The Path

by T.J. McIntyre

The soggy ground squelched beneath Charlie’s boots. He took heavy steps, one after another, with his arms outstretched to keep his balance. The terrain was uneven, knotted with threading vines and roots that threatened to trip him with every careful step. Strange stirrings sounded from the rough foliage of the surrounding forest. If it could be called foliage; if it could be called a forest at all. The difference between animal and vegetable was inconsequential here in this new land, if not nonexistent.

The swampy planet was remarkably flat. Small crater lakes littered the surface, shallow volcanoes oozed magma and steam, but other than that, it was all swamp. New categories needed to be developed in order to classify the unnamed biologic organisms and ecosystems so far unknown to man.

Charlie looked around and watched what appeared to be a leaf stretch itself out like a slug, extend a fleshy sleeve of skin, and float away on a gust of wind that carried the strange scent of alien carrion, rot, and something that – to his human, terrestrial nose – smelled like a cross between mildew and warm spiced cider.

He held up his glove and pinched his fingers together to take a picture through his Nanoskein. He thought through the mental records available via NeuralNet and found the creature, like so many he previously documented, unclassified, and still unclassifiable. It was its own species in a currently unnamed phylum.

Charlie breathed the air through his nose and inhaled the scent of his most recent temporary home. He thought about the air and wondered how such an alien landscape could still house an atmosphere so accommodating to his own biology. The air had a little higher oxygen content than Earth, but the differences were remarkably minimal. In fact, the air here was almost more hospitable in some ways. Charlie found that many of the allergies that had plagued him back home disappeared upon his arrival. His head felt clearer than he remembered it ever feeling.

He sat down on a blue trunk. It squealed with a wet flurp when he sat down. It sounded like a balloon releasing a torrent of spittle and air. It moved a few inches. Charlie instinctively patted the strange tree-like thing with his hand and cooed to it. The thing calmed and began to snore through vents located near where roots dug into the amber mud.

He transmitted thoughts back home via NeuralNet. It was time to check on the family.

Sal responded: “Don’t worry, hon. Things are fine. The kids are doing okay in school. We’re getting the credits applied to our accounts efficiently. I’ve just about paid off the kids’ latest installations. You should see Brian. He hardly comes off the Net. His eyes glaze and he smiles. He reminds me of you when he does that.”

Charlie smiled. “Don’t let him do it too much,” he thought in reply.

“Make him go outside. The body needs as much exercise as the mind. Let me see my boy.”

Sal looked to her son. Charlie saw through her eyes. His son sat in a plastic bean bag chair. Brian’s hair had grown long in Charlie’s absence and mostly covered Brian’s face. One eye peeped through a crack in the boy’s overgrown bangs. The eye was pale blue and stared off into space. His shoulders were slumped over his stomach. While his arms and legs appeared skinny, almost emaciated, his gut hung down to his feet over a pair of unbuttoned black jeans. Inside the one visible eye, Charlie saw reflected flashes of light and energy. There was activity there. The collar of Brian’s shirt was stained dark with drool.

Charlie focused his attention to his son, moving his thoughts through his private home network. He was relieved his son hadn’t changed any passwords yet. He scrolled through the boy’s mental history and saw that his InnerLife was mostly normal for a kid his age: pornographic images, sports statistics, first person shooters, and fantasy world games. But the amount of time spent in the InnerLife disturbed Charlie. He accessed Brian’s thoughts. “Get off the net, son.”

His son’s mental image of two girls kissing faded away. “Huh. Dad! What are you doing here?”

“Checking in on you.”

“Well, get out! This is my head.”

There was a mental block thrown up, one that Charlie had no difficulty eradicating with an ancient code. “Get up and get outside, why don’t you? Meet a real girl. Play a real game with other people. Move your body.”

“Shut up! I hate you! Leave me alone!”

Another block was thrown up, this one immeasurably more complex. Charlie’s codes sank into the wall as if it were made out of the spongy mud beneath his feet in his new reality. This defense infuriated Charlie while simultaneously evoking pride. Charlie went back into his wife’s eyes and saw through her. His son stared outward. A smirk was spread across his face. “Get that boy offline.” Charlie said.

Sal sighed. “Leave the boy alone. He’s getting an education. He’s just following in your footsteps.”

Charlie shook his head. “But if I only knew at his age what I knew now—“

“Then we would have never met. Then you might not be where you are today. You may have never found The Path.”

Charlie nodded. The secret to intergalactic travel was there in plain sight all along. Humanity had searched outward for centuries. They had neglected to look inward.

He’d noticed how humanity classified their thoughts and used that classification to increase the speeds of computers, of networks. Charlie realized those classifications, while they worked in their own crude way, were all wrong – too static, not allowing for variation. In the variation, he found The Path. With his college buddies who studied nanotechnology, biology, and coding, he had devised a way to traverse it.

His body – his real body – was back home, but another body had been found waiting when he closed his eyes: a new body, a resurrection, a miracle. But it was still his body, even down to the faintest freckle dotting his wrist. Thanks to a quick twist and tear through outward time, he was what he was where he was as expected, as known, where he should be, where he had to be, where The Path led.

“Just try to get him off a couple hours a day. Does he have any friends?”

Sal turned her head to the side. The gesture felt strange from inside her head even though it was familiar. She was giving Charlie a look he knew all too well but found difficult to get used to from the inside. “He has plenty of friends.”

“Real friends?”

“Real enough. Speaking of real, I don’t have my real husband here with me now do I? I’m getting lonely, you know.”

Charlie smiled. She smiled and he felt it. It was incredibly intimate. A thought of them together in bed came into their mind simultaneously.

He fiddled her NeuralNet and reached the correct receptors. He coded her to completion and they both leaned back – she on Earth while Charlie rested an unknown infinity away – and sighed. They fired up virtual cigarettes, let their neurons flare, and basked in each other’s shared pulse.

Charlie looked up and saw a large creature float overhead. It growled as vents exhaled plumes of gas. It resembled a kite, a skeleton of a wooden-like material wearing a thin membrane of leafy skin. It was mottled purple, red, and black. It shone with a faint luminescence as it glided against the darkening sky.

“When are you coming home?” She asked.

“Soon.” He smiled. “There’s work to do.”

“I know. Love you, baby.”

“Love you, too.” He turned off the connection. He listened to the sounds all around him. Signs of life caught fire in fits of bioluminescence as the moons set and the sky grew dark.

“When are you coming home?” his wife’s thought assailed him again, but it was his thought this time; a guilt-ridden echo.

“Never,” he replied. A tear slid down his cheek. With no one around to hear, with no one around to worry, he found it easier to be honest. He smiled, closed his eyes, and followed The Path. Another world awaited, a different world, so many different worlds, but The Path only moved forward.

The End