The night before the Regents convened to pass judgment on his field work, Bill Gates took a slow walk along the Beach of Exemplary Visions. The sand was cool on his feet as he strolled. Feet. Right. Socks, fallen arches, heel spurs; all that. He was taking some heat for hanging onto his human form, along with the name to which it was attached. In the Community of Discernment, some thought it was an affectation. Others dismissed it as nostalgia he would outgrow the moment the Regents blessed his Earth project. He did not much care what his future peers thought. The sand felt good.
So did the breeze on his all-too-human skin. It reminded him that he was home. Looking up into the pinkish night sky, he basked in the familiar sight of the seven blue moons. They hung there like luscious fruit, if fruit could pulse with mystery, and why shouldn’t they? Now that he was back in his own solar system, the moons of home spoke to him in a new, more confident voice, reminding him where he had begun. Blue moon, you saw me standing alone, without a dream in my heart… Okay, so he was feeling a little Earth sick. He would get over it.
Self-absorption was not his style. It was because he was wrapped up in remembering that he failed to anticipate conversation with the tree on the edge of the cove. He had great respect for Mrrrr’s imagination. She was no mere magician of the forms, she was an artist, with an artist’s lightness of spirit. Among the senior Regents, she was the only exuberant giggler. The leaves of the trees tinkled their musical message as he approached, his humanoid feet crunching the sand just above the waterline.
“I have seen the future, Bill Gates. It’s wrapped up in a package with your name on it.”
“I appreciate the vote of confidence, Mrrrr. Does that mean I can count on your support in the scrutiny tomorrow?”
“Don’t be coy. Self-effacement is not becoming in a member-to-be of the Community of Discernment. The scrutiny is a formality, and you know it. You also know that you are different, Bill Gates. You fill up a category of one all by yourself. Shall I tell you what impressed the Regents most about your project?”
“No. I’d rather hear it from them.”
“I see. In addition to your other virtues, you are a traditionalist.”
The tree was gone. Now she was a shore bird, simultaneously aware of and oblivious to the same waves that were doing their ragged, reaching best to lap at his feet.
“What’s on your mind, Mrrrr?”
In response she emitted a spray of her innermost scent, causing it to issue from the bird’s dun beak in a wave of fragrance that aroused him in a deep sexual chamber. In the Community of Discernment, Mrrrr’s sexual prowess was legendary. There was a hint of permanence in the smell she gave off. That was the grandest illusion of all, suggesting that time could finally be conquered, not merely bent, or exploited, or reimagined. Love, her scent suggested, could make the blue moons stand still in an eternal sky. Was this an invitation to foreplay, or just a reminder of her power, which was also legendary? Bill Gates was a sentient creature, in the last analysis, and could not help wondering.
Under the stipulation of an obsolete law, the Regents’ project scrutiny was conducted in the municipal amphitheater and open to all levels of the citizenry. Outside the Community of Discernment, few cared about events beyond their own solar system, and even fewer attended scrutinies like this one. As presiding Regent, it fell to Valvula to choose the weather, the scenery, the preponderant mood. Bill Gates arrived to find a sunny morning in a highly oxygenated environment not greatly different from that of Earth. He took the selected medium as a sign of approval and submitted himself to the board with mostly sincere humility.
If any of the Regents maintained his or her original form, only a historian would know it, and Bill Gates was not a historian. A silverine cylinder with a thousand tiny windows. A musical membrane. A plaster cast of a saurian footprint from an obscure planet in a negligible solar system, lizard and planet and sun all extinct eons ago. An outside observer could be forgiven for thinking that the forms the Regents assumed reflected their whimsy. Bill Gates knew better. Here, gathered to pronounce judgment on his work in what purported to be an earthlike meadow, they represented the collective accomplishment of the Community, and their totems expressed its high purpose. You had to get the symbolism. To get it, you had to care.
Valvula, courtesy of the impervious silver cylinder through which he had chosen to appear, convoked the meeting and made pleasant noises of approbation, officially welcoming Bill Gates to the Community of Discernment, with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto. He invited the other Regents to intervene at will, and intervene they did. Mrrrr, the most individual of individuals, limited herself to a lingering spray of scent bubbles. They were nowhere near as devastating as the erogenous blast the little shore bird had cheeped in Bill’s direction the night before. Still, there was no doubt among the assembly that the bubbles conveyed her approval.
Later, in the theoretical privacy of his theoretical home – he had dubbed his psychic territory Seattle; more nostalgia; so be it – Bill Gates perused the official record of the scrutiny with forgivable pride. None of the Regents was a pushover, yet none of them had registered a tremor of dissent from Valvula’s endorsement. It was just the opposite. They came together in a chorus of praise to highlight the grace with which Bill Gates had carried out his assignment. Anyone who understood Community mores, Community values, Community aspirations would recognize that the focus on style points rather than mere technical mastery of the subject matter meant that he was destined for big things. Their approval was a given.
Most of the project touches that drew the Regents’ praise had been instinctive decisions on Bill’s part. It had not demanded great thought to drop out of Harvard University. It took little foresight to allow Carlos Slim, the Mexican Arab, to top him occasionally on the list of Earth’s wealthiest creatures. Truth be told, he had not really chosen the moment to begin giving away the money he had acquired. Melinda had done that, and he went along with her wish because, well, because it suited him to go along. The Regents even liked the name of the liquidation vehicle he had come up with. As names went, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was both pithy and modest.
In his private Seattle, he savored the triumph. The Regents tooted his grace notes on their horn only because they took for granted his accomplishing the mission. The denizens of a backward planet had learned how to string ones and zeroes together in useful patterns. What they did with what they now knew, that was another matter. Perhaps they would eliminate hunger. That in itself would justify the Community’s trouble.
The official record of his session with the Regents was viscous and colorful, a shifting mass of harmonic data that was redolent, to Bill’s perception, of Washington State pine woods. Contemplating it, his head began to ache. That was odd but not entirely unexpected. One paid a price for inhabiting an Earth skin. There had been days during the experiment when he suffered in body and spirit as much as any native. A small price to pay. Even as he ached he knew that the hurt was an investment in the Community’s future, to which his own was inextricably linked.
Then here was Mrrrr again. He should have known. No cloud in the discoverable universe was as brilliantly diaphanous as the one that engaged his consciousness at this particular moment in the thought stream. Suggestive whiffs of some of the more intense smells he remembered from Earth were discharged from the cloud: lilac blooms, pepperoni, the interior of a new Mercedes.
“Is this how you say congratulations?” he asked her.
“What if,” she began, but a wind of her own devising blew the gauzy cloud away.
All the parts of the Bill Gates configuration that were capable of smiling did so.
You did not request a meeting with Valvula, whose every utterance made or remade Community policy. You waited until he summoned you. Bill Gates knew that. And he had the luxury of time. He had brought his Earth project to fruition more quickly than anyone had anticipated. He was a journeyman in good standing in the only Community that mattered. With little difficulty he saw what Mrrrr had claimed to see: a future lying ahead of him rich with meaningful work, not to mention the recognition that came with good work. As he waited in no particular hurry to hear from Valvula, he toyed with a trip back to Earth. He was fond of the place and its peculiar inhabitants. He had come to find their foibles endearing.
But he did not go. There were too many stories of Community members returning big-headed to the site of their first project and screwing up. They overreached. They meddled. They became effusive. They mucked up the processes of evolution, which followed a rhythm not lightly to be disturbed. At its heart, that was what ‘nostalgia’ meant. You lacked discipline, or you had a swollen sense of yourself. You were immature. Granted, the Earth project seemed to have earned him special status, at least for now. What had Mrrrr said, that he filled up his own category? Good. In fact very good. But diplomacy mattered. So did decorum. He stayed at home, going out in the evenings to walk under the evocative light of the seven blue moons.
The visits began practically the instant he made his decision not to go back to Earth. The timing spooked him, but he was flattered by the attention he received. In regular succession seven august Community members appeared in Seattle, some of them in their original form, all pellicle and voice, color and emanation. He took it as an indication of their trust. He was one of them now. Each in his or her distinctive way made oblique reference to a project of significance that must surely fall to his hands. Good manners obliged Bill to express no opinion, no hope, and precious little reaction to their insinuations. After greeting his third visitor he reflected that somehow he was born knowing how to play this game. Play it he would.
Still, he knew better than to assume the visits were random. Clearly they were part of a plan even if he was unable to imagine what that plan might be. With the disappearance of his seventh visitor, Bill Gates felt a twinge of impatience for the first time since the Regents’ scrutiny. He was ready to work but could not hide his delight when Mrrrr invited him to go cruising in her starship.
“We won’t go far,” she said. “You need to be available. In every sense of the word.”
They stayed inside the solar system, which had the warm charms of home after enforced absence. Mrrrr maxed the speed of her little craft because fast was in her nature. At a certain velocity, the blur of habitable planets became an aesthetic experience. You couldn’t have too many of those, could you?
When the moment seemed right, Bill Gates asked her what she had meant by beaming “What if” to him from the diaphanous cloud.
“You didn’t finish your sentence,” he pointed out.
“Was that part of the plan?”
“Poor baby. You’ve lost your faith in spontaneity, haven’t you? Let me guess: you don’t believe your visitors came by simply to demonstrate their goodwill. Hah! Your sojourn on Earth has made a skeptic of you.”
Her response meant that he should shut up and let her do the driving. He did; she did. And, at a dangerously high rate of speed, in the ostensible security of the little ship, she aroused him mightily. She pulled out his glands and massaged them. She explored the interstices of his sexual thoughts with ten thousand tongues. She flashed before his humanlike eyes pictures of all the things he had not known he was longing for. He was aware, for the first time, of the sexual quality of her humor.
When they landed and she disappeared, Valvula was waiting for him in Seattle. The appearance of the silverine cylinder in his private space stunned Bill Gates. It was an unheard of breach of protocol. Only a being as powerful as Valvula could get away with it. But why?
“What if,” Valvula began. He stopped.
Talk about a pregnant pause… Bill Gates waited. He had no choice. When his expectation reached a crescendo not unlike the sexual rise he had just experienced with Mrrrr on the cruiser, the cylinder emitted a thin, hyperfocused stream of thought; pure essence of laser.
“What if everything you believed, Bill Gates, everything you felt, and thought, and perceived, what if all of that did not really exist?”
After the slightest hesitation, Bill said, “Are you talking about some sort of cerebral fantasy?”
“I mean what I said,” Valvula snapped.
Riling the head of the Regents was to be avoided, but Bill did not have to worry long about his rookie faux pas. The cylinder was gone.
Bill Gates’ walk on the Beach of Exemplary Visions had a different feeling tone that evening. It was muted, and a little bit of anxiety made its presence known to him. Looking up at the blue moons, he recalled a similar evening on the Puget Sound. Makkie, his body man, had gone along on an otherwise solitary outing. Makkie was born in Glasgow of parents whose hands were red and hard with factory labor. Their son had made good on the American Dream. He hadn’t lasted long as Bill’s body man; he was destined for more meaningful employment. At the Sound, he pointed to the sky and said, “That’s the second full moon this month. Do you see how blue it is, Mr. Gates?” He sang a snatch of the Sinatra song. I heard somebody whisper please adore me, and when I looked, the moon had turned to gold.
A trivial moment. But it had stayed with Bill, acquiring over time a talismanic intensity. Now, human hands clasped behind his human back, plodding across the sand under the soft pink sky, he wondered if Makkie had been a plant. Had the Regents sent him? Had they lacked confidence in his ability and elected to guide him, subtly, through his project? Was he nothing more than a highly favored pawn? That seemed absurd, but a sprinkle of doubt dampened his brow. As if in response, a fierce sense of longing took possession of him, and he understood for the first time what loss meant. Memory, it turned out, was not enough.
The arrival of Mrrrr in the form of tongued lightning saved him from further fretting. She wanted to have sex. Good, and better than good. Right there on the beach.
She took him apart. She reduced him to atoms, and then to subatomic particles. Under her commanding touch, every last particle of him quivered with desire. She held nothing back. In her high and happy vigor, the beach air grew thick with her secret scent. Bill Gates breathed it in and breathed it in. She became flesh; she became several varieties of flesh. She entered him; he entered her. They were wombs, they were tombs. They were two, they were one, they were many. One moment they were destination, the next they were all and only vector.
When it was over, he was cosmic jelly. His mind was empty but clear. His memory was unstable but still there.
Mrrrr told him, “You will make a sacrifice. For the good of the Community.”
In his gelatinous condition, Bill Gates was curiously unmoved by her exhortation to duty. The impatience had drained out of him, and he understood how close the line was between feeling all emotion and feeling none. Blue moon, he hummed, you saw me standing alone.
“I believe I have your full attention,” Mrrrr said.
“Then hear this: everything you know, everything that has happened in the discoverable universe, it will all go away, unless you make this sacrifice.”
She did not have to put it into words. The images she displayed on the ceiling of the night sky sufficed. He was to become a single-celled organism somewhere on an empty planet, so empty it lacked a name, a grid location, the barest carbon trace of a protohistory. Just enough reasoning power was left to him, in the exhaustion that took him over, to wonder about time. Perhaps, after all, it could be beaten. The Community was sending him backward through it, were they not? At the moment, however, under the stress of anticipation, he was poorly equipped for speculation.
Saying yes to what Mrrrr painted on the sky was not necessary. His volition did not matter. It scarcely existed, and the fact was, they were not giving him a choice. The situation was devastatingly simple. It fell to him to be that single cell, to drive the discoverable universe forward to complexity, to self-discovery, to fully aerated consciousness. If he failed, he put at risk everything that had ever existed in the past, everything that would come to exist in the future.
“Do you understand what is required of you?” Mrrrr wanted to know.
What was the name of Fear’s grandfather? Who taught Terror’s first-born child to sing?
“Of course you do. Before you go, there’s just one thing I want to tell you.”
He waited. He may have waited ten thousand years. Finally she said it.
“I had a really good time this evening.”
About the Author: A former U.S. Foreign Service Officer, Mark Jacobs has published more than 100 stories in magazines including The Atlantic, Playboy, The Idaho Review, The Southern Review, and The Kenyon Review. He has stories forthcoming in several magazines including The Hudson Review. His story “How Birds Communicate” won The Iowa Review fiction prize. His five books include A Handful of Kings, published by Simon and Shuster and Stone Cowboy by Soho Press, which won the Maria Thomas Award. A full list of his publications can be found here.