Monday, March 10, 2008

A Passing Phase

We've left so many things behind us. We celebrated the death of Earth itself, though we were dead to the world when Sol cooled and bloated and devoured it in a single bite. It wouldn't have mattered; we were far beyond the light cone by then anyway. But we woke for the next build, and checked the time, and toasted the passing of our homeworld and any who might still be aboard her. And got to work.

They were right, the dust who sent us out here so long ago. I've lost count of the times the gates we built just sat there, dark and lifeless, until they passed from sight. Other times, though, things came out. Sometimes they even looked like people, and occasionally they spoke to us. Once a gate burst open spewing nothing but rads and plasma, as though a nova had erupted on the other side. More than once, things emerged that didn't look like they could have descended from anything remotely human. They reached after us. Mostly we've been able to keep our distance.

Once we took on a hitchhiker, an immortal from the twenty-eighth century who caught up with us in a ship made of spider silk. Some still remembered us, she said; to some we had achieved the status of myth, by the simple virtue of continued existence. Many of our sister ships — almost all of them — had long since run aground.

She didn't come to bed with us. For four thousand years she wandered Eriophora's endless dark warrens all by herself. Something happened to her during that time. I don't know what. I think, maybe, something came aboard. She wouldn't talk about it. It changed her in ways I can't describe.

Immortality. She said it was only a phase.

Sometimes we had to choose between the things we set free and the things that lay in wait. We're not the only ones to covet the Goldilocks zones, you see. Sometimes we closed on target to find strange and bejeweled gates already humming with unfamiliar energy. Or we found ourselves caught in ancient cross-fire, coasting inexorably towards the automatic holocausts of extinct races who forgot to turn their wars off when they left. Sometimes our only hope was to build a gate in the teeth of that approaching storm, and pray that whatever came out behind us would be willing and able to take on the things up ahead.

It's not just dangerous, though; it's also beautiful. Nebulae lovely enough to break your heart, even as you devour them. Endless expanses of Dyson spheres: tenuous, iridescent things light-minutes across, fragile and indestructible, blown taut as soap bubbles by the faintest stellar winds. They're alive, you see. They contain multitudes, these vast and intelligent membranes. Every sublime thought takes years to unfold.

They can be evil fuckers sometimes, though. Full of hate.

So much we saw. So much we left behind. And then one day, the gate we'd just built stuttered impossibly online before we had booted it. That was the last we saw of the Milky Way.

*   *   *

We left each other behind, too.

Back in the old days we needed each other more than the mission did. It only took one of us to deal with the routine builds, but we stuck them out together anyway, hairless primates huddled together against the cold. It didn't last. We got bored, we got testy. Started sleeping through the other guy's shift. We still had relationships back then, still fucked and cuddled and held each other against the raging of the night; but then those bonds would break and it was just easier to stay in the grave while the other resurrected, easier to share your waking hours with memories than with flesh and blood. I've gone a million years without seeing another pair of human eyes looking back at me. Sometimes people die in your sleep, and the others forget to leave a note. It can take aeons to realize that someone's gone.

Now I'm the only one left. Halfway to the edge of the universe, everyone else dead or turned back or — diverted, along paths orthogonal to my own. It's just me and the chimp, now.

I can't even remember their names.



Blogger Patrick said...

An auspicious teaser - this is *Gerbils* or *Sunflowers* I take it?
Really looking forward to it.

March 10, 2008 7:06 PM  
Anonymous Brian said...

Your prose brought tears to my eyes. I've been reading a lot of Alastair Reynolds recently, not to belittle him at all I'm greatly enjoying his stuff but, there's a difference in style. A good one.

March 10, 2008 9:17 PM  
Blogger SpeakerToManagers said...

Very, very, nice. I imprinted early on Stapledon and Clarke; there are a few around doing that sort of writing still, but not many, and this piece stands out for its style and its scope.

More, please.

March 11, 2008 7:50 AM  
Blogger HannuB said...

Oh yes! More please!

Evocative as hell, and I especially loved the beautiful melancholy your prose conveys.
Brought tears to these old eyes as well.



March 11, 2008 9:41 AM  
OpenID tredecimal said...

Now I'm the only one left. Halfway to the edge of the universe, everyone else dead or turned back or — diverted, along paths orthogonal to my own. It's just me and the chimp, now.

BJ & The Bear: 3030 AD. Coming to the WB this fall...

March 11, 2008 12:28 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Gee, thanks for shattering the carefully-cultivated mood of epic wonder and autumnal loss there, dude. (Although I have to admit, I was wondering when someone would pick up on that chimp reference...)

March 11, 2008 12:41 PM  
OpenID tredecimal said...

Hehe, I tease because I care. Seriously, on my tenterhooks here waiting for more ficlets. Godless, what masochists we Watts-taku be, waiting for the sequel to a novel where survival's a booby prize and consciousness is a gas hog. Hey, it beats waiting for Cameron's "Avatar"...

I wonder if that would have been more funny if I'd have said "Glen A. Larson's Ron Moore's Ruth Chris 'BJ & The Bear 3030 AD'"

March 11, 2008 7:05 PM  
Blogger Mac said...

Gorgeous, Peter. And I'm not Just Saying That.

March 12, 2008 12:18 AM  
Blogger razorsmile said...

I loved that line about forgetting to turn their wars off before shuffling off the mortal coil; so compact, so evocative, so sublime, it's fucking ridiculous.

Shit, I loved the whole thing but that especially.

March 12, 2008 1:44 AM  
Blogger Teresa said...

Wow,it's amazing how so much can be said in so few words. Scintilating, evocative and a chimp too! I'm sold.

March 12, 2008 8:48 PM  
Blogger Mac said...

Ditto Razorsmile. I've found that my brain has elected to replay that bit about automatized stellar warfare. Evocative, indeed.

March 13, 2008 1:23 AM  
Blogger John Henning said...

I love this concept and the way it's told - kinda like a twist on a captain's log.

Side note: has anyone ever written a kind of "tier war" space opera where worlds colonized by humans traveling slower-than-light "space arks" have to face imperial aggression from a massively advanced Earth after it's developed faster-than-light drive for its armada? Wouldn't be "realistic" at all, but it seems like an idea that someone must've tried before. Dan Simmons' Hyperion, maybe?

March 14, 2008 6:05 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Haven't read any Simmonds (the Hyperion books remain on my pile of unread classics), but the scenario you describe bears more than a passing resemblance to the backstory in Karl Schroeder's Permanence. In that novel, worlds around brown dwarfs are colonized and serviced by "cyclers", slower-than-light vessels running vast interstellar paper-routes. But after the cycler civilization was established, ftl came down the pike — the catch being that FTL only worked close to a sufficiently massive (i.e., bigger-than-brown-dwarf) gravity well. So you have the "lit worlds" around alien suns, serviced by faster-than-light ships; and you have the cycler worlds in the dark endless ghettos between. What results isn't exactly in-your-face imperial aggression, but there were definitely some serious economic imbalances.

It's a damned good read, despite the YA-tone of the opening chapter and some crappy cover art. Karl is definitely a big-ideas man, and his prose is pretty smooth too.

March 16, 2008 9:08 PM  
Blogger John Henning said...

Thanks. I've been looking for an excuse to read Schroeder but didn't really know enough about him to invest the time.

March 17, 2008 11:33 AM  
Blogger wildgoose said...

"Permanence" by Karl Schroeder is very good, and I recommend "Ventus" as well.

And this teaser sounds fantastic, I can't wait to read the rest.

And I also liked the evocative gem about "forgetting to turn off their wars" - shades of Saberhagen's Berserker series there.

March 18, 2008 1:22 PM  

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