This week the Drabblecast brings you two new, previously unpublished stories by SF genre luminary Robert Reed.
Reed published his first novel, The Leeshore in 1987. Since then he has received nominations for both the Nebula Award and the Hugo Award, as well as numerous other literary awards. In 2007, he won his first Hugo Award for the 2006 novella “A Billion Eves”.
This week we bring you two original stories by Robert Reed:
“And So On” (Story Excerpt):
You never sleep and you cannot be alone. Companions surround you,
extraordinary both in their numbers and the multitude of lost worlds represented. Subjected to minimizations of data and energy, each of you has been compressed into a body no larger than a bacterial spore. The principles of efficient packing mean that your neighbors share your temperament and general outlook. This is the means by which you can exist and feel so very real. Your nature is shared. Ten million like-minded souls make every calculation that much easier.
Primarily human. That is what you are.
“The Statistical Grandeurs” (Story Excerpt):
You begin by insisting that you are a happy person.
“A thin happiness built from predictive software,” your new mentor counters. “And let’s be honest here. The system’s limitations are growing more obvious with every rigorously planned day.”
Then he says nothing, staring at you.
The Statistical Grandeurs
by Robert Reed
You begin by insisting that you are a happy person.
“A thin happiness built from predictive software,” your new mentor counters.
“And let’s be honest here. The system’s limitations are growing more obvious with every rigorously planned day.”
Then he says nothing, staring at you.
Yes, you want change. You say as much with shy eyes and your quiet attitude and the slow, uneven rhythm of your breathing, then little dribbles of words, and finally, long confessional stories.
Now the man is smiling. Maybe he’s been smiling for a long while, but this is when you notice.
“Your offspring,” he says.
You never noticed its oddness before.“You haven’t stopped loving them,” he says.
Why even mention hatred? “I see this a lot, your particular problem,” he continues. “Our prognostic packages are too efficient. Too effective. Your entire future is visible, chapter titles and critical scenes, reaching to the final paragraphs and a quiet, tidy death.”
A grim way of saying so, but yes.
“Poor you,” he says. “You’re trapped on an island of stability. And I do mean an island.”
You claim to understand him, that you appreciate what he says.
“Except you don’t understand, and you certainly don’t appreciate,” he maintains. “No, you’re just an ignorant fellow standing on his little beach, watching the waves break across his nervous toes.”
Escaping this man seems important now. Yet you do nothing.
He touches you.
You let him touch you.
“Respectability and familiarity. That’s what your life is built on. And the surrounding seas? Very rough, and the horizon appears empty.” Staring into the distance, he says, “Sudden death. That’s what the storm-wracked chaos offers. And fates worse than death. Agony. Guilt. Shame. And worst of all, embarrassment.”
This is the oddest sales pitch ever.
But then the hand vanishes and the smile grows tenfold, and you hear a voice that can’t be quieter or any more compelling.
“Beyond the horizon, other islands are waiting,” he says. “Entire continents. Joyous worlds hungry to be explored. And by swimming in the statistical grandeurs, we will find them together.”
Legal documents are read and signed, and then a second draft of forms are given glimpses and initials and more signatures.
The work begins when he says, “First, disable your marriage.”
You assumed this would happen, and it’s natural to ask your gifted mentor for guidance.
“Oh, you know the situation better than I ever will,” he replies. “In general? Truth can be effective. But dressed for the occasion, of course. Be kind, unless cruelty works better. And if truth doesn’t help, give your audience a wild and vivid, unsettling lie. That’s my shrewd advice here.”
In the end, every strategy is used. You tell the family that you’re leaving them, and the scene turns ugly. So ugly that now you’re sporting a purpled eye. But you’re also free of encumbrances, ready to swim into the raging surf.
You contact your mentor, eager for clear instructions.
But no, he doesn’t demand the expected transformations. Speaking into your ear, invisible to the rest of the world, he tells you to keep your comfortable job, and no, whatever happens, avoid major dislocations about your residence and other linchpins. All he wants from you is a long walk.
Destinations aren’t mentioned, but he tells you to go out your door, turn right and left and then walk faster. Oh, and that last corner was a mistake, and he makes you backtrack, aiming you into an unfamiliar neighborhood. Which should feel promising, and why doesn’t it?
That’s when you try to engage your companion in conversation. Questions about his profession lead to vague nomenclature. Questions about his own happiness win nothing but tall-sounding nonsense about loving the work and please don’t ask about his family.
Doubt takes shape, eliciting regrets.
Is this part of the overall plan?
Or have you been duped by an incompetent shyster?
You suddenly feel heavy. An enormous sense of loss claims you, and longing, and aches that you have never experienced build until your feet have stopped moving, your legs struggling to hold your body upright.
“There,” he says. “What?” you manage. “Across the street.”
Another unfamiliar intersection. But obvious and lovely is one young citizen, a delightfully pleasant-looking woman smiling at you, and believing in nothing else, you step into the street, nothing before you but your spectacular new life.
The accident’s specifics remain outside your reach. Others will supply accounts of what must always seem unlikely — a series of misfortunes and software failures culminated with one person’s faith-based step.
Secondary in the whole affair is the civil settlement, which is considerable. Nobody blames the pedestrian, not in this age of automated safety nets and empathy-based machinery. It doesn’t matter that your mentor enriches himself by acting as your attorney. No, no. The great blessing here is that you wake in the hospital bed, an induced coma having done its work, and what you see first is the family that you tried to leave behind.
A spectacular failure, your escape appears to be.
Yet they are smiling. Intensely, sadly. Not recognizing what passes for your new face, but each of them busily writing a story that leads to happiness.
Everyone you care for?
They have swum through the typhoon with you.
Nothing remains now but a continent of happiness that still needs its name.
And so on
by Robert Reed
They never let you sleep which means you can never wake up. But a state resembling sleep has been removed, leaving you standing on another new world.
This is a frigid silent and beautiful realm, stubborn hills riding the final continents while what used to be the atmosphere sleeps inside drained oceans. The only sun is the peaceful white dwarf. A multitude of sister worlds move in tinier orbits, aligned by careful touches so they never collide, each feeding on tides and that tiny but stubborn fire. And beyond the sun, dominating this sky and every sky that you are allowed to see anymore, is a vast elliptical galaxy born when two spiral galaxies collided.
Your original world was inside one of those galaxies, and your home sun is presumably one of those billions of dead embers.
Today’s sun might have originated inside the same galaxy, kicked loose by the titanic collision or perhaps some smaller catastrophe. Whatever its beginnings, this cold world once enjoyed life. Your companions are finding fossils. Yes, vibrant creatures thrived here, bones and relics telling an intriguing if incomplete story. Dead rock and ice whisper too, relating their own adventures. You taste the history. From the first moment, you sense ghosts wanting to touch you.
Which is wholly reasonable, because you’re a ghost in your own right.
You never sleep and you cannot be alone. Companions surround you, extraordinary both in their numbers and the multitude of lost worlds represented. Subject to minimizations of data and energy, each of you has been compressed into a body no larger than a bacterial spore. The principles of efficient packing mean that your neighbors share your temperament and general outlook. This is the means by which you can exist and feel so very real. Your nature is shared. Ten million like-minded souls make every calculation that much easier.
Primarily human. That is what you are.
What you are is the distilled remains of a thoroughly recorded life, beginning with a low-res digital of the people who are making you and ending three centuries later with you uploading your nature and memories into a laser pulse that was repeated five times. By then, the nearest galactic storehouses had been identified, and paying a considerable fee, you offered your essence to the sky. There’s no way to know which pulse this specific “you” belongs to. You have no idea if your earthly life continued over the subsequent centuries, or if you died the next day. But within those limitations, you have achieved a brand of immortality that few of your generation believed reasonable or even glancingly sane.
Which is why you are older than your most human neighbors.
A species far from common among this gathering.
This is how it always happens: The same few million relics step out of the non-sleep together. A city of light and shadow has been built for your group, with millions of other cities scattered across the highlands. Those who own you — vast and presumably wise — are compelled to occasionally let their treasures walk and fly free. Perhaps this an act of kindness. But you hope not. Kindness is a friable blessing, and the aging universe might test their decency. No, the best rationale involves the necessary maintenance of treasures. You and these others must periodically come out of storage, brushing off dust and cobwebs and the other soldiers of entropy.
Where are your owners now?
The common assumption is that they’re happily busy on those warmer worlds, meeting with their own kind. Partying like gods, you can assume. Or maybe they’re old and tired now, resting like your grandmother rested when you were five years-old. Sitting where she was comfortable, her collections of porcelain turtles and porcelain angels carefully set out on high shelves, waiting for that half-hearted dusting every year or so.
Funny the things that come to mind when you escape your non-sleep.
“Funny the things.” You always think that, every time.
Just as you inevitably hope that something new and fresh will happen during this little moment of existence.
Though it never does.
Until today, that is.
A creature very much like you says your name.
Says, “Lars Adam Gonzales the Third.”
Her name is a squawk and thirty-two notes accompanied by a deep rumbling. But you and she have settled on the much simpler, “Becky.”
“Yes, Becky?” you say.
“I found something below. Something wonderful.”
The two of you are very different species, yet there are profound similarities, mathematically speaking. One difference is that she’s the more enthusiastic adventurer — a difference that has only grown over the eons.
“Show me something wonderful,” you say.
What isn’t an arm takes what pretends to be your hand. She leads you along, and you feel like her good friend. Because you are. Full of pride, you let yourself be taken into the porous ground, the deep cold growing more intense and lovely. Half a meter beneath the surface, you come to a bed of fossilized scales and lost jewelry and two half-eaten meals. Presumably this is what she wants to show you. This is where a loving couple were sharing food when their little piece of the world was killed.
Saddened, you touch the tooth marks decorating the edges of frozen gray flesh.
Becky says, “No. Deeper.”
There are limits to how far you can travel. Another three meters, and you can feel your soul just beginning to lose touch with the multitude overhead. Which is dangerous, and despite a long life spent dancing with risks, you are nervous.
She laughs at your fears.
“Here,” she says.
What she shows you makes complete sense. There’s no need to explain. What waits beneath you is a null-chamber meant to nourish and defend any compacted lifeform. Creatures like you. And what makes this even more amazing is that the machinery has never been activated. Designed to last forever, or nearly so, but left unutilized, even as the world around it was dying.
You see why she brought you here.
But pointing out the obvious is a perpetual joy. “There’s room for everyone,” she says. “Every citizen of your particular city, yes. The same existence that you already know, but with the freedom to step out of stasis whenever you wish, presumably for as long as you wish.”
Of course you feel singled out, and that’s why you’re slow to respond. What to say to an unexpected honor?
And with that, a thousand more neighbors arrive, half of them coaxing the other half to follow.
So Becky didn’t discover this marvel by herself, did she? Your very good friend just happened to be first to the surface, picking you because you were conveniently nearby and she happened to remember your name.
That realization may or may not play a role in the next decision.
You begin to leave.
“Yes,” she says. “Find others. Before we’re shoved back inside their boxes … bring whoever you want … !”
“No,” you say.
“But I’m not joking,” you add.
She demands an explanation.
Which you deliver, blunt and honest.
She laughs again, with bitterness.
You have nearly escaped.
Then Becky throws one sharp word at you:
Except you aren’t. With these first steps, you finally realize just what kind of bravery lives inside your false skin.
On the surface, bodies are jammed against bodies, every neighbor pushing against you, fighting to go underground, to reach the shared salvation.
These creatures are really nothing like you.
You walk until your city ends with frost and barren stone, and in the distance, there’s beckons the glitter of another community of survivors.
A moment’s hesitation is more than enough.
And then you set out. Will you survive this many-meter journey?
It’s impossible to know.
And what will you find next?
Those you don’t know, of course.
Plus new ways of thinking, for now and hopefully for the next hundred billion years.