For want of other entertainment, he used to look out of the screen into the great nothingness ahead and manipulate the stray remnants of celestial trash which came within touching distance of the ship. They could be made to collide, ignite, and combine in an array of spectacular and meaningless displays, according to his given mood. But after a decade his interest in the game tailed off and was replaced by full-time lethargy.
Nahim had the honour of being the top level sentient on board, which an empty privilege due to the fact he was the sole human being. There were non organics, of course, who went about their business irrespective of any directives he was supposed to issue them with. He had long since forgotten what measure of authority he was supposed to exert over them in the first place. Yet he was aware that these machine people (a kinder classification than robot) disliked him. The level of their collective disapproval was just sufficiently noticeable for him to register the fact. The realisation had mildly jolted him several years ago, but he quickly recovered from the existential rebuff. It was difficult to relate enough to them as a distinct form to be perturbed.
The other organics on board were a different issue. He had a vague notion that they were supposed to be contained, at least to free range on certain decks. But the containment had been breached long ago and now the beasts ranged, randomly, where they pleased. The dispensers still automatically provided them with fodder and grain; the mechanicals still dutifully cleaned the animal waste off the floor almost immediately, though they couldn’t get rid of the pervasive smell. How come the robots did not take offence at being the sewerage slaves of this menagerie, Nahim could not guess.
Occasionally he wondered about the purpose of these hundreds of animals (mainly ruminants and rodents, as far as he could notice) on board. Whether they on board for the amusement and companionship of the crew or as cargo for an outpost, he could not tell. He tried to keep this speculation to a minimum, as it inevitably led to questioning about his own place and purpose here. But sometimes he lapsed into conjecture despite himself and this time he was rescued by an unlikely interruption. A stray beast came up to him and stayed there expectation in its eyes.
What did it want?
He waited and the animal waited.
‘I am Zuidixc.’ it announced in its strange voice.
Nahim sighed. This again. It was pointless arguing, since he doubted the creature had the capacity to process any contrary opinion he might offer. But at least it killed a few minutes on this interminable black star journey.
‘I am Zuidixc.’ A particular emphasis this time, which was new.
‘No, you’re not,’ Nahim countered blandly. ‘You’re a sheep. Hence the wool, shape, smell, general mutton-ness. Don’t try to be something you’re not.’
To be fair, there was a responsive sheen of disappointment in the sheep’s eyes, as if it had not previously considered these points. It gave a token bleat as it trotted off. That was the last time it emitted its native sound.
Nahim savoured the pointless victory for around ten seconds, then dismissed it and proceeded with him duties. Later he considered the encounter. He did not know whether Zuidixc was announcing its chosen or given name, its breed, or something more abstract. The being had started to vocalise about six weeks ago. It always said the same thing: it came up to him and announced itself. He said various things in response, some of them exceptionally rude. No matter; it went away always in a gently cloud of disillusionment, as if baffled that this two legged freak could not comprehend the wonderful, subtle changes it was undergoing. He could not understand; this was true. Beyond the initial shock, he was now inured by the continuing encounters. Not quite at the point of boredom, but nearly there. After the first few days he had followed the sheep about, off and on (it didn’t seem to mind), but could not catch it out doing anything non sheep-like. It associated exclusively with other sheep, none of whom were thus far inclined to vocalise, and did not seem to be regarded differently by any of them.
Next day there was a slight elaboration in their encounter.
‘I AM Zuidixc.’
More emphatic, for sure. But Nahim was disinclined to rise to the bait.
‘If you say so,’ he responded languidly. There was a pronounced pause before it walked away. Before it turned to go, the animal raised its eyebrows at him. It blinked its blue eyes almost sweetly. He realised that it had previously possessed neither eyebrows nor blue eyes. Watching its saunter, receding into the mid distance of Deck Two, he admitted it was challengingly human.
The hare next day was different. For a start, he had not realised that such creatures were on board. The organic inventory, as far as he was aware, was supposed to consist of domestic and tamed creatures, though not necessarily only edible animals. He had never really investigated, and only cared enough to hope that there was nothing which might feel inclined to either kill or eat him, or both. He was in the Hollows when he met the hare. This was a bioformed area of grassland allegedly provided to provide an area of nature for some long gone crew on a previous voyage. The fact that it looked like a grossly deformed hinted that it had actually been the preserve of more exclusive end of the ship’s former social scale. Nahim liked to venture here because it was the only place on the ship which possessed real weather. Today there was a faint, cloying drizzle; there was always some randomly generated form of precipitation here.
The greyness prevented him seeing clearly at first. Then there was no mistaking the sight of two parallel ears rising up from behind a small hummock directly in front of him. Next Nahim saw two percipient eyes, black as night, regarding him unblinkingly. The rest of the body emerged, as if elevated by some up-rising astral cloud.
Nahim had the momentary sensation that the hare (for such it was) was waiting for a third party to introduce them formally. No such interloper emerged. The hare’s nose twitched and it gazed at him, disconsolately, then hopped away with an air of sadness. Why did all the creatures retreat from him with this attitude of disappointment, he wondered?
But the hare only ventured a yard or two and then turned to face him.
‘Follow me,’ it commanded.
‘I will not,’ Nahim answered. He was more surprised by the bass depth of its voice than by the fact that it spoke.
Its whiskers vibrated, as if receiving irritating incoming radio communication.
‘You’ll regret that,’ it said blandly.
‘Maybe so,’ Nahim responded. ‘But nothing will compel me to follow you.’
‘So be it, man,’ the hare said. It looked bored, then agitated, then on the verge of giving up on him completely. Instead, it condescended to give attempt further communication.
‘I will tell you my identity,’ the hare said stiffly. ‘It is required of me, but not my wish. I am Boudica’s Emissary. You will remember the story as it was related by Dio Cassius, surely? Not that it was entirely accurate.’
‘Remind me of it,’ Nahim prompted, folding his arms.
It did so. ‘The great queen, of blessed memory,’ the hare bowed its head in tribute, ‘ released a hare from the folds of her dress before engaging with the sacrilegious Romans. The course of its beautiful progress augured great good fortune, it was thought, before the forthcoming bloodshed. Poor deluded acolyte of the goddess that she was.’
The steeliness of the hare’s stare prevented Nahim from expressing anything unduly frivolous in response.
‘Are you saying that you are that exact same hare?’ he eventually managed to ask.
The hare drew itself up to its full extended height, which was greater than it had the right to be.
‘No, that would be absurd,’ it said. ‘I am the seventh reincarnation of the Emissary. Be mindful of me before I become something other.’
Then it did bounce away into the distance and he never saw it again in the same shape. None of the creatures that he afterwards encountered played fair by remaining in the same form twice.
The former sheep named Zuidixc came as an ambassador near lunchtime. There was a plaintive formality in his appearance, due in part to the effect of his coat, which was now a sleek, otter-like covering of fur instead of the previously standard issue wool.
‘I can tell you your new name,’ Zuidixc said.
‘Not at the moment,’ Nahim interrupted. ‘Please.’
He raised his hand to signal silence. But the beast which used to be a sheep flinched from the perceived threat and as Nahim was issuing a hurried apology there was a deep, warning growl from the depth of the distance. Zudixc addressed the creator of the sound in a stentorian foreign tongue, which silenced it. Then he returned patiently to the human.
‘You were given the opportunity to pursue your own future by the Emissary yesterday. It was a thing which should not have been spurned. However, there is time. Behold.’
To call the subsequent assembly a rally would not give it justice, nor factor in the element of horror which accompanied the incoming of those many creatures into Nahim’s presence. There was a trumpeting cacophony of bleating, wailing, gnashing even. He closed his eyes for a cowardly few seconds while they arrived, gulped, and played the nursery rhyme over in his mind: the animals came in two by two, hurrah, hurrah! But he was forced to open his eyes again and confront the congregation because they waited in absolute silence until he did.
He had to blink. The former hare was there, now without its magnificent ears, but with the addition of three antennae and a luminescent horn in between. The knowing dark eyes gave away its identity, plus the tremulous whiskers.
‘You were vouchsafed great things,’ the Emissary said. ‘It will, as a last and final chance, be offered to you one final time, tomorrow, if this congregation assents?’
There was an answering, discordant orchestration of sound from the assembled creatures (hardly could they be called animals any more). He did not in fact look at them. The peripheral vision of all that strange multitude was sufficient for his senses, so once again he closed his eyes as they passed him. On the way out, he heard with trepidation the multifarious sound of hooves, slithering scales, deformed insect legs and unidentified treads that shook the entire deck.
Some warning alerted him that there was more to come when the sounds subsided and he made ready to move himself. In a flurry he was surrounded in passage by limbs and feelers, tentacles and strange, living fur that purposely - almost lovingly - brushed his face and body while he stood rooted to the spot. It was an exceptionally long time before he dared to move. Later, still shaking, he went to the oracle quarter in his own quarters and said his confessional questions into the computer receptor.
‘Why are these creatures on board?’ he asked. There was faint crackling, but no given answer. The same when he asked where the ship was going and where it was coming from. He had asked the same questions hundreds of times before.
‘Who am I?’ he asked.
This time the machine chose to respond.
‘You call yourself Nahim,’ it said coldly.
‘But who am I?’ he asked.
There was a pause before it chose to deliver its answer which, again, was a verdict.
‘You are no one,’ it told him.
Next day, he knew. After all, this had been coming for the longest time. He stood by the main cargo bay entrance and managed to persuade the computer to open the main doors. The warehousing mechanism grated against the decks superstructure and wailed pitifully as the chasm to the outside darkness opened at an aching pace. No surprise, as the cargo doors had probably not been used for a hundred years. Nahim could not remember if he had been here on this ship at that time. He could not remember anything.
A blinking constellation was soon looking at him expectantly. The freezing reality of the void - cold and and nothingness - were held back by a whisper thin, invisible membrane that seemed to quiver nonetheless. His mind was attuned to its vibrating banshee note. Out there, the bare stars. Emeralds, rubies, diamonds, colours that could not be quantified, that had no names in the language that he know. In a moment they blended and blurred to a kaleidoscope through the actions of his tears.
Nahim held out his hands on either side so that he stood motionless there, shaped like a cross for the longest time.
Time, he thought.
‘Time,’ someone said.
He was swaying, ready to fall and tumble forward forever. With difficulty, because his arms had been stiffened by being held in the posture, he lowered them both, slowly. On either side, the arm was gently held.
‘Does it hurt?’ he asked disconsolately.
The Emissary stared at him. His eyes were all the jewels of all the stars combined, stunning with the collected knowledge of the night. He looked magnificently like the embodied constellation of Lepus, the Hare, that he remembered from somewhere, long ago, lurking in the southern hemisphere of the sky.
Ahead, the membrane visibly moved. There was an iridescent sheen to it, the surface of a bubble. The stars pulsed out, willing him to act.
‘Not at all.’
On his other side, Zuidixc let go of his limb and hovered, an amorphous cloud which was only vaguely reminiscent of its original form. It radiated amused concern for his well being. His other arm was now free. He lifted both hands up to his face, covered his eyes, prepared to jump forward into nothingness. But he did not move.
‘Does it hurt?’
‘Not at all,’ they both said.
The hands, as if they were the hands of someone else, explored the contours of his face. Nahim felt disappointed that the face he felt was familiar. But he knew now that it need not be so. While the others watched, and the whole vast cavernous cargo bay yawning blackly behind him filled up with the multitude, he began the process. He stretched and pulled the skin, made it ready. Then he moulded the bones beneath, yawned and altered the outline features of himself. First the head - gone the hair, elongated the nose into a magnificent fluted beak. Now he bent his backbone, allowing the spine to quiver and crack quite painlessly. A ridge of dragon plates sprouted out of his back, and his limbs became magnificently huge and horny and taloned.
There was an immense outbreak of cheering among the creatures as the transformation completed. He turned, still baffled, and tried to speak to his two sponsor creatures, but found that he could no longer speak in any way which was intelligible to himself. Not that it mattered; it would perhaps come in time. Nahim was no more.
The eyes of the Emissary glittered incredibly.
‘The only real mistake you made,’ the Hare said confidentially, taking him by his massive fore leg, and leading him towards the others, ‘was thinking that you were travelling from somewhere and towards something else. But, all the time, you were here.’
It let go and gently blew. The divide between the ship and the outside immensity vanished. The walls of the ship ceased to be. The universe held and took him forward into the vastness.
Now he knew.