On the far end of the Horologium Supercluster, orbiting a white dwarf star not visible to Earth’s strongest telescope, on a world smaller than Mercury, at the foot of a beetling crag of tufa, under a black sky spangled with stars, on a bed of cold red clay, stood the Rose.
We were alone in the universe, except for the Rose.
We’d settled that Mars was lifeless, then eagerly drilled Enceladus for the microbes we were certain wriggled below its ice, then,disappointed, we dug wells on Ceres, sent probes across the dunes of Callisto. Life could exist in extreme environments on Earth, we reasoned, why not an Ionian volcano? Nothing. The solar system’s only reservoir of life was Earth. Hard on the heels of the last probe, we discovered F-space, and pushed outwards to the exoplanets. For centuries, we scoured super-Earths, micro-Earths, all manner of likely Goldilocks worlds.
We found nothing. Not a single microbe, nor a vegetal tendril, and certainly nothing like a mammal or anthropoid. The warmest, likeliest worlds were desolate of anything living. And don’t think we overlooked the exotic possibilities of silicon or copper based life – we tried that.
Impossible – that Earth should so teem with life in every crevice, from thermal vents to frigid glacial waters, yet the rest of the universe should yield nothing but shale and water. Water! Surely where there was water there would be life! Ramokob-544 was a water world, warm as a bath. We plumbed its depths, skimmed its seas, roved over land and mountain. Dead as a doorknob was Ramokob, just like all the others.
We’d given up. And then we found the Rose.
It took even so famous a scientrick as Ardold Jeksen a year to get to the Rose. Jeksen, celebrity biosophist, skimmie fixture, as close to a mad-star as a specialist in life essentialism can get, even he only reached the Rose with the greatest difficulty. But the Rose was unfathomably far away, at the limit of even the F-ships’ range.
“You’re sure it’s a living organism?”
“Saw it myself,” the fling-jockey replied. “We applied all the tests you eggheads gave us. It’s carbon-based. A plant of some kind. Wicked strange-looking.”
Jeksen had been over this a thousand times, asked the same questions again and again, seen the 3-vids, read the spectrographs, ogled the cell structure under a micro. Still it seemed impossible to him. Now, on his way to the edge of the existable universe, he felt compelled to rehash his old reservations.
“It’s just that life as we’ve always experienced it doesn’t exist in a void. This…thing…has no ecosystem. No other specimens exist. The rest of that world, dead as a marble. It’s unfathomable that this thing should exist. What spawned it? What does it eat? Breathe? How can it reproduce?”
The jockey shrugged. “It’s just there, man. That’s all I know.”
And the question that had left Jeksen and the rest of the scientific hoipolloi agog. Why should the universe’s only non-terrestrial life-form be this…this chimaera on the edge of known space?
Jeksen closed his eyes. The Flingship flung.
Flingships! Jeksen gagged, as his stomach flipped upside-down, ejected its contents,took a visit to his cranial cavity, and then turned inside out for the final act. Wrong name for this thing. Flingships don’t travel. Aren’t ships. Localized …uhhhhhh. ..localized reality pods…oooooh…that rearrange the historic circumstances of that led to you existing on Earth….ah…and rearrange things so that you happen to now be on Mars or wherever.
Ugh. Side effects may include nausea, disorientation (your personal history violently rearranged, so no wonder) change in skin tone, height, appearance (the centuries that led to the existence of You have, of course, been altered, and so: altered are You), political beliefs, vocal timbre.
Jeksen stepped out of the Flingship. He examined the mirror placed on the side for purposes of examination. He was now a blonde woman,with deep azure skin and no lower lip.
Such are the hazards.
Jeksen stood on the dim, frigid surface of the world where the Rose was. Hatamari 440-B it was called, or, as the fling jockeys dubbed it, Billy Mendez.
“Why feel so strange,” Jeksen wondered, in a peculiar hollow voice.
A tiny bronzed dwarf appeared beside him. Jeksen realized it was the fling jockey who had recently been a beefy red-haired Swede.
“We breathe methane, now,” said the jockey. “Because we always have.”
“Right. OK. Rose, please.”
…to be continued