Lightspeed Presents… “Flowing Unimpeded to the Enlightenment” by Robert Reed

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 "Flowing Unimpeded to the Enlightenment" by Robert Reed. Enjoy!

Top image: R.J. Palmer

Flowing Unimpeded to the Enlightenment
Robert Reed
The Rude Man

Kartar is forty and Irish-Indian, blessed with an avatar's sterling looks and a fine deep voice that lingers in the mind. He wears a piezosuit and a bright necktie advertising Chinese wetware, and a new Everything is pinned to his broad lapel. Twenty admirers have him surrounded. They seem like a pleasant bunch. Standing with his back against the brick wall, Kartar expertly manages his audience. When someone asks about recent travels, he launches into brief descriptions of an AI birth in Christchurch and an earthquake milking at Palmerston North. A few insider details give the show its tech-steroid heft, and then he generously throws out one fresh idea: New Zealand should bioengineer its native tuatara, creating a forty-foot reptile that swims like a sea serpent, working its way up and down that scenic, tourist-infused coastline.

Oohs and laughter lead to another question: How does he like the conference so far?

"Business Opportunities Through SETI," is the official theme. Kartar gives away nothing about his keynote address, concentrating on happy noises about the other guests and his gracious hosts. But he admits that he could use some free time. Walking is his passion and San Francisco is so beautiful, at least what he sees through his hotel room window. And someone immediately takes the bait, warily confiding that they aren't in San Francisco. This is Cincinnati.

"Oh, I forgot," Kartar deadpans. "The maid must have dinked with my virt-setting."

People laugh hard while the half-circle moves closer. More questions are offered, but Kartar answers one that he hasn't heard yet. Next month is a quick trip to China, where he gets to kick the proverbial tires on the Long March 12 nuclear rocket. That leads to a few pointed comments about the Martian mission and why Ceres would be the smarter target. "But at least our colon flora finally get what they want, a free ride to an empty, vulnerable world," he concludes.

Minds chew on that poignant notion.

Kartar smiles, waits a beat, then warns everyone that he shouldn't tell them this, but he has a five-day contract job with a game company that he doesn't dare name, what with the draconian contracts he had to sign. And he certainly can't talk about the game that he might or might not be building for them, or when it might be released, and why would anyone even attempt to keep secrets in the modern superfluid world of data? But the topic of clandestineness puts him in the mood to say a few choice words about . . .

A single bright tone emerges from his Everything.

The famous man seemed ready to discuss immersion games or the public life of incandescent secrets, or maybe he was going to make an oblique mention about his consultancy work for Langley. Audiences are always hungry for insider stories about the CIA. But no, without a word, Kartar deploys his Everything. Short fingers dance inside the bright holo cloud. Abstract symbols need to be pushed and dragged. No one speaks. Genius is allowed its important silences, and the man lends mesmerizing grace to an everyday chore. And after twenty seconds of shoving and herding-just as the first gazes wander-Kartar says, "I am sorry."

To nobody in particular, he says, "I don't mean to be rude."

"Oh, really?" one man yells out from the back row.

Some turn to look, but polite people keep their faces forward, pretending to be deaf. In his fifties, maybe older, the loud man has white hair mixed with black and a gaunt, chiseled face built around a pair of close-set dark eyes. He wears what might be a smile. His voice is sturdy and quick. "When you say that you don't want to be rude, you surrender two bits of useful information: You know exactly how rude you are, and you want to underscore your poverty of manners."

Bystanders look at the ceiling and walls and the suddenly fascinating floor.

No one else speaks.

"You should pay attention to us," says the heckler, "and not your next dental appointment, or whatever."

It is hard to tell what Kartar notices. A few more pushes at jellyfish and important arrowheads, and then he looks up, considering everyone else before meeting the challenger's eyes.

"You're right," Kartar says. "I'm totally in the wrong here."

"An opinion held by two."

Kartar deploys two facial recognition packages.

"Dominick," the heckler says.

"Excuse me?"

"Ask me. I'd tell you my name."

"All right, Dominick. Hello."

"Hello to you."

"Do I know you, Dominick?"

The man grimaced. "How can I say? I can't see your brain."

People begin to back away.

Keeping his voice even and slow, Kartar asks, "Have we met before, Dominick?"

"Yes. We certainly have."

Kartar clucks his tongue, signaling his security software, and he stares at the narrow, slightly wild face that needs a life story.

"So ask me your next question," Dominick says.

"Where did we meet?"

"No. There's a much better question waiting."

The audience has parted in the middle, save for three individuals who have decided to put themselves closer to the troublemaker-two beefy fellows, and for some reason, a girl who looks like a skinny seventeen.

"You seem rather angry," says Kartar.

"Maybe I am."

"Are you angry with me?"

The man shrugs.

"Why do you feel this way, Dominick?"

"Well, maybe because of what you do."

"And what do I do?"

"You're a professional thief," Dominick says. "You steal ideas for a living."

Kartar winks at his self-appointed bodyguards, and the men smile back at him, glad for this sign of approval.

"Except I'm not a thief," Kartar says. "Thieves take objects of intrinsic value. They pocket money, jewels, what-have-you. What I deal in is knowledge, in memes, which is an entirely different business. Once created, there is no practical, sober way to keep a good meme from being owned by every person."

"‘Ideas are mutable and graceful and slick,'" Dominick begins to quote.

Then half of the audience helps finish the famous line. "‘And knowledge is happiest when it flows unimpeded to the Enlightenment.'"

Kartar gives more winks and a smile. "Well, I can guess what's going on here. You think I stole some idea of yours. Isn't that right?"

The heckler doesn't react.

"You're a bright fellow, Dominick. I have a nose for quality, and sure, maybe I have taken one or two gems from you in the past, and now you're pissed. And for what it's worth, I can see your point of view. But none of us made today's world; we just have to live in it. And this is how things are done."

Dominick snorts. "Yeah, that says a helluva lot."

A security alert flashes in privacy-mode. Kartar reads the first sentence and skims the highlights, learning a tiny amount about this man. What matters are the weapons that Dominick carries, and the most dangerous object is inside his left front pocket-a pointed car key belonging to an elderly Ford.

The heckler steps closer.

Kartar waves his right hand, and his Everything retreats back into its vial.

"You don't understand," says Dominick. "You think you do, but you don't."

"What don't I understand?"

"You're not looking at this in the proper light."

"No?" The brick wall presses against Kartar's back. "Maybe I don't see what you see. True enough. But I want to tell you something, Dominick. I intend to be rude now. I don't like you, and I don't want to be near you, and you need to turn and walk away. Right now, before this situation gets out of control."

The older man sighs, and then with weary resignation takes another step forward.

The two male bodyguards grab Dominick under the arms, lifting him off the floor. But he squirms and starts to kick, and maybe on purpose he cracks the one young man hard in the shin.

That's when the girl steps up.

Her tiny right fist strikes the heckler in the chin, and his head leaps back. Then she dives in close with her left fist and another right and a second left, battering the chest as the unprepared bodyguards drop Dominick in order to reach for her. But the girl uses her feet, kicking her victim's legs out from under him, and she slaps aside every hand as she dives low, punching and jabbing at the exposed face while those amazingly strong legs cling to the gasping, useless body.

***

The Goddess

She doesn't know who the important guy is. That's the funniest part of this story.

She hears that smart voice performing and sees all of those backs, a bunch of people hanging on the guy's words. The guy likes to boast about this and that. God, he sounds busy, going everywhere and seeing every damned thing in the world. She guesses that he can't be married, and he's probably rich, which interests her. A lot of things interest her. She's not the idiot that people usually think she is. That her parents think she is. College was a bit of a disaster, sure. She admits that now. But not everything about her life is her fault. Besides, she reads plenty, and she knows how to read people, which is a surprisingly rare talent in this world, and pushing her way to the front row, she finds herself getting interested in the goofy guy with his power suit and billboard tie and the fancy floating Cloud-of-Knowledge, or whatever they're calling these auxiliary brains this week.

Her name is Rhonda, but she hasn't used that ugly business since she was ten.

Artemis is a name pulled from myth, and that's what friends call her, and strangers, and it's how phantoms refer to her when she's walking inside her own dreams.

Artemis is standing up front when the crazy guy starts complaining. In some ways, the power-suit guy seems cool and sharp under fire. He probably gets a ton of shit from people, and he knows how to handle most idiots. Call them by their name, for instance. Dominick this, Dominick that, my dear goddamn Dominick. But as she watches him, and as she listens deeper into his voice, it becomes obvious that he doesn't have control of the situation. Not like he believes he does. With all those fancy tools in the Cloud, this rich, lonely travel-everywhere guy feels invulnerable, amusing himself before his next speaking appearance or lunch date or jump in the sack.

When the two fat guys move toward the crazy guy, she joins in.

No, she doesn't have a plan. If you run on instinct, you never need plans. At least that's the way Artemis figures it.

Then the traveling man tells the crazy man to leave, which is stupid. And then the fat guys, working from some shared misunderstanding of what needs to be done, pick the troublemaker off the floor.

The world gets messy fast.

Her first swing is harmless enough. Give Mr. Crazy one good pop, and win the war. But Artemis doesn't have many off switches, which can be a problem. After that first swing, her head comes up with reasons why battering the guy is a fine idea. Maybe Mr. Crazy is dangerous. He might have a knife, a gun, or weapons-grade uranium up his ass. But the best thought comes later, after she lets the fat boys pull her off and her victim is rolling in pain. That's when she catches the traveling man staring at her, like he's never stared at any woman before. He is stunned. He feels lost. His little boat is bouncing in the rapids, and he doesn't know what's ahead, maybe there's a big waterfall after the next bend, and this is going to be a neat opportunity, if she plays it right.

"Shit," says the traveling man.

"Twice a day, whether I need to or not," Artemis says.

He looks at the bloody face on the floor and then at her again, and she tells him, "I don't know. Maybe I saved your life here."

"He doesn't have weapons," the man says.

She wonders about his name. But instead of asking, she says, "You can't know what the guy has."

"Yes, I do," he says. Then he launches into this long song about his fancy see-through-everything software, and the traveler believes his noise, too. That's what Artemis keeps seeing and seeing. Not a clue that he's an idiot, and the idiot words keep running wild.

People are helping the bloodied, crazy man. These aren't the same people who were part of the audience, and they have no trouble pushing paper towels against the wounded face, making soothing noises when they aren't asking the man for updates about his pain.

"A car key," says the traveling man. "That was the most dangerous thing on his person."

"Really," says Artemis.

"Yes," he says.

She says, "Okay, use the same tricks and look at me."

The half-smart Cloud crawls out of its genie bottle again, letting loose who-knows-how-many kinds of tricks.

"What are my weapons?" she asks.

But the traveling man isn't watching her. One of the convention center's cops is talking to someone on a phone, begging for the real police.

And that's when Artemis gives her new friend one clean shot to the diaphragm-not hard and not even half-hard-and the traveling man bends in the middle.

She puts her face in front of his face.

Nothing else exists in the world but her.

"You've got a lot to learn," she says. "And lesson one is that you can steal all the knowledge you want, but you just aren't that smart."

***

The Traveling Man

Problems want solutions. That's the nature of nature. But these ugly problems don't belong to Kartar. Representatives from the conference promise as much. Witnesses have come forward to tell what happened, and at least two security cameras offer vantage points-and that's before anyone counts the phones and tablets and Everythings that were absorbing the scene. The local police act as if Kartar had no role beyond the incidental, the accidental. And even though the afternoon is rolling past, it seems unlikely that he'll have to miss his early dinner with the Goldilocks Project.

Administrative offices have been borrowed for purposes of the investigation. Kartar sits in the small lobby. Dominick isn't here. The poor man-and that's how Kartar thinks of him now-is safe in a side office, receiving stitches. Witnesses are being brought through the lobby door and past Kartar. Everybody wants to smile at him. One by one, they are led into a sunny office where indoor tomatoes grow in living pots and images of two nameless children drift across the white walls. Each witness is interviewed in brief, and Kartar eavesdrops. The accounts are more similar than not, but there are differences. Kartar never teased Dominick, and he resents the implication. He never claimed to remember the man, and he didn't mean to insult anybody when he talked about wanting to be rude. Then one woman from the front row claims that Kartar works for the Central Intelligence Agency. At that point Kartar has to stand and shove his face into the unfamiliar office, telling the two officers, "That's not true, not at all."

"Please, sir," says the female officer. "We'll get to you in a few moments."

But this is stupid. Everything is ridiculous. They have the videos, and even if the audio is poor, there's excellent software that can wring the words said by the people out of the video. Besides, Dominick wasn't badly injured. Faces like to bleed, but the man was soon sitting up and talking, and he never lost consciousness.

The girl is the danger here. That much is obvious. For some reason they stuck her in the lobby with Kartar, sitting across from him and looking only at him, and whenever he foolishly looks her way, she smiles with an eerie expression.

Her name is Rhonda. The police checked and found that real name hiding behind some ludicrous Artemis label. Kartar can do the same trick and probably better, but he keeps his Everything inside the vial. This is one of those rare occasions when he has no desire to know more about another person.

"Who are you?" asks the smiling girl.

He drops his gaze, saying nothing.

"I call you Traveling Man, but I bet that's not your name."

She sits handcuffed to her chair, and she wears a drop-bracelet, of course. Two private security guards are sitting nearby, enjoying the adventure and their coffee.

"By the way," says Rhonda, "I really liked that one line of yours."

Kartar watches the worn carpeting, then the back of his left hand.

"‘Flowing unimpeded to the enlightenment.' Did I get it right?"

"Yes." God, did he actually respond to her?

"So, Traveling Man . . ." she begins.

Something here is funny. One guard laughs, which makes Kartar self-conscious. His irritation causes him to glance at the girl, who looks small and safe when she's cuffed to her chair.

". . . what brings you to Ohio?"

"The conference brought me," he says.

"Yeah, but I can't figure something out. Why did they put the conference here?"

"Because of the WOW! signal," he says.

She says nothing, waiting for enlightenment.

Kartar can't help but explain. "Back in 1977, astronomers in Ohio saw a radio signal from the constellation of Sagittarius. It was loud and narrow, and it moved in intriguing ways. So it might have been extraterrestrial. Maybe."

He paused, and she waited.

So he said, "People have watched that part of the sky since, for short periods but with better radio telescopes. Only nothing has been heard. And maybe it was nothing. But the signal's strength and frequency were very close to what we imagine finding, when we finally identify a genuine ET signal."

She laughs loudly, apparently at him. "Yeah, I already know everything about the WOW!"

"You do?"

"I just wanted to know why Cincinnati. Did this convention get a deal on the hotel, or what?"

Both guards laugh.

"I don't know why," Kartar admits.

"I suppose you wouldn't." The girl is halfway pretty and older than Kartar first imagined, and she smiles at him, acting as if maybe she's hoping for more than conversation.

"Ask me a question," she says.

"Why are you so strong?"

"You're smart; make a guess."

"Adrenal implants," he says. "Or neural enhancers for quick-twitch reactions. Or maybe you've grafted synthetic muscles onto what's real."

"Everything is real," she says mysteriously.

"Each of those solutions has health dangers," he says.

"How nice," she says with a hopeful tone. "You're worrying about me."

Kartar looks at the carpet again. "No."

Rhonda/Artemis shakes the handcuffs. "Don't worry, Mr. Traveler. You're way too old for my tastes."

He wants to take solace from that, but can't.

"Ask me something else," she says.

"Why are you here?"

The young woman leans forward, making sure that she has his eyes. "I read a lot. You don't believe it, but I know a lot about a lot. Life is inevitable and should be common in the universe, and if the sky isn't jammed full of smart old aliens, then nothing about our universe makes any damned sense."

Kartar finds himself nodding. "Actually, I disagree with you."

"Sure you do."

"The best evidence shows that life might be very common, but intelligence is a rare and often fragile result. The distance between us and our nearest neighbors is on the order of five thousand light-years."

She shrugs, saying, "Now that sounds like crazy talk."

He bristles. "But why are you at this conference? Do you have some business proposal, an investment that pays off when the next WOW! arrives?"

"You're trying to make fun of me."

"No, I'm not."

"You're right. You aren't." She sits back in the chair. "I'm here because aliens are common. They just damn well have to be. If I was one of them, and if I happened to be visiting the earth, this is exactly the sort of place I would visit. You know, just to see what the new dogs in the neighborhood are doing."

He almost laughs. "You're looking for aliens, you mean."

"You aren't?"

He does laugh, hard, glancing at the security guards. But the men seem to have lost all interest in the conversation.

"You don't mean that," Kartar says.

"Maybe not," she responds. "Or maybe I thought you were an alien."

"Me?"

"Tell me you aren't."

"I'm not from outer space, no."

"And that's got to bother you," she says.

Kartar feels suddenly tired and very bored. The real police are reviewing the digitals and talking to each other. He can't make out words but the tone has changed. Sitting back in his chair, he looks at the Everything riding his lapel, thinking of fifty tiny chores that might be accomplished in the next two minutes. And then the cuffs rattle, and Rhonda/Artemis dips her head, eyes fighting to meet his eyes.

"I know something else," she says.

He stays silent.

"Something you don't know but you should."

"I don't care."

"You would, if you knew."

"Leave me alone," he says.

"Don't worry, I wasn't going to tell you," she says.

He doesn't say anything.

"Later," she says.

"There is no ‘later,'" he says.

Laughing, the girl asks, "How can you know there won't be?"

What Kartar knows is that this ugliness has to be over soon. Closing his eyes, he wishes hard for rescue, and that's the moment when the police officers step out into the lobby.

But his joy evaporates in an instant.

"This is what we think happened," says the woman officer. Then before explaining anything, she adds, "And this is what the victim wants in lieu of charging both of you with assault-and-battery."

***

Dominick

His face hurts, and one eye keeps tearing, and several teeth seem to have migrated along the bottom jaw. But the pain isn't important. The pain is bearable, and it's sure to weaken with time. What matters is how this beating will affect his sleep habits. Is he going to have bad dreams? Night terrors? Or will he just lie awake for hours on end, alone in bed with his racing brain?

Dominick is curious about the aftereffects.

That is the best word: Curious.

The man knows depression and he knows mania, and his adult years have been spent managing the first when he isn't riding the second. Not that he would admit this to anyone, but he's wondering if today's stress is going to pay dividends: feelings of vulnerability and mortality allowing him fresh perspectives in areas that he had never noticed before and should have cared about.

Seeing possible gain, he laughs to himself.

"This isn't funny," Kartar says.

But all of this is humorous. Obviously. Dominick nearly says as much, but when he looks across the borrowed office-looks at somebody's two kids gliding along the squidskin wall-he decides on a different course. "I liked what you said about the tuataras," he says. "That was a nice thought, making them into the local sea serpent."

Kartar sits on a hard little sofa, warily staring at Dominick's bloody face. "Okay," he says. "Thank you."

"Where did you steal that idea?" Dominick asks.

Kartar grimaces.

Dominick lets the quiet mature. Then when the moment feels right, he says, "A conversation. That's what I want, and then I won't insist on charges."

"I didn't hit you," Kartar says, and not for the first time.

"But you had your people hit me."

"They aren't my people."

"You nodded at them," Dominick says. "The video shows it clearly."

"I was glad for the help. I thought. But I didn't know their names, and I certainly had no idea who, or what, that girl was."

"You have an Everything."

"So what?"

Dominick sits on an office chair pulled from behind the desk. Whoever owns those children in the wall is shorter than him, judging by the chair's setting. But he doesn't change anything, long legs stretched out into the middle of the room. "You have the world's best facial recognition software. You can learn as much as you want about anybody, which means that you have a difficult-maybe impossible-task of proving that you're ignorant about anyone."

"Deeply unfair," Kartar says.

"It's the world we live in," Dominick reminds him. "We all have the mind of God."

Kartar sighs and crosses his arms in front of his chest.

"The tuatara," says Dominick.

"There was a boy in Christchurch."

"How old?"

Kartar frowns. "Does it matter?"

"I bet he was a bright middle-schooler."

"Lucky guess," says Kartar.

"Hardly. That's the good age for boundless thinking."

This meeting has rules: Half-an-hour of civil conversation and nobody gets to use his Everything. But that doesn't keep Kartar from glancing at the machine on his lapel, presumably counting the minutes left in this unbearable sentence.

Twenty-seven minutes remain.

"Of course I knew you stole that tuatara idea," Dominick says. "It was too fresh and original for you. You're what I like to call a ‘harvester.' You are a big, busy machine that rolls across a field, picking up the grains and fruits grown by others."

"And what are you? A fruit tree?"

Unperturbed, Dominick shrugs his shoulders. "Who got you thinking about human bacteria on Mars?"

"Is that where we're heading? Retracing my sources?"

"I hope not."

Kartar leans forward. "What do you want?"

"You harvest ideas," Dominick says again.

"I freely admit that."

"Gather up other people's crops."

"And I stole one of your oranges, didn't I?" Kartar glances into the lobby. The private guards are supposedly ready to jump in if these egos come to blows, but it's impossible to tell which guard is closer to sleep. "I stole your best idea and ran with it as if it was my own. Isn't that right?"

"You didn't steal anything," says Dominick. "I gave it to you, free and clear."

"Well then. What's wrong?"

"You don't remember me."

Kartar looks at the floor, then his Everything, and then into the lobby again. "I meet a huge number of people, practically every day."

"On that day, you were twelve years old."

Kartar acts as if he isn't listening. But he seems to slowly piece together what should be a simple concept, and when nothing makes sense, he looks at the battered face, saying, "I still don't know who you are."

"My nephew was your classmate."

"Oh, we're talking about school days."

"An honors science class," Dominick says. "I was invited to talk about my work. I was thirty and you were sitting in the front row with your notebook open, ready to write down anything that struck you as interesting."

The dimmest, frailest hint of recognition confuses his face.

"I was talking about memes and how ideas have lives of their own and how humans aren't important except as carriers of memes that are retained by nature only if they're valuable, and thrown away if they're not."

Kartar squints. "What's your nephew's name?"

"I won't tell you."

"I'll find out after this," he says.

"Certainly so," Dominick says. "But this is my point: You were sitting up front, and I talked about ideas as being vivid organic beings, how they collect together to form communities, and some of these communities are strong and enduring, while others perish in a day or twenty years. You were the only student who was truly paying attention, which is why I remembered you. That and because your teacher got defensive when I talked about religion being a toxic set of memes that survive by relentlessly murdering their opponents."

"Oh," says Kartar. "Now I remember you."

"And now do you see why I'm in a lousy mood? The linchpin of your life, and the idea came partly from me-maybe entirely from me-and like any pickpocket working the crowd, you don't have a goddamn clue whose pocket you got the treasure from."

Dominick feels angry all over again.

Yet Kartar acts impressed and maybe even happy, nodding as he lets his eyes dip, ignoring his companion's mood.

"By the way," says Dominick. "Walking around the conference today, attending the lectures and workshops, I had an insight. Something became obvious, something that should be very interesting to a person like you."

Kartar leans forward, flashing a glorious smile.

"Yes?" he says.

"No, no," says Dominick. "I'm going to savor this meme for myself."

And without another sound, he pulls the car key from his pocket and leaves Kartar sitting with those two strange children.

***

Enlightenment

Sixteen years later, the one bioengineered tuatara is scheduled to be released into the open sea. The first invitation to this historic event is sent to the project's author and initial champion, who also happens to be a Big Name who brought attention to what is a one hundred million dollar publicity stunt.

Kartar flies to New Zealand on the Maser Albatross. The subsonic flight is very green but very slow, and he doesn't appreciate the long boost phases where the craft punches into the stratosphere, its wings/collection dishes gathering up enough juice for the next three hundred miles. But at least he has a supreme-class seating and time to work. Another ten thousand words of his memoir grow from his logic-thread, and he has productive conversations with various friends, half of them human, and the Everywhere woven into his skull gives him an assortment of articles and blogs and overheard conversations from the world and from orbit, each of which has to be studied with an expert eye to see what notions are ripe for the harvesting.

A three-hour wave-sleep takes his tired mind hostage-a late-middle-aged mind now-and then it is released again, back in working order.

Kartar is enjoying one of the revamped Stephen King classics during the descent into Auckland. He had already written and spoken extensively about the blessings to come from ending most copyrights. No artist should have a chokehold on his property, certainly not one lasting for decades. This particular version of The Shining was created by a robot and aimed at a robot audience. The faces from the original cast have been retained-appearance is another property that shouldn't be fortified-and the author reworked the outdated text and rewrote the songs while pretty much playing hell with the plotline.

No, eighteen months was plenty of protection for intellectual property.

Eighteen months is certainly long enough for Kartar's purposes, and those fools that push that barrier always learn that Kartar has endless tools, and he is willing to keep an exceptional team of legal software very busy.

Down goes the plane and a call from a very good friend finds him, and what is most promising are her opening words: "Is this line secure?"

Everything that Kartar does is wrapped in twenty cloaks of security.

"Of course this isn't for release now," she says.

"We're talking about the Far Eye?"

"Maybe," she said.

Which means, "Yes."

"Sightings?" he asks.

"When I call again, you'll have a one-hundred-second jump on the official channels. Just don't make too much of your lead, okay?"

What does "too much" mean? "I promise to be good," he says.

Far Eye is moving past Jupiter's orbit, and after years of technical troubles and brilliant fixes, the array is gathering data in ways and in quantities never seen before, beyond the scope that anyone hoped to imagine.

"How many sightings?" Kartar asks.

She says, "I'm only talking about confirmed sightings."

"Is it a thousand?"

She hesitates. Then she asks, "Does a thousand sound like a lot to you?"

"A thousand living worlds, Earth-like and otherwise? And each world showing traces of civilized life, of industrial life, or agriculture or terraforming, or whatever?" He laughs for many fine reasons, but mostly because this was going to be the best day in his life. "Yeah, a thousand civilizations in our wing of the galaxy does sound like a lot to me."

"Not to me," she says cryptically.

Kartar looks around the cabin. None of the other dozen passengers has a clue that everything is about to change.

"It's more than a thousand," he says.

"Make a guess."

"Ten thousand."

"Come on, boy. Get brave."

"Okay. One hundred thousand worlds."

She hesitates. Then with a careful tone, she says, "Remember, Kartar. What I'm talking about are confirmed sightings. Worlds and structures that Far Eye AIs have analyzed in detail, finding no fault with them at all."

"Give me some help," he says.

"Why not guess fifty million?"

"Is it?"

"And then multiply that number by one thousand."

Kartar leans forward, waiting for his voice to return.

"And these are just the definite, undeniable sightings. Sun-washed planets, sunless rogues, terraformed bodies of every size. None are cloaked, which is why we can see them. But with few exceptions, each one is technologically advanced and very efficient with energy use. Fifty billion worlds and the only radiation leaking out of them is the drabbest trace of waste heat."

"How close?" he manages.

"You mean to us?" she says. "Well, the nearest thousand are inside our Oort cloud. Little ones, each following its own trajectory."

"Aliens," he whispers.

"And those fifty billion are the obvious few," she adds. "Far Eye can't handle all of the candidates, but we're guessing it's in excess of six trillion."

"Inside our galaxy."

"Just rattling around inside our one little arm of the galaxy," she says. "Which is amazing, and mortifying, and do you know what's most astonishing? At least to me, a girl who likes to talk all day and all night?"

"What?" he asks.

"We have no evidence, none, that anybody is talking to anybody out there. Which makes you wonder if it isn't worth it, chatting it up with your neighbors and all that. A lot of Big Lessons at play here, and I have no idea which one to pick."

Once again, Kartar can't find his old voice.

"Anyway," she says, "I have to make a few more calls. I've got friends that deserve a thirty-second jump on the networks."

The secure line closes.

Kartar remains pitched forward, staring at the carpet between his feet.

Maybe this is the enlightenment, he thinks. Life inevitably cloaks itself in blankets and a relentless silence.

For the first time in years, he finds himself dwelling on that crazy man and the crazier woman he met in Ohio. Both of them claimed some epiphany that they didn't want to share with him. Was this it? That the sky is thick with aliens, but nobody talks because the gains don't equal the costs?

What were the names of those two people?

But after a few moments, and for many small reasons, Kartar decides to put the question aside, focusing instead on this uninvited, mystifying enlightenment.

© 2012 Robert Reed

[end]

Please visit Lightspeed Magazine (www.lightspeedmagazine.com) to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the October 2012 issue, which also features original science fiction by Benjamin Parzybok ("Bear and Shifty"), along with SF reprints by Pat Cadigan ("Nearly Departed") and Nancy Kress ("Art of War"). Plus, there's original fantasy by L.B. Gale ("Spindles") and Megan Arkenberg ("The Suicide's Guide to the Absinthe of Perdition"), and fantasy reprints by David Barr Kirtley ("The Black Bird") and Brian Ruckley ("Beyond the Reach of His Gods"). For our ebook readers, our ebook-exclusive novella is "Dragonfly" by Ursula K. Le Guin, and of course we have our usual assortment of author and artist spotlights, along with feature interviews with Ursula K. Le Guin and David Brin. And our excerpt this month is from Gwenda Bond's debut YA novel, Blackwood. You can wait for the rest of this month's contents to be serialized online, or you canbuy 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!