In Memory

Michael McNeilley

19 October 1945 - 16 July 2000

Requiescant in Pace


AND THE EVENING

by Michael McNeilley


Realizing he was almost running Jovah slowed to a walk, then stopped and looked out over the sea. There was nowhere to run. Ahead of him stretched an endless nowhere. And home was a long warp away.

Sunlight gleamed off the silver of his special-issue exploration suit. Across the sea the sun was setting in a blaze of red and orange over puffy white clouds in a light azure sky, darkening into deep blue above. The landscape would have been beautiful, but he could barely stand to look at it.

Another one just like all the others. Still many light-years distant, he had told his co-pilot, "If this isn't one, then damn it there isn't one... anywhere." You shouldn't speak your fears aloud, he thought. Even a child knows that. It makes it so much easier for them to come true. For some reason he thought of his mother, her belief in him. 20 years....

They had tested exhaustively, then run each test again. In disgust he cranked off his helmet, disengaged the air connections from his suit, pulled the helmet off and threw it onto the sand. The helmet rolled to a stop against a rock. He shook out his blonde hair, months past his last haircut. He'd be getting a haircut soon enough.

"You shouldn't have taken that off," his helmet spoke to him from its spot in the sand, in the voice of Gaia, from the ship.

"What difference does it make." Jovah answered. "I'm not going to catch any diseases now, am I." He could hear her sigh in the speaker, then click off without comment.

Despite standing orders to the contrary, taking off the helmet made no difference, and there lay the problem. The atmosphere was full of oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen. There was enough methane and ammonia to stink the place up a bit but breathing was not difficult.

He didn't mean to be rude to Gaia, but she knew him well enough to know that. These months working together had not been bad ones, except for the one obvious problem, a problem Gaia had accepted more readily than Jovah. Gaia was an engineer, and engineering remained a challenge she could lose herself in... that she could look forward to, as far into the future as she cared to imagine. For Jovah, the situation was different.

The sea of this medium-young planet was full of perfectly good water, not too salty yet but that was as it should be at this stage of planetary development. The rocks on the shoreline retained some of the jagged shapes that would not be found on an ocean beach in a mature planet of this size. But one could find plenty of rounded and worn rocks as well, for unfortunately for Jovah and his theories this planet was not all that young.

Based on the fossil record of the world back home, at this stage in the planet's life there should be a profusion of mature plant growth here in the equatorial regions. The seas should be teeming with life, the skies filled with... flying somethings... anything. But there was nothing, not even the smallest, most primitive life forms. Not anything. As far as could be determined... as always... there never would be. Nothing.

20 years of education, for what. Jovah's specialty was interstellar space travel and exploration, but without a return on their investment the politicians would not continue to fund much of an interstellar space program. After all, there were planets suitable for colonization within a few light years of home. That there was nothing organic to discover on any of them made no difference to politicians.

Exobiology and Exobotany: Jovah's major fields of study. A lot of good those would do him on a job application. There was no way around the truth; his specialties didn't exist. His highest-level scientific graduate work had been in... fantasy. The thought was worse than appalling. After months of attempting to get used to it, he still could not hold the thought in his head. Exobiology and Exobotany, theories without application. Crackpot, quack science. No, he couldn't think of it.

He wished he could remove the suit as well but it took two to manage it reasonably. Squatting, trying not to think, he used the suit toilet functions... pushed the button and listened to the sound of the flush mechanism voiding into the waste packet, the hum of the ultrasonic cleaner tidying up. Everything so neat and tidy... so civilized. So useless. You could take a shit in space and not even have to wipe. Suit functions could weld or cut most metals, burn wood if there were any wood, provide protection and defense from nonexistent aliens, protect the wearer from disease... but there was no disease. I'll probably never wear this suit again, he thought. The thought made him feel faint and he wiped his brow with his hand, then stood again.

He looked at the helmet, silver against the golden sand. Of course a secondary purpose of the helmet was to protect its wearer from contamination, but there was no contamination... not the slightest chance of contamination. On this planet, as on more than fifty others they'd walked upon, throughout all but endless exploration by their team and countless others the thing for which they had searched was again missing. Again.

"No damned life. Impossible, but no life. Never any life." He sank to his knees, ripping at his suit, pulling his hair. "No damned, damned life."

He pulled the waste packet off its mounting and flung it into the sea. He ripped at the cables and valves of the air system, pulled off his sampling kit, threw it down then jumped up and stomped on it, kicking collection vessels in every direction.

The anger wore off eventually, but he left the sampling kit where it fell. No one would be coming along to discover it, and with this the last stop he wouldn't be needing it again.

Everything was perfectly in place. A more ideal planetary candidate for life could not be imagined. Carbon-based organic chemicals galore. Long string molecules, aliphatic acids, urea, amino acids, the base structures found in nucleic acids and proteins. All the building blocks of life in the sea.

Everything had been in place, as best they could determine, for many millions of years, perhaps a billion years. But no life. Never, never any life. No greenery on the hills, in the valleys. Nothing again like all the other planets, like every other time, not a microbe, not a virus, just nothing.

"Jovah," Gaia spoke again into the communicator. "Jovah. Come on. Let's leave. There's nothing more to do here. We're past schedule already."

Nothing more to do. As if that weren't the problem. Everything was here. Everything was here and nothing was here, and that was the problem, the usual problem... the insoluble endgame problem. Now nothing more to do here... nothing more to do... anywhere. Too choked up to speak, he clicked the communicator lever twice with his thumb, the signal for "affirmative," with nothing but negative feelings in his heart. Hat in hand he trudged back down the beach the way he had come.

Retracing his steps to the ship Jovah looked up as he neared the vehicle, surprised to see how small it appeared against the rocky cliffs above the sands. For all its technology the ship's rounded exterior looked much older than the angular cliffs that rose to one side.

His tour was all but over. He would not be going out again... chances were no one would go out again. Back home the pressures for government funding were not lessening. Money for chasing off across the cosmos after something that had been all but proven nonexistent would not remain in the budget for long. He thought of the conditions back home... of the pollution and crowding and corruption... of his disappointments with his own kind... of the type of welcome awaiting this final failure, and the memory made him want to turn and walk back down the beach, just walk on.

But to what, he thought and to where, and he entered the ship helmet in hand, never to meet that alien being he'd dreamed of since his childhood; never to shake that strange and wonderful hand. He laughed at himself, within, then out loud. He could help found a colony... there would still be challenges. But not the discoveries... his dreams had been a mirage. Acceptance began to set within him, darkening gradually like the sunset on this unnamed sea.

It was only a few minutes before the contrail blazed its final message across the sky, a thin and searing yellow line that left a spreading white trail behind as the ship blasted away toward the end of its voyage, certain never to return.

As the sun moved below the horizon a last gleam died on the beach, reflected from the lid of a specimen container. Nearby, solid in the heavy motion of the waves the still-sharp rocks of the young planet battered against a small plastic pouch. The pouch remained hermetic for a time, the lid tightly threaded, the connections self-sealing but tiny cracks began to form in the hard plastic material of the cap. It was not long before the cap cracked apart, and at the apogee of a particularly peristaltic wave shattered, and the packet emptied into the sea.

As the solid waste sank slowly, tiny intestinal bacteria swam off into the primordial soup. Amid a floating yellow stain, viral nucleoprotein chains, endospores and protozoans floated free.

Miniscule organisms washed upon the rocks, lodging in tiny crevices where the sea waves pouring over them would bring the protein chains and chemicals they could break down for their food. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria poured out of the packet and gathered in shallow tidal pools with E. coli and fungi. Conjugation and recombination began among some, with the exchange of genes; transduction exchanged chromosomal material among others. All around cell division spread the news of new arrivals.

Bacteria was everywhere... chemosynthetic bacteria began to break down chemicals into bite-sized morsels... photosynthetic bacteria awaited the dawn of light. With a whip of their flagella diminutive organisms washed out to sea.

Microbial cells followed their metabolic pathways, spinning and turning in the ocean currents on a voyage of their own: past now through tomorrow and into forever. By morning, as the first rays of sun warmed them, already there were more.

They would evolve first in greens and browns, then cross the spectrum in sudden rainbows. Fill the planet, the seas, the heavens. They would name the rocks, the peaks, the rivers, the winds... this very sea. Fight wars, make peace, teach one another, create technology. Engage in interstellar exploration, exobiology and exobotany. Learn patience, diligence and frustration.

But for now they would be fruitful. They would multiply.

And the evening and the morning were the first day.


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And the Evening, 17 June 1996