Tomorrow Is a Difficult Proposition
The trouble starts when I use a word I don’t understand. It’s a common word in mortal tongues, and it makes such an appropriate end to the conversation you don’t question my use of it.
You sit by me on the chrome alcove that passes for your bed, and I feel your warmth, your presence, even as I avoid your eyes. I have learned some things about human eyes and what they say.
Past you, a ship’s console beeps softly. Your eyes turn out the small window, out past the stars, and for once we don’t reignite our discussion about the nature of time. We have other questions to answer.
I reach over and take the old set of keys from your shelf of knick-knacks. I worry them between delicate fingers, enjoying their coolness. Something about the action alleviates the difficulty of this excruciatingly mortal conversation.
It’s difficult even for you, and I have seen you stand at the fore of this ship, where you are bold and efficient, seasoned and skillful, and face down the many unknown forces of the universe in a vessel you have called—lovingly—a recalcitrant bucket of bolts.
We’ve had so many conversations, but never one like this — the emotional puzzle of how you and I form we and us.
We talk a while, but we don’t solve the puzzle, and you tell me at last that you are going on an expedition to explore a planet that’s all fjords and sentient fungal mysteries. If I am to go along, I must act as one of your crew, and follow protocol; I must not call you Bell, but Captain Alvarez, and I must not wander off.
To see and discover—this is your mission. It’s why you came to my region of space—to the Ghiran system—when most of your kind turned back at the edges, or disappeared. Rumor of gods, demons, and smashed ships can squelch human curiosity, or in your case, dial it up.
You announced yourself via a probe inching its way into our space, and I introduced myself as I would to one of my kind: a wink from one point to another accented with a slight vibration in selected harmonics of the universe and a flourish of three stars. Later, you shortened it—vocalized it—to “Orion.” Something to do with star patterns seen from a particular vantage point.
Others of my kind have their own signatures—shrugs of supernovas, glimmering waves of new stars, asteroid belts that snap like fingers, out of orbit and back again. But this time they only regarded you distantly and did not bother with the difficulties of cohesion involved in entering your ship. Aside from flicking away your probe, they didn’t acknowledge you at all.
And so, I was the discovery when your crew took the readings that turned out to be my presence outside your ship.
I was the discovery when I appeared before you as a mortal, bipedal creature bronzed like deep, old sunlight, wearing the same dark uniform you all wear, with the three colored slashes on the arm to indicate my role on your crew, if I had one. I explained my instant appearance to be no such thing; I had searched the universe for footholds and loose ropes in the fabric of reality, and pulled through. There was some foot-scrabbling manipulation of time, none of which you saw.
I was the discovery you had to learn more about, and so we talked, and so I stayed.
But now you had new discoveries to make, and I say the word I don’t understand.
“We’ll talk later.” I tell you, with such casual smoothness you have no idea how poor my grasp of “later” actually is.
What I could’ve said was: “We’ll talk in one second, or in one turn of the galactic wheel.” Those are a scientific, quantifiable measures of time, unlike “later,” but it’s tough to make it around the galactic wheel in a mortal body. Mortality is a form of impatience; you die rather than holding out to see what comes next.
When you’re here, human form blankets me. But after you leave, the unending, indefinite span of “later” stretches out before me. I expand out to formless thought-feeling-presence. I am around your ship, through your ship. I have no edges, no body, only a calmness like shade and meditation and cool water.
I relax into it for a moment before I pull and grasp through black space, a movement like stretching cramped legs and running.
I unfold within a nebula, a fair harbor for thought, while patterns form in the blooming and exploding of stars as millennia sweep by. Cosmic dust puffs out as ultra-violet nebula-stuff pulls apart in my hands. A gas, so soft and cold, yet it presses down into the burning furies that are stars. That must be why I have fingers at the moment, to tease it apart as I go through my thoughts.
What better way to consider the specifics of having a mortal lover, or if I should return to your lifetime, your timeline, thousands of times over. All those, still, would equal so little of my life they would be like a single page in a single book on the chrome shelf where you keep such small treasures as you allow yourself. Books. A seashell which is not a seashell, but a violently orange twist of calcified romnox from the fifth moon of Zeron. An ornamental treasure chest next to crumbles of sage wafting into the stale air of your cabin.
And then, the set of keys, dingy with age. But there’s a spark of familiarity to them, and out here, they hum with the universe, which seems odd for a set of keys.
I still have them looped around a finger.
Ah, that’s why I have fingers. They lose cohesion for a moment, stretching into the nebula-stuff and becoming part of it. I bring them back with a hard shudder, and spin the keys around my finger, circling thoughts so long your life ends somewhere back in time, in a place I can’t be sure of.
I return to where you were before, a nondescript patch of sparsely starred space, but find I have lost you. For all that it is small and held together by thin welded metal facing into the harsh vastness of everything, your ship can also move quite quickly. Lightspeed is nothing to laugh at, after all, and your people have learned the trick of it, throwing themselves through the expanses of space faster than their flesh can quite understand.
You could be anywhere. Out from this point, in any direction. I’m hazy on the time as well, and so I search backwards and forwards. Mortals have compared time to a river, but it is you, flowing and changing. You are the water.
And because you are water, always moving, you are difficult to find.
Before you get insulted I lost you, remember that the universe is huge, and I am not omniscient. I did get your coordinates before leaving the ship, but to make use of them, I must fold my brain into grids and mathematical constructs and translate a string of numbers into an expanding multi-dimensional universe filled with wonders.
This is a shaky pathway, a fractured route..
And something is off. Something small, but enough to displace our meeting into near-infinite possibilities.
I rush through all the reaches of the cosmos where your people have explored and built civilizations, and I rummage through planets and systems like opening and shutting drawers in rapid search.
I do not find you.
And all I have to aid my search is a set of dingy keys.
I inspect their molecules, but find them inscrutable. I can feel the tingle of electrons spinning, but they keep their secrets.
I bring the dingy keys to Zeron. Tall spires, a mass of steep crags and plateaus, spaceships glinting in every inch of free sky.
I find my way to a side street with a laboratory.
I whip into myself like a wind, an implosion, and I crack the universe a bit when I do it. But I am physical. I land with feet on the planet’s surface and walk onto the street with other sentient beings and form words with a fleshy waggling tongue and intricate vocal cords and the manipulation of air. I enjoy the humming feeling in my throat.
I walk into the lab and toss the dingy keys so that they slide-jangle down the counter.
“I would like to know all things there are to know about these keys,” I say. “Starting from where in the universe they originated”
A sentient, bipedal, science-doing creature raises an eyebrow-like flesh ridge. The creature has a pleasant blueness, like a glowing planet with a spray of icy rings.
“You want me to scan the composition and find a point of origin?”
“In time as well as space.”
The science-doing creature scoops the keys into a clear container and labels them with a thicket of dark slashes. “Come back tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow,” I say. “That is the one where your suns appear to set and rise, but only one time?”
“You’ve got it,” says the sentient, blue-glowing, science-doing creature, with a gesture that seems encouraging.
I leave the laboratory.
I find that tomorrow is a difficult proposition. In non-corporeal form, tomorrow is an atom among trillions of atoms, a tiny nothing too hard to stop and catch. It passes by, light and easy.
In physical form, tomorrow never comes. It’s all wetness and lungwork, and that same wet, heavy feeling.
I shuffle along the street where the lab is, my feet scraping rough ground and spinning up dust as I pace back and forth past the shop.
I go back in. The blue-glowing, sentient science-creature works at the counter, bent over an invoice.
“Is this tomorrow?” I ask. It was always possible I’d missed it.
“No,” says the creature. “It’s been half an arc of the suns’ passage across the sky of today. There’s a place down the street that makes an iced fruit frooz with spun filu threads on top. You could check it out.”
“I will. Thank you.”
I leave and follow the sentient creature’s advice.
Down the dust and chrome street, there is a lounge kept dim and shaded, a rest from the constant, cloudless sun. Everything here is murmured conversation, intimate corners, and cold drinks with lights on straws.
Have you ever had an iced fruit frooz with spun filu threads on top? I would like to talk about it for an eternity. It is like… a nebula going down your throat, only it’s sweet and it punches, so that all you ever want is to be punched by this drink, again and again. Unfortunately it takes only a flash of time to drink. I leave the empty glass on the counter and return to the street, where flashes of two suns off the buildings push themselves onto the physical form of my visual receptors.
Suns, but not the suns of tomorrow.
Leaving the physical space works much the same as entering it. It may look instantaneous, but,it is a push, a spin upwards, an explosion out to everything.
Tomorrow accomplishes itself easily.
I crash back into physical being to return to the street, Zeron, the laboratory.
But it’s not there on this tomorrow.
I don’t know how many wars there have been, how many storms and earthquakes and asteroid collisions, but there is nothing here. “Dust to dust” is one of the greater truths of the human species, and very true here, in this now.
I find the moments to go backwards; they lift themselves before me like river rocks, then twist away under my feet into their own undoing, again and again.
But the lab has not come to exist yet.
The same problem I have with you, my love, my first of many things. How to find you, when you are so small, when you take up so little of time and space and everything is flashing photons in the eye of infinity.
So I make my way through the crags and spires and years of Zeron. I am at least in the right space, if not the right time. The same dust has been here each visit, whether it coated desolation or the newness of creation or chrome buildings and hot streets.
Small hops, now, and I make it.
I enter the lab.
A science-doing, blue-glowing sentient creature comes from behind a row of equipment.
“I’m here about the keys,” I say.
The creature stares at me, says nothing. Frozen as a fruit frooz, all hard ice particles. I notice the wrinkles now.
“I dropped them off. You said you could tell me from where in the universe they originate.”
The creature slackens. “That was fifty cycles ago.”
I look at him.
“18,000 tomorrows later. 18,000 yesterdays?”
I cling to the number. “18,000.” I nod my head.
The creature exhales a long stream of oxygen. “I’ve got them in the back somewhere with a report.”
Finding the report takes some doing on the part of the blue-glowing, sentient science-creature. I learn expletives and experiment with their startling abruptness in my throat.
The creature stops its search multiple times to turn dials, take notes, and drop chemicals into beakers with meticulous fingers that move as slow as tomorrow.
But at last, it hands me the keys with a single, printed sheet of silicone.
I have more trips to make.
Astarian. Deep obsidian, dead and volcanic, industry incarnate. The keys come from here, from one factory out of so many they are like uncounted tomorrows.
But I must be precise in time and place, or this plan does not work.
I know within a short span when these keys were smelted and pressed into shape, sent off with matching locks during a time when slick electronics, the security of scanning lights in blue, green, and red, fell out of favor for the hard and mechanical, cold metal which could not be tricked with lines of code or eyes snatched from someone’s head.
The keys fell out of favor as nano-edged cutting tools and fusion dissolving weapons spread, leaving locks of metal antiques once again.
Fortunately, the factories do not all make keys. I find my time and place with less trouble than I’d expected.
I grit the farthest reaches of my presence and concentrate on the moment. This time when I implode into physical form, I am a jumble of machinery cluttered along the edge of a conveyor belt, unnoticed in this dim cathedral space.
This will take me many tomorrows, but I have many.
I watch the first key ever printed at the factory, the second, the third. Your dingy keys rest safe with me, and I wait for the shiny new keys that match them. When each one appears, I follow it: packaged, shipped, sold, opened, used, and discarded. They scatter across planets to destruction, disintegration, and abandonment.
Each time, I follow a homing beacon back to Astarian for the next key down the conveyor belt, and I follow that, too. I can’t zip ahead like on Zeron, or I may miss the moment, the single key among millions.
Even in non-mortal form, it is hot, exhausting work, and I wish for an iced fruit frooz.
As I travel out from Astarian, I watch captains like you locking up money and books and sentimental treasures.
I watch children hiding their toys from siblings.
I watch the keys pass hands, inevitably separated from their partner locks. Mortals pick them up anyway, and I learn that there is something about a key without a lock; you collect them for the possibility of discovery.
I know you better now, even before I come to a garage strewn with parts, and an old man hangs the key on a pegboard. I wait until sunlight cracks onto the key as the garage door opens, and a human girl enters with a sonic scooter.
I am not certain, not yet, and so I stay with the key longer.
The sun cracks through the garage door again and again, and the girl returns. She has the right spirit, the dash of bravery in her reckless scooter circles through plants colored such a green that your species had to come up with a new word to describe it.
She comes to watch her grandfather tinker in the garage. I see the effort mortals go through to fix their scooters and bikes and all their flying things, the precious minutes of their mortality given to healing engines and metal conveyances.
I learn what you will give to see the stars.
The girl returns to the sonic scooter again and again, and then does not.
It grows dusty with the years that pass, and the door does not crack open.
When it does, several people come in with boxes, taking things, cataloging them. Among them, a browned hand reaches up to the key, shaking, and—
Yes. I knew I would see you here, grown almost into the self I know. When you tuck the key into a pocket with your others, I follow.
I stay with the keys and become the extra key on the ring that no one remembers, and… Oh! This is why they felt familiar. Why they hummed with the universe.
You take them with you when you board your ship, and you place them on the shelf.
I live in cool, metallic peace through all this, and it passes by so quickly. For all you have done, for all the stars you’ve explored, the book of your life is still so slim.
We come to the moment when I first saw you, intrepid and questioning, your crew taking the readings of my presence around your ship, a moment that vibrated love at first sight.
We pass through all the hours we talked, all the hours I failed to understand you enough, and we come to the day you leave to explore the planet of fjords and sentient fungal mysteries, and my corporreal self can’t wait until “later”, and leaves.
I could become corporeal again and pretend that I didn’t get impatient, that I didn’t leave. That I understood “later” and returned when it came. But, all that has happened since stands as part of the answer to the questions we asked during our last conversation. I pay that conversation its due and remain as the key until half-past later.
But you don’t head for the planet of fjords. You head to the Ghiran system, my home territory. You find it desolate, But to me it is austere, refined, polished, jewel-toned. With an asteroid belt that sparkles.
Why?— Oh. You came to look for me.
But now– Ah, yes. This time I’m not there to put the figurative foot forward. And some others of my kind are the reason those who survived this sector said it was inhabited by demons. Several of them decide to greet you with hail from that sparkling asteroid belt. Successive glittering streams of sand and dust peel out from the belt and head for this ship of yours with its delicate hull and sensors and antennas .
You have poured as much time and care into this fragile vessel as your grandfather poured into his own vehicles, but you’re braver than your ship is strong.
I can turn back only part of this wave. It hits, a roaring patter, and the ship shudders. I lose my footing and instinctively explode out to non-corporeal form, blink and ripple within and around your ship.
Your crew shouts damage readings out to you. And another wave hits.
Then there is a wave through the belt itself and some of the very smallest of the asteroids come careening out and towards us. There is too much of it for me to shield you against all of them.
You order them targeted. I turn back many. Still, too many get through. They will pass through me. But they will destroy your ship.
You order a retreat. You think you have more time than you do. Maybe that’s always your problem, even with the impatience and the mortality. In the seconds between giving the order and the ship heaving to, the rain of destruction hits. You’re thrown across the room. Lights flicker. Engines power down.
Your ship will not hold, even though you’ve always saved it before. Pieces of it fly away into space. In moments, your crew, you, will go too. This is what your bravery was all along—your knowledge that this could happen.
Seconds have passed. A ripple passes through me—the pause of an entire asteroid belt about to snap back into place. Too late for you. Ships are not such complex or puzzling things as humans. But both are fragile and fleeting.
I crack the universe a little, and on a precise timeline. I grasp back for the moments before the latest round came battering your ship.
And then I whip into myself, implode. To something different this time. I clutch the engines at the heart of the ship into my own heart. I expand and fill all that is broken. I breathe air through corridors and I swell with artificial gravity. I feel you roll up onto your feet.
I expand out, around you, under you, above you.
I harden into your hull.
And then I twist away.
You don’t know why this has happened—why any of it has happened.
And so I speak, working up through zeroes and ones to words on a screen, like a throat humming, but a throat of flashing electron exchanges within the circuits. I tell you you’ve been introduced to some of my fellow gods and demons, best not to stick around for small talk. I say you, your crew, the ship, are away and safe. I am the floor beneath your feet. I am the hull and the engines.
You take in all I say. You tell me at least you found me, demon system or no.
I tell you that’s not exactly what happened, but I’ll see you to where you can have proper repairs done.
And after that?
I don’t know about afters, but I understand what it is to be a key without a lock.
So do you.
Perhaps this will work. Perhaps for as long as later. Or tomorrow. Or a turn of the galactic wheel.
“Tomorrow Is a Difficult Proposition” © Kris Bowser, first published here in Cosmic Roots Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2023
Kris Bowser lives and adventures in the rocky hills and forests of New England, where she learned to sneak into the other worlds tucked between shadows and around bends. Currently, she works for the same college where she earned her degree in creative writing, and spends her time crafting an ever-growing steampunk fantasy series about a failed printmaker and a mysterious, newly engineered magic. She now lives in an old mill town haunted by the spirits of machines and industry, but can also be found at krisbowser.com
Illustration by Fran Eisemann. Background stock courtesy of NASA