Fiction: A Life

A Life is a Very Long Time
by Grant Goggans

The prisoner, commanded to approach the rock, did as she was told. She had only been in this room once before, a long time ago. The judges were all new, but this wasn’t very surprising. Throughout her long incarceration, the guards and staff seemed to be reassigned constantly. She was in solitary confinement for almost the entire time she had been in prison, but even so, she didn’t believe she had seen anybody in the system more than perhaps three times.

There were five judges, and they looked sad, and nervous, and most surprisingly, they looked embarrassed.

The one in the center began to speak, and the prisoner had difficulty concentrating. Nobody had spoken to her in a very long time, and she had lost the talent of concentration. The judge was talking about their justice system being based on the principles of fairness, most of all. They could never condemn the convicted to execution. They couldn’t imagine a crime so terrible that it required taking a life.

The judge in the center talked, and tried to make eye contact, and failed, and he trailed off, looking away, definitely embarrassed. The judge next to him picked up a small stone and continued speaking, but he had a different topic. He started talking about space travel, and how, after such a long time spent communicating with another species, an alien species, respresentatives of that strange race were making their way to their planet for the very first diplomatic exchange in the history of their culture.

This second judge didn’t trail off like the first one did, but he didn’t know what else to say. The prisoner could actually feel the humiliation in the room, like the sweat of other people in a confined space on a hot, humid afternoon. The last time that she was in this courtroom, it wasn’t so awkward. The last time that she was in this courtroom, her legs didn’t hurt this badly, either. She was an old woman, and she wasn’t paying attention to the first judge when he resumed speaking, because she was still having trouble concentrating. Eventually, she realized that he was talking about the judgement that their predecessors had passed all those years ago, and how she had been sentenced to life in prison. At the time, she thought that was amusing, but now she was very old and her legs were hurting.

The judge on her far left looked somewhat different to the others, and he breathed heavily, wheezing, asthmatic. The other beings on this planet had purple skin that looked sticky and wet. His skin was gray and dry. He had taken up his small rock and was talking again about fairness and how their system, in committing her to life in prison, had failed so badly.

The grey, dry-skinned judge paused, and the prisoner quietly, and without anger, said “A life is a very long time.”

The five judges looked utterly ashamed. One of them didn’t raise his stone, but just blurted out, “How long do you live? Your species? How long do you live?”

The prisoner couldn’t find an answer immediately, but she slowly understood the problem. It wasn’t how long she was going to live, but how long these beings were going to live. She asked how they measured time on this planet, and she forced herself to concentrate. She hadn’t done any calculations of any kind in so long that it was very difficult, but between the judges explaining their mating cycles and the revolution of their planet around its sun, and comparing these figures to what she knew from her own experience, she reasoned that the dominant species on this planet had an average lifespan of about fifteen years.

They talked it out and she understood their shame. They thought they were sentencing her to perhaps six or seven years in their prison. When she didn’t die, they didn’t know what to think. As more and more years passed, and the pain in her legs got worse and worse, their shame grew.

The prisoner wondered about the wheezing, gray judge with the dry skin. He must have been fourteen years old.

She had known from the start that she had been the first alien to visit this planet. They had been observing stars and moons and were optimistic that they would meet other beings and species one day. Unfortunately, they met her, and she did terrible things, and broke their laws, and was sentenced to die, eventually, but as entire generations lived and died and she didn’t, they realized their sentence had become cruel and far more vindictive than her crimes.

And so they were freeing her. They wanted her to leave this planet before the emissaries from this other alien culture arrived, and before they were forced to admit that they’d been keeping another alien in one of their stone dungeons for generations.

The prisoner was finding concentration much easier now, but she wasn’t a prisoner anymore. She was just a very old woman. She thanked the judges for their compassion and their mercy, she apologized again for the things that she stole and the child who she had killed, and she told them that all she wanted now was to go home.

***

They had kept all of the very old woman’s things, but some of them had become useless. She didn’t bring very much tech, but the most important thing was the remote tracer, and the batteries had died years ago. There were no possible replacements in this culture.

The dungeon’s guards had chosen kindness as they walked the very old woman to the gates. The judges had chosen to pay her some compensation in the form of local currency, and the guards had given her a robe with a covering for her head, so that she could hide her hair and her pink-white skin. She had been taken at least five hundred miles, to the capital city of this nation-state, for her trial and her imprisonment, and a guard gave her a map, so she could see where she would have to travel to find her vessel.

The planet’s technology was built around the use of stones and iron. Most people traveled long distances together in large, open vehicles with room for about three dozen beings. The floor of the vehicle was made of thin rock and strips of metal, and it had sixteen wheels. The air was damp and cold, and if anybody noticed her alien skin, she wasn’t aware of it. She determined which of these vehicles to board, paid a fare, and the very old woman left the capital city, and would never return.

***

Three days later, the very old woman was walking. Some time earlier, somebody had noticed the color of her hands and the number of her fingers, and so she lowered the hood of her robe, briefly startling everyone nearby with the length of her black, white, and gray hair. But the population was excited by the possibilities that alien contact and exchange would bring. Nobody was afraid of the very old woman. They gave her directions, and they wished her good fortune and peace, and as she continued on foot down roads that the vehicle was not scheduled to travel, she reflected that both she and the guards at the prison had been mistaken. The beings here were not surprised by her. She was surprised by the kindness they chose to show.

On the fifth day, she paused to buy some fruit from a small stand. The air was sticky and occasionally cold, with gusts of refreshing wind coming from the east. She was telling a group of beings about life in outer space and how life exists on far more worlds in far more systems in far more galaxies than they imagined. She was tired, and she had been awake for almost as long as her body could stand. Then someone showed her an even greater kindness. It was a male, who came to the stand with his mate and their children. They offered her a bed for the night. She surprised herself again by accepting their hospitality.

Hours later, in their home, they talked. They wanted to know about outer space, of course. Most of the beings that had approached her on her very long trek had been excited and amazed by the upcoming diplomatic mission, but this family was more reserved. They were cautious. Their writers had imagined fictions about space travel and dangerous aliens, just as the writers of every planet did. The family worried, and they asked the very old woman whether these aliens would prove the fiction writers right by betraying their trust and enslaving them all.

She decided to think about that for several minutes before answering.

Eventually, she felt that she had the right answer. She told them that she couldn’t possibly know, but that when she scanned this sector of space all those years ago, she did not detect any technology powerful or dangerous enough to be used effectively by one planet against another. She felt that she needed to be honest, the same way these kind beings had been overcome by honesty lately. She told them that it was reasonable to be cautious. In any situation or scale, whether between tribes or nations or planets, there is always the danger that some rival will not want to trade fairly, but to compete for scarce resources. But she had scanned their planet very, very thoroughly before choosing it. There were minerals and elements in their sticky atmosphere and their black soil that were truly rare and very important to her research, but also in small enough quantities to make an invasion utterly impractical from any place in the universe where minerals like that were treasured.

The female became confused. She couldn’t understand the size of things that the very old woman described. The very old woman told her that this galaxy was so far away from the galaxies where most trade and business occurred that there was no value in ever coming here. This galaxy only had about three dozen systems with planets that could support life. Only a quarter of those did.

One of the children asked “Will we ever visit another galaxy?” The very old woman said that their technology had not advanced to a stage where they could travel between galaxies within their fifteen-year lifespans, and it would be many, many generations before they could develop it.

The male started to say something, and stopped. He turned his face away and the very old woman wondered whether this was like the shame that some people, like those of her species, felt just before they wept. He breathed heavily for a moment and found strength and said “What they did to you… how they kept you locked in a dungeon for…” And he couldn’t say any more.

The female spoke for him. “We’ve talked about what you did. We were paralyzed by shame. We were so paralyzed that we prayed you would just die so we could forget it happened. Punishments should fit the crime. What we did to you was… barbaric.”

The very old woman said, “I took a life. In many cultures, there is no greater crime.”

The female said, “But what we took from you. No, we are the criminals. And some of us won’t ever forget.”

The very old woman slept that night for the first time in what felt like forever, but it wasn’t an easy sleep, and when she rose the next morning, her back was very sore.

***

On the seventh day, she finally returned to her ship. It was hidden where she left it, ten miles from the nearest small town. The town had grown. That was where the child she killed had lived. The residents of this town were engaged in some civic business and so there weren’t very many people on the streets. She didn’t see another being for the last four hours of the walk, and when she closed her ship’s door, she never saw another one of this planet’s beings ever again.

She was ready to return home, so she told the ship to chart a course. The ship said that it could not find a course. The very old woman came to realize that the voice controls had decayed from lack of use and gave it explicit instructions. The ship replied that it could not comply. She gave it precise coordinates and the ship apologized, but it did not have a record of any planet at those coordinates.

The very old woman started to think that the decay had become very, very serious. She charted the course manually, realizing for the first time that she was so far away from home that the journey would still take more than a week. But she had a library, and she had a bath, and she had an e-tablet full of important research information that she had collected when she first arrived that needed to be extracted onto a working device and studied.

Nine days later, when the ship finally signalled that they had arrived, she didn’t bother coming to the control room for more than an hour. Earlier, she had lost interest in the research that she came here for and was now cross-checking data from a long-forgotten study on the optic nerves of arachnids on a distant moon in the Thebes system against a computer registry showing the spread of these creatures during various phases. The moon had seven phases, which many researchers noted was unusual, and the arachnids slept for one of them and were blind for the next three. The ship reminded her that the journey had ended and so she turned off her screen and walked to the control room, where the monitor showed her nothing but empty, black space.

She studied all the available data. For the next several days, she meticulously took samples and patterns from every moon and rock within ten million miles, shining a scanner from them to the point where her planet should be orbiting. She analyzed the orbits of every other satellite around her sun. Her planet was not here, and it never had been.

So now she had to find someone who knew where her home had gone. That meant going to Earth and turning on a distress signal.

***

She had to wait a very long time. She landed in a city called Seoul, finding a parking deck in the center of town late one night and turning on a perception filter so that nobody would go to the top of the structure. It was raining when she arrived, and it didn’t stop for several hours. Eventually, she was able to go outside with a towel and a chair and several period-accurate books instead of the technology from her world and wait patiently for help to arrive.

She had been to Earth a few times before. It was a chaotic and overpopulated planet with more than a hundred competing nations, most of which were under the control of unethical corporations. Some of the lower life forms were fascinating in an evolutionary sense and there were interesting minerals to be found far below the planet’s surface, but the air was thickly polluted with chemical sludge and she hoped that she would not have to stay for very long.

Three days later, she was hungry again, so she took a small amount of gold from her reserve and found a business that would convert it to some local currency. She bought a bag of fruits and vegetables and ate them while she read and made notes. Some of the food was very pleasant and some of it was unfit to eat.

On the eighth day, when she was hungry again, she only purchased the pleasant fruit, along with two bottles of a flavored mineral water.

On the fifteenth day, she began to be very worried. Her distress signal had been answered by a passing race she had never heard of, and she explained that she could only accept help from somebody from her own culture. She recalibrated the signal so that only specific beings could detect it.

On the eighteenth day, help finally arrived. They were each surprised to find the car park abandoned except for her ship as they walked through her perception field. The older man was accompanied by two girls and a boy in his twenties who, with exaggerated and animated looks from left to right, seemed the most bewildered by what had just happened.

She rose from her chair as they approached. Many of her muscles were aching. She had forgotten to exercise for the last day. She fixed eyes with the older man and, quietly and unkindly, said “I have been waiting for almost three weeks.”

The man didn’t reply. He looked around, confused, as the blonde girl said, “Been off-planet, just got back, hi, how can we help?”

The very old woman had experienced many small surprises over the last month, but this one demanded comment somehow. “Really?” said the old woman. “You’ve always been so damnably male.”

To this, the little blonde girl said “Sorry? Have we met?” And then the girl knew, and when she said “Oh,” she sucked in two huge lungs full of air before smiling and shouting “No!” with utter glee. And then the very old woman was wrapped in a tight embrace and lifted off the ground and spun around in circles as the blonde idiot chanted “It’s you! It’s you! It’s you!”

The very old woman remembered letting her anger rise up like a wave when she saw that child with the sticky purple skin. Involuntarily, her fists tightened for the first time since that day. As soon as she was free, she reacted. And, for the first time since she murdered that child three hundred years ago, the Rani lost her temper, and struck that smiling blonde face with her bony knuckles with such force that the bruise on that smiling blonde face wouldn’t fade for weeks.

The Doctor fell to the ground and shook the stars out of her eyes. The Rani spat two sentences atop each other at her. “Don’t ever touch me again, Doctor,” she said, and “Where is Gallifrey?!”

***

The Doctor’s humans helped her to her feet. The Doctor had dozens of aggravating habits, and her insistence on vomiting out more words than necessary was one. “I’m sorry, I know you hate being touched, I won’t touch you again, but where were you? Everyone thought you were dead! Didn’t you get the call? You had to. Everyone came in. The Master, Gilgamesh, that guy with the one big eye, Drax, even me, eventually. Everyone came in, but we couldn’t find you! We all thought you were dead. I thought you were dead.”

Throwing the punch had exhausted all of the Rani’s strength and she slowly sat down in her chair and quietly asked “What are you babbling about?”

The Doctor stepped closer. “You don’t know.” She clearly didn’t. “There was a war. Everyone lost. Why didn’t you get the call?”

The Rani stared and breathed heavily. “I’ve been in prison for three hundred years. My ship was five hundred miles away. Is Gallifrey gone?”

The Doctor said “It’s… around. It’s in a pocket. Everyone there’s crazy, you don’t want to go. I mean, even by our standards, everyone’s crazy. But I can take you.” The Doctor looked at her humans and said “Fam, this is the Rani, she’s one of my people. She’s done terrible things and she killed me once, but that’s okay, she’s alive.”

The Rani quietly said “I’ve done terrible things.”

***

And so they worked out what to do next. The Rani didn’t want any of the Doctor’s humans anywhere near her, and the Doctor agreed. Her humans protested, but she firmly told them no and that she would come back for them. They sat in the Rani’s ship for several days as the Doctor told her what had happened and what might happen if they went home. The Rani decided that the Doctor was correct, and that home was no longer a tolerable option after all. They talked about where they could go instead, and the Doctor had several dozen utterly impractical, stupid suggestions, because the Doctor was never able to focus on anything rational without corrupting it with an attempt at humor. But eventually they concluded that one planet, a trillion, trillion miles from anywhere, would be suitable for what the Rani wanted to do.

But what she wanted to do first was die. The Doctor helped her.

She didn’t touch the Rani, but she gifted her residual mental energy to help her concentrate and change. The Rani felt her bones tighten and grow and her skin stretched and she was briefly aware of moisture in her lungs before she passed out.

The Rani woke up in a new body, centuries younger, relaxed, and with no more fire. She walked back into the control room, where the Doctor’s ship was parked in a corner and the Doctor was sitting in a deck chair made of wood and machine-woven fabrics, reading what was probably some foolish fiction.

“You all right?” the Doctor asked. “Oh, that was a nap for the record books. I’ve slept like that after a couple of mine. I always have the worst headache after. It’s all those minutes you miss, they all stack up behind your eyes, I think, saying GET UP, GET UP in that funny voice you use when you don’t move your teeth.”

The Rani said “I appreciate what you’ve done. How long have I been asleep?”

The Doctor said “You don’t want to know. You’ll only get angry. You’ll start yelling about how could I have let you sleep for so long when you’ve got important research to do.”

The Rani thought about it for a few seconds and, in a low voice, “I’ve been asleep for as long as it took you to take it seriously, get bored, and lose interest. It’s probably been forty-five minutes at the most.”

“Try forty-five days. And yeah, I did get bored. You have the worst library I’ve ever seen and your ship is the most petty, overprotective, oversensitive ship we ever built. But your garden’s going to be lovely.”

“What garden?” the Rani asked. And the Doctor only replied by looking deliberately coy, like a small child with a secret. “If you’ve planted anything in my greenhouse, you’ll have wrecked the stability –”

The Doctor interrupted “I didn’t know you had a greenhouse! No, no, outside, come on, have a look.”

Outside was a planet that nobody would ever visit but the two of them, and there was a large, functional house which they toured silently. It had three separate laboratories with pressurized seals, a reasonably-sized kitchen, a comfortable living space, and most absurdly, three shelves full of fiction in small paperback volumes.

“I haven’t finished the plumbing,” the Doctor said. “Small pond right behind your back patio. I got the piping laid in, you may want to use your ship for showers, but it’s always good to have running water in a lab. Eye washing station for emergencies. I mean, I don’t know what you’ll be studying, but if something poisonous did blow up in your face, I wouldn’t be surprised. Anyway, I can’t absolutely swear you’ll have the tastiest vegetable garden in this galaxy, but I did some soil testing, popped back to Earth and bought you a couple of pallets of various seeds. They’re in the shed out back, lovely shed, apart from what I started. Got your potatoes going there, may be some lovely corn and carrots over there in a few months. And you’ve got a whole planet to experiment with, never know what you’ll grow.”

“This — this is the most utterly unnecessary gift anyone has ever devised,” the Rani said. “My ship has all the equipment and –”

And the Doctor interrupted “Maybe somebody should have given you some utterly unnecessary gifts all those years ago. You might’ve turned out less rotten. But you’re here now, roll up your sleeves, you can help with the sump pump.”

When the work was finished, the Doctor left. Years and decades passed and the Doctor would occasionally return to visit, to bring the specimens and cultures that the Rani requested, to work in the garden, and sometimes to collaborate on projects. The Doctor changed often. Sometimes she was female and sometimes male. As promised, the Doctor never brought any of her humans. The Rani listened to all of the Doctor’s news and stories, even if the Doctor forced her to listen to trivia and gossip before offering the papers and the research that held any interest.

The Doctor was male again one autumn several centuries later when he gently asked why, since their ships traveled in time, didn’t the Rani just go twelve or thirteen billion years into the future and get all the answers that all of recorded science and chemistry and physics and medicine could possibly settle. This was a notable exchange for one reason: it was the only time in the two thousand years of their renewed acquaintanceship that the Rani ever mentioned anything about their shared past. She replied that unlike the Doctor, she never felt the need to steal the answers from the teachers’ edition.

But the two thousand years were from the Rani’s perspective. Fewer than two centuries passed for the Doctor, who was female again when she visited the Rani’s house for the final time. The Rani had died quietly, and apparently peacefully, of a brain aneurysm some weeks previously. The Doctor would never learn why she didn’t regenerate. The ship couldn’t tell the Doctor whether this body that had grown so old over the last twenty centuries was the Rani’s thirteenth and final one or whether she had simply declined to renew herself again.

The Doctor buried the Rani in the back of the garden, and collected her papers, closed down the labs, safely disposed of all the chemicals, and locked down the ship. She took some tomatoes and beets and cucumbers from the garden back to Earth, where the latest two of her humans had been waiting, and made dinner in the female’s home kitchen. The Doctor served the vegetables in a salad along with greens and some oil and vinegar.

“Since when do you cook for us?” the Doctor’s female human said.

“It’s delicious, but utterly unnecessary,” the Doctor’s male human said.

“What an interesting choice of words,” the Doctor said.

Several days later, the Doctor sat in a comfortable chair in her ship’s latest library with several million pages of the Rani’s papers loaded on an e-tablet and spent about eight hours reading the dry, clinical reports of her research. The Rani had discovered the cures for thousands of diseases – none of which affected any lifeforms from Earth, the Doctor noted with a scowl – and had even left detailed instructions on how these cures could be introduced into the timelines of various cultures and civilizations without disrupting their known history.

The Rani had seemed particularly interested in eradicating a carcinogen found on a wildly distant planet that was the principal cause of death among the local population. If that could be eliminated, the species there could expect to have their average life span increased from fifteen years to fifteen years and two months.

Her humans had woken up and were wandering around and were probably about to do something stupid to the navigation systems, so she told them to relax. They had a long flight and a cancer to cure. Two months seemed like a very short time to the Doctor, but when you’re talking about a life as small and as fragile as that, she agreed with the Rani’s assessment that even two months of life is a very long time.

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