I first heard of Fanning at Penglai.
I had just come to from what must have been one hell of a party, lying on the floor with my head spinning like it was
trying to corkscrew its way off. What did they call that stuff? Mao-tai. ‘Eight times fermented and seven distilled,’ as
my host had reminded me. Perfect for toasts, and I seemed to remember making lots of those.
Now that was a real aqua vitae.
I peeled myself off the floor and righted a chair. I collapsed into it, resting my head in my hands and my elbows on
the table. Actual waist-high Western tables were becoming a rarity in eastern China, as the Mauseo period plowed its
way on with its zeitgeist of minimalism and a return to the aesthetics of an earlier age. A simpler age with no room for
Keeping in mind why I had come to China in the first place, what I had attended must have been anything but simple.
Something swam before my bleary eyes in a bright torrent of blue, red, and gold against the mahogany of the table. I
blinked it into focus. It was the print edition of Jericho magazine’s December 2542 issue. Something we’d been
reading last night, between sips of mao-tai? I scanned the blazing scarlet letters beneath the masthead—until I found
eleven words circled twice in bright green ink.
Fanning—the incredible islands on the other side of the universe! Page 31.
I snorted at the hyperbole. It was probably just on the other side of the galaxy. I was less than amazed by interstellar
travel, particularly because the rest of the universe had mastered it before we Earthlings did, and being hungover didn’
t help much. I was reminded of that fact as I sniffed in too much dusty air.
“Shou Xin, I will kill you,” I vowed.
And I turned to page 31.
A tropical island set in an ocean of crystal blue water where the people know no care, not even death…
“Hell,” I said aloud. There was nobody to hear me, anyway.
The planet of Fanning is located over four thousand light-years from Earth—so you can leave everything behind. Yet
with the Aragothic time-slip technology you can arrive at this destination, newly available to Serena Starline Cruises, in
only twelve days…
I rolled up the magazine and smacked it against the edge of the table. I remembered Shou Xin saying a lot of cryptic
things after he picked me up on the Penglai beach, but I was sure tropical alien paradises were not part of the
discussion. Although none of the topics were ones you typically brought up to a strange Western woman seeking
mythological figures, even if you were the mythological figure being sought.
But really, to leave said Western woman passed out drunk on the floor of your conference room, with nothing for
guidance but a Jericho article that’s hardly more than an advertisement for some starline?
I wasn’t following his reasoning at the moment.
Then I read the first sentence again.
No care—not even death.
A planet of immortals?
“Well thanks, Shou Xin,” I said. “I don’t think I’ll kill you after all. The fact you’re immortal, anyway, would make it
~ * ~
“What exactly is your logic behind this, Jenes?” Lauren asked.
I looked around the space-cruiser Serena Dream’s cafe. A pair of Yesghian heart-brothers were deep in conversation
at a nearby table—so deep, as conversations between heart-brothers generally were, that watching them gave me the
feeling I was watching a man talk to himself. One of them, dark haired and not unhandsome, raised his gaze to meet
mine. I felt something shift in my face, a subtle twitch of a muscle around the eye, and he turned away, leaning
closely to hear whatever his h-brother was saying. I followed his lead and returned to my own discussion. Lauren had
accepted my invitation to join me on this cruise readily enough, but when my friend wanted answers, it was best to
“It was…suggested by someone I met at Penglai.”
“I see.” Lauren looked into the depths of her café mocha. “And what were you doing in China in the first place? Ever
since the economy collapsed it’s been chaos there.”
I leaned forward, resting my elbows on the glossy black tabletop. “Ever heard of Shi Huangdi?”
“Um…” Lauren always hated confessing ignorance.
“He was the first emperor of China. He sent several expeditions to Penglai to search for herbs of immortality.”
“Ah.” Silence while we sipped at our cooling drinks. “Did he find them?”
“Not in Penglai.”
“I see.” She tapped the side of her mug.
I cleared my throat. “Another thing. Shou Xin and the Eight Immortals were said to have had a castle near Penglai.”
“Would I know?” I smiled guilelessly.
“If you say so. Did this…someone…mention Fanning?”
“Something like that. And the planet’s name is Arak. Not some scientist’s last name.”
“Ah.” Meekly, she pressed, “And we know these people are immortal?”
“Yeah.” The magazine only hinted at the fact, but the Infonet had much more to say. “It was one of those freaky
planets that escaped the Fall.”
“So that’s it?” Lauren peered at me, as if expecting something to have changed already. “How’s visiting a planet full
of immortals going to save you from death? Eternal life by association?”
“Not quite.” I shook my head, more to clear it than to deny her conclusion. “You know much about the Fall?”
The question wasn’t really if she knew about it, but if she believed it. Many didn’t. According to the science at the
time of its revelation, it was improbable if not impossible, and accepted later only grudgingly. The religions of Earth—
and Lauren was religious, if not crazy with it—either amended their creeds to fit it in, easier for some than others, or
chose to ignore the existence of the theory entirely.
But Lauren nodded. “Who doesn’t? Genesis. Adam and Eve ate fruit, became mortal. In exchanged, they gained
“The Secret,” I said. “Not exactly Good and Evil.”
“Well, do we know that?” She shrugged. “The Secret is supposed to be secret...until you die, at least. But anyway,
some people decided death wasn’t worth the knowledge, so they didn’t partake of the deathly apple or banana or
whatever—and they live forever.”
“Pretty much.” To tell the truth, I was sick to death—no pun intended—of people, and there were plenty of them,
mostly from the ‘amend-religion’ camp, who compared the Fall to Genesis. There was an unearthly paradise, sure,
and perhaps people walked with God in those days—but who could tell? The only ones who knew had forgotten or
weren’t speaking to mortals.
I continued. “Most people chose mortality. Then the Master of Eden—or whoever ruled that place—sent everyone
away. Mortals went to places like Yesgha and Earth. And the immortals went to places like Arak.”
“Originally plants and animals—all the more complex life forms—were immortal, too. But around mortals, that
changed, maybe from the Master’s tinkering or whatever. So there are two kinds of ecosystems in the universe:
evolving, predator-prey death-based systems, like Earth and stable, unchanging systems, like Arak.”
I sat back and folded my arms.
“And the plant matter of the stable systems is Unfallen, too. When I said no immortality by association, I excluded the
lower links of the food chain.”
Lauren looked ready to clap her hand over her mouth—or mine. “No wonder the guidebooks warned us not to eat
“The natives are told it’s against our religion to partake of alien foods.”
“In this case, it might be.”
I shrugged. “A mere technicality for a heretic like me.” Back on Earth, I kept a list of the churches, synagogues,
mosques, and temples I had been thrown out of. It was not insignificant.
“Okay.” Lauren took another sip of creamed coffee. “Would eating normal food change you back again?”
“Already checked that. Cross-referenced through the entire Infonet, in fact. The only thing that can turn an immortal
mortal is the Forbidden Fruit, whatever that might be, and it’s not exactly thick on the ground.”
A smile wavered uncertainly on her face. “Jenes—has anybody done this before? Become immortal? By eating
something from an immortal planet?”
“They must have. I mean, you could become immortal here just by accident…I wonder if someone did, and that’s
why the guides warn us…”
“What happens to them—the new immortals?”
“I wouldn’t know. They probably don’t advertise themselves.”
Her smile gave up and was replaced by a frown. “I’m just thinking…the way we can’t eat the food, and stuff…it’s
not like Genesis so much as Proserpine.”
“The bride of Hades. She ate six pomegranate seeds in the underworld and had to stay there forever.”
“Actually, they negotiated that down to only six months of the year. Don’t worry—nobody’s going to kidnap me.” I
raised my mug. “A toast to Life Eternal!”
The sound of our cups ringing together must have cracked the Yesghians’ ears.
~ * ~
Artemus did not take the news well. Sometimes I wondered why I had taken my boyfriend along—though I realized it
was necessary. He himself was a financial necessity; I didn’t even have a choice in inviting him along as I had Lauren
and Martin. Regrettably, evading a concerned and possessive man was very difficult when on the same space-cruiser.
Particularly when he, having booked it for me, knew my suite number. I thanked God I hadn’t given him the keys,
although the incessant pounding on the door of my stateroom was driving me insane.
I debated the joys of calling for security and having him dragged off with the sort of fines they charged for that kind
of thing on most space cruises and finally let him in.
“What can you be thinking?” he gasped. At least, I think he gasped. Artemus Luhezy always sounded perpetually out
of breath. His face, never a worthy shade of alabaster, was now a red reminiscent of the lobsters I had ordered an
hour ago. He smelled like lobster, too, buttery and almost sweet, but it didn’t give me an appetite. Quite the opposite,
in fact. I turned to the windows and watched the stars fly by.
“It’s unnatural, Jen! Think of the rules—the laws, maybe—you’ll be breaking—”
“The novelty,” I said dryly. “And don’t call me Jen.”
“You’re following some nutty Chinaman’s lead across half the known universe?”
“You came along.”
“And of course, who wouldn’t enjoy a two-week trip through space and time only to find the woman he loves torn
from him forever—”
“Cut the melodrama.” We both knew he didn’t love me. He just liked having me around, probably as a conversation
piece. Maybe he liked the fighting, too.
“—at the end of it?”
“Shut up,” I said.
He sighed heavily, but he shut up. I held myself still and did not turn around until I heard the door close behind him.
~ * ~
“That explains everything,” Martin mused aloud. “The security measures—”
“Hell of a time to die, just before you hit the long-life jackpot.”
“And the daily jogging.” His voice held a note of exhausted reproof.
I slowed down. “Apparently it’s a bitch to lose weight after your metabolism all but shuts down.”
We were on the top deck of the space-cruise ship, jogging along a navy blue rubber track in false gravity with the
swirling constellations around us, separated as we were from the vacuum by only a few inches of strong plastic.
“I don’t think you’ll have much of a problem with keeping in shape,” Martin said. I felt his eyes rove over my frame.
I shrugged, trying to act unaffected. I admit, I was flattered. I deserved some flattery. Why did Artemus never
compliment me anymore? I had only started to become hostile when he started to ignore my own needs.
“Why are you still hanging around with him?” Martin asked, as if reading my mind.
“He’s rich and I’m too lazy to change.” I took a drink from my water bottle and untied my sweatshirt from above my
jogging shorts. I felt Martin’s eyes on my slim waistline. “Anyway, he keeps the occasional investigation off my tail.”
Insider trading, mostly—he was good at avoiding investigations of that, since it was how he himself became so rich in
the first place.
“What—I—oh,” he sputtered. “I see.”
“I’ll probably dump him after this, anyway, and disappear into the bowels of New Jericho,” I added. Don’t get
attached. His eyes were still around my navel, and I felt guilty about it.
“So, about this…thing—” I tossed my shirt at him, mostly as a distraction. “Any opinions?”
He managed to grab it before it hit the floor. “You’re returning to Earth?”
I shrugged, and didn’t repeat the part about disappearing into the bowels of New Jericho. “It’s a round trip.”
“Oh.” He swung the blue shirt in an arch. “About this thing—I think you’re ten kinds of crazy. But…” He made a
funny smile. “It’s your life. It won’t change much, will it?”
“Well…” No, come to think of it, he probably wouldn’t live to see the big changes. “No. I guess not. We’ll still be
friends.” Friends—not more. As he said, not much would change.
“I guess I’m kind of flattered you invited me along,” he said.
“What? Oh, yeah. It was no problem. I mean, we’re going to be out here, and then on an alien planet, for a few
weeks, and…well, I didn’t just want to spend those weeks with Artemus, or even Lauren.” I flushed, realizing I had
come close to saying outright he was only a third choice.
But from the way he was smiling, he didn’t notice. “Yes, the time gets long, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah. And…wait…” I had spotted two more joggers coming our way. One of them sported a second shadow; a
portly man trying to act like he was following her and not looking for me.
“Um, excuse me.” I left Martin and went for the elevator. Artemus was closer, though, and he beat me to it.
“That’s Martin, isn’t it?”
I stepped into the elevator and pressed the down button. He stepped neatly over the threshold only seconds before the
doors rolled shut. “What were you talking about?”
“The usual.” I said, flexing my legs. “My upcoming date with Eternity.”
That shut him up. I left the elevator at the next floor—the lower sports deck, where threading around knots of tourists
helped me lose him.
~ * ~
“You offer some people an inch, they push you a mile,” Lauren agreed. We were in the ship’s library, sipping tea over
the consoles of the cruiser’s Information Intranet.
“Yeah.” I corrected a misspelled keyword, trying to ignore the looks the librarian was giving us. “Anything on
immortals’ injuries? Especially ones that would be fatal—or lost limbs…”
“Would an Infonet site have that? Sounds more like the edgy things you’d find back home…”
I shrugged. “Nowhere else to look.” I wished the space-cruiser had a paper copy library, an affectation of the Mauseo
period that was growing on me, but apparently they didn’t want to waste space that could be used on computers
Lauren sincerely wanted to help, that much was obvious—after the first shock wore off, she seemed almost
enthusiastic at the thought of me becoming immortal—but she never had much patience. After her search was
repeatedly frustrated, she left the Infonet browsing up to me and checked a handful of messages on her
communication unit, messages that must have been sorely neglected, since nobody on our interspace flight had been
able to receive any since we left Earth, and the normal timestream, behind.
From what she told me, they were the typical letters received by a rich, good-looking girl from a well-born family of
the Mauseo period—that is, their family museum took up at least five rooms and over twenty-six thousand square
feet. I wouldn’t have been able to manage her inbox unless I summarily deleted anything professing a suitor’s love,
though in that case there wouldn’t be much left, I suppose.
My own com-unit’s folders were nearly empty. My mom had died almost twenty years before, and my dad and I
weren’t communicating much. I deleted several angry letters from a zealous aunt and drafted a reply to my uncle—the
uncle who wasn’t married to that aunt. Apparently they had heard of the incident at the dinner party I hosted in
Jericho Station two days before takeoff and, while she wasn’t amused, he wanted to know where I had the idea from.
Then I set aside the com-unit and scrolled down endless infopages until my fingers and eyes grew sore. I found
nothing. Immortals seemed to stay out of dangerous situations. Or maybe, I thought with a sudden thrill, immortals
were immune to harm.
Knowing the way I lived, I’d find out very soon.
- Therese Arkenberg
|Don't Write What You Know;
Write What You Care About -- Passionately!