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We Who Have Returned From the Dead

Teri J. Babcock lives in the big city in a small apartment. She has no cats, dogs, or children, saving her a great deal of money which she spends mostly on books, exotic chocolates, and new plants that she absolutely has to have, but really don't fit in her community garden plot.

She lives, writes, and is rained on in Vancouver, British Columbia.

My first memory is of red.
Arterial red; the deep, rich color of blood, of tissue, the exact color of the artificial womb they made for me. I spent my first two years in a pouch, like a marsupial; I still don't know whether the Neen thought that was the way human infants were raised, or just a good idea on their part. They are creative, the Neen, and their curiosity is vast.
I am here in this recreated environment, on this sheltered moon, as a representative of a species that once covered my origin planet. I have never been there; the origin world is far, and it has changed. The Neen have shown me pictures of the planet, its ecosystems, the specialized environment my species built for themselves. The pictures confuse me, and when I ask what the constructed things are, or their purpose, the Neen do not answer. I think they might have been expecting me to have some deeply programmed understanding of this world, of these things my ancestors made; if so, I have disappointed. But they find my longing to stand on the world of my origin intriguing. They had not expected genetically programmed sentimentality.
One of them told me that the cetaceans also long for Earth. Erth. It is a strange-sounding word. I thought the Neen were pronouncing it incorrectly, because of their mandibles, but they tell me it is correct. They have recordings of the sound. The cetaceans are of far more interest to the Neen than humans. The Neen are terrestrial and their knowledge is overwhelmingly of species that are land-based; perhaps that is why they are fascinated with the whales. The Neen were disappointed at my inability to communicate with them. They assumed it would be a given, two creatures from the same planet with such large brains. The Neen want to know why, despite many years, the whales will not breed. The Neen birthed the whales first, and other aquatic mammals second, and the terrestrial ex-aquatics next, the elephant and rhinoceros.
We humans were fifth. I learned this from a young Neen--who told me with the tone of speaking-to-one-who-is-arrogant. I spoke back with speaking-to-one-who-is-judging, asking what I had done to be called so.
You, nothing, the Neen said. But this one knows your type. Neen have studied many worlds, a multitude of species and ecosystems. In species with your particular presentation, the characteristic of arrogance is highly conserved. We have studied such groupings as your predecessors many times. That is why you are fifth. He flicked his antennae at me in dismissal.
By fifth, he meant me to understand, not important.
There is nothing I can do that will surprise them.
Except talk to whales. That would surprise them.
I am allowed certain things, math and language and art. They scan my brain while I am learning. They believe in studying living things. They have a mate for me, but I find him dull.
I am allowed to see the cetaceans, if I ask permission. The tank has walls of glass, and if a dolphin sees you waiting, they will come up along the side and look at you with one eye. I wonder if they find me as interesting as I find them. I feel a strange urge to join them in the water, but this is not permitted.
You will die, the Neen explained. Their physiology permits long periods underwater between breaths. Yours does not.
The great whales, and their little sisters the dolphins, sing sometimes. In their song I hear sorrow, a longing for home.
How did my ancestors die?
I am speaking with a Neen egg-layer, one with patience.
We do not know, said the egg-layer. We found a cache of preserved gametes and embryos on an ice moon of the largest gas giant in the system. Their sun was enlarged, entering the red dwarf phase. There were also recordings, a stable data-storage system of elegant design. The pictures you saw, the language you speak, came from the cache. They knew their system would die. As all things must.
Permit me to leave you, it said abruptly. I must feed.
Neen eat a great deal during breeding cycle; making eggs has a high-calorie cost.
They breed in cycles, egg-makers entering the crevice to lay en masse, the sperm-producers following, spraying the spongy masses of eggs that cling to the sides of the rock walls. Fertilized eggs absorb the unfertilized eggs first, then the tadpoles grow and consume each other. By the second molting, each larvae has consumed hundreds of its siblings. The ones that survive fifth molt are taken and fed by adults; subsequent moltings will determine their role and position.
It is strange to watch those who have crawled from the breeding pits covered in spume, survivors and practitioners of cannibalism, exhibit such tender care for another species' young. But they do. They value all living things.
I go to the pool again. The dolphins glide past, looking at me with one eye, then the other. They sing. I put my head against the glass and try to sing back, but it doesn't come out right. The dolphins hover, watching me with merry dark eyes, their mouths open.
It seems to me they are laughing.
The Neen have given me full access to the cache's data. I am overwhelmed; there is a lifetime's worth of study. I do not know how to thank you, I tell the Neen.
Help us understand, the Neen say. That is thanks enough.
I have never thanked them for my life. Neen do not. They earn theirs, in the pits. One does not give thanks for what one has earned.
I go to see the whales. I sit at the tank edge and dangle my feet in the water. The dolphins come to the edge, as always. Most always there are one or two Neen around, but now there are none.
Just us, I say to the dolphins. We Earthers.
One takes my ankle in his mouth, and suddenly I am in the water, panicked, flailing. But the dolphins bear me up between them, so my head is above water. The water is salt. I drink some, but don't like it. The dolphins swim slowly towards the middle of the tank.
The tank is large. The Neen knew the big whales traveled far. The dolphins switch out, new ones taking their place. I kick with my feet, enjoying the feel of moving water. I almost feel like I could float.
Then I see one of the big whales, a huge dark shape in the water below me. The dolphins at my side swim away, and I have the chance for one last gasp of air before I sink through the water, down to the whale.
I feel calm. I know I can't breathe water, but I also feel that I shouldn't. It is a strange kind of knowing, my body is speaking to me.
The whale looks at me with one dark eye, larger than my head.
Will it sing? I wait, but it does not. Instead, in the silence of the water, words form in my head:
We are ghosts. We remember life in the living water, and now we are made flesh again. But not on Earth that was. This is not home.
Let us be ghosts again.
But you are beautiful, I say. The Neen cherish you, most of all the beings from our world. They long for your children.
There is a long silence, and I do not know if the whale has understood me.
Let us be ghosts again.
I will tell them. I reach out and touch its skin, firm and slick. Pressure is building in my chest, the urge to breathe, even though I know it is wrong.
You need air, the whale said. It rose, holding out a fluke. I clung to it, fighting the urge to inhale, and when my head broke the surface of the water, I gasped so hard it hurt. In a moment the dolphins were there, bearing me up.
You swim, the whale said. Do not forget again.
And then it was gone.
The dolphins brought me back. The Neen were surprised to see me in the tank, with dolphins, not dead. I clung to the tank edge for a while, rubbing dolphin heads while they splashed me, laughing, the Neen watching in consternation. After a while I got tired of their bulbous gaze. I took a deep breath and dived, headfirst. The dolphins followed. One of them offered me his fin, and I hung on as the group darted through the water.
I had an important message to deliver. But it could wait a little longer.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, July 20th, 2018

Author Comments

I was in a bookstore when a cover caught my eye. The Rise of Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction by Britt Wray. My first thought was: in the distant future, will someone else do with humans what we are doing with the woolly mammoth? And if so, what kind of species would resurrect us, and why?

- Teri J Babcock
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