It was a typical departure lounge, exceedingly cold, bare, entirely antiseptic. Two chairs, two doors, two beings. An appropriate point to leave one life for another. He looked up.
“Even so we must go through the formalities. You are aware of the choice?”
“Yes. Pain, misunderstanding, isolation and struggle for the chance of genius, creativity, shortened life one on hand. Stability, peace, community and plenty for the certainty of pleasure, love, longevity on the other. I have considered and chosen.”
“It is one time only, one life without repentance. A choice once made cannot be undone. Remember it is a place made for pleasure.”
“As I understand it to be.” He extended a clay tablet to the other. “My choice, my decision.”
Taking the tablet he read it carefully, twice. “It is a long time since any candidate allowed time, placement and criteria at the director’s discretion.”
“Greater rewards from greater risks.”
“Indeed.” They stood together, bowed formally. “I will be here to greet you on your return.” smiling, turning to the door on the left.
“Whenever that may be.”
* * *
Irish linen and silk. Cool, smooth, enfolding, familiar comfort not too close, all they should be in a dying man’s bed. For the second time he noticed the small chips in the ceiling, the abandoned spider web in the corner. The mundane now beautiful, soon to be denied me.
He shifted his gaze through the open door to his wife, her back to him as she comforted his guests. All my life as performance art, a stage from birth to death and all in between, outward costumes and masks, true self only known to two. Has it been worth it? A life of days torn, challenged and shifting, rest elusive.
The tiniest laugh escaped him. Four days in bed, god it’s the most time I’ve ever spent staying still and they all know it’s useless. As least it’s finished, the twenty-fifth, the twenty-eighth, what number I don’t know but it’s the coda, the last stroke on the canvas. It is what it is, doubtless they’ll judge and criticize and dump on it until I’m dust and then cash in.
He closed his eyes, drained. Her lips now soft on his forehead, her small hand gripping his tight as if her life force could jump the eternal barrier of flesh. This she, I could have had all this always but I was never, driven, unending. What choice did I have? Does it matter, did it ever matter?
* * *
Picking the bones of dead planets was to some maudlin, to her beauty and intrigue. This world yielded enigmas as had others, a small cache of dull silver discs in rotting fibrous sleeves. She archived this last one, the best preserved, noting its monochrome finish and faintly discernible five-pointed design before it too turned to dust. She held the disc above her and watched the red sun’s cascading prisms of light.
“And what is it that these are?” her companion came into her mind.
“Artefacts, but as to purpose I am not sure. These dark and light patches, data or perhaps mystic symbolism. Observe.” taking her companion across to their instruments. “A waveform, similar but not identical, some parts repeated, others unitary. A gap, then more, perhaps a data block boundary.”
“It looks vaguely familiar,” detaching half its consciousness to confer with the central database “it bears the characteristics of an audible data stream.”
“Audible? I’d never considered. These were supposedly advanced beings.”
“True, but we have also discovered what appear to be written data caches. Perhaps it is the case.”
“Perhaps indeed.” For the entirety of their civilizations’ histories the only noise produced by living beings were grunts, squawks and growls of lower animals. Every sentient species was telepathic.
She thought the changes to the instrument, converting the waveforms to their telepathic equivalents. They both jumped at the skrtiching – scratching in their heads.
“No, perhaps that is not correct, it is not linear output.”
“Yes, so maybe this.” changing the sequence to spiral inward. The skritch-scratch stopped, replaced by a jagged rise and fall. “And the dead planet communicates.”
Her companion moved off, curiosity sated. Dead communication from a dead planet could not pay its way in a living universe.
About to shut it down she wondered if, being wrong once, she could be wrong twice. She changed the sequence to spiral outward.
“Oh my!” Now it was transformed, the undulating tones linking to a rising and falling chant, mesmeric tonal variations. The closest she recalled was the thought fabric of the Ghertnyst mystics but this, this reduced them to irrelevance. Within the undulations images formed, glimpses of a lost world borne in rhythmic waves, tone and inflection as the dead planet’s long extinct species told of love, revenge, redemption, death, bright burning the images into her mind.
Her companion drew close, captured. “What is this thing?”
“I do not know,” shaken by the tide of emotion “but what beings were they?”