LIGHTSPEED Presents: “In the Dying Light, We Saw a Shape” by Jeremiah TolbertS

io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we'll be featuring a story from Lightspeed's current issue. This month's selection is "In the Dying Light, We Saw a Shape" by Jeremiah Tolbert. You can read the story below, or you can listen to the podcast version. Enjoy!

Image © 2014 Galen Dara.

In the Dying Light, We Saw a Shape
Jeremiah Tolbert

{{Before Us}}

.@neiltyson calls them "space diatoms," but I say "space whales." They're beaching themselves on our interstellar shores. Question is: why?

—Tweet by @LilMeyerECID, January 7, 2021

Thom met Lilian under a Nebraska sky, stars shining through the fabric of space so intensely that he sometimes mistook them for the falling whales, burning brightly. He tended to stargaze; it was the frustrated astronomer in him, deposed by his practical self who had learned that mathematics was crucial to the study of the universe. So why not study something more practical, like business administration? And so Thom was watching the sky instead of the dying space whale when Lilian introduced herself.

She struck up a conversation in the usual way, asking how he had become involved in "all this," with a sweeping gesture to include the other contactees, ripe with unwashed, road-weary bodies, the dying space whale smelling strangely of gunpowder, and the ephemeral industry that sprang into life around new landing sites. T-shirt hawkers and knickknack vendors shouted ever-lower prices while local news media interviewed the oddest looking contactees they could pry away from the whale's hulking presence. Diminutive and ancient Hispanic women strolled through it all with the serenity of Buddha, selling homemade burritos and tamales cocooned in aluminum foil out of large coolers on creaking, plastic wheels. On the fringes, half-hidden in the corn, well-bribed deputies and sheriffs stood watch, eyes narrow, lips pursed, ready for signs of trouble, any reason to shut it all down. With state budgets being in such sorry states and the federal government headed into its eighth year of complete deadlock, they took what they could, saw industry and commerce for what it was. But by God, wasn't it all just too damned weird?

Lilian pulled Thom away from the circus with a smile and a gesture, and in the relative quiet, she spoke of her father's long, painful illness, of the money he left her when he died, and how that money unmoored her from life, left her drifting on a sea of possibility, unable to settle on one plan. She spoke of her fear, that the world would never be the same, when she read the first reports of the creatures falling from the sky. She worried that it was humanity's fault, somehow, that we had escalated the wholesale destruction of life on this planet to the life between worlds, without even meaning to. Despite her fears, she sought out contact, and afterward, the fear and uncertainty were gone. She had found a purpose in these "space whales": A mystery to solve, perhaps the greatest one ever.

"I guess I always enjoyed a good puzzle when I was a girl," she said with a teasing smile. "What about you?"

Thom admitted that he was partial to puzzles, but it wasn't what had drawn him to the chase. He related how he had first seen a whale falling from the sky in West Texas; he'd been the first to arrive at the landing site. The beauty of a thing, its crenulations and whorls etched by exotic particles on its silica skin, its enormous bulk, and the strange sadness that enveloped him upon seeing it—a certainty that if it was not dead already, it was certainly dying.

He described how he had somehow known to touch it, despite all instincts to the contrary, simply by instinct, or perhaps fate. The contact experience had left him dizzy for hours. It shared the imagery of some far-off nebula in colors he wasn't certain could be seen by the human eye. Before contact, he was a failed astronomy student turned business major. After, he was something new, something no word had been invented to describe yet, but later people like him came to be called "chasers," or, derogatorily "touchers," and then finally, "Conversationalists." He described, with hesitation and embarrassment, how he had waited with the whale, feeling like he owed the dying creature something in return for the experiences it had imparted to him. In those early hours, he thought it was something unique and did not know it would become a shared experience with so many. For six days, the touches of others spread gray death over its vast, silica skin, drained it of its glimpses of stars, nebulae, black holes, and stranger interstellar mysteries still.

He departed only after the harvesters and collectors arrived and began sectioning what remained, cutting it into pieces for sale via online markets that hadn't yet banned such things. In the contacts he has witnessed since—a dozen of the tens of thousands of creatures that fell and continued to fall, much to the consternation of governments around the world—he never stayed at a site long enough to see the scavengers arrive again.

"We call them scavengers, but I think sometimes that we're all just picking over the carcasses," he said.

"No," Lilian said sharply. "We listen and we remember. We honor them, unlike those goddamned butchers."

He frowned. "Still, we usher in the deaths of once-beautiful creatures from the heavens. I know they'll die without our stealing caresses, but I wish there was something—anything—else that we could do."

And then she kissed him, for want of something to say. In the months to follow, he learned that in some strange way his fear and frustration summoned a kind of pitying love from the ocean of complexity that was Lilian. He fell into her kiss eagerly, but he could not shake a disappointment that his frustrations did not evoke something more meaningful.

The kiss led to other things in the moon-cast shadow of corn stalks, far away from the contact site. They lay together under the too-thin Nebraska sky making love, surfacing from one another's skins to relate their entire lives in a rush, like a whale to a contactee, desperate to share experiences before one of them faded to the gray of lifeless ash.

* * * *

{{How We Met, By the Numbers}}

Excerpt from Report ID 7389, Experiential Contact Internet Database (ECID).

Location: 40.97938, -96.01639

Date and Time: 5:21 AM, June 11th, 2022

Sensations: intense heat and cold, stinging exotic particles, radio waves that "sound" like a piano being played in slow motion.

Identifying visual landmarks and distances: a red giant, burning like a ruby eye, best guess approximation 2 AU away(?) Drawings attached include constellation shapes as best I could remember them.

Estimated contact experience pod size?: 25-30

Contactee Name: Thom Janssen

Contactee Kerber Sensitivity Rating: 7—high

Organism status at completion of experience: deceased

Site notes: Landing site was a cornfield near a country road. The property owner should be contacted by the ECID with a reparation grant offer. He was pissed, but did not call the authorities when promised a reparations grant by ECID founder Lilian Meyer. (Hi Lilian!)

Attachments: Four color pencil drawings (4 MB file size)

In Lilian, Thom saw a brilliant, strong-willed woman who had the agency to change the things in the world she did not like. They both shared dissatisfaction with how life had turned out. Both shared a longing for more of the adventure that they had found, at least temporarily, in the chase. But Lilian was determined to change things where Thom felt powerless to do so.

"I don't know that it is really my place to force my will on others, even by a method so subtle as persuasion . . ." he would say during their long conversations on drives between sites, following internet postings and rumors—sometimes arriving too late to make contact, always moving, always talking about things with deep meaning and emphasis on his part. If Thom had died then, his friends and family would have found it tempting to leave, as an epitaph, on his gravestone: "a most serious young man." And then Lilian would have scrawled rude graffiti on it after everyone had gone.

But Thom lived, and he sold his beater of a Ford Focus and took to riding with Lilian in her handsome, feature-rich SUV only a week after their Nebraska meeting.

"Admit it," she said jokingly, "you're with me not because of my company but for the air-conditioned seats."

Thom's face reddened, and he sputtered denials. "Absolutely not! You mean more to me than a comfortable ass—"

Lilian only laughed.

What did she see then that drew her to him? Perhaps it was the earnest seriousness—his lack of humor, to her, was not a character flaw. At least at first.

Among their many topics of conversation were also various theories about the space whales. It became their way for Lilian to advance the more ridiculous ideas. "They're a bioweapon sent to get us high and prepare the planet for colonization!"

In return, he would argue in seriousness the more rational of explanations. "Alien escape pods, launched without passengers. That would explain the hollow interiors—"

"But why the contact effect and why are they alive?" she would counter, giggling.

Later he would want her to know: For all his seriousness, he was rarely ever hurt by her mockery and laughter. Perhaps this is why they worked so well together; he loved her because she could not wound him deeply enough to do serious harm.

She loved him because she liked a challenge.

* * * *

{{How You Refused to Settle for Easy Answers}}

Confession time: the term "space whale" bothers me now, and I wish I hadn't coined it. Yes, they have vaguely whale-like shapes, but so do tadpoles, or anything else that is tapered on one end and round on the other. They could be "space footballs."

(Thank God the media didn't take up calling them that.)

Okay, sure, they're the size of a school bus, but they're not made of blubber and bone; they're composed of silica—at least, whatever makes it through the atmosphere is. Calling a colony a singular organism isn't right either, because from what little research has been published so far, they're actually colonies of single-celled organisms working together in a kind of cooperative agreement. But I think even that comparison will fail as we understand more.

And we will understand more; we must. Honestly, I was drawn at first by the strangeness, the high of contact. I'm not sensitive enough for deeper imagery, but through the ECID, I can help gather imagery, and we can start to paint a picture. I don't think we have begun to understand them—as evidenced by all the false information you read, half of it coming from the government trying to convince you that your face will melt off if you come into contact with one of them.

I don't know what else to call them yet. Even Neil deGrasse Tyson isn't right when he calls them "colossal space diatoms." They're not diatoms. They're not whales. They're not like anything on this Earth. Because they're ALIEN. We forget that at our own peril.

—From "A 'Space Whale' Primer" by LilMeyerECID

Their first fight erupted on a sticky-hot summer night in western Missouri, over how long it had taken for Lilian to admit that she was, in fact, that Lilian Meyer, the young philanthropist who created and endowed the ECID—the main contactee website for sharing experiences and theories. Lilian was the high queen of whale contactees, and her encounter with Thom had not been by chance.

He felt a fool for not putting it together, but it was the false pretenses under which she had found him that stirred him to rare anger.

"Okay," she said, anxiously twisting a lock of blonde hair around a slender finger, "I read every report submitted on the site. Your reports stood out from the beginning. You experience contact deeper than almost anyone, so I had to meet you. I kind of cyber-stalked you."

He scowled and refused to speak for thirty miles, instead looking out the window at passing cars and wondering how much of their relationship was true, and how much was based on lies convenient to Lilian.

"Come on, Thom. You were a minor celebrity in the Conversation," Lilian said, joking only some. "I had to meet you. Look, I'm sorry I wasn't honest with you. Your sensitivity is a gift."

"Gift?" he said, finally breaking his silence. "I've lost friends over my 'gift.' I don't even like other chasers to know anymore. They just get jealous. 'Why does he get to experience contact so deeply?' Because it's like a mild high for them, they think it's pleasurable for me."

"It's not?"

"There's no euphoria to it," he said. "That's subsumed by the recollection of intense experience."

"It sounds painful."

"It is, sometimes."

"Then why keep doing this?"

"Someone has to," was all he could think to say.

"I'm sorry I lied to you," she said a moment later.

He sighed. "Do you remember how angry you were when you found out that pair of 'high-sensitives' were faking their reports?"

"Those motherfuckers!" She punched the padding ceiling of the SUV for punctuation.

"I wondered, 'Why me? She could have any of these guys.' I worried the only thing that makes me different is my sensitivity, and now you've admitted as much!"

"No, Thom—" she said, but he continued, his voice raised, face red, tears glinting in his eyes.

"I just wanted this to be real."

She pulled the car over onto the shoulder sharply, took his face in her hands, and kissed him gently.

"I'm so sorry you would ever think that. You're real, Thom. You are the realest thing in my life."

But not the most important, he realized. She hadn't said that.

* * * *

{{So Young and Foolish Were We}}

Impossible, you say? Not so! We've reached out to SpaceX and they have tentatively agreed to repurpose one of their launch vehicles to attempt this mission, should we succeed in raising the necessary funds.

Yes, we know there's no guarantee that returning one of these creatures to space will save its life. But we feel it is our duty as sentient, caring beings to attempt it. With your $18 million, we will give it our best shot.

—From the "Save the Beached Space Whales" Kickstarter Campaign, 2022

Others had held hands while making contact before, but not Thom. It was Lilian's idea, he admitted later, not that it mattered whose idea it was to break taboo.

Some types had been making "group contact" with whales since those two Durango, Colorado teenagers had sex on top of one. "Lovers" were much derided by the more serious Conversationalists, so Thom thought it safer to avoid public displays of affection at a site.

But Lilian had taken his hand before he could think to stop her, and when they touched the whale's sandpaper surface, they both gasped.

For him, the experience overwhelmed all else. He—

—Sailed in the vast emptiness between stars, propelled forward by the lightest of photons pressing against his fin-sails that extended outward for miles to either side. Every surface of his being recorded every particle of light along every wavelength, storing it the covalent bonds of biomimetic materials, which in turn were protected by rings of heavy metal ions that turned away the most damaging high energy particles—

Before, she experienced mere flashes of visual stimulus, a brief euphoria. Now, she—

—bore witness to a star field, blazing, stars singing across spectrums an aria of existence—so magnificent that her/his human self, deep in the gravity well of Earth, wept openly. It was as if s/he had spent her/his life listening to a radio station tuned between stations, only to have it suddenly become Beethoven. Brilliant arpeggios of frequencies humming through the taut skeins of flesh made for receiving, but no pattern, still no message to draw. Exotic particles without name pass through him/her in waves like shivers of post-coital bliss and—

Thom broke contact after a moment with a deep groan. Lilian, eyes wide, ran from person to person in the makeshift conclave, begging them to join with them. What would happen, she asked, if a dozen of us touched it together?

Thom wanted to say no. Cold particles of fear ran up and down his spine—what would happen to him? But he could not say no to Lilian—not yet. He was the spark, and now she was the fire afterward, spreading. What could a spark say to the blazing wildfire?

Those that participated witnessed the first of the message—just a faint inkling of it, but enough to know that it was there. Signal too low, not enough power . . . it was indecipherable, for now.

The events of Contact Site 14159 changed the Conversation. Before, it had no purpose—only a vague direction imparted by Lilian and her site. Afterward, it was no longer a conversation only among human minds.

The contact was disorienting and draining for all involved, but it was worst for Thom. Whereas before contact had made him dizzy for a few hours afterward, this time, he fell into a coma for three days.

Lilian sat at his bedside with her laptop and made plans; sent out calls, messages, rallying the army she had been unintentionally building the past year.

She claimed later that she would have waited forever for Thom. He never quite believed her, but he didn't argue either. She had already set things in motion that he knew she would never miss, not even for him.

The wildfire only needs an inciting spark for a brief moment, after all.

* * * *

{{How They Tried to Stop You and Failed}}

Despite the rapid passing of the act, Senator Lethem (R, Conn) has no illusions about its effectiveness as a deterrent.

"Declaring the creatures to be the property of the U.S. Government is unlikely to put a stop to contact events by the general public, but it lays a legal framework for the government to prosecute individuals who interfere with official collection and protection. It's one step in a continuing process to get the situation under control."

When asked about rumors that Congress may be considering designating the contact experience itself a controlled substance, similar on the scale to LSD, the congressman said: "Contact with the creatures has been shown to cause intense hallucinations. And there have been no studies of the long-term health risks—for all we know, the brains of these 'chaser' kids will melt in five years. There's simply too much we don't know about these things. The government should discourage the public from interacting with them through any means allowed by the Constitution, but also it's a matter of just good, common sense, which many citizens seem to lack. I'm very disappointed that my amendment to shutdown sites, such as those run by the extremist Lilian Meyer, failed to pass."

—From "Congress Passes Alien Flora and Fauna Act," January 3, 2021 Online Edition of the New York Times

The actual planning was carried out by word of mouth, but Lilian kept up appearances online to avoid suspicion, even going so far as to have fake, meaningless phone conversations that were monitored, even with the sequesters and cutbacks. The old military bases with their tanks and helicopters struggled for funding, but network surveillance and drones only grew. Reports circulated more and more that the U.S. had begun using orbital weapons platforms to shoot down the whales before they could even enter the atmosphere. In China, they enforced their contact ban by firing on anyone who approached the whales. Low-res footage circulated on major news networks of small-scale massacres around the globe.

There was an undertone of fear and paranoia in everything they did now. Lilian had long since closed off her site to new members, believing the site to be thoroughly infiltrated by government agents. Thom thought her too paranoid. Then they found the bug in their hotel room in Oklahoma City.

At each site or gathering place for contactees, she laid out her simple plan.

"What would happen if we gathered together as many people as possible, along with as many of the creatures as possible, and we all touched simultaneously?"

Not once did she think to ask Thom if he would agree to participate in her experiment. But then, for weeks, he never objected. As the day grew closer, so too did his dread, until on a cool morning in October, he ended everything.

"No," Thom said. He filled the tank of Lilian's SUV at a gas station outside of Wichita while she cleaned the windshield of bugs and other road detritus.

"'No' what?"

"I won't do it," he said.

She stared at him, face pale. "We'll have volunteer medical personnel standing by just in case—"

"When we did it with twelve people, I was in a coma for three days, Lilly! Are you crazy? Do you want me to die?"

This tension had been building since Iowa. It broke like a dam, and their love clung to the tatters of their hearts, so desperate to escape being swept away in the flood of his fear and her paranoia.

They shouted, cajoled, and threatened each other until the station attendant announced that she had called the cops. Car doors slammed, tires screeched, and away they went, but the argument didn't cease. At a stoplight a mile later, Thom climbed out. Lilian sobbed behind him.

"You do this thing, you do it without me," he said.

"Thom—you're just scared!"

"That's right, Lilly. Other people get scared. We're not all fearless like you. I can't do this. I won't."

He wished she wouldn't drive away, but he knew she would. And she did.

* * * *

{{My Shame}}

"I've thought about this for a long time. Especially in light of new research showing strong evidence that the whales are genetically engineered, I have decided that I had to act. I love Lilian very much, and I worry for her safety and the safety of those she's convinced to participate in her reckless experiment. It's for that reason that I'm speaking with you today. The "Grand Conclave" has to be stopped. We do not know enough to predict the consequences."

—From a This Is Your World CNN interview with me, March 18, 2022

Thom watched the joint ATF/FBI raid on Lilian's Grand Conclave fall apart from a hotel room fifteen miles away. Around him, agents hustled, taking urgent phone calls, shouting out information to their superiors, who relayed it into further phones back to Washington. The task force had required a special emergency budget session, but rumors of what Lilian was planning had frightened Congress so much that she had done what everyone else had failed to do; she had broken the partisan gridlock in the government. Money flowed in a last-ditch effort to stop it all.

He sat on the corner of the bed. A man in a dark gray suit from the FBI sat beside him, name already forgotten. He was talking urgently, seeking something to convince Thom he had made the right choice in working with them on this, but Thom had stopped listening.

For a week, contactees had come in vehicles of all shapes and sizes, some towing trailers or campers. Lilian had used the last of her inheritance to purchase a thousand acres of land in South Dakota, and the contactees converged on it en masse, some bringing carefully collected space whales hidden from the poorly funded government search teams.

Rather than set up roadblocks to divert contactee traffic, someone—exactly who became the subject of many Congressional hearings later—had decided a mass arrest would get the government's point across better. The attack was swift and brutal, but ultimately, a failure. A mole inside the government had tipped off Lilian. Moles could work both directions.

Lilian had initiated her mass experiment four hours earlier. By the time the government moved, they were attacking celebrants. Sixteen people died in the riot, including two law enforcement agents under suspicious circumstances. Some conspiracy theorists believed that the agents' deaths were a "false flag" operation, intended to provide hard crimes the government could pin on Lilian Meyer.

Thom felt he should blame Lilian for their deaths, but he knew that those deaths were on his shoulders. He was thankful that Lilian was arrested without injury, then guilty for his gratitude.

Many years later, a reporter asked Thom—did he regret that day?

Of course he did, he answered. Lives were lost. He trusted the government to protect people, but instead, they treated them like terrorists. They wanted to touch space; that's all.

But nobody knew then what would happen; what the consequences of Lilian Meyer's actions would be. It could have been so much worse.

Lilian was right, but she might not have been.

* * * *

{{The First Time I Wished I Could Change It All}}

You can ask any one of the thousands of contactees who participated what we saw that day. My voice doesn't matter anymore; I was only a catalyst. I'm no spokesperson for the movement that has grown out of that event, but this is my trial, and they have asked me to make a statement explaining my actions.

For months, we contactees had sensed an important message lurking within the transmissions from what we now think of as "the messengers"—what the media popularized as "space whales." I first sensed it in Iowa six months before with Thom Janssen, who I must say I bear no ill will toward. My suspicions finally grew enough that I determined to act on them, and many others agreed. Thom helped me realize that we could amplify the effects with multitudes of receiving nodes and broadcasters. Don't ask me to explain the science of it, but in some way, our own electrical impulses can serve as amplifiers for them.

The real Conversation began when we connected as one with the messengers that day. What began as a shape in fading light was now brilliantly illuminated.

"We are a test," they said. "And you have passed it.

"The stars are yours. They are the birthright of every species that has the capacity to look up and be filled with wonderment, combined with the ability to collaborate together to achieve greatness.

"Reaching space is the grandest achievement any species can make. You must join us and the countless others. We are messengers, sent to urge you forward. There will be hardships, but there will be rewards also. Though the distances are vast and deep, you are not alone.

"Come join us.

"Come."

It wasn't so much a revelation for us as it was a reminder. Maybe on other worlds, drawn as they are by patterns in radio waves, the messengers would find those who had not yet reached the stars, and would find themselves inspired enough by such a message to take their first steps from their planet into the heavens.

Once, we understood the importance of such an achievement, but we turned away from that because space is cold. Space is pain and death. Space is not easy. What is the value proposition in accomplishing great things? How can we profit from it?

Those are not the right questions, and we've let them distract us for too long.

Along with this message came instructions, techniques that each one of us carry now. The problems of space have been anticipated. The universe is not fair. The game favors the house, but our friends on the other side of the abyss have sent us a loaded deck.

You can try me. You can convict me. I regret the loss of life that has occurred, but something so much bigger is happening.

Space is calling us. It would be the ultimate crime not to heed it.

—From the redacted proceedings of the U.S. Government vs. Lilian Meyer trial, 2024

Thom was not called to the stand, but he watched in the courtroom every day. Many later marked Lilian's statement as a turning point in public opinion. Thom was not convinced of her rightness, but he regretted everything he had said.

After Lilian's conviction, he wrote a letter. He begged for her forgiveness, circled around it many times, but could not bring himself to admit that she had been right and he had been wrong. People had died. He might have died too.

He burned it in the fireplace.

A decade passed and his life moved on. He married, had children, took up a career in academia, and did his best to ignore the Conversation movement. He took no calls from reporters asking him to comment on the latest developments, or the latest plans for implementing the tools the messengers had brought.

Public opinion shifted steadily further in Lilian's favor until President Goldberg pardoned her eleven years into her sentence. By then, Thom had softened on the matter. He considered attending the D.C. celebration the Conversationalists were throwing in her honor. He had four years earlier settled into a cozy faculty position at a Baltimore community college, so it wouldn't be such a great distance to travel. It might be good to see her. To talk. To say the things left unsaid.

But still he wasn't ready to forgive her. Or was it he who needed her forgiveness? He could hardly remember anymore.

* * * *

{{When I Knew What Must be Done}}

We saw it in that moment in Iowa, with Thom's hand in mine. My contacts with the creatures before had been mild highs or sensations like ticklish skin. Nothing so concrete as this, amplified somehow by Thom's presence. In the dying light, we saw a shape of something else, something reaching across the vastness of space and time, to brush its digits against our palm. Perhaps it had not hands, but tentacles, or pseudopods, but it reached, and we reached, and together, for that moment, we touched.

An overwhelming loneliness I had never articulated lifted in that moment.

In the dying light of hope, we saw the shape of companionship.

It frightened Thom, I think, because he had actually made up his mind before we met that it would be better to be alone.

I frighten him too. I wish I didn't. I miss him.

Tomorrow, I begin the first of the gene therapies here in Florida. When I was a child, I was terrified of needles because they hurt, and I did not like to experience that pain.

I'm looking forward to the first injection. I've already been through the pain. The needle will finally feel like I have succeeded in all of this.

Or at least, I hope it will.

—From "When Everything Changed, And Changes Again," a blog post by you, 2041.

It is not easy for the old man to gain access to the launching reef, for even now, some would rather stop humanity's greatest endeavor, some would rather we forever cowered in our gravity well. He calls in many favors accrued over the years in order to make contact with those who can facilitate his plans, carefully created over the past few years as his health has declined.

He is met by the smuggler at the Miami airport. The smuggler is an elderly, sea-hardened man who had once fished for his living, but has found a more lucrative calling late in life.

They take a gondola through the streets to the sea wall, transferring from there to a small boat disguised as a patrol craft. The smuggler slips past the patrol boats and ties them off along the floating fences around the whale paddocks. Heavy titanium mesh protects the dark shapes drifting on the other side from what few predators still survive in open water.

"You're sure you can bring her to the surface?" the old man asks the smuggler again.

The smuggler nods. "They're all supposed to be anonymous, but each has an identifying genetic marker and accompanying signal used by the diagnostics team. Cracking that sequence is buying me a nice three-bedroom far inland."

The smuggler speaks with the authority of someone who has broken the rules before. The Conversationalists may have decided that the volunteers go forth to the heavens carrying only the approved information, but not everyone is in lockstep with the decision. Even the possibility of sending a personal story along—hidden in the stored imagery of the Answer—has proved a lucrative business for smugglers.

The smuggler works for a moment at an old-fashioned computer console. He smiles when underwater speakers on his boat begin to play tones into the depths. The behemoth that rises from the depths looks like every other first-stage messenger in the hundreds of paddocks off the coast. The old man marvels at how little this stage resembles the final stage of the space whales, laden as it is with sacs of launch propellant.

They were so ignorant in the beginning. Understood so little.

"Fairly certain this is her. Not that it matters," the smuggler says with a shrug. "They scrubbed away everything that was her in the process."

The old man nods. He knows this, but doesn't believe it. If he did, he would not have spent all of his savings to buy the methods of breaking and reversing contact protocols, to send data instead of receive, and most importantly, to remove the senescence protocols just this once. It amazes him, what scientists have learned in the last few decades of study. But they do not know as much as they think. Lilian was not someone who could be scrubbed from a mind, even one so transformed. He was testament to that.

"It's her," he says. He can feel it with some hidden sense, like a bird knowing magnetic South.

He coats his fingertips with a compound composed of special proteins he has had designed to fit chemical locks in the surface of the star messenger that was once Lilian Meyer. He rests his hand on the slick, cool skin. And he remembers, so that she will remember too.

He sends clips of their life together, that brief period—stories, segments he has told himself over and over until he was sure he would not forget. He has assembled them together in a narrative, stitched them together as best he can. He shares his regrets, his fears, his doubts. All to say:

I was wrong. You were right. Go with peace. Go with my love.

The shape I saw was you.

His fingers ache when it is done. Cheeks wet, the old man forces a smile.

The boat rocks suddenly as the star messenger sinks beneath the surface. A deep rumble passes through the ocean, the hull of the boat, and into the soles of Thom's bare feet.

A star messenger breaches far out to sea, two thousand tons of fuel and flesh now in the air where it hangs for a moment before a flash, and then the roar of roars as launch fuel ignites and burns. The messenger slowly rises into the air, an improbable sight, but an unmistakable one, accelerating, climbing—

"What did you do?" The smuggler shouts. He throttles up his engine and the boat races back for the sea wall over increasingly choppy waters.

Thom braces himself in the rear of the boat and stares out over the boiling sea as they escape. He has no fear. How long has she waited, he wonders, to show him this?

The messengers launch; first one, then another, then hundreds, and finally, one last creature, recognizable now to him in any shape, rises from the water on a towering plume of light, vapor, and heat.

She ascends, tail burning brightly, into a star-filled sky hanging overhead, like a promise.

[end]

Please visit Lightspeed Magazine (www.lightspeedmagazine.com) to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the January 2014 issue, which also features original science fiction by Anaea Lay ("Salamander Patterns"), along with SF reprints by Terry Bisson ("Bears Discover Fire") and Zhao Haihong ("Exuviation"). Plus, we have original fantasy by Matthew Hughes ("His Elbow Unkissed"—a Kaslo Chronicles tale) and Adam-Troy Castro ("The Thing About Shapes to Come"), and fantasy reprints by Rosamund Hodge ("Apotheosis") and Ursula K. Le Guin ("Elementals"). All that, and of course we also have our usual assortment of author and artist spotlights, along with feature interviews with Hyperbole and a Half's Allie Brosh and bestselling epic fantasy author Scott Lynch. For our ebook readers, we also have the novella reprint "The Chambered Fruit" by M. Rickert and novel excerpts from Dru Pagliassotti, Chuck Wendig, and James L. Cambias. You can wait for the rest of this month's contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99. It's another great issue, so be sure to check it out. And while you're at it, tell a friend about Lightspeed!