Old Fashioned Word Association
Nearly a thousand years after the still-ships launched, human eyes first opened to the light of a new star. Back on Earth, super-space relays that had been dormant for a millennium and changed hands seven times within that period clicked and whirred to life. The men who manned them did not build them, in some ways did not even understand how they worked, but still they knew how to work them, and that was enough.
Beneath the cool red light of the foreign star, the still-ship clicked back, dropping infinitesimally small particles of information through infinitesimally smaller holes in reality, slipping past the boundaries of space-time for the Earth computers to draw them back in again, achieving effective speeds that larger matter would never be able to reproduce. The Earth computers heard the cry through oblivion and answered it, funneling it into the minds of men specially trained for just this task, suspended in sensory deprivation chambers designed for just this purpose. The psychonauts, in turn, called back, and their calls were translated into motions by the blank, lifeless androids awaiting onboard the still-ship. And so it was that men whose very races had not existed when the still-ship was built came to live aboard it, and walked, without fear of atmosphere or pathogen, out into the open air of the world called Tantalus.
Gardison, who on Earth was a small man, stooped to avoid the lip of the landing module. The module had suffered some damage in entry, due in no small part, he reasoned, to the age of its design. He ran his bare hand across the dented exterior, marveling and the little tingles of sensation it sent up his arm. This is what it feels like when metal has spent a thousand years in space, he thought. The sensations only came in spurts and waves, interrupted by bouts of numbness, but in many ways it was shocking how well developed the feelings were, given the time of the blank’s manufacture.
"Gyardeesohn,” a voice said behind him. He turned to see another blank lumbering forth from the module. Half of its face projected the thick, dark features of Anbrin Kahlahnee, the project leader. The other half flickered and shuddered around a giant lesion that ran from the tip of its head down to the neck, across the shoulder.
“Jesus, Brin,” Gardison muttered, his own voice coming from the speakers at his blank’s mouth. “The blank’s broken!”
“Nyoh shiszzz.” Brin’s blank didn’t sound anything like him, just a squawk and crackle through a background of static. “Fnucyeh yoozleaz.”
Jan Canah was the next to leave. “It feels weird not having any hair,” she said, running her hand over the blank's bald head. She turned her face to the air, and her projected nose sniffed. “Can you taste that? The salt on the breeze?” Gardison tried to stick out his tongue, but the blank had no tongue to stick out. Instead, he cocked his head from one side to the other, trying to capture the sensation.
“Chemoreceptors must be on the fritz,” he declared at last.
“It’s magnificent,” Jan declared. “Like the salt of the sea, only with this tang… I can’t even describe it.” Gardison shrugged, bending down to run his hands through the loose silt of the ground. He couldn’t quite grasp the consistency, couldn’t quite say how to describe it for the shifting numbness in his fingers.
He looked up to see Brin’s busted half-face leering at him. Neither man said anything, just studied each other’s new bodies. “Thyer shssssod be yun osshunn hyear,” the project leader buzzed. “Wye werr zuhpozhed to have an oshun landuh-ing.”
Gardison hoisted himself to his feet and scanned the horizon. Large rocky formations rose up at irregular intervals from the grey dirt of the plain around them, twisting into strange, multi-branched formations or slumping in small, honey-combed clusters. Other than that, the plain was clear.
“Trajectory could have been off,” he said. “You never know with junk like this.”
Jan shook her head. Her face did look odd without the frame of her long, dark hair, Gardison noted. “You’re always skeptical of this old equipment,” she said, “but I keep telling you, it’s as good as most anything we make today. Trajectory was on target.”
Gardison sighed, a gesture that lacked much of its satisfaction without real lungs. “I know,” he said. “We would have been told if it wasn’t. So what happened to the ocean, then?”
Two days Tantalus-time and seventy-nine earth hours later, Gardison found Jan sitting beneath one of the branched formations, staring out across the plain. “Done a few more tests,” he told her. “The water was here, the whole place covered in water, not more than ten years before the still-ship landed.”
“But it’s gone,” she said, matter-of-factly.
“Indeed. Worse, actually.” She looked up from tracing patterns in the dirt to meet his eyes, the holographic projection of eyes that slumbered in their cocoon a thousand light-years away, closed tightly and sealed in an aqueous cocoon next to hers. “We got readings from the orbiting module. It’s not just here. It’s everywhere. The whole world, gone dry, just like that.” He grabbed her hand. “It’s locked away, Jan,” he said. “Beneath the surface.”
She knitted her eyebrows together. “What?”
“It’s locked away. All the water is locked away. Underground. Tectonic shift.”
Jan shook her head. “It’s funny, isn’t it?”
“What is?” Gardison asked.
She shrugged. “Tantalus. They named it because it was so perfect, so just right for us, and they couldn’t quite reach it. And now here we are, finally touching it, and everything that made it so perfect has just leapt away.”
“We’re not actually touching it,” he reminded her. The intermittent numbness that he had first considered a minor setback had bothered him more and moreover the past two days, till now he could barely stand to touch anything on the alien world. Brin kept to himself entirely now, stubbornly refusing to do anything more than test his failing senses, and he knew that even Jan’s chemoreceptors had kicked out, an unexpected loss that had turned her cheery disposition sour.
“No, we aren’t,” she said. “Less and less every day.” She picked up a flattened stone and handed it to him. “Feel this?” she asked.
He shrugged. Spots of sensation leapt on and off beneath his fingers. “Not really,” he said.
“Me neither. I’ve lost nearly all touch. These blanks are falling apart,” she said. “Pretty soon, they’ll be nothing more than cameras and legs. God only knows how long that will last.”
Gardison passed the rock back to her. “Is that right?” he said.
“Think about it,” she said. “It’s one thing to be locked in a ship in deep space. It’s another to face the wear and tear of life on a planet. Cameras and microphones will last awhile, but the touch sensors, the chemoreceptors, they were all one shot deals.” She put her head in her hands. “We were so close,” she sobbed. No tears leaked out onto her cheeks, just a pained expression that flickered at the edges, showing the dull, lifeless surface beneath. He put his arm around her shoulder briefly, though neither one of them could feel it, neither could take comfort.
“There’s something else,” he told her. She looked up to meet his eyes.“It’s cyclical. The water vanishing. It’s happened before. It’ll come back again.”
“When?” she asked. There was hope in her voice, a strained, hope that begged for release.
He shook his head. “A thousand years, ten thousand, who knows. But it will be back, Jan. And it looks like the wet periods are much longer--”
She held up her hand to stop him. Slowly, she pulled herself up to her feet and raised her head up to stare directly into the light of the red sun. “It’s funny,” she said. “For all the problems with these damn things, you can’t stare straight into the sun on Earth.” She laughed.
He looked up at her. Silhouetted by crimson light, she looked to him like a phoenix in the moment of immolation, basking in the glory of its own death, yet terrified by the uncertainty of rebirth. She turned to him and smiled, the light flickering through the projection of her face. “Maybe I’ll go see what else this thing can do before the piece of junk craps out,” she said. Then she turned and jogged off toward the still-ship.
Gardison stared up at the strange formation above him. The multi-branched top was crumbling, clearly incapable of supporting itself without the buoyancy of water cushioning its weight. Someday, he thought, people would walk here, float over it, dive amidst the growing spirals of alien reef. His work would ensure it. But that day was far away, and he would never live to see it.
Locked away in their aquifers deep beneath the planet’s surface, the waters of Tantalus slumbered.