Thursday, June 5, 2008

Family Values

Screw this. I'm sick of being outnumbered by morons. I'm calling in reinforcements.

Dix has got to have other parents, a father at least, he didn't get that Y chromo from me. I swallow my own disquiet and check the manifest; bring up the gene sequences; cross-reference.

Huh. Only one: Kai. I wonder if that's just coincidence, or if the Chimp drew too many conclusions from our torrid little fuckfest back in the Cyg Rift. Doesn't matter. He's as much yours as mine, Kai, time to step up to the plate, time to—

Oh shit. Oh no.

Please no.

Three builds back, it says. Kai and Connie. Both of them. One airlock jammed, the next too far away along Eri's hull, a hail-Mary emergency crawl between. They made it back inside but not before the blue-shifted background cooked them in their suits. They kept breathing for hours afterwards, talked and moved and cried as if they were still alive, while their insides broke down and bled out.

There were two others awake that shift. Two others left to clean up the mess. Ishmael, and—

"Um, you said—" he begins.

"You fucker!" I shoot from my chair as if springloaded, hit my son hard in the face, ten seconds' heartbreak with ten thousand years' denial raging behind it. I feel teeth give way behind his lips. He goes over backwards, eyes wide as telescopes, the blood already blooming on his mouth.

"You said I could come back—!" he squeals, scrambling backwards along the deck.

"He was your fucking father! You knew, you were there! He died right in front of you and you didn't even tell me!"

"I— I—"

"Why didn't you tell me, you asshole? The Chimp told you to lie, is that it? Did you—"

"I thought you knew!" he cries, "Why wouldn't you know?"

My rage vanishes like air through a breach. I sag back into my hammock, face in hands.

"It was right there in the log," he whimpers. "All along. Nobody hid it. How could you not know?"

"I did," I admit dully. "Or I— I mean…"

I mean I didn't know, but it's not a surprise, not really, not down deep. You just— stop looking, after a while. We see each other so rarely— ten, twenty times in the life of a sun— that you almost forget the difference between misplacing someone for a million years and losing them forever. I might have gone the rest of my life happily thinking that Kai was still alive, that we just kept— missing each other on the duty roster. You know the odds, you know the risks, and after a while it's just so much easier to not bother with the manifest. So you haven't seen her for the past five builds. So he hasn't drawn your shift since Sagittarius. They're probably just sleeping. Maybe next time.

I raise my eyes. Dix regards me wide-eyed from across the room, backed up against the wall, too scared to risk bolting past me to the door. "What are you doing here?" I asked tiredly.

His voice catches. He has to try twice: "You said I could come back. If I burned out my link…"

"You burned out your link."

He gulps and nods. He wipes at the blood with the back of his hand.

"What did the chimp say about that?"

"He said— it said it was okay," Dix says, in such a transparent attempt to suck up that I am certain, in that instant, that my son is most certainly on his own.

"So you asked its permission." He begins to nod, but I can see my own tell in his face: "Don't bullshit me, Dix."

"He— he actually suggested it."

"I see."

"So we could talk," Dix adds.

"What do you want to talk about?"

He looks at the floor and shrugs.

I stand up and walk towards him. He tenses but I shake my head and spread my hands. "It's okay. I'm not angry any more." I lean my back against the wall and slide down until I'm beside him on the deck.

We just sit there for a while.

"They say there's no such thing as altruism, you know?" I say at last.

His eyes blank for an instant, and grow panicky, and I know that he's just tried to ping his link for a definition and come up blank. So we are alone. "Altruism," I explain. "Unselfishness. Doing something that costs you but helps someone else." He seems to get it. "They say every selfless act ultimately comes down to manipulation or kin-selection or reciprocity or something, but they're wrong. I could—"

I close my eyes. This is harder than I expected.

"I could have been happy just knowing that Kai was okay, that Connie was happy. Even if it didn't benefit me one whit, even if there was no chance I'd ever see either of them again. Just the knowledge that they were okay, somewhere— that would make me happy.

"Even the fantasy would."

"So… so you don't check," Dix says slowly. Blood bubbles on his lower lip; he doesn't seem to notice.

"I don't check." Only I did, and now they're gone. They're both gone. Except for those little cannibalized nucleotides the Chimp recycled into this defective and maladapted son of mine.

All those people in cold storage — three hundred? Four? I've met maybe half of them. Befriended a mere handful. I may never meet all the rest. Maybe no one will. How many of us will sleep out our whole lives all the way to heat death, just because our numbers never come up?

All those people and none of them have our genes, not any more. Just Dix and me. We are the only warmblooded creatures for a thousand lightyears in any direction, and I am so very lonely.

"I'm sorry," I whisper, and lean forward, and lick the blood from his bruised and bloody lips.



Blogger razorsmile said...

Interesting. I will ask no more questions (the spice, after all, must flow) but it nonetheless comes as a surprise to me that they lack the medical facilities to handle radiation damage.

Also, in space, no one can hear you squick.

June 5, 2008 10:47 PM  
Blogger AR said...

"I'm sorry," I whisper, and lean forward, and lick the blood from his bruised and bloody lips.


June 6, 2008 4:00 PM  
Blogger Nimish said...

Hrmm.... getting somewhat literary in here....

June 7, 2008 9:36 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

"Squick?" "ಠ_ಠ"? "Literary"? Have you guys forgotten who's writing this stuff?

Jeez. Give 'em a few paragraphs of flighty prose and they think you've turned into Ray Bradbury...

June 9, 2008 11:24 AM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

BTW, Razor... my understanding is that as you edge up to relativistic speeds, simple blueshifting of cosmic background radiation is enough to melt anything known to man. Don't know how fast you'd have to be going for that to happen — 1g acceleration for a year or two is what I heard — but I figured mere lethality would be amped up way short of that point.

Haven't run any numbers yet. This is what you call an early draft.

June 9, 2008 11:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like. You may also have hit on a strategy to be more prolific as a writer. Limit most of the text to short dialogue and you can crank out a 400 page novel in weeks. Then get the publisher to print it on heavy stock paper and you have a thick hardcover than can be read in an afternoon.

It works for Robert B. Parker (the Spencer novels). His books are my only guilty pleasure.

June 9, 2008 2:03 PM  
Blogger Nicholas said...

PW is correct on the relativistic thing. Blue-shifting turns soft background radio waves into roaring gamma radiation. It's like this: walking through a field of corn is irritating--all that corn in your face, but what about being dragged through it behind a 747? It'd hurt a lot more at 700 miles an hour. It's the same principle, all that nice background hiss dopplers up on itself and becomes a lot meaner.

I bet you can figure it out by calculating how fast you'd need to go to compress the average background radiation (160GHz or something like that) into a more dangerous frequency.

June 11, 2008 12:34 PM  
Blogger Strannik said...

Rifters in spaaaccceee!!!!!

Sorry, couldn't resist.

June 11, 2008 3:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting thought, if background rad can be blue shifted, what happens to the already bothersome energetic stuff like cosmic rays and those annoying electrons, protons, and occasional helium ion ???

June 12, 2008 8:12 AM  
Blogger Nicholas said...

All those high energy cosmic rays, subatomic and atomic particles start to hurt a helluva lot more too. Indeed, you'd need an enormous ship to stop that sort of thing from tearing you up inside.

June 12, 2008 10:53 AM  

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