Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Spoiler Alert

Seriously, people; there are a couple of major reveals in this bit. You really don't want to read it if you're averse to spoilers about Dumbspeech.

Really, you don't want to be here. This is for Colbert Platinum members only.

Fine, then.

You'll pick many a bean...

Good News for Modern Man:

Sometimes the voices argued amongst themselves, included him as an afterthought if at all. They told him he was becoming schizophrenic— that they were nothing but his own thoughts, drifting at loose ends through a mind that had lost its bearings. Jim Moore wouldn't shut up about coherent self-models and switches in the head. Brooks thought his friend may have been right, but he couldn't remember whether those switches had been installed by the Bicamerals, or the vampires, or something else entirely.

Sometimes the voices were almost fearful. They'd whisper about something skulking in the basement, something brought back from the sun that stomped on the floor and made things move upstairs. Sometimes, if Brooks kept very still, he could almost hear it snuffling beneath the floorboards. He could see the basement door bulge just a little, with the weight of something on the other side.

It had a name, although he couldn't remember how he'd learned it: Rorschach.

He fought back. He lay awake at night and tried to silence the voices, force them back into sheaths of silent thought. He clenched his teeth and strained, through sheer effort of conscious will, to undo the renovations in his midbrain. Rorschach came to him in his dreams. You'll never win, it said. Better men than you have tried. The Bicamerals tried. Jim Moore tried. Everyone who tried to kill you was really after me; where are they now?

"Valerie," Brooks croaked, but Rorschach only laughed. She was on my side.

It was such an uphill struggle. The light behind the eyes has never had the upper hand; I was never more than the scratch pad for a moments' necessary reminders. Brooks may not have heard these voices before but they'd always been there, hidden away, doing the heavy lifting and sending their status reports upstairs to a silly little man who took all the credit.

Now the voices realized they didn't need that little man any more. He was only holding them back. When he was gone the brakes would come off; what followed would be the radical embrace of true transcendence. Evolution would bootstrap into the Lamarckian age, and everything would change in an instant.

He no longer sought his answers among the ruins. He looked for them across the whole wide desert. His very senses were coming apart; each sunrise seemed paler than the last, every breeze against his skin somehow more distant than the one before. He cut himself. The blood spilled out like water. He deliberately broke his little finger and felt not pain but faint music. The voices wouldn't leave him alone; they told him what to eat and he put rocks in his mouth, because he could no longer tell bread from stone. They tempted him with promises of reconciliation, with the resurrection of his woman from the bastard abomination of meat and machinery that had engulfed her.

One day Brooks found himself walking the edge of a cliff, high above the desert. The ruined monastery shimmered in the heat but he felt nothing. He seemed a million miles away, as though watching the world unfold through distant cameras. You have to crank the amplitude, the voices said. It's the only way you'll feel anything. You have to increase the gain.

But Brooks was on to them. He wasn't the first to be tempted in the desert; he knew how that story went. He was supposed to defy the voices. Do not test the Lord thy God, he was supposed to say, then step back from the precipice and into history. It was right there in the script.

But he was not an automaton. Not yet. He was still Daniel Brooks, and he was slaved to no one's stage directions. He would make his own fucking destiny.

He threw himself into space. He flew.

He felt.


Saturday, August 2, 2008

Loving the Alien

We sleep. The chimp makes grudging corrections to a myriad small trajectories. I set the alarm to wake me every few weeks, burn a little more of my candle in case the AI tries to pull another fast one; but for now, it seems to be behaving itself. 428 jumps towards us in the stop-motion increments of a life's moments, strung like beads along an infinite string. The factory floor slews to starboard in our sights: refineries, reservoirs, and nanofab plants, swarms of von Neumans breeding and cannibalising and recycling each other into shielding and circuitry, tugboats and spare parts. The very finest Cro Magnon technology mutates and metastasises across the universe like armor-plated cancer.

And hanging like a curtain between it and us shimmers an iridescent life form, fragile and immortal and unthinkably alien, that reduces everything my species ever accomplished to mud and shit by the simple transcendent fact of mere existence. I have never believed in gods, never believed in universal good or absolute evil. I have only ever believed that there is what works, and what doesn't. All the rest is smoke and mirrors, trickery to manipulate grunts like me.

But I believe in The Island, because I don't have to. It does not need to be taken on faith: it looms ahead of us, its existence an empirical fact. I will never know its mind, I will never know the details of its origin and evolution. But I can see it: massive, mindboggling, so utterly inHuman that it can't help but be better than us, better than anything we ever could have become.

I believe in The Island. I gambled my own son to save its life. I would have killed him to avenge its death.

I may yet.

In all these millions of wasted years, I have finally done something worthwhile.


Friday, June 20, 2008

From the Air

We are the cavemen. We are the Ancients, the Progenitors, the blue-collared steel monkeys; a thousand interstellar expressways in a thousand derivative works of historical fiction rose by our hands. We're the plot devices to let careless storytellers off the hook. We spin webs across the galaxy and conveniently disappear, millions of years before the real heroes arrive on stage. Oh, I've read the books; I've played the sims; I've watched the wraparounds. I've had plenty of time. I smile at every offhand digression, every throwaway line from bit players wondering what happened to us, where we went, what great filter might have driven us to extinction.

But we're not extinct. We're still out here laying the roads, crawling across the universe like ants, dragging your goddamned superhighway behind us. Don't excuse yourselves with legends of our fall. Don't justify your freeloading by pretending that we just went away, leaving all this miraculous infrastructure for you to play with. If you don't see us, it's because you don't dare look in the empty spaces. If you've forgotten who we are, it's because even now, in all your transcendent post-Human splendour, you're still too frightened to dip your toes into the void where we spend our lives. You're so used to stepping from A to B that you've forgotten the endless, infinite points between. Someone had to blaze the trail across that desert; and we got no help from magic carpets.

You will never catch up. You will always live in our slow, creaking, endless wake. You cannot go anywhere we have not already been.

And if, now and then, you happen to frown at some faint memory— if you ever wonder what you'd see if you bent down and peered into that abyss between the stars— the moment never lasts. You catch yourselves, and laugh nervously, and stop yourselves from thinking such foolish thoughts. Because you know there's no need to wonder. You know exactly what you’d see looking back at you from that place.

You know.


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.


Sunday, June 1, 2008

Continuing Ed

I can almost remember mortality. I lived each day as it came, at the rate of one second per second— because really, what else was there to do?

I can almost imagine immortality: all of infinite entropy stretching out before you, more than worlds enough and time to scale any peak a mind might set for itself. What would it take, I wonder, to provoke such a being to haste? What need to hurry, with eternity to play in? What value could mere moments hold? Mere millennia?

Moments matter a great deal to me. Moments are all I have. Here on Eriophora we exist in some state between those others, one foot in the grave, the other on an event horizon. Tidal forces tear us straight up the middle. I have two or three hundred years to ration across the lifespan of a universe. I could bear witness to any point in time, or any hundred— any hundred-thousand if I slice my life thinly enough— but I am not immortal. I will never see everything. I will never see even a fraction.

I have to choose.

When you come to fully appreciate the deal you've made — ten or fifteen builds out, when the trade-off leaves the realm of mere knowledge and sinks deep as cancer into your bones— you become a miser. You can't help it. You ration out your waking moments to the barest minimum: just enough to keep the mission on track, to plan your latest countermove against the Chimp, just enough (if you haven't yet moved beyond the need for Human companionship) for sex and snuggles and a bit of warm mammalian comfort against the endless dark. And then you hurry back to your crypt, to hoard what's left of a human lifespan against the unwinding of the cosmos.

There's been plenty of time to educate myself in matters of biology. Time enough for a hundred postgraduate degrees, thanks to the best that aeons-old learning technology has to offer. I have never availed myself of those opportunities: they would burn down my tiny candle for a litany of mere fact, they would fritter away my precious, endless, finite life. The vistas of this universe surpass the most sublime religious rapture; mere book-learning would be a dry and dusty garnish to trade for the Cassiopeia Remnant.

Now, though. Now, I want to know. This thing crying out across the gulf, this creature massive as a moon, wide as a solar system, tenuous and fragile as an insect's wing: I'd gladly cash in some of my life to learn its secrets. How does it work? How can it even live in this wasteland of absolute zero, much less think? What godlike intellect must this thing possess to see us coming from half a lightyear away, to deduce the nature of our eyes and our instruments, to send us a signal that we can even detect, much less understand?

And what happens when we punch through it at a fifth the speed of light?


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Serpent's Tooth

You sent us out here. We do this for you. We break this painstaking trail, crawl across the universe while time itself runs down; we spin the webs and tie the knots and open the doors, then scuttle away before the light of your coming turns us into plasma.

Is it too much to ask, that you might talk to us now and then?

I know about evolution, and engineering. I know how much you've changed over a billion years. I've seen our portals give birth to gods and demons and creatures we can't begin to comprehend. I've seen things I still can't believe were ever human; alien hitchikers, perhaps, riding the rails we've left behind. Alien conquerers.

Exterminators too, if I'm not mistaken.

But I've also seen those gates stay dark and empty until they faded from our sight. We've infered diebacks and dark ages, civilizations burned to the ground and others risen from their ashes— and sometimes, the things that come out afterwards look a little like the ships we might have built, back in the day. They speak to each other— radio, laser, carrier neutrinos— and sometimes their voices sound something like ours. There was a time we dared to hope that they really were like us, that the circle had come round again and closed on beings we could talk to. I've lost count of the times we tried to break the ice.

I've lost count of the eons since we gave up.

A noninterference imperative, maybe? A nature preserve? Mustn't interfere, mustn't talk with the savages, mustn't contaminate their quaint cultural worldviews. What culture, you imperious assholes? We're stuck on a flying mountain, we're riding a black hole to the ends of the universe so that you can frolic in our wake like spoiled children. The mission kills us off one by one, and we make do, really: we mix-and-match our replacements from bits of leftover genes, try to keep the Chimp from indoctrinating new generations with its own simpleminded vision of mission priorities. We've given our fucking lives for you, given a thousand lives, each one sliced into a thousand brief bright moments and strung out along a billion years. All so that you can step between the stars in an instant.

All these iterations of humanity fading behind us. All these hybrids and posthumans and immortals, gods and catatonic cavemen trapped in magical chariots they can't begin to understand, and not one of them ever pointed a comm laser in our direction to say Hey, how's it going, or Guess what? We cured Damascus Disease! or even Thanks, guys, keep up the good work.

We're not some fucking cargo cult. We're the backbone of your goddamn empire. You wouldn't even be out here if it weren't for us.

And more than all of that, you— you're our children. Whatever you are, whatever you've become, you were once like this.

My sons. My daughters. Why have you forsaken me?


Monday, March 31, 2008

Madonna and Child.

This time I open my eyes to a familiar face I've never seen before: only a boy, early twenties perhaps, physiologically. His face is a little lopsided, the cheekbone flatter to the left than to right. His ears are too big. And while the eyes below his frown shine with their own bright intelligence, I know immediately that he is natural.

I haven't spoken for millennia. My voice comes out a whisper: "Who are you?" Not what I'm supposed to ask, I know. Not the first question anyone on Eriophora asks, after coming back.

"I'm yours," he says.

I want to let that sink in, but he doesn't give me the chance: "You're not scheduled for this shift, but the Chimp wanted extra hands on deck. We've got kind of a situation brewing on this next build."

"Situation?" It can't be good; the appearance of new crew can only mean the death of old.

"Maybe a contact scenario."

I wonder how many centuries ago he was born. I wonder if he ever wondered about me, before now.

He doesn't tell me. He only says, "There's a sun up ahead. Half a lightyear. It's — flickering. Chimp thinks maybe it's talking to us."

And Chimp's not smart enough to deal with it on his own. They built him that way.

"Anyhow..." My son shrugs. "It's not like there's any mad rush. You've got lots of time to catch up."

I nod, but he hesitates. He's waiting for The Question, but I already see a kind of answer in his face. Our reinforcements were supposed to be pristine, built from perfect genes buried deep within Eri's iron-basalt mantle, safe from the sleeting blueshift. And yet my son has flaws. I see the damage in his face, I see those tiny flipped base-pairs resonating up from the microscopic and bending him just a little off-kilter. He looks like he grew up on a planet. He looks borne of parents who spent their whole lives hammered by raw sunlight.

How far out must we be by now, if even our own perfect building blocks have decayed so? How long has it taken us to get here? How long have I been dead?

How long? It's the first thing everyone asks.

This one time, I don't want to know.


Friday, March 14, 2008

Coming in Perhaps a Bit Behind the Penguin Craze Curve...

The penguin chick bursts from the shell
His fetal bed has served him well
But now, the newborn child will rest
Within his windswept, treetop nest.

Oh penguin child, oh fledgling fair
Stay snuggled in your jungle lair
And when your mother comes to rest
You'll suckle at her feathered breast.

Heed not the snarl, fear not the roar
The beasties on the forest floor
You need not fear death's gnashing jaws
Or felines with extended claws

Sing out your cry! Spit out your note!
Like gobbets from the drunkard's throat!
Oh penguin, king-of-birds to be
Sing out from your acacia tree!

Your soaring, graceful penguin glide
Doth make me feel so good inside
So fly! And kingly bird, bestow
Your guano on us, far below.


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.


Thursday, January 31, 2008

Job Security

We can't go home again. I already said that, didn't I?

It's true enough, most of the time. They told us going in: you will be lost in time and space. You'll be past the point of no return long before your first gig even begins. You will wake up serving people centuries dead and lightyears distant, with no hope of backup or relief.

Expect nothing, they said. We don't know what we'll be in a thousand years, or a million. We might bomb ourselves back into the Stone Age a decade from now. We're like that. But don't lose hope: we're like this too, we reach for the stars, we can fall into savagery overnight but we'll have millennia to climb back up before you check in on us again. Maybe one time you'll build a gate and nothing will come through, but the time after that you'll release angels. You never know.

Isn't that the fun part, though? Finding out?

We can't really find out. We don't dare stop long enough to get a good look. Eriophora's huge after all, she is fucking massive, she carries the weight of mountains in her cold black heart. No, it's not optional: that speck of squashed matter is what's kept us falling all these millions of years. But try maneuvering with that kind of mass. Ery flies like an eagle over interstellar distances but she steers like a pig on the short haul. We're ballistic from the moment we wake up to the moment Ery puts us down. We dive through the needle's eye at a fifth of lightspeed. Our tame singularity jump-starts the very continuum, shocks eight megatonnes of space-bending machinery to life, and by the time the readings have settled we're already too far gone to do anything but squint aft and glean what we can from the red shift.

If you really wanted to, you could stay behind. Refit a shuttle with extra shielding, decelerate during construction, keep safely distant as Eriophora dives past on its way to heat death. Wait out those scorching, radioactive birth pangs, let the newborn wormhole settle in its collar. Then, in theory, you could go home. Whatever home has become by now. And if whatever's coming the other way lets you pass.

Someone even tried it, once. I think he and I may have been close. But it was his decision. The rest of us just kept going.

We're not stupid. We've caught ocassional glimpses of the things set free in our wake. Sometimes they're the furthest thing from friendly.