Holding the Stone
Robert N Stephenson
“Why don’t you just sit down, kid, and shut up,” the bearded man had said as she asked the Captain of the space ship how long before they entered cryogenic sleep.
She’d been through this before, or she thought she had. She fumbled the stone in her hand and watched the man. They’d left the solar system days ago and she was excited. The man was the Captain’s son, and full of arrogance. She couldn’t remember if the Captain had answered or not. It was the man’s voice that remained in her memories. He paced and she gripped the stone.
“Shut up!” he had said. Shut up indeed. Lyssa played that fragment of a scene over and over in her head as if it was the only thing she could really think about. How many times had she heard that voice, those words and gazed upon that scraggly beard? It was her immediate situation that required the thinking. She felt the smooth edge in her hand, and like the memory, it was a kind of obsession, a compulsion to repeat something familiar over and over like the memory. Was the ship a memory or a dream? The daylight was bright and her face twitched.
She flicked the stone across the table for what must have been the fiftieth time that morning. The thought of the Captain’s son gone again. She’d gone to bed the previous evening with it in her hand, dreamed strange dreams about the ship, the man and the iciness of space. But every morning she was back at the same table in the same house in a world she didn’t understand. Was she locked in a dream about a dream?
The stone slid and clunked as it hit the wall. She retrieved it and repeated the little flick with her right pointer finger.
She picked up the stone and examined its fine yellow grain as it traced its way through the gray, shimmering stone. It was smooth on three sides, like a skipping stone, but one side was ribbed as if designed to fit into something.
Swish, clunk. Swish, clunk.
The bearded man dream could wait, there was now to think about, but like the Captain’s son on the ship the scene felt like another replay. A bright day shone through the white, wood sash windows; she could see the head and shoulders of a big, red kangaroo as it hop-walked its way across the yard. She knew what they looked like from pictures in the ship’s library but you didn’t see live ones in space. As much as she tried to think of this part as the dream, it always felt real, the stone was evident in her hand rather than being an awkward object on the ship. Here, this place, was where’d she went to sleep last night. And it felt like this was where she went to sleep every night. She flipped the stone, then pressed her fingers to her forehead. Which was the dream?
The day was warming. The sun was still low in the morning sky but she could already feel its heat as the rays touched her skin, magnified through the glass.
“Where am I, and why am I here?” she asked the stone.
Swish, clunk. Swish, clunk.
Food appeared on the table before her. Morning, noon and night the food appeared from nowhere and later the dishes would disappear. How long ago had she become used to the oddity? It was there so she ate. The food was filling, wonderful, compared to ship rations she recalled.
She ate cautiously and watched the corners of the room. Waiting and expecting someone to sneak up and tell her what was going on; explain the joke. The room was a definitely a country kitchen. The whole scene looked familiar and she wondered if this was her Granma’s house in country South Australia.
Swish, clunk. Swish, clunk.
Why would she be here? Where was the Captain? And where was that rude son of his?
A gust of wind rattled the window. She startled and dropped the warm bread she’d been nibbling on the floor. Heart racing, she stood, ventured to the window and gazed out at the red, desolate plain. The kangaroo had gone. She was alone again. She had to be in Australia, but where on the vast continent if not her grandma’s? A distant heat haze signaled another hot day. Another day of searching the house for clues that weren’t there. Everything familiar but nothing recognizable. Was she in outback Australia or on the spaceship getting ready for cryo? She looked to the table and the stone. At least that was a constant. There was always the stone.
Lyssa stepped from the shower, grabbed a towel from the rack on the wall and wrapped it around herself. She left wet puddles on the soft, gray carpet as she padded to the living room. The smell of wood fire touched her nose for the briefest of moments and then it was gone. She looked back at where she had stepped; the puddles had gone and the carpet was dry. With a heavy sigh, she stood before a mirror hanging lonely and empty on one wall. Her wet hair stuck to her face. Her skin glowed with a luster she thought made her look older than fifteen.
“Eighteen,” she said softly as she turned about examining her figure. “I’m sure I use to be fifteen.” She checked her hair and found the stone in her hand. Hadn’t she put it down before the shower?
A door slammed. She grabbed the towel and ran to the bedroom.
“Do you believe?” a man’s voice called from somewhere in the house.
The towel landed on the bed as she entered the room and grabbed her underwear, jeans, and a T-shirt. Dressing quickly felt slow. The more she tried to wriggle into her jeans the slower she felt she was moving.
“We have progressed further today,” a man said from behind her. “How was the shower?”
She turned, raising her fists ready to fight.
“Who are you? Where am I?” She shouted, then paused; he looked familiar.
“I am not going to harm you, Lyssa,” he said. He had dark skin, dark eyes, and black hair but he wasn’t a native Australian. His facial structure was strange and his hair hung straight, not curly as it was supposed to. “I have no interest in causing you worry or concern.”
“Where am I? Why am I here?” she snapped rolling over the bed and putting it between them.
“I am sorry. Do I frighten you? I have used this form for all my visits. It comes from your thoughts.”
“Get out!” she screamed. Panic and frustration clambered for a place in her chest.
“This is where you always wanted to be?” the man said, he took a step back, and moved into the hallway. His hands came up and a frown creased his brow. His casual suit looked strange and neutral as if it were skin rather than clothing. “That is what I gathered from your memory. This is the first time we have come this far. You still have the stone. You still have the stone.”
“Who are you?” she barked. “You a mind reader? How did you get me here? Drugs? Did you give me drugs? I’ll tell my dad and he’ll…”
“I am an Aspect,” he said, his voice deep and serious. “I am the one who helps in understanding and you are the one who needs understanding.” He smiled a perfect smile. “Please, tell me your concerns and I will explain.”
She clenched her fists and felt the stone in her right palm. Should she throw it at him and run. She didn’t know what to do. This was never in the dream. “I don’t care what you call yourself and I don’t need understanding,” she said, finding calm in her self-control. She looked at the bed. “And I’m not sharing anything with you. And I’m not…not…”
“There is great anxiety but it is incorrectly focussed.” He smiled again. “You have been lost a long time, Lyssa. We found you and only want to help, but we need your help first.”
With that, she ran. She pushed passed him, bounced off the passageway wall as she careened into the kitchen and headed out the back door. Outside, the sun blinded her. It was burning hot on her bare arms, legs, and head. The red ground burnt her feet as she ran to a vehicle under the shade of a nearby tree. It hadn’t been there earlier. It must belong to the man.
Standing beside the vehicle, her feet burning and sore, she tried to find its door. There wasn’t an entry into the four-wheeled spheroid. She screamed and thumped it with her fists. Tears slid down her face. She thumped more before turning back to the house. The man stood in the doorway. “What is happening!” she screamed, as she slid to the ground crying.
“It is cooler inside, Lyssa,” he said. His voice carried easily in the stillness of the world around her. “Again I will try to explain. My name is Aspen.”
She threw the stone at him.
Aspen handed her a cool glass of water. She took it out of habit. How did she form a habit so soon with this man? Her head hurt. She drank, feeling revived as the water ran down her throat. A ceiling fan ticked as it pushed air around the spacious living room. She sat, slumped in one of the two overstuffed Sanderson Linen chairs.
“Why am I here?” she asked, handing the glass back to Aspen.
“This time I hope you will stay in the cool.”She frowned, he just nodded politely. “I am what you requested and this is the location of choice as mentioned in your file. Lyssa, I am truly trying to help.” He squatted before her, the glass held nimbly between his fingers. “We believe that on death, you were loaded into some kind of memory storage system.”
“In the physical, yes.” Aspen touched her bare arm. She pulled away.
“But…” She sat forward and waved her hand about the room. She touched her face.
“This memory store, we think was to give new life. It is the only explanation we have been able to gather.” She listened to him speak and it felt like an echo in her mind. Aspen held the glass before her. It filled with water, ice cubes formed and chinked against the glass. “This is what I have taken and learned from the system.”
“I’m dead?” Hadn’t she already asked this? She felt for the stone. She held it tight. “How…” She fell back into the chair. “I don’t remember anything about this memory stuff.” She looked away and out the large bay window at the far end of the room. She sniffed, smelt the newness of the carpet, the polish on the furniture and the sweet scent of Aspen’s aftershave.
“From what we have retrieved we believe it was an initiative of a unified group perhaps. There is a structure we don’t comprehend, but it is ordered.” He tilted his head like a dog.
Had she had a dog? “But I was on a ship leaving the solar system…”
“You have been asleep a while,” he said. “Understanding your dating system has proven difficult, but we could tell by signal degradation that the purge of the data happened a very long time ago.”
“You’re saying I’m dead and am inside a computer?”
“You are somewhere and it isn’t quite right for you as things are.”
“I’m inside a machine?” she said. “Why am I so confused? Why don’t I remember any of this?” She pointed to the abstract painting on one wall, the lounge suite, and its strange orange pattern. “None of this makes sense to me.”
The room swayed then vanished. The view of space and the bright lights of stars filled her eyes and mind with their vastness and enormity. She looked about. Saw the Earth and moon. The sun shrank until it was a mere speck amongst billions of other specks.
“The upload into our system was done a long time ago as well, so we don’t know how long ago you died in the physical and became part of the memory packet.”
Aspen stood before her, his eyes alive, yet she didn’t know what to ask. He sighed, a sad gesture she could accept. She saw her dad sigh like that whenever he thought of her mother. She’d died from cancer a few years before they volunteered for . . . volunteered for what?
“We have come to think this memory store no longer exists. Again not in the physical sense.” Aspen looked down. She followed his gaze and saw a spinning cube of gray ice. “The data packet we picked up was by accident. The direction of your signal would have taken quite some time to get to anything we’d call inhabited space.”
She closed her eyes and felt her chest and her racing heart. She swallowed and felt a lump in her throat. She was going to cry. She didn’t want to cry. Clenching her fists, she stared Aspen in the face, his eyes were dark like space itself, and yet she was drawn to their honesty. If she was only a digital entity what was she living now, right at this minute? She felt the stone and gripped it tighter as if it was the only real thing she had. She looked at him and saw he wanted to say more, but could she accept more? Did she even want to live in this… this non-reality?
“We picked up your signal and it took us many journeys throughout the multi-system to decode a fraction of what is contained in the packet. What we managed to recover is now stored in this.” Aspen changed from a man into a pale, four-legged creature with tiny black eyes. It wore no clothes and yet didn’t look naked.
She gasped. “What are…”
“I am an aspect of reality, Lyssa, but not your reality.” He changed back into the image of a man. “You see, I am a Kurian from the spiral of the three suns.”
“You are an alien . . . ?” She felt sick. “Where is my father? What have you done with everyone else?”
“I don’t know the answer to this. And I don’t know who the others are you are talking about. But with your help, with your acceptance, we can learn and find out answers for you, us, together.” He looked sad now; his face lost definition as if she was losing the ability to see clearly. “Lyssa, you are our eleventh attempt to restore a personality structure from the vast amounts of data we received.”
“You did all this before?” She wanted her dad. She wanted to close her eyes and wake up in her cabin and hear the grumpy voice of the Captain’s son. She would even be happy to see her father crying and hiding his face thinking she couldn’t see.
“We have started ten times before. This is as far as we have ever gotten. We have everything you seem to desire. We have all the data, the images and memories, plus the images and memories of the thousands of others stored in the system. We believe Heaven’s Gate on Earth no longer exists, and we cannot travel the vast distance to the planet to take you home.” Aspen waved his hand and the living room returned. He offered her a bottle of lemonade. “Our problem is that you refuse to believe what I am telling you. And because of this, we cannot fully restore your profile.”
“Would you?” she snapped as she grabbed the bottle and took a long pull letting the bubbles tickle her throat. “Who were the other ten you tried?” she asked, wiping her mouth with the back of her arm.
“You,” Aspen said casually. “We dare not try another until we understand you.”
“I’m the guinea pig, is that it?” She sipped at the drink, this time, it was helping. She didn’t feel angry, just confused and sad. The sadness was strange, it was like the time when her mom had died and she just sat in her room wishing for her to come home. She felt empty.
“You are the one we have chosen to study, understand and reinstate. Through you, we can reinstate all the profiles we have recorded.” Aspen moved his hand and the lemonade bottle re-filled.
“I don’t believe any of this,” she said looking at the liquid as if it were magic. “Would you accept this story?”
“Under the circumstances, perhaps not,” he sat on the floor. “But you must agree to live, Lyssa if we are to succeed in our quest.”
She felt the sugar in the lemonade ease away the tightness in her stomach. “So what are your plans for Heaven’s Gate? Me in particular?”
“We have the physical specifications of your race and as much knowledge of your needs as needed,” he said.
“So?” She finished the soft drink. It magically refilled again. She looked at the label. It was a Woodroofe’s. Her favorite brand. “Can’t you just take me back to Earth?”
“We do not know where this Earth is.” He looked sad.”Too long has passed. We don’t know if this Earth even exists in this time.” He stood, straightened his clothes; or was it his skin? “We can manufacture bodies to the specifications on file and download your personalities into them. And you will live again?”
“No. We have no physical matter from which to copy, we will be creating from scratch, so to speak. You will be like us, but different.”
She put the bottle on the floor and sat forward in her chair, shaking her head. “You say I didn’t believe you before?”
“That is correct. Do you believe me now?”
“And we’ve been through this same scene a few times previously?” She looked up at him.
“No.” He looked toward the bay window. “Usually you discarded the link and we must start again. Each time a little further.”
“Then I think you’ve done okay,” she said with a sigh.
“Then you believe?” Aspen looked surprised.
“Yes,” she said standing to face him. “I believe. This is exactly what I have dreamed about all my life,” she said pointing to the scene outside the window. I told no one about it and I never wrote it down. Granma’s place was always my favorite place in Australia. I have no explanation for any of this, so yours will have to do.” She smiled and felt joy.
“Do you agree to live, Lyssa?” he asked.
“Yes, I do,” she sighed. “What comes next?”
“You give me the key to your file. The stone in your hand.”
“Is that what it is?” She examined its odd shape then handed it to Aspen. “Now what?”
“You wake up.”
She woke to the sound of chirping birds and the call of a kookaburra.
“You’re awake,” Aspen said as he handed her a breakfast tray. “It’s going to be another hot one. We’d better stay indoors. You sleep well?”
“Mmmm, yes thanks.” She eased up and balanced the tray on her lap. “I had the strangest dream.”
“Really,” Aspen said, as he offered her a news sphere. It glowed at her touch.
“I think you were in it and I had this stone, and I died, and…and.” She sipped her juice. She wondered at the strange smile that had spread across Aspen’s face. “What’s so funny?”
“Did you believe it, Lyssa?” he asked.
“Of course not.”She laughed. “But it was strange.”
“That I can believe,” he said, as he turned to leave the room. “I think we have found your father,” he added at the door. “He’s been on a long trip and can’t wait to see you again. Says he can’t believe so long has passed.”
“Did he say when he’ll be here?” She wanted to see her father again and wondered why he never told her he was going away.
“When he believes I am told.” Aspen’s smile was wider.
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’ll let him tell you. Now, eat up, there’s a desert to explore.”
Robert N Stephenson has been a literary agent (Tony Shillitoe and Christy Fenton the most successful), he runs a publishing house which has published the words of David Brin, Jack McDevitt and Sean Williams among others and at this stage published 1 or 2 anthologies a year (Just search Robert N Stephenson on both amazon and smashwords) This story is Roberts 120 th short fiction sale. He has sold two novels, written a book for a film company, graphic novel and two film projects at the end of 2016. His work has received a Black Dog award and an Aurealis Award as well as 6 Honourable mentions for Writers of the Future. He works hard to change the landscape of the publishing industry.