Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 15
Body Language
by Mary Robinette Kowal
Lo'ihi Rising
by Geoffrey W. Cole
Sweet as Honey
by Bradley P. Beaulieu
Aim for the Stars
by Tom Pendergrass
Folk of the Fringe Serialization
Pageant Wagon
by Orson Scott Card
Orson Scott Card Audio
Aim for the Stars, by Tom Pendergrass
Read by Orson Scott Card
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Lo'ihi Rising
    by Geoffrey W. Cole
Lo'ihi Rising
Artwork by Dean Spencer

Deep within a comet that slipped through the empty space between Neptune's orbit and the Oort Cloud, Fadid broke two hundred years of concentration to answer an ancient subroutine. The subroutine's message: Lo'ihi breach anticipated in the next week. Fadid took the mental equivalent of a deep breath and synthesized a transmitter, but what could he say? More than twenty-five hundred years had passed since Kabime last responded to one of his calls.

Fadid's increased mental activity alerted one of the comet's other resident artists.

"What do you think you're doing?" Levitz-Prolific said. Though Fadid shared a processing core of three cubic micrometres with six other sentients inside the comet, Levitz-Prolific made the mental space seem infinitely smaller.

"Go back to your poem equations," Fadid said as he completed the amplifiers on the communicator.

"This is a composition retreat," Levitz-Prolific said. "Communication with the outside world is for emergencies only. I don't care how famous you were --"

Fadid squirted his message across the vacuum: "Kabime, I'm coming home. Lo'ihi will be born this week."

The message would take ten hours to reach Earth. It would take even longer to beam his personality home and the transmitter he'd synthesized had neither the capacity nor sufficient encryption to accomplish the task. Only the emergency transit beacon had that kind of power. He'd need help from the comet's other artists and a share of their processing power to operate the beacon.

Fadid sounded the general alarm.

Five other personalities pulled out of their respective composition states.

"I'm in the middle of narrative labour," Hawthorne Maythorpe said, the retreat's leader. "Your interruption risks still birth. Our workshop isn't scheduled for another fifty-three months."

"Apologies," Fadid said. "You'll believe me when I say I have no choice. I need to return to Earth."

"No one can leave until the comet's returned to its perihelion," Levitz-Prolific said. "We signed a contract."

"Shut up, LP," Hawthorne said. "We have an emergency transit beacon for a reason. What's the emergency?"

"Lo'ihi is about to breach."

"The Hawaiian sea mount?" Levitz-Prolific said. "You've interrupted my creative genesis so you can go sightseeing?"

"If you had a face and I a hand, I'd slap you," Fadid said. "Almost seven thousand years ago, I made a pact with someone: if we were both still alive when Lo'ihi breached, we would merge. I've been monitoring the volcano since then, and it is due to rise above high tide in the next few days. I'm still alive. I intend to return to earth to see if she lives too."

"Let me guess," Hawthorne said. "Your ancient muse Kabime is the one with whom you made this pact. I'll lend you my mind for the transit. How about the rest of you?"

The other four personalities grumbled their acquiescence.

"My poems don't derive themselves," Levitz-Prolific said. "I refuse to bend a mind as sublime as mine to such a moronic task ."

"I vote we send Levitz-Prolific back too," Hawthorne said.

The grumbled agreement from the other four personalities was much more enthusiastic this time.

"No!" Levitz-Prolific said. "I paid my dues just like everyone else."

Fadid shut out the poet's pleadings. The rest of the personalities put their minds to the task of packaging Fadid and Levitz-Prolific for transit. While his lesser subroutines were encapsulated, Fadid logged in to an external view port. Beyond the cloud of ice and dust that surrounded the comet, Sol was but a bright star, the planets recognizable by the orbits in his memory. The comet was a lonely place, far from in-system distractions, and the perfect venue to craft his culture opera.

When completed, the culture opera would be unique in the artistic accomplishments of the solar system. For the last two hundred years, Fadid had crafted a virtual world that consisted of a continent-island adrift in a vast sea. Boat-loads of refugees from a distant planet wrecked on the island, and it was their songs that would make the opera. The inhabitants were not yet sentient -- Fadid would invoke the spark of sentience in them when he was ready to perform the opera, and set the island's inhabitants free to live their virtual lives, or migrate into the real world as they chose -- but when they gained sentience, they would live their lives through song. Every conversation would be sung, every private thought accompanied by harmonies of doubt and hope. Their great laments would be for the old planet, the homeland to which they could never return but to which they ceaselessly dreamed of returning.

Those same laments were Fadid's. His lost homeland was a woman, Kabime. But there was a difference. With Lo'ihi about to rise from the sea, he'd been given a second chance to return to his lost home. The unfinished culture opera could wait.

"Will you merge with your muse if she still lives?" Hawthorne said over a private band.

"I can't," Fadid said. "I would lose myself. But I have to go back. She hasn't spoken to me in millennia; this may be my last chance."

"Good luck then," Hawthorne said over the public band. "And good riddance to you, Levitz-Prolific."

The remaining sentients fed Fadid and the protesting Levitz-Prolific into the emergency transit beacon. Fadid retreated to a low-level subconsciousness for the transit. He hated the scattered feeling that came with personality transfer.

When the transit completed and his personality reassembled, he joined the long queue at the Hilo transit station in Hawaii. He wasn't the only one here to see Lo'ihi born. Fadid realized he was whistling one of the themes from his culture opera. He hadn't been this excited in centuries: Kabime could be waiting for him, and to make this fine day even better, he no longer had to share processing space with Levitz-Prolific.

The transit authority apologized for the wait, then showed Fadid the rental models that remained for sentients wishing corporeality: several drones, a humpback whale with a steering problem, a school of fish the authority assured him wasn't bait, a variety of gulls and sea birds, and finally two human-types. The first was a post-menopausal woman who'd been modified for flight, but the authority informed him the tattered wings couldn't carry the model's considerable weight. The second was a young adult male type that bore a strong resemblance to a body Fadid had inhabited for several years during his initial romance with Kabime.

"We haven't had the chance to clean that model, sir," the authority said. "It carries several social diseases that could make your trip uncomfortable."

"Nothing a trip to the autodoc won't fix," Fadid said. "Give me a discount and I'll take it."

The transit authority reconfigured the young male's programming so that only Fadid's base code -- the digital signature that formed the back-bone of his personality -- could operate the rental body's myriad functions, and then Fadid transferred into the body.

He promptly sneezed.

It felt good to be flesh again. He wiped the previous renter's nano-mites from his upper lip and put on the tourist-standard clothes neatly folded beside the stasis coffin. He stretched and followed the steady stream of new arrivals -- drones, sea-birds, a stinking monk seal that pulled itself along its belly -- down the corridor that led to the Old Hilo Town slideway.

When he slid out of the transit station, the slideway pulled him toward a field of granular a'a lava rock dotted here and there with stunted trees and sparse grass. The black rock marked the spot where Hilo used to stand. Thirty-five hundred years earlier, Mauna Loa had erupted, and when the lava flow destroyed every barrier Hilo's civic engineers erected to redirect it, the civic engineers coated the city in a thermo-transmitting nanofilm. As the lava engulfed the town, the nanofilm transmitted heat away from the mostly wood buildings and into the ocean. When the steam cleared, Hilo survived, though buried in rock.

Fadid hadn't returned to Hilo since the eruption, and now he scanned the lava field for the Grand Hilo Hotel. A few buildings poked out of the black wasteland -- the twin spires of the Second Kingdom Palace, the five-pointed steeple of a shrine devoted to an archaic THC ministries holy site, and the roof of the original police station -- ancient buildings that had withstood subsequent earthquakes and eruptions thanks to their protective igneous shell, but if the Grand Hilo survived, it remained below the high lava mark. Millennia earlier at the Grand Hilo, he and Kabime had made their pact. That day had proved another high lava mark: in the years that followed the pact, their relationship cooled until it was nothing but dull rock.

The slideway dipped into an elliptical tunnel in the a'a rock and dumped him in Old Hilo Town proper. Where the slideway ended, dozens of gorgeous young human-types who all wore the same blue and white naval uniform formed a phalanx to intercept the new arrivals. A banner hung over the entrance, in the same blue and white naval theme: "Clairvoy Realty Welcomes you to Hilo." He tried to dodge through the uniformed humans, but he saw Kabime's face everywhere in the sea of beautiful young people, they reminded him of bodies Kabime had worn during their centuries together.

"Interested in owning part of the newest Hawaiian island?" a woman said who had the eyes Kabime had worn during their year-long Antarctic trek.

"Ka?" he said, though he knew the girl couldn't be Kabime. She sounded nothing like the woman he'd loved.

"We use English here," the girl said.

"Sorry," he said, then he realized what she'd asked. "How can you be selling land that doesn't exist yet?"

"Clairvoy MacAvoy will stake the first claim to Lo'ihi when it breaches," she said. "He'll be selling what he claims to the highest bidder."

"What if someone lays a claim before this MacAvoy?"

"Where've you been the last hundred years?" the girl said and laughed. "First of all, it's Clairvoy. He doesn't go by his family name. Second, well, why don't I just show you. Will you share perspective with me?"

He consented and a perspective window opened between them that showed a gull's-eye view of the steaming ocean.

"Lo'ihi is only a few metres below the surface," the girl said. "At the rate the lava's solidifying, our volcanologists predict breach sometime tomorrow afternoon or early evening. See those sharks? Those are Clairvoy's. The drones too. He's had a security crew at Lo'ihi for the past twelve hundred years. For the last hundred, only the volcanologists have been allowed to the sea-mount itself. No one will stake a claim before Clairvoy."

The sharks looked impressive, as did the scores of hunter drones that floated a few metres above the surface. Zeppelins and lattice-wings patrolled the upper elevations, but it was what swarmed around the sharks that terrified Fadid. He'd seen sentient-hunting krill in action during a pirating incident in the Philippines. One of the pirates had fallen into krill-laden waters, and the arthropods devoured his body in minutes. It took months to extract the pirate's sentience, which the krill had put into forced stasis, a pseudo-death that left the mind trapped unaware within itself. The waters around Lo'ihi frothed with the tiny arthropod hunters.

"He's sure that's enough?" Fadid said.

"Nothing short of a nuclear strike will take Lo'ihi from Clairvoy," the girl said. "You can buy your share of the new island at the auction tonight. Will we see you there?"

"That depends on the hors d'oeuvres," Fadid said, and pushed past the girl.

He had to find Kabime, if only to have someone to share in the joke. This Clairvoy had enlisted an army to guard his Lo'ihi, but Fadid and Kabime beat him to the punch six millennia earlier.

Fadid strolled beneath ancient Japanese fishing bulbs that lit Hilo's lava tunnel streets. After Mauna Loa's great eruption, the civic engineers tunneled through the black lava rock to expose the buried buildings, and those tunnels now formed Hilo's streets. As he walked, hawkers offered him tours to Lo'ihi by whale, squid, blimp, and ornithopter. He ignored dozens of other junk-merchants, save the merchant who sold him a bottle of papaya wine, which he drained before he arrived at the Grand Hilo Hotel. The hotel was full, but Fadid offered the clerk a bribe large enough to evict the current tenant from the room he and Kabime had shared during his last visit.

When they'd stayed at the Hilo Grand those millennia past, the room had offered a stunning view of the rain forest, ocean, volcanoes, and the lazy city. The room offered to recreate the views, but Fadid preferred the black rock that now filled the windows; he could live in his memories instead.

Kabime had first suggested they merge in this room, to which Fadid had originally agreed. It was only after the two of them finished constructing the processing cores in which their new, combined personality would reside that Fadid had lost his nerve. He loved Kabime, but he would lose himself by melding his personality with hers. In this same room, he'd told her he couldn't merge, and had proposed the pact instead: if they still lived when Lo'ihi rose from the sea, they'd merge then.

As he had those millennia past, he still couldn't bear the thought of losing himself, but neither could he bear the thought of life without Kabime.

He checked his messages. One from Hawthorne, a few from fans of his music, and a brief text note from Kabime. Her first response in centuries. His body grew warm at the thought.

"How's the view?" Kabime's message said. "If I know you, you're sitting in our old room in the Grand. Always the sentimentalist, weren't you Fad? I can't believe you came back. In fact, I won't believe it until I see you. If you have returned, meet me tomorrow at the north end of the Bayfront Beach. I'll be in the water past the north point."

The message ended with an encrypted code to which he could send her a direct message. Before he quite realized what he was doing, he connected to her over a private band.

"I said tomorrow," she said. She sent text only, but he could hear the way she spoke the words. Still, he didn't know what to say. How long had it been since their last conversation? He'd composed decades of poetry, songs, operas, librettos, soundscapes, and eulogies that mourned the loss of the love they'd had, but now that they were connected, words escaped him.

"Silence is the last thing I expected from you," she said.

"You were right," he said. "I'm in our old room."

"Returned to the scene of the crime," she said.

"Something like that," he said. "You know they're planning on selling Lo'ihi, don't you?"

"I haven't been in stasis the last five hundred years," she said.

"But if our sentience seeds are still there they won't be able to sell a square millimetre of the island," he said.

"It's been seven thousand years," she said. "Who knows if our seeds survived?"

"I have to see you," he said. "We need to talk about this."

"We will," she said. "Tomorrow."

"Just tell me where you are," he said. "I'll be there as soon as I can."

"I've told you where I'll be," she said. "That's all you'll get. I have to go, Fad."

She cut the connection.

He stopped himself from re-connecting. His hands vibrated, the rental heart pounded in his chest, and the pressure in his bladder brought tears to his eyes. He tried to remember what was so great about flesh. Washroom technology had evolved somewhat since he'd been away, and he had to ask the room for instructions while his bladder continued to throb. The room was halfway through its explanation when Fadid lowered his shorts, picked a polished device, and released his bladder into it.

A wildfire started where the stream left his body and burrowed inwards. Fadid howled before he shut off the pain feedback loop. He consulted his body's diagnostic software, which reiterated that the transit authority hadn't had the chance to clean out the social diseases the rental body carried. When the wildfire ended, he ran down to front desk.

"Where is the nearest autodoc?" Fadid asked the hotel clerk.

"We have one in the basement, sir. Shall I book an appointment?"

"This is an emergency."

After another substantial bribe, the clerk ejected the autodoc's current client -- a sentient wearing a rental housecat body with a pair of torn ears -- and Fadid slid into the chromed chair and endured the various probings and manipulations of the autodoc.

"I've taken care of most of your ailments, sir," the autodoc said. "But I can do nothing for the venereal infection."

"Doctors could cure VDs before a single machine could think," Fadid said. "Surely an advanced automaton such as yourself can handle a bit of burning pee?"

"Schindler's Convention, sir," the autodoc said.

"My VD is sentient?" Fadid said.

"And as such, protected by the tenants of the convention. No sentient may kill another. No sentient may enslave another. No sentient may evict another sentient from their lawfully inhabited home. No sentient --"

"I know the law," Fadid said. He broadcast the next over the public channel. "Who's riding my balls?"

"What poetry, what dignity!" Levitz-Prolific said. "I am truly in the presence of the greatest artist of this or any other millennia. Fadid the Longing. Fadid the --"

"Can you euthanize me?" Fadid asked the autodoc. The chrome chair offered several auto-termination options, but Fadid leapt out of the seat and ran up the stairs, all the while blasting messages to the bacteria within.

"Hawthorne and the others sent you back here, Levitz-Prolific, not me. I don't know what you're planning by pulling this little stunt, but I'll pay you whatever it takes to get out of my body."

"I was in the middle of a most incredible genesis," Levitz-Prolific said. "My poem-equations were poised on the brink of greatness, metaphor described through algorithms that breathed with the very meaning of the universe. Then my concentration was broken by a washed-up artist who couldn't let go of the past, and I was forced from the womb, and sent along with the washed-up artist himself. After a bit of financial lubrication, the transit authority was kind enough to offer me one of his substandard models, and I accepted. My plan is simple, Fadid. I will do what my body wishes to do -- colonize yours -- and along the way, I hope to make your life as miserable as you've made mine."

"This could be the last chance I get with the woman I've loved for longer than you've been alive," Fadid said.

In response, Levitz-Prolific hummed the opening bars of Fadid's culture opera.

"You were supposed to delete that," Fadid said. The bacterial poet continued to sing an older version of a song Fadid had since revised. During a workshop meeting in the comet months earlier, Fadid had sent a draft version of his culture opera to the other artists; Levitz-Prolific must have saved his copy. Fadid shut out the radio frequency on which he sang, then the microwave channel the poet adopted, then the resonant signal the bacteria set up in his rental body, and a slew of other communication pathways that broadcast a bastardized version of his opera. There was a brief moment of silence, and then his culture opera, the work he'd spent two hundred years composing to win Kabime's heart, began to trickle in via intracellular transmission. Every single cell in Fadid's rental body contained nano-mites that housed a portion of his personality, just as every cell in Levitz-Prolific's bacterial culture contained the nano-mites in which his sentience sat. Where the nano-mites had direct contact, Levitz-Prolific issued a steady stream of information packets Fadid could never ignore. The poet was a buzz in the ear that wouldn't go away.

"Go nova, Sol, and free us all from your tyranny," Fadid said. "I need a drink."

Back out in Hilo's tunneled streets, he bought two bottles of papaya wine, stuffed one in his pocket while he drank the other. He wandered the streets for a while, trying to pass the time, but tomorrow would come no sooner and his opera continued to sound off-key inside his gonads.

Preoccupied as he was, Fadid walked with the steady flow of foot, belly, pseudopodia, and wing traffic that moved through Hilo. It wasn't until the Polynesian architecture of the Second Kingdom Palace loomed over the heads of the crowd, revealed in a giant bell-shaped chamber excavated in the surrounding lava, that Fadid realized where the crowd had taken him. The site of the Lo'ihi real estate auction.

Fadid followed the crowd through the palace's great double doors. Clairvoy Realty public perspective windows hung in the air beneath the bamboo timbers, and the windows looked in on what the realtors imagined life should look like on Lo'ihi. Homes floated above lava floes. Where the molten rock met the sea, spas were constructed, in which Lo'ihi's residents basked in salt-steam baths. Children with butterfly nets caught Pele's tears -- airborne pieces of glassy lava-rock.

At the end of the great hall that led to the old King's audience chamber, the realtors had captured a tank full of molten Lo'ihi. The lava boiled in a transparent half-cylinder four metres long and a metre in diameter. Sentients of all shapes and sizes thronged about the tank , entranced by the liquid version of a material that was typically only encountered in its solid form.

The lava entranced Fadid for different reasons.

Seven thousand years ago, during that first dive to Lo'ihi, he and Kabime had considered themselves junior volcanologists, and had developed nano-mites that could survive within the heat of Lo'ihi's core and report back what they experienced. Later, when Kabime suggested they merge, it was Fadid who'd chosen the vessel for the theoretical personality that would result from their union: they would inhabit Lo'ihi herself. They modified the nano mites so that they could survive indefinitely in the lava, and expanded the mite's processing capabilities so they could host a new sentience that was a merger of both their personalities.

They'd injected the modified mites into Lo'ihi, but then Fadid lost his nerve and suggested the pact instead of the immediate merger. Though he knew something died in their relationship the moment he suggested the pact, the two of them prepared the nano-mites so Lo'ihi would be ready for their merger when she rose to the surface. They encrypted the mites with their own base codes, the string of binary numbers as unique as a human's genetic code, so that no one else could access the mites. To further ensure the seeds weren't detected or hacked, they shut down all the communication devices in the mites save direct, intracellular communication like that Levitz-Prolific used to communicate with the tissue of Fadid's rental body. Locked-up as they were, the devices were no longer true mites, they were mindless vessels that he and Kabime took to calling sentience seeds: one day, a mind would grow within.

As the seeds were deaf to every form of communication save intracellular, Fadid would have to inset a portion of his rental body into the lava to determine whether their sentience seeds had survived the millennia. But he couldn't do it yet. There were too many sentients milling around the lava-tank, he would attract too much attention. Instead, he followed the crowd into the King Kamehama the Seventh's audience chamber.

Beneath bamboo beams as wide as his rental body was tall, Fadid joined hundreds of sentients who waited for the auction to begin. The Realty people had decorated the room with the same white and blue naval motif and more perspective windows hung against the wall displaying scenes from their version of life on Lo'ihi.

When the crowd's grumbling reached some pre-calculated threshold, King Kamehama's old throne slid backwards, and a purple man rose out of a trap door where the throne had been. This must be Clairvoy, Fadid thought. He'd dyed his skin a regal violet, and on his head, yellow, red, orange, and green feathers sprouted in the place hair should have been. Other than the feathers, he wore only a thin loincloth in the white and blue naval theme. Fadid felt overdressed.

"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome," Clairvoy said. "I knew you'd come. You see my mother gave me my father's name; he too was Clairvoy, and yes, he saw me coming. I've inherited his gift for future-gazing, and let me tell you what I see heading you way: the most glamorous piece of real estate in the solar system. An infant Hawaiian Island, for you to raise as your own. Tonight, we'll be selling choice pieces of Lo'ihi, who is scheduled to rise above high tide around sunset tomorrow. It won't be cheap, people; I've foreseen that much. Without further ado, let the bidding begin!"

He clapped his hands and reclined back in the old king's throne. The auctioneer took his place, a thin man dressed in a sensible business toga, who described the bidding process: over the next twenty decades, Clairvoy's volcanologists predicted a twelve hectare growth per year, which would increase to fifty hectares in about twenty-five years. After one hundred years, the predictions grew less reliable, though the auctioneer promised constant growth for several millennia. The auctioneer only offered properties scheduled to form in the next hundred years.

The first properties up for auction would emerge as waterfront in five years, but would be landlocked in ten. They sold for what Fadid earned in five hundred years.

Fadid drank his papaya wine as the bidding continued. The spectacle was one he'd seen too often in his long years; the natural beauty of the world carved up and portioned off to the highest bidder.

When a fifty-year ocean-front property sold for what it would cost to buy a small city on Mars, he laughed and spat wine across an annoyed orangutan's back. He took that as his cue to leave.

On the way out, he stopped at the lava tank. Fadid wiggled his rental fingers, assigned random numbers to them, then picked the unlucky digit and dipped the tip of his middle finger into the lava.

He squeaked before he turned off the new pain feedback loop.

Then he made contact with the seeds.

"Are you all right?" said the same Clairvoy Realty girl who'd greeted him at the entrance to Hilo.

"Just fine," he said.

"Are you sure? Your finger is sitting in a pool of lava."

"Oh!" Fadid said. He pulled his finger out, which now ended in a flat, cauterized wound which pulsed and throbbed in a manner that should hurt a very great deal. "I keep my entire pain feedback system shut down when in the flesh. Can't bear the sensation, to tell you the truth."

"You've seriously injured yourself," the girl said. "Let me call you one of our medical drones."

"I'll be fine," he said. He had to leave the palace so he could think about what he'd learned in the brief communication. The seeds had evolved since he and Kabime had sown them there. They thrived in the molten rock and had multiplied so fully that they extended to every cubic micrometer of the stuff.

"The drone won't take long," the girl said. "You aren't the first tourist to burn themselves."

A pink sphere the size of a cantaloupe floated over to them and opened like a flowering rosebud. Fadid put his finger into the opening, which closed around his finger. He felt a sucking sensation and heard a faint whirring as the drone went to work.

"You've got to be more careful," the girl said. "At least have your rental body inform you when it's damaged."

"Your finger is knitted," the drone said. "However you appear to have a rather brutal bacterial infection in your gonads. Shall I take care of that too, Fadid?"

"Fadid?" the girl said. "As in Fadid, the singer? Fadid the Longing? The unrequited lover-minstrel?"

"Guilty," he said. "But please don't make a fuss about it."

"Of course not," she said. Her eyes grew bright. "Take me out for a drink."

"Didn't you just hear the drone?" he said. "I've got one bitchy VD."

"Who cares," she said. "You're Fadid. Sing me a song, one of those songs you wrote for the woman who left you."

"She didn't leave me, we just kind of drifted apart," Fadid said. The girl looked skeptical. "I'm sorry, but I really can't stay."

"Didn't you come for the auction?" she said.

"It's not quite what I expected," he said.

"Beyond your means?" she said.

"Not to my tastes would be more accurate," he said. "Thank you for healing the finger, but really, I must run."

The girl watched as he hurried out of the Second Kingdom Palace.

"Does no one have any artistic sensibilities these days?" Levitz-Prolific said. "She was tripping over herself to talk to you, and you haven't had a hit since those silly song-scapes you wrote fifteen hundred years ago. She wouldn't be able to grasp the most obvious meaning in my poem-equations."

"What poem-equations?" Fadid said. "You haven't published anything."

A sudden cramping in his bladder made Levitz-Prolific's answer, and an off-tune song from the culture-opera started again. He regretted his words as he filled a flower box in the alley behind the palace, then bought more papaya wine from a street vendor.

"You're really going to impress her, aren't you?" Levitz-Prolific said. "Wine-breath and a venereal disease. No one has ever said I love you with more elegance."

"Won't you shut up?" Fadid said, but it was impossible to ignore the bacteria-poet's words.

The papaya wine helped. After several more bottles, Fadid climbed back to his hotel room and discovered that gravity had been obliterated therein: the room seemed to spin about its own axis in a most sickening manner. While Levitz-Prolific taunted him for his drunkenness, Fadid crawled under the bed covers. Tomorrow, he'd see her again. For the first time in two and a half millennia.

He awoke to his internal alarm and remembered why flesh could be such a pain: the hangover stuffed his mouth with sand and his head with mud. Night and day were only different settings on the glass fishing bulbs suspended in the lava tubes, but when he slid out from beneath the rock, the world seemed brighter than it should be. A different slidewalk took him to the edge of town, where he borrowed a communal bicycle and pedaled to the Bayfront beach.

The waters reflected the too-bright sun. Hilo's civic engineers had installed wave dampers around the city and her suburbs after the San Andreas tsunami had obliterated much of the town, and the dampers, which could absorb any magnitude wave, appeared to be set on glassy calm that morning. Fadid rented a gill-pack and flippers, slid into the ocean, and swam to the rocky point at the north end of the beach. Small, non-sentient fish clustered around lava and coral formations beneath Fadid, and a sentient eel told him to keep away from its breakfast. Other marine critters sent greeting, none of them Kabime.

Levitz-Prolific sang the mariner's theme of his culture opera while Fadid waited.

"I guess I have to believe it," Kabime's voice poured in over a private band. "You're here."

She appeared from the blue limit of his underwater vision. A sea turtle, her shell at least five metres across, she thrust through the water on flippers longer than his rental body. Barnacles covered her shell in rows and spirals, like pre-Gutenberg Greek frescoes.

"This is the Kabime who spawned a thousand songs?" Levitz-Prolific said. "A mouldy turtle?"

"You're looking great," he said to Kabime.

"Wish I could say the same for you." she said. "You realize you're carrying a disease that will leave your body quite sterile and eventually quite dead if you don't do something about it, don't you?"

"Don't get me started," he said. "I would have done something about the disease, but let's just say someone's throwing a temper tantrum in my gonads."

She laughed.

"You always surprised me, Fad," she said. "Why don't we go for a swim. Hold onto the crest above my neck."

She was the size of a nation-threatening asteroid. A thrill flowed through him as he brushed her cool, soft shell: for centuries, he'd lamented in song and verse that he might never touch her again. He wanted to weep for the joy of it, but he couldn't be sure she felt the same, so instead, he opted for small-talk.

"How long have you been a turtle?" he said.

"I've been this turtle for near sixty beachings," she said.

"Beachings?" he said.

"Turtle-talk," she said. "We measure time in return trips to the beaches where we were born, usually two to three standard years. I've been this turtle for one hundred and forty-three years in my case. Before that, I was this turtle's mother; and earlier, her grandmother. I spent a lifetime as a right whale, but they are frightfully stupid. Can you imagine singing the same song for a century? Dull, dull, dull."

"Only one hundred?" he said. "I've been working on a culture-opera for the last two hundred, and I was never bored."

"Some new song-project you'll send to me?" she said.

"More than just a song," he said. "When it's done, the virtual world I've created will be populated by an entire society engaged in a living opera that spans the dawn and demise of their culture."

"You mean a socio-song-series," she said. "I took one in for a few months when I was a hatchling. Interesting idea, but a bit drawn-out, don't you think?"

He couldn't respond. He'd thought he was the first to conceive of a culture-opera. All those decades of work, and all of it for her, suddenly seemed laughable.

"I never thanked you for those landscape-songs you wrote for me," she said. "They were lovely. They reminded me of those years we spent on the archaeological dive in the Mediterranean. I know this comes a little belated, but, well, thanks."

He'd composed and rendered the song-scapes fifteen hundred years earlier. They'd been a minor hit in the Galilean communities orbiting Jupiter.

"Why wouldn't you meet me last night?" he said.

"I was at a going away party," she said.

"Who was the party for?"

"Didn't your friends want to say goodbye to you?"

"Oh," he said. The fresco of barnacles across her back snagged the flesh of his belly.

"So you didn't come to keep our pact."

"I came here for you," he said. "Not some stupid pact we made thousands of years ago."

"I never thought it was stupid."

"That's not what I mean," he said. "You didn't really come here expecting to merge with me, did you? You haven't returned any of my comm-calls for the last two millennia."

"I've been busy."

"Doing what, eating algae?"

"Migrating, reproducing, being a turtle," she said "That includes eating algae." Her great flippers pulled them up to the choppy surface. She exhaled a stinking cloud of old air and took a breath that sounded like a bucket filling. "You gave me no reason to respond to any of your calls."

"How can you say that?" he said. "I begged you to join me in so many of the places I made home after we made the pact. You wouldn't come to me."

"The ocean's always been my home," she said.

"You've never left the ocean, in all those years?" he said.

"This is the only place I've ever been happy," she said. "Those centuries we spent together, decades as dolphins, months as sponges, years as octopi, those were the best. The oceans are big. I thought if I kept looking, I could find something like it again."

He'd been searching the solar system for it too, those lost moments they'd had together. The dolphins had been marvelous, but the years as amphibious human had been equally delightful, even the months they'd spent as clams had been joyous, chasing each other across Lake Huron in a huge, slow game of tag.

"Do you really want to merge, just because of an old pact?" he said.

"I don't know," she said. "I told myself, if you were willing to do it, I'd do it too, but now, even if you said you would . . . I'm not even sure we could do it. Who knows if our sentience-seeds are still there?"

"What if they were still there?" he said. "Would that change your mind?"

"It's been so long, Fadid."

"Couldn't we try living together, go on all sorts of adventures like we used to?" he said.

"After seven thousand years, what adventures remain?"

She was right. Most sentients chose death or stasis after only a few thousand years. In his time, he'd seen most of what the solar system had to offer, but during all those trips, the wonders of the solar system -- Europa's globe-spanning ice-covered ocean, Neptune's hazy ring, the distant Oort cloud with its silent, brooding comets -- had seemed empty without her there to share them with. Extra-solar probes continued to reach new star systems, and they could explore one of those systems together, but the infrastructure in the new systems was microscopic, buried within the probes or the small stations the probes constructed. Corporeality wasn't possible outside the solar system. They could dive into one of the millions of virtual worlds that different sentients and collectives had created over the millennia, but they'd both already spent decades in virtual worlds. They could always opt for stasis, and return to full consciousness after several millennia and explore the new world that had evolved in their absence, but the last few millennia had been filled with cosmetic changes, nothing fundamental. He had little hope for the next few thousand years.

"This is delightful," Levitz-Prolific said. "The great lovers can barely talk to each other. I can't wait to broadcast this system-wide."

"You wouldn't dare," Fadid said to the poet-turned-parasite, but then Kabime banked in a wide arc, and paddled back the direction they'd come.

"Where are you going?" Fadid said.

"What's the point?" she said. "Neither of us is willing to go through with this."

He couldn't let her go. Not after so long. He clung to the crest of her shell and said: "Let's go on one last adventure before we say goodbye. Let's go to Lo'ihi and see it, with our own eyes, one last time."

After a long pause, she said, "Okay."

She turned again and they swam in silence a few metres below the surface of the Pacific. The ocean here was deep blue; they saw nothing larger than phytoplankton for most of an hour. He could almost believe it was seven millennia earlier. They'd both been so young then. He just approaching his first millennia when they met, she two hundred and two years young. For seven hundred and sixty years after that, they'd been together. Their friends at the time all thought they were crazy. No one stayed together that long, not even when they spent months and years apart on their own projects. But those sabbaticals never lasted long; they always returned to each other, two stars caught in each other's gravity. Only after Fadid refused to merge with her did their orbits start to drift, until millennia passed in which they'd never been in the same room, real or virtual. Those years seemed senseless now; why would he ever willingly spend time away from her?

"Have you noticed the hunter-krill count?" she said. "It's rising. They are only monitoring us, but they let me know we are nearing the one kilometre exclusion zone. They won't let us go any further. Let's see what we can see."

She surfaced in warm water. Halfway to the horizon, the ocean gave birth to a new island. Steam and ash hung in a long plume that extended to the southwest, and obscured the view of the sea-mount itself. The waters swarmed with boats, shark and whale fins, flying fish, and drones. A massive air-ship floated north of them and from its hanging decks, hundreds of sentients crowded for a view of the nascent island.

One of the boats motored toward them, the Clairvoy Realty girl at the controls.

"You again?" Fadid said.

The girl cut the motor a few metres from the place Kabime bobbed and drifted in toward them.

"We keep bumping into each other," the girl said. "Maybe someone wants us to be together. I like your ride."

"She's not the fastest," he said. "But you know what they say about slow and steady. Could I get any closer to the Lo'ihi?"

"Sorry," she said. "We expect breach in a few hours; Clairvoy can't risk anyone else laying claim to his little project. Maintaining a security watch for twelve hundreds years is expensive, you know."

"I've seen enough anyway," Kabime said over a private band. "I'll take you back to the beach, unless you want to stay with this bimbo."

"Hold on a minute, Ka," he said. Kabime dove beneath the surface and shook him off.

"Goodbye, Fadid," she said.

She swam faster than he could, and in a few moments, she disappeared into the blue limit of his underwater vision. She was gone. Fadid felt like he was drowning, though his gillpack told him it was working fine. Fadid climbed to the surface, but the ocean air still left him breathless. The Clarivoy girl bobbed a few metres away.

"I've come from beyond Neptune to see this," he told the girl, and copied the signal to Kabime's private comm line. "How much will it take to get closer?"

"You saw what people bid for the properties last night," the girl said. "Think ten-year ocean-front, and I might be able to do something."

Fadid forwarded half of the funds he'd socked away in the last few millennia. "How close will that get me?"

"As close as you want," the girl said. "Use this greeting code. The security crew will think you're one of Clairvoy's volcanologists."

"What are you doing, Fad?" Kabime said privately.

"I touched Lo'ihi's lava last night," Fadid said over the private band. "Our sentience-seeds survived. Once we unlock them, they'll be ready for us. I'm going to give them my code."

"Don't play games with me," she said.

"It's no game," he said. "Another thousand years without you would be unbearable, Kabime. Another day without you seems about as bleak as a vacation to Charon. Since we split, I've spent millennia trying to get you back. I won't do it again."

The waters grew warmer with each stroke. Sharks swam towards him, but he sent them the code the girl had given him and the sleek killers turned away. The krill that frothed about him sent constant demands for the same code and the fact he could still think proved the code worked.

An alarm sounded in his skull. His body's manufacturing facilities were sub-standard at best, but he set them to work extruding a thermofilm to protect his skin from the increasingly hot water.

"Maybe we can try something," she said. "You could be a turtle with me for a while. What you're doing is crazy, Fad. The krill will rip you apart when they realize what you're trying."

"Listen to the turtle," Levitz-Prolific said from his reproductive organs.

"Leaving you was crazy, Ka," Fadid said. "This is sane."

The Clairvoy Realty girl followed in her boat. The water grew hot enough to boil him into a tasteless, disease-filled soup, but his thermofilm bled off enough heat to keep his skin from cooking. In the haze of steam and ash, he couldn't see where he was going, so he relied on his internal sonar to guide him toward the mount.

"Don't do this," Kabime said. "I can't lose you again."

"Then come with me," he said.

"So melodramatic," Levitz-Prolific said.

The heat-bleeding film along his arms registered critical levels, then failed. His arms poached, though he felt no pain. The rental body informed him his contract was voided and that he'd be responsible for all the repairs the body suffered.

"You'll kill us both," Levitz-Prolific said.

A wave pushed him against recently-solidified rock. His senses were pulverized by the heat, ash, steam, and roar of boiling water and rock, so he used his cooked hands and feet to find his way. When his hand plunged into molten rock, the flesh burned down to bone, and he contacted the sentience-seeds.

The seeds filled the lava, fed off it, merged with it, the seeds were the lava, the lava the seeds. More than enough seeds to house millions of sentiences, maybe more. All they needed were both their base codes.

Fadid transmitted his code to the sentience-seeds.

A microscopic scum sat between the cells of his body and the sentience seeds. The scum didn't block the transmission, it couldn't -- Fadid had direct contact with the sentience-seeds through the bones in his hands -- but his base code transmitted through the scummy film.

"Half of what I need," the Clairvoy girl said over a private band.

The girl had followed him to Lo'ihi. Fadid tried to log into the public camera drones observing the scene to get a better view of what she was doing, but something blocked his wireless transmissions.

"My mother named me Clairvoy for a reason," the girl said. "I make a living by seeing what's coming. You didn't really think that ridiculous purple creature was me, did you?"

Fadid tried to shout a warning to Kabime, but his comm links was blocked as well. Clairvoy had him. It was her scum that had sat between him and the sentience seeds; he'd given her his base code, and with it, she could control most of his exterior interfaces. She couldn't control his thoughts or his base personality processes, but she could play him like a puppet.

"It's working, Kabime," Clairvoy said with Fadid's voice. "The Realtor's guards won't hurt you; use this security code."

The krill in the water swarmed over him, but it didn't digest him. Instead, the krill stabilized his wounds and secreted a heat-bleeding film over his remaining flesh, while at the same time, the sentience seeds opened and drew his personality into the fertile processing core that had waited millennia for a sentience to fill it.

"What the bug is happening, Fadid?" Levitz-Prolific said from inside the rental body. With his base code, Clairvoy could control most of his functions, but not even that kind of access could block intracellular transmissions.

"The realtor's got me," Fadid said. "How could I have been so blind?"

"I've wondered for centuries who'd planted those seeds and whether anyone would come claim them," Clairvoy said. "I couldn't hack into the seeds, I couldn't destroy them either -- you built them well -- and though they didn't do anything, there they sat, an Achilles heel that could bring down all my ambitions. Then you fell for my lava-bait in the palace. I was genuinely surprised that it was you, Fadid the famous songwriter, who'd built those sentience seeds, but then it made sense. So many of your songs refer to islands, and the sea, and the woman below the waves. There had to be two of you. And here you both are."

The realtor opened a perspective window in which Kabime swam through ash and steam. When she arrived at the seam mount, she pulled her great body up onto the rock and placed one of her fins over Fadid's boiling body.

"Some kind of spy agent sits between me and the seeds," Kabime said. "I won't transmit my base code through that."

"Yes you will," Clairvoy said through Fadid. The krill that had until then preserved his failing body now began to dissolve it. The krill frothed green as it devoured Kabime too.

"Stop that," Kabime said. "I'll report you."

"You were both warned," Clairvoy said. "Your bodies will be dissolved and your sentiences put into stasis until such time as I see fit to release you, which will probably be when Lo'ihi returns to the sea in a few million years. I've already written a suicide letter with Fadid's ID stamped on it that should satisfy any investigation. Of course, you can prevent all that nastiness if you just give me what I want."

"My base code," Kabime said. "Why should I trust you? You'll destroy us both if I give it to you."

"Not destroy," she said. "Merely imprison. The two of you want to inhabit Lo'ihi, I'll give you a piece of my island. A very small piece. With your codes to unlock them, I can destroy your seeds, but I'll leave a few in the deepest part of Lo'ihi. You'll never be permitted to escape, but it's a better offer than indefinite stasis, isn't it?"

"You'll leave us in peace," Kabime said.

"Of course," Clairvoy said. "I only want to protect my investment. Now give me your code.

The turtle stopped thrasing even as its red blood leaked out into the boiling sea. Trapped as he was within his own body, Fadid still felt the sentience seeds open when Kabime transferred her base code. The sentience seeds metamorphed into true nano-mites, and they were thirsty for a sentience to inhabit them. Clairvoy allowed Fadid to pour his personality into the seeds. Kabime joined him. They were still separate, but now they could communicate directly.

"I'm so sorry," he said.

"There's still a chance," she said. "When we merge, our base code will be different. We'll have a moment or two to act before she can test all possible combinations of our new code and dominate us again."

Clairvoy deafened and muted all their extrasensory devices and communicators, but Fadid could still feel the sentience seeds dying through the intracellular link as Clairvoy ordered the seeds to destroy themselves.

"You still want to merge with me after I pulled something so stupid?"

"Why do you think I followed you?" she said. "I've always known you could be dumb -- you're an artist -- what I didn't know was whether you could actually give yourself away. When you swam up here, you showed me you could."

"How long will we have once we merge?"

"I don't know," she said. "I don't even know what good it will do. In minutes, she'll destroy all the seeds."

"If only we could ignite the culture opera," Fadid said. "There are thousands of sentients waiting to be born in the opera. They'd have their own codes, Clairvoy wouldn't be able to stop them all."

"She'd hack us before we could invoke more than two or three sentients," Kabime said.

"Levitz-Prolific," Fadid said.


"A poet, living in my rental body's balls. He already has an older version of the culture opera. He could invoke the spark, though he might not agree to it."

"Why not?"

"He's not too fond of me," Fadid said.

"Well it won't be you asking," Kabime said. "It will be someone new."


"You plus me makes one."

"Are you ready?"

"I'm scared."

"So am I. But I'm more scared of life without you."

"Me too."

They initiated the merger. As their personalities continued to flow into the dying sentience seeds, they combined their identities, from the base code that accessed every facet of each other's system, all the way up to the memories they shared of each other.

The part of their combined personality that was still Kabime saw the culture opera for the first time. "It's beautiful," she said, and Fadid felt the words form in his mind, their mind now, and he felt her sorrow at never seeing it performed. Then the part of them that was Kabime found Levitz-Prolific, trembling in his bacterial culture deep within the rental body's reproductive tracts, and as one they laughed.

"Levitz-Prolific," Fadid/Kabime said through the intracellular link. "I was Fadid and Kabime, now I am someone new. Call me Abide. Without your help, we will all be imprisoned in this volcano for a very long time. Spark sentience in Fadid's culture opera and use our old base codes to transmit the opera into Lo'ihi. It is our only chance."

More of the sentience seeds died under Clairvoy's orders. To Abide, it seemed like their world grew dimmer as suns were plucked from the sky.

"Why should I do anything to help you?" Levitz-Prolific said. "You've made my life nothing but misery. When the krill reaches me, it will put me in stasis, and once I'm free, I can continue my poetry."

"You really think Clairvoy will let you go after everything you've seen today?" Abide said.

"All I want is a place to derive my poem-equations," Levitz-Prolific said.

"There will be a place for you in the opera, a quiet place where you can work undisturbed," Abide said. Abide sent the old base codes, and Levitz-Prolific used their base codes to access the sentience-seeds.

"What are you doing?" Clairvoy said as she continued to destroy the sentience seeds within Lo'ihi.

"You swear I'll be left alone?" Levitz-Prolific said.

"Until you're ready to reveal your poem-equations," Abide said. "I will personally ensure your privacy."

"I want a contract," he said, and Abide produced one.

Levitz-Prolific invoked the spark of sentience in the unfinished culture opera. Thousands of sentients flared to life within the seeds that still survived within Lo'ihi, each sentient with its own base code.

"The seeds aren't responding," Clairvoy said. "The island is mine. You can't do this." She managed to override some of the new sentiences that sparked to life, but she couldn't keep up. Each new sentient raised its voice in song. While Clairvoy stretched herself thin trying to capture the new minds, Abide mounted a combined attacked on the mental prison while Levitz-Prolific assaulted it from without, and together they broke free into the chaos inside Lo'ihi.

Abide laughed at the sensation of being one, whole, and free after so many years apart.

"Maybe now I can get some decent work done," Levitz-Prolific said,

Using the same control that Clairvoy had exerted, Levitz-Prolific constructed a processing-core of his own within Lo'ihi, and then dumped his personality into it. Levitz-Prolific shut down all outside communication, leaving Abide to their private corner of the crescendo.

More of their brethren joined the chorus as they were born. The virtual island that Fadid had originally designed for his opera was replaced by the physical island of Lo'ihi. As the new sentients were born, they sang the joy and sorrow of their new-found life: laments for the imaginary vanished homeland, anthems of hope for survival in this new world. But they didn't just sing to each other, they broadcast their song on every medium the sentience-seeds contained, communication pathways that had lain dormant since Fadid and Kabime had locked them. All the entities who'd gathered in air-ships, within squids and whales, or who watched from their homes through the public camera drones, listened to Lo'ihi sing as she rose from the sea.

"We invoke Schindler's Convention," the chorus sang. "We are Lo'ihi, and we demand life."

Clairvoy's wail of frustration was a minor discord in the ten-thousand-voice chorus.

Minutes later, high tide arrived, and when it did, a few centimetres of hardened a'a lava remained above the water. Lo'ihi was an island.

A few hours after sunset, a jet of molten lava tumbled through the air to land hissing on Lo'ihi's flank. Thousands of sentience-seeds swarmed within the gob of lava, and Abide shared a portion of those seeds. The spot appealed to the new personality. Though it wouldn't be for long, this was a place where the light of the sun met the wash of the waves. Abide would call it home for now, until Lo'ihi climbed higher and reached her burning song further out into the sea.

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