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When We Were Real
By William Barton
Warner AspectCopyright © 1999 William Barton
All right reserved.
Chapter OneStories, they say, should always have happy endings. Only life is permitted to sputter out in a diminuendo of misery, dissolving through drab shades of gray before reaching some pointless fade to black. When I was a boy, immersed in seemingly pointless study, I would read the biographies of the ancients and see that shadow hanging over every one of them. A man would be born, full of promise, would lead his famous life, fulfilling that promise, and then ...
Well, you know. Every biography is a tragedy. The hero always falls. The great man is always humbled in the end, no biography ever finishing up with "they lived happily ever after."
Those were the days before humanity emerged from its ratty little world, when hope was a word you used with utmost caution, associated with the profound fantasy that life might really be a dream from which you'd one day awaken. Here at the other end of history, we know better. We know, when a boy's done dreaming about his Baedeker of wonder, he'll realize those shades of gray can go on and on, waiting for a daybreak that might never come. Sown to the dark between the stars, we live our open-ended lives, freed from the valley of the shadow out on all our ratty little worlds. My ratty little world, the place where they made a gray little boy, anticipating a gray little man, where I dreamed a boy's grand dreams while reading those sad old tales, was called Audumla. Down in the bayou country, down in Audumla's belly, well away from the habitat's endcaps and the settlements of the Mother's Children, you can see the decay a century's neglect has made.
My father and I, when we visited the lowlands, would drive our cheap plastic boat down a wide, sluggish stream, tall, gray-green fronds of unnatural swampland vegetation blocking the view to either side. I would steer the skiff away from a long, iridescent blue oil slick, feeling the electric motor's soft vibration through the tiller, while Father sat between the thwarts, fiddling with his tinker's tools. Overhead, you could see a long way, despite the haze.
It was only hazy down by the ground anyhow, down where the air had gotten thick, most of the air-conditioning returns long ago plugged up, overgrown.
The sky was still quite clear, though nothing like I understand it used to be, dark blue up around the brilliant orange stemshine, purple shading off into brown everywhere else. Beyond it, you could see the bare outlines of Audumla's other two habitat panels, between them patches of empty sky, where the stars would glimmer at night.
Ygg's ruddy half-disk, almost hidden in the color of the sky, was peeking out from behind the edge of Panel Three like a hill of dull fire.
My father looked up from his hardware, an agelessly grizzled man with a lean, handsome face, big beak of a nose, pale blue eyes, and said, "Darius. How much farther?"
I steered the skiff to one side of a big flat mudbank that hadn't been here last time, feeling the current surge under us, catching a whiff of organic stink from the shore. "Just a couple of kems, Daddy. A few more minutes." Have I been down this stream a hundred times? I wondered. Probably not, but he's been bringing me here since I was a little kid ... and I'm sixteen years old now. Maybe a hundred times after all."
Good. Mrs. Trinket's baby won't wait.
"Baby. Funny to think of it like that-but I do too; natural, I guess, coming out here with him, time and again, despite Mother's disapproval. He always calls me by my Timeliner name, the one he gave me, pronouncing it the old way, Dar-eye-us. Darius Murphy.
I like to have my friends call me Murph, and that makes Mother angry too. Dagmar Helgasson. That's your name. Your only name. The only kind of name a Mothersbairn can have. Mother won't let him near my brother Lenahr. Not since she found out about the name.
We came around a bend in the river and there was the Himeran village on a little hill beyond the bank, a sparse collection of packing crates set up where they'd cleared away the thicket. Beebee was waiting for us down by the shore, a tall, mirror-finish metal cylinder nearly two ems tall, standing on steel spiderlegs, waving assorted arms. You could hear him shouting, "Dr. Goshtasp! Dr. Goshtasp! Thank God, Dr. Goshtasp!" Daddy muttered, "Just in time, I guess."
These trips down in the bayou country piss Mother off more than anything else. When I was very young, I supposed that marrying a resident alien-a Timeliner, no less, rather than a Mother's Son-had been her own act of youthful rebellion: Helga Rannsdottir, who hated her own mother just so, eloping in the night with a hooknose tinker.It makes a pretty, romantic story for a boy to tell himself, dreaming in his bed. Something that makes his tale of the wonder years to come more plausible. I imagined them as adolescent lovers, daring the disapproval of the Mother's Children and ... So Helga Rannsdottir, turning up her nose at the Mother's Children and their arranged marriages, would show them all just what a real woman could do with a husband's Goddess-given talents.
Even if the wretch did believe his talents came from some silly, alien, male deity with the ridiculous name of Orb.
I can hear his tired voice now, remembered from when I was a boy, he never talks about it anymore: Not the Orb, Helga. Orb's just a symbol. Our souls emerge from Uncreated Time like everything else in the ...
Then she'd screech about the Goddess' Truth. Sometimes throw things at him. And, of course, one day I stumbled on the actual details, found some inkling of what it means to have an open-ended life, where you just go on and on, no matter what.
There and then, just as here and now, I followed him up the muddy hill, carrying the toolbox. You could see that Beebee, senior most of Mrs. Trinket's fifteen husbands, was some kind of welding machine. Hard to say what his kind's job would have been, back when Audmula was a working industrial center called Standard ARM Decantorium XVII. Something out on the hull, judging from the grippers he had instead of feet. It made him limp, walking around inside, where there was only mud, grass, and loose rocks to trip over.
Those must have been good days for them, back before Ygg's ready resources played out. Bright days full of life and purpose and doing. I sometimes wonder if they miss it all, but they never talk about it, at least not in front of me.
When Ygg was finished off, Standard ARM found no profit in shifting its equipment to some other site-it's much cheaper to build new machinery in situ, so the mining tools were abandoned in place, not even told what was happening. Just one day the supervisors came no more.
After a while, they figured it out for themselves, cooked up some scheme to become an illegal service station, catering to the tramp freighter trade that was springing up in those days. Called the place Himera and let it develop quite a reputation as a den of iniquity. Maybe they'd've done all right for themselves, enough to buy all the supplies and spare parts they needed, but then Standard sold the joint to the Mother's Children, who soon turned the tramp starships away. Not a problem for anyone, what with the Centauri Jet and Telemachus Major being so close and all. No problem for anyone but the Himerans.
And Mother, always angry because Dr. Goshtasp devoted so much profitless time to helping them stay alive. Inside the largest packing crate, Mrs. Trinket was a big white enamel box lying on the floor, moaning softly in her best-little-girl voice. She looked something like a refrigerator, a refrigerator with four stumpy legs, four long, spindly arms, face of doll-like blue eyes and pursed pink lips mounted in the upper half of her breastplate, just above the spigots.
Lying on the floor now, she was surrounded by frightened husbands and excited children. Little Tillie the buffer's daughter, who'd never have reproductive organs of her own. Maxine, a baby incubator just like Trinket, big eyes wide, taking it all in. Daddy went to her side, obviously concerned about the state she was in, attached his diagnostics, and waited for his displays to come up. Hiss of exasperation. "Trinket, you sissy! When the call came, I thought you were dying!" She whimpered, "Oh, Doctor. It never felt like this before ..."
Daddy started plugging in to her other ports, making software disconnects at internal sensors, anesthetizing her. "Well, hang on, kiddo. We'll have a look and see what's what.
"When the screwdrivers started to whine, Beebee flinched and averted his eyes. When her access panel swung open, I felt like backing away, at least getting away from the powerful gust of ... I don't know. Call it the smell of life that came out. I looked anyway, and there, in a womb made of bleeding raw steaks and heaving layers of rump roast, lay a collection of metal parts that seemed all angles and spikes and sharp edges. Daddy said, "Well, shit. There you go.
"One of the other husbands, an incomprehensible thing that seemed to be made mostly of gooseneck lamps, peered over his shoulder, blinked oddly this way and that from his seven or eight eyes, then crowed, "Beebee! I didn't know you had it in you!"
Beebee came forward too, edging nervously past me, and took a look. "My God! A baby welder!"
Trinket squeaked, "Beebee? You told me you ran dry years ago."
"Well ... well ... I'm sorry, Trinket. I thought I did ..."
"You lying bastard! You just wait! You see if I ever-"Daddy, laughing, patted her on the side. "Take it easy Trink. We'll have this critter out of you in five minutes."
I leaned in, holding my breath against the smell, and tapped him on the shoulder. "Uh, Dad? I think I'll ... wait outside. If you don't mind."
He looked up for a second, giving me an odd, somehow disappointed look. Then shrugged and said, "Sure. This won't take long."
I stood out on the hillside, air much fresher here despite the surrounding swamp, and watched the children play, a bizarre assortment of kits and boxes and things that looked like they might even be hybrids between more than one sort of machine. Years ago, back when we first started coming here, I used to play with Himeran kits. Play with them just like they were real children, friends and all. Well, the ones I knew grew up, went off to do whatever the hell it is abandoned hardware does when it grows up ...
Maybe I just don't want to think about it, now that my turn's come. I looked away from the river, looked back up into the sky.
You can see the southern endcap from here, it's not that far. Rugged red hills rising up and up, becoming sheer red cliffs just before they disappear into the deep blue shadows around the axial port. All over the hills were the twinkling cities and towns of the Mother's Children. Towns, farmland, the gleaming silver of the new monorail lines we'd just put in, replacing the wrecked transport system Standard had left behind.
After a while, Daddy came out of Mrs. Trinket's crate, wiping bloody hands on some kind of rag, cottony stuff the Himerans always had laying around, came and stood beside me, watching the indigo shadows of dusk just starting to peep around the edges of our platform.
Finally, he said, "I always hate going home. " I felt a small pang, wishing he'd just fucking shut up. "Then don't."
He looked at me, then looked away, maybe wishing that, just this once, I'd sympathize with his bellyaching, and muttered, "So where the fuck else would I go, hmh?"
I shrugged. "Guess we better get started. She'll be pissed if we're late for supper."
Another long look. "Yup." We went back in to pack up his tools. From the roofgarden atop Helgashall, on a grassy knoll some eight kems above the bayou country, you can see a long way down Audumla's axis, lowlands curving up to the right and left, stretching straightaway before you, two hundred kems to the northern endcap, tiny circle drowned in day by a glare of orange stemlight, little halo of bright freckles at night, faraway light from other Mothersbairn cities and towns.
Far below, on the panel where we'd just been, tall purple clouds were billowing up, twisted and sheared by Coriolis effects. Beyond, in the void between the panels, as the stemlight began fading away, stars were popping out, but Ygg's red ball was missing, having transited the nearest void, going behind habitable landscape. It'd be out again in a couple of hours, by the time the night was really black.
Woolgathering doesn't get anything done. I looked down into the freeze-frame, put my hands in the warm shimmer of the interface, and waited. Nothing. No inspiration. No desire to ... finish.
Graduation thesis is the last worthwhile thing you'll ever do. Why aren't you interested?
Nothing. The freeze-frame didn't seem to have any answers. Nobody gives a shit about the stasis-metric analytical conjunctions on gauge-dynamic metacontrols. I scrolled open the hopper and let it play at random, knowing it'd take me even further from getting the job done, but what the hell? Here, Standard ARM smugly announcing record profits from its big mining operation at Proxima, what they call the Glow-Ice Worlds. Attached adverts for new colonial positions just opening at Glow-Ice. Also at some frontier posting, way the fuck out by Altair.
Stock market surging giddily upward for the fourteenth straight year.
Profits up. Wages down. God's in his heaven and all's right with the economy. Aren't you glad?
News from the Centauri Jet. News from the Solar System, a full parsec and more from Ygg and Audmula. How's the refrain go? A billion-trillion datatracks and ...
I stopped briefly in my favorite old atlas, a twinkle of jewels in a jet-black void. Here, solitary Sol, with its fine flat Kuiper disk and spherical Oort shell, home to four hundred billion human souls. There, Alpha Centauri A/B, its own cometary cloud distorted into a long, flat stream by the hectomillennia-long hyperbolic passage of Proxima, home to billions more. And Audumla, just off the ragged terminus of the Centauri Jet, not far from Telemachus Major, headquarters of mighty Standard ARM. Always wanted to go there, a dreamable dream, only four days' travel from abandoned Ygg. A long look sideways at the pale blue sparkle of manhome Earth, picked out beside yellow Sol. Thirty-seven years by fast commercial starship? No. Never. An impossible dream.
Oh, sure, I've got the time, we all do, since things just go on and on, willy-nilly. But the dream of actually doing it ... I shut the freeze-frame, got up, and walked away. Two weeks before I have to turn in my thesis, go to graduation, and then ... then. Well, there is that.
Downstairs, in the Whitehall boundary of the kemenat?, the no-boys-allowed part of Helgashall, I stood in the doorway of my sister Rannvi's room, watching her, perched naked on the edge of her bed, painting her toenails black and gold. A startling, lovely young woman, incredibly unmarried at the age of twenty-two.
Excerpted from When We Were Real by William Barton Copyright © 1999 by William Barton . Excerpted by permission.
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