From his place in the circle of silent, respectful onlookers, Boswell looked like a small, stubby mushroom planted uncomfortably in a ring of snowdrops. In the heart of the circle, Joyce approached Jameson: Boswell’s naming convention seemed to amuse the First, who tolerated it as they have tolerated him. He suspected the entire mating ritual was being staged for his benefit.
Inside the circle, Jameson’s long-limbed body sought Joyce’s, and the two held each other, first with tentative strokes of their pale, silver flesh, then with more insistent touches. Their faces bent towards each other and met; elongated skulls touched, and in the periphery, an electric jolt pulsed through Boswell’s entire body: he could feel the aliens’ actions within himself.
Jameson’s tongue penetrated Joyce’s mouth, making Boswell shudder. It moved inside the alien mouth like a meaty eel, seeking the other’s tongue. The two met, and Boswell felt the twin appendages like pungent fungi, merging into each other. He shuddered again, his body convulsing with new sensations. The tongues formed a new, joined appendage. He could feel it harden, saw through half-closed eyelids as Jameson and Joyce’s faces came closer and closer to each other, saw and felt the smooth skin of their skulls touch and then merge. They embraced each other, seeking a complete fulfillment, a complete joining, and Boswell felt it all, his body shivering without control.
Where the aliens touched, they merged, and where they merged, they hardened. Boswell felt the gradual lessening of intensity as sensitive, organic parts became hard stone that turned cool and detached in his mind.
Finally, he could sense nothing more, and at the heart of the circle stood a single, solid figure: a melted, half-formed statue of silver and china-white.
The First waited, all four hundred, and Boswell waited with them. Fresh air gradually cooled him. Sweat dried on his skin. The two moons, both the natural one and the one the First called the Eye, rose high in the night skies. Boswell almost nodded off; he felt his eyelids flutter, felt his body’s exhausted demand for sleep. But he forced himself awake, trying not to think, not to analyze: he was here to observe, that was all. Trying to make sense of things would come later.
There was a sound like ice cracking. In the circle, the melted figure started to break. Cracks appeared in its surface. It looked to Boswell like a strange, malformed egg, its shell breaking open. The statue shuddered three times. Molten branches, once body parts, fell off, and in the circle of broken, silvery shards stood another First, its size half that of its two progenitors’. Boswell could only stare as the small figure examined itself slowly, long delicate hands running over its body before it began to move. Towards Boswell.
It stood in front of him as the rest of the First watched in silence. It spread its arms, as if asking Boswell to look at him. “Will you name me?” it asked. It had Jameson’s gentle, slow voice, but Joyce’s slightly-mocking tone.
“You were telling the truth.” Boswell’s voice was dry in his mouth, like wind carried too long above a desert. He looked at the small alien and knew what, until now, he had only thought he knew: here was his purpose, here was his reason to live. And to remain. “I name you Indira,” he said, as the First slowly rose from their sitting positions in the ring and began to disperse.
“I name you Indira,” he repeated, speaking to himself, and the alien reached out and took Boswell’s hand in his, clasping it.
“Then we are both aptly named,” he said.
Boswell woke up in the cryogenics chamber feeling as if every bone in his body thrummed to conflicting and inaudible tunes. He said that to the ship.
“That doesn’t sound good,” the ship said. Boswell could only grimace. While he rested, recovering from frozen sleep, he studied the last two hundred years. He wanted to be there for as much of the First life-cycle as he could, but he knew his limitations. He was twenty-five, biological time, when he left home in the ship–an asteroid hollowed inside like a fruit whose innards had been scooped out–and he had already spent five years with the First when the first Joining happened. He hated it, but he had to dole out his time carefully, had to stretch himself over the coming years, or he would burn out without a trace, live out the span of his natural life before a new Joining even took place.
Visual recordings showed him the J generation had now disappeared completely, and the Is had all grown to maturity: the number of the First had dropped, just as they said it would, in half.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Boswell said to the ship. “This isn’t the way evolution works.”
He was sitting in his quarters, watching the pictures from the planet. Twenty-five when he arrived, a hundred and fifty years of time frozen as he traveled through space; cast like a rock from New Hope and sent in a random direction, to find what he could. No one expected him back–no one he knew was probably still alive. Thirty now, body time, after five years with the First, and now another two hundred in suspended animation.
“Maybe it’s the way evolution works here,” the ship pointed out. Boswell didn’t bother to reply.
A week later, he took one of the two small landers and went down to the surface. The planet had three land masses, each connected to the other by a narrow isthmus: a daisy-chain of continents. The oceans were violent, and the only life they carried was microscopic.
When the lander opened, Boswell was greeted by a single First, and it took him a moment to recognize him. Indira. He was not prepared for the emotion–relief? Happiness?–that he felt when he saw him.
“Boswell,” Indira said. “It is good to see you again.” A sense of pleasure, quiet and deep, emanated from him, and Boswell had to remind himself to watch out, to not become enraptured in the force of the aliens’ emotions.
The pictures he had seen on the ship suggested the Is had largely abandoned the pastoral existence of the Js. If Joyce and Jameson had lived in quiet solitude amidst the local flora, Indira and the rest of his generation seemed to have banded together, in one of the ancient cities that dotted the planet. There were only two hundred of them now.
“Can I see it?” was the first question Boswell asked, and Indira–smiling in that almost-human way Jameson had learnt from Boswell–said that he was welcome.
They left the lander, and Indira led Boswell across the land. For the first five days, they walked through natural wood; on the sixth they arrived at the city, and Boswell felt excitement quiver through him like a strummed guitar string.
“I remember building this city,” Indira said to him as they stood outside the walls. “There were more of us then–billions, filling every available space of the globe. Cities are the sign of a civilization’s beginning.”
“No, no,” Boswell said, but there wasn’t much power behind his arguing: his eyes lingered on the impossibly-tall structures of the city, gleaming silver in the sunlight, walkways and towers joining each other as if they were part of a living, breathing organism. “Cities are the sign of a civilization’s maturity. Villages, small clusters, nomadic groups–they’re the signs of a beginning.” He thought for a moment about the large, dense dwellings in New Hope: the system was colonized by one of the generation ships from Earth–one of the many that went out during the mass Exodus, one of the few to carry North Americans–but the only planet in the system that could support life could do so only in a few places, and so the people of the ship preferred to replicate the world they were used to. They built space habitats and emptied rocks to live in and burrowed through several of the moons. It was a claustrophobic kind of environment, but it was the sign of an advanced civilization!
He woke from his reverie to see Indira look at him in amusement. “Shall we go inside?”
“Let’s,” Boswell said, and he hiked up his pack and followed Indira through the pale metal gates.
The city of the First was a maze of metal and polish: corridors snaked like never-ending reels throughout the structure; pale lights shone from globes placed in the ceiling at intervals. There was no vegetation, nothing to remind its inhabitants of the world outside.
“We lived in the cities for millennia,” Indira said. “When the numbers dropped, we began utilizing more space, living apart from each other, pursuing different interests. Change was slower then.” He looked at him, and Boswell felt an emotion as cold as ice touch him for the briefest moment, like an unarticulated warning. “It is faster now.”
They met few of the First as they walked through the city. Those they did all stopped to talk to Boswell, allowing him to identify each, to give them names from his language. The corridors never varied, and the light never changed. It came as a relief to Boswell when Indira–at some point no different, as far as Boswell could see, to any of the others they had passed–touched the wall, and a small door opened onto a room.
“It should be suitable for you, I hope,” Indira said. He touched the wall a few more times: windows opened on the outside, and the light brightened.
Inside was a human bed, a shower, a cooking area: it looked exactly like the footage the ship had sent to the First when it entered their system, allowing them to learn Boswell’s language and some of his culture. The designers of the contact section at New Hope didn’t even bother removing references to Earth (although they did, quite carefully, make sure none were made to New Hope itself).
“It looks just like home,” Boswell said. Indira smiled.
“I will leave you to orientate yourself,” he said. “You are free to walk around. I will come and fetch you when you like.” There was another brief burst of emotion–curiosity, mixed with something that might have been concern–and then Boswell was alone.
For the next year, Boswell lived with the First, reestablishing his presence amongst them. There was something different about the Is, he noticed: where the Js seemed slow and peaceful–almost aimless–the Is moved faster, congregated together with some purpose, worked. He didn’t know what they did, but it did not concern him: he wanted to study their society, not their science.
Boswell explored the city. It extended from needle-thin towers that threatened to touch the skies to deep underground caverns where, he imagined, countless First once lived in close quarters. There were no windows but for the ones in his small apartment; no vegetation, only dull metal that seemed molded in the shape and color of the First.
It was in one of the caverns that the first of the Joinings took place. He was fetched by the first he called Ivan and led through tunnel after tunnel of dull metal until they reached a large and empty cavern. There were only a few First there, and they seemed to wander without aim through the cavern with a sense of almost-frantic energy.
When he came closer, he saw Indira standing at the center of the cavern. Opposite him was another First, Iden, who Boswell knew to be nearly as old as Indira. Their Joining was a different affair than the ones Boswell had observed before. It was more frenzied, more hurried: his body was racked with the sensations both emanating from the First, arousing and violent, and his ears absorbed the sounds of grinding metal and breaking glass.
When it was over, a smaller First stood in the place where Indira and Iden had joined. As before, the new First walked towards him. As before, it extended a hand to him, and smiled.
“I am still me,” the child First said. “And so much more besides.” He paused, looking at Boswell with deep, serious eyes. “Will you name me again?”
And Boswell, feeling as if he had been conscripted to play a part in a ritual he didn’t quite understand, called him Hobbs, and felt the First’s silent amusement penetrate his mind, so similar to Indira’s and yet so very different.
There were explosions racking the desert landscape, making Boswell jump in the seat of the light armored car. He drove fast, zigzagging in an attempted random pattern, heading to the small fortress where he was supposed to meet Hobbs.
It was a bright night. Stars choked the skies in their multitudes; Boswell could see the First’s mysterious, artificial second moon, the Eye, blinking rapidly in the dome of the night.
He had landed on the second continent this time: in the last two hundred years, the remaining First had moved away from their city and into the desert lands of the second continent. The last fifty years of that time, the ship had told him, had become… uncomfortable. He thought of that word, uncomfortable, as he desperately tried to dodge the constant explosions, praying he could reach the fortress safely. He could not understand what had gone wrong.
“What the hell is going on down there?” Boswell had demanded from the ship. He had woken up in a worse state than before, spent two weeks recuperating, his body feeling cold and old and alone.
“I don’t know,” the ship admitted. “There seems to be a war going on. In fact, I would highly recommend you go back to the freezer.”
Boswell’s face took on a pained aspect. “No.”
“You might get hurt.”
“I’m going down to observe.”
The ship played one of its large collection of sighs. This one was drawn-out and long-suffering.
Now, two days away from the landing spot, driving through a wrecked, nightmare landscape in which new craters appeared with each new explosion, Boswell began to think the ship might have been correct. It angered him; he thought he had known the First–not understood them, perhaps, but known them. He didn’t know them like this.
There was the sound of an explosion very close by, and the vehicle lost purchase, began to slide into a sandy crater that wasn’t there a moment before. Panicking, he gripped the wheel of the car tight as he tried to navigate himself out, breathing a sigh of relief when he succeeded.
Boswell drove through the night; sand dunes took on haunting, alien aspects as he passed them, the light of the moons shining on a war-torn landscape in which he was the only moving thing–him, and the bombs.
He was exhausted when the sun finally rose on the third day, and he saw his destination rising ahead of him: a solid, dry-yellow dome that blended into the desert but for the flairs of ammunition emerging from it and disappearing into the skies.
He spoke into the com-unit as he approached, broadcasting his presence on all available channels. They knew he was coming–the ship had handled all the communications before hand–but he still didn’t know how they would react when he finally arrived. To his relief, a section of the dome slid open without sound, and he drove the small vehicle at it at high speed. It slid closed behind him, and only then did he stop. The sound of artillery was suddenly gone, and Boswell slumped in his chair, exhausted from fear and adrenaline.
He climbed out of the car and found himself in a large hangar the color of the desert. The dome disappeared above his head, closing the skies out. A First was waiting for him as he disembarked: Hobbs, no longer the child he remembered, but fully-grown and somehow different.
“It is good to see you again, friend Boswell,” Hobbs said. His voice was dry like the desert, without inflection; no emotion came off him to penetrate Boswell’s mind, and if there were any behind his words, he hid them well.
“And you, Hobbs,” Boswell said. And, “I don’t understand. Why are you fighting? Who are you fighting?”
“A person is always fighting within himself,” Hobbs said. Boswell could only shake his head at the answer.
“Come,” Hobbs said. “This is a period we are going through. When the end times approach, when the numbers drop as they do before the arrival of the First, we who remember our history are sometimes moved to reenact it. Who knows what we will be when we are one again?”
He led Boswell through a set of doors and into a muddy corridor that snaked downwards.
“One again?” Boswell said, echoing Hobbs. But the First gave no answer. He led Boswell down and down, until at last they reached a small circular room where four other First were sitting.
“Is this your war room?” Boswell asked.
“Hobbs, what’s going on?” Boswell demanded, suddenly afraid.
The First regarded him for a long, silent moment with eyes that expressed nothing. “You do not understand,” he said at last. “And I doubt you expect to. You are an observer, not a participant. So observe.”
There was the sound of a scream then, inhuman and amplified, and the First in the room jumped up, silvery skin dusted gray and yellow. The room they were in expanded, the walls breathing out so that it seemed like an organic, living entity. Boswell felt they were being elevated, being moved up from the deep ground, and he knew he was right when the room grew and grew until they arrived in the center of the dome itself; there were loud explosions, and holes were punctured in the material of the dome. First camouflaged in the colors of the desert broke in, and Boswell could only watch in horrified surprise as Hobbs and the First with him began fighting, hand to hand, with the intruders.
He thought he recognized one of them, who he had named Hegel the last time. Now, Hegel and Hobbs fought each other, their raw emotions penetrating Boswell’s mind and body: violent and primordial, they took hold of him and hurt as the two aliens struggled.
Hegel drew something from his fatigues: a narrow, silver device that he pressed into Hobbs’s head. There was a flash. Pain consumed him as he felt the charge from the device penetrate Hobbs’s head and explode. The world turned black, and he tried to open his eyes, tried to say, No, this can’t be, this isn’t right! He felt the words try to escape, then subside as the darkness consumed him and he lost consciousness.
When Boswell opened his eyes, the rest of the First were gone. Hegel stood besides Hobbs’s remains, a mutilated body missing a head. Boswell stared at them in stunned horror. How could this have happened?
Then, alien emotions began to once more enter his mind: Hegel’s, as he approached the corpse, closer and closer. His hand touched Hobbs’s dead flesh, stroked it, and Boswell felt it like an electrical current coursing through his body. He watched as Hegel attached himself to Hobbs, stroking, penetrating, Joining him; Boswell felt revulsion rise in his throat, but then the feeling subsided, then multiplied: he was feeling not only Hegel, now, but someone else as well. Hobbs was responding!
He watched as the two aliens grew closer, until they seemed to merge into each other, desert-colored yellows and reds merging and mixing with pale silver, forming a whole that was more than the sum of its parts.
Boswell’s body rocked under the assault of alien emotions; they penetrated his mind and made his body ache. Close by, Hobbs and Hegel continued to Join, the living and the dead, until at last there was nothing left but a statue of broken silver and sand.
Boswell crawled towards it. It took him minutes of slow, painful movement, but as he moved, he heard the statue, felt it beginning to break like an egg coming apart to reveal the chick inside. He was nearly spent by the time he reached the place of Hobbs’ death. His head touched the ground. He could no longer lift it.
Outside of the deep darkness that welled inside of him, Boswell felt a small, cool hand touch his shoulder, and a silver, narrow face appeared in his field of vision. The face lowered until it was on a level with his own.
“It isn’t safe for you to be here any more, my friend,” said the small alien in a voice that both was and wasn’t familiar. And then, like the words of a ritual, came the question: “Will you name me?”
Boswell’s eyes shut, and his mind threatened to follow suit. With a last, whispered breath, he named him Godwin.
…continued in part two…