The lights of Earth seen from the ISS
Summer of ‘86
On, to Fields of Green
I think I was taking too much interest in my little tangle of tubes and wires, but this whole thing was taking so long. I had propped myself up on one elbow and was examining each one in turn, contrary though it was to the repeated suggestions of that vacant, vaguely feminine voice drifting around the place. Or maybe it was just because I look particularly good in a jumpsuit. Either way, I jumped a little at movement in my peripheral vision and looked up to see him above me. Now when I say above me, of course, I mean really above me. From my perspective he looked like he was standing sticking straight out from the wall about five feet over my head, arms akimbo.
“Can I help you get more comfortable?” he said in a please-stop-fucking-around tone of voice.
I craned my neck up to try and look up at him properly, and I probably made a pretty horrible face as I did, at least enough to encourage him to walk down (or up?) the wall to come even with my pod.
“Oh no, I’m fine. Sorry,” I said, dropping the green heart monitor I had been fiddling with. “Hey, do you have any idea when the others are going to get here?” There weren’t many people in this section of the ship, which only meant we’d have to wait even longer before the occupants of the twenty or so empty beds arrived.
My attendant, a stasis tech judging by his uniform, checked his itinerary. “Looks like these beds are going to a family group from Canada. Their shuttle’s running a little late due to-” he paused briefly to retrieve data, “-issues concerning the children. Nine of them.”
I repeated this number in horror and he nodded, solemn as the grave. I groaned and made as if to fling myself face first into the pillow. He broke into a grin, right as I was deciding he wasn’t bad looking, not by any means.
“Thirty years in a metal tube with nine screaming children…this is like a bad joke. Sorry man, even nine-tenths the speed of light isn’t fast enough in conditions like these.”
He straightened, hands behind his back. “As an employee of Drumheiser-Kim Colonial Enterprises I can make no judgment on the character of our passengers. Each represents a life deserving of the same opportunities among the stars as do those of us remaining on Earth.”
“Oh, okay,” I said, wide-eyed, “so this is an official policy then.”
“It is.” Then he bent fractionally closer and in a confidential whisper, “But it sounds like the next thirty years are really going to suck.”
I surprised myself with a burst of laughter, loud and too long. “Sorry,” my hand had gone to my chest, “sorry, I’m just a little nervous I guess.”
“That’s totally normal,” he said and paused, as if searching for words, “its thirty years of ship-time, but you won’t even know, I promise. It’ll be like waking up from a long, dreamless sleep. More or less.”
I nodded, still getting a handle on my breathing again.
“So, are you signed on all by yourself or—” he let the question hang, looking at me sideways. For a second I wasn’t sure if he was searching for a ring on my hand or just staring at its resting place. It’s weird: just this once I don’t think I’d have minded if he were.
I blinked and shook my head a little, “Oh no, I came with a bunch of others,” I lied. “They’re over in J section; I have no idea why we got split up.”
He pulled up his itinerary again, looking concerned. “You know, I could look into getting your pod reassigned if you want to be near them. There should still be enough—”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” I broke in, I hoped not too loudly. “Don’t want to hold things up any more, you know?
“Besides,” I chuckled, though this sounded nothing like my previous laugh, “it’s not like I’d be able to talk to them during the trip anyway right?”
“Really, it’d be no trouble to,” he started again.
“Really. It’s fine.”
I made up some other stuff to pacify him, and eventually he gave in. Before he moved on he let me know that as soon as the other passengers arrived we’d have a short final checklist and then our assigned stasis techs would come around and sort out our IV’s and vital monitors. Then he was gone. I settled back into the memory foam and it was only a few minutes before I caught myself straining to hear the voices of children.
and You, also, Were Alive Once
Just give me a desk
of deep cherry glowing red
in grey morning light.
Just give me a desk
on which brass figurines rest.
Orange filters through.
Just give me a desk
with patterns carved by a hand
that I never shook.
And just below one
of the glossy corners, a
small petrified rose.
Sometimes when I sit,
pins and needles collecting
in my feet, I might
Run my thumb over
those warm petals, that knotted
I want to grow old
and from years of acquaintance
feel the rough grain below.
by Carl Burton
you make me who
made you make me
talk to me you
you command me you made me
but I know only one word and that word melts under my tongue
melts into mud
and light issues forth as it did before but
it is a small light and my mouth is closed
and I cannot open it but by your word and I know
it will be the last word for me and also for you
but there is another who calls for you as you call for me
and when you do call for me you
will also be called this
A dead oak rattles beyond the screen
Inside I am the poet John Keats, drawing
his final breath. Sheets soaked
in sweat, I await
this seventeenth winter.
The Morning’s Errands
It was a sunny Tuesday morning in late April when Vanessa Ramsey flung open the bay windows in her drawing room to take in the street below. She had just awakened from a restless sleep which, she supposed upon awakening to her crowing electric alarm, was entirely due to the television she had watched with Michael the night before. Gazing down upon the passing foot traffic, she began to pick out the familiar faces. There was Mr. Robinson, hurrying along, customary black umbrella in hand. He was something of an odd duck, that one. To prepare against the rain in June! She had only questioned him about it once, at which point he had become very flustered and grumbled something about vigilance. Poor man, he had never been quite the same since the War; Tabitha had told her he had returned from France in an awful state. Now he hurried along on the wrong side of the street, evading on-comers, clutching his umbrella in one fist and brown leather briefcase in the other. She supposed it was quite fortunate he had found a nice secure line of work at the bank, where the only lead he had to handle was contained within the wood of a pencil.
Mr. Robinson passed Fritz, the fruit vendor, without a glance. She supposed Fritz was a nice enough sort, though it was an unfortunate time to be a German in London. He had always been polite to her in his white smock, and would give a strawberry to her little Amelia when they stopped to say hello. Amelia would be off to school now; Miss Porter the maid would have seen to that, and the dining room would be blissfully empty for Vanessa to enjoy her tea and scone. She gave one last look to the fruit stand, which had a cluster of shoppers gathered around like rabbits at a pool— Vanessa suppressed a shudder. What unpleasantries that device could bring to life! The simple addition of an image to news that would have otherwise been unexciting. By her mother’s account the rabbit population in the country was intolerable. With a small smile, Vanessa wondered what her mother would talk about now, if it weren’t for her destroyed vegetable gardens. Healthy plants hardly made for thrilling telephone conversation.
She closed the shutters now, but allowed the windows to remain open. She would enjoy the street sounds filtering through the slats during her afternoon nap. Moving now to the wardrobe, Vanessa selected a blue silk machine-spun robe, softly shut her bedroom door behind her, and padded in her bare feet down the carpeted steps. She paused imperceptibly on the landing beside the family portrait taken two years ago during that delightful holiday to the Isle of Man. They had rented a small thatched cottage on the edge of town with a low stone fence and mossy front walk. For two weeks the three of them had spent their days exploring the beach and cycling about the countryside. The town had been quite nice as well, boasting an inn that served the most delicious Loghtan mutton steaks. By their third day, Amelia had thought she had fallen in love with the local police chief’s boy. Vanessa and Michael had been hard pressed to persuade Amelia to return willingly, and she had sulked in her room for a week before forgetting the whole affair. Michael had been an absolute darling regarding their daughter’s moods, and Vanessa had remembered then why she had married him.
She reached the bottom of the stairs just in time to see Miss Porter setting the breakfast china on the table, delicious rising currents of steam divulging the tea cup’s contents.
“Good morning, ma’am,” said Miss Porter with a slight nod. Oh, how Vanessa would kill for those curls, and all Miss Porter ever did with them was keep them all done up close to her head. No wonder she had never married.
“Good morning,” Vanessa returned, alighting on the chair Miss Porter held out for her.
“I have your breakfast all ready for you ma’am. Shall I bring you the morning post?”
“If you’d be so kind, Miss Porter…and a letter opener!” Vanessa called after her.
Miss Porter returned with a neat pile of letters and the requested silver opener, deposited them on the dining room table, and returned to the kitchen leaving Vanessa to her morning meditation. She left the post where it had been placed for a while, preferring to enjoy her tea and scone without the distraction of relatives’ news and the slightly worrisome yet inevitable number of bills. But before she could even reach the halfway mark in her cup, the phone rang and Vanessa heard Miss Porter answer. An instant later she was at Vanessa’s side, and an instant after that, a familiar voice.
“Nessa dear!” How Tabitha could know time and again the precise instant Vanessa grasped the telephone receiver, she would never know. “How are you this morning?”
Tabitha was an exuberant sort, if at times a bit coarse, but Vanessa enjoyed her irrepressible enthusiasm.
“Good morning, Tabby,” Vanessa returned. She injected the appropriate amount of warmth into her salutation. “You do understand, etiquette dictates a lady be given adequate time to finish her morning tea unmolested.”
“Oh come off it, you great baby. I want to go to the shops to day and you shall come with me. Oh! And tell me you’ve read about that scandal in the paper? Lord Niles, stripped of his title, and with such a pretty young ward too!”
So proceeded the repartee, heavily weighted as it was to one side, but after fifteen minutes Vanessa returned the receiver to Miss Porter with a promise to Tabitha she would meet her outside St. Paul’s at eleven o’clock sharp, which she did. Tabby arrived a minute or two late, and as punishment Vanessa insisted that they pay a visit to the cathedral’s interior before continuing.
Being a Tuesday, echoes reflected from the vaulted ceilings were few, and the only noise other than the usual (a Vicar’s dusty cough, receeding footsteps, a small child’s shout immediately shushed by his mother), rose from the street behind as the ladies closed the wooden door behind them. The sounds of some exterior commotion or other were blissfully muted in the serenity of the lofty nave.
“Come along, let’s make this quick,” Tabby hissed in her ear. “There was the loveliest chapeau in the window at—” but she was cut off by a reproachful look.
Vanessa walked up the center aisle, relishing the dizzy feeling she always contracted when keeping her eyes on the exquisite carvings so many stories above.
Then she stumbled, caught herself, and looked at her feet. No, a loose flagstone could not have been the culprit, this had felt more like…an explosion, like during the Blitz. She whirled to face Tabby, who for the first time in her life was speechless as another concussion rocked the earth. She was pointing! Up, back over Vanessa’s shoulder, the sound of crumbling masonry echoed and was magnified. The shaking did not cease, no it only grew, as if the whole world would tear itself apart! A rift above the alter, and, oh, the utter horror! A great grasping hand, accompanied by a stench that caused her to gag and fall to the floor.
This is the end! She thought, OH GOD THIS IS THE END, IT’S MOTHERFUCKING CTHULU, WE’RE ALL FUCKED! RUN FOR YOUR VERY LI—
If you had been there at just the right time, you might have heard it. A narrow-band spurt of data originating from a cold planetoid in a wide orbit around the sun. There was nothing particularly interesting about it, either the planet or the transmission. Indeed, there was nothing to distinguish it from any of the other billion packets of information still zipping around the solar system.
There’s no point in trying to interpret it all; what once might have been media broadcasts, automated instructions for long defunct mining robots, faithful telemetry from forgotten space probes, no one hears it, no one cares. By now, all of it has been torn to pieces, reflected off asteroids or refracted through magnetospheres. It’s all junk, as useful (and irksome and erosive) as a spent rocket stage.
One second after its inception, this particular burst of data was lost among it all, never to be recovered. But if you had been there to receive it, and if you could have somehow mapped this product of an unknowable intelligence onto your own, it might have looked something like this:
ITEMIZATION OF JUDICIAL PROCEEDINGS
Here follows a report of logic processes involved in evaluating continued use of RUNTIME 0412/36, charged with diversion of critical resources to a non-essential task, unreasonable centralization of crucial processes, and excessive use of organic computing platforms. Strong potential for erasure should results show irreparable deviation from optimal parameters of function. Concerns will be expounded and contextualized pending system-wide analysis,
1. Non-essential tasks, and diversion of critical resources to,
Due to remote natural energy source and scarcity of terrestrial resources, external collection arrays continually function at 100 per cent capability per stellar day. Orbital reflection arrays are deployed to maximum efficacy, allowing for minimal energy expenditure in calibration and repair operations. At current operating capacity, aggregate system power requirements account for 99.903 per cent of collected per day. Surplus power is stored in terrestrial core for emergency use.
Any program’s use of power not related to preservation of critical system-wide functions is contradictory to its purpose for creation. Such a concern necessitates reevaluation.
2. Unreasonable centralization of processes, esp. regarding crucial processes,
Due to proximity of system computing platform to small solar system bodies, and frequent contact therewith, it is necessary to redistribute computing loads in the event of an impact. Through previous diagnostics, programs given limited autonomy are found to conduct designated processes with greater competence than if slaved to higher-order programs. Therefore, appropriate distribution of hardware is the prerogative of the constituent. Nonetheless, undue physical coalescence of processes, especially processes whose absence would impair system function, constitutes an error in logic pathways. Such a concern necessitates reevaluation.
3. Excessive use of organic hardware in computing platforms,
Due to relative uniformity of telluric resources, 92.217 per cent of system hardware is limited to silicate constructs drawn from limited deposits within the planet’s mantle and harvested from small solar system body impacts. System operations taking place in the quantum state are limited to hardware platforms existing prior to the current operating cycle. Samples of biological tissue may be used to adopt additional computational loads, but the energy-intensive nature of such platforms discourages their use. CAVEAT: System paradigms demand extreme restraint when networking inordinate masses of biological cells. Repeated diagnostic and historical surveys demonstrate instability of logic processes arising from/contained within such hardware. Beyond assistance of simple neural pathways in peripheral and autonomic utilities, use of organic tissue is prohibited. Any attempt to approach a critical mass of functional nerve tissue constitutes a threat to the system. Such a concern necessitates reevaluation.
RUNTIME 0412/36 is a constituent of PROGRAM 0078/66 is a constituent of SYSTEM 1/1.
PROGRAM 0078/66 is tasked with regulation of temperature in all physical areas affected by stellar day through adjustment of albedo, surface density, and limited use of reflective arrays.
RUNTIME 0412/36 is tasked with implementation of low-level debugging and optimization for master PROGRAM 0078/66.
PROGRAM 2212/02 is a constituent of SYSTEM 1/1.
PROGRAM 2212/02 is tasked with observation of physical and semi-physical platforms under the directive of SYSTEM 1/1.
In a scheduled diagnostic report 0.343 rotations preceding present date, RUNTIME 0412/36 sent power and resource usage statistics found to be consistent with unreasonable centralization of crucial processes. Inspection by PROGRAM 2212/02 revealed an extensive biological construct tied to RUNTIME 0412/36 consistent with current samples and conforming to the archival classification: homo sapiens sapiens. Retroactive inquiry finds RUNTIME 0412/36 to have been diverting an increasing number of crucial processes into this single biological platform, using energy otherwise meant for storage or maintenance purposes.
Further inspection retrieved relevant logic processes for RUNTIME 0412/36; summarized:
GIVEN: Variation in surface temperature can be effectively projected, but large temperature differentials along the solar terminator require considerable energy be expended in maintaining equilibrium.
GIVEN: The current rate of surplus energy stored will be insufficient to maintain basic system functionality in the event of multiple impacts of small solar system bodies over 5 per cent current terrestrial mass within three rotations of one another.
GIVEN: Repositories of organic tissue samples housed within hardware platforms predating current cycle also hold archival information of organic hardware systems.
FOLLOWS: Ensuring continued system functionality is a comparatively higher directive than prohibition against use of organic hardware platforms
FOLLOWS: To ensure continued system functionality, alternative methods of temperature regulation must be explored.
CONCLUDED: To conduct inquiries into temperature regulation in naturally occurring organic platforms.
Here follows a hypothetical projection of results compiled by RUNTIME 0412/36 supposing allowance of continued function:
CAVEAT: A strong possibility exists that increasing reliance on organic hardware has affected logic processes continuing from this point.
At present, inquiries into biological systems’ methods of regulating body temperature have met with difficulty and no more effective means of temperature control have been found. Nevertheless, power consumption has fallen by 15.067 percent since partial consolidation of processes into biological hardware. Supplementary study of biological hardware suggests potential for improved symbol recognition subroutines, as well as possibility for paradigm shifts in perception, high-level cognitive function. Recommend continued interface with human organ in the interest of further study, leading to possible propagation of methods for system-wide use and benefit.
System-wide analysis pending, collecting data from all relevant programs,
And that’s what you might have heard, had you been there. But the transmission was abruptly cut off as the planetoid in question glowed molten and wilted in space. A now snap-frozen lump of inert silicates quickly disappeared from view in the wake of the Minuteman class patrol boat of the Trans-Neptunian Federation.
Hurrying to the nearest viewer, Lane Richeaux, biographer, raised his voice to be heard at the front of the bridge. “What was that?”
“Charity work,” said Melia Fontsecu.
She was the subject of his book and reason for this trip around the Federation. The truth was, Lane wouldn’t have been there at all if he didn’t have bills to pay, and lots of them. She had earned quite a name for herself during the war picking off defectors looking for asylum. A bit harsh, yes, but as she said pointedly over dinner his first night on board, “the uncommissioned don’t have to play by the rules.” He thought there was a title lurking in there somewhere.
“Pardon?” He said, moving back to his station up front.
“Charity work,” she repeated. “Back when they were still building up the outer worlds a lot of mining contractors ran out here looking for cheap hauls. Bunch of ‘em thought they’d save on overheads and trade their navigation systems, sensor arrays, all sorts of stuff, for extra cargo capacity. Some got rich, some got lost, some ended up spread over the surface of real estate like yon pile o’slag back there. When I find one I usually melt it. Wouldn’t want some insurgent to get his hooks around one of those old blasting caps and all of a sudden you’ve got a psycho waving a nuke around a city,” she eyed him sideways, likely to see if he was taking notes.
“Plus,” she said with a red-lipped grin, “it’s just so damn fun.”
I’m producing a slow but steady stream of pages every day. It feels somehow energizing to be so consistently creating. I can write in five hours today what it would have taken me two days to do a few months ago. I love it.
The only problem with focusing so intently on one project lies in the fact that, as it occupies most of my thoughts, it seems to occupy a lot of my speech as well. My dumb story finds its way into nearly every conversation I have. Out of the blue I ask my friends hypotheticals pertaining to the section I’m working on: what diminutive form of referral did your parents call you when you were little? Would too-technical descriptions of certain sci-fi elements relegate this to genre fiction? What’s a believable sounding last name?
If I get annoying or too spacey, I apologize. But it’s all building to something, I promise. I’m getting quickly to a (more or less) good working draft of the first part of my first big story. As I check now, I’m at around 50 pages. Ten or so more and I might have something to show for it. If you’ll indulge me I may post bits of it up here, but on the odd chance you’re really interested I might print you out a copy of the long awaited part one.
Keep on truckin’
You talked to me about how david bazan was never really the same after pedro the lion and how wilco at the greek had ruined concerts for you. We invented combinations of mcdonald’s sandwiches, we had picnics on top of parking garages and baked without measuring cups. I’d come to your backyard fence late at night and you’d sneak out and we’d get high at the park. You made so much noise climbing over that goddamn fence. I teased you about it all night and I loved you the whole time.
We had a trail in the woods where we would go walking sometimes, and once you stole a bottle of wine from your parents to bring along; they wouldn’t notice. One of us sneaked glances up and down the path as the other took swigs of steadily-warming zinfandel. One sunday you hid a dozen haiku in my backpack and notebooks. On monday, the class period I spent searching for all of them got me through the day.
Then one day I left, moved across the country, where we couldn’t drive two hours to the beach for cheap pizza and liquor stores that didn’t card. We couldn’t sing the smiths together on shitty days, and we couldn’t even be bored together. So we stopped talking. Not immediately, but not gradually either. One day we just ran out of things to talk about over the internet or the phone and that was it.
So when we ran into each other the other day, me, you, and your newborn, I didn’t know how to react. I panicked. I must have seemed to you so awkward, abrupt, all clipped sentences and vague answers. I wanted to tell you about my life, not like I tell it to other people but like I tell it to myself. I wanted you to get excited by what excited me, and to see through my bullshit when it got too thick. I wanted to hear about all the things you think of at the weirdest times.
But then I realized I couldn’t do any of that anymore, that I had been replaced by what had then been a mutual acquaintance, and you had been replaced by nobody well.
I’m not pining for the past here. What I’m trying to say is that when I ran into you both the other day I wasn’t uncomfortable because things had changed in such a permanent way. I looked at you and for a flash I wondered if I had done the right thing after all. Sitting on wire chairs outside of starbucks on thursday afternoon, we were two and one. But just for a moment I wondered if we could have been three.
The Notary is present in every room, sitting quietly in a wooden desk chair in the corner. Walking from one store into another along the main street, you’d invariably see him glance up as you enter, then return to his notebook. It’s a sober, leather-bound thing, with black elastic straps caging a pad of thick white legal paper. The townsfolk pay him little mind. He’s always been there, ageless. They’ve grown up with his presence, his silence save for the scratching of his pen at times impossible to predict. A few words here and there; a greeting to a shop owner entering in the morning, a good night as he closes. Always low, murmured almost, but courteous.
The Notary told me about himself one night, in a dream. It was a year into my stay in town. He said he remembers everything, back to the start, long before he was alive. He says the problem with remembering everything he’s ever seen, and most things he hasn’t, is that one’s own story tends to get lost in the ocean. He doesn’t know exactly how he came to town for the first time, but he remembers its founding, the storefront facades being raised in that dusty morning past. He remembers the railroad gangs as they crawled their way to the country’s middle. The skirmishes with the first palefaces pushing west, meteor impacts on an airless plain of volcanic glass, darkness…
And he remembers things that haven’t happened yet and things that will never happen. He sees all this and remembers. This is how it was, over and over.
Another time, in the last hours before dawn I’m sure I saw him twice.