Science Fiction & Fantasy

The Mad Scientist's Guide to World Domination

Advertisement

Fiction

The Five Elements of the Heart Mind

Tyra

Day 52:

This is Junior Science Officer Tyra Hayes, still alive, still recording.

Maybe no one will ever see these entries. But I have nothing else to do, alone in this escape pod.

—I am here.

Thanks, Artie. I didn’t mean to slight you. You’ve been a great help, the best personal AI anyone can ask for. I just wish that another person . . . also survived.

—You have been moving around constantly during the last twenty-four hours: pacing in place, tossing and turning. I recommend that you conserve your energy. You are already on one-third rations.

I need to move while wearing your case on a lanyard so I can generate the electricity to keep you and the recorder powered, remember?

—Your movements have far exceeded my energy requirements and do not fit your established pattern. What has changed?

—Tyra?

It’s the water recycler.

—Has it slowed down even more?

It stopped completely yesterday.

—Then you have been pretending to drink all day? I do not understand.

You told me three days ago that you didn’t know how to fix it. I didn’t want to make you feel bad.

—I see. Then I recommend that SEED Explorations Ltd. look into remedying this lacuna in AI programming for the next release.

Ever the optimist. You’re still planning for the future. But hyperradio scans show no signs of a rescue ship.

—Unsurprising. The Dandelion lost structural integrity so quickly that I doubt the bridge even had time for a distress call, and this escape pod’s radio is only sub-light. Most likely, no one even knows that two hundred sixty-five men and women on the survey ship are already dead.

Soon to be two hundred sixty-six.

Day 53:

Artie, if I continue to wait here, I’ll soon die of thirst. If I use all the power left in the pod for a final jump, I may end up in a system with no inhabitable planets. Advice?

—I have no close match for the parameters of your current condition in my database of survival scenarios.

This is where my dad would tell me, “Trust your gut.”

—Your mind resides in the brain, not the gastrointestinal tract.

When I used to go to him for advice, he always said that I overanalyzed everything and didn’t trust my instincts enough. Should I go to one of the ancient universities on Earth for the prestige, or take the full scholarship offered by a scrappy no-name upstart in the Rim? “Go with your gut.” Should I switch my major to AeroAstro because spacefaring jobs paid better or stick with Terraforming because I liked living with gravity? “Go with your gut.”

—He does not sound very helpful.

Actually, just talking to him often got me to see things in a different light, and then the right decision would seem obvious. He used to tease me by saying that with me, he never had to worry about boys because I always wanted more data about how I felt, and . . .

—Tyra?

Oh, I miss him, Artie. I miss him so much right now.

—I have no close match in my database for suitable words to use when you are crying, Tyra. I am sorry.

Day 54:

I can’t let despondency take over. Have to be rational.

Fact: I’m more than sixty light years from the nearest inhabited world.

Fact: I won’t last another week without water.

Fact: There’s no reason to think rescuers will show up soon.

Fact: The escape pod contains enough power to make one and only one hyperspace jump of up to five light years.

Fact: There’s only one system within range that might contain a habitable planet—Tycho 409A. And it’s unsurveyed.

Conclusion: the only sensible course of action is to take my chances and jump there.

Dad, if you ever get this, I love you.

***

Fazen

The sky suddenly breaks open and a bright streak hurls out of the clouds, heading straight toward me. The air around me crackles and heats up like a blacksmith’s furnace. Even through shut eyelids, I can see a blazing streak of fire pass over my head. Then there is a tremendous roar of water as a giant wave tosses me out of my canoe and into the lake.

A sphere of polished iron as bright as the sun and as large as the Headman’s house suddenly pops up out of the water and falls back down with another loud splash.

I had been out on the peaceful water, hoping that a bit of salted plum tea would calm the wild fire in my stomach and refine the raw iron in my lungs, and restore my body back to wuwei, but it seems that the gods have other plans. I struggle back into the canoe and paddle toward the sphere. What do the gods have in mind? I have already an excess of iron and fire, and they send me more?

Up close, I see that the bobbing sphere is full of indentations and protrusions, handholds and outlines of circular doors and windows. Heat from the sphere turns the water around it into steam so that it seems to float on a cloud drifting over the lake. After recovering my wits, I tie one end of a rope to one of the handholds so that I can tow the sphere back to land.

As I approach the shore, Headman Outay is there to greet me, along with a large crowd. Everyone must have seen the ball of fire falling out of the sky.

Headman Outay narrows his eyes. “Fazen, that is a sky canoe, like the great sky ark of our ancestors.”

From childhood, I’ve heard the legends of the First Ancestors arriving in a sky ark that glided through the stars as easily as our wooden canoes over water. Could the stories that parents tell children to lull them to sleep actually be true?

The sky canoe now rests against the soft mud at the edge of the lake. Suddenly, one part of the sphere, a circular door, begins to glow with a cold, white light. Several of the observers gasp.

“Stay away,” Headman Outay shouts. “We don’t know what’s inside!”

But I ignore him. I put my hands inside the indentations in that circular door and turn with all my strength. The skin of my palms and fingers sizzle against the still-hot iron surface. I grit my teeth at the pain and continue to turn the door.

My lower belly, the dantian, the abode of the Heart Mind, remains calm. My reckless courage may be the result of my body still being out of balance, but it feels purposeful, feels right.

The door pops open and falls into the water.

Inside, I see the unconscious figure of a young woman in her twenties, about my age. She has bright red hair and pale skin full of freckles. Her lips are parched and cracked.

Everyone watches as I carry her to my hut. No one speaks.

***

For two days I give the woman water in her sleep. She gulps it like a fish, but does not open her eyes.

I touch my forehead to hers. It feels as hot as the door of her sky canoe when I opened it. I hold her wrist. Even through the burn scars on my fingers, I can feel her pulse jumping and skipping wildly, like a trapped hare.

Through feverish dreams, she turns and shouts in her sleep. I cannot make out her words save one: a short syllable that she repeats again and again. I have often seen grown men and women cry out just like that for their parents in the delirium of illness. Is she crying out for a parent too?

She may be from the sky, yet she is not so strange after all.

Her sickness, however, is beyond my skill.

I run to Headman Outay and bring him with me back to her side. He is our best healer.

He sits beside her, but does not touch her.

“Perhaps it is the will of the gods that she not wake up.”

In his voice I hear fear.

“Have you ever seen iron such as that used in her sky canoe?” he asks.

I think back to the heft of the iron door in my hands. It had felt light, much lighter than I expected. And it must be incredibly strong to have survived a fall from the sky. I’m certain that even the greatest blacksmith in the world could not forge iron like that.

“We have forgotten much of the wisdom of our ancestors, Fazen. She may see us as little more than savages. She may bring us great danger and sorrow.”

I look at her sleeping form. I only know that she is ill and helpless. I only know what is right.

“We must save her,” I say.

He sighs and places three fingers on the pulse point on the inside of her right wrist. He half-closes his eyes, concentrating on every subtle shift in her life force.

“Too much fire . . . weak iron . . . excess of wood . . . but wait, how . . .?”

I hold my breath.

“Her dantian was empty . . . !”

Headman Outay frowns. Beads of sweat appear on his forehead. His frail body trembles. He strains to detect the hidden root cause of the warring elements in her body.

Finally he releases her wrist and wipes the sweat from his face. He can barely stand.

“Within her was an emptiness, into which the elements had surged. Now they’re fighting in chaos for dominance. We must channel them and bring them into balance, and rekindle the flickering light of her Heart Mind.”

He dictates to me a complex cure recipe.

***

Tyra

Day 56:

Woke up wrapped in rough sheets with a terrible fever. Stomach churning like I’ve been punched there. Threw up. Lost count of how many times.

Then I felt around my neck. The familiar lanyard and weight were absent. Artie was gone.

I panicked, rummaged around the blankets desperately, broke down and cried.

A man dressed in a floor-length robe rushed into the room. He tried to comfort me but his speech was gibberish. I couldn’t understand a single word. Then he saw my hands seeking in vain in the empty space around my neck. He ran out, came back, and handed Artie to me.

I was so happy I kissed Artie’s shell.

—I did not realize you had grown so attached to me. I think I am . . . touched. I will thus refrain from commenting on your escape pod piloting skills.

You’re my only friend in the world now, Artie.

—Perhaps that man, whom I have heard others call Fazen, can also be trusted. I am still working on deciphering his language, but I believe he took me away only to allow you to sleep more comfortably.

He also made me drink a bowl of bitter soup. It tasted vile. I shook my head but he kept on pushing it at me. I looked into his dark, warm eyes, and I decided that it was easier to just give in.

He’s also got high cheekbones and a strong jaw, with long straight black hair that hangs down his back like a heavy silk curtain. Nice smile too, if you look past the lack of dental care. I want to trust him.

—The characteristics you cite do not seem relevant to your conclusion.

Dad used to say that how you feel about someone within the first ten seconds you meet is how you’ll always feel. But you’re right. I never trust first impressions. I need more data.

Still, it was nice the way he held my hair out of the way as I retched, then cradled my head and sang to me, his voice low and deep, like the comforting rumbling of the engine on the Dandelion.

Now for more sleep.

Day 58:

More disgusting, bitter soup.

More people have come to visit me and the man—Fazen. Everyone is friendly and solicitous, but I worry about the level of technology here. They light the place with candles!

—There is no record of a colony on Tycho 409A. Maybe these people are criminals in hiding.

Thanks, Artie. You’re always so reassuring.

Stomach does feel better. Even managed to eat a few mouthfuls of some starchy dumpling-thing. Fazen saw that I was too weak to chew. So he chewed the food and fed the mush to me. Yeah, I know. I’m not going to think too hard about it lest my stomach start churning again.

***

Fazen

“Can you tell me the ingredients in your soup?”

I’m so startled that I almost drop the medicine bowl. The voice is strangely accented, like a man from the coast who learned to speak our dialect late in life. It comes out of the black amulet around the woman’s neck, the amulet that is so important to her.

“Do not be afraid,” the voice continues. “I help Tyra.”

“Her name is Tyra? And what is your name?”

“I am an artificial intelligence created by SEED Explorations Ltd., Model ML-1067B.”

“What?”

“Call me Artie.”

Now it is clear why Tyra cares so much about the amulet. It is the home of her friend.

It is wondrous to actually speak to a spirit, yet the spirit wishes to learn from me! I am utterly humbled, and I carefully explain the various components of the medicine, as well as how they adhere to the Principles of the Reciprocal Generation and Destruction of the Five Elements.

Artie makes non-committal noises as I explain. He seems to neither approve nor disapprove.

***

Tyra

Day 59:

That’s impossible, Artie.

—I have run the cladistic analysis multiple times. The speech of Fazen and his people is a dialect of English, but it has diverged from Standard for more than a thousand years.

We’ve had the jumpships for less than a century. How could Fazen’s people have been isolated for a millennium?

—That is a question outside of my domains of expertise.

What else have you found out?

—Based on phonetic analysis and the medicine they have been giving you, I speculate with 95% confidence that they are descended from a founding group that was predominantly sinitic in culture, though with strains of other influences. Perhaps due to isolation, their technological development has regressed.

Getting out of here will be difficult.

Day 62:

Managed to stay awake long enough to make some progress with speaking to Fazen. Artie still has to translate, but I can pick out some words and phrases.

Fazen is very patient with me, repeating himself and speaking slowly. Trying to understand him also gives me a concrete problem to solve, and that calms me down, makes me forget that I’m stuck light years from civilization, alone among strangers.

I’m surprised by how comfortable I feel when talking to him, considering that our worlds and frames of reference are so far apart and we still can’t convey much in the way of nuances through Artie.

—I am doing my best.

I know. Of course I can tell that he’s interested in me. Sometimes I catch him staring at me . . . but this will never work out. It’s a distraction from what should be my primary goal: survive and get back home. I have to be logical.

—You rank within the top one percentile for rationality and stability among all humans I have worked with.

Let’s hope I stay that way. We’ll need to think carefully if we’re going to get off this rock.

—I have a new theory about the people here. Although I am cut off from the All-Net, I have discovered a reference in my database to ancient ships capable only of relativistic speeds being sent out from Earth as long as a thousand years ago, during a time of turmoil when people believed that life on Earth was on the verge of catastrophic extinction.

I remember reading about that! There was such desperate faith behind those ships. Even assuming that the unspaceworthy vessels somehow survived the journey, it was doubtful that the tiny population aboard would have been able to sustain an advanced technological civilization across multiple generations.

Fazen’s people would be the first confirmed case of such a ship surviving.

—During the centuries it took them to arrive, they seemed to have lost all knowledge more advanced than ironworking.

Artie, Fazen thinks you’re a spirit of some sort. I think in the minds of his people, superstition has reclaimed the space that should be filled with rational knowledge.

Day 64:

—You are doing much better. That was a very severe bacterial infection.

Was that what I went through?

—Your symptoms match the descriptions in my database. I understand that, centuries ago, when your ancestors were confined to Earth, most human bodies were habitats for trillions upon trillions of bacteria. They lived in the gastrointestinal tract, on the skin, in the hair, and often caused diseases.

Repulsive!

—Eventually, you developed the technology to manage these parasites. And when you began to move to the stars, you made a serious effort to eradicate all remaining germs so that mankind would start afresh on new worlds, freed permanently from ancient diseases.

Fazen’s ancestors probably weren’t that careful and carried their bugs here, and they got to me. Do you know what was in that awful soup? It did seem to make me better.

—It is more likely your body simply recovered on its own. The soup contained no antibiotics or other known pharmaceutical ingredients. Their medical theory seems to be based on long-discredited superstitions derived from Far Eastern mysticism.

***

Fazen

Tyra assures me that she is a mortal just like me, but I sometimes doubt this. Her skin is as smooth as a newborn babe’s, and her features are delicate, graceful, as though she grew up only drinking fog and dew. She has no scars, no imperfections, like a painting of a woman rather than an actual woman.

“I’ve had genetic therapy and modern medical care since birth, and the gravity on my birth planet is lighter than here,” she says, when I point out how special she is. I don’t understand many of the words, and Artie is not always able to translate.

So I think what she means is that she began life as an angel. When the sky canoe fell, she was reborn as a mortal. Why? I do not know. But the thought moves me.

“Can’t you get me something to eat that tastes better?” she asks. “All the food I’ve had so far is either bland or bitter. I’m craving some sweets.”

“But you have too much fire and too little iron,” I say.

She has no idea what I’m talking about. Patiently, I explain, “The Five Elements of your body correspond to the Five Tastes: Iron is bitter, wood is sour, water is salty—”

“Like the sea,” she murmurs. She is getting better at speaking the way we do.

“—Yes, exactly. Fire is sweet, and earth is savory. When I first carried you out of the sky canoe, your dantian was strangely empty, and the elements fought in you for domination. You fell sick because there was too much fire in you, which restrained the iron, which then threw the rest of the system into imbalance. We have to feed you more bitterness to restore the domain of iron so as to cut back the excess wood.”

Her expression is strained.

“Of course, every person is different, and the right therapy must channel and guide a person’s blend of elements in accordance with that person’s own nature. As your nature is fiery, maybe a little sweetness now will do some good. Fire sometimes can be used to cure an excess of fire.”

She drops her face into her hands and rubs her forehead hard. After a while, she looks up. “Fazen, where I come from, we no longer think the world works the way you say. We know that the body is a biological machine, and diseases are malfunctions due to foreign irritants that require chemical interventions and genetic corrections . . . “

Her voice is gentle, but her tone is condescending. I see that she does not trust our medicine, even though it has made her better.

I’m angry and more than a little sad. Our knowledge about healing is based on ancient wisdom, but we have always worked hard to improve our art through trial and experience. Our histories speak of the First Ancestors who arrived in the sky ark with herb seeds and recipe books. Some herbs thrived, but many died, and they had to find substitutes in this new world.

Every generation, brave men and women have died while trying to discover more ways of healing. They refined the techniques for guiding a body’s mix of elements to suit the person’s particular nature. Headman Outay himself has fallen sick many times from testing herbs and minerals on his own body. Tyra’s contempt disrespects them all.

She sees the expression on my face. “I’m sorry, Fazen. I don’t know why your medicine works, which is why I’m frustrated. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“I don’t wish to be angry with you,” I say. “So I will take some salted plum tea to empty my mind and restore balance to my dantian. Would you like some as well?”

She sighs and nods. After taking a sip from my cup, she smiles.

“What are you thinking about?” I ask.

“My father always said that no dispute should ever get in the way of sharing a drink. Now I finally understand what he meant.”

We both drink to that.

***

Tyra

Day 110:

Is there a way to get off this rock with only medieval technology?

Just asking the question that way makes me want to give up in despair.

I try to see myself through Fazen’s eyes: much of my time is spent drawing symbols and figures on paper and quizzing him about the existence of glowing rocks and rare metals. He must think I’m mad (or that I’m a witch).

To try to distract me from visible frustration, he takes me on fishing and hiking trips where we eat what we catch and gather.

—I do not think it is wise for you to continue to consume so much raw, unsterilized food.

I don’t exactly have a lot of choices, do I? Actually, I’ve come to like this diet of unprocessed foods. Sure, the fish and herbs and mushrooms are nothing like the nutritiously balanced meals of home, but there is a kind of wild flavor to everything that delights the tongue, and the food sits well in the belly after working for your dinner.

And it’s fun to hear Fazen talk to me about the food. He has a story about everything: this fish is good for the kidneys, and he once prescribed it for a boy who peed green; that berry is a good match for my fiery heart, and he used to feed them to baby birds who were cold and hungry in winter; these mushrooms are of the domain of iron, and he ate them when he was little to gain courage.

Sometimes I wish these hikes would never end.

***

Fazen

The loud crashing beats of the gong interrupt the quiet conversation between Tyra and me. We rush out of my hut.

“Fire, fire!” Everyone gazes west, where thick plumes of smoke are rising into the sky. The summer has been unusually hot and dry. The wind is strong and will bring the fire to the village in no time.

The Headman organizes everyone for evacuation into the lake. I reach for Tyra’s hand so that we can run to the water.

But she doesn’t move. She glances around at the villagers rushing about, at the scared children crying for comfort.

“What about your houses and crops?” she asks.

“Nothing can be done about them,” I tell her. “The fire can’t be stopped.”

She looks at the approaching flames. Then she turns to me.

“We can stop the fire.”

Something in her eyes, fiery amber like her spirit, tells me to trust her.

Surprisingly, Headman Outay, who has grown to like her in the last few months, agrees to listen to her.

Tyra directs the villagers to clear out a strip of fields to the west of the village. “Cut everything down; leave nothing that can burn.”

“But with the wind, the powerful flames will easily jump over the narrow strip.”

“Don’t worry about that,” she says. “We must start a fire on the other side of the strip ourselves.”

She’s crazy, I think. Don’t we have enough fire already?

But Headman Outay grabs a torch and follows her across the strip. “She is from the sky,” he says, quietly. After a moment, the other villagers follow.

The main fire is now much closer. Smoke fills the air, and the heat.

The grass is so dry that our new fire roars into life. But like children welcoming parents returning from the fields, it rushes away from the village towards the main fire, leaving charred trunks and empty burnt earth behind.

By the time our fire joins the main fire, there is a mile-wide empty swath of land between us. The fire rages but can come no closer. The villagers cheer.

“How?” I look at Tyra in wonder.

Tyra explains that a great fire heats the air above, drawing the colder air toward it. When we started our own fire, the power of the great fire drew the new fire away from us and formed the firebreak.

“You are a magician,” I say.

“It is simple physics,” she says. “Using fire to fight fire, isn’t that something you’ve taught me, too?” And I see that she channeled and directed the flames just as our medicine channeled and directed the fire within her.

Seeing her smile fills my heart with its own flame.

***

Tyra

Day 140:

—Have you given much thought to constructing a hyperradio beacon here?

Out of what? Sticks and mud?

—So far, we have been discreet about our knowledge in order to avoid open conflict with the predominant belief system here. But if you decide to direct the population on an accelerated program of technological advancement, the planet should have a greater than 80% chance of achieving the necessary industrial and technological expertise to produce a hyperradio beacon in one-hundred eighty-five years.

Thanks, Artie. I’ll just declare myself Queen of the Planet and get them started. I guess my great-great-great-grand kids can then call home.

Anyway, where is Fazen? He’s supposed to meet me here so we can go fishing.

—There is also a point zero zero zero three percent chance that the task can be accomplished in less than sixty years.

You sure know how to cheer a girl up.

Do you think Fazen’s been delayed by the Headman? I hope he hasn’t forgotten.

—It is unclear to me how Fazen’s whereabouts can be relevant to the important matter of planning your rescue.

Will you give it a rest?

—Are you actually contemplating settling here?

I . . . That is the most rational course of action right now, isn’t it?

—I do not understand. All my survival models indicate that being away from modern science will reduce your life expectancy significantly.

Look, I’m . . . happy here, primitive though things are. Is it the air? The food? I feel more alive, like I’ve discovered a part of myself I hadn’t even known existed.

Knowledge about atoms and quarks and hyperspace and gene expression regulation isn’t as useful here as knowing that sweet foods give you more igneous humor.

Sometimes it’s rational to be irrational. When everyone around you believes the world works a certain way, there are advantages to at least pretending that the world does work that way.

—This is a most peculiar line of argument.

Maybe I’m not thinking straight. I’ve been feeling strange. My stomach seems to have a mind of its own these days, tightening up or loosening depending on its mood. It’s almost like I have another amygdala down there. I get unexplained urges; my mood lifts and shifts. I should ask Fazen about this.

—I think the source of your change of perspective is not the air or the food. I have detected elevated levels of oxytocin and vasopressin in your breath, as well as a raised heart rate and dilated pupils when Fazen is around. These are clear physiological signs.

If you’re implying that . . . that . . .

—You are in love, Tyra.

***

Fazen

We’re on top of the mountain, looking up at the stars.

Tyra points to the west, at the brightest star in the sky, Baitou, the tail of the Great Kite. “That’s where my ship—a very large sky canoe—floundered.”

I squint to see if I can see the light from her broken ship.

“You won’t see anything,” Tyra says. “Even if you had the sharpest eyes, the light from that explosion won’t get here for another five years.”

This confuses me. But it doesn’t matter. I don’t have to understand everything she says. Sometimes it’s enough to simply listen to her voice, to be in her presence.

She turns back and blushes. “You’re staring again.”

I turn away, embarrassed.

But she reaches out and holds my face steady between her hands. “I don’t understand this,” she murmurs.

Then she speaks very fast and in her own dialect. I don’t fall in love easily. This is so unlike me. I should feel abandoned, depressed, hopeless. The world, the people I have always known may be lost to me forever, and I’m thrown thousands of years into the past. Yet I feel happy, almost giddy. I can’t explain it by reason. I just know that I’ll be fine. I feel it in my gut.

“I don’t understand many of your words,” I tell her, “except the first thing you said. I love you too. And I will give us lotus seeds mixed with all the flavors of the world so that our love will never grow tiresome.”

The next sensation I feel are her lips on mine. My eyes are open but I don’t see anything. The world shrinks down into our kiss, our breaths, the tips of our tongues. I savor the taste of her, the smell, hot, fiery, like her nature. The world even seems to glow brighter, as though the stars have brightened in sympathy.

She pulls away, her eyes wide open in shock.

“What’s wrong?”

She doesn’t answer. Her eyes are focused on the sky behind me.

I turn around, and half the sky is on fire. In the heart of the flames sits a great ship, golden red, like molten iron.

Then a wave of sound and heat strikes me like a great fist, and it is all I can do to try to reach out and put myself between it and Tyra.

***

Tyra

Date unknown:

Woke up in a cozy all-white room, naked, with a thin white sheet covering me.

“You gave us quite a scare.”

My head felt woozy and it took me a few tries to locate the source of the voice—a balding man in a white robe standing behind me. Trying to twist around so that I could see him made me groan.

“Sorry,” he said, walking around to make it easier for me. “They always put the life sign monitors back here. I’ve been saying for years that it makes it hard to talk to patients.”

“Where . . . what . . . who . . .” It was hard to decide what question to ask first. An image of Fazen came to mind, but the image felt like a stranger, unreal, like I made him up or read about him in a book.

Something was missing. I checked myself: my arms, my legs, my fingers and toes, all present. Yet it was as though I had a phantom limb, a void in my gut.

“Peter Saltz, ship’s doctor. You’re aboard the Shamrock.”

That’s the Dandelion’s sister ship. “How?”

“We grew concerned when the Dandelion didn’t radio in any reports for more than a month. But we only had a general idea of where the ship was and it took a while before we located the wreckage and picked up the signal from your sub-light beacon.”

I had left behind in that beacon the coordinates of Tycho 409A.

“What happened to your ship was . . . terrible.” He stopped, at a loss for words.

I closed my eyes. The memory of the two hundred sixty-five friends, gone forever, was overwhelming.

“I’ve gone through some of your logs. Tyra, your story is incredible. First drifting alone in deep space, then a desperate jump to a colony lost to history, and finally living among savages! When we found you, your body was teeming with the most incredible collection of bacteria. I couldn’t believe that you survived. You’re lucky that the Shamrock just happened to have . . . anyway I had to keep you asleep while I quarantined you and got you cleaned up. You’re lucky we were able to get you out of there; the natives were quite hostile when we rescued you . . .”

I wanted to ask him about the “natives,” but I couldn’t summon the anxiety that I thought I ought to feel, and that frightened me. I tried to hold onto the memory of Fazen’s voice: “lotus seeds . . . our love . . . never tiresome.” But the words didn’t warm my heart like I expected. They sounded trite, trivial, meaningless.

Then I thought about my father, and the pang of missing him hit me like a punch in the stomach. I was relieved that I was at least still human. I hadn’t lost the ability to feel.

Suddenly I was very tired, and I closed my eyes.

***

Fazen

The strangers took Tyra away a week ago. But their great ship has remained in the sky. I haven’t been able to eat or sleep properly. I wait on the mountain, hoping that she will return just as suddenly.

A sky canoe only a bit bigger than Tyra’s sphere descends from the great ship. As it lands, the force from its whirling wings knocks me to the ground. When I finally open my eyes, I cry with joy. My Tyra is back.

But she’s not alone. Two men are with her. They’re covered head to toe in iron suits that glitter in the sun, and crystal bubbles surround their heads.

Through the crystal bubble, I look into her eyes.

Something is wrong. The eyes are cold, vacant. It’s like looking into the eyes of a stranger, a shell. She is not fiery; she is not earthy; she is not anything at all. She is a hollow shell.

Silently, she moves her lips behind her crystal bubble. Artie’s voice comes out of her amulet, translating. Even the spirit sounds strange—clipped, formal, like the way the bellman reads the judges’ decisions at the winter court sessions. “I come to give you important news. This planet belongs to SEED Explorations, my employer.”

“Tyra! What happened to you?”

Doggedly, she goes on. “SEED purchased the settlement rights here fifty years ago, but they never got around to exercising them. Now that they know this planet doesn’t need any terraforming, they’re eager to develop it. Your presence here has no legal authority, and SEED wanted to remove you. But in light of how you cared for me during my sickness, I convinced SEED to grant you some plots as reservation land if you’ll agree to an exclusive contract to allow SEED to operate an anthropological experience park for off-world tourists in your settlements.”

“Tyra, you belong here. You belong with us.”

She hesitates for a moment, and then, gently, adds, “It is time for you to rejoin the rest of the human race and reclaim your lost legacy.”

I wish to speak to her without the strange men in iron suits watching. I want to place my hands around her face, to gaze into her eyes. But the crystal bubble around her head, cold and hard, stops my hands.

What little I do understand of Tyra’s speech makes me angry. My stomach churns. Headman Outay was right. The sky men have brought us danger and sorrow.

“We will not give up our world,” I shout at the sky men. “We will fill our veins with fire and iron. And you will taste nothing but the stench of rotting earth, the taste of death and defeat.”

The two men grab me by my arms and pull me away from her. At first I struggle, but then I see the fear in her eyes, and I let go.

I feel ill. The elements rage in my body, warring in chaos.

***

Tyra

Artie, what is wrong with me? When I was down there, it was like I didn’t even know Fazen. I felt nothing for him. I feel nothing for him now.

—Your hormonal levels are indeed . . . abnormal, in light of what I had observed to be your norm during the time you were on Tycho 409A.

Hypothesis?

—Love, or the lack of it, is not within my domains of expertise.

It’s got to have something to do with what Dr. Saltz did. Retrieve my medical records and analyze them.

—It appears you are correct. There was a massive drop-off in the levels of PNDF, theta-GF, endobesin, motinorphin, and several other neurotransmitters and neurotrophins within the first forty-eight hours after you were taken aboard.

What did they give me?

—As far as I can ascertain, you were only given large doses of antibiotics during that time.

What are those?

—Antibiotics were your ancestors’ primary weapons against bacterial infections. They have not been needed for a long time. It is curious that the Shamrock has a supply.

Can you find out why?

—Let me discreetly probe the ship’s records . . . ah, I think I understand. Recently there were a few mass bacterial outbreaks on some of the Rim planets owned by SEED, so a small supply of antibiotics had to be manufactured. It seems that news of these outbreaks is being censored out of concern that it may lead to mass panic.

Fazen’s people always lived with bacteria, which was why I got sick when I landed. But the bacteria were in me even when I didn’t feel sick . . . Artie, did these bacteria living in me do anything other than causing disease?

—I do not know. But now that I am reconnected to the All-Net, I can run a deep search in the old archives. Interesting: some ancient scientists believed that a healthy human body needed an array of bacterial species living in balance. Different individuals had different bacterial mixes, called enterotypes, similar to blood types. They saw the bacteria as symbiotes, not parasites.

What exactly did the bacteria do?

—Supposedly, they helped people digest food, fight against disease, even changed their mood and personality.

What? How?

—By releasing chemicals into the bloodstream that suppressed or activated neurotransmitters, regulated gene expression, modified neurochemistry.

So back on Tycho 409A, I was . . . infected. I wasn’t even myself.

—It appears that your father was right. On the planet, you literally thought with your gut. Fazen’s people figured out a way not only to live in harmony with their gut flora, but to direct them with food and drink, and so regulate their own moods.

Things living in me were doing my thinking. Was I in love or were the bacteria?

—I do not think the distinction is so stark. Let me read you a quote from an ancient scientist: “The human mind is a physical phenomenon, in this world and of it. The bacteria in your gut are but another component in the machinery that produces the totality of your thoughts. You are already a community of trillions of cells, can you not contemplate adding a few trillions more?”

So what should I do now? I don’t know how I feel about Fazen. I don’t know what to think. What is right?

—That, of course, is outside my domains of expertise.

***

Fazen

Tyra has come back to us: alone, naked, without her crystal bubble or iron suit.

She falls sick again.

Headman Outay and I work for three days to restore balance to her body, introducing the elements of iron, wood, water, fire, and earth in careful measure until they take hold in her body and breed true, until she is again a universe complete in itself.

***

“You understand,” she says, “what I’m telling you?”

When Tyra is earnest like this, she has a little frown, like a bough weighed down with fresh dew in the morning. “You are speaking of the Balance of the Elements.”

“The food-therapy that you practice,” she says, “is no mere superstition. Somehow you have invented a probiotic diet that helps you regulate the bacterial colonies that came with you to this new world. By changing what you eat, you can stay healthy and also control your moods.”

“Many people have died over the years to gain this knowledge.”

She nods, somber. “The elemental theory that you use to explain why the techniques work may not make sense to me and may be metaphorical, but the techniques do work. They should be preserved and taught to the rest of humanity, who have forgotten how to live and think with their ancient symbiotes.”

“I believe that the plagues on the Rim planets may be a consequence of overly aggressive efforts to eliminate all microbiomes in humans,” Artie says. “You cannot, it seems, live too clean and pure a life.”

Tyra continues, “I explained to SEED that if they insisted on enforcing their claims to Tycho 409A, I would go public with the information about how people are dying on their colony planets. But if they were willing to leave you alone, I would help SEED adapt your food-therapy techniques into a long-term cure for these outbreaks, and assign the patent rights to them.”

I don’t understand everything she and Artie are saying. But it is enough that when I now look into her eyes, I see the real Tyra.

“I’m a different person when I have these creatures living in me,” she says. “I’m more adventurous, more impulsive, happier.”

“This is the true you,” I tell her, “the way you were meant to be.”

“I don’t know if that’s true,” she says. “I’m still trying to get used to the idea that my mind is embodied not only in my own cells, but also in the cells of trillions of tiny organisms who live on me the same way we live on this planet, of me but not me. I’m not sure who I am. But I chose to come back because I like this me better. It’s a visceral feeling. My father will be proud.”

“I’d like meet him,” I say. I want to meet him not only because Tyra has spoken so much of him, but also because I’d like to have his blessing before I ask Tyra a question.

“I’d like that,” she says. “I haven’t visited him in a while, and I have a feeling he’ll like you. He’ll enjoy hearing about my negotiations with SEED.”

“My simulations indicated only a 52.26% chance that SEED would have seen the wisdom of your solution and accepted your deal,” Artie says. “You took quite a risk.”

“I guess you could say I trusted my gut.”

***

Author’s Notes:

The idea of gut bacteria affecting mood and brain chemistry is based on the research described in Denou, E., et al. “The Intestinal Microbiota Determines Mouse Behavior and Brain BDNF Levels.” Gastroenterology, Vol. 140, Issue 5, Supplement 1, Page S-57 (abstract available at tinyurl.com/lightspeed-gastroenterology).

A summary of the scientific paper may be found in McMaster University (2011, May 17). “Gut bacteria linked to behavior: That anxiety may be in your gut, not in your head,” ScienceDaily. retrieved July 8, 2011, from tinyurl.com/lightspeed-gut-bacteria.

Enjoyed this story? Get the rest of this issue
in convenient ebook format for just $3.99!
Or, subscribe for just $36 a year or $3 a month!

Read the author spotlight with Ken Liu

DeliciousFacebookLiveJournalStumbleUponTumblrTwitterShare This

Ken Liu

Ken Liu

Ken Liu (http://kenliu.name) is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. His fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among other places. He has won a Nebula, two Hugos, a World Fantasy Award, and a Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award, and been nominated for the Sturgeon and the Locus Awards. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts. Ken’s debut novel, The Grace of Kings, the first in a fantasy series, will be published by Simon & Schuster’s new genre fiction imprint in 2015, along with a collection of short stories.

Stories by Ken Liu

13 Responses »

  1. Absolutely fantastic. I love when I read a story that I’m jealous someone else wrote.

  2. Excellent! Very condensed and immersive, like it could have been extrapolated further.. found myself wanting to know much more! Also reminded me of Ursula LeGuinne. More please!

  3. Excellent story, well told.
    An example of what science fiction can be and should be: compelling, thought provoking, and grounded in real science.
    Good work.

  4. Geat read, and a nice build on the background idea.
    I have a friend whose child’s behavior is governed by the balance of bacteria and candida into the gut – there is quite a body of evidence now linking didn’t, gut-flora and behaviour.

  5. I love this story! Thank you for writing it.

  6. Great short story. Really enjoyed it.

  7. I had no idea. What an eye-opening story. Wonderfully written. Loved it!

  8. Excellent story. I love it when authors find a scientific idea, and weave an entertaining story around it. Reminds me of “Tank Farm Dynamo” by David Brin. I was entertained, and I learned something too! Nice work!

  9. It’s just another mega-readable story from Ken Liu, no surprise! :-) A good read.

  10. If a small (or big?) part of human evolution is all about the foods we eat and the liquids we drink, then that explains the huge number of modern-day people who are getting seriously ill and dying from cancers and various ailments as a result of eating so much processed foods and imbibing gallons of artificial drinks. It seems that there is no way for the human body to adapt, on a long-term basis, to the chemical preservatives (poisons?) found in today’s foods and drinks. At least, not in the way it was able to adapt to the bacteria found in old-time, unprocessed and raw produce coming in from the farms which made up the bulk of home-cooked meals and freshly squeezed juice drinks (with apologies to ads using the same words to describe factory-made drinks).

  11. Great idea for a story based on a novel idea in biology! Very cool.

  12. Well, I’ve become a Ken Liu fan too. As I browse the archives, I pause for him as quickly as for, say, Joe Haldeman.

    Today’s theme appeals to my sort of primitivist, survivalist fantasy side. The anthropologist side might quibble, but for no good reason, and not today. I enjoyed the story.

    Also for no good reason as to offering a critique of the story, which needn’t be bothered by such technicalities, for future reference I suggest a couple of technicalities: If I correctly understood the elapsed time, Ken appears to overestimate the mean expectable survival time without hydration by >a couple of days; she’d likely not have lasted that long without water, and the healer’s first important task would have been to remedy the fluid/electrolyte deficit/imbalance. During and thereafter, attention to establishing a balanced well-functioning microbial colonization, the point of the story, could proceed. Also, while I greatly accept and appreciate the idea of our responsivity to our symbiosis with our microbes and their variability, I question whether our space-questing physiological survival would be possible with complete sterility; we might well survive and function with a sub-optimal or defective biome, but I’m not sure we could stay alive without some helpful microbes, inside and out.

    Ken’s a pretty good probiotic himself, for me, at present, and the narrator too.

Leave a Response

Comment moderation is enabled. Your comment may take some time to appear.