Thursday 4 June 2020

Ready or Not

by R. I. Miller


 Standing in the corner of her pod in the central biosphere, Agnes Gault read for a third time the first two lines of the message floating in front of her.
With due consideration we must inform you that you have arrived at your maximum extension.
“Damn it, I’m not due yet. I got an override just a few years ago. What’s wrong with these people? They want me to die now?”
When she finally focused on the last part of the message, she had another shock.
You have exceeded your override allowances. Please make arrangements at the Dispersion Center of your choice.
“It can’t be up.” She quickly looked-up the date of her last override, and it was plain that, yes indeed, the time had elapsed. In a bit of a daze she murmured, “Twenty-five years gone by like that?”
She waved her hand across the message which effectively acknowledged it and stored it at the same time. She paced her living space more outraged with each step, “I don’t have time for this. I still have to get final agreement on the ‘Rights of the Colonies of the Natural Satellites of the Solar System’ approved.
“Oh yes. All very good in the abstract; some mindless bio-system declaring when people have to terminate for the good of the ‘species,’ the hell with that!
“That’s was why I left earth to come to this backwater colony on Europa. Now I have to waste time getting another exception.”
Agnes knew how to get an exception, she had gotten exceptions before. “Die? Not yet!”
She contacted the Everlasting Consortium (EC), a sub agency of the Ministry of Transformation (MT), to which all requests for exceptions to termination were considered and sometimes approved.  Which, if approved, resulted in an ECoMiTrafEx, otherwise the requestor received a D, which, cynics said, was short for “Done for”
But this time her request was held up, transferred from one department to another.
“Damn it, games! That’s all they know games.”
At one point a young rather cute 88 year old mediator tried in the most understanding way possible to explain the necessity of “dispersion,” as the mediator called it, and that she would still have a couple of years before actual dis… “No, no, I’m sorry, but no! I need more time.”
Finally, her appeal was transferred to a very young 60 something mediator in the Everlasting Consortium, who suddenly appeared as a virtual manifestation in Agnes’s private living space.
“Can’t you EC agents even make respectful arrangements for a meeting? You simply appear wherever and whenever you want!”
The EC agent was very calm and very direct.
“This is our FOR. There can be no other extensions.”
“The FOR is it? Can’t you say the whole thing ‘Final Official Response’ or is that too much to ask?”
“The FOR cannot be pushed aside. You are nearly 235 years old and you’ve already had two extensions! The first when you were 185 and another at 210! Don’t you think it is time to comply?”
“Why you insulting…” Agnes tried to slap the woman, but the virtual embodiment of that oh so clever 60 something disappeared and all Agnes could do was bark, “It ain’t time!” She stared at the empty space in front of her for several seconds.
“I have not lived this long just to be pushed aside -- eliminated like a carpet beetle! There are ways around this.” 
Indeed, there were, and if anyone knew them, Agnes did. She would go to the source; to the real source. Not easy. Because everyone in “officialdom” denied there was a prime overseer, but Agnes hadn’t gotten to this age paying attention to official “nonsense.”
It wasn’t easy to find and communicate with an actual ministry agent much less speak, actually speak, to someone in the “Final Dispersion” section of the EC. And as for the Minister of Transformation herself, it was impossible to get a meeting with her. 
But Agnes was certain that the Minister of Death (her preferred term for the Minister of Transformation) was just a figure head. It was a long standing rumor (at least of her generation) that death, Death itself, was behind the whole dispersion concept. And that Death was embodied in human form. Agnes was sure she could convince Death to let her complete her work. What would a few years matter to Death?  Why had she even bothered with these pathetic lower level functionaries?
Agnes had many friends, but some had died.
“’Moved on’ or ‘dispersed’ they like to say! What crap, they’re dead.”
There were still a few of her old friends living and some were in very in high places too.
Then Agnes stopped short. “Come to think of it, when did I last see Lucia, or Jeanne, or Adibe?  I’ve been too busy, too preoccupied. But I’ve got to straighten this ‘dispersion’ mess out first. Die? Not now!”
Death was not at the Ministry she was sure of that, anyway you couldn’t get near the place. As for getting more than a pro forma explanation from the Ministry people, forget it. She knew they would deliver some variation on the old rational: 
“As has been known for millennia the concept of ‘Death’ is a misinterpretation of cosmic processes. We are connected to everything because we derive from the cosmos, from star dust. We are, so to speak, the ‘little green men’ incarnate, at least for a time until our re-emergence into cosmic…” 
“What rubbish, even if true, I don’t need to hear that right now. What we come from what we go to is not the issue. When the time comes okay, but it’s not time yet!
“Death is out there and every time he wags his finger he expects us to come! Well Death is not going to get me yet.” And as she said this aloud to herself, an unspoken thought shimmered in her mind, “Maybe not ever!”
Agnes made many petitions and called on all of her old friends, friends she’d known for more than a hundred years, as well as her newer acquaintances of which there were many. Some loved her “spunk,” some ran when they saw her coming. Combined they made a very effective force and found a contact for her.
“I knew it. There is someone above the Minister of Transformation: the ‘Transitional Agent in Charge of the MW.’
”And when she found out that MW meant “Milky Way,” she snorted, “These bungling bureaucrats, the names they give themselves: they imagine they’re in charge of the whole galaxy no less!”
Agnes got the impression that there was something more to this agent than simply being an “Agent” because no one in officialdom seemed to have ever spoken with him or her or it. Some in the bureaucracy used the word “entity” when referring to the Agent, which up to now Agnes thought was just another example of bureaucratic mystification and horseplay. 
And this made Agnes stop and consider other rumors she had heard in the course of her life but had long ago dismissed.
“Wait a minute, what if something else is at work here?”
     There had been contact with aliens from HD 1461 2 millennia ago, but they were not due to reach the solar system for another 300 years. All of that was very very hush hush, and for a moment Agnes wondered.
“It would be just like the people in the Solar Governance Body to lie about that. The aliens could have arrived years ago. And that might be why…”
Agnes had one friend, acquaintance more like, at the highest level of the SGB, Fatimata.  
“Agnes, how surprising to hear from you…” and for several minutes they chatted.
“Now tell me what is it you need from me?”
“Well…” Agnes explained what she was up against and underscored her roll in preparing the final agreement regarding the ‘Rights of the Colonies of the Natural Satellites of the Solar System’ before the governing body.
“And so I wonder if there is something more about this whole “dispersion” concept. I know that about two millennia ago aliens from a distant star, HD 1461 I think, contacted us. Don’t worry I know that they are not expected to arrive in our solar system for another 300 or so years. But, is it possible that the aliens have… I mean is it possible a small contingent of them has already arrived as an advanced protocol preparation team of some sort and they instituted this ‘dispersion’ concept?”
“Oh Agnes, there’s too much on your mind. I know how difficult all this is for you, and the Ministry of Transformation does use a maddening array of terminology, but I assure you, there is no advanced alien team in our solar system.”
In the end, Agnes was only somewhat satisfied. She had secretly hoped it was true. “Foolish of me to even think of it.”
So Agnes went back with renewed vigor to get the meeting she wanted.  
As for Fatimata, she had not completely lied. And it was true, the Agent was not part of an advanced team, because the “advanced alien team” had come and gone hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Those “aliens” who were in the solar system now were part of an inter-galactic body attempting to arrive at a set of universal protocols. For almost millennia they had been instrumental providing guidance to the Governing Body.  
To call the Agents (there was more than one, each with a different roll) “aliens” was very misleading. They were not beings, though they had that property. They were more like embodiments of something not completely tangible. That was as much as anyone on the SGB could determine.
As Fatimata watched Agnes leave and thought to herself. “At least you didn’t ask the hard really hard question, ‘Who or what is the Agent?’ Because damned if I know the real answer.”
The Agent in question was in charge of stability in the Milky Way. True the solar system was a relatively minuscule area in relation to the rest of the galaxy, but it was one of the noisiest mostly due to carbon life forms.
Agnes’s petition finally reached the Agent who somewhat reluctantly passed it on to the final arbiter, “the Ultimate Director,” otherwise known as “E.” It was something that should have been managed without going to the very top, and as the Agent sensed, the Ultimate Director was out of balance because of it.
As for the Ultimate Director, the whole affair was just too much. Carbon life forms were endlessly annoying – causing so much havoc, convolution after convolution, recombination after recombination, reconstituting itself in a myriad of ways. And in human form they were positively the most annoying expression of it, and on the verge of expanding beyond their relative isolation.
What was worse was having to encounter one of them, and worse still do it in a human guise, because the human shape was the only thing humans could really comprehend without going completely insane. Even a slight variation in human skin color had caused hundreds of years of atrocities.
And to top it all, the Director found that being confined in a puny human shape was truly annoying…it positively gave you tremors.
And so when the Ultimate Director came to visit Agnes in human form, the Director appeared as an old, sensible, quiet, kindly androgynous human bureaucrat, who wore outdated clothes, somewhat the worse for wear. The Director “knocked” at Agnes’s door. That is to say, she acknowledged and accepted the request and then the Director “appeared” in front of Agnes.
She stared at the little bureaucrat. Curiously, there seemed to be a wave of rather cold air surrounding the bureaucrat, but she gave it no mind. As she examined the forlorn figure in front of her, she tipped her head a bit to the left and then a bit to the right. Then she looked the Director straight in the eye and said, “I made it clear that I wanted to speak to your boss in person.”
Without waiting for a response, she went on, “I’ve made numerous requests, NUMEROUS, and I was assured that I would be able to speak to the Boss”. She raised her voice and rose up on her toes as she spoke expecting the bureaucrat to quiver and step back.
But in the cheeriest voice the Director said, “Yes, that’s me. I’m the one!”
In an attempt at demeaning sarcasm Agnes blared out, “Ha!” But she actually broke into real laughter which lasted for minutes and each time she nearly got control of herself she started laughing uncontrollably again.
When she finally was able to control herself, partly from exhaustion, she said, “You? Where’s your black cape, your bony hands, your skull, your scythe? Where are they?”
 “I assure you I am the “Boss” as you say, the Ultimate Director, otherwise known as E.” The Director obviously exasperated said, “Carbon life forms! Silicon is a much better idea.”
Agnes was confused, “What?”
“What is important now is you.”
Agnes noticed that the E’s skin changed color in a very unusual way. It was so unlike any of the body shifting and tinting that was the new “rage,” that she didn’t quite hear what the Director said. Who was this person? Was it even humanoid? She realized that E’s lips had not moved at all. “You’re not, not…”
Agnes looked again into the Director’s eyes. They glimmered and expanded, they seemed to hold a star filled night sky and more than that, much more; a chilling panorama so vast she stopped breathing, and she felt cold.
The entity in front of Agnes continued to communicate with her in a wordless but most understanding way, “I know how difficult this is for you Agnes. You’ve had a lovely productive life and done some truly wonderful things. You really have.  But it is time to return. Yes, it is time, really it is time. Yes, time.” And the word “time” echoed though Agnes and seemed to lift her.
And though she wanted to speak, wanted to explain, she was strangely quiet, and cold. The cold moved from her toes to her knees, from her knees to her waist, from her waist to her head, it wrapped around her. She could not move her arms or legs but she didn’t really want to. She couldn’t move her lips or tongue; couldn’t speak but she really didn’t need to speak.
There was in her a “Yes” that filled her whole being. A “Yes” that expanded, expanded beyond where she was.
The little bureaucrat wasn’t so little any more, or in human form. Before her was something nearly formless, a cluster of images, encompassing Agnes and beyond, becoming more and more inclusive and spreading out to an astonishing vastness.
The moment she stopped being Agnes, she saw an endless sea of galaxies -- vast, intertwined, extending farther and farther in to an infinite expanse that carried what had been Agnes into a cosmic wave of dark and light to no place and everyplace.
E whispered “Welcome home.”

About the author 

R. I. Miller lives in the US (Maine). He has published a short story "Dust" in Literally Stories and an essay "Circles" in Green Briar Review. He has also published a novel "The Touch of Bark, the Feel of Stone." He has also written brief film reviews for a public library blog.

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