Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




If Lions Could Speak: Imagining the Alien

Many have written on this subject to confess failure; who am I to claim success? The objections line up like policemen: Alien intelligence does not, in fact, exist. So when we try to describe it, our thoughts do not connect to any object except ourselves. The words we put into an alien mouth, the feeling into an alien heart, the tools into alien hands, what can they be but imitations of our words, feelings, tools? Even if we could conceive of something different, how would we communicate it so human beings could understand? And if human beings don’t read our work, how can we expect mass sales?

You cannot think of something outside human thought. On the other hand, the concept of alien intelligence is what animates a great deal of science fiction, and the elusive goal of describing it is something almost every writer tries. Often you can see the way the story bends back in frustration, turning toward the human once again. The alien intelligence becomes part of the landscape, something to be experienced or overcome, something to show us aspects of ourselves. In the range of science fiction literature, certain broad groupings suggest themselves, which nevertheless have this aspect in common.

For example, you have the They Come Here story, in which a technologically superior species arrives on Earth. Ordinarily, this species is aggressive. Often, not to put too fine a point on it, they are a race of homicidal maniacs. Initially at a disadvantage, humans eventually prevail because of some emotional quality, some aspect of “humanness” that the invader cannot match. Self-congratulation ensues.

Alternately, you have the We Go There story, in which we hold technological superiority over some simple, inoffensive race. Often we split into two camps—those who advocate violence and those who don’t, and the narrator of the story is in this second camp. Paradoxically, the more he knows about the alien, the more he is able to affirm his own most “human” instincts, which eventually prevail. Self-examination ensues. In both these types of story, though—there and here—whatever growth takes place is human growth. The alien learns nothing.

Those are two large groupings. Here are two more:

Sometimes when a writer conceives of an alien species, she will extrapolate what human beings would be like if they shared the alien’s morphology. The writer asks herself: What would it be like to have two heads? Or six sets of opposing genitalia? Or a life span of a thousand years? Sometimes this morphology has been arrived at conscientiously, by which I mean the writer has paid pseudo-scientific attention to the conditions that produce these adaptations. And sometimes the morphology has been selected at random, or for dramatic effect.

Alternately, the writer will imagine a human being with one psychic or emotional quality exaggerated, or added, or removed. That is, the aliens will be quite like humans but for their enormous physical cowardice, say, or diffidence, or sudden rages. Or else they will be just like you and me except for their telepathic abilities, or the fact they have no soul. Aliens of this type are often physically similar to human beings, but for one trivial difference. They might, for example, have pointed ears.

These two groupings—the extrapolation from bizarre morphology and the almost-human—we will refer to with some oversimplification as the American model. Again, to oversimplify: American science fiction tends to be plot-driven, and aliens of the type we have described fit neatly into conventional plot situations. That is, the alienness of the alien can take its place among the many aspects of the story, without threatening to overwhelm it or make the plot irrelevant.

Let’s call the second category the European model, though the more I think of it, the more foolish these distinctions seem. Never mind—we will be disciplined and persevere: In the European model, the strangeness of the alien and our inability to understand it becomes the center of the story. If the writer doesn’t mind this happening, great things are possible: the sentient ocean in Solaris, for example, or JH Rosny’s crystal cylinders, illuminated with flashes of light. Inescapably, though, these things are viewed from the outside, as impenetrably exotic. Lack of communication becomes the theme of the story, and all other plot elements and resolutions fall away. And though you’ve avoided the problems of anthropomorphism, its sentimentality and intrinsic falseness, you are no closer to describing or communicating alien intelligence. You’re just sloughing off the work onto your readers. In fact . . .

• • • •

At this point I could feel anger stirring up within me at the thought of these lazy European writers. I looked up from the draft on my computer and saw Laura standing by the hall doorway. It was late, and I was at my desk. She had been watching television—I had been aware of it from time to time: laughter, applause—and now here she was, standing in a white nightgown. She had come to disturb me, which was a relief.

All day I had been suffering from an irregular heartbeat, brought on, I thought, by the stress of abstract thinking, which is not natural to me. I had not told Laura about my symptoms, because of her hypochondria. Still, it was a relief to have her near me. If worst came to worst, she could drive me to the hospital. But how pathetic it would have been to suffer a heart attack at my desk, while my wife sat oblivious in a downstairs room!

She said nothing at first, but just hung and flickered in the doorway while I pretended to work. I didn’t look up. I couldn’t meet her eyes. She and I had had an argument that day. I was going to Berlin and she resented it, resented the fact that I had made my plans without her, without indulging in the fiction that she might have wanted to come, too. But for a year her illness had been getting worse, and for the last six months she’d cancelled out of everything without warning at the last minute: even a visit to a friend’s house or, most recently, a trip to the movies. Irritated, I had made a single set of airline reservations, which had wounded her. It was as if I had no faith in her, which I didn’t. And of course, she dreaded spending a week by herself.

Now I felt guilty for ignoring her as she stood there. And I ignored her because I felt guilty about the airline tickets; psychosomatic or not, her symptoms were real. It was true. I should have pretended to have a little more faith.

“Are you coming to bed?” she asked, and I tried to figure out what she meant. Did she mean she wanted me to come? Ordinarily I would have thought so, but there was something in her tone to suggest she might have been attracted to the idea of lying sleepless under the sheets while I worked in another room. Maybe she could come and hover over me at two in the morning or at four, each time more distracted and disoriented, each time grimacing in the harsh electric light.

While I sorted this out, she disappeared into the bathroom. I sat back in my chair. But my train of thought had come derailed, and besides, feelings of hopelessness were now threatening to overwhelm my argument. How could we talk about this subject in a world where other human beings are such a mystery, where we have such trouble understanding ourselves? To write about our own feelings ten minutes ago is an enormous imaginative leap.

As if released by this impulse of negativity, new thoughts occurred to me. I had been avoiding them, because my plan for my paper was an optimistic one: to begin with protestations of impossibility, while at the same time suggesting or even showing how alien consciousness could plausibly be rendered. But my optimism depended on not remembering, on looking squarely to the future. Years ago I had written a novel, for which I’d had high hopes.

Most of my books are not started with any ideas in mind. But this one had an idea, a plot, which I wrote out at the beginning. I was to write the definitive story of alien intelligence, and my plan was this: During the course of the book, the viewpoint character was to undergo a transformation from human to alien, and was to bring the reader with her into a progressively different consciousness.

On another planet, long colonized by human beings, a member of a native race has been turned into a human woman, through gene splicing, plastic surgery, and most importantly through psychotropic medication, which she takes daily. This medication closes down certain areas of brain function, and smoothes out what remains into the normal spectrum of human mental activity. This woman is in the social elite of her own race, whose unmedicated members are terrifying and incomprehensible to her, as they are to us.

But at the beginning of the novel, this young woman’s supply of medication is cut off. By the end of it, she is a different kind of creature, who thinks in a different way. Because she is the viewpoint character, the reader is able to witness this transformation from the inside, and to adjust to it. My idea was that anyone who picked up the book and tried to read the last chapter, say, without reading the rest, would find it literally incomprehensible. A new vocabulary of words, feelings, and concepts would have gradually been introduced.

The published text fell short of these ambitions.

Now I found myself listening to the sound of Laura cleaning her teeth. This was an elaborate process, lasting ten minutes and requiring specialized equipment. The sound of it exasperated me—strange gurglings. When I had first met her, she had brushed her teeth like anybody else. In every respect, she’d been a normal person.

Soon she stood barefoot outside the threshold once more, leaning against the doorframe while I looked up and smiled. “How’s it going?” she asked.

I shrugged. “I wonder if I should talk about Coelestis.”

“I loved that book.”

Startled, I looked up. What did she mean by this? She stood shivering in the doorway, her hands clasped around her elbows, though I didn’t find it cold. “It didn’t get to what I wanted,” I said.

“What do you mean?’

“No conceptual breakthrough.”

She laughed. “You’re lucky that’s not why people read.”

Irritated, I said nothing, and she went on: “Stories aren’t the place for conceptual breakthroughs. People read to feel things, and that’s different from understanding them. Maybe it’s the opposite. If people cared about understanding things, they’d read academic papers for fun.”

“Well, an academic paper is what I’m writing,” I said. “I’m trying to say stuff people don’t already know.”

“And how’s it going?

I did not dignify this question with a response.

Laura came into the room. She pushed some of my papers aside and curled up on the bed behind me. Her feet were long and thin as she drew them up. “I can’t believe you’re going to Germany in the middle of the summer,” she said. “That’s when it’s so beautiful here.”

I swiveled my chair around to stare at her. There were some pieces of notepaper beside her, which she was brushing off the pillow. She picked one up. “‘If lions could speak,’” she read, “‘we wouldn’t be able to understand them.’”

“When in doubt, quote Wittgenstein,” I sighed.

The trouble with Laura, and the central problem in our relationship, was that she was much more intelligent than I. “Or the opposite of Wittgenstein,” she immediately countered. “Anything that can’t be said, you must express obliquely—that’s what I’m telling you.”

Laura suffered from insomnia, among other complaints. Exhausted during the day, past midnight she was taken by a hectic energy. Under the bedside light, her cheeks were flushed, her fingers restless. She had a habit of playing with a curl of hair under her ear. Her eyes, as she looked at me, were focused and intense. I imagined if she’d sat down at that moment to write “If Lions Could Speak,” she’d have been finished in about twenty minutes.

For most of her life, her critical skills had been directed outward. She’d helped me understand the world, myself, even my work. But in the past year, I had watched her turn these analytical weapons against herself, resulting in terrible damage, I thought, though she would not have said so.

Independent and skeptical by nature, now she had acquired a psychotherapist, an acupuncturist, a masseur, a support group, and an herbalist. It was as if she were a temperamental racing car, requiring a team of specialists to keep her on the road.

Unemployed now, she had lost interest in her surroundings. And I, too, since I’d come to rely on her, felt sometimes I was wandering in a fog of social currents, liable to hurt myself on objects that loomed suddenly. So it was with an apprehensive sort of relief that I now listened to her reach out tentatively into the world of ideas, where she had once played happily. “You know fiction is an indirect art form. It’s not good for talking about politics, or theory, or conceptual ideas of any kind. Or else it pretends to talk about those things, since none of its real subjects can be communicated plainly—I mean sensation and emotion. It’s like a magic trick. You show something in your hands, and you try to make it beautiful. But the power of what you’re doing comes from something else—I swear to God, you know this! Why are you patronizing me? Don’t patronize me.” And she burst suddenly into tears.

It is at moments of shared pleasure or pain that we feel closest to other people. But when someone is seized by an emotion that we cannot share, then it is easy to feel alienated. I sat in my chair, rocking slowly back and forth, studying the tears on Laura’s cheeks, her brimming eyes. At such moments I was aware of my own body—the feel of the chair under my sweating palms.

Most people are familiar with how, after a few simple repetitions, an ordinary word like “helmet,” say, or “nice,” can lose all meaning. The words Laura spoke now seemed like that to me. Baffled, I stared at her mouth, which was beautiful and full, with beautiful big teeth.

“Sometimes I don’t think you are a real human being. I talk about sensations and feelings—I mean, are there any feelings here at all? Why don’t you say something? Please say something. You seem so far away from me right now.”

Studying her, trying to understand her, my work was compounded by a further disadvantage, which will not take the acute reader by surprise. Laura was right—there’s nothing human about me. I am a hollow man, a circular façade. You might say even the concept of “Paul Park” is an erroneous one, a role I am less and less competent to play. Heart pounding, I sat immobile in my chair, as if her words had reduced me to catatonia. Perhaps they had—it wouldn’t have been the first time.

When I say “hollow man,” I mean it literally. At certain moments I am like a captive inside myself, my humanity frozen and constrained in a small space. Impotent, I watch while all the functions of my body are carried out by others. I watch them creeping up and down my synapses, moving my lips and tongue and hands. When they turn away from those tasks and fall to arguing among themselves, I can do nothing.

“I just wish I could feel some sympathy,” Laura said. “Just some human warmth. I know you’re tired out by all my issues—well, so am I. Do you think it gives me pleasure to go over these same things over and over? I wake up in the middle of the night and I’m suffocating. That’s why it hurt me so much for you to announce you’re going away without me. Because I’m afraid you might never come back. And if you really did leave me forever, that’s just what you’d say. Just straight out cold like that: ‘I’m going by myself.’ There’d be nothing to discuss.”

What was she talking about? At such times, I feel inside of me a cacophony of voices, which started when I wrote Coelestis, years ago. “Nice book,” they said. “Bad book.” During the hours I spent breaking my head against the problem of alien intelligence, it was as if I’d opened myself to tiny emanations from above. In time they came to live in me, more and more because I’d welcomed them in. I’d given them small, cute names. Because they were, or so I thought, the product of my own imagination, I did not anticipate that they would combine or conspire against me, and keep me prisoner while they went on to make a havoc of my life. No wonder Laura just got sicker and sicker, more and more neurotic. I was unable to protect her.

One of these presences was from a planet I call Lepton. In our search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, we crave contact with something large, about the same size as ourselves. But these creatures that move through me are very small. One of them, I say—her name is Moonbeam—now comes flickering through the wind chamber of my lungs, where a convocation is taking place. She moves up to the speaker’s chair, which adjusts to her. A tiny crystal vial hangs suspended, and a mote of light flickers inside it like a firefly.

Now there is silence in the crowded hall, as the delegates take their seats. All attention is on the mote of light; Moonbeam is an important presence in the chamber, and commands respect. An image appears in each tiny consciousness, and in mine as well. As if on a dais behind the gleaming vial, an enormous figure now takes shape, and I recognize myself.

The delegates spend a good deal of time discussing such images. My problems and thought processes are a compelling source of interest for them. Each has a different way of describing me, of which Moonbeam’s is the best, I think. The figure is in a cage, and he moves slowly because of the manacles on his hands and feet. He is asleep. He is often asleep.

As this image suggests itself—I presume to all of us—thoughts come too. I imagine “thoughts” are a constant in this bunch, perhaps the only one. I call the figure the “Proteus monster,” because the remarkable thing about it is not its actual morphology, which is embarrassingly naked. Rather it’s the way the figure changes: constantly, imperceptibly. Or not imperceptibly—it’s like staring at the minute hand on a clock. Sometimes the figure has hair all over its body, which then gradually recedes and is absorbed. Or sometimes it is massive and fat, and then the flesh will drain away. Sometimes the face is heavy and fierce, sometimes epicene and soft. Sometimes claws grow in, or scales, and the figure seems at first glance to be a lizard or a bear. Yet always I can recognize myself.

Now I see the creature’s chin grow soft, as if the bones were melting underneath. I see its chest slowly inflate. But now Moonbeam pulls my thoughts away, and now I’m looking at the other object on the dais, a small computer or machine, a cube maybe three feet on a side. It is beeping. Lights flash.

From Moonbeam, I get the impression something is wrong. I myself have no mechanical instinct. But the clicking sound is weaker and the lights are dimmer than usual—I see that now. Others see it, too. One of the delegates—I call him Sharpie—stands on his chair, waving his claws.

Moonbeam is effective because she doesn’t tell you what to think. The sense of urgency comes from within. As if projected on a screen on the top of the hall, I can see Laura through my eyes, and I watch her pretty mouth. There is a spot above her lip. I hear her voice reverberating through the empty space inside of me, and all is still. Nerve ganglia flop and writhe uselessly in the shadows. I cannot move my arms.

“Is it too much to ask, to expect some humanity from you? Just some words, some comfort. How long has it been since you’ve kissed me, or taken me in your arms? I swear I think you’re like a robot sometimes. Either there’s just nothing going on, or else you’re just watching me—recording data to use against me later—talk to me! Say something! We rattle around this house together, and sometimes we spend the whole day without saying anything to each other, and it feels as if I’m starving. It feels as if I’m starving to death.”

I blink. Below me in the convocation hall, there is pandemonium, and I see why. Six panels of multicolored lights run across the top of the cube, and now two of them are dark. The rest glow weakly. In his cage, the prisoner appears to be inflating like a balloon. The flesh over his wrists and ankles swells around the iron manacles.

Sharpie is waving his antennae. His claws make a rasping, chitinous squeak, and I can hear his high, almost imperceptible scream. “Kill!” he says. “You kill!” and more like that. I admire him because he is predictable. I feel my fingers jerk and spasm on the arms of my chair, as if they had a mind of their own. Laura is a pretty woman, especially her arms and neck, which are delicate and white. She wants me to touch her, I think. I’ll touch her.

Many of the delegates come from races that have transcended mere technology, but Sharpie has not. He loves gadgets. Gadgets float around him, tiny machines consisting of a few molecules—self-protective devices, I imagine. They move around his legs and claws as he gesticulates. He’s like a little crayfish in some ways.

Moonbeam soothes him, showing him pictures I can’t see. But he resents it. Now suddenly a swarm of little machine bugs are darting toward the crystal vial. But when they get too close, they pop and explode, zapped by some current in the air. Others form like eggs among the folds of Sharpie’s tail.

In times past, late at night as I lay awake next to Laura, listening to her snore, Moonbeam would take me on a tour of the hall, introducing the delegates as they spoke. I would look at a small creature as it climbed up to the speaker’s chair. Information would suggest itself, which was Moonbeam’s work. And as I learned things, the creature would seem to swell and grow, and I would notice its details. “There, you see. No eyes, no mouth—it’s all smells with him. Those are rows of transmitters and receptors underneath his wings. When you talk, see them open and shut like tiny barnacles. They change the words to smells, so he can understand. Don’t fart—he’ll think you’ve lost your mind.”

No, this voice is not Moonbeam, though it often accompanies her. I call the voice Dorothy. She speaks in an accent that is vaguely Continental—French, perhaps. She has none of Moonbeam’s cool objectivity; she is always making fun. She’ll buzz and twitter in my ear: “That guy is an idiot. Don’t pay any attention.” But I never catch a glimpse of her. She is one of several presences that seem to have no physical manifestation. Still, it is odd she speaks such colloquial English. It is she who suggests names for all these creatures.

Now Moonbeam has given up the chair. Someone else now materializes, a small, human figure that Dorothy refers to as The Drone.

“Oh, Christ,” she says. “This is all we need.”

The Drone’s mouth is toothless, soft: “I . . . it should be evident, obvious, pa . . . pa . . . patent, o . . . o . . . pen, com . . . compre . . . comprehend . . . sible . . .”

The interpreters sit in a circle above the floor. Whenever there is a vocal transmission, they start to jabber and gesticulate. But as the Drone speaks they are silent, waiting. “. . . That we are approaching, co . . . coming up to, or initiating a cri . . . a crisis or ca . . . catastrophe, a disaster. I a . . . aver or mean or sig . . . sig . . . signify in the life or existence of our host, our vi . . . victim, our friend, our su . . . su . . . subject, who has been so . . . so . . . kind . . . receptive . . . dying . . . dead . . .”

In back of him, the prisoner has come awake. The flesh has bulged over his manacles, and he is bleeding from his hands and feet. “Oh,” he says, “I hurt.” As always, I am embarrassed by him, his words, his obvious sincerity. Tears fall from his eyes. He himself is a simple fellow and feels no embarrassment. Sometimes I have seen him masturbate, provoking both silence and applause.

His arms and shoulders seem mountainous, but he cannot break his chains. Blood drips from his fingers. Tusks are growing from his mouth, and he is chewing at his wrists, scratching at his feet. The computer blinks beside him, and above, the screen lurches to life.

Weak hearts run in my family, and my heart is racing now. There is an ominous thumping in the soft walls of the convocation hall, though the noise of my breath is now subsiding. “All right, all right, I take your point,” Laura says. “I know you well enough to know when you’re feeling wounded. Part of it’s my fault, I know. I can’t help coming after you when you’re like this, because it hurts me. But then I know you get into this passive-aggressive spiral—it’s been the death of us, can you see that?”

“Kill, kill,” Sharpie admonishes, and again I feel a tremor in my fingers. The little mechanical bugs swarm out and seize hold of the Drone, dragging him backward from the chair as he kicks and waves his arms. I can see Moonbeam flickering, hoping to take control of the ascending chaos: Among the curving rows of seats, delegates discuss the seriousness of the situation and the risk to themselves. Others, more vociferous, begin to fight. The open space in front of the speaker’s chair is full of struggling, small bodies. I recognize The Meadow Muffin and The Snake, or rather Dorothy brings them to my attention. The Snake exists in one dimension only, which makes him easy to dodge. He and his adversary fight viciously without touching at any point.

“And the retards have kept their seats,” continues Dorothy, imitating a sports announcer. She is referring to the lower circle, which is reserved for delegates under time constraints. Some appear and disappear at intervals. Some are slow as stones: All biological existence is like a minute to them. Others live like fruit flies, or even faster. Several experience time backwards—they know how this story ends, but grope vaguely toward its starting premises. One comes from a planet without any time at all, because the gravity is so strong.

Mr. Magoo, as Dorothy calls him, is a pudgy little fellow from a world without cause and effect, which in these proceedings has given him an air of continued bafflement. But now, for the first time, he is smiling and nodding: This is a bad sign. Watching him, I can appreciate how serious my situation is. The sound of my heart crashes and swells, and the soft floor shudders under us. “Uh, oh,” says Dorothy, as a spinning circle, a whirlpool of colored wind takes form in the middle of the chamber. All the delegates stop mid-word, mid-fisticuff. There is a roaring sound. The whirlpool of wind or smoke or cloud turns a succession of subtle hues: ash rose, black lavender, while a strange perfume comes to us. And there are lights flashing in the center of the spiral, and all the delegates are still. They cannot move, except for Sharpie, who climbs down out of his chair. He holds wrenches and screwdrivers in his many hands.

Above the whirlpool we hear Laura’s voice. “All right,” she says, “just sit there. And if you really want to hurt me, you can just close your eyes—yes, like that. Just like that. Why don’t you fall asleep while I tell you something I’ve never told anyone except my therapist, which I didn’t even remember until she brought it out of me—do you think people are the way they are for no reason? Just a chaos of desires and thoughts? Yes, you do think that, I know you do, because it is impossible for you to look inside yourself. Something just closes down inside of you—I pity you. I really do. I pity you because you’ll never get better, as I am getting better. You’ll never go forward. You’ll never change. But I know things have happened to me that have made me what I am—causes and effects, over and over. But if you know what’s happening, then you can change. So let me tell you now what brought me to this place, where I am living with a man who’s so closed off, he actually closes his eyes when I am talking to him, closes his eyes and grimaces with pain, because of what I’m saying to him. It doesn’t matter. Let me tell you—”

Laura’s voice now gradually subsides, and I can’t hear it anymore. All I can hear is the roaring wind and the shuddering in the walls. And my eyes are not closed. I am watching the barred cage on the dais, where the animal or man is now gigantic. He is weeping from the pain of the iron bands. Tears flow down his hairy cheeks. But at the same time he is in a rage, and he snorts and drools and gnashes his tusks together, and seizes hold of the bars and rocks his body back and forth until the cage rocks with him. There is an ominous crashing as the cage tips and falls back, and at the same time the chains break, and the manacles break apart. The colored whirlpool turns in the center of the room, and no one moves except for Sharpie, who has clambered up onto the dais. Now he comes forward to the flashing cube, and he breaks the top open with his screwdrivers, and he reaches his claws into the cavity, and I can see the wires come apart. The lights go out, and in the cage the giant grasps at his left side, and staggers, and falls. As he falls, already he’s begun to shrink and soften. Dead, he will resemble pasty, hairless me.

Now there is pandemonium as the hollow man collapses and caves in. The roof collapses. There is darkness in the hall. There are lights and flashes as the delegates scatter for the exits. My throat is jammed with them so that I cannot breathe. Even in this catastrophe, some take leave of me before they flicker away. “Oh, me go, me go, me go—nice time,” they say. “Sweet house of joyfulness. Sweet place of life.” But some are trapped and crushed. The shuddering in the walls goes still.

One escapes, buzzing like a tiny bee, too small to hear. She works through the forest of my nose. “Nice time,” she says, and flies out past the computer screen, where the text of “If Lions Could Speak” glows reproachfully, never to be completed. Laura can’t see, doesn’t see. She is worried now, finally, and she’s amazed when the window breaks: a little hole, a fracture in the glass like a bullet hole. Then that little bee is up through the dark night, fighting air and gravity as thick as mud, a minute fleck of light rising and gathering speed, gathering mass as well, bulking up on hydrogen for the long journey. Then she’s up into the brighter way, past the atmosphere where the long spaces begin. Looking back, she can see the world spread out, but not a blue sphere in its nest of clouds—nothing like that. Instead she sees it in a different way, uncloaked by the self-referential illusions of humankind, the vain projections and imaginings. She sees a vast, flat plain, covered with a layer of viscous jelly many miles thick—no, actually, she doesn’t see that. She sees a vast inverted bowl, its surface troubled with waterspouts—not that either. She sees a blinding tablet, on which are recorded certain numerical constants—not a chance of that. She sees not one world but many billions, each closed and locked and silent—no. She sees an astonishing paradise of lakes and mountains and warm winds, where gigantic men and women fornicate in the long grass—no, I, for one, don’t believe she sees anything like that. Surely here we’ve reached the limit of this story, the boundary that even death can’t penetrate, unless it can. There is a skin of mirrors on the outside of the world, and our little friend is pressing up against it, making a bulge in it, pressing on valiantly, eager to come home.

That’s where this story ends, or else should end. It cannot end with even the tiniest rip in that mirrored skin, and it will not end with that small creature flickering through. But surely on the other side, her passage will be quick. Perhaps at every multiple of light-speed she will stop again and wait for our imaginations to catch her. Perhaps in the far future she will come safely down. And there will be a strange, discolored forest, with pale leaves falling on the pale hills—it won’t be strange to her. Under the trees, there will be tawny, roaring beasts covered with fur. They will open their mouths: “Break us of eyes here. Eggs break and eggs don’t break. Help is a forgiving noise for all that sloshing in the bitter pool. Birds come around, then come around, and if you step, there will be stairs. If you touch, there will be things. Luck of all lucky ones,” they’ll say, and we will almost understand.

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Paul Park

Paul Park

Paul Park lives in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, with his wife Deborah and his children Lucius and Miranda. He is the author of A Princess of Roumania and its sequels, Soldiers of Paradise and its sequels, The Gospel of Corax, Celestis, Three Marys, All Those Vanished Engines, and a new collection, Other Stories from PS Publishing. “If Lions Could Speak” first appeared in Interzone in 2002, and was the title story in his first collection, which came out from Wildside Press that same year.