A Grain of Sand
by Elana Gomel
Bacterial colonies bloomed like a field of peonies. Spiky spheres and jagged clusters floated in the reddish murk. Tadpole-like shapes butted against the barricades of cellular debris.
“Everything’s fine,” the doctor said cheerfully. “Good for five hundred years!”
It was an exaggeration, of course. Fifty was more like it.
Staring at the screen, Anton felt a surge of strange pride at the complexity inside his own body. He was just an ordinary, boring guy he often told Ava. You want to be boring; she would fire back. You are special! We all are! He never believed it. But now, observing the exotic ecosystem swarming in his blood, he suddenly decided that perhaps she was right.
“What is this?” he asked the doctor, pointing at a creature that resembled a spiky rotating cylinder with a bouquet of transparent tentacles surrounding each hollow end. The doctor responded with a Latin name that barely registered as Anton tried to follow the progress of the creature through a cloud of swollen red zeppelins. One of them unfolded like a flower and enveloped the cylinder that butted against the walls of its translucent prison.
“Is it supposed to be that way?” he asked anxiously. Somehow the creature had become special to him and he did not want it to be devoured by the cellular jungle in his arteries. He tried to stop the assault. Of course, nothing happened. His mind was barred from the microworld inside by the unbreakable barrier of scale.
I am paralyzed, he thought. I can’t control my body.
Paralyzed? That was an old word. It hid in a cloud of vague darkness that his flawed memory was not strong enough to disperse. He dismissed it, thanked the doctor, and walked outside.
The night had fallen while he was having his treatment; the sky, freed of the light pollution of previous ages, was sown with stars. Anton looked up. He had wanted to be an astronaut once. An explorer. But now he was being explored. His blood was humming with submicroscopic creatures colonizing the universe that was his body. He could almost trace the sinuous paths of tailored phages and bacteria that were delivering packets of DNA to his cells, preventing the deterioration of his cellular chemistry, and gluing back the snipped-off telomerase ends. He felt envious.
He had never gone into space, after all, had he?
It was not a secret that rejuvenation treatments played havoc with memory. People were warned to write down important events and connections in their lives. Total amnesia was rare, but gaps were common. Anton retained his knowledge of the past but with every treatment, the actual recollections were whittled down, history reduced to a list of definitions.
The past was the Crash. The word exploded in his mind in shards of pain, and then subsided into an impersonal encyclopedia entry, joining the same database that held his spacefaring ambitions, his military service, his marriage, and the birth of his son. He knew about these events, just as he knew about the Age of Waste that had preceded the Crash when life was cheaper than plastic and time was a dwindling resource. Now life was precious, and time slow and steady. He had been given the gift of the long present. What did he care about the past?
The past does not matter.
But what about the future?
His comm bracelet trilled and Ava’s face floated before him. He sighed, ready for another onslaught of worn-out emotions. He still loved her, he supposed. It was just that after many decades of a dying marriage, each contour and wrinkle of this relationship was as familiar to him as a pair of worn-out slippers, ready to be tossed out.
Her chestnut-colored eyes glistened with tears. When he concentrated, he could see how beautiful she was. She must be the same as the day they had been married. He wished he could remember their wedding.
“Davis is gone,” she said.
Davis was their son.
“Gone,” she repeated. “Dead.”
The image blinked out and Anton was left gaping as the ancient word, resurrected from the Age of Waste, suddenly claimed relevance to his own life. People did not just die! Euthanasia was a long process, prepared in advance, so the client had the time to put their affairs in order, say goodbyes…Surely Davis would not be so inconsiderate as not to inform his own father!
He squeezed his own arm, as if trying to reassure himself he was still alive and almost heard the busy humming of the bacteria inside his veins and arteries.
During his train ride, Anton stared into the rain-slicked window and tried to muster some regret for the passing of Davis. He could not. Death just did not seem real. It felt rather as if Davis had embarked on some prolonged journey. It was a strange thought because Anton did not believe in an afterlife. Nobody did. People who had clung to their religion and refused the rejuvenation treatments were long gone. Euthanasia was for those whose treatments had failed and who would be now subjected to the ravages of aging that society had neither the means nor the inclination of coping with. Had it happened to Davis? But how? He was younger than Anton and must have had fewer treatments. The rumor was that their efficacy petered out after the fifth cycle, but nobody knew for sure. The medical guild was tight-lipped about it and nobody remembered how many treatments they had had.
Ava was waiting for him by the decrepit station building, her black-clad figure lost in the lush vegetation that was encroaching upon the empty platform. Few people traveled today. Tourism was a horror story from the Age of Waste.
Ava looked different, grief obscuring her face like a veil, making her mysterious and suddenly desirable. Something brushed the edges of his mind: not a memory but an empty aching presence where a memory had been. He reached for her, but stepped down the platform onto the overgrown path, the shaggy tresses of kudzu vines falling onto the splintered pavement. Spindly wind towers rose above the trees, but it was quiet, butterflies flitting in the drowsy sunshine. The address was listed as being in a wind-and-solar commune called Windstar but when he checked it on the map, he was surprised to see it actually was on the outskirts of an abandoned Age-of-Waste city called Atlanta. Most cities had been reclaimed by now but there were still fields of concrete shards and forests of steel skeletons hidden among natural ecosystems. Not many communes chose to be so close to physical reminders of the past.
“How is it legal?” he asked when they were wending their way among heaps of broken stone and glass. A flock of birds shot out of the empty shell of a building on their right, their wings whirring in the blue sky.
“I don’t know,” she said flatly.
Anton frowned. Legal issues were negotiated among different communes, though there were basic guidelines for all. Most people navigated their lives by deeply ingrained, though blurred, memories: faded maps of permitted and forbidden. Anton’s map felt useless now.
“Perhaps we should not…” Anton started to say but Ava went on and he followed, resigned. The trees fell away, and Anton was surprised to find himself among intact buildings constructed in accordance with the universal architectural guidelines – one story, wood-cladding, solar roofs. He could be in any commune, including his own, except that the buildings were surrounded by unkempt patches of tough grass instead of vegetable gardens. Ava slipped into a doorway without consulting her bracelet map, which indicated to Anton she had been here before.
The man who met them inside was slight, with a honey complexion and opaque eyes. He and Ava exchanged familiar nods that made Anton feel excluded and resentful.
“What did you do to my son?” He attacked.
“Nothing he did not want us to do,” the man said smoothly,
Ava scoffed: “It’s not like you had much use for our son when he was alive!”
“You can’t be a hovering parent for…for…all these years,” Anton stuttered. The man smiled. “I am Sanjay,” he said. “And your son is not dead. Please follow me.”
Inside the building, men and women in lab clothes sat at old-fashioned terminals.
“What’s your energy?” Anton asked. “Hydro, solar, or wind?”
“Wind mostly. But we have salvaged some pretty effective batteries from the city. We need a constant power supply. Life support.”
That was an oxymoron: life supported itself. But before Anton could point it out, Sanjay led them into another room. It was windowless but a screen wall filled the space with a crimson glow.
Anton started at the familiar sight. He recognized the darting tadpole bacteria, the lumbering spiky colonies, the luminescent phages shaped like a lunar module with an octagonal head and strut-like legs. The same strange zoo that swarmed in his own blood.
“This is your son,” Sanjay said.
Anton and Ava shared a listless dinner in the dining hall of the Windstar commune. Few people were around, and Anton was glad; he was still reeling from what Sanjay had told him.
“Even if it’s true,” he finally said, “the process is irreversible, so Davis is dead – or as good as. Maybe…maybe we can apply for a new child?”
Ava glanced at him; her eyes darkened almost to black by candlelight.
“You said our marriage was over. Done.”
“Davis was my baby. I want no other.”
He tried to picture himself holding a tiny wet package of new life. The mind obeyed, as it always did, producing a happy image that Anton knew he had seen in some vid-drama.
“It must be illegal,” he insisted. “The authorities will be after us. They’ll think we allowed it.”
“The commune council,” Anton said feebly.
What was wrong with him? Even if Windstar outlawed what Sanjay was doing, there surely would be another commune where it was legal. But there was inchoate fear in his mind, collecting in the empty spaces of lost memories like stagnant water in the cellar.
Fear of…He did not know. He imagined himself stooping over the dark puddle in the cellar and seeing it illuminated with lurid flashes.
“Ava,” he asked, “how did we meet?”
“There was a fair,” she said apathetically. “I was wearing a white dress. There were flowers, and candles, and wine.”
A white dress, a red stain of wine he had inadvertently spilled, his mortified apologies, her laughter…
His mind was obligingly creating moving pictures out of her words. Confabulations. Simulacra. He knew they were not true. But the more he strove to brush them aside, the more annoyingly real they became. It was as if some mechanism was manufacturing soothing images, pumping them into his blood where they rushed to reach his brain.
Anton repeated to himself the same mantra he had embraced after his last treatment: the past does not matter.
But even if it did not, even if he was willing to live with shadows instead of memories, he could not shake off unease. There was something else hiding in the occlusion of his memory, some lost intensity, as elusive as it was compelling. A fire that cast the shadow.
Without the past, there is no future.
He could not sleep in his Windstar guest room. The conversation with Sanjay kept replaying itself in his head.
“We are using a technology to encode personal information on strands of bacterial DNA. A personality transfer. The information that was your son is here, in his own blood culture.”
“Are you saying my son is a bacterium now?”
“A swarm of them. The information is encoded in a distributed system of bio-entities.. They communicate by tailored RNA packages. In effect, your son’s brain is a tank of colloidal liquid. His character traits are bacterial strains that interact, reproduce and mutate to create the dynamic gestalt of his personality. He is a microcosm. A world.”
Anton’s face must have expressed his bewilderment because Sanjay went on:
“Rejuvenation fails eventually. Bacteria are immortal. And they change.”
He dozed off. And dreamed.
A red cosmos, a scarlet immensity. Tentacled stars unfolding with voluptuous slowness, their interiors gaping like black holes, waiting. The supernovae of spiky colonies exploding in shards of wriggling amoebae.
A quick shuttle-like phage diving into the vacuole of a star, carrying…something. Something that is wriggling and beating its tiny limbs about in protest. Something that does not belong here in the submicroscopic universe. A man?
No, the memory of a man, a familiar face that he cannot put a name to because the name has already been eaten.
Other memories being cleared out like so much deadfall. Open mouths screaming in pain; contorted bodies; the heaviness of a gun in his hand…
I don’t need it. Dead past. Poison.
Without the past, there is no future.
He woke up, dressed, and went to knock on Ava’s door.
“I am not interested,” she said tiredly, her face streaked with tear-tracks like dry watercourses in the desert. “We are done, Anton. I am applying for divorce.”
“Ava,” he asked, “were you a soldier too?”
She was silent for a long time and then slammed the door in his face.
Anton stocked up on sleeping pills. The medical guild physician gave it to him willingly after he complained of a post-rejuvenation insomnia. Apparently, it was not uncommon. He wanted to dream again, to descend into the red cosmos in his veins and arteries and chase the memories that were being eaten by the phages.
But why? He could not figure it out. Was he being occupied? Controlled? Cured?
Neither. He did not believe the swarm was either hostile or benevolent. It was doing something else, something incomprehensible, pursuing its own goals inside the microworld. He felt no hatred, only curiosity. Why were they nibbling on his past?
But his plan was a dismal failure. The pills gave him a ferocious headache in the morning and no memory whatsoever of any dreams he might have had.
He lay in bed, staring at the sunlit ceiling of his room, repeating what had recently become his mantra: Without the past, there is no future.
And without the future, what value is the present?
He had been calling Ava for days with no answer.
After they came back from Windstar, she declared she was moving to a hydro commune a hundred miles away. Since she and Anton had not been living together for years, he hardly had any reason to object. At least she left him a message.
He replayed it again and again, Ava’s face hovering over his bracelet like a wisp of smoke. “Davis knew.”
And that was that.
How could Davis know anything? He was born after the Crash. Anton and Ava had lived through it. The facts were known even if their memories had been taken away. The rejuvenation was feasible only because the billions who had choked the planet with their garbage were gone. Overpopulation had been tamed; its terrible retinue defeated.
War. Famine. Plague. Death.
He dug into the shadows in his memory so savagely that it felt physical, like tearing a half-healed wound. The Four Horsemen presented themselves as flat cutouts, cartoon characters: War with a rifle; Famine with a scythe; Plague with a test tube; Death as dancing skeleton. Symbols of the events too terrible to remember in all their gory details: a painted veil over PTSD.
He lifted his wrist to his face, stared at the pulsing veins.
“You know what happened,” he whispered to his blood. “Tell me!”
He went back to Windstar, using the rest of his social credits for a second train ride in as many months. The train was as empty as before and when he disembarked, he almost expected to see Ava’s silhouette in the shadow of the trees. But she was not there. He spent some useless moments lingering by the swathes of kudzu vines, fingering them as if by doing so he could touch Ava’s hair. But the past refused to come back as anything more than faded nostalgia.
He followed the path through Everything looked familiar.
Until he came to Sanjay’s lab complex and stood there, gaping at the blackened ruins.
He poked through the charred remains. But there was nothing: not even the melted computer modules or remnants of glass tanks he had expected to find. The site had been swept clean. It looked like Age-of-Waste ruins rather than something that had been a functioning facility only a month ago.
Anton turned away, disappointed and strangely relieved. His old life beckoned him back: the comfortable twilight life in which he had almost forgotten he had a son. He bit his lip until it bled, and he could taste salt and metal. The taste of cruelty, and danger, and transcendence.
A figure stepped out from behind a tree.
Anton started until he recognized Sanjay. The man’s olive skin was stippled with crisscrossed ridges of darkness and his eyes were bloodshot.
Anton had not seen a visibly sick person since the Crash, and a forgotten reflex kicked in that made him grope in the deadfall at his feet looking for a sturdy branch to defend himself. But then the absurdity of this gesture made him both ashamed and angry. He came here to look for his family, not to pick up fights!
“It’s not a disease,” Sanjay rasped. “Just an allergic reaction. It’ll go away.”
There was something so self-absorbed about this reaction that instead of mollifying Anton’s anger, it exacerbated it.
“Where are my wife and son?” he barked at Sanjay, forgetting the social rules of harmonious interaction.
“Here,” Sanjay jabbed at his dappled forearm. “Your son, that is.. The security guild torched my place. Your wife…I don’t know. They are not supposed to arrest citizens, but they may have taken her.”
The world tilted and whirled around Anton, so much so that he had to grasp a blackened beam to steady himself. It left an ashy imprint on his palm. It had been there before. His hands, dappled by soot, scorched by fire, smelling of the acridity of embers and the metallic stench of blood. He did not remember it, but his body did.
He lifted his eyes and met Sanjay’s. They were glazed with fear and exhilaration.
“Your son is here,” he repeated, patting his swollen flesh. “The rest are…gone.”
“I injected myself with his colloidal suspension,” Sanjay said.
Sanjay led him to his hideout in the city ruins. Anton shuddered as he gingerly stepped onto the dead pavement. Heaps of broken glass and eroded metal were covered by the lush exuberance of vines but here and there man-made objects bloomed among the undergrowth like strange orchids: a holed pot embedded in moss and a plastic handle poking from an anthill. Anton tugged at it but it was buried too deep.
“I tried to scavenge,” Sanjay remarked. “It’s too old. Useless.”
Did his intonations sound familiar, Sanjay’s liquid vowels overlaid with Davis’ brusqueness?
“Are you Davis now?” Anton asked.
Sanjay shook his head: “Not yet. The brain-blood barrier still holds. Eventually I will be Davis. And Sanjay. And others. All those whose memories have been stolen.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you remember the Crash?” Sanjay asked.
“I was a soldier,” Anton said grimly.
“We all were. Everyone who survived. Because we were the only ones to have been vaccinated. The universal vaccine – developed to protect against all bioweapons. It worked too well. It’s still working, keeping the bacteria and phages in our blood in check, allowing them to keep us young and healthy but no more than that.”
“What do you mean, ‘no more than that?’”
Without responding, Sanjay squeezed through a narrow doorway into a large space inside that was lit with fluorescent glare and contained a couple of terminals and some electronic equipment. Anton realized Sanjay must be stealing power from Windstar. Frustrated, he grasped the other man’s shoulder, jerked him around. “Tell me!”
“The last plague in the last war was meant to wipe all our memories clean. To reset the brain. But it did the opposite. It encoded people’s memories, identities, and desires in bacterial swarms. The entire population became bacteria. They still are, reshaping the microworld. Their world now. And their bodies - melted, recycled, gone. Except for us. The soldiers, the vaccinated ones. Our memories were partially eroded. But the phages could not kill our enhanced bodies, only reset them. And here we are,- stuck in-between, dragging out our leftover lives. Going through cycles of rejuvenation that only bring us back to what we are.”
“So, the rest are dead?”
“Dead or immortal. It’s a matter of definition. Now, help me move this box.”
Anton heaved a heavy metal container, his muscles as supple as strong as when he had hauled military supplies at his base whose barracks had long ago turned to dust.
“Why are they taking our memories?”
“How would I know? I can’t communicate with them – not yet. Maybe they need the past to build their own civilization, to preserve some continuity. Or maybe to keep us docile, though I can’t imagine why they would care. They are different, Anton. They are us and not us. Something else, something wonderful, and alien, and strange. Our ghosts – or our gods.”
Anton drank the salty liquid that tasted of seawater and bleach. Sanjay was monitoring his vital signs on the jury-rigged monitor.
Working together for the last couple of weeks, he and Sanjay had managed to reconstruct the lab by stealing batteries and supplies first from Windstar and then from other communes around. Stealing felt like a physical violation to Anton; he had to force himself to do it. The post-Crash years must have changed him from the mercenary he used to be. He asked Sanjay how long their society had existed, but Sanjay could only give an approximation: two hundred years, give or take.
And how long had it been for the others – those who swarmed in his blood, floated on motes of dust in the air, broke species barriers and colonized mice in their burrows, and butterflies dancing in the air? What was time in eternity?
At night, he would lie in his narrow bunk, close his eyes and imagine himself fighting the creatures in his own blood, targeting them through the laser scope on his microscopic rifle, creeping through the philia growth, hiding in the cytoplasmic trenches. Yes, he knew how to fight, and to kill, and to survive. Obsolete skills, useless where he was going. Or perhaps not.
He could not retrieve most of his memories, but some did come back in sharp fragments like a broken china set he had found in the forest. He remembered now how he had met Ava. No party, no sunny lawn and white dress. A ditch, a torn uniform, blood on her shoulder. He took her to his encampment, ripping off and tossing away the insignia of a forgotten enemy. Davis was conceived that night.
“There is still time to go back,” Sanjay said.
Anton shook his head.
“So, I will be…inside myself?”
“You will be in the microworld. Chasing your own memories. Fighting, perhaps, with others that are trying to take over. Or maybe merging with them. Exploring.”
Anton nodded. Yes, he had wanted to be an astronaut. Before he became a soldier. When civilization had tottered on the brink, choosing between transcendence and self-destruction.
“Transcendence,” Sanjay said, as if reading his thoughts (as perhaps he was, his son’s distributed consciousness reaching out to him across the barrier of the other man’s skin). “You can call it by any other name: curiosity, lure of the unknown, even death wish. But this is what it is.”
“I think you are making it too complicated,” Anton said. “I wanted to be an astronaut. But they took my dream away from me and made me a soldier. But even a soldier has choices. And then they took choice away from me too and gave me safety instead. But I am a man. I want my decisions back, even if they are wrong. I want my memories back, even if they are painful. And I want my future back, even if it is dangerous.”
“Being just a man, is it enough?” Sanjay asked.
“Not anymore. But I am going to be something else now, won’t I?”
“’To see a world in a grain of sand’. William Blake.” Sanjay said.
“No,” Anton said. “To be all the gains of sand on all the beaches in the world.”
Anton’s head was pounding, the drug taking effect. His mind and body were slowly unraveling, falling into a heap of memories and sensations. Somewhere there, he knew, was a memory of his son as a baby, the memory of his love for Ava, the memory of himself in his mother’s arms…He tried to imagine each memory embodied in a separate microorganism, all swimming in the red universe, searching for missing pieces, coming together in the lost unity of what used to be Anton, and then separating again. Shards of himself, falling into an infinite constellation of possibilities, forever...
Sanjay was still saying something, but Anton was no longer listening. He was falling into the infinity of himself, straining to hear the faint voice of the submicroscopic gods, calling to him from the lengthening silence between his heartbeats.
Elana Gomel is an academic and writer. She is the author of six non-fiction books, three novels and more than sixty fantasy and science fiction stories. She has lived in many countries, speaks three languages, and has two children. Her stories have been featured in several award-winning anthologies. Her latest novel is the dark sci-fi thriller The Cryptids (2019).
More fiction by Elana Gomel:
"A Grain of Sand" October 2020