This short story is from the collection in my anthology, Ten Tales for Tomorrow. I present it here for your enjoyment. (If it inspires you to read the rest of the collection, you’ll find links to that at the foot of this post. Enjoy!)
A thin curl of greenish smoke rose from sand ahead, where flat waves of ocean melted onto featureless beach. They brought with them nothing but the fluid forming their soft shapes. Even, synchronous, and so low as to form barely a swell on the dull chrome body of liquid, they seemed almost an afterthought. The sky, a deep uniform rose, held no point of reference. In all the world known to the solitary figure inhabiting this landscape, only insignificant waves and fragile smoke marked the absolute consistency of this place.
The moving plume provided interest. But experience warned him to mark his entry point. Otherwise, they must follow and retrieve him when he failed to return in time.
He piled high the silver sand, drawing a mound that would be visible from wherever he might venture on this world that was his, for now. The sky said nothing, but that colour indicated a multitude of gases. His breathing was unaffected, since his mind alone actually occupied the space, his body merely a projection to allow him movement dictated by his desires rather than the alien sensations gifted by a mind in free form.
That experience had almost undone him the first time. He’d emerged, then, in a world of utter chaos, or so he had thought, until he’d gathered the diffusing consciousness that was all he’d been on that trip. Spread thin, unevenly, over a world of chaotic activity; young, unformed, consisting of molten rock and incoming comets too numerous to count, his wandering mind could find no point of reference on which to cling. For a while, he’d been as close to madness as the world he’d occupied. But effort, patience and strength of purpose had gathered fragments of consciousness together at last and he’d returned with enough material to create a hundred new works for those with the means to consume.
His material credit and his status had increased to take him from obscurity into the realms of celebrity. Anonymity no longer plagued his life. That first experience made him, but he’d never again risked complete immaterial projection. The mind unconfined was too vulnerable and, although the company of a non-corporeal body based on his own, resting on the studio couch, was more resource hungry, it was essential for sanity.
He left behind the mound of sand and approached the green plume, still wavering gently in the faint zephyr that was the only sign of weather. His impressions would relate utter emptiness, complete lack of features on which to fix, the almost panicking absence of a hook on which to hang sensation. As he walked toward it, the smoke, if that’s what it was, seemed to move away, as though it might feel his presence and be afraid of his approach.
On his many trips, he’d encountered a multitude of different life forms. Some, too strange to explain to non-travellers. The cognoscenti, of course, had their own experiences. The other artists, vying with him and each other, must explain their various experiences in ways that gave supporters at least some understanding of what they’d seen. But tourists he could not abide. Those who tripped for personal pleasure, never sharing such experience, but locking it within their private consciousness to add only to their knowledge. Such selfishness he found abhorrent, and so wasteful.
The smoke resolved into a more resolute column, as if fighting the vagaries of the breeze to become something more itself, less subject to unpredictable movement in the atmosphere. It stopped retreating and awaited his approach. As he grew nearer, the plume reshaped into an ethereal echo of himself; larger, lighter, but a real three-dimensional copy of his body in translucent detail. It slowly turned as he came near and stopped as he halted.
A hint of knowing emerged from the form as it tried to link with his mind. This being was alive in a way he’d seen before. He wondered if isolation made such forms bearable by denying awareness or whether, beneath their lonely existence there lay timidity, perhaps anxiety about their individuality. Was this one unique in the universe? Answer came that it believed it was. It had never, in its billions of seasons of existence, encountered other life.
Communication with other species was not defined or restricted by words. Mood, emotion, sensation all played their part and it had emerged that the most common feature of intelligent and sentient life was an awareness of spiritual as well as material existence. This creature, if that was the right word, had been here, in this place, untroubled and uninterrupted by any change in its surroundings for millennia. Once, a small meteorite had entered the atmosphere, plunging in a dying arc into distant depths of ocean, forming tiny ripples that had taken eons to settle and leaving in its wake a trail of smoke the creature had at first believed might be a possible companion. Nothing else had ever come into its world.
Sudden awareness of its state of stasis and separate existence, made it lonely. It lost its copy of his body and embraced him with such utter want and need that it overwhelmed him with desire for his company. It tried to mingle with him and found no substance; only consciousness. It was a concept the creature could not comprehend and he felt its anxiety, its utter despair and sense of futility. He’d come into its domain and disturbed a life with no considered beginning. One without projected end, until his mind passed on the knowledge that its local star would supernova in seventeen billion years. And now it knew it had that time to wait, isolated and inactive, on this world where nothing ever changed.
It was too much. It could not continue for that length of time without a purpose. The smoke moved from him, hovered briefly on the ocean, and faded into nothing as it dissolved into the liquid.