She placed her warm hands on his body and whispered in his ear, "You cause me to want you."
Ekcolir mumbled, "This summer we'll go south... there are many other men there. You will be happy..."
Behgi put her arms around Ekcolir. He glanced over at the sleeping form of Dehla, her large abdomen protruding upward from the sea of fur on the sleeping platform. Behgi followed his eyes and said, "She's old and tired. I'm young and hungry. Have you ever been hungry?" She allowed her cloak to slip off of her shoulder and a small round breast pressed against Ekcolir's right arm.
Ekcolir glanced again at Dehla. He shared some of the hunger that Behgi was feeling, but during the past nine months he had fallen in love with Dehla. He knew that he could make love to Behgi and then put her to sleep and erase her memories. In the morning, all would be as before. Behgi kissed his mouth and climbed on top of Ekcolir. Suddenly he realized that his replicoid was there, in his mind: remember your mission.
Ekcolir suddenly realized there was no reason why his mission should only focus on Dehla. In fact, it would be foolish to drive Behgi away, even if he felt like he was her father and even if he had imagined that a solution to her unhappiness was for her to go south and find another man. He muttered, "I'm a man."
Behgi whispered in his ear, "Be my man."
For a time Ekcolir just allowed himself to relax and enjoy the feel of Behgi's silky hair and strong muscular body. Then he found himself truly inflamed with desire and again Ekcolir wondered if he was being controlled by his replicoid and by Grean; pushed to make sure that he accomplished his mission. Surely Grean had viewed this timeline and seen how events would unfold...
Next: the 2017 Review of Imaginary Book Covers.
|visit the Gallery of Book and Magazine Covers|