Some time ago, on Ganymede, there was a little shop by the name of Tulle. It was located on First Avenue, the stretch of road famous for bearing the zip code of the first human landing party. It was the street to be on, of course. One of the astronaut’s grandsons, a French cat by the name of Roux (prounced R-oo), owned Tulle. In twenty years he had invented (to considerable financial success and critical renown) a grand space where real magic flourished.
Today there is a colony on Europa and everyone has their eye on Triton. A century or so before today (and only fifty years before the start of our story), when Roux first arrived on Ganymede, investors had pulled out and everyone was cutting their losses. In fact: every astronaut in that first landing party received rights to Ganymidian land, passed on to their offspring and their offspring and so on and Roux was the first to invoke those rights.
At the start of it all, during the exciting time of that first human landing party on Ganymede, everyone invested. That’s how everything was built, the atmosphere, the mountains, the forests. Ganymede has no deserts, only miles and miles of freshwater lakes and one large ocean. It was only after the terraforming and the second landing party that the investors learned that Ganymede was, for lack of a better word, weird.
The water was tested, of course, and the air, and the dirt, and every manufactured atom of nature on Ganymede. There was no explanation as to why or how some in the landing party (and not others) experienced physical transformation.
To categorize these transformations in any further way, beyond being physical, is impossible. The effects, carefully recorded to this day, show no pattern of choice, no abundance of any genetic marker in those who are affected or in those who are “immune”. Most retain their familiar humanoid shape, only their skin is now the color of magenta, or perhaps they have sprouted pointed ears, or the bony nubs of once-there wings, or a tail, or claws. Some become someone or something else entirely: in Mr. Roux’s case, well, he became a cat.
I am not joking. Yes, Mr. Roux, a human man, is, on Ganymede, a cat.
Mr. Roux left Earth and the security of a coveted familial network of connections during a time when political uncertainty over outer planet habitation was at its peak and all expansion beyond Mercury had been abruptly and violently halted by the perceived failure of Ganymede. Here are the facts that Mr. Roux discovered and broadcasted, quite cleverly, on talk shows, in interviews with journalists. He even participated as a guest on a panel for a lecture series at Oxford about physics and philosophy.
The facts were:
“Yes, some human beings experience… changes while on Ganymede. These changes are temporary; upon leaving Ganymede, you’ll look like you again, I promise.”
“Only your physical body changes. At no point is the core of who you are as an individual dissimilated. Your memories, feelings, thoughts from before Ganymede will follow you to Ganymede because you never cease to be you.”
“If your thoughts, feelings, or memories do change after Ganymede, it’s because you have made the choice to change them.”
Finally, the sales pitch:
“On Ganymede, you don’t age.” A pause, to let the gravity of that promise sink in. “Once you leave Ganymede your body resumes cellular senescence. Ganymede isn’t the fountain of youth. You won’t age backwards and you can still die; still, you could spend five years on Ganymede as you are and after the five years choose to dislike the idea of being actually immortal after all. No problem, just leave Ganymede. You’ll come out through the atmosphere the same as you came in. Exactly the same.”
Mr. Roux never led with the fact that on Ganymede, he was a cat. If someone asked, he never lied. I always had a sense that Roux enjoyed being a cat and found something profound in existing as one.
That was then and this is now, the now of the story, set fifty years after Roux’s time spent in Oxford lecture halls.
(For me, it has been many years since Now. And by Now I mean the Now of This Story, not right now).
Now, all of the land on First Avenue is occupied. Originally there were 5 lots for the 5 astronauts that first landed on Ganymede. The lots were intentionally unfair, having been drawn at random from a hat. Most likely the astronauts were making a joke of it; if you’d seen Ganymede as they had, you’d think owning land on Ganymede was a joke too.
Now, there are 12 establishments on First Avenue. Tulle is by far the smallest, easy to miss. To its left, there’s Aurum (popularly stylized, “Au” and pronounced A - U), a grand hotel. To its right, there’s Veil, a seafood restaurant that offers literal therapy in every bite. If anything, random passerby notice Tulle after noticing where it is not; Aurum and Veil have three or more floors and there is a noticeable gap between the two buildings. There was, in fact, no need for the passerby to notice Tulle. Tulle from the start depended only on one thing for survival: reputation. Word of mouth was good business.
There was always word of mouth about Tulle and there were always people coming as a result, people from every part of the solar system. For a while they came to meet the notoriously private and charmingly flamboyant Roux. (Everyone was convinced he had the answer to the Big Question. If he had the answer, he didn’t say, only smiled coyly in that way that perpetuated the belief that he might have the answer after all.) Now, once or twice a year, one or two come for Roux. The rest, and the rest are many, come because Tulle is the best at what it does.
But this story isn’t about Tulle. It’s about the people who worked there and what happened to them at day’s end, once the doors were locked, the chandelier was dimmed, and the magic had revealed itself to be a kind of clockwork after all. This story is, by virtue of its setting, about Ganymede, and as such it is also about the human experience and the nature of time.
I arrived on Ganymede six weeks after the day I turned twenty-three. I know this because it was on the night of my birthday that I met Apolline and Apollo. I was in the capital of Venus attending a ballet performance and had stepped out for a cigarette. I noticed them immediately. She was petite with gold hair. He had tattoos and wore a leather jacket. There was something very attractive about the two of them together.
“Hey!” He yelled, at some point. “Would you lend me your energy converter for a minute?”
“What for?” I yelled back.
“He forgot to charge his and now he’s out of cigarettes,” she yelled.
“Honey!” He gasped.
“Sweetie!” She playfully smacked his shoulder.
We collectively realized the absurdity of yelling all of this and met halfway. I handed him my energy converter.
“Apolline,” she said.
“Thanks,” he said, and then, in afterthought, added: “Apollo.” His fingers were already thumbing the converter. He scanned the numbers beneath the skin on his wrist. The gadget vibrated to the RGB spectrum as the necessary energy was transported from Apollo’s personal accounts, promptly undergoing molecular reformation. After powering down, the machine spit a pack of cigarettes down the slot.
Apolline and Apollo. The resemblance in names was a coincidence; they had met three years before and had married the day before I met them. This was Apolline’s second marriage. I was surprised to find that she was ten years older than him (he was in his early 30s) and that they weren’t planning to honeymoon.
“The rest of our lives will be one long honeymoon,” Apolline assured me. They were headed to Ganymede to find work and stay, “at least for a little while.”
“Can I come with you?” I burst out at some point.
“To Ganymede?” Apollo asked.
I had never thought of visiting Ganymede; in fact, I had never thought much about Ganymede at all. Still, I was having one of those moments in life where everything feels like it is aligning and there is a rising in the chest, the sudden urge to rush at the wind and scream “I am alive!” while laughing and crying at the same time. We like to invent reasons for things that happen to us and those reasons become who we are.
As a child, I had always looked up at the stars and thought: we still don’t know where we came from or why we are here.
I told myself that there was a reason for us crossing paths. That reason was on Ganymede.
“Yes,” I said.
“Of course!” Apolline was thrilled.
“The trip to Ganymede takes three weeks and we don’t know a single thing about you,” Apollo pointed out.
“That’s fair,” I agreed. I told them the facts that made up the person that I was and we were on our way.
Mia was small even by H-class freighter standards. There was a large loading bay for transporting goods between worlds. Apolline joked that the ship was her dowry; Mia had been with the family for generations. The family was Italian, of course, and had bought Mia to transport wine from the vineyards of Earth to the thirsting throats of humans everywhere in the solar system. They were the first Earth-bound vintners to invest in long-distance freighters. Suitably, they made a tidy sum and kept profits up by keeping operations in-house; there was a family member on every habitable rock and station deemed viable for long-term business.
“Spitfire exploration runs in the family,” Apolline explained one day, about two weeks into the trip. We were in the mess hall, a candle flickering between us. The curves of the flames danced on Apolline’s elbow-length satin gloves. I had by this point realized that Apolline was naturally fashionable in the old world way, at all times exuding forces of both Greek naiad and Hollywood actress. I had never met, and never would meet, any single person capable of outdressing Apolline with the same consistency and theatrical effect.
“I’m the youngest, so for a long time all I did was listen to stories, never living any of them,” Apolline continued. For three days, we had rerouted all energy to the engines to get us through a field of densely-packed space debris. We were sitting in the dark while Apollo was taking his turn on the bridge.
“It’s hard to imagine becoming an explorer when the whole world seems discovered,” she added. “I can’t think of a single place my sisters haven’t traveled to. Well,” she grinned. “I’ll be the first on Ganymede. My entire family, no one has ever been to Ganymede. And there’s hundreds of us!”
We landed without fanfare and were processed separately through immigration. When I saw them, I slammed my hand to my mouth to stop the laughter. “I’m sorry,” I said, trying to breathe.
It wasn’t the transformation itself that was so uproarious, rather it was Apollo’s discomfort. He had sprouted the long, floppy ears of a rabbit and a rather prominent, furry nub of a tail. Presently and in reaction to its new owner’s emotional crisis, the nub was downturned, hiding and shuddering.
Apolline was torn between laughter and giving comfort.
“Look,” she moved Apollo’s chin so that he was forced to look at her.
“I have gills on my neck,” she pointed. He rolled his eyes.
“Wait!” She pointed at the sides of her forehead, her forearms, her calves. “I have scales everywhere, too.”
He turned away from her.
“Sweetie,” She cooed, grinning at me as she poked his tail.
“Hey!” He jumped forward, instinctively shielding his nub with his hands. “The gills could be worse and the scales, hell, you’d probably paint them on yourself, willingly, for one of your stupid outfits.”
“Hey,” I warned, taking a couple of steps towards them.
“I love your outfits, honey. It’s just, we both have certain looks, don’t we? Bunny ears and a tail don’t really fit my…”
“Aesthetic?” Appoline suggested.
“You did paint scales on yourself for your cousin’s mermaid-themed bachelorette party last year. In my defense.”
“I did do that, yes,” Apolline laughed.
“Stop laughing. It’s not funny.”
“It is. Didn’t anyone teach you that laughing about miserable things makes them tolerable?” She teased.
They finally turned towards me. Immediately Apolline’s scales lumiscened magenta and Apollo’s ears snapped to a militant straightness. “Woah,” they breathed in unison.
We went drinking. We kept asking each other, “Do you feel it? Do you feel the difference?” We collectively felt that we were more energized and that our bodies were hardier. It was an illusion, of course, a simple byproduct of adrenaline from the first day, the transformation, and the liquor on Ganymede.
After that first week on Ganymede, Apolline and I didn’t see each other for months. I took it upon myself to travel around Ganymede. Mostly I sat in public spaces and observed others, writing things down. Eventually I got to talking to some of them, asking them about their transformation, what had brought them to Ganymede. I met many people in this way. Apolline and Apollo, meanwhile, well. Shortly after that first day they discovered that, by courtesy of Apolline’s father, they were both landowners on Ganymede. Rather quickly a team was put together and soon enough there was a blueprint, bulldozers and cranes.
After returning to the capital, I received a call mid-week at the hotel I was staying at. I was glad to see Apolline, even holographically, and told her I missed her. The house was built, she said, and I should come stay with them until I find a more permanent place. I told her, I had seen pretty much all of Ganymede anyway and had been thinking of looking for work. I have a job for you, she said, and told me to bring all my things right! over because she was going to tell me about the most magical little shop called Tulle.
I had an interview at Tulle by that Friday and started work the following Monday. I was a keyholder with Apolline and together we were more or less responsible for running the shop. We were called keyholders not, in fact, as a throwback to the archaic industry of retail at the height of human consumerism. Rather we were called keyholders because that was, most fundamentally, what we quite literally were. That is, the shop doors required two solid gold keys to open them; Apolline had one, I had the other.
The whole business with the keys was unnecessary, of course, but then again the very basis of Tulle’s existence in the age of automation and higher human pursuits can be seen as unnecessary. I’m sure decades from now someone may read this and even accurately position Tulle as the great precursor to the nomad generation. Tulle, after all, was the first outer world establishment to employ humans in simple jobs that had been relegated to machines for a very long time; centuries, really, long enough for most of us to forget that there once was a time before artificial intelligence when humans had to do everything, even the boring and the ugly, and that there was something necessary about that, something that was now actively being forgotten and by forgetting this necessary something that existed in the era of having-to-do-everything, we were also forgetting ourselves.
We are presently and have been for a thousand years now, convinced of this great pretense of control over all aspects of human existence. It was on Ganymede that I realized: I have no control and that’s the whole point. The point is to question and doubt everything, this is when you are most human. If you are asking, what does being “most human” mean?, my answer is: it means nothing and everything, to the right person.
By the time I was working at Tulle, Tulle had been around for some time, the front-of-house employment of humans in stores, restaurants, hotels wasn’t revolutionary and Ganymede as a whole was whispered about disapprovingly because of its culture of transient workers.
It was during this time that Roux, once a constant presence at Tulle, became less and less so. He would disappear for weeks at a time. When he returned, it was always the same; how’s business? he’d ask, and, how are you? He would stay for days, perhaps a week, often sleeping in the rafters. Later, many years later on Phobos, actually, Roux would tell me that during that time he had taken a particular liking to staying out of sight and observing others; for too long, he said, he had been a creator and put off the hat of the observer.
Apolline and I weren’t the only ones working at Tulle, of course. There was also the ballet specialist Elysia, the sales girl Juniper and the customer service associate Cassia.
Elysia was in her early twenties, a quiet girl hiding remarkable secrets. She was also our seamstress and costumier. We relied on her in a way that created an awkward one-sided intimacy. We certainly spoke to her about all of our problems from the start while for her, well, we were months in when we found out who she really was and even then the details of her life before Ganymede did not come at once but were parceled out in an excruciatingly slow manner week after week. Conveniently, Elysia had undergone a stark physical transformation on Ganymede, one that made it possible for her to be whoever she wanted to be. She had the feathered variety of wings and a light cerulean skin tone, was taller by at least five inches, and sported a fashionable long bob the color of a soft magenta-blue. She had been at Tulle for two years when I first started working there.
The big secret was, Elysia was Seraphina. I remember very clearly when she told me this. I felt that her face had changed too much, and her movements, her whole personage, was different. Seraphina, the Venusian dance prodigy, had conveniently disappeared from the stage two years before. In fact, I had seen Seraphina perform a year before her disappearance, in the same theatre I had met Apolline. One bit had stuck with me: a seamless transition from traditional pointe to jazz, followed by the appearance of Romeo at the balcony and a pirouette of wild abandon from both that lifted the two into the air and, finally, into each other’s arms. The costumes had been spectacular, too, and during this Seraphina’s skirt flared and luminesced brilliant hues.
So, in fact, Elysia was Seraphina, a ballerina that had disappeared two years previously. The family knew she was alive, it seemed, and had arranged to tell the Venusian press that she was on a permanent impermanent sabbatical. No one knew she was on Ganymede, no one.
Juniper came later, after Apolline and I joined. She had just turned twenty before arriving on Ganymede. She stayed because she didn’t want to die. Her family owned the worst sort of cargo ship, transporting precious organic materials from one point in the solar system to another. We were expanding to the planets and moons faster than we could acquire the knowledge to properly live and harvest from them. Often the transported materials were hazardous and in spite of precautions, there were always accidents.
Juniper’s decision to come to Ganymede was either hasty or the prognosis was that bad. On an extraction mission, she had inhaled some substance and it was now responsible for the deterioration of her brain. The doctors had caught it early, the cell death was low and still staggered. They warned Juniper: this is an unpredictable illness that we know nothing about; the acceleration of cell death may increase exponentially or rather to the point of, well, death, in earnest.
On the side, Juniper ran a small business from the balcony of her walk-up. She tattooed flowers that were ever-changing, unbound by the constraints of time. Initially the tattoo was of a seed, eventually a stalk, finally blossoming into a radiant bouquet and ultimately becoming, wilted, before returning to the beginning of the cycle, that of a seed. In this way Juniper’s tattoos were alive, although the changes between the stages of the flower’s life cycle were incremental, passing with the seasons, nothing close to gaudy animation. There was a thrill to watching one of her tattoos change, particularly the blossoming of the flower, as this was a transformation in time that was fast enough to be perceivable by the human eye.
Cassia, she was Apolline’s age and of a similarly sunny disposition. She spoke candidly and kindly and had arrived on Ganymede with husband, daughter and son. Her husband had invested their entire fortune, everything, in the colonization of Europa, which at that point was being stalled by bureaucratic nonsense. The family had relocated to be closer to the development of the Europa colony which was, obviously, headquartered on Ganymede. I suppose they wanted to move things onwards, to jumpstart the whole process. That was five years before I made it to Ganymede, I believe Cassia had been working at Tulle for three, four years by that point.
The defining moment happened just in time to abate my recurring itch to wander, about a year in on the job. For months Roux had been away (it is hard to tell with those who go missing often). Communications, transmissions hadn’t come for at least six weeks.
We knew something was wrong the day the chandelier serendipitously exploded. We spent a week attempting communication with Roux through every possible medium. To fix a chandelier was no easy feat on a moon like Ganymede. Only a cat could have such things arranged and our cat had gone missing.
For a week after this realization, we closed the store and loafed around. Separately, and with a sense of guilt towards any perceived enjoyment, we all missed Tulle and the family that we had built far away from home on a strange moon.
It was decided, then. We would embark to recover Roux. The trouble was that we had to find him first. Roux, of course, was in either one of three situations: dead, taken hostage, or hiding.
We crossed Ganymede from coast to coast, sailed through the islands. In the settlements we talked to locals, visitors, anyone who’d listen. We were banned quite dramatically, “for eternity”, from Faena, the settlement responsible for the import of three varities of cats: organic, cloned, and inorganic. The inorganic ones could be programmed to talk. I remember this because by the time we had reached Faena, we were desperate. It was our last settlement, an island. We fought against what we knew would follow if Faena proved itself a dead end as well: venturing out onto the uninhabited islands. The prospect of that put a bad taste in all of our mouths.
After showing our papers at the gates to Faena, we were nearly separated by the zig-zagging foot traffic of a street market. There was a surprising amount of people and for a brief, homesick second I felt like I was back on Earth visiting a night market in Hong Kong.
Naturally, the first thing we did was try to barter with a stall merchant selling inorganic cats. We had suddenly realized that if we did find Roux, we would be showing up empty-handed at best, uninvited at worst. The tension was taut like a tight rope as the severity of the situation occurred to us. Someone joked about buying a companion that could keep him warm in the rafters, and then Juniper said, “Wait. He hasn’t been off-planet in ten years. If he can’t have sex as a cat, then…” And I jumped in: “Maybe he can, with another cat?” And Apolline tilted her head and asked with honest innocence: “But darling, why would they think to make a robot cat that you could, excuse me, theoretically fuck?” And we all burst out laughing.
Of course, androids had been around for centuries. They had an off switch in their head, sure, and were considered second-class citizens, but their physical bits were in every way the same as ours. The very first androids had nothing down there; functional penises and vaginas came a year later, with the second model.
Then, Elysia very seriously interjected: “Maybe he is lonely. Who knows the state we will find him in. Every human needs companionship. He’s a human in a cat’s body, not a cat. But he’s stayed as a cat for ten years, so I guess he likes being a cat, or likes cats. I’m sorry. I would have done anything to make Ganymede work, but be a cat, for ten years? No thank you.”
Everyone concurred. I shrugged my shoulders. “I like the idea of being a cat.” I added: “Besides, there’s nothing to lose. We’re on Ganymede. Roux can leave Ganymede and resume life whenever he wants to.”
“Not after ten years.”
“I disagree. You leave Ganymede the same person you came in as, at least in terms of your biological chronological age. Literally all of human life revolves around birth, death, and the unfortunate mess of fearing the first and dreading the second while being in between them. Everything has meaning because it costs time. If you could do anything without losing a second, absolutely anything, why complain and not just, I dunno, enjoy the luxury of choosing to be immortal for a little while? ”
Juniper and Elysia burst out, simultaneously, with variations of: “Still, there are people you leave behind.”
“You could say that on Ganymede, there is no cost in time, only the knowledge of others elsewhere paying that cost,” Apolline mused. “I received a correspondence from one of my sisters earlier today. When we left Earth her daughter, lovely Isabella, could barely crawl. She just had her first day of pre-school. My sister, she even had Isabella speak to me. It seems I have missed a terrible lot and Isabella hopes I can make it for Christmas this year because Laurence, my other sister’s son, tells her my gifts are always “the prettiest-wrapped treasures”. Still, I’m surprisingly… not terribly bothered by the entire affair? That concerns me. It feels very far away, this world of aging mothers and babies that become little girls that grow into women.”
“You’re unaffected because Ganymede’s still dark. It’s only audio, easy enough for your brain to file, forget, like an interesting conversation you overheard. Once we can talk face to face in real time with the family that’s out there, guilt is just a matter of time.”
“Maybe. I guess that depends on you.”
“On your perspective.”
“You clearly have an example.”
“Yes. Myself. Before Ganymede, I had a ten year plan, and I would tell everyone I didn’t have a twenty or thirty year plan. I’ve always had a plan. Haven’t you?”
“Ganymede has made me realize that most of human interaction, really, everything I know about the human experience and the fabric of reality, is based on my conception of the passage of time. I don’t think less of those who want to live more traditionally. But I am not going to sacrifice what I could learn on Ganymede, what I could learn about life, because someone out there that’s related to me made a different choice and I’m expected to feel bad about it.”
We ended the conversation there and forced our attention back to the original thought, that of a companion for Roux. The tension from the discussion of a perceived drought of morality and values on Ganymede remained. Juniper carried it with her as she argued with the stall vendor; eventually, the argument escalated and we all joined in, like a righteous lady-gang against capitalism. The argument, after all, was over price. It wasn’t long before the guards were called.
Later, after getting to know the entire settlement through a web of she said he saw encounters that inevitably all led to yet another case of mistaken feline identity, we ended the day at a night lounge.
In my head, there’s a working list called a hundred things you must do before dying and going to a night lounge in Faena is on that list.
The lounge had four floors. Function-wise each floor was somewhere between harem and techno club with raised stages for humans and AI strippers with functional feline biomods. The one remarkable difference being, each floor had or was its own ecosystem. The first floor was a meandering desert with an oasis and a domed palace constructed entirely of sand; the second, a tropical paradise with sand that changed colors and pulsating huts accessible only by dingy; the third, a lush mountain pass that opened into the mouth of a cave resplendent with gold interiors and naked bodies bathing in hot springs. The fourth floor was private access only and the rumor went that there was a hallway with no doors, just one elevator and that this elevator took you up to a point in the atmosphere where reality became malleable and for the right price you could be anyone doing anything anywhere.
Juniper and I, in typical fashion, were roaring drunk in an impressively short period of time. When the vendor from before, the one we had argued with, walked through the doors, we lost it. After someone got stabbed in the eye with a hairpin, we, as the instigators of the great lounge brawl, were taken to the cells and after a swift and unfair trial, exiled (Elysia and Apolline were also exiled, by association).
So we returned to the sea. We sailed through the uninhabited islands. In our anxiety we were all friends again, and the discussion, the things we had done in Faena, it was all forgotten. Though the uninhabited islands had been charted, they stood untouched for a reason. The islands were a dead zone. Up to five miles in every direction from any given uninhabited island, no signals went in or out. There was no reason or rhyme for this. It seemed that there were many inexplicable things on Ganymede, that Ganymede itself defied logic. Anyways, we knew that Roux had to be here, this was the last place to look. We also knew that few had ventured this far and returned.
On the sixth day, we were nearing the third island. There were seven in total. We landed on the shores of red sand and looked outward at the large swathes of jungle. Above the canopy, a snow-capped mountain (another absurdity) had a halo of clouds. We didn’t know where to begin. Apolline smacked the energy converter with frustration. Much like our comms, the energy converter refused to work.
“That’s a lot of jungle,” Juniper noted.
“I don’t think we’re properly dressed. We don’t have the tools, or anything, really,” Elysia added.
“What tools?” I asked innocently.
“The tools needed to survive in that.”
“We don’t need an energy converter to survive. Humans survived without technology for a long time.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“So? Look, if you’re worried about food, I can hunt and you have extensive knowledge of herbs, meaning between you and me we’ll have our fair share of plant food and animal food, if we need it. Water? There’s a snow-capped mountain, but that jungle is sweltering hot, which means somewhere in there, there’s a river of fresh water. Shelter? Elysia, if you can sew costumes and wire and program a motherboard, you can weave leaf and bark together. We’ll make a tent of it. Clothing? Unless we go up that mountain, we are perfectly dressed.”
“I hear things. We could die.”
Finally, Apolline stepped in. She had always been the better leader. “We could have died many times in the last month,” she scolded. “And whatever may be in there doesn’t matter. Everyone is immunized and on Ganymede, immortal.”
“Immortal suggests not being able to die. Immigration was pretty clear that dying on Ganymede was very possible and in scenarios like this, highly probable.”
“And how are we going to search the jungle? How will we know our way back?”
“Maybe that’s the point,” I offered. “Listen, we can crush a pigment out of some plant or berry and mark the trees. If that doesn’t work, I’ll cut open my palm and use my own blood.”
We went in and found that our entire conversation had been pointless. There was a clearly marked path in the jungle. There were signs, arrows, pointing us in the right direction, rooted into the ground on wooden posts. There were strange symbols on the arrows, words, perhaps, directions written in another language.
In the jungle, time had slowed considerably, almost nearly standing still. Although we had heard birds from the jungle’s periphery, once inside, there was only silence, no birdsong, no twittering critters, no buzzing insects, no sighing trees in the wind or weather. The crunch of twigs and leaves beneath our feet filled our ears, there was nothing to distract us from feeling every step we were taking away from the known. I was scared and thrilled, having suddenly realized that I had always wanted to come to Ganymede. To suddenly feel that you are exactly where you need to be without knowing where you are is dangerous. It gets you thinking about the scope of human imagination and how reality is just perception and the question actually is, whose perception is your reality?
The arrows led us to the base of the mountain. By then, the light was low in the sky. There was a fork in the path; one arrow pointed up the mountain, the other through the jungle, to the left. We followed the jungle path and found that it was short and led to a cabin conveniently nestled in a clearing with a fresh water streamlet.
I knelt in the garden, touching the soil. “There are seeds, recently planted.”
“Maybe. It’s hard to tell how long the cabin’s stood here. Nothing seems to rot or react to the elements. But the cabin, it’s definitely recently built. And by humans.”
“What do you mean, by humans?”
I didn’t want to say it, of course. The others hadn’t noticed the signs. If they had, they wouldn’t have known. I had studied languages my entire life. I couldn’t speak all of them, but I knew enough to know a human language from one that wasn’t.
“Let’s go inside,” I attempted.
The three of them looked at me.
“Fine,” I gritted my teeth. “The signs? The arrows? They, like the rest of the island, haven’t aged. But the symbols on them, they’re not human. Given that in all of human history, we haven’t encountered another species besides ourselves, or any evidence of another species in the solar system, that could only mean whoever wrote those symbols lived a long time ago, before we were here. Or there’s a portal somewhere and there’s an alien species that comes out of that portal and lives on this island. I don’t know. All I know is, those symbols aren’t human.”
“Okay,” someone said, and we went inside.
There were two bunks. This was also a little too convenient. Everyone went to bed quickly; I doubt anyone actually slept. No one wanted the next day to come. We had decided that we would go up the mountain, if only, at this point, to get some answers. Finding Roux was now secondary. I remember thinking, as I glared at the ceiling: judging by the snow on the summit, we need cold weather clothing; also, there are trunks in the cabin, and the trunks must be full of something. Clothing, perhaps?
I checked the trunks, quietly, and found that they were locked.
Some hours into the night I tip-toed out of the cabin to find the forest in a foreign state and very much so alive. Everywhere there was sound. I imagine I could have stood there the entire night picking sounds apart from each other. Everywhere there were fireflies. In the tree above me, two male birds landed on a large branch bearing a female bird, preening. I knew this when the two males began to sing, each attempting to overcome the other. Eventually, the female chose one and the two flew off together.
Around the cabin, on its backside, there was a shed and a small path that led away from it. I grabbed a lantern from the shed and followed the path. Several minutes later, the path ended abruptly and a couple feet off, there was a large red X on the ground.
I returned to the cabin with a set of keys. Naturally, the keys opened the trunks and the trunks held within them four pairs of boots, four snowsuits, four hats, face masks, all that we needed to survive a climb up the mountain. The oddity of the whole situation, the utter convenience of it all, bothered me to no end. There was no use in riling the others; I told them I’d found the keys in the shed.
In the morning, we left the cabin. The silence had returned and I wondered if the transformation of the jungle at night had been some perverted dream or trick, an illusion.
We walked alongside each other in silence for hours. Even without knowledge of the red X, the others, I’m sure, were still thinking about the fact that there had been four of everything when there were, also, four of us. We collectively felt the chill of preordination. A sensation that had been familiar to the cavemen that looked up at the stars and asked the Big Question, to be sure. A sensation that science had long since scrambled, nearly obliterated from human history, with immense schadenfreude.
Eventually the path plateaued and led us into a cave. There we found our first answer in the form of a very modern elevator nestled in the rock.
We stared at each other until someone pressed the button. The button was an illustration, a single point in space with arrows extending outwards from its center in all directions, similar to a drawn electric field. The arrow pointing down lit up and the grating sound of metal against rock signaled that something was actually coming. It must have been a second, one of those seconds that felt like a year. When the elevator arrived, the doors opened smoothly and the interior was sleek, clean, and carpeted. We stepped inside. Here, too, there was only one button, labeled with a singular symbol.
The descent took some time. When the doors slid open again, reality had shifted. We were once again in our bodies, the bodies that existed before and outside of Ganymede. Instantaneously our various human ailments returned and we looked at each other, at first, as one would at a stranger.
Once I stepped out of the elevator, I realized the extent of it. To my chagrin, I understood with finality that I had spent my whole life in Plato’s Cave. In front of and above me an underground city of abandoned skyscrapers sprawled and soared. Everywhere there were signs with symbols similar to those on the path. Here, the buildings and the rest were preserved but in a different manner than the path aboveground. Here, things showed their age.
On cue, a levitating automobile appeared on the horizon. As it neared, the engine rumbling languidly, I recognized Roux, no longer a cat.
“I was expecting you four would show up eventually,” Roux explained casually. “Welcome to the Ark.” He attempted a sweeping gesture. “Well, what’s left of it, anyway.”
The automobile’s doors swung up. We helped each other in without saying a word.
We cruised down the streets as Roux spoke.
“I’m sure you have a lot of questions. I did, when I discovered this place.”
“Yes, as far as I’m aware, I was the first human to find this place. That was fifty years ago.”
“Where are we, exactly?”
“In the living quarters of the crew members of a spaceship called the Ark.”
“A humanoid species that came before ours. They called themselves, well, the closest translation from their language to ours, would be, ‘The Breath’. They weren’t from our solar system and traveled a whole lot, from what I can tell. In fact, traveling was the basis of their nature and identity. Ganymede was one of their spaceships. This part looks like a city because they designed it that way. It’s where they lived while in transit. There’s a whole network underneath the surface. I haven’t explored all of it, but there are labs, engine rooms, everything that would make this rock fly.”
“What happened to them?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“What does all this have to do with why we’re back in our bodies?”
“And what’s going on with Ganymede? How can one moon-ship-thing have segregated areas where time and reality behaves differently?”
“The Breath had a permanent colony on Mars. Ganymede was the ship that got them to our solar system. I think they got stuck in Jupiter’s gravity. Somehow, they must have left their ship ‘Ganymede’ in orbit of Jupiter because their records state that they made their way to a more habitable planet, Mars. Once they built a world there, they needed a place for their prisoners. By that point, it had been decades or centuries since they settled on Mars, Ganymede had become unused. So they used it again. As a prison.”
“This is a pretty nice prison, then.”
“Well, The Breath didn’t have the type of prisoners that you are thinking of. From birth, each member of the species was connected to the whole by an invisible neural network. The elders of their society could access this network mentally and tell you at a moment’s notice any given person’s location, that person’s age, health, current state of mind. The best could go further and not only tell you that citizen x was angry but that he was angry because of a missed promotion at work. The Breath could talk to each other while worlds apart, could feel a friend’s death on another outpost, and in general were a peaceful, empathetic species whose primary purpose was to explore the Universe. There was only really one crime that you could commit, in their society. Having an ego. Those who were charged with this crime were sent here. They had always had a reality stabilizer on board from before Mars, to best mimic the environment that they had come from. I’m sure it wasn’t too difficult to tweek it, set it to whatever served their purposes best. If you’re wondering what it meant, you must be wondering what it meant, of course. Their definition of having an ego. Usually, well, The Breath had three biological genders. One had a vagina, the second a penis, and the third both. The third was infertile, lived longer, and led their species. In spite of their ability to feel every member of their species, they were a lot like humans in some regards. There was sexism, racism, ageism. All these constituted as the crime of ego. Those who felt they were better than someone else, were sent here and forced to live life with the appearance of that person, for example. The whole thing seemed to be quite successful. You’re welcome to read my translations of the written logs of their prisoners. They’re all very detailed and humorous.”
We stopped in front of a three-story building.
“This is where I live, when I come here.”
We walked inside. The decor was warm. There were plush armchairs, a crackling fire, paintings on the walls. Roux showed us to our rooms, leaving us to bathe and dress before dinner.
At dinner, we spoke about a lot of things. In those hours we were no longer the employer or the employed, male or female, healthy or dying. We were co-collaborators in the thought experiment that Roux had started decades prior.
Tulle, it turned out, had always been a cover for Roux’s research. He had only just managed to crack the language of The Breath. That was why he had disappeared; typically, he came to this place every three months, stayed for a week, made some progress, went back to Tulle. This time around, he’d finally had the breakthrough and cracked the alphabet that composed the symbols that were everywhere. He had spent the months since deciphering the language in a frenzy, translating everything he could with no discrimination.
After dinner, we returned to our own rooms. There was a shared sense of relief and decision. It only took a couple of days after that night. Then we had to confront the question of Ganymede, why we were on Ganymede. It was a profound moment. A lot of resolutions, pronouncements of leaving or staying and above all, a collective understanding and acceptance of facts.
One night, the night before I was to leave for the journey back, back to the mainland and eventually to the capital. I hadn’t decided where I was going to go next. I just knew that I was going to leave Ganymede. On this night, I decided to go visit Roux in the Ark’s library. He had pretty much set up shop there. Crates were stacked against the bookshelves, crates stuffed with papers, translations of the books on the shelves.
When I entered, he was busily scribbling away. I looked at the book that he was transcribing from.
“So,” I said. I stood until he looked up. Then, I sat. I removed a file from a backpack, one I had found in his room at the residence. I slid the file across the table, leaned back, crossed my arms, and put my feet up. “Tell me about the Big Question.”
Roux froze. We stared at each other. Volumes of conversations, too dangerous yet to speak aloud, passed between our eyes. I sucked in a breath, rolled it around in my mouth with my tongue. Someone had to say it. I swallowed the breath, opened the file and stabbed the paper with my pointer finger.
“This is it,” I spoke slowly, measuring each syllable. “This is the answer to all of the questions we have ever had while looking up at the stars. You have discovered the answer to life.”
Roux shook his head. “There is no such thing. I am merely a translator. Answers will always be interpretations of an event misunderstood through time.”
“You’re lying,” I stated plainly. Then, realizing: “You’re terrified. Why?”
“Because I could be wrong. I don’t like to pretend to be an expert in something I’m not. I’m not a linguist or an anthropologist.”
“Roux, what you’ve done here, it’s not linguistics or anthropology. You’ve been studying these people for decades. You’re the closest thing to an expert on this species. If it weren’t for you and your gift of gab, who knows how much longer it would have taken to discover these ruins, if at that point the ruins even still stood.”
“Yes, you’re right. It’s our terraforming that disrupted their reality stabilizers. Almost destroyed this underground that we’re in. ”
“Why don’t you ask for a second opinion?”
“Sure. I know a thing or two about languages. I also know people that could help you.”
He rolled his eyes. “I know plenty of people that could help me, thanks.”
“Why not ask them for help then?”
“Because I could be wrong. But if I’m right, I’m not sure if the world should know about it.”
“That’s not your decision to make.”
Roux laughed. He set his pen down, gathered the papers into a neat pile, shut the book, cleared his throat and began.
Many hours later, I sat, head hanging, spine and shoulders collapsing under the gravity of The Big Question. Roux returned with a mug, steam trailing behind him. My senses were immediately assaulted by the rich, rejuvenating aroma of ground cocoa beans. My bloodshot eyes stared into the depths of the mug as if it were the barrel of a gun.
Roux placed the device in front of me. There were three buttons: cyan, magenta, yellow. Roux had hacked Ganymede’s old systems. He had uploaded the algorithm for translation along with all of the written and visual data he had found. The computer had already encoded this data dump into every transmittable format imaginable. One button would delete everything; one would send everything to a select group of scientists; one would send everything to everyone, broadcasting the information on every frequency for twenty-four hours.
I chugged the coffee and reached for the device. I didn’t know what button I was going to press but as my fingers neared, the idea formed.
I pressed the button.