When we were in school, when I was a kid, the most boring part of history was -- for some reason -- the administration's idea of a good way to introduce us to the subject: the Pioneer Days.
Basically, it boiled down to this: pioneers lived in crappy conditions, being a pioneer sucked, and lots of pioneers died young either because they couldn't stand the sucking anymore or because their crappy houses fell apart and the planet claimed them.
Our teachers wanted us to be grateful for our lifestyles. We were always being told how pioneers didn't get to watch movies or play in depthies or screw around with dilly all day. They toiled. They grinned and bore it. They were doing their bit for Ares, tough and uncomplaining, securing the future for spoiled brats like me.
They said pioneers were great people, even the humble ones, but when you looked at the pictures in the course stream the pioneers always seemed miserable and broken. Their eyes had a hollow, vacant stare like people staying alive out of habit or fear more than gumption or glory.
I saw that look again, in the flesh, on Titan after the disaster.
Like the Aresian pioneers we lived in the rudest of circumstances. Anytime you wanted to go anywhere you had to open and close two dozen airlocks. We were constantly zipping and unzipping, cycling and waiting, watching the seals for signs of leakage and listening for the whistle of death. We shivered as we plodded down clear plastic tubes connecting the emergency domes, trying not to look at the cow-fart miasma of pressure and frigid suffocation swirling around outside.
We ate combat rations, which worked to redefine the concept of edibility. We each got two dry bricks a day and a bottle of stinky water, and that was it. We were ordered to pee into special reservoirs so our urine could be reclaimed, refiltered and rebottled. Nobody knew what the combat bricks were made of, and nobody asked.
I was always hungry. All my skin got loose and hangy. Some of my colleagues starting calling me "Droopy."
Of course, my colleagues were fewer than in the past as many of us assigned to Titan had been nuked. There was a corridor to nowhere where lots of people left paper flowers in memory of those who'd died. Nobody had the time or resources to grow real flowers, so they just made them out of old orders from the recycling bin. The petals had things written on them like "SUPPLY REQUEST FOR DOME 6" and "BY ORDER OF THE SURGEON-GENERAL ALL PERSONNEL MUST" or "EYES ONLY."
No one ever sat vigil there, because the radiation levels were too high. To get into that corridor you had to negotiate like four or five airlocks and then push through a series of lead curtains.
Before the disaster I walked that corridor every day when I got off the train. That was gone, too -- the World Train was smashed in the bombardment, the tracks twisted and melted. Nobody even knew where the trains themselves had ended up, or how long the people inside them had lived. The remaining stations were barricaded. Everybody walked everywhere, instead.
We were sick. Who wouldn't be sick? Everyone in the Solar System was sick -- sick to their souls at what had happened when the discharge point of our famous bomb made itself apparent.
So beautiful, so awful.
(I try not to think about it much.)
Almost everybody who wasn't dead went home. Those of us who remained on Titan did so as volunteers. We were the last bastion of active number engineers of any human world still allowed to work, and our mission was critical: contain the rock, stop the sequence, save our sorry souls.
The idiotic plastic robots who used to run our errands now watched over us, wearing the crimson armbands that declared their newly programmed fealty to the Regency. They were our shepherds. Their mission was to be sure we remained on course, within parameters, and fit for duty. No one had bothered to wipe those stupid, servile grins off their faces so they seemed happy about it, too. They were alone in that respect.
The closest we ever came to joy was the day they announced that the latest revision of the containment apparatus had been successfully deployed: the growth of the hole in the asteroid had been slowed to a snail's pace. We shook each other's hands and muttered, "Congratulations," or "Good work, mate."
The applied engineers turned their attention next to building the tow ship that would haul our deadly cargo deep down the well, so that we might lob it into our star in hopes that the forces inside would tear apart our errant programme.
Good plan, eh?
(The source and the start of all human life, now the world's largest rubbish disposal. Turn, turn, turn.)
"Honestly, Tim, I don't think this is the best decision you could make."
Those of us who further volunteered to crew the tow ship were subjected to a round of counseling for the purposes of determining our personal stability. The counsellor scratched at his stubble with dirty fingernails. "Welp," he said thoughtfully, "you're losing weight at an alarming rate, for one thing."
"I'd eat more if I could. My appetite's fine."
"Your test scores indicate depression."
"These are depressing times. Isn't depression a reasonable response?"
"We're looking at this in terms of maintaining a stable crew for the duration of the voyage, not your philosophical point of view."
"I'm not being philosophical. I never even took a philosophy course."
"Why do you feel so strongly about being on the crew?"
"It's my duty."
"You're a civilian."
"It's my moral duty."
"You're getting philosophical again."
"I guess I can't help it."
They put me on the crew anyway. They said I'd be the chef. They made me subscribe to a class on ration-based gastronomy. I got a B.
They night before our departure they gave us steaks and truffles and wine. We were invited to sign forms that exempted our closest blood kin from taxes for the rest of their natural lives. A sad band played lively music. So many people came to shake our hands that my palms turned grey.
The reason they were being so nice is because our trip would only be one way. The first leg of our journey would take us to Sol, the second leg to Kingdom Come.
There was just no way to build a ship in the time we had left that would be robust enough to be slung around the star. With only weeks to work, the craft they rigged was beyond minimal -- it was almost abstract. There would be no simulated gravity, no gardens, no lifeboats. We were to ride a missile of nearly naked girders and beams on a predetermined trajectory, ourselves the meat-based fallback should some critical system fail. We were drilled in various methods for jury-rigging the launch mechanism, so that -- come Hell or high water -- the bomb would meet its end.
Predictably, they called our ferry Phoenix. A bottle of champagne was smashed against her unpainted nose, the shards and globs careening away in crisscrossing freefall splendour.
We trained in a team of six, but inside Phoenix were seven seats.
"Jeremiah! You're coming along?"
The Zorannic robot nodded, his polished crimson-armour flashing. "Yes sir."
"But you'll die."
He inclined his head slightly. "To each his fate a strange attractor pulls, as wily as sure."
...Which, really, is just another way of saying life can be surprising, even for people made of math.
Anyway, that was months ago. Jeremiah and I are pals now, pretty much. We spend a lot of time on the observation deck, shooting the breeze and chewing the fat. Every day I almost open my mouth to tell him the truth, but every day I fail. He watches me closely. He sees me stall, but does not prompt.
(Oprah said confession is good for the soul. But how can I confess to this? Isn't it enough that I die?)
There were only about twenty thousand people living at Neptune when it happened, and almost all of them were on Triton. You can say "only" when you're talking about twenty thousand people because you're comparing it to the populations of Callisto or Ganymede or Rhea, or Ares itself with its teeming millions.
The funny thing is that "only" has to be dropped when it's twenty thousand dead. You can't say "only twenty thousand dead" because its colder than cold. You can't qualify that number. You just have to say, "Twenty thousand dead," and try not to flinch while you say it.
(Technically, of course, "twenty thousand" isn't quite accurate. Only eighteen thousand two hundred and forty one people died at Neptune. A couple of thousand managed to escape in ships of every description, and nearly half of those desperate few were rescued by armada ships before they starved, asphyxiated or froze.)
If you're not a planet-hopper or an astronographer you might not know it, but Neptune spins very, very fast. This is why the carcass of the gas giant spread so far. This is why, once mutilated, Neptune so rapidly lost its sphere and became a series of ropey, twisted tendrils of liquid world spun out across space like a slow-motion depthy of an exploding water balloon.
The Big Boy, the final bomb, vented the hot fury of its immolation further afield than anyone could have calculated. The discharge point was just ten thousand kilometers from Neptune's core, deep under the surface of its speeding storms.
Over a period of less than seven days Neptune deformed and then came apart into a chaotic blue smear larger than a dozen worlds like Ares. It looked like an egg yolk dropped into an aquarium, a haunting kind of beauty in the wandering of its loosed tendrils and the looming swell of its diaphanous bubbles, mixing with the void, folding over itself, spinning in select pockets to form tiny gravity wells that would become the hearts of future moonlets.
(Turn, turn, turn.)
The brightest lights left on Titan told me that the debris would dissipate over years, a substantial quantity tumbling downwell to be caught up by Jupiter and Saturn. It is likely, she said, that their respective ring systems would shine and shade with greater density in the decades to come, darkened with wisps of Neptune's corpse.
Neptune had been spinning for five billion years, but is now unwound.
I am Vishnu.
"Why couldn't you stop it?" I asked Jeremiah one day. My voice cracked. "You're made of active number matrices -- you have the power of action at a distance. How could you do nothing?"
He considered this. "Think of what your brain is made of, sir. Does that make you an expert in protein folding?"
"But you can use the math. Can't you understand it?"
"Sir, I am not a built thing. Like you, I was grown."
I'm growing. I think I'm growing every day, even as I become thinner and looser, my skin floating around me like gills off the sides of my neck. There are things I understand now that were just notions to me before, just elements of episodes of The Revengineers instead of the meat of life. Like responsibility, maybe. Like suffering. Like sin.
Neptune has no idea. It has no inkling of its terror or its majesty. When the fringes of its far-flung clouds fluoresce and bow back under the pressure of the sun's rays, bending it into a floral bloom a million miles wide, nobody knows it's beautiful except we apes.
You have to think to feel. You have to feel to live. To care, to kill -- these passions were brewed a hundred thousand years ago in Africa's savannah on Terra; to repent, to regret -- these ironies of our imaginary rationality were farmed by sex, illusions to help us score.
In the ink of space, it's nonsense. On the scale of worlds, it's a joke.
"I have to tell you something," I said.
Jeremiah turned from the window, his lustre turned golden in Sol's glare. "Sir," he said.
"It's all my fault," I managed to squeak out before my face squinched up and I was bogged down by crying. "It's all my fault," I repeated, when I was able.
I wiped at my wet cheeks savagely. "Don't give me that sir faeces, all innocent like. I see you watching me. I know you're reading me. You can't tell me with all those brains of yours that you honestly have no clue."
"It is not mine to say, sir."
I sniffled miserably. "No, I guess it isn't." I pushed off from the bulkhead and drifted to the glass, feeling its warmth with my fingertips. I turned to face him again. "Jeremiah, I made a critical mistake in the encryption envelope, and it wasn't error corrected. I omitted a word. I left the last poem undone, and I let it get folded right into Big Boy." I closed my eyes and felt the next words escape me like a pent up wind, leaving me deflated: "I killed all those people, Jeremiah. They're all dead because of me."
There was a long silence. I breathed. I drifted.
"They are not poems," said Jeremiah finally, his voice quiet. "They are jokes, sir."
I opened my eyes again. "Jokes?"
"Yes sir. It may be hard to appreciate for a human being, but the universe is funny. Active number science is, at its heart, a kind of physical humour -- a juxtaposition of conflicting elements arranged in such a way that they appear harmonious so far as probabilities are concerned. When the execution of the set-up resonates correctly, spacetime itself may be tricked into behaving abnormally."
"You're using a metaphor."
He shook his head. "No sir. I am attempting to explain to you that the sets of jokes are interconnected, creating a web of semantic redundancy that serves as a kind of error correction in its own right. This is by design, naturally. This allows the sequences to affect not only actualized events, but also virtual events in nearby probability space, artificially weighting the likelihood of execution in the universe we see around us."
"Honestly, that's over my head. I'm not a physicist."
"The point, sir, is that the mangling of a single key could never undo the entire strategy of the sequence." He paused. "Do you understand what I am telling you, sir? You cannot possibly be the cause of this disaster. Not you alone, sir."
He touched my shoulder with his leather-like fingertips. "This is not your fault, Tim."
After a long, dry moment I heard myself chuckling. "Are you absolving me?"
"You're sweet to try, Jeremiah, but I remember what you said to me before."
"What would that be, sir?"
I took his strange hand and gave it a good old fashioned mammalian squeeze. "I remember that you can lie. And...I appreciate it. You really do care."
We said nothing more. We both watched the sun. For neither of us would it ever set or rise again, but merely grow. Both of us, for good or for ill, would meet our destinies in its fires...
Like I said before, it's hot. Every day it gets hotter.
Yesterday we launched Big Boy and everybody crammed onto the observation deck to watch the thrusters on the containment tank flare and push away. In a matter of hours it had dwindled from sight, and in the middle of the night a signal sounded to tell us it had met the star's surface and been engulfed. None of us were sleeping, anyway. We were all waiting to know.
"Do you think it'll work, Jeremiah? Do you think the sun will stop it?" I asked.
"Sir, I hope so," he told me somberly. "But such interactions can be hard to predict."
This morning the navigator, Geoffrey Lam, was found dead in his bed. He had poisoned himself. We will never know whether he escaped his life because of some important regret or simply because he didn't want to slowly roast. By noon his lover, Lieutenant Mosad, had followed him to eternity.
The mission specialist has stopped eating. The mechanical engineer no longer speaks.
"Why did you come?" I asked Jeremiah tonight. "Why doom yourself?"
"I share the burden, because I share the bounty," he told me. "Solar life provided the foundation for my existence, and our fates will always be entwined. I came to make sacrifice with my brothers. I came because it was the right thing to do."
"What effect does that have on anything real?"
"None," he conceded. "But it does well my heart, sir."
"Don't you wish Dr. Zoran had made you without feelings? You could be spared all this."
"No sir," he replied. "To live without meaning is not to live, but merely to function. I aspire for something greater than being a walking metabolism."
"Yeah," I agreed. "Me too."
It's night time again. This is decided by clocks, for our ship is bathed in the aura of endless sunshine. I've been dictating for hours and my throat is raw. In just a few moments I'm going to upload this file to the log buoy and jettison it, signals singing.
I've worked up a terrible thirst, but that's not such a bad thing. I know when I'm done here I can kick my way into the galley and pull out of the reclamation system a clear sack of water, condensation dewing on the sleeve. I'll punch a straw through its face, and drink deeper than I ever have before.
For once, I will be sated. A drink of water is all I need, and all I crave.
I don't know what you'll make of this, you people of Ares, of Titan, of the Joviat. I don't know if you'll think I'm the worst person who ever lived, or just some guy who couldn't control how human he was.
My name might be reviled throughout history, but at least I won't be thirsty.
It's the little things, you know?