The tide seeped away, grey water into black sand. It left her lime-green boots uncovered, anomalous. Just as well, thought Sarosh, turning her back on the sea. This planet could use some color. As it had used Richard, used her dreams; swallowed them whole, and left nothing but little grains of sand that stuck to everything, fell off everywhere. She kicked the sand as she walked, and it spurted grudgingly before her feet.
At her back, the little love-lorn birds took up their plaintive cries, did their graceful runs and leapt ungainly into the air. ‘Just what the planet needs,’ she’d told him when he sent the first vid, ‘moaning birds that can hardly fly.’ He’d only laughed. ‘I like it,’ he’d said. ‘It reminds me to be lonely.’ She was lonely now.
Alira waved to her from the cabin above. Lonely, but not alone; no one with an assistant was ever truly alone. “What’s up?” Sarosh asked, thumbing her net on.
‘Listen,’ he had said on their last virtmeet. ‘The sea is calling me. Not telepathically, though.’ She turned back to the surf, listened with one ear while Alira’s voice poured schedules into the other. The waves crashed and stuttered and sighed across the sand in their alien language. “Richard,” she told them. “Richard.”
“Yes,” said Alira from the porch, well clear of needy, sticky sand. “I just checked. There’s nothing new in the search for him.”
Sarosh walked back, kicked her boots against the foamcrete steps. He’d planned to cover them, he’d said, with native wood, or some equivalent. ‘It’s grass, really, but I can form it into planks.’ She’d lost the rest of his comments, swirled them up with wind and sand and the sound of the sea.
“I’m sorry,” said Alira for the hundredth time. She didn’t like the beach, the way the sharp drop appeared at low tide and waves crashed fierce and furious at its rocky base. She risked a step down the stair, almost laid a tentative hand on Sarosh’s shoulder. “Maybe tomorrow.”
Maybe tomorrow, maybe the day after, the week after. All the maybe days rolled up in an endless bracelet of possibility and disappointment.
“Does this world have such a thing as months?” Sarosh asked. This world, because she refused to give it its romantic name, didn’t care about the technical one.
“Yes, it does,” said Alira, ever the perfect assistant, ever prepared. “Or it could. No one has named them yet. But with two moons, it could have a complex system of months.” And who would have named them, if not Richard? Perhaps he’d done it. Perhaps up in the cabin, among his meticulous notes, was a native calendar, or in the scraps of poetry he’d left everywhere in his wake.
“How much longer can we stay?” Sarosh asked.
“As long as you want.” Assistant as therapist, enabler.
I want to leave this place today and never come back. “How long?” she asked again. I want to stay here, to bury myself in this cold black sand and wait and mourn and cry like a bird.
“Ten days; local days. A thirtday if we have to. After that, there’s the … presentation to the grant committee.” Alira hesitant because Sarosh and Richard had planned it together, this one little intersection of their professional worlds to match the intersection of their hearts. Begging for money she could have provided with a flick of her eyes.
“Send me the latest presentation,” Sarosh said. “Whatever the home team has refined.” Her crew would continue to update until the last minute, but it would not have changed substantially for thirts now.
“Of course. It’s on your pad now.” Professional tone hiding hurt that her boss could even hint she wasn’t ready. It would be a new version after all, Sarosh realized. One with no role for Richard. The team would have taken his absence into account by now, might have had a Richard-less version waiting from the start. Just in case.
She looked up at the Richard-less cabin, climbed to its Richard-less porch, listened to the Richard-less voices of the birds.
“Are you alright?” She’d closed her eyes, like a child pretending that a thing she couldn’t see was a thing she couldn’t feel. An absence that couldn’t touch her.
She opened her eyes, saw the concern in Alira’s wide brown gaze. “I’m fine.” She kicked sand off her boots where it had dried to a crust. “I’ll work down the list for a while.” There was always a list. Documents to be reviewed, expenses to be approved. All the things that came with a business spanning the width of a spiral arm. All the things that could be ignored and delegated. But not for long.
She sat on Richard’s rickety grass-plank bench to take off her boots. Beyond the porch’s protective screen, down by the dropoff, love-lorn birds raced to wrap prey in their wings. ‘They’re not mainly wings,’ he had told her. ‘It’s how they eat. They fold these big flaps of skin around other creatures, and assimilate them.’ Which he insisted wasn’t just a poetic term for eating, that there was a transfer of knowledge. ‘Like all the old myths of eating a creature to gain its skills.’ But he’d been serious. She watched the birds’ low bodies rise in staggered, wobbly surges, carrying borrowed knowledge up into rising wind. A storm coming; there was almost always a storm here, flinging sand against the screens, churning the sea into froth and ferocity.
“Alira. Gather up Richard’s poetry.” The scraps of scraps, scrawled words on crude paper he’d strewn like leaves across the house.
“It’s in the box.” The other woman stepped easily out of immaculate boots and into the immaculate slippers she’d left for them on the porch. “The blue stone one you gave him. I thought you might want it.” The blue box of stone so light you could lift it with one finger, as if its carved floodbats were lifting it with cutout wings.
“Is there much?” She would go through it. That was her role, her contribution to his art; sifting through the leaves, helping him decide what to compost, what to keep; what had value. Tears started, and she looked to her boots. What had value. That was what she knew, what she saw. She had seen him.
“A few dozen fragments.”
“It’s not good, is it?” For a would-be telepath, he had been a terrible communicator. The tears seemed under control, and she slipped her feet into warm slippers.
“The poetry? Not really.” Alira was honest, when she wasn’t being supportive. It had been her main qualification for the job.
“No.” The poetry had never been good. Even the pieces he’d written for her; especially those. Even the piece that had won her heart, back when her empire spanned only one planet, and he’d been an exo-biologist with a lunatic idea. The poetry had been treacly, dramatic, obvious. It had never changed. He had changed her, with his stupid, stupid words, and his follies. “I’ll come later,” she gasped, and held off the sobs until Alira had gone to the invisible, unobtrusive, ubiquitous world assistants went to.
Outside, a fog obscured the sea battering its way to the top of the dropoff with the rising tide. Not so much a fog as a spray, really, a haze as salty as the sea, and just as harsh. ‘It’s a bit alkaline,’ he had warned her, ‘but beautiful. And full of life!’ Because life was why he was here, why he had begged her to let him have this world for a threecent of days, unexploited, unexplored.
‘I need to be the first,’ he insisted. ‘Before it’s spoiled.’
‘It’s already spoiled, Richard.’ It had had exobots crawling all over it, in their sterile, dragonfly bodies.
‘You know what I mean. The first person. The first who thinks.’ She had known, of course. Had known from their first meeting, when he said ‘Hi. I’m Richard. I’m a telepath.’ He’d never known what she was thinking, at that meeting, or the next, or the one that merged subtly into a date, then a relationship, then a life. He’d never known, and it hadn’t mattered, because he knew what she felt, what she wanted and needed. ‘That’s not telepathy,’ he’d scoffed. ‘That’s love.’ As if there were a difference.
She looked out at the world she’d borrowed for him. A grey mist over black sand that hid love-lorn birds and sparklesing grass and slambang frogs and a hundred other strained names for strange creatures. A world borrowed from stockholders and creditors and staff who wondered why they weren’t already exploiting the world and selling acreage and virt-safaris and phys-tours. All because of one man with conviction and a run of luck at esper card tricks.
And now he was gone. Vanished into howling winds, high seas, rocky coast. Vanished since just after their last talk, so that she’d only gotten the news when they climbed back down out of hype, already half the arm away.
Richard, she sent her call again. Richard! Where are you? On the beach, the sea rose, and the wind threw waves down on the hard sand, let them rise, threw them down again, again, again.
Richard. No answer came, and never would, because telepathy didn’t exist. She’d told him as much at that first meeting, had laughed in his face, made a note to find out how he’d gotten past her assistant or her assistant’s assistant. And, when he’d laughed back, brown eyes crinkling, short hair waggling, agreed to another meeting.
‘There is no such thing as telepathy,’ her assistant of the time had confirmed. All of them had. She’d had every new assistant look into it, even after she’d committed to spend her life with him, in her mind, if not in words. ‘They try to guess cards, tricks like that. Richard just got lucky.’
‘Several times,’ he’d pointed out. ‘Consistently.’
‘Coincidence,’ she’d said. They’d all said. And he’d gotten his first grant from some tiny university with too big an endowment. In two three-cents of days, he’d failed to communicate with dogs, cats, birds, slugs, trees. With anyone but her. Even his funders seemed not to comprehend his failure. They’d kept funding him. And she’d kept seeing him, even as her business grew to other planets, to an entire system. Those had been good days, happy days.
She fell asleep in the little sitting room, woke to find herself stretched under a blanket on the sofa where no doubt Alira had arranged her limbs in the middle of the night. She fought her way muzzily to her feet and shuffled into her bedroom. Their room; Richard’s room, and the reason she liked to forget to go to bed.
When she returned from the tiny shower, pH-adjusted, sterilized water dripping from damp hair onto a clean sweater, Alira had set out juice, cakes, a screen with tabs of news and business updates. She ate and read in silence while Alira sat in the kitchen, mumbling and tapping into her net.
“I’m ready,” Sarosh said as she set down her empty juice glass. Alira came and smiled and took her seat on a hard chair opposite. Bright-eyed and bushy tailed and harder working than her boss. Sarosh had been the same once.
They spent the morning dealing with business until the list was tamed, pruned, manageable.
“I’ll get lunch,” Alira said, meaning she would choose from a dozen stat-packed gourmet meals an invisible staff prepared in the lander’s kitchen, or brought down from the waiting ship above.
“Wait,” Sarosh called. Alira turned, net ready, eyes bright. Tail bushy? What had she meant to say? “Bring me the poems.”
“Of course.” As if the blue box weren’t visible on the little table across from the sofa, as if Sarosh were in the habit of being lazy.
“Thank you, Alira.” She caught the younger woman’s hand as it set the box down in front of her. She squeezed it gently, felt it squeeze back. “You’re good to me.” She let go, opened the box, tried not to see the brown eyes getting brighter as they turned away.
The box held scraps of hand-made paper, little squares and rectangles neatly smoothed and stacked. Richard would have left them crumpled all over the house. She had seen them, when they arrived, ignored them to focus on commanding exobots and overflights, search parties and radio calls, repeating every step her competent, loyal staff had already taken.
The fragments were just that, for the most part. Little phrases and couplets in Richard’s spiky scrawl.
A dog sat by the door of a house
And felt the shadows pass over him.
He waited in dark and light
While his master stayed inside.
Richard aiming for enigma.
Oh umbrous me, by an umbrose tree
How pleasant it is to be cool.
She chuckled. That was the other Richard — irreverent, funny, pointless. On a planet without trees.
Before a thickening twilight.
A fragment, destined never to carry more meaning than an awkward image. There were many more like it.
At the bottom, she found a slightly larger sheet, with what might have been a complete poem.
Give its due,
Its wrack and ruin.
Give your love
It cares nothing for.
To its spume and froth
Give your hopes.
To the wild sea, the wild sea.
Dramatic, portentous, romantic. Richard through and through. The grammar was awkward. The second couplet didn’t scan. She smoothed it against the table, let her tears fall upon its blue ink, let salt water smear the letters until they were gone. Then she folded it gently, put it back in the box and gathered the others in her hands for the recycler.
After a twenday, nothing changed. The moons raced and crawled across the sky, raised tides and storms, drained the sea to sharp rocks covered in flat, sheet-like fish with rubbery fringes, looking for something to envelop, to assimilate, to learn from. Richard had named them, no doubt, had made a note in his file for her scientists and marketers to consider.
‘You just want to be Adam,’ she’d accused, smiling.
‘Come and be my Eve,’ he’d said, though they both knew he wanted the world unsullied by other human minds. ‘If I make contact, I want to be sure it’s with aliens,’ he’d joked before he left.
Naming had been a good use of his poetry. ‘Get it out of your system,’ she’d begged.
‘I’m putting it in your system,’ he’d said, though the company only owned the planet, had already sold the rights to the rocky inner worlds and the outer giants.
“Anything?” she asked Alira.
“I’m sorry.” Torn between supportive and honest. “Nothing. It’s been a tenday now,” she anticipated.
Ten days with every available staff person landside, spending half their days thinking Richard!, and the other half listening. Waiting for signals from the only telepath in the entire arm. If there had ever been one.
“I thought,” Alira was unusually hesitant. “I thought maybe someone who knew him.”
Sarosh’s jaw tensed. Did the fool think she hadn’t tried? Hadn’t spent her days and nights listening, calling, crying? Hadn’t woken on her sofa to imagined calls that vanished as soon as she rose? But of course she knew. Alira had woken with her, brought her coats to wear in the storms outside, dried her off when she returned, fed her, clothed her, wiped her tears.
“I thought,” Alira said, “maybe I would have more luck. Because I knew him better than the other staff did. More connection. But less invested, emotionally.” Less likely to invent voices in the dark. “I didn’t hear anything. I’m sorry. I … I tried.” Her dark eyes sparkled, and Sarosh saw the dark shadows that had pooled under them as Alira ran an empire single-handed while keeping its mistress warm and busy.
“I know you did, Alira. I know. I’m sorry too.” She took Alira’s soft hand and squeezed it, let it go as its owner hurried into the kitchen to let warm brown eyes spill into hot green tea.
“It’s enough,” Sarosh said as they sat later on the porch, red-eyed, warming their hands on Richard’s thick ceramic mugs. Outside the barrier, the wind had calmed to a gentle breeze, the tide near its highwater mark. The love-lorn birds did their ponderous display flights, seducing mates with clumsy twists and dips.
“Are you sure?” Alira’s voice was gentle. “We’ve stayed this long. I can put everything off until the grant presentation.”
“No.” And she would go through with the presentation, would not fund it herself, because that was what Richard would have wanted. And if they got the grant, would send some young fool out here to listen for alien voices in his mind. And any others he heard. “No, it’s enough. We’ll go to Alteph, then Likun. That will leave us close enough to Ghenna that we can present in person rather than virt.” She looked out at the black beach again. “Pack. Let me know when the lander is ready.”
“Of course.” A tentative hand settled on her arm, vanished.
She slid the slippers off her feet, slid into lime-green boots. Outside the screen, the wind was warm, freighted with foreign messengers of scent and salt. She let it blow her toward the water. The love-lorn birds squealed and raced on delicate legs to rest a few meters away. They moaned their sad moan, calling for mates already beside them, and every now and then flapping unwieldy wings to lift slowly into the wind.
The sea sputtered and spat and sent its feelers out and back, out and back in slow, bubbled waves. She squatted at its edge and took a folded paper from her pocket.
“Here,” she said, letting the poem settle into the water. “My wrack and ruin. My love.” The caustic water soaked the paper, bled the ink away in little blue swirls. An undertow sucked black sand grains over the top. “That’s enough. My hopes I’m keeping.” She stood and turned away to wave at Alira, waiting patiently at the top of ugly foamcrete steps. Behind her, the soft, assimilating swish of the sea called her name.